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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Another eagle, this time a fish eagle.

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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

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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!

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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Kanangra Walls to Kowmung River

A tough overnight walk from Kanangra Walls in the Blue Mountains, down to the wild Kowmung River.

The plan was to tackle the Katoomba to Kanangra walk, a “classic” route I’ve been wanting to do for many years. A group of intrepid Venturer Scouts are doing this walk starting at Kanangra, so by starting at the opposite end we could avoid a lengthy car shuffle by swapping vehicles. We would drive the car they left at Kanangra back to Katoomba, once we’d done the walk in the opposite direction. (The “we” on this hike being Andy, father of one of the Venturers, and myself). A most excellent plan, we thought. Until the weather forecast indicated that most of our hike would be in 35+ degree temperatures.

The Venturers, being more fit and/or foolhardy than us, proceeded with their planned walk. Our Plan B, since we needed to collect their car from Kanangra Walls, was a slightly more “leisurely” hike down to the Kowmung River. Armed with a bottle of wine and gourmet sausages from Blackheath purchased on the way, we started our hike at 2:15pm with the temperature around 34 degrees.

The first part of the walk is along the well-marked Plateau Track: it’s pretty warm (actually, it’s bloody hot and we are questioning why we’re not at the nearest pub). There’s no-one else** stupid enough to be out walking (** except of course the Venturers, but they are nowhere near us).

There’s some nice views of Kanangra Walls extending out into the distance, as the path drops down between Mount Kanangra and the Kanangra Wall plateau.

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In this gap lies Dance Floor Cave, a short detour off the Plateau Track. Located on the old cattle route from the Burragorang Valley to Oberon, the cave became such a popular meeting place in the 18th century that a wooden dance floor was erected. Now it’s just used as occasional shelter for hikers.

The Plateau Track, not surprisingly, follows the heath-covered Kanangra Tops plateau in an easterly direction. It’s easy to follow and fairly flat, occasionally crossing some rock platforms where some care is needed not to lose the track.

There’s also some fantastic views from the edge of the cliffs, and into Kanangra Gorge.

Across the other side of Kanagra Gorge are the Thurat Walls and Thurat Spires, rising 600m above the valley floor.

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After about 1.9km along the Plateau Track we veer right onto an unnamed track that heads towards Maxwell Top (Kanangra 8930-3S GR342358 or -33.98511, 150.12235). According to Google Maps, it’s called the Coal Seam Walking Track, but it’s not named on the topographical map. (The original Kanangra to Katoomba plan would have had us continuing straight ahead, along the plateau.)

This track is also well-defined and fairly flat, as it follows the very wide Murrarang plateau in a southerly direction. We follow this track for just over a kilometre before nearing Murrarang Top at the end of the plateau, where the track forks (Yerranderie 8929-4N GR344340 or  -34.00172, 150.12445). Here it’s a bit confusing, as one of our maps shows a single trail and the other shows two ways of getting down the small cliffs. We take the left trail; in hindsight I suspect either track would have worked. There’s a short and easy scramble down a cleft in the rocks, and we’re at the base of Murrarang Head where we follow the base of the small cliff.

At the end of the cliffs is the impressive Coal Seam Cave, although it’s not named on any of our maps. While not a particularly deep cave, it’s very long and the sandstone above the coal seam has been eroded in a way that makes it seem (no pun intended!) as if it’s been very precisely cut. There’s a barrel here collecting water that drips from the sandstone, and even on a hot day when most creeks were dry, it was 3/4 full. There would be plenty of space for a few tents, too.

So far, so good… At the end of the long cave, the track drops quick steeply down to a saddle. We’re now on the Gingra Trail, which follows the Gingra Range and eventually reaches the Kowmung River. From this trail, there are multiple trails that go down to the Kowmung. The track is easy to follow and it’s fairly easy walk along the shaded ridge-top, although the temperature is still in the 30s.

We pass Cottage Rock, just visible from the main track (there’s no obvious trail up to here, and it’s too hot to entertain sightseeing detours!). As we ascend about 50m (although it feels like a lot more) up to First Top Mountain, we see what looks like a side-track down Brumby Ridge. This was our intended route, being the shortest track to the Kowmung. But the faint trail quickly peters out and we decide to try Roots Ridge, which is marked on our topographical map. Another kilometre along the Gingra Trail and we reach the Roots Ridge Track. This will, hopefully, take us from the Gingra Range at around 800m down to the Kowmung River at 220m. We set off down Roots Ridge: the track is very faint but the route is easy to follow, as it descends the top of the ridge.

As we near the bottom of Roots Ridge, we get our first and very welcome sight of the Kowmung River below us.

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Just a (steep) kilometre to go until we reach the bottom… the 800m descent from the Gingra Trail is about 4km in length, but starts of gradually and gets steeper towards the end. The track is not very distinct, but the route is fairly obvious.

We enjoy a well-earned swim before setting up camp. According to my watch, the average temperature since we started around 2pm has been 33.6 degrees, and it’s still about this temperature at 7:30pm (it’s taken us about 5:30min to cover about 13km). We’ve got the river to ourselves, and there’s a nice, flat and grassy area close to the river. It is a beautiful and tranquil spot, with a deep enough pool for a swim and clean, flowing water (we filtered the water just to be safe, but the Kowmung is generally considered safe to drink).

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Tomorrow is forecast to be even hotter, so we try and get some sleep despite the heat, with alarms set for 5am the next morning.

It’s the same way back tomorrow, and while it’s cool when we set-off around 5:30am the temperature has reached about 30 degrees by the time we reach the Gingra Trail.

On the way back, I make the short off-track detour up the steep slope to Cottage Rock from the Gingra Trail. Someone’s helpfully made a rock step to help get onto the outcrop.

The view from the top isn’t spectacular, but you can see the Gingra Range that we’ve been following and the surrounding peaks of the Kanangra-Boyd National Park.

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One more steep section from Cottage Rock up to Coal Seam Cave, and then it’s fairly easy walking back to the car. It has taken us 5:30min to get back; about the same time as the descent. It feels very hot up on the plateau, and we discover later that today is the hottest temperature on record for Sydney’s west.

Location Start at Kanangra Walls car park (end of Kanangra Walls Road).
210km (3:30hr) from Sydney / 110km (2hr) from Katoomba
Distance 26km return (approx)
Grade Moderate/Hard. Total 1,100m ascent. Some off-track walking.
Season/s All year.
Maps
  • Kanangra 8930-3S 1:25K
  • Yerranderie 8929-4N 1:25K
GPS Route Google Maps GPS trail. View route and export to KML format.
Resources
  • Part of the walk covered by Buswalking NSW Web site
  • National Parks – Kanangra-Boyd Web site
Notes
  • If travelling to Kanangra Walls via Jenolan, please note that the road is closed to traffic leaving Jenolan in the direction of Katoomba every day from 11.45am to 1.15pm (ie. for 90 minutes the road becomes ‘one way’).
  • There are toilets at the Kanangra Walls car park, but don’t rely on water being available here.