Sunday, February 07, 2016

Kkhlee74 - Orangutans in the mist

Traversing numerous airports we provide comic relief to airport staff as we forget bags and boarding passes. Never mind that we are seasoned travellers, braving the jungles of central Mexico deep in Zapatista country when our bus broke down in the middle of the night, scaled the highest mountain in South-East Asia and the Andes in Peru, clambered across glaciers in a snowstorm in Patagonia, or driven through crazy places like Naples and Manila where road rules do not exist.

All that pales in comparison when travelling with two children under the age of three. Never mind that you are an expert in logistics or a meticulous planner, throw in months of sleep deprivation and it has all the ingredients of an award winning comedy sketch.

But miraculously we make it. As we board the plane and settle into our seats, Joaquín our four month old falls asleep immediately, exhausted from travelling over two consecutive days. I rub my weary eyes as the plane takes off and push back into my seat. It is a short 45 minute flight from Kota Kinabalu - just enough time to throw back a palm's worth of salted nuts, chased by a cup of juice, when the plane begins its descent.

Sofia's chatter as she makes a picnic over her tray table is interrupted by the pilot who announces we are approaching Mount Kinabalu. Luckily we're on the right side of the plane and catch sight of its majestic crown peaking out over a band of clouds. It is glorious to see it from the air having climbed the behemoth almost a decade ago sans babies and toddlers. It almost seems like another lifetime ago when we were a small family of three, where we are now six having welcomed Nikki's partner Llyam into the fold.

Arriving in Sandakan, we squeeze ourselves into a taxi and head for the Sepilok Forest Edge resort conveniently located next to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. It is late afternoon as we sip chilled ginger tea in squat glass tumblers more suited to whiskey as we wait to check-in. The sound of water trickling into a pond full of fat koi lulls me into a stupor, and I finally exhale. Before long our rooms are ready.

It is a short hike up to our cabin as dusk arrives along with its squadron of mosquitos. We came prepared for we are travelling with an infant in a country where dengue fever and malaria are common. The cabins are dotted along a meandering path through the jungle, upon reaching ours I am delighted by its bucolic charm. The wooden cabins are basic but cozy. It also has an outdoor shower which I make note to try out the next day.

Dinner is a priority, the children are beginning to wane so we head back out into a clear night sky awash with stars. We decide to eat at the restaurant attached to the hotel. As I slip my sandals off, the wooden floor feels powdery beneath my bare feet. Overhead colourful paper lanterns house opportune geckos. We are tired and dinner takes more than an hour but when it eventually arrives it does not disappoint.

Our favourites are the kampung-style fried rice salted through with crunchy ikan bilis, topped with a fried egg and eaten with a side of spicy chilli sambal. The other is a piquant coconut fish curry bursting with fresh lime and chilli. Fully satiated we waddle back to our cabins as our children fall asleep in our arms, lulled by the rhythm of the noisy jungle. 

Morning greets us with mist laced through the trees, I push open the doors to the balcony and it begins to pour. Despite the rain we are excited, I don't mind the rainy day preferring it to the searing heat, as we amble down the wooden walkway of the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The main viewing areas are on Platform A where feeding happens twice a day and in the nursery where young orangutans learn essential skills so they can survive in the jungle.

Nearing the main area we spy a solitary orangutan sitting on the platform holding a makeshift umbrella over its head, fashioned from nearby branches and leaves as it waits for breakfast. This generates some laughter and amusement from the growing crowd. The centre has been in existence since 1964 and focuses on returning orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back into the wild. One of the best things about this place is being able to see orangutans living, playing and feeding in this large reserve rather than in a zoo.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Kkhlee74 - Orangutans in the mist

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Saturday, February 06, 2016

Solo Female Backpacker - 2 Weeks in Sabah, Borneo

Backpacking in Borneo feels like opening a Double Decker bar after a hard gym workout - a blissfully indulgent but hard earned treat.

For me, Sabah has been the gift that just keeps giving. All the grand experiences have been wonderful, but even in the daily goings-on I've learnt a great deal. Malaysia has a lot of sit-down loos, although I seem to have a knack for finding the remaining holes in the ground in desperate times.

Unlike in India when I accidentally locked myself in to one and the school caretaker nearly performed an exorcism and Kenya where I lost my balance and plunged foot first straight down said hole, I seem to have finally mastered the art of not being completely incompetent in this division. Embrace the victories, right?

My wonderful hostel owners in KK made me feel like family, taking care of me when I staggered down the stairs after climbing and making sure I had enough to eat on long bus journeys. The scenery I just can't gush enough about.

The mountains, jungle, rainforest, beaches, waterfalls, fruit, wildlife - I just can't get enough! I even took a 6 9 hour bus from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan to see more of it rather than a 40 minute flight, which was only slightly tainted by the looping soundtrack of farting, burping, spitting, and retching coming from across the aisle...

In my first week I explored the city, went to the beach, got lost in a night market, had a magnificent day at the Sabah Ethnology Museum, and climbed Mount Kinabalu. The infamous Gaya Sunday Market was sprawling with tourist trinkets and local foods, but for me the terrible conditions and treatment of animals for sale was far too negative to outweigh these.

The regular night market is very tame, however, and is just crammed with locals, food, and clothes. Week 2 was also exciting, with 3 days in the jungle wildlife spotting, visiting the best orangutan sanctuary I've experienced, island hopping, and eating my way through the city again, including the Gaya Street Chinese New Year kick off festival!

No such thing as too much dim sum. I also spent 2 weeks being chronically underdressed compared to the super snazzy holidaymakers from China and Korea, decked out in the most beautifully Pinterest outfits and heels with perfectly porcelain faces despite the 35 degree heat. That's talent, my friends.

Due to being a perfectly Jurassic playground, a lot of things in Sabah are relatively expensive for backpackers. If I were to have more time in Borneo, or even 2 weeks again, I would definitely head down to Kuching to explore there, and head over to Semporna for the incredible diving!

If I had more savings, I would head straight to the deepest, darkest, and truly untouched jungle of Malau Basin to climb the 7 storey waterfall (£2,000 for 5 days), immerse myself in wildlife in the equally untouched Danum Valley (£2,000 for 5 days), and head over to Turtle Island during hatching season (£250 for 2 days).

I'm already counting down the days until I can come back and explore this pure definition of wanderlust!

My lesson from Sabah has been pretty general: copy the locals. Remembering not to use my left hand for eating or passing money took a while to click (left hand is considered dirty), and watching locals at the night market and ordering the same straight after them has helped a bit with the Foreigner Tax!

Though I also learnt that the night market is to be visited in groups, as the fish and noodle portions are enough for 3 people minimum...! Foreigner Tax can't be avoided, however, at the attractions of Sabah - foreigners are charged usually around 6x local fees, which unfortunately makes some things like Mount Kinabalu and Turtle Island completely inaccessible to most backpackers who haven't fixed their trip around these, which is a shame.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Solo Female Backpacker - 2 Weeks in Sabah, Borneo

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Friday, February 05, 2016

World of Wanderlust - Visiting Gaya Island in Malaysia

Throughout my travels in Malaysia I stopped at different points of interest for different reasons.

First there was Kuala Lumpur, I city I have heard so fondly spoken of thanks to its’ friendly locals and incredible food scene.

Oh, and the shopping is great! Then I visited Cameron Highlands to experience tea plantations and strawberry fields (and cater to my undying love for both of these).

Now for my third stop in Malaysia I find myself on an exotic island that could quite literally be anywhere in the world thanks to its feeling of remoteness.

Here’s how I spent my few days visiting Gaya Island in Malaysia (and a good little honeymoon idea for anyone searching for a spot off the grid!)

Gaya Island Resort

The flight to Palau Gaya is around 2.5 hours from Kuala Lumpur, however the local airport does cater to some international flights nearby.

Once here, I took a car for around ten minutes to Jesselton Point Jetty to catch a speedboat transfer to Gaya Island Resort, another property from the luxe collection of hotels throughout Malaysia owned by YTL Hotels.

My arrival felt like a dream with the sun slowly setting in the background and I was beyond excited to spend a few days here unwinding, taking in all the activities on offer and exploring beyond the hotel.

Although the hotel is well-appointed with a lap size swimming pool, 24 hour gym and a handful of restaurants, I mostly spent my time enjoying the outdoors and trying all the activities around the island and on the water.

The beach is nice but the pollution in the waters is quite off putting, though it sadly seems to be the case elsewhere in Malaysia, too.


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A River Cruise Through Borneo to Hang With Orangutans

A river trip through remote Borneo leads to endearing, if frightening, encounters with the island’s rapidly disappearing primates

THE MOTHER orangutan hung from a tree branch and pried her baby’s fingers off her chest. Her infant was just five months old, as big as a human baby of the same age, with wild tufts of red hair and a pursed bottom lip. I stood a few feet below while the mom moved her baby’s hand to a vine and supported his bottom as he stretched a leg toward the creeper and wrapped his toes around it.

The 29-year-old orangutan mother, named Uning by the researchers at Borneo’s Camp Leakey refuge, looked at me with her coffee-bean eyes, then turned back to her baby and let him go. I held my breath as the little one caught himself and hung tightly to the swinging vine.

“This is how orangutans learn to climb,” explained our park guide, Rini Mariani, a local who lives in the small Indonesian port town of Kumai. (Borneo, Asia’s largest island, is divided among three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.)

Camp Leakey is an orangutan-research station in Indonesia’s Tanjung Puting National Park, on the southern coast of Borneo. I had joined my friend Diane and her 13-year-old daughter, Maia, on a three-day riverboat trip through the Indonesian part of the island to Camp Leakey and a few other preserves where orangutans can be seen in the wild.

“They’re like our redheaded relatives,” Diane said to ginger-haired Maia.

It’s easy to feel a connection with orangutans. Sharing 96% of our DNA, they are our cousins from just the other side of Uncanny Valley. And they are in danger. Ms. Mariani said that Borneo’s jungles, their primary habitat, are being cleared at a reckless pace to accommodate mining and logging and to meet global demand for palm oil. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the animals’ habitat has shrunk by 50% in the past two decades. “Sometimes you can hear chain saws from inside the park,” Ms. Mariani said.

Two days before meeting Uning, we had boarded a riverboat in Kumai and motored up the Sekonyer River, which forms the boundary of Tanjung Puting National Park. Our boat looked like a bright green-and-yellow version of the African Queen, with no-frills living quarters on the upper deck, equipped with a dining table, lounge chairs and mattresses.

During the day, we’d watch the pale-pink water hyacinths float by and survey the jungle tree canopy, filled with macaques, gibbons and the rare, long-nosed proboscis monkey.

At night, our crew would string mosquito nets to form veiled bedrooms on deck, and we would fall asleep to a symphony of cicada and bullfrogs and awaken to the soprano call of gibbons.

We were chugging our way to Camp Leakey, a refuge created by Dr. Biruté Galdikas, a protégé of paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who also mentored Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. Dr. Galdikas’s research laid the groundwork for understanding the life-cycle and behavior of these gentle, tree-dwelling animals. (Fun fact: The mothers have only one baby at a time and nurse their offspring for six to seven years.) Forty years later, her rescued orangutans are introduced to tourists by name and happily shake hands with their fans like well-mannered children.


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Diving in Borneo: the Derawan islands and a blissful life aquatic

The Derawan islands in Indonesia offer spectacular diving, golden beaches and tranquility, but with ambitious plans for tourism they may not stay sleepy for long

The steering wheel spins frantically, the engine graunches and the tiny speedboat slews side-on to the swell, centimetres from a mess of floating timber. Luckily our captain, a Bajo “sea gypsy” from the fishing people who first settled Borneo’s Derawan archipelago, is a master of the marine handbrake turn.

He grins and guns the engine; the white sands, tall palms and stilt houses of Derawan island come into focus.

My teenage son and I have travelled through the coal mine-scarred landscape beyond Berau, a riverside town in Kalimantan on mainland Indonesian Borneo (and reached via two flights from Singapore), to take a boat out to spend a week exploring a few of the archipelago’s scores of islands.

Only two are officially inhabited, though 30-odd others have names and some are home to scientists and sea-dwelling boat people. By the end of this year the islands will be better connected to the mainland, with the completion of a small airport on Maratua island, which will handle short-haul flights.

We’ll be spending the next couple of days at Derawan Dive Lodge, a cluster of elegant wooden cabanas reached by jetty over limpid waters, where green turtles graze on sea grass and algae. At least 15,000 female turtles return to the archipelago every year, often swimming many thousands of kilometres to lay their eggs on the beaches where they had hatched.

Now, so many turtles graze off Derawan island, many of them non-local breeders, that their food sources are becoming scarce.

The highest tides, around the full moon and the new moon, are the best time to watch the females drag their heavy bodies up the sand and wheeze and grunt through the ovulation process. “One laid her eggs under the restaurant a couple of weeks ago,” says the lodge’s Indonesian manager. We’ve missed their hatching, sadly.

Tranquil, tiny Derawan island has got busier since we first visited four years ago. A handful of souvenir stalls, some cafes and a sign reading “tourist village” enliven the brushed-sand village streets.

Two bungalow resorts clog what once was virgin beach – the last new accommodation on the island, if policy holds. But the spirit remains the same. It takes 40 minutes to walk around the island: fishermen greet us, schoolgirls line us up for photos, the odd turtle pops a scaly head up from the wate, and children play volleyball.


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