Trekking Through the Borneo Rainforest

On Saturday, Nov 7th, I said goodbye to Rebecca at Terminal 1 of Chiangi Airport as she boarded the Skytrain to Terminal 2 to catch her flight back to Abu Dhabi.  I flew with AirAsia to Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of the state of Sabah, located in the northwest of Borneo.  I made my way to my hostel, tried the national dish of Malaysia, nasi lemak, and settled in for the night.

The next morning, I walked up to Signal Hill Observatory and had a good look over Kota Kinabalu, visited the Sabah Tourism Board, and checked out the Sunday market on Gaya Street before I returned to my hostel to grab my backpack.  At noon, I caught the 2.5 h bus from Padang Merdeka to Mount Kinabalu Park.   I met a guy on the bus and we agreed to do a hike that afternoon within the park.  We chose the 5.6 km Liwagu Trail that follows the river of the same name up to the Timpohon Gate which marks the start of Mount Kinabalu’s summit trail.  It began to rain when we reached the gate and we started chatting with a few local college students.  They offered us a ride back down to the lodge so we gladly accepted.  I had dinner with my fellow hiker before saying goodbye and finding my room at the Grace Hostel inside the park gates.

On Monday, I paid the park fees, guide fees, and caught the small bus up to Timpohon Gate at 1866m.  I was told that my mandatory guide hadn’t quite arrived, but that I could get started up the mountain without him.  I set out from the gate around 8:45am and descended to Carson Falls.  That’s where the uphill began.  I hiked up through the montane forest at a good pace stopping at the designated shelters for a quick break.  There was still no sign of my guide, however, I met a few other trekkers and learned that, today, it was just me and a group of 19 people that work for WWF Malaysia heading up the mountain.  They were all very kind.  The hike progressed and transitioned to more of a scrub-like forest as it started to rain.  I was the first that day to reach Laban Rata Resthouse at 3270m around 1:30pm after hiking 6km.  I knew that the summit trail was closed beyond Laban Rata after the damage it suffered from the June 5th earthquake that killed 18 people.  The new trail was set to open soon and the receptionist at the resthouse got my hopes up that I should speak to my guide about submitting Low’s Peak at 4095m.  I was now finally eager to meet my non-existent guide.  I was writing a few postcards when my guide arrived in the resthouse and I asked about the possibility of making the summit.  My hopes were quickly dashed as my guide turned out to be a fire and rescue ranger that had stepped in to replace my MIA guide.

Mountain treeshrew

Mountain treeshrew

The next morning, I woke early to check out the views before the day’s clouds rolled in.  The views were amazing.  We started down the mountain around 7:30am.  By the time we reached Timpohon Gate at 11:00am my legs were absolutely shot.  I guess I was a little out of shape leading up to this trek!  I caught a bus back to Kota Kinabalu that afternoon.  That evening, I’m not sure if it was the slice of pizza or the shrimp tacos, but something definitely did not agree with me and I spent that evening and all of the next day in bed.  I have not been that sick in years.  I do not think the dehydration my body suffered did anything to help clear the lactic acid from my legs either so I was crippled on Wednesday and Thursday to boot.

Sunrise on Mount Kinabalu

Sunrise on Mount Kinabalu

Dan on the helipad at Laban Rata

Dan on the helipad at Laban Rata

Nepenthes villosa...I think

Nepenthes villosa…I think

Mount Kinabalu trek complete

Mount Kinabalu trek complete

On Thursday, I had to get some fresh air so I walked by the Atkinson Tower on my way to the Sabah State Museum.  I wandered around the main building, heritage village, and the Islamic Civilization Museum.  I found the exhibit on headhunting the most interesting.  That afternoon, I met my guide who I would be spending the next 6 days with.  Jason and I would be trekking for 4 days through Maliau Basin.  Reading descriptions such as the 2 below, I knew I had to visit Maliau:

“Maliau Basin is the single best place in Borneo to experience the wonders of primary tropical forest. More than that, it is one of the world’s great reserves of biodiversity, a dense knot of almost unbelievable genetic richness.” Lonely Planet Borneo, 2008

“In 1947, a British pilot was heading towards Tawau when he flew over what he thought was a mist-shrouded jungle. But as the cloud dissipated, he found himself encircled by a wall of steep cliff rising some 915 metres above the jungle floor. This serendipitous discovery was reported in the Borneo Bulletin which was first published in 1953; this episode did not generate much interest and quietly slipped back into obscurity.

Surrounded on all sides by wickedly steep and forbidding slopes, Sabah’s ‘Lost World’ covering an area slightly bigger than Singapore is insurmountable by foot in all direction. The only way in is at the point where the Maliau River – the only one flowing here – exits the basin. But even this is guarded by a series of impressive waterfalls and gorges. Inaccessibility has led to its natural secrets being hidden from mankind for millions of years.

Then in 1988, the first expedition opened a Pandora’s Box of surprises, unveiling the mystery and beauty of a world untouched by the passage of time; where nature and wildlife coexists in perfect harmony, tucked in what seemed to be the very edge of the world: A ‘Jurassic Park’ sans dinosaurs.

To date, only about 2,000 people have set foot in the Maliau Basin and only less than 50% of the area has been explored……..

Maliau Basin Conservation Area is located in south central Sabah, about 40 km north of the Kalimantan border, and adjacent to Yayasan Sabah Forest Management Area. It is accessible via the towns of Tawau or Keningau, both 4 to 5 hour drives away. Four-wheel drive is recommended as part of the journey is on unpaved roads.

At Maliau Basin Security Gate, where the Shell Maliau Basin Reception and Information Building is located, an access road leads to Agathis Camp and Maliau Basin Studies Centre. There are no roads inside the Conservation Area.

The mystical Maliau Basin is one of Malaysia’s finest remaining wilderness areas.

Bounded by a formidable escarpment reaching over 1,675m asl, the almost circular Basin encompasses reaching over 390 km2 of pristine forest, a virtually self-contained ecosystem, never permanently inhabited and with large areas still remaining to be explored and documented. Remarkably, the whole basin is a single huge water catchment, drained by one river only, the Maliau River, which flows through a gorge in the southeast of the Basin, joining the Kuamut River and eventually the Kinabatangan, Sabah’s largest and most important waterway.” www.maliaubasin.my Copyright © 2015 All Borneo Connection Tours Sdn Bhd

Jason picked me up at 7:30am on Friday morning in a Toyota Hilux fitted with big mud tires.  We started our drive and stopped in Keningau to pick up some food supplies.  We arrived at the gates at 1:00pm, registered with the rangers, wandered through the Information Building, and ate our lunch.  We drove 1 h further on dirt road to reach the Maliau Basin Studies Centre.  The road is currently under major construction and will eventually be paved allowing more people to visit the Basin.  Typically, the first night would be spent at Agathis Camp, but I learned that the camp was partially destroyed by elephants a few days earlier.  We met our ranger, Zizul, and 2 porters, Neoliknes and Asman, who would be joining us on the trek.  A stubborn bearded pig, who the camp staff have named Rambo, met us at our accommodation and made it a little tricky to get up the stairs.  After dinner, Zizul took us on a night walk around the Studies Centre.  It was a great start to Maliau…we spotted 2 buffy fish owls, 2 common palm civets eating wild figs, a macaque, and a lesser mouse deer.

Rambo the Bearded Pig

Rambo the Bearded Pig

Praying mantis

Praying mantis

After breakfast, we met Zizul and Neo at 7:50am and drove to Agathis Camp (495m) spotting a crested serpent eagle on the way.  We hit the trail at 9:15am and walked 3km uphill through lowland dipterocarp forest gaining the basin rim at 1095m.  We walked another 4 km though heath forest to arrive at Nepenthes Camp at 945 m at 1:30pm.  The camp is named after the high density of insectivorous nepenthes (pitcher plants) that can be found in the area.  We relaxed a little and set to boiling a big pot of rainwater that is collected from the roof into a storage drum.  It was reassuring to see that my leech socks were doing their job at keeping those pesky critters at bay.  At 2:40pm, we set out for Giluk Falls (765m) located 3km away.  We swam in the falls and took some pictures before heading back to camp.  We arrived as darkness was setting in and Jason got busy making a dinner of egg drop soup, beans and clams, and Sabah spinach, and rice.  We were lucky enough to be visited by a couple of curious and hungry Malayan civets after dinner.  At night, Jason ran a generator for lights until it was time for bed.  Once the lights are out you can appreciate how loud the cicadas and other insects can be.

Crested serpent eagle

Crested serpent eagle

Dragonfly at trailhead

Dragonfly at trailhead

Ladders enroute to basin rim

Ladders enroute to basin rim

Giluk Falls

Giluk Falls

Malayan civet

Malayan civet

We woke at 6:00am the next morning and I stepped outside to see the biggest spider I’ve ever seen (note: Borneo has got the largest and craziest insects!).  After a breakfast of eggs and noodles, Neo and I climbed up a ladder strapped to a huge Agathis tree to reach the 33m observation tower.  It was pretty neat to see the forest from the canopy.  We were back on the trail at 8:30am and walked through heavy heath forest for the first 2km.  We reached and continued along the plateau rim for 2.5km before descending along a ridge back into dipterocarp forest.  We reached Ginseng Camp (645m) after a total of 6.7 km at 12:30pm.  Asman walked in from Agathis Camp that day with food to replenish our stocks and was there to greet us.  I think everyone was a little tired after lunch and we all had a little nap while the rain poured down outside.  At 3:30pm, we walked to the nearby Ginseng Falls and had another good swim and jumped off a few cliffs.  We spotted a scarlet rumped trogon bird on the way back.  Jason is a keen birder and is a member of the elite Borneo400, a group of people who have spotted over 400 of Borneo’s birds.  He can identify a huge range of birds just by their call and brought a few in to us with a birding app that mimics their call.  We had been hearing a number of species of hornbills and also the gibbons, but both had proved to be quite elusive so far.

Nepenthes Camp observation platform

Nepenthes Camp observation platform

Nepenthes veitchii

Nepenthes veitchii

Dan deep in the heath forest of the southern plateau

Dan deep in the heath forest of the southern plateau

A swim under Ginseng Falls

A swim under Ginseng Falls

The persistent leech

The persistent leech

On Monday morning, we left camp for Maliau Falls.  We were able to go with lighter packs as we’d be spending another night at Ginseng Camp.  The first 3km was slightly uphill to reach the abandoned Lobah Camp (960m).  Its old helipad allows a glimpse above the canopy to see the vast expanse of the basin leading up to the northern rim.  We started the descent and spotted a pair of rhinoceros hornbills.  The descent became fairly steep in places and a recent rain left it pretty muddy and slick.  We arrived on 7th tier of Maliau Falls at 512m at 11:30am.  We dipped our tired feet in the water as we gazed at the 4th, 5th, and 6th tiers of the falls.  The guys told me that it was the most water they had ever seen coming over the falls so we didn’t have our usual swim.  I finally had my first spot, a 4ft reticulated python which we were able to coax out of his hiding spot.  It is an amazing place.  We started back at 1:00pm as it started to rain.  Once the rain quit, we were given an amazing acrobatic display by a troop of gibbons.  “Gibbons are masters of their primary mode of locomotion, brachiation, swinging from branch to branch for distances of up to 15 m (50 ft), at speeds as high as 55 km/h (34 mph). They can also make leaps of up to 8 m (26 ft), and walk bipedally with their arms raised for balance. They are the fastest and most agile of all tree-dwelling, nonflying mammals.” -Wikipedia.  The fruiting wild figs trees that seemed to attract the gibbons also brought in some helmeted hornbills.  We arrived back in Ginseng Camp at 3:30pm and proved to be our longest trekking day at 11.4 km.

Jason and Dan at Maliau Falls

Jason and Dan at Maliau Falls

Reticulated python

Reticulated python

Neoliknes, Zizul, Jason, and Dan at Ginseng Camp

Neoliknes, Zizul, Jason, and Dan at Ginseng Camp

On Tuesday, we walked the 6 km from Ginseng to Agathis Camp to complete our loop.  We spotted a bright green agamid lizard, a lesser mouse deer, bearded pigs, and a tiny snake along the way.  We loaded up the truck and drove back to the Studies Centre.  We did a small afternoon drive and visited the suspension footbridge over the Maliau River and the Maliau Rim Observation Tower.  There was a huge downpour during dinner and we were unsure if we’d be able to do our planned night drive, but thankfully the rain stopped.  Zizul, Jason, and I jumped in the back of the truck and one of the other rangers operated a powerful spotlight. We soon spotted a flying squirrel at the top of a dead tree and with a little patience; he made the leap and glided his way over to another tree.  I was amazed how far he went!  We then spotted civets, hornbills, and a herd of sambar deer on the Centre’s football pitch.  We got a tip that the elephants were just outside the Centre on the main road so we headed in that direction.  We found them sure enough and watched them for a bit before they moved back into the bush.  A great finish to the drive.

Small snake in the leaf litter

Small snake in the leaf litter

Agamid lizard

Agamid lizard

Long-tailed macaque

Long-tailed macaque

Sambar deer

Sambar deer

At breakfast, we had the nice surprise of a lone elephant grazing beside the restaurant.  We then started our journey back to Kota Kinabalu at 8:30am, but the morning rain made the dirt road very slick.  I could see that the mud tires were well needed as we passed a few other vehicles unable to climb a couple of hills.  At one point, a crested serpent eagle swooped in a grabbed a snake out of the grass with its talons right beside the truck.  We took a different route back to KK and passed over the beautiful Crocker Range.  Jason and I said so long and I thanked him for everything.  I must say that I was more than thrilled with Jason and the trek.  Borneo Eco Tours deserves a 2 thumbs up.  That night, I walked down to the waterfront, checked out the busy fish and fruit markets, and found some dinner.

Fishing boats at Kota Kinabalu Waterfront

Fishing boats at Kota Kinabalu Waterfront

The next morning, I grabbed a few things to bring back to Abu Dhabi with me and headed up to the airport around noon.  I flew to Singapore then onwards to Abu Dhabi.  I always wanted to go to Borneo and now I can say I have been.  It’s an amazing place and I hope to return one day.  I also need to give my loving wife a 2 thumbs up for approving this Borneo adventure!

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4 Responses to Trekking Through the Borneo Rainforest

  1. Uncle Dale says:

    Hey Dan, what an adventure. It must have been amazing to see such a variety of flora and fauna. Every time you write I learn something. I’m happy to say I’m not reticulated.

    • danroyerickson says:

      Thanks Uncle Dale. The rainforest was a definite change of pace from the mountains.

      On Sun, Dec 20, 2015 at 6:24 AM, Bec and Dan's Overseas Adventure wrote:

      >

  2. Judy Erickson says:

    Wow– just not sure about that leech thing though!!!!

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