Wombats and Devils on Maria Island

Maria Island offers a unique combination of abundant wildlife, Australian convict and early industrial history and multi-day bushwalking opportunities. A four-day hike takes us to the far southern end of Maria Island as well to the summits of Mt Maria (711m) and Bishop and Clerk (620m), and to the Fossil Cliffs by bike.

This is the only pre-planned walk we have in Tasmania: four nights camping on Maria Island. The whole family heads over from Triabunna on the mid-morning ferry, but only Luke and I are staying on the island. I’ve reserved our spots on the ferry a week in advance (a new and much larger ferry since 2017 means it sometime, but rarely gets booked out). The Maria Island Penitentiary accommodation was totally booked out, although in hindsight I’m happy not to have booked here as it’s way too busy in January for my liking!

A few tips from our four-day adventure:

  • What’s the best time to visit Maria Island? December and January are the busiest months; one of the rangers suggested March/April as being the best time if you want to avoid the crowds. The ferry runs less frequently in winter, but if you want seclusion consider a winter visit!
  • Where to stay? In addition to the campground at Darlington (near the ferry) there’s the Penitentiary – basic bunkhouse-style accommodation, offering 9 rooms with 6 beds and 1 room with 14 beds. You can also camp at Frenchs Farm and Encampment Cove, both about 11-14km from Darlington depending on the route you take. I suspect you could camp anywhere on the mote remote parts of the island – but it’s highly discouraged and other than Robeys Farm there’s very few places with drinkable water.
  • How to get around? Other than walking (or jogging, if you are that way inclined!) you can rent a bike – bookings are highly recommended in Dec/Jan. If you have an overnight pack you’ll probably struggle riding with a heavy pack – and they won’t rent you a bike anyway. (So if you are determined to get to Frenchs Farm or Encampment Cove to camp, hide your backpack when you go and hire your bike!)
  • How available is water? There was plenty of water at Frenchs Farm, Encampment Cove and Robeys Farm in January – but best to check. I was surprised that almost every creek was dry – except Counsel Creek and Four Mile Creek near the top of Mt Maria.

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Getting to Maria Island and walk overview

The ferry trip across from Triabunna to Darlington on Maria Island is fairly quick and uneventful (it takes about 45min), and there’s a pretty good range of snacks and drinks on the boat for a last pre-camping meal. (Judging by a couple of badly cracked windows, some crossings must be a lot rougher than ours!)

The ferry docks at Darlington and the luggage is efficiently lifted via a small crane onto the wharf for collection. Near the jerry are some historic structures, such as the cement silos, and the Commissariat Store (which is also the national park visitor centre).

We set off (without our overnight packs) to climb Bishop and Clerk, the second-highest peak on the island. Amy, my daughter, is going to join Luke and I for this walk before catching the last ferry back to the mainland with Mum.

Our itinerary was designed to see as much of the island as we could – and where possible avoid carrying our heavy overnight bags…

In total, we cover about 80km over three days – which is most the marked tracks on the island. On the fourth day we hire a bike to cover the area around Darlington.

Bishop and Clerk (Day 1)

The summit of Bishop and Clerk (620m asl) is a popular day walk: as well as being one of Tasmania’s “Top 60 Great Short Walks”, it’s regarded as one of Tassie’s best day walks. We set-off from opposite the Parks and Wildlife Office, where we leave our big packs, taking the unsealed road that passes behind the old penitentiary.

We also pass the site of the “Twelve Apostles”, named after a row of workers’ cottages built during the first industrial era (1888–96). Soon after we pass the junction with the Reservoir Circuit, as we continue up the Fossil Cliff  Track.

Once the track reaches the grassy plain at the top of the Fossil Cliffs, the scenery gets more interesting. The rocky summit of Bishop and Clerk is clearly visible in the distance as the track follows Skipping Ridge, along the edge of the cliff-top. The dolerite columns that form the top of Bishop and Clerk were named because of the supposed resemblance to a bishop, wearing a mitre, followed by a clergyman. Although even when I squint or turn my head at funny angles, I can’t really see this resemblance!

Looking back down the coast, you can see the mainland in the distance above the towering cliffs. Even better is the fact we’re already gained about 150m in altitude without really trying…

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It gets a bit tougher from here, as we leave the open grassy plain, and the track enters the (mostly) eucalypt forest and starts to steadily climb. At the start of the forested section there’s a stand of sheoaks or casuarinas, which were prized as firewood by the early settlers. These are gradually replaced by stringybarks, blue gums and manna or white gum eucalypts.

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This part of the walk is pretty boring… we don’t see any wildlife, there are no wildflowers and no view. Just the narrow track heading relentlessly up the ridge…

It gets more interesting when we reach the scree field, formed by dolerite rock debris. There is a rough track that zig-zags up the slope and make it fairly easy to negotiate the sometimes loose stones (the kids decide to ignore the track and walk directly up the hill). Without the tree cover, there are now views over Mercury Passage to mainland Tasmania.

As the trail ascends, the boulders get gradually bigger – and the view keeps improving!

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Near the summit, the rocks become boulders, and in a few places we need to use our hands and feet as we scramble up. There’s a false summit where we think we’ve made it, followed by a steep right-hand turn and another 50m before we’re really on top of Bishop and Clerk.

The panoramic view from the top is incredible – and we have the summit to ourselves. Having started the walk relatively late in the day, everyone’s been and gone by the time we get there (we met a few people on their way down).

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To the west is Cape Boullanger and the Fossil Cliffs, and the east coast of the mainland on the other side of Mercury Passage.

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To the north, beyond the jagged dolerite columns, I can just make out Isle des Phoques, and in the far distance Schouten Island and the Freycinet Peninsula.

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After I take a few photos and kids have finished leaping across the rocks at the top, we start our descent, clambering carefully down the large boulders at the top.

We make good progress on the way back, taking exactly 3.5 hours for the return trip – and I see my first wombat on the outskirt of Darlington. Which was quite exciting… by the same time tomorrow, I’m far less excited having seen more wombats in 24 hours than in the previous 24 years!

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Darlington to Frenchs Farm (Day 1)

While we’ve finished the Bishop and Clerk walk, Luke and I still need to reach Frenchs Farm, our destination for today. After a short break and refilling of water bottles, we strap on the overnight packs and head down the Coast Road. On the outskirts of the Darlington settlement we pass Mrs Hunt’s Cottage; Mrs Hunt was the one of the last island inhabitants prior to the island being proclaimed a National Park. Grazing in the foreground are two Cape Barren Geese, introduced to Maria Island in 1968.

Our progress is hampered by another wombat sighting, grazing on the inland side of the Coast Road. Not just any wombat, but an adult and child munching together on grass, oblivious to us taking photos. Maria Island is home to about 4,000 wombats and the population has been steadily increasing, to the point where there is a concern it may be unsustainable (“The current status of wombat populations on Maria Island National Park” by Janeane Ingram). The wombats on Maria Island are a subspecies of the common wombat (Vombatus ursinus ursinus) which were once found throughout the Bass Strait islands but are now restricted to Flinders Island, and Maria Island where they were introduced in the 1970s.

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It doesn’t take us long to reach Hopground Beach, a beautiful bay that’s better known for the Painted Cliffs at the far end.

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We continue down the Coast Road, which crosses Counsel Creek – you can also turn off here and continue along the beach.

We spot some more birdlife here: another Cape Barren Goose, and after we take the short path down to the Painted Cliffs, there’s a pair of pied oystercatchers feeding on the rocky shoreline.

The Painted Cliffs is one of the attractions on Maria Island (and the walk from Darlington to the Painted Cliffs is another Tasmanian “Great Short Walk”). Easily accessed at low tide, the long sandstone outcrop has been weathered over millions of years by groundwater percolating down through the sandstone and leaving traces of iron oxides, which gives the rock formation its unusual pattern.

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More recently, sea spray hitting the rock face has dried and in the process formed salt crystals of salt, which have caused the rock to weather in a honeycomb pattern.

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We continue down the Coast Road, which follows the coast fairly closely. It’s relatively easy walking and there are nice views of the coastline and remote bays and beaches.

There’s also increasing sightings of wildlife as we get into the late afternoon: wombats, Forester (Eastern grey) kangaroos and wallabies (the Tasmanian pademelon and Bennetts wallaby).

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With our legs starting to tire, we have a brief stop at the beautiful Four Mile Beach. There’s a small group who are leaving as we arrive; they’ve come from a boat moored a small distance offshore and have brought a dog with them. I’m happy when they rather hastily put their furry friend in their dinghy and motor back to their yacht, leaving just us to admire the beach and turquoise-coloured water.

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After Four Mile Beach the Coast Road heads inland, crossing Four Mile Creek. (While the creek looks nice from a distance, it had a lot of algae and didn’t look too tempting as a water source. Had it been clear, flowing water we might have camped here, close to the beach! I discover later that the “Maria Island Walk” has a camp near here, so I wonder if they use water from Four Mile Creek – or water tanks?)

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We trudge on, looking forward to reaching our campground. Fortunately the Coast Road is fairly flat, although it’s now a few hundred metres inland from the coast and there’s not much to see. We’re very happy when reach Frenchs Farm just after 7pm. At the top of the campground is a a simple weatherboard house, built during the 1950s when farming was introduced to the island, and later restored. The house is is no longer used – other than collecting rainwater which fills a large water tank (which is fairly full).

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Nearby is an old shearing shed and stockyard, which doesn’t hasn’t been restored, but seems in reasonable condition. I don’t notice any smell… but one of the Maria Island ranger suggested you could still detect a faint odour of sheep from the 1940s and 50s.

We find a campsite near the bottom of the main campground, which has the luxury of a picnic table nearby. Wombats are grazing everywhere, and later in the evening one ambles right past our tent. There’s one other tent already set-up, and a couple of hikers that arrive just after us. It’s a huge campground, and behind the (dry) creek there’s another area you could camp if you want total privacy and seclusion.

After eating dinner, we’re treated to a blood-red sky as the sun sets behind the farmhouse and shed – a nice end to a long but rewarding day!

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Haunted Bay (Day 2)

We’re up early the next day, as we leave our tent and overnight backpacks at Frenchs Farm, and continue south to the far end of Maria Island on the Isthmus Track.

Not far from Frenchs Farm we cross a wide creek, which isn’t named on any of my maps. It’s the same creek that would flow through the campground just behind my tent, but is totally dry – so I suspect it may be brackish rather than fresh water.

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The very sandy track follows the edge of Shoal Bay as it curves towards the narrow McRaes Isthmus, a narrow neck of sand with beaches on either side.

The isthmus is very narrow, and when you see photos of it from above it appears to be only a few metres wide. But the track goes right down the middle, and while we can hear the ocean there no sight of any water. Near the middle there’s an unmarked track that takes us to Riedle Bay to the east (bottom left) and Shoal Bay to the west (bottom right).

Riedle Bay is stunning – a long, crescent-shaped beach with turquoise water and gentle waves – and not a single other person in sight.

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Just after this track to the two beaches, the Isthmus Track splits into two: Haunted Bay to the left, and Robeys Farm to the right. We go left towards Haunted Bay, with the track gradually climbing from the end of Riedle Bay up to its highest point of 197m.

There’s a short (1.5km) but steep descent at the end on a narrow bush track, with occcasional glimpses of the bay through the trees.

Located at southern extremity of Maria Island, Haunted Bay is a fascinating spot. It was a whaling site in the 1800s and is home to fairy penguins that live in between the granite rocks (although I don’t see any). The remote bay is surrounded by tall granite cliffs, many of which are covered in bright orange and yellow lichen.

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If feels remote and secluded, as we find a spot in the shade for our lunch. Although we’re not quite alone – a tiny fishing boat is bobbing around, at the foot of the cliffs.

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We head back the way we came, back to the junction with the Robeys Farm track…

Robeys Farm (Day 2)

We hadn’t really planned on visiting Robeys Farm, but it’s only 11:30am and Luke is keen to try and complete all the walks on Maria Island. So we take turn left towards the old farm. Less than a kilometre from the junction is Stinking Creek. I’m thinking when I see this on the map that it may not be a great spot to refill water bottles. And it doesn’t disappoint. While the surrounding grass looks soft and a lovely deep green colour, the creek is also an almost flourescent green colour, and smells putrid.

It’s about 5km (one-way) from the junction with the Isthmus Track, on what seems to be an old vehicular track. It’s sandy in places, but generally shaded and fairly level.

After we cross Robeys Creek (which is completely dry) and what seems to be now over-grown farmland, we reach the Robeys Farm farmhouse. It looks in pretty good condition from the outside, and considerable restoration work has been done by the Hobart Walking Club and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

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The inside is like stepping back in time. John Vivian (Viv) and Hilda Robey emigrated from South Africa in the 1920s, moving originally to Hobart and then to Maria Island. By 1953 they had secured a total leasehold of 5,570 acres on Maria Island that they called “South End”, which supported 600-700 sheep and up to 40 head of cattle. After Hilda died in Hobart at age 82, Viv also became ill a few years later in August 1965 and was brought off the island in pain (he was found to be suffering from malnutition). He returned to his native South Africa in November after being discharged from hospital, never returning to Maria Island. The hasty and unplanned departure was evident from the table still being set for dinner, and a rice pudding still in the oven.

As I sit on the verandah of Robeys Farm and look out over the harsh landscape, I have to admire the tenacity and spirit of our early settlers. On a practical note, there’s a water tank here which is full, so I refill our water bottles and have a drink before we return.

We get back to the Frenchs Farm around 2:30pm, and have a quiet afternoon resting – and watching some of the wildlife around the campground. With another couple arriving, I’m finding the “main campground” far too busy (there are now four tents). So we move our tent across the dry creekbed to another huge area, which we have to ourselves. Much better.

Encampment Cove (Day 2)

After an early dinner, we wander across to Encampment Cove, the alternate campground that we could have stayed at. It’s a nice evening to be walking, and with sunset not until 8:45pm, it’s still light until almost 10pm.

After a short section through forest, the vehicular trail follows a wide creek  to Chinamans Bay and then goes along the coastline to Encampment Cove. On the other side of the tranquil cove is Shoal Bay with its long sandy beach, and behind it stands Mt Maria.

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There’s a number of camping areas along the track, and a large camping area near the water as well as further inland toward the shed (which has a water tank). The disadvantage of this camping areas is that it’s accessible by boat, and one group seemed to have brought a replica of the Taj Mahal. It’s nice be near the water, but Frenchs Farm feels more secluded and I’m happy with out choice to camp here for two nights.

We share the road with a few more wombats and wallabies as we head back to our tent!

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It’s been a long day – 35km in total – but we’re glad we managed to visit Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm. If I had to pick one destination, Haunted Bay would be my choice – and having some time here at in the late afternoon or evening would be amazing,

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Mt Maria (Day 3)

We’re up early again today – it’s another fairly long day as we head back via the Inland Track and climb Mt Maria (711m), before a last night at Darlington. A last quick check of the map on my phone and we’re off!

It’s only about 1.5km from Frenchs Farm via the Coast Road, before we turn right onto the Inland Track. Although this route is more “undulating” than the Coast Road and gradually ascends by about 150m, it’s still fairly easy walking. It would be (compared to the Coast Road) a lot harder on a bike, due both to it’s hillier nature and the sometimes soft sand.

It only takes us a couple of hours to reach the start of the well sign-posted track up to Mt Maria, where we stash our overnight packs behind a tree. The track up can be loosely divided into three sections… Initially the track ascends through open eucalypt forest, which was burnt regularly in the early farming days resulting in minimal undergrowth (and low plant diversity).

After a few kilometres there is a change from dolerite to siltstone in the underlying rock, caused by a major fault millions of years ago that lifted the eastern side of the island. There are now white peppermint (which grows only on dolerite soils) and more shrubby undergrowth plants, including pink mountain berry, silver banksia and pink heath. A small creek flows down the mountain, which is the start of Four Mile Creek. It’s not always flowing, despite every other creek being bone dry, but this one had a trickle of water and we could refill our water bottles.

Finally there are the scree and boulder fields… It was a result of water freezing, expanding and shattering one of the upright dolemite columns 20,000 years ago, leaving a trail of rock debris down the mountain. Marked by yellow arrows and orange poles, it’s fairly easy walking up the scree – at least on a dry day!

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After the first scree slope, there’s an unexpected oasis of green – a short section of forest
consisting of Oyster Bay pine, richea, and banksia,

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Then it’s back to more boulders, which are now larger and at times require hands and feet to climb.

We’re not far from the summit (711m asl), marked by a large trig point and offering sweeping views in most directions… it’s also surprisingly windy at the top, which we’ve been protected from on the way up (and perhaps because of the wind, the often cloud-covered peak is clear).

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You can clearly see the narrow isthmus separating the north and south parts of Maria Island to the south, where we walked the previous day. Beyond Maria Island is the Tasman Peninsula, with some of its high cliffs just visible.

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To the west is Darlingon (you can just see the jetty) and the Wielangta Forest Reserve on the mainland.

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And to the north is Mount Pedder, with its radio tower on the summit, and in the far distance is Schouten Island and Freycinet Peninsula (which are not really recognisable).

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We admire the view for a while – it would have been a great lunch spot just below the summit (where it’s protected from the wind), but we left all our food in the overnight backpacks!

Once we re-join the Inland Track it’s only another four kilometres or so back to Darlington, and it’s pretty much all downhill… The track meets Counsel Creek on the way to the coast, which is also flowing and looks pretty clear. I was tempted to camp somewhere along the creek to avoid the inevitable crowds at Darlington, but both sides of the valley along the creek are too steep and scrubby.

Oast House Track

Just as we reach sight of the coast there’s a junction with the Oast House Track, so we take this alternate and slightly hillier route back to Darlington (this route is a lot less busy, which is nice – we only see two other people on the trail).

“An oast or oast house is a building designed for kilning (drying) hops as part of the brewing process” – I learnt something new writing this blog post 🙂 The Maria Island Oast House is one of the oldest in Tasmania, and by 1847 was producing three tonnes of hops per year in its two large brick drying towers.

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The Oast House is also near the top of a small hill, so from here it’s all downhill again to Darlington.

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As we complete the very last part of our walk along the Coast Track, we encounter an adult wombat with its baby grazing by the grassy bank of Darlington Bay. It’s a nice end to our 3-day walk!

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We’re back in Darlington by 4pm, in time to pick up the bicycles we booked a few days ago. I’m ready for a wee nap, but Luke seems to have unlimited energy and insists we ride down to the jetty. And then back to Painted Cliffs. I finally managed to convince him to stop, so we can put up our tent at the Darlington campground! It’s fairly large camping ground with a lot of trees around the river that runs through the middle of it. We find a sheltered spot fairly close to the road, but away from most of the other tents. There are a LOT of tents her in mid-January, and I regret that we couldn’t find a secluded spot by Counsel Creek, just outside Darlington. On the plus side there are basic cooking facilities and running water here. Outside of December/January, it would most likely be a great campground!

Probably attracted by food scraps (although we don’t see anyone feeding the animals), there’s a lot of wildlife in and around the campsites. Two wombats chase each other past our tent, there’s loads of wallabies and a friendly kookaburra keeps an eye on our tent.

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A little later, a Tasmanian Devil lopes along the river through the camping ground. We’re warned by the rangers not to leave food (especially meat) or even clothes in areas that the devils can reach. Special bins are available, athough I figure I should be OK hanging our backpacks on a high branch. The only thing I leave out is a pair of my hiking socks, which I remove as I climb into the tent and tucked under the canvas at the front. In the morning, they’re gone. I’m still unsure what concerns me most… that a devil took my socks from a few centimetres away from my face as I slept – or that my pungent socks are lining the den of a poor Tasmanian Devil!

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Having erected our tent and eaten dinner, we make one last final excursion by bike down to the jetty, in the hope of catching a nice sunset. Not surprisingly, there’s lots of wildlife out and about.

The sunset doesn’t disappoint, with a long blaze of red along the top of the hills on the mainland. It’s been another fantastic day on Maria Island!

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Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Circuit (Day 4)

We’re up early (again!) to catch the morning light, with a bike ride to Fossil Cliffs, which are not far from Darlington. We ride down past the jetty and cement silos, and the Convict Barn, built in 1846 on a wide gravel road.

The Fossil Cliffs Circuit road ascends very gently, as it crosses Cape Boullanger and passes the Maria Island airstrip. Once we reach the low cliffs on the opposite side of the cape, the summit of Bishop and Clerk comes into view, partly shrouded by clouds.

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We dismount and walk down a short track that leads to the top of the cliffs, where there is some interpretative signage. This large rock shelf is where the limestone was quarried, and the remains of the tramline that connected the quarry to the cement works. From here there’s a rough and steep path down to the base of the cliffs.

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As it’s low tide (we’ve been fortunate with tides here and at the Painted Cliffs… or maybe it’s good planning…) we can safely explore the thousands of shellfish fossils embedded in limestone. The Fossil Cliffs are considered one of the best examples of life 250 million years ago, with the sheer volume attributed to the cold conditions associated with the polar sea at the time.

The Fossil Cliffs Circuit continues along the top of the cliff-line…

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…which is not a lot of fun. It’s uphill – and steep – up to the top of the Fossil Cliffs. I push my bike most of the way. I’m not feeling very fit!

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Then it’s downhill again, to the junction of the track to Reservoir Dam. Just after the start of the Reservoir Circuit road are the ruins of the cement works, which were built around 1889.

The relatively flat road ends at Reservoir Dam, which was constructed by convicts during the first convict period (1825-1832) to supply the settlement of Darlington, and has been enlarged a few times since. It’s a tranquil spot, and would be an ideal destination for a picnic lunch or bird-watching at dusk or dawn.

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The other half of the Reservoir Circuit is a narrow track (but suitable for bikes), which heads gently downhill back to Darlington.

Historic Darlington (Day 4)

We pack up our tent, hand back our bikes and spend the last few hours on the island looking around Darlington. Unfortunately, I didn’t see much evidence or signage of Aboriginal history on Maria Island, which was frequented by the people of the Tyreddeme band of the Oyster Bay tribe.

In comparison, there’s been considerable work done to preserve and present the fascinating history of European colonisation, which occurred in four periods:

The first convict era (1825–1832)

Lt Peter Murdoch arrived as Commandant in March 1825 with 50 convicts and military escorts. Darlington was a depot for prisoners returned to authorities after having worked for settlers, or convicts guilty of light offences. The settlement ceased on 1 October 1832, due to the success of Port Arthur and ease of escape from Maria Island.

The Commisseriat Store (1825) is the oldest building on the island: it had an office,  provision store and the spirit room downstairs and stores belonging to the Ordinance
Department upstairs.

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The second convict era (1842–1850)

While some sheep grazing  and whaling continued on Maria Island over the previous decade, in August 1842 it was Convict Probation Station. Convict tradesmen were sent to the island to prepare the settlement for 400 men. It was proposed in 1850 it was proposed to break up the station and convict numbers declined to virtually zero by the end of the year.

The Visiting Magistrate’s Office was constructed in 1842 as the administrative centre for the Probation Station. Convicts were tried here for minor offences.

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The first industrial era (1884–1896)

Italian entrepreneur Diego Bernacchi leased Maria Island for 10 cents per year, with a vision of setting up a wine-making and silk industry. The Maria Island Company commenced in 1887 adding agriculture, cement, timber and fishery to the island’s activities. While the population peaked at around 250 people in the late 1880s, the company went into liquidation in February 1892. A second company formed by Bernacchi also failed, and most of the assets were seized in November 1896.

The Coffee Palace – a name commonly used to describe a type of restaurant – was built by the Maria Island Company in 1888. It had two dining rooms and a lounge at the front of the building, and living quarters at the rear of the house. It’s been restored with period furniture, and in the dining room you can sit at one of the tables and hear recordings that recount life on Maria Island during the industrial eras.

The second industrial era (1920–1930)

Bernacchi had another attempt to develop Maria Island based on a plan to produce cement. Darlington’s population increased to over 150 men, with the National Portland Cement Ltd being formed in 1924. However, the cement was fairly poor quality and the production volumes were too low. In 1930, with the Great Depression underway, the Australian Cement Company took over and operations ceased.

Built in 1920, the massive concrete silos used to store cement are among the first things you see when arriving at Maria Island.

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Since the 1930s, properties were acquired and the island was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary on 1 June 1971, and proclaimed a National Park on 14 June 1972.

Somewhat reluctantly, we board the 11:15am ferry back to the mainland. It’s been an incredible four days. Despite the crowds around Darlington, for the majority of our walk we’ve seen very few people and experienced a sense of isolation that’s not easy to find in the January school holidays! And we’ve seen more wildlife than just about any other walk I’ve done.

DAY ONE
 0.0km Maria Island ferry wharf (Darlington)
 0.6km Ranger Station / PWS office at Darlington
 1.7km Junction with Reservoir Circuit Track
 2.6km Track reaches Fossil Cliffs (Skipping Ridge)
 6.9km Bishop and Clerk summit
12.6km Return to Ranger Station at Darlington
15.2km Painted Cliffs
19.2km Four Mile Beach
24.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
DAY TWO
24.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
29.3km Junction of Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm tracks
35.6km Haunted Bay
41.6km Back at Junction of Haunted Bay and Robeys Farm tracks
46.3km Robeys Farm
55.4km Frenchs Farm (campground)
57.6km Encampment Cove (campground)
59.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
DAY THREE
59.8km Frenchs Farm (campground)
67.8km Junction with Inland Track
72.6km Mt Maria summit
77.4km Junction with Inland Track 
80.7km Junction with Oast House Track
82.7km Darlington (Ranger Station / PWS office)
DAY FOUR (by bike)
0.0km Darlington campground
2.6km Fossil Cliffs
4.1km Start of Reservoir Circuit
5.4km Reservoir Dam
7.8km Darlington campground
Distance as measured by GPS, and not the official track lengths.
Location Access via Encounter Maria ferry from Triabunna
Distance 83km circuit (including Bishop & Clerke and Mt Maria)
8km cycle to Fossil Cliffs and Reservoir Dam
Grade Moderate.
All tracks well sign-posted and well-maintained.
Season/s All year. Gets pretty busy in January. Mar/Apr a good time.
Map TASMAP Maria Island National Park 1:50K
5828 Darlingon 1:25,000 (covers top of Maria Island)
5827 Riedle 1:25,000 (covers bottom of Maria Island)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to GPX format.

Resources

Gibraltar Peak, Tidbinbilla

Gibraltar Peak (1,038m), a rocky outcrop with extensive views, is a circular walk in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve that’s only 45min from the Canberra city centre.

One of the longer walks in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, not far from the centre of Canberra, Gibraltar Peak is the perfect early morning walk before a day of meetings. The start is well sign-posted about 5min drive from the Tidbinbilla Visitor Centre, starting from the Dalsetta carpark. The trail crosses a grassy plain on the opposite side of the road to the carpark, with regular track markers.

Given the acres of green grass, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see a mob of kangaroos, including one that bounded down the track in front of me. I haven’t seen this many ‘roos in one place for a long time!

The trail rises very gently at first, on a broad, sandy path through low heath. There’s some intepretative signage, explaining that the track is traversing the land of the Ngunnawal Aboriginal people. While the women and children stayed on the plain teaching, dancing and holding ceremonies, the men and older boys went higher into the mountains for initiation rituals into manhood.

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The trail gradually gets steeper with a few switchbacks, before reaching Eliza Saddle, Eucalypt trees including the Broad-leaved Peppermint at the lower levels are replaced by grass trees and granite boulders as the path gains altitude.

After 3.5km there’s a very solid viewing platform, with a broad vista out to the east towards Canberra.

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Soon after the viewing platform is reached, the narrow bush track reaches the Gibraltar Fire Trail, which provides an alternate route back.

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Gibraltar Peak is only about 300m further, on a rocky trail that rises steeply up the last of the peak. There are soon views to the east across as the trail follows the edge of the mountains…

…and crosses some huge granite slabs, with the top of Gibraltar Peak more like a giant boulder field than a mountain summit!

The views are impressive, combining sweeping views to the east with odd-shaped boulders in the foreground. The Telstra Tower on Black Mountain is visible in the distance

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The trail ends at the base of large boulders forming the summit of Gibraltar Peak. There’s a narrow cleft between two of the largest boulders, with some smaller boulders wedged in the gap that allow you to clamber to the very top. Which I don’t manage to do… I get half-way up, but don’t feel confident scrambling up the second boulder that requires some gymnastic-like moves. I suspect the view from the very top would be even more impressive.

The return part of the loop is easy – and rather boring. After a short uphill section, the Gibraltar Fire Trail gently descends back towards the starting point.

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Near the bottom of the fire trail is the Xanthorrhoea Loop, which passes a stand of grass overlooking the valley. Don’t bother! There were just as many grass trees along the Gilbraltar Peak track.

Just after the Xanthorrhoea Loop, the trail leaves the fire trail and crosses the grassy plain, with the Tidbinbilla Range in the background.

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Looking back, you can see the rocky Gibraltar Peak, which really doesn’t really look like a peak from here!

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From here it’s a pleasant stroll across the grassy meadow, eventually re-joining the same track that I took to go up the mountain. And the kangaroos are still out in force, farewelling me as a return to the car park.

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Location Start at Dalsetta carpark, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve
Distance 7.7km return
Grade Easy. Total elevation gain of 350m
Season/s All year.
Maps Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve free guide (from visitor centre or download here)
GPS Route Routie GPS trail – view route and export to KML format.
Map-GibraltarPeak
Tidbinbilla map showing walking tracks; Gibraltar Peak track is highlighted in yellow

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.

Two Weeks Around Namibia

Five years after our last African trip, an amazing seven days in Botswana, we’re off on another African adventure – this time with the kids. We’ve used Cedarberg Travel again, who have done a fantastic job in putting together a “self drive” itinerary, that will take us around the central parts of Namibia over two weeks.

About Namibia

Located in southern Africa, Namibia borders Zambia and Angola to the north, Botswana to the east and South Africa to the south and east. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean, with a largely desolate coastline of 1,570km. Namibia’s name is derived from the Namib (one of the oldest deserts in the world), with the name “Namib” meaning  “vast place”. Due to this large & arid desert, Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, with a population of 2.1 million people.

Like Botswana, Namibia has a stable multi-party parliamentary democracy. Its economy is based on agriculture, cattle, tourism and mining. It’s a land of extremes, surprising us with a hot & very arid interior (as we expected) but a cool, almost cold, climate along the coast. There’s modern and efficient tourism infrastructure equal to almost anywhere else in the world, but leave the larger towns or tourist lodges and you feel like you’ve left civilisation behind.

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When to go (and for how long)

As always, our travel is dictated by school holidays. We chose the September school holidays as being the best option, although most areas of Namibia are dry all year round. September and October is regarded as the best time for game-viewing, as the landscape is at its driest and animals are more likely to congregate around waterholes.

Conversely, for hiking April/May after the summer rains would be preferable – the one walk I did in Naukluft was very hot and dry, with no chance of swimming or cooling in the dry river beds!

There’s a good summary of the different seasons on the Expert Africa and Responsible Travel web sites.

How long? I reckon you could easily spend a month and not get bored. Two weeks felt a bit too short – we could have spent a few more days at Etosha National Park, and I would have loved to have a couple of days walking in the Naukluft mountains. We also didn’t have time to get to Fish River Canyon, further to the south, as this would have required another 2-3 days to do it justice. In most cases two nights at each lodge was ideal, enough time for one or two morning and evening activities at each location.

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Getting there and around

In contrast to our last trip, where we flew between camps, on this trip we clock up almost 3,000km by car over two weeks. On arrival at Windhoek we pick up our “all wheel drive” vehicle, a Renault Duster. As part of our booking, we’re met by a local tour company that provides us with an esky (chiller) & icepack, local maps and a mobile phone, in case we have any problems.

Namibia has approximately 44,138km of roads, of which just 6,387km are paved [CIA World Fact Book]. As we soon discover, the paved roads are generally very good, and the locals often drive well over the 120km/hr speed limit – we’re told that outside of Windhoek, due to bureaucratic issues, speeding fines can’t be issued. Conversely, the condition of the unpaved “C” and “D” roads are highly variable, and we average about 60km/h on these. Navigation is fairly straightforward and roads well-marked, so while it takes a while to cover the distances between camps, we rarely have any concerns about travelling on our own.

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The Itinerary

In summary, we did a broad circuit of central Namibia. While none of the days had more than about 400km of distance to cover, due to the condition of the “C” roads, there were some days where we drove for most of the day – I wouldn’t suggest covering any more distance each (at least, not with two kids in the car!). Having said that, the longer “drive days” were never boring, with lots to see, both scenery and wildlife. In hindsight, the only major change we’d make is to allow more time at Etosha, and to do the circuit in the opposite direction. We had two nights at each of the lodges/guesthouses:

  1. N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – very close to Windhoek airport, and lots of wildlife to see (but they are mostly rehabilitated animals)
  2. Okonjima Plains Camp – while it would be possible to skip this one and go straight to Etosha, we enjoyed this camp and the leopard and cheetah tracking
  3. Andersson’s Camp (Ongava) – one of the hightlights of our trip, both the drives  within the Ongava Reserve and of course the amazing Etosha National Park
  4. Camp Kipwe (Damaraland) – completely different scenery and a fantastic camp, plus we saw the desert adapted elephants and Twyfelfontein rock engravings
  5. Swakopmund – a completely different coastal climate, and the combination of boat cruise and sand dune 4WD tour made for a great day
  6. Kulala Desert Lodge (Sossusvlei) – one of the best lodges to experience and climb the sand dunes at Sossusvlei
  7. Kalahari Red Dunes Lodge – this was a slight anti-climax after the rest of the trip. While we did a game drive and saw the Kalahari sand dunes, it was not as “wild” or dramatic as the previous lodges, but a nice way to end the trip before returning to Windhoek (had we started here, we probably would have found it amazing)!

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Trip Highlights

It’s hard to pinpoint the “best bits” of our trip, as we had so many great experiences – and part of the attraction was the variety of activities and landscapes. But, if we had to single out the highlights of our trip it would be:

  • Etosha National Park – the number and variety of animals was well beyond our expectations. We stayed just outside the park at Anderrson’s Camp in the Ongava reserve, and did both an Ongava drive (where we saw a pride of lions) and a half-day drive within Etosha. I’d recommend driving through Etosha if time permits, and spending 1-2 nights inside the national park.
  • Skeleton Coast –  While we had a few moments of doubt (such as when we shredded a tyre about an hour into our journey), the isolation and desolation of the Skeleton Coast was a unique experience
  • Damaraland – Camp Kipwe was (arguably) our most memorable camp, being nestled within granite rocks overlooking the Aba Huab valley. As well as spectacular desert landscapes, the guided tours from Kipwe let us get close to the desert-adapted elephants and see the UNESCO-listed Twyfelfontein site.
  • Swakopmund – the Walvis Bay boat trip to visits seals and watch whales followed by 4WD trip to the sand dunes was one of our best days, combining close-up encounters with sea creatures, exhilarating descents of steep sand dunes (by car and on foot) and great photography opportunities.
  • Sossuvlei – this one depends a bit on your appetite for hiking. If you’re happy to look at the dunes from a 4WD, I think Sossevlei might be disappointing compared to doing a 4WD tour from Walvis Bay. The attraction of Sossuvlei is the opportunity to walk up some of the dunes, see the never-ending sea of dunes from the top, descend from the top of “Big Daddy” to the Dead Vlei, and walk across the barren clay pan through a forest of dead thorn trees.

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N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary

Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 5/5. African-themed set menu. Best feed we had on the whole trip.

Family friendly:  5/5. Three bedroom cottage with lots of living space
Scenery: 3/5. Not a very interesting landscape.
Activities: 5/5. Cheetah experience, Carnivore feeding and “Behind the Scenes” tour are all quite different but well worth doing. 

Our first stop after we land in Windhoek and pick up our car is N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary, a relatively short drive from the airport. After about 10km on the paved B6 highway, we turn off down the unsealed D1510 road.

Despite being half an hour from the airport, there’s almost no other vehicles on the road, and we’re already seeing Chacma baboons, warthogs and what my wife later thinks is a leopard when looking at our photos.

We soon arrive at the lodge, which is set in the African savannah amongst camel thorn trees, riverbeds, and a stone canyon.  Overlooking the stone canyon – which contains a small amount of bright green, stagnant water from the last rains – is a far more inviting swimming pool, which the kids use straight away!

In and around the canyon, no doubt attracted by the water, are lots of Chacma baboons, which live in troops of 20-100 animals. Also hiding in the crevices are rock dassie (rock hyrax), which become the kids’ favourite animal! A “small, plump and tail-less guinea-pig-like animal that’s about as large as a big rabbit”, the rock dassie is the closest living relative to the elephant – despite the size difference!

It’s a short day for us, having arrived at the lodge around 4pm: we finish the day with a very nice dinner and watch the sun set, before an early night!

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N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – Cheetah Experience (Day 2)

Today’s a busy day, with a cheetah experiencecarnivore feeding tour and a “behind the scenes” look at N/a’an ku sê. Established in 2006 to support the conservation of Namibia’s vulnerable wildlife and the lives of the local San Bushman people, the sanctuary is situated on a 3,200-hectare reserve. Nankuse hosts an abundance of African wildlife and free-roaming game, including giraffe, zebra, kudu, hartebeest, springbok, eland, jackal, as well as wild cheetahs and leopards. This includes injured or orphaned wildlife that are cared for by volunteers. Many animals will never be released back into the wild, due to being “human imprinted”, which would significantly reduce their survival chances in the wild.

After watching the sun rise, we drive the short distance from our cottage to the main lodge.

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It’s only about 2km to the lodge (it could be covered on foot), and we’re already seeing lots of wildlife – an eland, hundred of scaly feathered finches that dart around in huge swarms, a family of guinea fowl and some fish eagles, high up in the trees.

The first tour is the “Cheetah Experience”, where we walk with cheetahs and observe their behaviour. We thought our kids (9 and 11yrs) might be too young, but we’re told it’s fine as long as they stay close to an adult. The three leopards are released from their cage, and immediately set off, as we follow-them on foot.

Their destination is a tall thorn tree, that they take turns climbing. Out guide explains that they do this as it’s provides vantage point, to observe what’s around.

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Although cheetahs are not as proficient as leopards in climbing trees, and don’t go very high, they have semi-retractable claws that help them climb. They seemed very adept at climbing – but not so confident coming back down!

We watch them for a while as they each check their surroundings, before deciding it’s time to move on. They play for a while on the way back to the car – they seem to know the routine and where to go. The tour lasts about an hour, and we really enjoy following and watching the cheetahs on foot, rather than seeing them from a 4WD vehicle.

N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – Behind the Scenes (Day 2)

After our Cheetah Experience, we’re taken on a tour of Nankuse, which provides an insight into the workings of a wildlife reserve and sanctuary. It also allows us to get very close to some of the animals being rehabilitated.

Our first stop is a porcupine. These spiny creatures are nocturnal, but this one was fairly active in its cage. Next, and more photogenic, is a cheetah cub, which peers at us from its small cage. Our guide explains how mother was killed in a road accident and the cub rescued.

The next encounter is with the leopard tortoise, which weighs up to 20kg and is the fourth largest species of tortoise in the world. Namibia has seven distinct tortoise species, giving it the second-most diverse population in the world (after South Africa), and all of them are classed as threatened. We’re shown how to tell the difference between sexes: the male has a convex plastron (the underside part of a its shell) while the female’s underside is flat.

We then see the small-spotted genet, a small, cat-like animal which is mainly nocturnal. They are great climbers (although they hunt on the ground) and

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In the same enclosure as the genet is our favourite animal: the rock dassie (although its correct name is the rock hyrax). A little shy at first, it is gradually coaxed out of it’s hiding spot with some food.

A bit later on the tour, another rock dassie (in a different enclosure) is happy to be given a cuddle while it munches on some greenery! We all agree we want one of these as a pet!

Around the sanctuary are many birds – the fairly common Greater Blue-eared Starling and Red-headed finch being a few of the ones we see.

The most engaging animals are the baby baboons; after taking off glasses, everything out of our pockets and anything that the mischievous baboons might steal, we enter their enclosure. The baboons leap and swing between humans, check our hair for nits and chase either other around the enclosure. It’s great fun to watch and interactive with them.

N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – Carnivore Feeding Tour (Day 2)

After lunch, we head off on our afternoon “carnivore feeding tour”. Over the course of this drive we see older (adult) baboons, caracals, lions, cheetahs, African wild dogs and leopards which are fed by one of the guides. The first animals we stop and feed are the adult male baboons; they are in a large, fenced enclosure.

Next is a pair of cheetahs, who take a while before they appear. One eventually shows up, followed by the second one a few minutes later.

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A leopard is fed next: even with a solid fence between us, you can feel the power of this animal.

Smaller and slightly less intimidating is the caracal. It’s quickly transformed from a placid creature to a snarling cat when provoked. Famous for their impressive leaps into the air, where they’re capable of catching birds in flight, they also have amazing ears. The caracal uses 20 muscles to independently control each of it’s large ears, which act as super-sensitive parabolic sound antennas.

Speaking of ears, the African wild dog also has large rounded ears that allows them to pick up the minutest of sounds. The wild dog is one of Africa’s most effective predators, having an 80% success rate with hunts (higher than the 30% kill rate of lions), although they are critically endangered with about 5,000 left in the wild.

Last but not least is the king of the jungle (or desert, in our case)…  like the leopard earlier, both the female and male lions exude power and instill fear. It’s a little unsettling to hear the male lion roar, even from the safety of being behind a high fence.

It’s been a long and hot afternoon, but with a couple of hours of daylight left there’s time for the kids to enjoy a last swim, and to observe some of the animals around the gorge.

N/a’an ku sê to Okonjima (Day 3)

We’re leaving N/a’an ku sê today, after breakfast. There’s a few more animal sightings on the short distance between our cabin and the main lodge.

Our trip today takes us back through Windhoek, and then up the B1 (or Trans Kalahari highway). It’s about 330km, but mostly on sealed roads where we make good time, until the last section where our instructions ensure we don’t get lost: “…keep following the road to the Lodge, through three gates. At the Thorn Tree and Ant Mound turn left and over the river bed and final gate up the hill to the Lodge”!

Okonjima Game Reserve

Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 4/5. Set menu for dinner. Amazing omelettes cooked on the BBQ for breakfast.

Family friendly:  4/5. Large “View room” in Plains Camp, with two double beds
Scenery: 4/5.
Activities 5/5: Leopard and cheetah game drives, self-guided bushwalks

Situated halfway between Windhoek and Etosha National Park, the 55,000 acre Okonjima Game Reserve is known for its cheetah and leopard safaris. Home of the AfriCat Foundation, Okonjima rehabilitates cheetahs, hyenas and leopards. On entering the reserve, there are signs warning visitors not to leave their vehicle.

Even before we reach the lodge, in time for a late lunch, we’ve seen a couple of jackals by the road, and outside the main lodge area there’s a pair of warthogs in the water.

Okonjima Leopard Drive (Day 3)

Our first activity is a leopard drive: we’re trying to locate one (or more) of the rehabilitated “big cats” that are somewhere on the 55,000 acres. The good news is that they all have radio collars. The bad news is that the accuracy is somewhat limited, and the leopards are very good at hiding. Gideon, our guide, drives to a point that overlooks a large section of the reserve, and brings out an antenna. After pointing the antenna in various directions, he confidently points to a spot in the distance, and we head off down the steep track from the top of the escarpment to the valley below.

En-route to our leopard, we stop to look at a Damara dik dik, Namibia’s smallest antelope, and spot a solitary giraffe grazing on an acacia tree.

And we’re in luck… our eagle-eyed guide spots the leopard, almost hidden behind long grass. Even after we manoeuvre closer, it’s still very hard to spot the leopard – although it’s keeping a wary eye on us.

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We spend a good half an hour watching the leopards – after spotting the initial male leopard, we see there’s also a second (female) leopard. Although the fact that it’s “radio tracked” feels a bit like we’re cheating, it’s still been hard to find the elusive cats! Not far from our leopard and oblivious to its presence is a lone mountain zebra (which is distinguished from the Plains zebra as its stripes end on their flanks, leaving their stomachs white).

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Nearby is a confusion of blue wildebeest, one of the most unique species of antelope that has been described as being “created from the spare parts of different animals”!

A sundowner ends our first Namibian safari, before we head back for dinner.

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Okonjima Cheetah Drive (Day 4)

A new day and a different cat… it’s an early morning start as we leave the lodge, this time in search of a cheetah.

Not far from the lodge, we spot two black-backed jackals and a baby kudu.

There’s lots of birdlife around, too. A purple roller and double-banded sandgrouse are among our early morning sightings.

There are hundreds of red-billed quelea, also known as the red-billed weaver, which fly around in large flocks. Referred to as “Africa’s most hated bird”, the average quelea bird can eat about 10 grams of grain per day, and a flock of two million can eat as much as 20 tons of grain in a single day. This makes them the most abundant bird in the world and also the most destructive, with the ability to decimate fields across Africa.

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We see my favourite bird, the flying chili-pepper, or red-billed hornbill, in a tree, as well as African Barred Owl.

A dik dik urinates on the side of the track:  they drink very little water and to make the most of every drop, they excrete the driest excrement and most concentrated urine of any hooved animal.

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Another bird, the red-necked spurfowl is seen, which is generally shy and wary.

We still haven’t see a cheetah, but after a brief sweep with the antenna, a few minutes later we’re a few metres away from a pair of cheetahs.

They seem surprisingly easy to find after the more elusive leopard yesterday: our guide explains that they seek exposed, high ground where they have a good view of their surroundings.

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After observing the cheetahs for a while – they don’t seem to mind us getting fairly close – we drive a short distance back to the camp. On the way back we see a dik dik,  a small antelope, a korrie bustard in full flight and a Grey Chanting Goshawk, perched high up in a tree.

After our morning drive, while the rest of the family has lunch, I head off to do the Giraffe Walk. It’s very hot and I don’t see a lot of wildlife. The well-marked walk does go the edge of the escarpment, providing views over the reserve and surrounding mountains.

Okonjima Leopard Drive #2 (Day 4)

We re-group in the afternoon for our second leopard drive, as we search for more of the leopards that are on the reserve.

We see less animals today – a few giraffes. And a number of termite mounds, some well over two metres high.

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This time, however, we’re not successful…  We know we are very close to the leopard, from the radio signal. We can see a recently-killed warthog, and our guide assures us the leopard will be keeping a very close eye on his dinner – and on us. But despite our best efforts we don’t even see a glimpse of the leopard, who is hidden in thick scrub. While it’s a little disappointing, it makes yesterday’s sighting more meaningful. It reminds us while we are on a reserve, there’s still no guarantees about spotting the wild animals!

We see a few more zebras as the sun starts to set, and we find a spot for our sun downers.

Okonjima to Ongava (Day 5)

After breakfast and a last look at the animals visiting the waterhole behind the lodge, we’re on the road again.

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We are heading further north on the paved B1 highway, covering a distance of about 230km – a fairly easy driving day.

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Andersson’s Camp, Ongava

Overall rating: 5/5.
Food: 4/5. Set menu for dinner. 

Family friendly:  4/5. Two separate cabins separated by a short path. Ideal for families with older children.
Scenery: 4/5. Some variety of scenery, but the animals are the main attraction
Activities 6/5: Game drives within Ongava reserve and Etosha National Park. Game viewing at the lodge waterhole (which also has a hide)

Andersson’s Camp is located on the famous Ongava concession, a private nature reserve that borders Etosha National Park. Surrounded by plains teeming with wildlife, and situated close to the largest saltpan in Africa, the family-friendly Andersson’s Camp takes its name from Charles Andersson, a Swedish explorer who first ‘discovered’ the Etosha Pan.

A resurrected farmstead forms the main lodge, fronting onto a thriving waterhole with an underground hide for wildlife viewing and photography. We have two separate, raised tents; there are 20 tents in total, so it’s a relatively small camp – smaller than the last two we’ve stayed at. While we sit in the lodge and are given an introduction to the camp, we watch an incredible procession of animals visiting the waterhole. A herd of impala take turns to drink.

Next is a gemsbok or oryx, which approaches warily, before drinking.

Half an hour later, a pair of zebras turn up.

The other amazing spectacle around the waterhole are the scaly feathered finches; they are also known as  “Baardmannetjie”, the Afrikaans name that translates to “little man with a beard”. Common in the drier parts of Southern Africa, a huge flock of these small birds sits in a tree by the waterhole, before the entire flock flies down to the water. This happens every couple of minutes, and is quite a mesmerizing sight!

The other option for those that aren’t interested in watching the ebb and flow of the waterhole is a swim in the pool, which overlooks the plain behind the camp!

Andersson’s Camp – Ongava Drive (Day 5)

After watching the animals for a while, we set off at 5pm for our afternoon drive. We’re in search a pride of lions that’s been spotted for the last few days… but first we see if we can spot some cheetahs that have been moving across the reserve. We spot them fairly quickly, but there’s already a couple of vehicles watching them so we have to observe from a distance until we can move a bit closer.

As we try and get closer, disaster strikes as our 4WD sinks into a deep rut! We’re stuck until one of the other Ongava safari vehicles comes to the rescues us, towing us out. We finally get a bit closer to the cheetahs – a mother with three cubs – but they remain partly hidden in the scrub.

After this initial stop, we have a fairly long drive – we see a zebra and giraffe, and a few impala, as we drive west across the large reserve.

Rather unexpectedly, as we take a short-cut between two 4WD tracks, we stop right in front of a black rhinoceros. Normally most active during the night, the black rhino tends to be solitary in the wild and forages on leafy plants, branches, shoots, thorny wood bushes, and fruit. The species overall is classified as critically endangered, and from an estimated 65,000 black rhinos in 1970, there are now fewer than 2,500 left (in pockets in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania). Poaching has been the primary reason for their decline, with their horns worth up to $65,000 a kilogram!

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We watch the rhino for a while. It’s not particularly bothered by us as it munches away, gradually moving along the track in the search for more food.

We continue on our drive west, with the landscape becoming more open.

Two hours after we’ve left, we reach an artificial waterhole – and a pride of fourteen lions.

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Some lions are drinking, others are playing and a couple play-fighting on the top of a nearby hill.. we watch them for a while as they interact with each other.

Away from the rest of the pride and just visible in the long grass, is the adult male.

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We need to get back before it’s dark: we’ve covered about 30km over two hours to get to the lions. After about 20 minutes of lion-viewing, we need to start heading back, with a quick sundowner stop en-route to camp.

Andersson’s Camp – Etosha Drive (Day 6)

Today is going to be a LONG drive… we’re heading into Etosha National Park, to the north of Ongava Reserve. Etosha is considered to be one of the best game parks in Southern Africa. It encloses a vast saltpan that becomes an immense, shallow lake in rainy periods, attracting great numbers of flamingos and other water birds. The open plains are home to tens of thousands of animals with large herds of springbok, gemsbok, zebra, wildebeest, elephant and, of course, the predators – particularly cheetah and lion.

The saltpan, shimmering white for most of the time, was once the inland delta of the Kunene River, whose course was changed millions of years ago. It left behind a salt encrusted barren, shallow depression, which only becomes a giant lake after very good rainfall. The legendary origin of the pan is that the Heikum San people who inhabited the area were raided and all but the women were brutally murdered. One woman was so upset at the savage death of her child, that her tears formed an enormous lake. As the lake evaporated, it left the salt from her tears as a saltpan.

We have breakfast as the sun rises, and watch some of the animals around the waterhole at the camp.

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The guinea fowl keep a watchful eye on the jackal, who’s more interested in having a drink than eating.

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There are birds everywhere – the finches have begun their never-ending swarming between the trees and the waterhole, and a series of larger birds cross the morning sky.

We’re off at 8:15am. The gates to the park open at sunrise, but there’s often a very long queue to get in, so we’ll get there a bit later and hopefully avoid a long wait. On the way to the main road and the gate to Etosha, we stop at a recent cheetah kill within the Ongava reserve. Although the cheetahs have moved on, and the jackals are now cleaning up what’s left of the impala.

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They’ve done a pretty thorough job removing what the cheetahs have left behind.

We’re back on the road after this stop; it takes us about 15min to get through Anderson’s Gate – there’s about ten cars in front of us, and we need to provide passport details as well as paying the entry fee. This is part of an effort to prevent poaching – earlier in the year seven rhino carcasses were discovered in Etosha, having been killed by poachers.

Our first stop within Etosha is the Ombika waterhole, which is the southern-most source water of water in the park. We can’t get as close to the water as we do later in the day (so it’s not as good for photography), but the amount of animals in and around the waterhole is staggering.

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It’s hard to do justice to the sight of so many animals… there are many zebras, both in the waterhole and around it.

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Giraffes come and go (they are attracted to the Catophractes alexandri and Acacia nebrownii flowers in Spring), as do oryx and impala. We don’t see lions, although they do frequent this waterhole.

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We could stay here and watch the animals for hours, but our guide explains there’s a lot more to see and we need to keep moving!

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We haven’t yet reached Okaukuejo, the most popular rest camp inside the Etosha National Park and the administrative center for the park, as we continue to spot animals along the road.

At Okaukuejo, we stop to pay for permits at the office (it’s a two-step process – we collected our park entrance permit at the Anderson Gate and then pay for the park fees at the Okaukeujo Tourist Office). There’s a total of 102 chalets with five different types of accommodation within Okaukuejo, and a popular floodlit waterhole that attracts a wide variety of animals. If you book far ahead to stay here, I’d highly recommend a couple of  nights here, with a combination of guided tours and self-driving around the vast park.

We don’t stay here long, with our next stop the Nebrownii waterhole, named after the water-thorn acacia (Acacia nebrownii) which grows in thickets to the west. Created in 1992 to relieve the animal grazing pressure around Okaukuejo, the borehole attracts elephants, rhinos, lions and hyenas. The first animals we see are hundreds of springbok on the flat and open plans surrounding the waterhole.

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As we get closer, we see a pair of lions; the female lion heads to one of the culverts on the main road, which are favoured as dens by lions and hyenas, while the male lion drinks from the waterhole.

This is one of the advantages of being with a guide, who correctly predicts the male lion will shortly follow his mate. We leave the waterhole viewing area, and get a prime position on the side of the road, as the male lion walks across the plain directly towards us, to the culvert.

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While we don’t see any hyenas at the waterhole, shortly after leaving we spot one from the road, walking parallel to us in the distance. The spotted hyena is a rather ugly and menacing animal. While generally regarded as scavengers, the spotted hyena may kill as many as 95% of the animals they eat (the striped hyena being more of a scavenger). A study done by Duke University found that hyenas have a frontal cortex on par with primates, and a captive pair of hyenas performed better at problem-solving and social cooperation than chimpanzees (12 Wild Facts about Hyenas).

A bit further on and slightly smaller (and less menacing) is the double-banded courser, which is widely distributed across southern Africa and lives and breeds in flat, stony or gravelly, semi-desert terrains.

Our next destination is the small Kapupuhedi waterhole, which attracts animals during the dry season as it offers good grazing. There are not many animals here today, but the attraction is the view over white Etosha saltpan in the background, which seems to stretch forever.

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Wandering through the grassland in front of the saltpan is a kori bustard, one of the world’s heaviest flying birds (although it is reluctant to fly unless in serious danger), and the largest of all bustards.

Watching us pass is a yellow mongoose, which lives in colonies of up to 20 individuals in a permanent underground burrow complex.

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The next waterhole is Aus, its name is derived either from the Nama word meaning bitter-tasting bush, or the Hai||om word meaning ‘spring’ or ‘salt water’. There are not many animals near the waterhole when we arrive.

Just as we reach the next waterhole, Olifantsbad (Afrikaans for ‘elephant’s bath’), a herd of elephants arrive, crossing the road as they leave the waterhole.

We are fairly close to the elephants as they pass us, and the younger male expresses his displeasure with our presence.

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Once the elephants have left, the waterhole is busy with kudu and impala drinking – but no “big game”. We have a quick look before continuing.

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Our final stop is the Gemsbokvlakte, an Afrikaans name meaning “the plain of the gemsbok”. It’s a relatively small, artificial pond that’s obviously a popular spot, with many impala taking advantage of the permanent water.

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Soon after, a dazzle of zebras take their turn drinking.

Then, our guide points out a herd of elephants in the distance, making a direct line for us (or rather, the waterhole).

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It’s an amazing and majestic sight as they get gradually closer, in a formation that protects the younger calves who are in the middle.

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They pass almost directly in front of us.

Finally they reach the water, where the other animals make some space (not that they have much choice!).

It’s now 1:30pm and getting pretty hot in our open safari vehicle… we reluctantly head back to the lodge for lunch.

We’ve seen far more than we expected, having covered 120km over six hours – and we would have been happy staying the rest of the day in the park. We had (briefly) contemplated a self-drive option, which would have meant we had air-conditioning and could have gone a bit further into the park. But going in the safari vehicle meant we saw a lot more and often were in a much better “position” as the guide knew where the animals would go – and photography is far easier from an open safari vehicle.

Andersson’s Camp – Around the Lodge (Day 6)

We’ve got most of the afternoon free before our late afternoon drive, so we take advantage of the camp waterhole  – and the salt lick – which have a constant procession of visitors!