Saturday, November 22, 2008

Nov.23 Sabah Adventure Day 8 – Time for Tea

On our way back from Sandakan to KK we stopped at the Sabah Tea Plantation that is nestled in the hills by the little village of Napalak. Over 6000 acres are managed by it but only around 1000 are in cultivation: the rest being reserved for original jungle. They've noticed that the jungle serves as an attractive "bait" for the insects to stay away from the tea leaves. This eliminates their need for pesticides thereby allowing them to say that their tea is Organic. To combat soil-based fungus they use Elephant Grass to soak up excess moisture and clean out the fungus.

We toured the tea factory and saw how the leaves are processed. Leaves are picked in the morning (using hand-operated trimming machine for regular tea or manual pick for the high-end organic stuff) and placed onto long troughs for wilting. They wilt until the next day which starts the fermentation process. After that the leaves are dried and crushed/rolled. They turn from green to dark brown and it looks and smells like the underside of a lawn mower. Then they are dried fully which stops the fermentation process and gives the tea its flavour. After that the tea is cleaned (removal of twigs and other stuff) and sifted to determine grade. Big leaves are for loose tea, smaller are for tea bags and the really fine stuff is for "teh tarik" (rope tea wherein the tea is not filtered).

Interesting thing we learned is that the same tea plant is used to make the black tea (Sabah's specialty) and green tea and the Chinese favourite Oolong. Difference is in how long the leaf wilts and how long the fermentation occurs. Oddly enough we didn't like the tea we had there even though we've been drinking Sabah Tea all week - mostly because they put too much sugar into it.

Kampung Luanti Fish Massage near town of Ranau

Our tour guide told us about this "fish massage" place just down the road. Julie had heard about it too so we went to check it out. This was one of the strangest experiences I've had. They give you some fish food, you wade into the water (Rm15 for your legs, Rm30 full body) and the fish start swarming around you. As they brush up IMG_8646 against you it's hard to remain calm. And then the guide tosses food around my knees and the fish swarm turns into a writhing mass and you cannot help but giggle as they tickle the backs of your knees. The fish are a type of catfish (Kelah?) and don't have any teeth. So the next trick is to put some food in your hand, make a loose fist and stick your hand in the water. You definitely get attention that way and the fish try their damdest to suck the food out of your hand. Most similar to feeding sting rays as they suck squid out of your hand But for those who haven't done that - imagine a fish sucking food out of your hand while making a slurping sound.

I went in first while Julie was changing so by the time she got there I was accustomed to the feeling and threw food in the water around her legs to make her squirm.

I wouldn't call it a massage but it is a neat feeling.

After we ran out of fish food we went up to the lounge at the office to hang out for a bit. Someone brought in some Durian fruit and we figured we'd give it a try since we see so much of it for sale along the roadside. We were told it smells bad but tastes OK. Well, it smells not too bad but tastes gross and has the consistency of egg salad. It tastes like fried onions & hard-boiled eggs, and gives you the worst after-taste when you burp it up later. Neither of us could finish one piece. Supposedly you get used to it after a while, the locals say...uhg.

After our nice morning the day sort of went downhill. First we couldn’t find this rafting place up the hills (reconciled later from a fellow who says rafting on that river is for families) and then we couldn't find a place to stay (again, driving around in the dark). We didn’t get lost, but did lose our way before eventually ending up back in KK and our reliable City Park Lodge.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Nov.20-22 Jungle adventures in Wild Borneo

During the drive from Poring to Sepilok I saw a sign for "Rafflesia Blooming" at the roadside, but the old lady sitting there wanted 20 ringgits (each!) to go see it. That and the rain started so we reneged on seeing the world's largest flower. (Supposedly it smells like rotting flesh to attract insects?)

Compared to the roads we drove on through the Crocker Mtn range where in many spots half the road has disappeared due to a landslide the main highway to Sepilok is a pretty good road and could do 100km/hr for spurts. Got pretty good at passing trucks quickly on winding roads! (You may not want to drive with us after this trip as we're definitely getting accustomed to Asian driving methods)

Julie found us a nice place to stay that’s near the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: lovely woodwork and furniture set amongst the trees, good food and comfy bed. We highly recommend the Sepilok B&B; it’s quiet except for the jungle noises and the mosquitoes aren’t too bad.

It rained all day today instead of the usual mid-afternoon shower so we stood in the rain to watch 7 young orangutans come to eat the bananas and bamboo shoots. Even they don't like the rain; trying to hide under the trees or even putting banana peels over their heads. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre As recommended, we hung around until tour groups left the viewing deck and saw 1 or 2 more come by for seconds. The feeding platform is about 10m away so the views are quite good. It's entertaining to see the young orangutans swing along the ropes to get to the platform. Also entertaining to see how they pull rank with each other when clamouring for food or a good spot to sit and eat.

While in this area it's quite popular to go into the jungle along the Kinabatangan River. The wide, muddy river (similar to MB's Red River) is Sabah's longest river and is home to much of Borneo's fabled wildlife. Unfortunately it's also smack-dab in the middle of the plains that are being overtaken with Palm Oil plantations. As we drove from Sepilok to Sukau I kept wondering when we'd start being in the jungle. It didn't happen until we were 500m from the river's edge. Our camp manager said that the plantations are getting as close to the river as allowed and it's really decreasing the animals' habitat.

Kinabatangan Jungle Camp is operated by husband & wife team of Robert & Annie Cheung who lived in Vancouver/Calgary for a little while in the seventies. Fairly expensive at Rm390 each for one night (includes 3 meals & 2 river cruises) plus Rm50 for optional night kinabatangan jungle camp cruise. Accommodation here was better than some guesthouses we've stayed in and nicer than most cabins in Manitoba! We chose the more luxurious jungle camp as opposed to famed Uncle Tan's camp which is the true jungle experience (trudge thru mud to get there and bathe with river water).

Here's a rundown of wildlife we saw:
  • Afternoon river cruise: Orangutan, Proboscis monkeys, Long-tailed macaques, Black and Oriental Pied hornbills, Wallace's eagle (?), Imperial pigeons, egrets, and a small black & yellow Mango cat snake.
  • Night walk: not much except 1 bird and a couple leaches. Was scary to be in the jungle at night, especially when we turned the flashlights off.
  • Night cruise: Broadbills, stork-billed Kingfishers (juvenile & adult), Fish owls, small crocodiles, oriental dart (similar to heron)
  • Morning cruise: same as afternoon cruise (proboscis monkeys, kingfishers, egrets, hornbills) but disappointingly not much else. Hoped to see snakes and monitor lizards but no luck.

When we were departing for the afternoon cruise Julie went back to use the toilet. While waiting I heard some branches snapping in the treetops. I followed the noise and spotted a female [?] orangutan feasting on the leaves. It was pretty cool. When Julie walked back I waved at her to look up as it was right above the path from the river to the lodge. Our boatman Razmir ran to the lodge to alert the others who came with their cameras. I chose not to photograph it instead just to observe it swinging through the branches. It's just a unique feeling to watch one of these in the wild as opposed to yesterday's feeding. As we cruised down the river I felt quite lucky to be here in the jungles of Borneo seeing all of these neat creatures. When Razmir spotted the small snake he managed to get the boat up close to it as I was very keen to look at it, even though he warned that it's poisonous. It was just a small one and was so coiled up around the branches I felt quite safe as I tried to get a better view through the branches.

The night cruise provided its own magic. Some more rain fell in the evening nearly cancelling the cruise but our boatman insisted it was clear on the river while it sounded like rain amongst the trees. We went out around 9pm and were greeted with a clear and amazing sky full of stars. The sight of the trees of the riverbank silhouetted against the starry sky was beautiful. Our 2 guides (one on the outboard, one on the spot light) were amazingly good at spotting the small birds sleeping in branches over the water. We got super close to the kingfishers, able to reach out and touch the tail of the juvenile. I felt bad that we woke them up only to shine a bright light in their eyes and scare them off. I got some great shots of the kingfishers and some broadbills, but could not photograph the small crocs or owls.

The facilities here at KJC are top notch, as is the dining experience. I’m beginning to think that I'm going to need to find an Asian cooking course back in winnipeg to make these dishes myself. It was unfortunate that we only had one night here in the jungle. 

The Next Day: 22-Nov

Upon getting back to civilization and most important, the internet, we plotted our next move at Labuk B&B (also operated by the Cheungs). We learned that we could not dive Sipidan until a week from now thereby scrapping our plans for a quick visit to Kuala Lumpur. So now that we’ve got an extra week to kill, looks like we’re going to see more of Sabah than we’d thought. Julie took the time to relax in their pool while I was introduced to the strong sweet flavour of Malaysian coffee accompanied by some fresh mango, papaya and watermelon. Oh so good!

We briefly debated driving across the state to Tewau and on to Semporna to go diving, but after experiencing the roads here during the past few days we decided against it. It would be better to spend a few days exploring than just driving.

Some interesting information about the Dipterocarp forest that used to cover the whole of Borneo, but now is drastically reduced 

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nov.17-18 Let’s go climb a mountain!

Through a little bit of trickery I convinced Julie to climb SE Asia’s highest mountain – Mount Kinabalu.

At the park office we met a German couple (Martin & Julia) who wanted to share the cost of a guide. Julie & I agreed and we set off on our climb at 10:30am, taking a shuttle from the gate to the starting point. The climb up took Julie & I 4h33m to get from Timpohon Gate to Latan Rata hostel. The climb was hard on me: I was sweating uncontrollably (even more than usual! It looked like I got rained on - even my pants were wet) and my heart rate was nearing 140bpm. The Germans said they occasionally climbed the mountains outside of Munich so they had developed a slow even pace that we could not match. It was too slow so we were the rabbits who raced ahead and then rested. (As per the story, we lost the race.)

The packed lunch that was provided contained strange items for a climb: fried chicken drumstick, 2 cheese sandwiches and a meat one, 2 roti rolls and a boiled egg. Asian stuff I suppose...but not stuff that we wanted to eat. [A word to the wise, save your money on the park’s food and pack your own; for all 4 meals you’ll need during the climb.]

The trail was pretty good given that 200+ people traverse it per day consisting mostly of a gravel/clay base with roots or planks to hold back the soil and act as steps. In some places you simply scrambled over rocks. The flora changed from tropical palm trees and bamboo at the bottom to deciduous trees midway to rocky scrub at the top (similar to what is seen in the Canadian Shield) and finally nothing near the summit. We had a little rain along the way otherwise great weather!

Just after 3pm we checked in to Laban Rata dorm, placed into a 4-person dorm with 2 Kiwi brothers Charles & John-Paul who were pretty cool. Temperature upon arrival = 11.5°C, went down to 8 during the night. Brrr! Glad they had heaters in the rooms, else we would never have been able to dry our clothes.

Julie had a nap and I wanted to at first since i was so drained, but after a snack the sun came out and I wandered about outside. During our climb we were always shrouded in fog so you couldn’t get a good view…but that all changed up here. I was above the clouds up here and the views of the valley below were amazing! And later on the sunset was absolutely spectacular. We had some really nice sunsets in Thailand, but the ones here in Borneo are award-winning.

sunset from Laban Rata lodge, Mt.Kinabalu

Day 2: Summit Climb

At 2am we awoke to start the summit climb. Why so early? because the aim is to be at the top for sunrise at 6am. I’m still amazing I got Julie to do this!

It’s weird navigating a rocky trail at night and I’m super glad I brought my headlamp while Julie rented a flashlight for 10 ringgits. And we also bought some gloves that are much needed at the top. The sky was clear and the moon was bright so once we were out of the trees the rock was nicely illuminated. Some spots on the rock Julie makes her way up the summit of Kinabalu face was tricky and you had to pull yourself along using ropes. One slip without the rope and you slid down a long way. Near the top the terrain levelled out and it was just a long march up a slope. In the thin air Julie was getting short of breath easily so we made many rest stop – or photo opportunities for me!

The Germans and Kiwis beat us to the top but we got there just before 6am to watch the sunrise. It was very nice and very rewarding. We spent about half an hour up here taking it all in before we got cold and started the descent.

You climb back down to Laban Rata lodge for breakfast before packing up your stuff and descending the rest of the way down. Julie had a lot of trouble going down since the descent is much harder on your knees and it took us the same time to go down as up, but we did it!

Summit of Mt.Kinabalu (Low's Peak), 4095m

Of course, the natural thing to do after a gruelling climb like this is to find the nearest hot tub. Fortunately Julie has a knack for sniffing them out. 15 ringgits got us our own private pool at Poring Hot Springs and the hot water felt good to relax in, but it did not prevent the incredible ache in our muscles the next day! Stairs were dreadful for 3 days. ouch.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nov.15-25 Julie & Andrew's Wild Borneo Adventure

Kota Kinabalu, or "KK" to the locals is coastal town that was essentially obliterated during WWII so it is fairly new and we found some decent accommodation. I actually quite liked the City Park Lodge: our room didn’t have any windows, but the common room had free internet and it’s central location was handy.

KK is home to Asia’s largest market – the KK night market. I can’t say for sure if it is the largest, but it’s pretty huge. During the day you can buy everything from cheap Philippine pearls to fresh seafood. At night, you come for the food. Most of the area is covered by tarps strung up between the tables and booths of the vendors. For an average North American male like myself, you gotta watch your head else you’ll be caught by the guy-wires. The stalls stretch as far as you can see through the maze of tables, tents and strings of lights, and combined with the countless bbq’s bellowing smoke it makes for quite the atmosphere. With the smoke choking you and the hawkers yelling out “dua ringgit! dua ringgit!” and visually so much for you to take in, it can be a bit overwhelming, but also really exciting.

Each bbq vendor has a long table setup for eating at, upon which you’ll find a plastic cup upside down in a plastic bowl marking each place setting, and a stack of drinks available and various sauces and seasonings. The cup is for drinking (either the water in jugs or the drinks on the table, ask for ice) while the bowl is for washing your hands (use a lime to get rid of the fishy smell). Another small plate is provided for making your sauce using the red chilli sauce as a base: add in some soy sauce, salt, sugar and lime juice as you see fit.  I’m not so good at making sauces but on our second time there the Malay fellows next to me were quite impressed when I sat down and started eating with my fingers.

It took some time but we found a great deal on a rental car and  decided to make our own adventure (again). We took off down south to Kuala Penyu but missed the train to go see the scenic Padas Gorge and white-water rafting.

Along the way Julie saw a sign and we followed it to the end of the road (literally, it was flooded). So we hopped on a boat for a tour down the Klias River. It provided a great opportunity to see long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys, kingfishers and when the sun went down the fireflies lit up the Ligura trees like a Christmas tree. Pretty neat. The fireflies also seemed to like the tangled mop of hair on my head too. Back at the town,the guide's family then cooked us up some fantastic Malay food. There were two other couples on the tour with us, but since they came from KK, we took our time eating before venturing off into the darkness.

Now it’s dark and we didn't know where we were or where to stay. Once again, Julie spotted a sign for seaside lodges so we figured that was our best bet. And then the road got worse and worse as it got darker. Driving the little Toyota Vios down this potholed road probably broke some clause in our rental contract and finally I declared it's time to turn back. Good thing because the arrow on the last sign we saw was actually pointing the OTHER way after a local escorted us to it. Once again we're in the middle of nowhere along a crappy road and suddenly there's a fancy resort and the people working there are totally unfazed by our arrival. is really nice and we really want to recommend it to everyone  but the rooms need mosquito nets and Julie got scared from things scurrying in the walls. Otherwise it's a beautiful resort and a great beach and we were blown away that we found it.

Sabah Adventure Day 2: Crocker Mountain range

Just a commute day today through the mountains on our way to Kinabalu Park for our mountain climb. Took the "scenic route" which turned out to be a bit difficult. We stopped at the Kipandi Butterfly park (mostly to use it as a picnic spot but we did learn about the butterflies and other strange insects of this country) on the way into the Crockers. Great road during the day and nice sights right up until dusk when half the road would disappear or the tarmac was simply gone leaving potholes and ruts. This would become a recurring theme: good road during the day and then horrible road when dusk fell and we were trying to find a place to stay. We joked that if the road was bad enough we'd find what we were looking for since karma would say we deserved it.

We did manage to make it to the Kinabalu National Park today and upon getting there we learned that our room [at Hill Lodge] we had booked was leaking. No worries, because as a result of being late all the other comparable lodging was assigned, leaving us with an upgrade into a really nice chalet [the Peak Lodge].  We even had a guy come out and fire up the fireplace for us! Which was nice because up here in the mountains the temp dipped down to 19.5degC.  We awoke to fantastic views of the mountain, and Julie’s first glimpse at what we were about to climb.