Rainforest & Reef: Into Borneo

Last week, Sarah, Cian, Áine, teacher friends Adrian, Caitlin, and Brent along with Sarah’s sister Jaime and I spent a week in Sabah, the northeast Malaysian province of Borneo.  Borneo has always brought to my mind dark, impenetrable jungle, exotic, indigenous tribes, and unexplored terrain.  It was definitely a place I wanted to see while in Indonesia.  The hub of the area is the Dr. Suess-ish named town of Kota Kinabalu (known to hip backpackers as KK), where we arrived at midnight on Saturday/Sunday after a two and 1/2 hour flight from Jakarta.  We walked through the darkness to a backpacker hostel and most of us took a short rest before heading back to the airport for 5am.  Some of us realized it would be the better use of our time to skip sleep and drink beer instead.

Proboscis Lodge dock from the river

Proboscis Lodge dock from the river

We met Jaime at the Kota Kinabalu airport and together took a 45 minute flight to Sandakan, our meeting point for the minivan to take us the four-hour overland trip to Proboscis Lodge, named after one of the animals we hoped to see- the bizarre proboscis monkey.  The lodge is only accessible by a few minutes long-boat ride along the national park’s river.  Planes, minivan, and boat later, the kids were exhausted, so I stayed behind with them while the rest took an evening boat cruise to look for some animals in the jungle.

By some miracle the next morning, I was able to drag my body out of bed and make the early morning boat cruise.  Although not as successful as the others’ trip yesterday, I was able to catch a few jungle sights.

After breakfast, Sarah, the kids and I took a short hike with a guide.  We saw pygmy elephant mud baths, elephant tree scratching, elephant foraging grounds, and elephant poop, but no elephants.  Of course.  We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening lazing around the lodge, playing pool and darts (much what we tend to do back in Jakarta in the evenings.)

Gomantong Caves

Gomantong Caves

The next day’s highlight was the Gomantong Caves, featured on the Caves episode of Planet Earth and famous for hosting the biggest pile of shit in the world (well, besides my sister 🙂 ).  For centuries, indigenous people have been harvesting the swiftlet nests from the cave to make bird’s nest soup.  The nests are made of swiftlet saliva, leading me to wonder what the first person to try to eat one was thinking.  Thousands of swiftlets fly in and out of the cave, chirping to find their way much like bats.  The caves themselves are enormous and layered in golden, shiny cockroaches- on the walls, on the floor, even on the hand rail.  The shit pile teems with them, causing the whole thing to undulate at its surface.

Just as we returned from the caves, I met up with Sarah and the kids for one last afternoon boat cruise.  It was a good thing we went because we were finally able to see a mother and child pygmy elephant.  Unbelievable creatures.

On the boat with Cian's bff Mr. Brent

On the boat with Cian’s BFF Mr. Brent

We left early the next morning back into town to take our minibus 5 hours to our next destination, Semporna on the east coast.  From here, another boat ride to Mabul Island, and all were in agreement it was one of the most beautiful rides ever.  We watched mountainous Borneo pull away from us, in some areas enshrouded in low nimbus clouds, in others the sun shined onto the green, tropical hills that descended straight into the ocean.  The water was a deep blue or in more shallow sections perfectly clear to the coral reef below.  We passed sea gypsies, known as the Bajau people, whose villages are far from shore, wooden shacks on poles above the ocean connected by scrap plank walkways. Their rickety boats seemingly on the verge of submersion look like Romani wagons, with clothes on the line to dry and children hanging from the edge.

A sea gypsy "town" out on the water

A sea gypsy “town” out on the water



The purpose of this destination was Sipidan– a small island about 20 minute boat ride away from Mabul which boasts some of the most exquisite scuba diving in the world.  Only a certain number of divers are allowed per day and a permit is required, which we applied for a month in advance. Sarah and I tag teamed diving with watching the kids happily play with the sea gypsy children on the beach.  Sipidan lived up to its reputation- sea turtles galore, walls of vibrant corals, sharks, barracuda, and mobs of fish coming in every size, shape and color.  It was hard to decide whether to take in the big picture or examine the amazing small details on the reef.  On one dive in particular, we swam into a school of circling jackfish thousands strong, leaving us in the center of a maelstrom of flashing silver.  We dove three different locations a day, and each dive was so overwhelming it is difficult to process the experience. Phenomenal.

Here’s a video clip of Caitlin and Brent on our second dive.  I make a cameo appearance at the end.

Meanwhile on shore, Áine and Cian had their own adventures.

Aunt Jaime, Cian, and Mr. Brent taking coloring books seriously

Aunt Jaime, Cian, and Mr. Brent taking coloring books seriously

Unfortunately, flights between Jakarta and Kota Kinabalu are only once a week, so on the next Saturday we traveled back to KK and spent the day relaxing.  Because of the backpacker and traveler traffic, the town has a number of Western style, bohemian restaurants and bars, perfect for our crew and kid friendly.  A pitcher of Tom Collins, some board games, and colored pencils made up our lazy afternoon.  Then a teary good-bye to Jaime until we see her on our visit to the States this summer and we caught our flight back to Jakarta.  I’m trying to wordsmith a conclusion here, but I’m having a difficult time trying to put my head around this amazing adventure. This is why we are living abroad.

2 thoughts on “Rainforest & Reef: Into Borneo

  1. Pingback: Changing Perspectives: Students in the Jungles of Sumatra | Domestic Departure

  2. Pingback: Indonesia Leaves It’s Mark | Domestic Departure

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