I don't think this is a trip that can be summarised easily. The organisation and itinerary aside, I'm afraid I left Borneo with some misgivings about its long term future as a wildlife tourist destination and the experience was tinged with some sadness at the level of deforestation already evident across the country. On a couple of occasions we drove quite some distance, perhaps 2 - 2 1/2 hours through nothing but palm oil plantations as far as the eye could see and the level of rainforest destruction is sadly also visible whenever you take to the air. It seems Borneo is now around 30% covered in Palm Oil, with only around 15% of the forest remaining that sadly seems too fragmented to support good populations of wildlife in many places.
The first part of the trip takes you into Mulu national park, which was undoubtedly beautiful and a proper immersive experience in the rainforest, but we were advised early on that we shouldn’t expect much wildlife here, or indeed across Sarawak generally, and that Sabah (along the Kinabatangan river) would be a much better bet, which did indeed prove to be the case. However, the trekking we did here was wonderful and accompanied by the sounds of the rainforest, in stifling humidity, is something I will never get bored of. There are plenty of easy to follow paths around the lodge that you can explore yourself and the accommodation is very good. The two full days trekking along the head hunters trail, via camp 5, are, because of the heat, surprisingly tougher than you would imagine, but again, you feel you’re right in the middle of the forest, and are two walks I really enjoyed.
We then spent some time travelling to Sandakan in Sabah, a journey that in fact takes over two days. The first overnight in Limbang is just to facilitate catching the ferry the following day, and is of little interest. I’ve seen other comments within the reviews about the ferry day, and I was looking forward to a different mode of transport – as I do find too many internal flights very disruptive to the holiday. However, my visions of cruising down the river on the deck of a comfortable ferry watching the world go by didn’t materialise as the ferries are fast ferries, enclosed, with portholes too small to see anything out of, so were actually little different to flying. The stopover at Labuan island is rather superfluous, as there do seem to be direct ferries to Kota Kinabalu. Although this would have increased the single journey time, when we did arrive in KK, there was time to visit the craft market and have a few drinks along the waterfront. As we had to be up at silly o’clock the next day for the flight to Sandakan, a few extra hours in KK in the afternoon might have been better if a direct ferry could be arranged.
The flight to Sandakan was one of the easiest I have ever done, as it seemed like only a couple of hours since leaving the hotel, we were out of the airport the other end and on our way to Sepilok for around 8am. The rehabilitation centre is quite a setup and although you are sharing the experience with a lot of other tourists, all jostling for the best position, the young Orang Utans are adorable and put on quite a performance. It is of course a shame that you have to visit a facility like this, however, to be able to see them, given their rather precarious position in the wild and the ongoing destruction of their habitat. There is also a sun bear centre across the road that is worth a visit, but again, heart-breaking to read about the stories about how they arrived there.
The lodge in Sandakan was as promised, the place to see wildlife. On the various boat trips we were rewarded with plenty of Macaques, Proboscis monkeys, snakes & Hornbills. We even managed to see the Bornean Pygmy elephants, and a large male Orang Utan feeding along the river. Again, the accommodation was of a very high standard, however, do be aware that they struggled with the credit card connection so make sure you have enough cash with you to cover any bills.
The tea plantation was interesting, particularly the accommodation, which was in traditional, but surprisingly comfortable, bamboo huts. There was also the chance to have a few cold beers within sight of Kinabalu and have a swim in a local river. Next stop of course is Kinabalu. The nature centre you stay in prior to the climb is very pleasant and comfortable. The food is included, but the drinks were prohibitively expensive which meant we were all well behaved that night, probably a good idea as the climb up Kinabalu is pretty tough. The first day walk up to the hut was still very hot, and although you take a longer route (+ 2km) you realise on the way down that this route is much quieter than the shorter route, and very picturesque. The climb is pretty relentless, being steps most of the way. Laban Rata guesthouse is a bit of a madhouse, but when you realise that everything has to be carried up by porters, including the large bottles of water, is quite an achievement to keep it going day after day and the food is plentiful and tasty. You sleep in dorms of 12 people in bunk beds, and I think most of us got enough sleep as there were no particularly disruptive snorers on the group, thankfully.
It’s another slog up to the summit at around 2am, but again, was not particularly cold. I only really got cold when I stopped and the sweat started to cool down, but I managed fine with a thermal top and small fleece, only putting my coat on when we stopped for breaks. You will have to pull yourself up by ropes for short sections of the climb, when gloves are useful, but this isn’t a problem as you just follow everyone else and there are plenty of guides to give you any encouragement you need. Sunrise at the top was pretty special as it’s the first time you really get a look at the summit of the mountain, which is a huge granite slab that curves away towards the layers of clouds below and is worth the effort climbing up and you’ll want to spend some time up there taking plenty of photos as the sun creeps across the mountainside. As with all mountains, the return journey is very tough on the knees, but you break up the descent with a hearty breakfast back at Laban Rata before continuing back down to the bottom. We were very lucky as we were hit with a huge deluge that lasted a couple of hours only minutes after we’d got back in the vans for the short trip to the restaurant for lunch. I can imagine the climb being a very different experience under those conditions.
The last day in the beach resort was a real pleasure, having the whole day to yourself, although drinks are again very expensive. Our guide, Rony, stopped en route to allow us to buy a few tins of beer which were drunk enthusiastically throughout the final day before the very early trip to the airport the following morning to end what was a very busy, interesting and eye-opening holiday.