Chasing orangutans in Borneo

This was a slightly last-minute trip during the school holidays – a week in Sabah (Borneo) looking at wildlife, and five days at the end relaxing on a tropical island. We booked through Tropical Adventure Tours and Travel, who I’d used before to book a hiking trip to Mulu Caves and Pinnacles (a fantastic three-day adventure). Richard and his team came up with a good itinerary, and were very responsive to our requests to making some variations.

IMG_2191-LR

About Borneo

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and is shared by three countries: Malaysia (Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan territories) and Brunei are in the north, while Indonesia (Kalimantan) covers 73% of the island to the south. While much of the island, which straddles the equator, consists of rainforest there’s been significant impact to this vegetation by logging and land clearing. Half of the annual global tropical timber acquisition comes from Borneo (source: Wikipedia) and every year palm oil plantations encroach into more natural rainforest areas. Borneo’s economy is predominantly based on agriculture, logging and mining, oil and gas – and ecotourism.

IMG_1264-LR

When to go (and for how long)

In theory… there’s a wet season and a dry season. In reality the weather is very localised and with some areas receiving over four metres of rainfall a year, it’s can rain anytime! Peak season for tourism is May-September, which is the “dry season”, and rainfall tends to be highest  between November and March. In Sabah, rainfall is lower and more evenly spread across the year in the south, compared to the north. We’re there in late April, which is the best time for both the north and south of Sabah.

average-raindays-malaysia-sandakan

Getting there and around

The main airport serving Sabah is Kota Kinabalu (BKI), which has connections within Malaysia as well as Singapore and many other neighbouring countries. On the opposite side of the island is Sandakan (SDK), with daily flights (Air Asia and MAS) to Kuala Lumpur. Flying is the only practical way to get to Borneo, although a few cruises stop at Kota Kinabalu. You’ll need to pass through immigration even if you’re arriving from another Malaysian city – Sabah maintains autonomy on immigration rules and both foreigners and non-Sabah Malaysians are restricted to a stay of 90 days at a time.

Within Sabah we had a minivan with a driver, which is relatively inexpensive and much easier that renting a car. The main roads are all good quality, although plan on achieving an average speed of around 60km/h due to windy roads and the fact you’ll frequently get stuck behind very slow trucks. From Sandakan, it’s also possible (with some Kinabatangan lodges, to travel up the river by boat, rather than going by road).

IMG_1530-LR

The Itinerary

It’s a pretty straightforward itinerary: we fly from KL to Sandakan on the north-east of the island, and then drive across Sabah to Kota Kinabalu on the other side, with a few relaxing days at the end…

  1. Sepilok – close to Sandakan, this is a popular stop to visit the world-famous Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, as well as the Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Definitely worth a day here, or two days so you’ve got some flexibility with the weather.
  2. Kinabatangan River – generally regarded as one of the best places in Malaysia for wildlife it doesn’t disappoint, with loads of birdlife, orangutans, monkeys and the odd crocodile seen onthe morning and afternoon boat cruises. Three days here was perfect.
  3. Kinabalu – a “half-way” stop as we cross the top of the island, with a short walk in Kinabalu Park (this would also be the starting point for the 2D/1N Mt Kinabalu ascent). Unless you’re climbing Kinabalu, skip this if you can.
  4. Kota Kinabalu – An overnight stop before we head out to Gaya Island. In hindsight, we should have gone straight to Gaya Island in the afternoon…
  5. Gaya Island – a relaxing end to the holiday at a beach resort just off the coast (but still lots of activities). Five days here was plenty… three would have been enough, especially given the outrageously high prices on the island!

Trip Highlights and Tips

Some trips make it challenging to identify the “best bits”, with every day bringing a new highlight. This trip consisted more of some amazing experiences between some rather ordinary days. Which is not to say our Borneo trip wasn’t a great holiday, but that in hindsight you could do a few days in Borneo and not miss much.

  • Kinabatangan River:  definitely worth a few days, even if it’s just to make sure you get some good-weather days (we were lucky and had three mostly rain-free days. Our lodge, like many, was fairly basic in terms of food – but you’re coming here for the wildlife. We had a fantastic guide (Aloi), which made the experience even better. We also had a small motorboat (with our guide) to ourselves, so we could tailor what we were looking for and how long we wanted to stay in one spot to get photos. Seeing orangutans in the wild was an amazing experience.
  • Mount Trusmadi hike: Malaysia is great for hiking, if you’re into that kind of thing – and Borneo has some of the highest mountains in Malaysia. I’d climbed Mt Kinabalu before which is the most popular option (and would have been right in the middle of our itinerary), and really enjoyed the quite different challenge and environment of Trusmadi.
  • Gaya Island – the eye-watering prices (for drinks, meals and some of the activities) on Gaya Island detracted from the experience a little. But it’s a nice way to end the holiday, and there is lots to do from hiking to snorkelling to just relaxing by the pool.

IMG_2200-LR

Sepilok

Accommodation: Sepilok Nature Lodge
Overall rating: 5/5
Food: 5/5. Range of local and western foods on the menu; breakfast included.

Family friendly:  5/5. Two bedroom cottage with upstairs lounge room and balcony
Scenery: 4/5. Not a very particularly nice outlook from our hut, and noisy construction nearby on a new road. Communal dining area is really nice, and overlooks a small lake.
Location: 5/5. Walking distance to Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

We make our way straight to Sepilok Nature Reserve, a short half hour drive from the Sandakan airport, arriving there late in the afternoon. It’s a 200m walk from reception to our spacious hut, which has two bedrooms and a large bathroom downstairs, while upstairs is a huge informal area and balcony. The bar and dining area overlooks a lake, and has both tables and loungers – a relaxed spot for an evening drink.

Night Hike

The only activity we have time for on our first day is a night hike around Sepilok Nature Lodge, conducted by one of their guides. We see a surprising amount of small creatures – insects, frogs, caterpillars and dragonflys – on our 45min walk.

One of the interesting creatures we see is the giant pill millipede, which rolls itself into a ball when disturbed as a defence against predators.

Orang Utan Sanctuary

Conceived in 1961 and established in 1964 with funding by the Sabah Government, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre aims to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back to the wild. You can visit two of the three sections: we start with the feeding platform, in a large area where most animals achieve total independence and become integrated into the Sepilok wild orangutan population. (The sanctuary is only open for a couple of hours in the morning and afternoon, so it does get pretty busy.)

It’s a rather miserable and wet day, and clearly the orangutans don’t like the weather either, as they try and use leaves to shelter from the rain!

IMG_0156-LR

Next stop is the ‘Outdoor Nursery’ where freedom is increased and dependence on food and emotional support is decreased. There are two viewing areas within a modern centre, which overlook the nursery. While shooting through the glass windows is not great, at least we’ve got a temporary respite from the rain.

We spend an hour at the sanctuary despite the inclement weather – it’s fascinating to watch the orangutans, who we’re told share 97% of their DNA sequence with humans.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

The smallest bears in the world (found only in Southeast Asia), sun bears are threatened by forest degradation, illegal hunting for bear parts and poaching to obtain young cubs for pet trade. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) is a sun bear rescue and rehabilitation facility which has around 40 rescued ex-captive sun bears. It’s located right next to the Orang Utan Sanctuary.

We quickly spot a couple of the bears grooming each other from the observation ramps and platforms high above the forest floor.

Another relaxes in a nearby tree, changing poses a few times but never leaving his spot.

IMG_0299-LR

Another sun bear gracefully climbs a tree as we’re leaving the sanctuary: they have re large and naked soles are naked, thought to be an adaptation for climbing trees, and large, curved and pointed claws.

Rainforest Discovery Centre

Our last stop for the day is the Rainforest Discovery Centre… it’s now nearing midday and quite hot and humid (but it’s stopped raining), so only Luke and I do a short circular walk with our guide.

There are over 20km of walking trails, which are well marked.

Sepilok-Rainforest-Discovery-Centre-Map

We only do about 3km, including the 347m-long canopy walkway. It would be a great spot for bird-watching in the morning or evening, but there’s not much wildlife of any sort around at midday.

IMG_0383-LR

We also climb two of the observation towers, which provide another perspective of the surrounding forest.

There’s many signs pointing out different plants, including cocoa seeds (below), figs, and belian trees (the heaviest, hardest and most valuable timber of Borneo).

We head back for lunch at the Orang Utan Sanctuary and to hopefully visit again in the afternoon now that the rain has stopped… but right on cue, just before the doors re-open at 2:30pm, it starts pouring again. We call it a day.

Orang Utan Sanctuary… again

We make one final trip the following morning to the Orang Utan Sanctuary, with the skies now clear. This time we start at the outdoor nursery, which is much busier than it was on the previous day. We watch one of the adult orangutans eating and playing.

IMG_0437-LR

A juvenile orangutan is also partaking in the morning feed.

As well as a long-tailed macaque.

After a short stay in the outdoor nursery, we head to the outdoor area. We get there early to stake out a good spot near the feeding platform. No sign of any orangutans, but a number of macaques leap onto the roof of the viewing platform and wait expectantly for food.

IMG_0467-LR

No orangutans show up today, but there’s quite a show from the macaques, and we spend close to 45 minutes watching them eat, groom and play.

We reluctantly leave the macaques, as our minibus is waiting out the front to take us to our next stop…

Sepilok to Kinabatangan River

We’re picked up from the Orang Utan Sanctuary for the 2-hour drive to Kinabatangan River (I find out later it’s possible, with some lodges, to go by road back to Sepilok and then take a fast boat up the Kinabatangan River). Traveling through what seems like endless palm trees, it’s a reminder of how much jungle has been bulldozed to make way for palm oil plantations.

Kinabatangan River

Overall rating: 3/5.
Food: 2/5. Set menu for dinner – generally one chicken and one seafood plus rice. A small range of beers and soft drinks for sale. No bar.

Family friendly:  3/5. The family cabins have a double bed and two single beds alongside each other. 
Activities 5/5: Morning and evening cruises on the river, night hikes and jungle hikes.

The Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort is located right by the Kinabatangan River, the second longest river in Malaysia (560km in length).  While the upper areas of the river have been significantly impacted by logging, towards the coast the river and surrounding lowlands support a variety of birdlife and provide a sanctuary for saltwater crocodiles, Borneo’s indigenous proboscis monkeys, Bornean orangutan and Asian elephants. (The Kinabatangan “Big 5” consists of the Pygmy Elephant, Orang Utan, Proboscis Monkey, Crocodiles and Rhinoceros Hornbill.)

IMG_2135-LR

The huts are small but comfortable, and the food pretty basic. But we’re here for the wildlife, and we have a fantastic guide – Aloi – for the three days that we’re here.

Our first Evening Cruise

We’re excited about our first trip down the river – and have no idea what we’ll see! The fruit on the trees overhanging the river attract many animals, although we’re hoping we’ll see something more exciting than a squirrel!

IMG_0688-LR

I take the first few photos of the Great Egret – a graceful but common bird along the river.

We soon see our first macaque monkeys along the river, which become a frequent sighting over the next few days.

A cluster of boats indicates a more significant animal sighting…

…fairly close to the river bank is a family of orang utans, feeding on fruit and ignoring the small flotilla of sightseeing boats below.

IMG_0734-LR

We watch them for a while, before heading further downstream. Our guide spots a a small blue eared kingfisher, perched over the river.

More wildlife starts to emerge as it gets later in the day, and we start seeing a lot more macque monkeys on the ground and in the trees.

A small crocodile eyes us passing by.

IMG_0862-LR

Finally, with the light fading, we see the human-like proboscis monkey, one of the largest monkey species native to Asia.

It’s now starting to get dark, and with the sun setting we head back up the river to our lodge – a great first day of sightseeing on the Kinabatangan River!

Morning Cruise

It’s a very foggy morning as we set out at 6am on our second day at the Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort, this time heading upstream. At one point hundreds of birds circle our boat, flying low along the river.

On this trip we’re in search of birds – we see the egret, again. One of my favourites, even though it’s rather common.

And then we spot what we’re really looking for: the Rhinoceros Hornbill.  A large species of forest hornbill that can live for up to 35 years, it is the state bird of Sarawak and Malaysia’s National Bird.

IMG_1082-LR

The morning ctuise is only an hour and a half or so, and with day warming up and the fog lifting we head back to the lodge.

IMG_1085-LR

Oxbow Lake Jungle Walk

After lunch, I take the optional “jungle hike” to a nearby oxbow lake with our guide, Aloi: it’s a short boat trip across the Kinabatangan River, followed by a 3.5km (return hike).

I’m not sure whether the “lake” actually has a name: it’s formed by when a wide bend in the main stem of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water (in Australia, it would  be a  billabong!)

I’ve swapped my shoes for gumboots (rented for the princely sum of RM5 / US$2 for the duration of my stay), and I’m happy I did. The many muddy sections would have sucked normal shoes off my feet!

IMG_1107-LR

There’s not a lot of wildlife, but we do see a few proboscis monkeys in the trees above the trail.

IMG_1112-LR

It takes us about half an hour to reach the lake, which features a modern toilet (not really what I was expecting in the middle of the jungle) and a platform that extends over the water.

It would be a great spot for bird watching, if you came early or late in the day, and even in the middle of the day it’s pleasant to sit under the shelter and look over the lake. And observe a few leeches seeking their prey.

We walk back the same way, meeting a larger group coming towards us who are doing the same hike that we’ve just done.

Another Afternoon Cruise

We’re looking for birds on this afternoon’s cruise… Our first sighting is a collared kingfisher, which is very common bird in Malaysian mangrove forests.

IMG_1158-LR

We spot a troop of proboscis monkeys – although listed as endangered, they’re impossible not to spot along the river (and equally impossible not to stop and observe them each time)!

A bit further on, we get quite close to the majestic Rhinoceros Hornbill, the only bird member of the “Kinabatangan Big Five”.

Between our bird sightings we see a macaque monkeys perched above the river.

IMG_1269-LR

Our next bird is the oriental pied hornbill – it’s one of the smallest and most common of the Asian hornbills, but it’s still a fairly large and impressive bird.

IMG_1288-LR

At the other end of the scale (in terms of size) is the diminutive blue-eared kingfisher. It’s distribution is widespread, although it’s not a common bird. Fortunately for us it sits very still for us as it patiently eyes the river below for food.

IMG_1307-LR

We spot a few more birds as the light begins to fade.

Our last bird of the day is the white bellied fish eagle – we see a few of these, always very high up in the trees along the river, and not easy to photograph.

As we head back down (or maybe it’s up) the river to the lodge, we stop briefly as we see about 20 proboscis monkeys foraging in a single tree – a nice end to another successful sightseeing afternoon.

Our last Morning cruise

It’s a bit less misty than the previous day, as we head out just before sunrise.

IMG_1455-LR

A group of macaque monkeys groom each other on a branch just above the river.

IMG_1490-LR

We spot a few different birds – a brown-winged kingfisher and a Black and Red Broadbill – and another crocodile that’s lurking on the riverbank.

Not a huge number of sightings, but the morning cruise is always much shorter than the afternoon/evening cruise, and we did spot a few birds we hadn’t seen before.

IMG_1526-LR

And our final Afternoon Cruise

We’re determined to see orangutans again on our last cruise, and we ask our guide to look out for them on an overcast and wet afternoon.

IMG_1561-LR

Our first sighting is a crested snake (or serpent) eagle, widespread in forested habitats across tropical Asia.

…and another Rhinoceros Hornbill, as magnificent in flight as it is in perched in a tree.

IMG_1577-LR

Another eagle, this time a fish eagle.

IMG_1582-LR

A squirrel munching on fruit in a tree means there might be some larger primates around… but in this tree, it’s a macaque monkey eating fruit.

The next tree has a very large number of proboscis monkeys. Still no orangutans.

Finally, with the light fading we find a troupe of orangutans. It’s hard to get good photos, but we stay for a while and watch these majestic animals as they  eat and play. t’a a nice end to our Kinabatangan River stay.

Kinabatangan River to Kinabalu

We leave in the morning for our trip across the top of Borneo to Kota Kinabalu. After initially re-tracing our steps through palm plantations, we climb though more natural vegetation.

There’s a lunch and toilet stop at Telupid: the roadside “cafe” has very basic Malaysian food, none of which looked particularly appetizing. But we got some snacks and drinks and stretched our legs. From here it’s another 90min or so to Sabah Tea – which would have been a much better option for lunch.

Sabah Tea is the main tea company in the state of Sabah and the largest tea producer in Borneo. There’s a nice cafe/restaurant, offering food as well as the option to try many of the teas produced here. A tour of the factory is also available, which is conducted by a local guide on demand, and provides an interesting and interactive demonstration of how the tea leaves are processed (if possible, best to do tour in the morning as the factory is more active then). Located in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, there would a nice view of the mountain – on a clear day!

IMG_1808-LR

Sabah Tea is also one of the sites commemorating the Sandakan Death Marches, a series of forced marches from Sandakan to Ranau which resulted in the deaths of 2,345 Allied prisoners of war (widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during WWII).

From here it’s another hour to Kinabalu Pine Resort, near Kinabalu National Park. We arrive mid-afternoon, but with very low cloud we can’t see the mountain that’s in front of us.

Kinabalu Park

Accommodation: Kinabalu Pine Resort
Overall rating: 4/5
Food: 4/5. Good choice of food in the restaurant and big portions. No alcohol served.

Family friendly:  5/5. Two adjoining rooms with shared balcony
Scenery: 4/5. All the cabins have a view of Kinabalu (when it’s clear) across the main road and valley
Location: 3/5. Short drive to Kinabalu Park – but if you can, stay inside the park where there’s a range of accommodation options

The following day we wake to a clear morning, so I walk down to the main road to take some photos of Mt Kinabalu (or Gunung Kinabalu). The massive granite mountain fills the skyline in the distance

IMG_1841-LR

Even from here, you can clearly see Laban Rata, the resthouses located at 3,272m above sea level, and the route that continues up the ridge towards the summit.

IMG_1840-LR

Kinabalu Park

We’re not climbing Kinabalu today 😦 although it would be a perfect day for it… but we have got time for a short circuit in the Mt. Kinabalu Botanical Garden of Kinabalu Park. The botanical garden is well signposted, but unlike the Kinabalu summit trail which has 100+ trekkers every day, we have this secluded garden to ourselves.

Kinabalu Park has one of the richest assemblage of flora in the world, with an estimate of 5,000 to 6,000 vascular plant species. The botanical garden showcases a a number of the more exotic plant species, although it feels very much like a natural forest. There’s numerous colourful berries, including the areca or betel nut (bottom right).

A nursery area has some rarest orchids and pitcher plants of Kinabalu Park; some are in a fenced area and some “less-rare” species are right by the path.

IMG_1868-LR

Just for good measure, we also observe some local fauna…

I’d recommend going one of the guided walks if you’re there at the right time… you’ll probably learn a lot more. But even the kids (sort of) enjoyed spending an hour walking around the “garden”.

Kinabalu to Kota Kinabalu

We continue on from Kinabalu Park after our walk – it’s only about two hours to Kota Kinabalu. (We would have preferred to go straight to KK without the Kinabalu Park stop-over, but this didn’t seem possible. We had a different driver from Kinabalu Park, so maybe this location is the most convenient to swap drivers.)

IMG_1901-LR

It’s all downhill from here, with some sections of winding road as we descend from the cool foothill of Mt Kinabalu at around 1500m above sea level to the coast.

Kota Kinabalu

Accommodation: Le Meridien
Overall rating: 5/5
Food: 5/5. Not normally a fan of buffets, but the lunch buffet was superb, at a reasonable price. Room service menu pretty standard.

Family friendly:  5/5. Two adjoining and interconnecting rooms
Scenery: 3/5. Room looked over the village. Ask for ocean-facing room if this is important
Location: 5/5. One of the better-positioned hotels; easy walking to all the main attractions

We arrived around 2pm, in time for a late lunch… and immediately noticed how much warmer it is here, compared to higher elevation of Kinabalu Park!

After checking-in and a late lunch, no-one was too keen on leaving the air-conditioning of the hotel room, so I went for a walk up to the Signal Hill Observatory. The hotel staff weren’t particularly helpful with directions, so I followed Google Maps which took me up via the road… I discovered having reached the top that there are in fact a set of stairs that provide a steeper but more direct route to the bottom (they start near the Community Centre on Jalan Dewan).

In any case, it really wasn’t worth it other than getting some exercise. The lookout has mixed reviews on TripAdvisor but I think “redharry” nails it: “Short but steep walk to essentially a café with big balconies. Reasonable view of the city and a simple café”. The cafe does at least mean you can get a cold drink after the steep walk up.

IMG_2159-LR

Kota Kinabalu is famous for its sunsets, so we head to the pool and bar, which overlooks the South China Sea, in anticipation. Unfortunately, the weather is not so obliging!

It’s a bit of a non-event in the end… just a touch of orange in the distance, suggesting what might have been!

IMG_1940-LR

Gaya Island (Pulau Gaya)

Accommodation: Gaya Island Resort
Overall rating: 4/5
Food: 4/5. Quality is amazing, but prices are eye-wateringly expensive!

Family friendly:  5/5. Two adjoining and interconnecting rooms
Scenery: 3/5. Nice view, but obstructed by trees (some rooms have more panoramic views)
Activities: 5/5. Loads of things to do – kayaking, snorkelling trips, hiking, nature talks and more…. a few are free; most require additional payment.
Location: 4/5. Speedboat from KK; regular transfers but there’s a charge for additional transfers if you want to visit the mainland during your stay.

We set-off the following day to Gaya Island, a short speedboat transfer from the Kota Kinabalu main jetty. Gaya Island, which is the largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, occupies an area of 15 km² with an elevation of up to 300m.

IMG_1968-LR

As we pass the eastern shore of Gaya Island, the illegal Filipino colony called Kampung Lok Urai comes into view. The stilt houses support a 6,000 floating population of largely Filipinos: it’s also considered a dangerous, high crime or “no-go” area by the police and locals.

IMG_1963-LR

There are three resorts on Gaya Island, which is the largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. It’s hard to tell from our research which one is the “best” one – they all look pretty good from the reviews. We’ve chosen Gaya Island Resort and booked directly with the resort – it seemed the best option; the other two resorts had more mixed reviews on TripAdvisor. The check-in process is personalised and friendly; after a short briefing we’re taken to our rooms, up the hill… The rooms are all located some distance from the main reception, pool and and restaurant area, some a far way up the forested hill. It’s not a problem for us, but you woudn;tThe pool and poolside bar areas are really nice.

We’re happy with our adjoining rooms – there’s a nice view back towards the mainland, although it’s partly obscured by a tree.

IMG_1980-LR

Hike to Tavajan Bay

I get bored rather quickly sitting around at resorts, so while the rest of the family relaxes I head off to explore some of the trails. The resort doesn’t encourage “independent hiking”, so while the start of the trail is easy to find, I’ve no idea where the trail actually goes. Established as Sabah’s first forest reserve in 1923, Pulau Gaya preserves one of the few remaining areas of largely undisturbed coastal dipterocarp forest left in Sabah.

The trail has a major fork about 1km from the start… I follow the left-hand one which heads up to a ridge that seems to follow the ridge along the island. After another kilometre or so, it seems to taper off, and I head back the same way. (I discover a few days later, when reading one of the magazines in our room, that the partly overgrown trail goes all the way to the far end of the island, and has some tricky sections that require rock clambering. A guide is highly recommended for this, and a boat transfer can be organised to avoid returning the same way.)

Topographic-Map-of-Gaya-Island
Map of Gaya Island (Pulau Gaya) showing walking trails

I take the alternate fork, which I’m guessing will lead to Tavajun Bay, one of the guided walks you can do. This trail is well-defined, but does go up – and down – a bit as it follows the coast, before descending to the beach at Tavajun Bay. This secluded beach is part of Gaya Island Resort: there’s a bar, beach lounges and a regular ferry that takes guests to and from the main resort. I can get a drink here before catching the boat back… but my plan comes undone when I realise I’ve missed the last boat by about half an hour. There’s just a lot of empty beach chairs and monkeys that hanging around the bar area looking for food scraps.

There’s also a wild boar foraging on the beach, which is quite tame and lets me get close for a photo before it runs away

IMG_2009-LR

I’m really not keen to make the three kilometre (or so) trek back to the resort, but I’ve spotted a solitary kayak that’s on the beach. I figure it’s part of the resort, so I “borrow” it for the trip back. It’s a much more enjoyable way to travel!

IMG_2021-LR

Mt Trusmadi Hike

I leave the family behind for a few days to hike up Mt Trusmadi, the second-highest mountain in Malaysia. About six hours by car from Kota Kinabalu, the trek to the summit takes 3 days and 2 nights (this is the longest of the three routes).  A tough but rewarding climb, reaching the peak just before sunrise and being fairly lucky with the weather!
Full hike details
 DSC01603-LR

Fine Dining – at a price!

There’s a few different restaurants in the Gaya Island Resort – we’ve made a booking at Omakase, a Japanese restaurant set over two levels. Upstairs is shabu-shabu, and downstairs is teppanyaki. We’ve gone for teppankayi. It’s fantastic food, but at RM900 for the four of us it’s outrageously expensive! There’s a bottle of Australian wine that’s being being promoted for RM350. It’s a pretty average bottle of wine that retails for about $10 (RM30) in Australia – these kind of ludicrous prices detract a bit from an otherwise great resort.

IMG_2027-LR

Snorkelling at Gaya Island

There’s two snorkelling activities offered by the resort: you can snorkel off the resort beach, but during our stay there were signs warning of jellyfish and advising people not to swim. The snorkelling tours take you by boat to a more sheltered location. We did the tour to the very small Mamutik Island (Pulau Mamutik), about 30min away. We arrive at the main wharf where a small entrance fee is paid (this is part of the activity cost) – and the small beach here is crowded. You can see the relief on everyone’s faces when we leave, dropping anchor on the other side of the island that we have almost to ourselves.

IMG_2206-LR

 

Another hike to Tavajan Bay

I’d booked the guided hike to Tavajan Bay when we arrived… so I’ve decided I’ll do it again. It’s amazing how much more I see with a guide, who knows where to spot the elusive wildlife.

IMG_2047-LR

After we spot the lizard just off the path, the guide points out three bats that are hanging in a cave nearby.

IMG_2051-LR

We finish at Tajavan Bay again, but this time after a cold drink I catch the boat back to the resort. (It’s a nice beach at Tavajan Bay, with a small bar that serves food and a range of drinks. There’s also an enclosed – and air-conditioned – aquarium, which is staffed by a very engaging and knowledgeable marine biologist (Scott) who talks about the local environment and conversation programs.

Gaya Island kayak tour

Our last day on Gaya Island, and our last activity – a guided kayak trip through  the mangroves. Justin Juhun, Gaya Island Resort’s senior resident naturalist and local conservationist, leads our group of about ten guests.  We paddle a short distance along the coastline from the resort jetty, with Mt Kinabalu visible in the distance.

DSC01769-LR

After a couple of hundred metres, we head into the mangroves – a narrow channel (this trip is always scheduled for high tide) leads deep into the trees. There’s a chance of seeing monkeys or even an orangutan, although our group is rather noisy and one kayak has a rather inept couple that spends most of their time crashing into trees and needing help to paddle in the right direction!

When we reach the furthest navigable point, we stop while Justin provides an interesting commentary on the mangroves, and the impact of both tourism and natural events on the local environment. As I experienced also on the previous day at the aquarium, Gaya Island Resort seems to take conservation seriously and has some talented and passionate guides that you learn a lot from on the activities.

DSC01798-LR

Heading home

It’s been a great trip, and a relaxing end… from here, it’s a boat transfer back to Kota Kinabalu and a flight to Singapore, where we have three days before we go home.

IMG_2086-LR

More Information

As with our last trip, we relied on Tropical Adventure Tours and Travel, although we (or to be more precise, my wife) asked for some changes based on the research she did on-line.

We used the Lonely Planet book “Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei” with general planning.

The Web site World Birds was helpful in identifying the many birds photographed at Kinabatangan River.

Mount Trusmadi (Mannan Trail from Sinua)

A tough overnight walk through the jungle to the peak of Mount Trusmadi in Borneo, the second-highest mountain in Malaysia, via the Mannan trail from Sinua.

I’d booked the Trusmadi (or Trus Madi) hike during our two-week family holiday in Borneo. As the second-highest mountain in Malaysia, it seemed a good alternative to Mt Kinabalu (which I’d climbed twice on previous trips). Although considerably less high at 2,642m (in comparison to Kinabalu at 4,052m), it’s considered a tougher climb (I’ve added my comparison of Kinabalu and Trusmadi at the end.) The plan was to do the shorter 2 day / 1 night Wayaan Kaingaran route which is accessed from Tambunan… but a few days before the hike, our tour guide said “I’ve got good news and bad news about your Trusmadi hike”…

…turns out the access road from Tambunan to the start of the Trusmadi hike was closed due to a recent landslide (I think that was the bad news!). The good news was that I could still go, but would have to take a longer and harder Wayaan Mannan route that starts from the small village of Sinua, and it would now be a 3 day / 2 night trek.

It also meant a much longer journey to the start of the trail near Sinua. Getting to the start point took just under seven hours by road from Kota Kinabalu, including a lunch stop and coffee break, as I was transferred between three different cars for the trip.

 

The final stretch of road, which was only constructed about 30 years ago, provides the first view of Trusmadi in the distance.

DSC01487-LR

Camp 1 at Sinua is our destination for today: there’s a small bunkhouse and a larger dormitory with rows of hammocks. Soon there will also be one more up-market “cabin” to cater for the increasing tourism market and interest on the Trusmadi trek. I’ve got the bunkhouse to myself – two other groups had booked the shorter trail, but decided not to do the longer option. Compared to Kinabalu where 100+ people are on the mountain every day, having an entire mountain to myself is a new and decidedly more pleasant experience 🙂

 

Sinua (Camp 1) to Camp 2 – 7.4km

The Trusmadi trek starts the next day at 7:30am, up to Camp 2. We’re dropped off 1km down the road where the trail starts – “we” being my guide Sam, Melda the cook, Deo the assistant and myself. It’s a slightly larger entourage than I expected: I would have been happy with two-minute noodles for dinner, but I’m not complaining about having three cooked meals a day. It explains why the Trusmadi hike is more expensive than Kinabalu, where there is a permanent “camp” on the mountain.

DSC01505-LR

The path crosses a river on a well-constructed bridge as we head towards the Trusmadi forest reserve.

DSC01510-LR

The next crossing of the same river is not quite so civilised, as we take our shoes off, wade across… and put on our leech socks for the first section of the path.

 

We’re following an old logging road for most of the way to Camp 2, so it’s not too steep. But there are a LOT of leeches as we climb up through the jungle. My cheap leech socks seem to be working, but every time I stop I need to remove another set of hopeful leeches from my shoes.

 

The old road – it’s more of a track in places – gets progressively steeper. There’s a few creek crossings, as well as ferns, orchids and a few flowering plants. The guide tells me that one orchid that we spot (bottom right) is worth USD$5,000 in Europe.

 

After about 6.5km we reach an overgrown clearing, which marks the end of the old logging road. The last 800m to Camp 2 is a preview of the rest of the way to to the peak – a very narrow and rough track carved through the jungle. It’s much slower going, and feels more like an obstacle course than a track.

 

We reach Camp 2 at around 11am – it’s taken us about 3.5 hours to cover the 7.4km. From our starting point at Camp 1, we’ve also ascended from about 680m elevation to 1750m – which means we’ve done more than half of the vertical distance. It’s a nice camp which we have to ourselves, although capacity is about 30 people plus guides and cooks. It’s a but overcast and there’s some rain, but for a few short periods when the clouds part, there’s a view to the east over the surrounding mountains and forest.

 

To the north-east there are occasional glimpses of Trusmadi – although most of the time, it’s hidden in the swirling clouds and mist.

DSC01582-LR

It’s an early dinner (three different dishes cooked over the camp fire – I feel very spoilt!) and a few cups of tea by the fire before an early night. It’s pretty chilly at this altitude (I’m given a spare sleeping bag, or it would be very cold) and it starts raining heavily. I go to bed with a degree of trepidation about whether the rain will clear…

 

Camp 2 to the Summit – 4.2km

There’s no photos for this section, because it was dark. We leave camp at 1am for the summit – it’s rained all night, but stops just before we set out. I hope it clears in time for sunrise, so the effort of the climb will be rewarded by a great view!

It’s a tough climb, both because the track is steep, and because it’s very rough and muddy. There are some sections where you try and avoid stepping into foot-deep mud, many sections where you’re negotiating huge roots and occasionally a rope to help where the track is nearly vertical! The other “highlight” of this approach versus the other routes, is that there are in fact three peaks. To reach the Trusmadi summit, you must first traverse two smaller peaks along the ridge.

20150829_4

We reach the summit at 4am, a bit too early. Actually, way too early. Rather than wait at the true summit (2,624m), we continue a bit further down the mountain (along the Tambunan trail) to Jiran Point. Here there is a five metre observation tower – and also a very small shelter that gives us a bit of protection from the cold as we wait for the sun to rise. I’m glad we wait – I’m getting pretty cold and almost suggest that we head back down the mountain to get out of the wind. But eventually the sun emerges, above a thick layer of cloud. In the distance, rising above the clouds, is Mount Kinabalu about 40km to the north.

DSC01622-LR

It’s a relatively short walk back to the true summit. The view isn’t as good as it is from the observation tower, but there’s still an unobstructed view of Kinabalu in the distance.

DSC01630-LR

Trusmadi Summit back to Camp 1 – 11.6km

From the summit, it’s back the same way down… Near the summit I can now see a wide range of unique flora and fauna, including the nepenthes macrophylla pitcher plant. Found only at a specific elevation on Mount Trusmadi (between 2200m and the summit at 2642m), its name is derived from the Latin words macro (large) and phylla (leaves).

 

There’s a few more glimpses of Trusmadi through breaks in the canopy.

DSC01656-LR

It’s less tiring but not a lot easier going down, as the slippery and muddy track requires constant attention.

 

The steepest section is between the “third” (main) Trusmadi peak and the second peak: after the initial descent from the summit there’s a steep climb, with a few sections aided by rope.

 

Other parts are less steep, but still require careful navigation using exposed tree roots for support.

DSC01729-LR

It takes us about 2.5 hours to reach Camp 2, and we have short break for our second breakfast (our first breakfast having been around midnight, before we set off for the summit).

 

From Camp 2, another two hours takes us back to Camp 1. This is easy walking after the previous section of the walk down to Camp 2 – but after heavy rain on the previous day, the leeches are out in force. I decide not to bother with my leech socks (which I’d bought for $1.50 a few days ago) and continue with my normal hiking socks and long pants. I think I must have removed at least 50 of the little bastards from my shoes and socks. After we reach the base of the mountain just before midday, I remove my socks and change into clean pant. I discover that 14 leeches have successfully latched onto various parts of my ankles and feet!

Leeches aside, it’s been one of my best hikes in Malaysia. Varied and challenging terrain, a great view at the top and a feeling of adventure that you don’t get on many of the more popular walks and summits.

Kinabalu versus Trusmadi

It’s not really a fair comparison, as apart from geographic proximity they are very different mountains. If you can, do both – but if you’ve limited time and have to pick? I’d go for Trusmadi, by a slim margin!

Elevation: Kinabalu is the clear winner for bragging rights at 4,095m altitude, compared to Trusmadi at 2,642m. Although if you compare the vertical distance hiked, they are fairly similar with 2,200m elevation gain for Kinabalu (you start much higher) compared to about 2000m for Trusmadi (if you do the route from Sinua). The shorter trails from Api Api and Tambunan have a lesser elevation gain.

Difficulty: Trusmadi has been described as harder than Kinabalu, and the trail is definitely a lot tougher. The altitude of Kinabalu does make a difference, and descending the mountain’s thousands of steps means you’ll feel your legs for a few days. But Trusmadi (at least if you take the longer of the trails) is more challenging, both in the length of the trail, steepness and the fact it’s largely an undeveloped jungle track.

Flora & Fauna: you’re unlikely to see much wildlife (unless you count leeches) on either walk, although if you’re patient there is a lot of birdlife at Trusmadi. Both mountains offer orchids, ferns and pitcher plants – Trusmadi has the advantage of being home to the huge nepenthes macrophylla pitcher plant, which is found in abundance near the peak.

Solitude: Trusmadi wins by a mile… pick the right weekend or go during the week, and there’s a good chance you’ll have the mountain to yourself. Especially if you go for one of the longer routes. By comparison, you’ll need to book well ahead for Kinabalu, and you’ll be walking up the mountain in a long line of people.

Views: The landscape as you climb Kinabalu is more varied, as you go from jungle to the exposed and rocky summit. There’s the same risk with both peaks that the only thing you see is cloud, if you’re unlucky with the weather. They both offer outstanding views from the top – you don’t really notice the significant difference in height from the top, and both peaks will rise above any low cloud cover.

 

 

Cost: I was surprised by how much more expensive it was to do Trusmadi when researching the walk: I paid around RM2150 / USD$540 x2 (as there’s a minimum of two people) for the 2D/1N version, including transport from Kota Kinabalu. By comparison Mt Kinabalu is around RM1500 / USD$380 for a foreigner, and promotional rates are sometimes available. One of the reasons for the difference is that Kinabalu has a permanent camp at Laban Rata with staff who stay there in shifts, while on Trusmadi there’s no permanent camp. A cook and assistant walked with us up to Camp 2, carrying all the supplies we needed. It may be possible to do Trusmadi without a guide (you still need to book a permit), and you could also negotiate a rate for just a guide if you organise and carry your own food.

In summary, Trusmadi feels more remote and challenging but be prepared for leeches and mud. If you’re not used to hiking or don’t want to rough it too much, Kinabalu would be the best pick.

Location The Mannan trail starts near Kampung Sinua, in the Keningau District.
Distance 7.4km on Day 1 and 15.8km on Day 2.
Grade Hard (very steep/slippery in sections with some ropes). Total elevation gain ~2000m
Season/s All year, but best to avoid wet season (Nov – March).
Map N/A
GPS route View route and export to KML format:
Day 1 – Camp 1 (Sinua) to Camp 2
Day 2 – Camp 2 to Trusmadi summit and back to Camp 1
Resources

Pisang Falls (Sungai Pisang)

A fun “jungle walk” near KL following the Pisang River (Sungai Pisang) through a set of tunnels under the Karak Highway and up to the picturesque Pisang Falls.

I’ve got a couple of days in Kualu Lumpur on the way to a trip across Borneo; just enough time to engage local guide Eddie Yap for a half-day jungle trek with my son. “Something I haven’t done before, not too far from KL” was my detailed brief 🙂

It’s less than an hour’s drive from our hotel in KL to the start of the walk, just past Batu Caves and along the old highway that goes up to Genting. After a brief walk along a rough path that follows the river bank, the river runs under the Karak Highway through two huge tunnels.

We leave our shoes on, and enter one of the dark tunnels – it’s possible to keep your feet dry if you keep to the very edge of the tunnel, where there’s a small ledge…

_MG_0013-LR

…although our shoes don’t stay dry much longer, with the the trail crossing the river a few times – and sometimes the trail is the river itself.

_MG_0016-LR

Unlike most previous walks with Eddie where we are climbing up steep hills or mountains, this walk is fairly flat with the path following the river upstream. It’s a rough track though, as we cross sections of thick jungle roots and scramble under (or over) fallen trees and boulders.

_MG_0036-LR

It takes about half an hour to cover the 1.5km to Pisang Falls (also called Banana Falls), which have a drop of about 30 metres. It’s not crowded for a Saturday considering we’re only about 45min from KL – there are about ten people in the swimming hold beneath falls, and another ten or so people picnicking above the falls. The only steep section is from from the base of the falls up to the top.

30073204_10155802739393402_203322083333293344_o
Path near Pisang Falls. Photo credit: Eddie Yap

There’s a camping and picnic area at the top, and the path makes a broad loop around the back of the Falls before descending again on the other side to the river.

IMG_2119-LR

We return the same way down the river and back to the car, the entire walk taking about 2.5 hours. It’s amazing how you can have a “jungle experience” and swim in crystal-clear water so close to KL!

29983665_10155802740658402_6063034541597360447_o

Location Access via the old Gombak Highway past Batu Caves. Look for signs to Jungle Lodge, where you can park and access the river neat a pumping station.
Distance Return distance 5km (including the loop above the Falls)
Grade Easy. Total elevation gain of 130m
Season/s All year. Avoid after heavy rain.
Maps None available.
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to KML format.

 

Gunung Angsi

A relatively short (but steep) hike through the jungle to the third highest peak in Negeri Sembilan state, about an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Another trip to catch-up with the team in Malaysia, means the opportunity for another mountain hike… A work colleague suggested Gunung Angsi, which could be done in a morning and is not too far from KL. I’ve booked my trusty local guide, Eddie Yap, who took me to Bukit Kutu on my last Malaysia trip as and as well as Medang Falls with my local marketing team before that.

It’s about an hour from my hotel in KL to Seremban, about 60km to the south, and then another 20min drive to the start of one of the trails to the peak. We are taking the Bukit Putus route up, which is the shorter and more direct route, starting at an altitude of 285m. The trail from the large parking area is impossible to miss – it’s not the most picturesque starting point, with what seems to be a very new trail cut into the side of the hill. (Older blog posts show a more solid set of concrete steps marking the start of the walk, rather than the makeshift steps shown below.)

The trail immediately climbs steeply up the hill (or mountain!), with ropes helping on some of the more vertical sections. The track is well marked, with both regular small arrows as well as a series of numbers in preparation for an event in a couple of days time.

It’s a fairly relentless, steady climb through typical Malaysian jungle – lots of exposed roots – until a fairly flat section is reached after about 2km. At the end of this section is a rest area, where we chat briefly to the only other hikers we’ve seen on the trail. This area seems to have been cleaned up, as I’ve seen photos where there are a heap of multi-coloured chairs, cooking utensils and other junk left here.

DSC00659-LR

From here it’s uphill again, with the first views over the area from “Waterfall View”. Being a fairly overcast, the view wasn’t great – but better than nothing!

DSC00668-LR

Another half an hour or so and the summit is reached: it’s taken exactly 1:30min to climb the 540m up to the 824m/825m summit. (The height is described as both 824m and 825m.) I’m not sure why at 825m Angsi is a mountain (gunung), while Kutu at 1,053m is a hill (bukit)?

There’s a covered shelter on the large, open summit area and very little rubbish lying around.  Despite the poor weather, there are some views over the surrounding wooded hills towards the east, and almost below us to the west are some glimpses  through the trees of the outskirts of Seremban.

After a brief stop on the summit, where the elevation and slight breeze is a relief from the humidity of the jungle, we continue our journey down the other side of the summit. After passing by an old, abandoned trig marker we enjoy the last views over from the mountain before we re-enter the jungle.

The descent we are taking is the longer Ulu Bendul trail. It’s narrower and seems less trafficked than the Bukit Putus route we took up (although other trip reports suggest this longer route is more popular) – and descends even more steeply. In a number of places there are sections of rope in place to help descend the slippery track.

After about 20min, there’s a fun section of the track that feels like a combination of obstacle course, abseil and bouldering! We enter a narrow section of track, following a deep channel caused by water carving a channel through the jungle landcsape.

DSC00709-LR

Then we follow the top of the large “sand boulders”.

DSC00720-LR

Finally, a steep section that involves carefully reversing down an 8m wall of red rock to the bottom of the boulder section! There’s a couple of routes down (or up), both with rope to assist the descent (or ascent).

After this section, the trail continues fairly steeply down the mountain for another 20min (1.5km).

About 3km from the summit, we cross a small stream, which marks the end of the steep descent! From here the trail is fairly flat, although not being used to the Malaysian climate I find the last section the toughest due to the humidity and lack of breeze in the valley.

Soon after the crossing this small stream we can hear the sound of rushing water, as we meet the river (Sungai Batang Terachi) that we’ll now follow back to the Ulu Bendul finish point. Soon after the track joins the river, a short side-track leads to a small set of cascades.

DSC00759-LR-2

DSC00762-LR

After only another five minutes we cross the river for the first time. Despite having rained the last few days, the river level is low enough that we can cross without getting wet feet. Next to the river crossing is a clear pool with a waterfall – it would be a perfect lunch or swimming spot if we had time!

Just after the crossing is Kem Tangga Batu, a large camping area with a covered hut and a set of concrete steps (as well as a dilapidated and overgrown building that looks like it might have been a toilet in a previous life).

There’s remarkably no rubbish and it looks like a great place to camp by the river… it feels like we must be close to the end of the track! A few minutes on and there’s another steep but short side-track to a set of cascades. A nice photo-stop, but not as nice as the previous spot for a break.

DSC00788-LR

The track descends again as it follows the river, with a couple of steeper sections.

Another half an hour, and we each a small shelter and some plastic pipes that follow the river. It’s now been two hours since we left the summit: it’s taken longer than we expected, although there have been a few photos stops (tip: bring a small tripod to get some great cascade/waterfall shots)!

The narrow track seems to go on forever, as it follows the river. The track is narrow and eroded in sections – I’m not sure how they managed to construct the huts and shelters we saw previously! There are some calm sections of river and I have a quick swim to cool off.

DSC00807-LR

Finally, after passing a small dam, there’s a last river crossing. This time it’s impossible to avoid wet feet, and the crossing might be tricky if the river was higher (but if you’re starting from Ulu Bendul and you’re able to cross, the other river crossings will be fine).

A few minutes later and we’re at the Ulu Bendol Recreational Forest. There’s a ranger station here, and a water slide park. We only see a couple of people here, but it looks like it might be busy on a weekend.

After crossing the picnic ground, there’s a restaurant by the highway. We buy some cold drinks, and while I need to get back to the office the food looks very tempting! It’s taken just under three hours to get down, which is longer than we’d thought. Our car is 3km up the highway at the other trackhead, so one of our group of three hitches a lift to avoid a hot and boring walk up the road – it would be ideal to have to two cars if going up one route and back on the other! Total distance about 12km based on my GPS, although other trip reports suggest it’s 10km.

It’s been a great walk, combining some views from the peak with cascades and river crossings. I’d definitely recommend the Ulu Bendul route, or going up one way and back the other for variety.

Location Starts/ends at either Bukit Putus trackhead (2.7275351,102.0553951) or Ulu Bendul trackhead (2.727418N ,102.0758E) near Seremban, about an hour south of Kuala Lumpur.
Distance 12km open loop (4.6km via Bukit Putus / 7.4km via Ulu Bendul)
Grade Moderate (very steep/slippery in sections with some ropes)
Season/s All year, but best to avoid hiking after/during heavy rain
Map N/A
GPS route Google Maps GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Track notes – Malaysia Traveller / The Star Online

Map-GunungAngsi

Bukit Kutu

A half-day hike to a peak with views  over the Titiwangsa mountain range and Selangor Dam, less then two hours drive from Kuala Lumpur.

Whenever I get to Malaysia (we have an office in KL) I try and fit in a walk – there’s great walking without a few hours of KL, as well as amazing walks further afield including Mt Kinabalu and Mulu Caves. I’ve also found a passionate and experienced local guide – Eddie Yap – who knows where to go. So I asked Eddie to find me a strenuous hike we could do in half a day.

The result: Bukit Kutu, about 90min drive from my hotel in KL. At 1,050m high it’s technically a hill (bukit) rather than a mountain (gunung), although it is also referred to as Gunung Kutu and Treacher’s Hill.  It was originally a hill station with buildings below the peak; after WWII these were abandoned and the access road has become a jungle trail.

The climb begins from an an Orang Asli (meaning “original” or “natural” people) village, after  Kuala Kubu Bharu, with the final few kilometres on a gravel road. We continue along the gravel road by foot after leaving the car in a small parking area along the Sungai Pertak river; it’s possible to continue a little further by car but the road gets rough. After about 500m the road stops at a suspension bridge, which we cross. It’s a popular picnic spot, although few people are here today. Just some rubbish that’s left behind, which is unfortunately a common sight on most hikes in Asia.

The walk continues on a well-graded dirt trail for a while, and after about 1km a second river is crossed, this time on a steel bridge that’s clearly seen better days.

A bit further on there’s a fork where we go right (the left-hand track leads to Medang Falls). There’s one more river crossing (the Sungai Pertak river) before the wide trail starts to narrow, and we start to climb more steeply. Trees roots often provide helpful foot or hand-holds. Eddie points out a bee’s nest, a long and almost translucent tube extending from a tree. (I always learn a lot about Malaysian fauna and flora from Eddie!)

The trail continues relentlessly upwards, and we stop for a break at a set of huge, overhanging boulders at around the 4.5km mark. They are enormous: photos just don’t capture their scale. We meet another hiker here, the only other person we see on the trail.And a dog that follows us all the way to the the top – and back down.

There’s another short (800m) section before we reach a clearing a little below the summit. This is the site of the abandoned station, with just the chimney remaining. There are a two deep wells hidden in the scrub; I’m not sure I would trust the water (as people throw litter into the wells), although one of them looked clear.

A final, steep climb of about 500m and the rocky summit is reached. The time up has been about 2.5 hours with a couple of breaks. The very top is reached by a set of ladders – there’s 360-degree views over the surrounding areas, including the Selangor Dam, KKB and the Titiwangsa mountain range in the distance. (Be careful of a wasps nest under one of the boulders, which from other reports has been there since at last 2012.)

img_6163-lr

It’s just under two hours to get back down, with a refreshing swim in the Sungai Pertak river before the drive back into KL.  Thanks Eddie. I’m looking forward to my next hike!

Location Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor, Malaysia (90min drive from KL)
(Starting co-ordinates: 3.572510N, 101.738128E)
Distance 12km return, with total ascent of 800m
Grade Moderate (steep/slippery in sections)
Season/s All year, but best to avoid monsoon months (Nov-Feb)
Map N/A
GPS route Routie GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources Track notes – Yellow Tuk Tuk and Grace Abundant
map-bukitkutu
Click to enlarge. Refer to link in the table above for KML file

Medang Falls (Lata Medang Waterfall)

A jungle hike to multiple cascades and swimming holes in Kuala Kubu Bharu, less then two hours drive from Kuala Lumpur.

I’ve convinced my local marketing team that a jungle hike would be a good team activity –  a few of them still bore mental scars from a trip the previous year to Bukit Tabur, which turned out to be a little more strenuous than planned… This time I’ve found local guide Eddie Yap to take us, and promised it would be less arduous and more fun. Trust me!!

Eddie suggested Medang Falls in Kuala Kubu Bharu (Selangor) about 90min drive from Kualu Lumpur. The hike begins near an an Orang Asli (meaning “original” or “natural” people) village, after Kuala Kubu Bharu, with the final few kilometres on a gravel road. The track continues along an old gravel road for about 500m, before crossing the Pertak river on a sturdy suspension bridge. Note that so far everyone is smiling and looking cheerful!

The walk continues on a well-graded dirt trail for a while, and after about 1km a second river (Sungai Luit) is crossed on a far less sturdy steel bridge that requires some careful footwork!

A few hundred metres further on there’s a fork where we go left: the right-hand track leads up to the 1,050m Bukit Kutu summit. While the track is well-defined, there’s no signage so you need good track notes or someone who knows the way! From here the trail follows the Luit river for a while.

DSC01257

Eddie points out a number of different tropical plants and flowers: below left is a wild ginger flower, which is also cultivated as an ornamental flower.

A little further, by slashing through one of the many hanging vines in the jungle, Eddie demonstrates how water can be obtained. It’s surprising how much water drips out of a relatively short piece of cut vine!

DSC01280

The trail climbs up the ridge between the Luit river valley and Rinting valley; it’s well maintained except for some sections with deep ruts caused by local motorbike riders.

DSC01288

Some more flowering plants and mushrooms are spotted – there seems to be a lot of plants in bloom at this time of year.

We finally reach Lubuk Mecu at about 12:30pm after two hours of walking, the first set of small cascades which drop a few metres into a deep pool.

DSC01306

Just below these cascades is another small waterfall, with a rough path heading steeply down through a bamboo grove.

DSC01320

The star attraction, Medang Falls, requires another short scramble through the jungle before reaching the tallest waterfall. It’s a lovely spot for lunch and a swim, with the water cascading down the rocks providing a nice back massage!

Unfortunately it’s started to rain just after we arrived, so after a quick swim and lunch, it’s time to head back. Everyone’s getting a bit tired, and we take it easy down some of the steeper sections that are slippery in the heavy rain.

Just before we reach the car, the second last river crossing – the one with the dodgy “bridge” – provides a bit of a challenge with the rising water now spilling over it. If we’d got there much later we might have been stuck, but we managed to make it across safely by forming a human chain. (Even the dog, which had been following us for most of the walk, also made it across!)

DSC01368

We make it back, wet and a bit worse for wear, at 3:30pm. It’s been about four hours of hiking with the journey taking about two hours each way. The team is smiling a lot less than when we started. I am thinking next year, perhaps I need a different team activity…

Location Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor, Malaysia (90min drive from KL)
(Starting co-ordinates: 3.572510N, 101.738128E)
Distance 12km return, with total ascent of about 150m
Grade Easy/Moderate
Season/s All year, but best to avoid monsoon months (Nov-Feb)
Map N/A
Resources Track notes – Waterfalls of Malaysia

 

Mulu Caves and The Pinnacles

A three day adventure exploring one of the biggest cave systems in the world, and climbing up to The Pinnacles, a unique karst formation in Mulu National Park.

Getting to Mulu is the first challenge… I’d organised the 4D3N itinerary a month ago through Tropical Adventure Tours & Travel (who were very efficient and easy to deal with), then booked two MASwings flights from KL connecting via Kuching. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, having stumbled across The Pinnacles Trail on a “top hikes in Malaysia” Web site while researching potential walking destinations for my next work trip. The second MASwing flight flying over what seems to be never-ending jungle before landing in the very small town of Mulu… it starts to give a sense of the adventure ahead.

Mulu is the “gateway” to Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which encompasses caves and karst formations in a mountainous rainforest setting. (The national park is named after Mount Mulu, the second highest mountain in Sarawak.) It feels very remote – before the opening of the airport in 1991, access took 12 hours by riverboat covering the 100km to the nearest town of Miri.

I’m hoping someone will be at the airport meet us, having arranged the trip via a few emails, and my fears are quickly allayed as we are met by our friendly guide at the small airport. We (I’m travelling with Hanna, a work colleague) are taken in a rather battered vehicle to our lodging a few kilometres away at Benarat Inn. It’s very basic accommodation (a couple of mattresses on the floor and a ceiling fan!). With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been preferable to stay within the Mulu National Park, which has bungalows as well as a shared dormitory option.

Lang Cave

We head off reasonably early on the following day for a tour of Deer Cave and Lang Cave, which is a short car ride away followed by a slightly longer walk . After crossing the Melinau river just after the national park headquarters, the boardwalk enters into fairly thick jungle for it’s 3km length.

The area has been recognised for it’s high bio-diversity, and our guide is soon pointing out some of the smaller animals that inhabit the park.

The national park also has seventeen vegetation zones and over 3,500 species of vascular plants (according to Google a vascular plant is one that has “the vascular tissues xylem and phloem”, which doesn’t really help much!). But it means we see a number of interesting plants along the track.

It takes less than hour to reach Lang (or Langs) Cave, which looks pretty impressive despite being one of the smallest caves in the park. The cave was named after a guide who led a research expedition in the 1970s.

Entrance to Green Cave (Mulu NP)

While comparatively small in size, the stalactites and stalagmites are representative of the very best limestone formations in the Mulu cave system. There’s all sorts of shapes and sizes among the thousands of stalactites / stalagmites; our guide explains some of the more interesting ones. Including an interesting formation that I discover later frequently features in examples of phallic rock art!

For a “small cave”, it’s still fairly large and takes about 45min to walk through… allowing a fair few photo stops. (Tripods are not allowed without prior permission – so bring a “gorilla pod” or something small you can use to rest a camera on.)

Green Cave (Mulu NP)

Eventually we emerge back into daylight, with the boardwalk continuing under towering cliffs to the next cave…

Deer Cave

The Deer Cave is over 2km long and 174m high (at no point is the roof of the cave lower than 90m in height) and was the world’s largest cave passage open to the public, until the discovery of Sơn Đoòng cave in Vietnam . (A survey of the caves in 2009 increased the known passage length to 4.1km and established that Deer Cave was connected to Lang Cave.)

Mulu-deer-cave-layout

Also known as Gua Payau or Gua Rusa, the cave was named by the local Penan and Berawan people due to the fact that deer used to shelter within the cave and lick the salt-bearing rocks

The main chamber is 174 meters wide and 122 meters high; natural light still reaches this first cavern, and there are glimpses of the rainforest outside.

Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

You start to appreciate the magnitude of the cave, as the boardwalk follows the side of the vast cavern. It’s hard to convey the size in a photo… I’ve never really been a “cave person”, but walking through here was an amazing experience!

We frequently stop as our guide points out different cave features (or patiently waits for me as I set-up the camera for another long-exposure photo!). The photo below doesn’t really do justice to the sight of waterfalls cascading from the ceiling over 120m above us.

Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

The cave leads to the Garden of Eden, a hidden valley and waterfall. A karst valley or sinkhole with a volume of 150 million cubic meters, the one kilometre wide, circular depression is encircled by 150–300m tall limestone walls. The bottom is covered with rainforest.

Garden of Eden, Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

On the way back from the Garden of Eden (the furthest point we go), our guide points out the guano or bat poo from the two million to three million bats belonging to 12 species which inhabit the cave – more than in any other single cave in the world. The guano can be metres deep and is part of the cave ecosystem (the poo supports the growth of fungus, which feeds insects, which in turn supports the larger animals living in the cave). It’s probably worth mentioning that this also does contribute to a strong and not particularly pleasant smell – although it didn’t really bother us.

On the way out, a silhouette of Abraham Lincoln oversees our exit from the cave.

Face in the rock, Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

Bat Observatory

We finish our tour of Deer Cave around 4:30pm, and make our (short) way to the Bat Observatory for the final attraction of the day… A small clearing in the jungle, with a couple of rows of seats, provides the viewing area for the (literally) millions of bats that stream out of Deer Cave in the early evening. Except when it’s raining! Fortunately the skies are clear today. There are a few people here although it’s not crowded; during our two cave tours we saw less than five people.

It’s an impressive spectacle, appearing like a never-ending plume of smoke that rises and spirals above the cliffs that surround the clearing! (Apparently it lasts about two hours: we stay about 45min and there’s no sign of the “bat-cloud” abating.)

Bats streaming out of Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

The twisting and constantly changing trajectory of the bats is designed to avoid the bat hawks that are perched on the surrounding cliffs. It’s thought the bats travel up to 100km from the cave to feed before returning in the early morning, collectively eating 30 tonnes of mosquitoes and other flying insects every night.

Bats streaming out of Deer Cave (Mulu NP)

As the light fades (we have our head torches with us), we head back along the boardwalk to the Mulu National Park entrance after a fantastic first day in Mulu.

Clearwater Cave

Today (Day 2) is when the real adventure begins, as we head up the Melinau River towards the start of the walk to The Pinnacles. We load up and “board” our water transport not far from our accommodation, near some village longhouses.

The water is deep and calm, as we make our way at a good speed up the river (that will change a little later in the day!)

First stop is Wind Cave (only about 15min away – you can also walk here along 1.4km boardwalk from the park headquarters), named for the cool breezes blowing through it which we can feel as we climb up the first set of steel steps. It’s part of the massive Clearwater Cave system. Again, we have the caves to ourselves today.

The section of the cave we are walking through is not at large at yesterday’s Lang Cave, but is equally impressive as the boardwalks climbs and winds through the many rock formations. Part of the way in, a skylight high above us lets in some natural light.

One of the larger chambers within Wind Cave is dubbed King’s Room, with huge columns of stone including stalactites, stalagmites, flowrocks, helitites and rock corals on both the ceiling and the floor.

King's Chamber, Wind Cave

Exiting the cave, we follow a boardwalk perched above the Melinau River that connects the Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave (they do also interconnect underground, and it is possible to book a “Clearwater Connection” circuit of about 8km that enters by Wind Cave and exits by the Clearwater River Cave, offering six hours of walking, scrambling, crawling and squeezing.)

Clearwater Cave held the title of the longest cave system in Southeast Asia until the late 1980s, with a length of approximately 51km explored between 1978 and 1988. Since then, further expeditions have expanded the total (known) length to 222.09km, making Clearwater the largest interconnected cave system in the world by volume and the 8th longest cave in the world. The cave welcomes us with a massive group of stalactites covered in monophytes (single-leafed plants that are endemic to the park and found only in Mulu).

Clearwater Cave

The entrance to this cave is massive, with sunlight penetrating the first chamber we walk through, feeling rather small compared to the cavern we’re in!

Not far into Wind Cave, we cross a crystal-clear subterranean river which has travelled through the cave for over 170km. The smooth, curved walls above the river show the power of the river in flood, which has carved a massive groove into the cave walls.

Clearwater Cave

Further into the cave, our guide points out some phytokarst, a phenomenon where speleothems or speleogens (mineral deposits) orient towards the sunlight coming from a a skylight above.

While our Clearwater Cave tour only covers about 0.5% of the total length of the system, it’s given us an appreciation of the beauty and size of the caves.

It’s now about midday, so a steep set of 200 steps takes us down to a picnic area and our lunch spot, where’s there a crystal clear pool that is filled by water that flows out of the cave. A great spot for lunch – and a swim in the pool.

Getting to Camp 5

We continue up the Melinau River after our lunch… it gets a bit more adventurous as we continue upstream. As the water level drops, I jump out and help our guides push the boat through the shallower sections of the rivers. Every so often the engine stalls. I’m not convinced we’ll make it. The guides seem pretty nonplussed by it all, as the engine splutters along and the bottom of the longboat scrapes along the rocks at the bottom of the river…

…eventually, we do reach the start of the track to The Pinnacles at Kuala Litut. From here we walk about 8km through the jungle along the along the Litut river to Melinau Camp (Camp 5).

DSC00502

It’s a pleasant jungle walk, taking a bit under three hours to reach Camp 5. Our destination for today, the camp will be our starting point for the last part of the hike up to The Pinnacles the following morning.

We stay in a very basic dormitory, right by the Litut River. Meals are included as part of our itinerary, so there’s not much to do but relax, and have an early night in preparation for the next day’s climb.

Melinau River, beside Camp 5 (Mulu NP)

The Pinnacles

It’s an early start the next day. The climb to the Pinnacles is short but hard, climbing about 1200m over 2.4km. The first few hundred metres is fairly flat, and then the climbing starts. There are many sections of rope to help ascend the sometimes very slippery track. We need to reach the first “checkpoint” at 400m within an hour, which we comfortably do.

DSC00528

It gets progressively steeper for the next two sections, as the track ascends from 400m to 1000m. More sections of rope and metal rungs in the rocks provide some assistance. My work colleague, Hanna, is now questioning the sanity of climbing a jungle-covered mountain peak. I’m not sure she’ll ever be joining me on another walk…

There isn’t a lot of interesting vegetation along the way; I haven’t seen any pitcher plants as others have observed, but this little mushroom among the green moss looks quite photogenic!

_MG_3717

As we get to the final, steepest section, we start on the first of the 16 ladders that go up the most vertical rock faces.

When we get to about 1,135m, there’s a brief opening in the jungle with views over the surrounding area. Or, there would be views on a less cloudy day…

_MG_3688

There’s now just 100m left to go (and 65m vertical climb) to the viewing platform…

Finally, after about three hours of solid climbing, we reach the platform at 1200m elevation, overlooking the Pinnacles.

Pinnacles, Mulu NP

Located on the side of Mount Api (Gunung Api), one of the three mountains in Mulu Park, they are a series of 45 meters high, limestone spikes that are clearly visible above the surrounding vegetation. It’s quite a surreal sight,

Pinnacles, Mulu NP

Going down is much quicker than going up… but just as tough, and I’m glad to reach the bottom at around 1pm. Although I’d read reports saying many people don’t make it to the top, everyone who left this morning successfully completed the ascent.

Arriving a bit before the rest of the group, I has time to explore the area around Camp 5, walking up the river about 500m toward the the Melinau Gorge. Not too far from the camp is a beautiful swimming hole and cascades.

Back to Mulu

The next day, we head back along the 8km track to Kuala Litut, where we hope a boat will be coming to pick us up, and take us back downstream to Mulu.

DSC00589

It’s a much quicker trip downstream, with the river current pushing us through the shallow sections that presented a challenge two days ago.

DSC00604

We leave on an afternoon flight, back to KL and then onto Sydney. I’ve really enjoyed my three days in Mulu. I think Hanna has too, although she’s still not talking to me (no, not really, despite sore legs she enjoyed the trip. I think!)

Location Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia. Access by MASwings flights from Miri, Kuching or Kota Kinabalu (2-3 hours from KL)
Distance Caves tours are about 7km in distance
Pinnacles trek is 21km over two days
Grade Hard (very steep/slippery in sections with ropes & ladders)
Season/s All year. Best time is considered to be July, but there is high rainfall all year around. We went in March (one of the highest rainfall months) and experienced almost no rain.
Map N/A
Resources
Notes & Tips
  • Dress appropriately including good footwear – within the caves the ground can be slippery/uneven, and the hike up to the Pinnacles is rough and slippery
  • A head torch is essential for caves
  • Be prepared for the occasional leech!
  • Some short walks in the past can be done without a guide; the caves, Pinnacles and Mt Mulu require a guide and should be booked in advance.
  • Stay in Mulu National Park if you can

mulu--map-national-park-sarawak-big