Monday, April 10, 2017

Borneo Day 1 and 2 - Kota Kinabalu

Borneo!?  How did we end up in Borneo?

It started with an innocent email from some friends of ours who invited us to join them.  I knew that wild Orangutans lived in Borneo, but I really didn't know anything else about the country.   When I mentioned to Karen that Bill and Peggy were thinking of going to Borneo and wanted to see if we were interested she didn't even hesitate with her response..."Yes!".

That's how we ended up in Borneo.  Sometimes trips just fall in your lap...

After months of planning and close to 30 hours of traveling door to door, we found ourselves in Kota Kinabalu (everyone calls it KK) which is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah.  Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world and is divided into 3 countries.  Indonesia claims about 2/3 of the island, Brunei claims a tiny little bit on the west coast, and Malaysia claims the northern part which is where we would be for the next 2 plus weeks.

We used Adventure Alternative Borneo to plan and book our trip and the itinerary looked like this:

1 night KK
3 nights Mt Kinabalu
4 nights Deramakot
2 nights Sepilok
2 nights Kinabatangan River
3 nights Danum
1 night KK

AA Borneo assigned John Bakar as our dedicated birding guide and he was tremendous.  We would have John all the way until Danum where we would instead be assigned one of the resident guides at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

While John was a bird guide, he knew a lot about all the animals and, as a Sabah native, knew tons about the area as well.  He was a wealth of knowledge, good spotter, and all around a fun traveling companion.

Surprisingly, all our flights to Borneo were on time and went pretty well (Tucson to LAX to Hong Kong to KK).  Of course, we did upgrade to business class which has a few perks to make the flights more tolerable (I certainly won't use the word "enjoyable").  I mean the champagne was a tad flat, the linens where not Egyptian cotton and the warmed nuts were barely heated at all.  How do they expect us to fly under these conditions...? 😏

When you first arrive in a foreign country you always worry about being picked up.  Well, we needn't worry because John was there right on time to pick us up and take us to the Hotel Grandis.  We took a little time to settle in before the activities began.  We wanted something to do to be sure we stayed awake and got on Borneo time as soon as possible.  So, we had John take us birding around KK in the afternoon.

The first stop was at a local park where we found our first native Borneo wildlife.

Green Imperial Pigeons:
Green Imperial Pigeon

Pink-necked Green Pigeon:
Pink-necked Green Pigeon

Borneo sure has some cool looking pigeons.

Changeable Lizard:
Changeable Lizard

We saw a few more birds and lizards at the park including a distant view of the gorgeous Blue-naped Parrot.  Unfortunately, we also saw lots of trash.  It appears that littering is common place around KK since we saw it everywhere.

Next stop was a small lake about an hour out of town.  There was less action than expected here but we saw herons, doves, kingfishers, and more.  The only decent picture I got was of this Scaly-breasted Munia since everything else was so far away:
Scaly-breasted Munia

We had great views of Mt. Kinabalu from this area as the late afternoon rays lit it up.  But, as the sun sank towards the horizon, our heads began to sink too.  Fatigue was definitely setting in.  We were all zombies for the entire drive back to the hotel. There was a lot of traffic on the road so it took us quite a while to get back to the hotel.

Day 1 ended with us having peanut butter sandwiches for dinner which we had brought with us.  We were too tired to even order room service.

We actually slept pretty well considering our bodies were still 15 hours behind Borneo time.   The Hotel Grandis had a huge buffet breakfast.  It was mostly an "eastern" buffet with curry and various hot dishes available.  But, they had pastries, waffles, and would make eggs to order.  So, while I was tempted to have curry at 7AM, I opted for eggs instead.

After meeting our driver Munair (we all had a hard time pronouncing his name so most of us just called him Monet.  He was an artist behind the wheel after all) we took off bound for Mt Kinabalu.  We would get there via the Crocker Range for some higher elevation birding and a chance to see the rare Rafflesia, which is the world's largest flower blossom (Whoa!).

At the Crocker Range we visited a small valley and hiked to a waterfall and visited the Rafflesia Center but no flowers were in bloom.  Looking back at my pictures, I don't really have anything great to share except for this one I took on that walk to the waterfall.

Here are a bunch of ants, that literally joined together to pull the weight of this large millipede.  They were moving it at a pretty good pace too:
Ant Chain

We arrived at Mt Kinabalu and had a late lunch at the Liwagu Restaurant.  There were quite a few local dishes on the menu which we decided to stay away from for now since we didn't know what was in them.  Neither item we ordered was very memorable however.   After lunch we were driven to the rooms we were assigned and I immediately had a bad feeling.  The key said "Twin Share" on it.  We had reserved the Hill Lodge which are separate chalets with private baths.  Well, after carting our suitcases down a long incline and then up a flight of stairs I opened our room to see...

Two twin beds and nothing else. No closet, no bathroom, nothing.

After explaining the situation to John he understood that something had gone wrong.  But, it took a couple hours for the lodge to sort things out.  It doesn't appear they had our reservation for the Hill Lodge.  So, at first they found us a chalet with two bedrooms and one bath for the 4 of us to share for one night.  Then they would move us to the Hill Lodge on night two.  With no other choice, we took that offer.

Just as we were getting settled in our new "room" John came up and said the Mt K Lodge owner was upgrading us to the Kinabalu Lodge.  It came with 3 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms, a full kitchen, a living room with huge fireplace and more.  Needless to say, we jumped at that and really enjoyed staying there "roughing it" for our first 3 nights.

Here is a shot of it from the outside:
Kinabalu Lodge

Due to the time wasted around the room mix-up, we didn't have a chance to go walking before dinner.   We did see lots of birds and a few squirrels, but nothing was photo worthy.   On the way to dinner, we did have a cool looking frog.

Kinabalu Sticky Frog:
Kinabalu Sticky Frog

So, day 2 came to an end with a decent buffet dinner at the other Mt K restaurant and some green cake. I was on vacation after all and who could turn down green cake.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Borneo Day 3 - Mt Kinabalu

We were all anxious to start our first full day in the park so when the alarm went off at 4AM, there was only minimal cussing.  We walked down the road to the van at 5:30AM and promptly saw a flying squirrel in a tree.  Just as we shone the light on it, it soared from the tree to a nearby bush.  It was light in color and likely a Jentink's Flying Squirrel.

The plan was to drive up to the Timpohon Gate and look for birds and other animals.  This was as high on the mountain we could go since we didn't have permits to climb to the top.  Things are very regulated at Mt K it seems as they only allow a certain number of people to climb it each day.

Since they had signs like this up, I certainly wasn't going to go where I wasn't supposed to:

While there were a few wildlife watchers at Mt K, most folks were there to climb the mountain.  Here is a map showing both the park HQ area and the trail to the summit:
Mt Kinabalu Map

Every day, local workers would haul food and supplies the 6 KM up to the "base camp".  They would do this by strapping the supplies to a long board and then wearing that board like a backpack.  It didn't look very comfortable.

The reason for going to Mt K in the first place was due to some endemic birds that could only be seen here.  The holy grail would be to see the Whitehead's trio which consisted of the Whitehead's Trogon, Whitehead's Broadbill, and Whitehead's Spiderhunter.  Since we were also after mammals, there was a Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel that was also possible.  We ended up having good luck with birds around the Timpohon Gate and along the road as we walked down the hill even though no "Whiteheads" showed up.

Chestnut-hooded Laughing Thrush:
Chestnut-hooded Laughing Thrush

Black-capped White-eye
Black-capped White-eye

Indigo Flycatcher:
Indigo Flycatcher

White-throated Fantail
White-throated Fantail

We also saw a very interested beetle at the gate:


We then headed back for a nice buffet breakfast where, once again, they made eggs to order.

After breakfast, we went back up the road to the area where we stopped before breakfast and continued a slow descent looking for anything that moved.

Golden-naped Barbet:
Golden-naped Barbet

Mt Kinabalu:
Mt Kinabalu

Then, we saw something moving on a nearby tree.  It was a tiny bird...maybe a woodpecker?

Holy crap, it was a tiny squirrel with white ear tufts.  That's the Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel!
Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel

Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel

This little squirrel was about the size of your fist and would dart around the trunk of the tree gnawing on the bark. It was great fun to watch but it darted out of sight all too soon.

For lunch today, we went back to the Liwagu Restaurant.  I ordered Chicken Satay which was good but really didn't provide much food.  Karen ordered a chicken sandwich.  But, as we do in all foreign countries with suspect water, she had them hold things like lettuce and tomato.  So, when the waiter kept answering "Sure, OK" with each thing she held we figured he had it.  We figured wrong.  The sandwich came out with a huge piece of lettuce sticking out on all sides and two big juicy slices of tomato.  

Overall, we really didn't encounter any language barriers in Borneo except at this restaurant (wait until tomorrow's lunch) and one other restaurant at Poring.  Most everyone we encountered spoke English which was a pleasant surprise.

After lunch we went back up the road to walk around.  Unfortunately, the fog came in and with it lots of cold air so we really didn't see much.  To top it off, I had hurt my ankle just before the trip and the constant downhill walking on the pavement had really aggravated it.  Had we known that this would be our last day without rain for the REST OF THE TRIP we might have stuck around longer but we packed it in a bit early today.

We had an average buffet dinner and then planned to walk around a little in the dark but the winds really picked up and made it cold and nasty out.  So, we just retired for the evening which gave me a chance to ice my ankle a bit.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Borneo Day 4 - Mt Kinabalu

The cold and nasty weather lasted all night.  The wind howled so much we could hardly hear all the frogs calling.   So, when the alarm went off at 4:30AM, I think we were already awake.

We met the others and drove back to the Timpohon Gate to see what would be around when the sun came up.  We hung out a bit at the lookout just past the gate and could hear lots of birds calling.

But, the first critter to come into view was this cute little Bornean Black-banded Squirrel:
Bornean Black-banded Squirrel

Unfortunately, it was a little too tame and was looking for handouts that it obviously had gotten in the past.  Sorry little dude, you won't get any from us.

While we did see some new birds in the area, good photos were hard to come by except these.

Bornean Treepie:
Bornean Treepie

Temminck's Sunbird:
Temminck's Sunbird

After a nice buffet breakfast, we took a new hike up the hill from the park HQ.  It was a pretty hike with quite a bit of ups and downs.  Luckily, we had packed a walking stick which I needed to help out with my bad ankle.  Since I was moving slow and looking down a lot, I was the first to spot a leech.  We only saw a few during this hike which was good because our leech socks were still packed away in our luggage since we didn't know we would need them here.

I only have one photo to share from this hike.  It's of a Bornean Mountain Ground Squirrel that seemed to have a parasite of its own tagging along:
Bornean Mountain Ground Squirrel

We had time for another hike before lunch and this one was relatively flat along a small creek.  It was during this hike that we finally saw one of the Whitehead's trio.  It was a female Whitehead's Trogon and every jungle photo frustration came true when trying to take a picture of this bird.  Whether there were leaves in the way, or her head was blocked by a branch, or she would move right before taking the picture, I was lucky to come away with anything at all:

Whitehead's Trogon

Not long after seeing the Trogon, the rain came.  So, we high-tailed it to the Liwagu Restaurant for lunch and didn't get too wet.

Travel Tip:
The bathrooms are interesting in Borneo.  We had done enough research to know about eastern bathrooms (AKA the Squatty Potty) but thankfully we were able to find western toilets just about everywhere we went.  What we didn't realize is that they don't dry their hands.  At least, it didn't appear people did. The only paper available in bathrooms was toilet paper (if we were lucky) placed by the sinks in dispensers.  If you ever tried to dry your hands with cheap one ply toilet paper you know that's a losing battle.  But, it took me a while to realize this.  So, for the first few days I left the bathroom constantly picking small white TP blobs off my hands.  Eventually, I learned to just use my clothes.  It's a good thing I wore quick dry shirts and pants.

Our lunch stop today had both food and entertainment.  Most of us ordered the Chicken Satay because we knew it was good.  But, it wasn't a lot of food as previously mentioned.  So, Karen wanted some bread to go with it. Consequently, she asked the waitress for a baguette with it.  They have a baguette sandwich on the menu so this seemed like a reasonable request.  However, once again the language barrier reared up as the waitress got really confused thinking that Karen wanted the baguette sandwich too.  Things got more confusing when she described it as a "roll".  I think asking for "bread" would have been better but it was too late.  Suffice it to say we tried for 10 minutes to make this order and it wasn't working. Luckily, we were able to locate John and he came over to translate.  The great baguette fiasco of 2017 was over and we all got fed...eventually.

The afternoon activity was road walking for birds and we did see a few plus a Prevost Squirrel which was a new mammal for us.  But, the activity was cut short by fog and then rain.  So, the photo ops were few and far between.

I was able to get a picture of this fantastic looking Bornean Green Magpie.  It was one of the birds of the trip for me:
Bornean Green Magpie

It was soon after, during another downpour, that we all made bee-line for the van.  I was in such a hurry that I failed to duck sufficiently and banged my head super hard on the van door frame.  So hard in fact that I saw stars for a fraction of a second.  That hurt!  But, it did make me forget about my ankle for about a half hour.

The rest of the afternoon got rained out.  We did have another nice buffet dinner with the now requisite green cake dessert chaser.  After dinner, the bad weather continued and we just rested the rest of the evening which was fine with me since my ankle was swelling up now.   Today's home remedy was ice AND elevation which was about the best I was going to do under the circumstances.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Borneo Day 5 - Mt Kinabalu to Deramakot

Once again we were up in time to meet everyone at 6AM.  The plan was to drive up to the Timpohon gate for birding which was getting a bit repetitive but it is the best place in the park for birds.  However, there was very little bird action this morning with the exception of the following.

Sunda Laughing Thrush:
Sunda Laughing Thrush

Chestnut-hooded Laughing Thrush:
Chestnut-hooded Laughing Thrush

Another look at the Bornean Treepie:
Bornean Treepie

We did watch another Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel for a while which was fun.

The breakfast buffet was good again and I capped off the meal with more green cake.  Did I forget to mention that the green cake was out at breakfast too?  It actually didn't have much taste but I liked the sugar rush.  Since today was Karen's birthday I offered to get her a slice of green cake for breakfast but she turned me down for some reason.  Come on, cake for breakfast in Borneo.  Top that!

Over all, the wildlife at Mt Kinabalu was disappointing.  We expected no mammals excepts squirrels but the quantity of birds was really low.  John commented that it has been getting worse over the years and he talked about the bird waves that just don't seem to come anymore and when they do come there are less birds.  Nobody is sure why that is but the forests around Mt K are suffering and I have to think that is a contributing factor.

The highlight of Mt Kinabalu for us was the Whitehead's Pygmy Squirrel but we also saw some great birds like the Indigo Flycatcher, Bornean Treepie, Temminck's Sunbird, Bornean Green Mapie, Whitehead's Trogon and more.  We counted 22 new birds for us here which isn't bad for folks who don't consider themselves birders.

The plan now was to drive about an hour to Poring Hot Springs for lunch and more wildlife watching.  The drive was nice and at one point we went past the best outdoor market I have ever seen.  There was tent after tent after tent of stuff.  There must have been dozens that housed produce and that produce was all in pristine condition.  John said it was likely they would sell all of it in one day.

Here's a shot of the perfect produce:
Perfect Produce

On the way to Poring, I saw signs for a "Fish Massage".  It sounded weird but I bet it would be "fintastic".  Especially if you ask for "Gil".  He has hands like a "sturgeon"...

Once at Poring we wandered around looking for wildlife.  They have some animals there but I stopped taking photos once I realized they weren't wild.  So, all that was left were a few birds.

Scaly-breasted Bulbul:
Scaly-breasted Bulbul

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo (what a cool looking bird!):
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo

We also saw a Red-throated Barbet but it really played hard to get and the best shots I have are 75% obscured by branches and leaves.

We were looking forward to a different lunch today but as bad luck would have it, the same company (Sutera) runs the restaurant at Poring.  Rather than ordering Satay again, Bill and I ordered hamburgers.  But, they came out with ground chicken with orange bits in it and it took a while for the waiter to admit the mistake so we sent them back.  10 minutes later we got our lunches and I swear it was exactly the same ground chicken just reheated. But, rather than wait longer, we decided to eat our mediocre lunches anyway.  Maybe I should have ordered a baguette instead...

After lunch we drove to Telupid which is where we would be picked up by 4x4s to take us into Deramakot.  On the way, we stopped at a store for some essentials like soda, rolls, and rum.  We struck up a conversation with the nice cashier who made sure we knew that we were "very tall".

On the way to Telupid we did see our first primate.  Peggy spotted a Long-tailed Macaque sitting about 30 feet off the ground on a power line.  Not exactly photo worthy so we didn't stop.

After meeting our driver in Telupid (Lang), we set off for the 3 hour drive to Deramakot.  The first 30 minutes was on pavement but the rest was on bumpy, hilly, rocky dirt roads which led us through palm oil plantations as far as the eye could see.  It's sad to think that this was pristine forests not that long ago.

We reached the gate to Deramakot and stopped for a nature break.  It was now dusk.  Our drive in was planned perfectly so that we would have a night drive as part of our arrival.

Not 5 minutes past the gate we saw a Leopard Cat sitting on the road.  Once we stopped, it calmly walked into the bushes.  That's a good start!

A few minutes later I yelled "Snake"..."Python" just as we came upon an snake moving off the road.  I got a quick glimpse as we slowed down just passed it.  The snake was long and girthy which is why I thought it was a python.  I managed to only get a quick shot of the tail as it slithered away:

King Cobra Disappearing

After looking at the photo, I realized it wasn't a python.  So, I talked to John who had seen it more clearly and he said it was a King Cobra.  Wow, that's a snake I would have loved to get a better look at.

A bit later, we had a Common Palm Civet cross the road and move quickly out of sight.  Then, we had another snake on the road and this one posed for pictures. This is a Dog-toothed Cat Snake:
Dog-toothed Cat Snake

About an hour after entering the gates of Deramakot, we arrived at civilization and headed up a steep driveway to our rooms.  A Buffy Fish Owl took off from a nearby branch just as we pulled up.

It was here that we met Mike.  Mike would be our guide (along with John) for our 4 nights at Deramakot.  We also met a few of the other residents including huge moths and this giant Rhinoceros Beetle:
Rhinoceros Beetle

After settling in our room, we walked down the hill to the restaurant where we met our chef.  I think her name was Giddy...or maybe Gilly.  In any case, she was an outstanding chef.  Our first dinner was lemon Fish with rice and kale.  It was really tasty.

After talking to Mike for a bit about what we wanted to see, we retired for the night.  The rooms at Deramkot are basic.  There are 2 buildings at the top of the hill each with 3 rooms and a common area.  Our room had two beds, a  wardrobe and a "wet" bathroom typical of Asia.  But, it did have air conditioning which really took the edge off the during our stay.

Deramakot Room

Deramakot Bath and Wardrobe

Travel Tip:
The beds in Borneo are hard.  So, it took a while to get used to them.  On top of that (well actually NOT on top) is that hardly any of the beds had a top sheet.  So, you just had either a blanket (like you can see folded up in the picture above) or a duvet.  It was really weird not having that top sheet.  It just didn't feel right for some reason. But, most of the time we were too tired to really care.

The rooms at Deramakot aren't much to look at, but we knew what to expect here before we arrived and it really wasn't that bad since we brought things like a hand towel, wash cloths, and hangers.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Borneo Day 6 - Deramakot

Deramakot is well know for its night drives.  But, because we had both birders and mammalers in our group we needed to get up early to find birds too.  So, the theory would be to rest in the middle of the day when it was hot.  That's what Mike did.  But, we have never been nappers and couldn't start here.  So, we just got by on little sleep.  As an example, this day started at 4:30AM and didn't end until around Midnight.  But, in between was a whole lotta fun!

At 6AM, we all piled into the back of an open truck and headed down the road.  As we drove through the forest I was amazed at the size of the trees.  In theory, the selective logging at Deramakot would have thinned out the forest a lot but it was still very impressive.  Things got even better when we heard this eerie call start.  It was slow at first and then sped up until it ended in a mighty crescendo.  It was the call of the Gibbon, an animal that we really wanted to see.  These Gibbons were a little too far away to see this morning unfortunately, so we just enjoyed the call as we continued the drive.  After a while, we all got out and walked the road.  This presented some good photo opportunities:

Asian Paradise Flycatcher (another bird of the trip candidate):
Asian Paradise Flycatcher

Fiery Minivet Pair:
Fiery Minivet Pair

A pair of Great Slaty Woodpeckers:
Great Slaty Woodpecker

The tiny Roufus Piculet:
Rufous Piculet

Bronzed Drongo:
Bronzed Drongo

Long-billed Spiderhunter:
Long-billed Spiderhunter

Yellow-vented Bulbul:
Yellow-vented Bulbul

Our morning hike/drive lasted a long time.  We didn't get back for breakfast until 11:30AM.  Between then and 4PM we just relaxed a bit and hung around the grounds.  My ankle was bad again and if it didn't get better soon I was going to take some drastic measures.  Maybe leech therapy.  If only I could find some leeches...

At 4PM we walked from the main camp and took the Management Trail. Luckily it was pretty flat and, in addition, I soon found my source for leeches.  However, everyone got one on them but me...too bad. Of course, they were all flicked off before they could do any damage.  The highlight on the walk was briefly seeing a Black-crowned Pitta.  But, it was way too tough to get a picture of it.  As a matter of fact, I really don't have any pictures from the trail.  But, I do have a couple from the road leading to the trail:

Spectacled Bulbul:
Spectacled Bulbul

Whiskered Treeswift:
Whiskered Treeswift

After a great dinner of chicken, rice and veggies we headed out for our first night drive.  Mike was really confident and said his goal was 10 different mammal species on the drive.  "Yeah, right" we all said.

The drive started with a Buffy Fish Owl on the same branch as the night before.  But, this time it stuck around long enough for a picture:
Buffy Fish Owl

And then the mammals came...First it was a Sambar deer:
Sambar Deer

Then this Thomas's Flying Squirrel:
Thomas's Flying Squirrel

Red Giant Flying Squirrel:
Red Giant Flying Squirrel

We also had a Slow Loris at some distance so no decent pictures.  But, the civets cooperated more.

Banded Civet:
Banded Civet

Malay Civet (Not a good photo but the markings are really cool so I wanted to include it):
Malay Civet

Next came a Colugo, AKA a flying Lemur, which was awesome:
Bornean Colugo

That's a pretty long tongue:
Bornean Colugo with Tongue

But, the highlight was definitely a Marbled cat Mike found up on a branch.  After looking at it for a few minutes Mike said that the cat may come down if we turn off the lights and wait.  So, we did.  About 5 minutes later he turned the light back on in time to see the cat start to get up.  This gave us a great look.  What a tail!

Marbled Cat

It then went over to the trunk and we assumed it would climb down the backside and venture out of sight.  But, instead it climbed down right in front of us giving us amazing views of its beautiful coat and thick tail.

Marbled Cat Climbing Down

Marbled Cat

Still Climbing down...

One Last Glimpse

What a freaking awesome encounter!

Before the drive ended, we saw a Striped Civet high up in a tree and at least one Greater Mouse Deer.  So, that's 10 different mammal species.  Mike hit the nail on the head.  It's like he planned it or something.  We also saw a 2nd Buffy Fish Owl and a really cool turtle sitting in the middle of the road.

Malayan Flat-shelled Turtle:
Malayan Flatshelled Turtle

What a great first night drive.

I want to mention that Mike has a great system worked out with his driver.  He has a few signals with his spotlight to tell the driver to stop, backup, etc.  This worked flawlessly and quietly which really helped get us in position quickly to see many of the animals we spotted.  We have been on night drives in other countries where they would yell, bang on the roof, etc to communicate but this system worked much better.

We got back after midnight but we were still amped from the night drive so it was hard to fall asleep.  But, with the alarm going off early again, we forced ourselves as best we could.