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Borneo - part II
October 2017


Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL)
Through KJC, we arranged for a ride south to be dropped at the BRL's office in Lahad Datu (LD). After the short boat trip back up the river
to Bilit, we were taken through another heartbreaking drive past miles and miles of palm plantations. Even the morning mist rising off acres green palm in the golden light of the rising sun, beautiful as it was, was tainted with melancholy and loss - at least through my mind's eye. The workers going into the plantations and the people living in the Greek decorated stilt house next to the plantation, I’m sure, felt differently. The plantations gave way to more stilt houses and soon we were in LD, a small but busy town. The airport was one landing strip in a field of mowed grass. Our driver dropped us off outside of the BRL office. We walked in and were immediately struck by how immaculate and beautifully decorated the place was - a stark contrast to the broken roads and dingy neighboring store fronts. We were immediately greeted, seated in a plush couch, and served coffee and tea with cookies. We were checked in quickly and waited for the flight from KK to bring in the rest of the guests. There were maybe a dozen other guests that gathered in the office where we were divided into different vans and trucks to be driven up to the lodge.
Leaving the town and heading west, we past through palm again, but we began climbing up to where it was more rural and the palm started to give way to a more natural (at least diverse) landscape. After about an hour of driving, we were stopped at a gate - the entrance to the conservation area, beyond was more green that stretched far higher and denser than the palm monocultures.
After the driver checked in at the guard house, we past the gate and continued down the gravel road through Danum Valley Conservation Area, comprised of secondary forest and reforestation efforts. In some sections, there were weird rows of tree plantings (not palms). It reminded me of popular plantations back home that are used for wood pulp. I wasn’t sure what the plantings were for out there though - if it was an experiment or an attempt at reforestation. We bumped along the gravel road, occasionally glimpsing the forested valleys stretching far and wide. The road crossed a few bridges and interesting shallow creeks, but the driver seemed not inclined to stop to let us stretch our legs. He did halt suddenly when he spotted an orangutan in the tree by the road. It was a mother and her young. The mother quickly descended the tree and out of view once all the tourists gathered down below, but the baby, a less experience climber, was a little less hurried and came down more slowly.
The driver continued his rushed drive to the lodge. As we crested a hill, the driver announced that we were now in primary forest. I felt the excitement in the car grow or maybe it was just me projecting on to everyone. Who would not be excited!?! After a short 10 minutes drive to the lodge, we were greeted with pandan leis and escorted upstairs to the open air receiving area where we were treated to cool damp towels, an iced lemongrass and ginger drink, and fresh baked banana bread. As we took in the lounge area with its beautiful hardwood floors, bar, and strange hanging lamps, we were given an introduction to the lodge, its amenities, and the schedule for the day. Just by our first impressions of the lodge, we knew we were going to be pampered for our 6 day ands 5 nights.
Our rooms weren’t ready, so we tucked into lunch - a buffet of delectable Malaysian and Western foods. It’s a wonder I didn’t gain weight on this trip - the food for the next 6 days was plentiful and delicious - with a rotating buffet of curried/gingered/spiced/bbq meat/tofu/seafood, sambal spiced eggplant, beef satays, pandan rice, salads of pickled mango or cucumbers, tom yum soup, fresh cut papaya, mango pudding, chocolate-covered meringue cookies, butter cake, and so much more that I didn’t have the room to try it all, including a build your own stir-fry, sliders grill, and fresh baked breads. Of course those were just for lunch and dinner, breakfast had the omelet bar, sausages, beef bacon, stir-fry noodles, fresh fruit, pancakes, pastries, and fresh squeezed juices. Of course the food wasn't the sole highlight of the meal - the dining room overlooked the Danum River and the wall of forest rising above it. In the mornings we watched the mist rise off the forest as the sun struggled to poke through the clouds. We watched Scarlet Minivets, Blue-throated Bee-eaters, Yellow-bellied Flowerpeckers and Yellow-vented Bulbuls glean the manicured garden below while White-rumped Needletails, a Gray-headed Fish Eagle, and Pacific Swallows circled over the river. At nights in the dining hall, the lights attracted a wonderful assortment of insects - large moths, beetles, katydids, and preying mantis. And with the concentration of insects came the geckos, which would perch next to the lights waiting for their next prey to come to them.
Getting back to our first lunch - after eating, we were shown to our room. Due to high demand and our relatively late inquiry (only 6 months in advance), we could only book a standard room instead of the deluxe, which gave a view over the river. Still the standard room was nothing to scoff at. It was very spacious with comfortable beds and a deck that overlooked an open planted area and trail that serves both workers heading to their quarters and tourist trekking to the forest. The BRL was an expensive luxury lodge, and they knew how to treat you right.
After unpacking and unwinding from the morning’s travel, we went to the orientation where gave a presentation about the trails, animals, and options for floating the river, going to a tower to watch the sunrise over the forest, and private night drives. Shortly after the orientation, we geared up (leech socks!) for our first trek and met our private guide, Adrian. To some disappointment, Adrian was not a birder. Most of the guides at BRL are generalists catering to the average tourist. If someone was a die hard birder they would have brought in their own birder guide (i.e. gone with a preplanned Borneo birding package). Admittedly we were somewhat caviler in planning this trip. Before we left, a lot of people asked if we were going on a tour group, but tour groups really aren’t our style. It works well with just Tor and me - we are generally interested in the same things, but we also have the patience to put up with those more specialized interests (him - amphibians and reptiles, me - birds). Finding a tour group that we could both put up with might not exactly mesh. Getting back to Adrian though, just because he’s not a birder is not to say he was a bad guide. In fact he was really a great (non-birding) guide for us - he was passionate about his job. And he had a wealth of knowledge about the mammals of Borneo and of the plants and general ecology of the forest. While he didn’t know the name of every babbler or bulbul, he knew the “big and flashy” birds and their calls - the hornbills, broadbills, and the highly sought after Bornean Bristlehead (which we did see eventually). And he did have the patience as we stood there and tried to identify a brown babbler or get a good photo of the frogs at night.
Over the next several days Adrian guided us through the Danum Valley rainforest around lodge. The trails around the lodge and road were fairly short, but we hiked along the Danum river, up to the viewpoint overlooking the valley and lodge, and on the canopy walk. At the snail's pace that we walked to take everything in, photograph every interesting insect, lizard, fern, towering tree, and orchid, try to identify every bird in the mixed feeding flocks, and listen and look for any animals, we spent most of our daylight hours on the trails. Probably a lot more time than most typical BRL tourist.
It felt a little surreal to be walking through a rainforest estimated to be 130 million years old - how much had it changed, what hadn’t changed, what will be lost forever in our short life time compared to those millions of years? The trees were massive - large buttresses supporting their height and the weight. Fig vines growing up the trunks and sending down roots once established in the light of the canopy. Some host trees had rotted away leaving only the impressive fig trees in its place. According to Adrian, the native tribes believed these fig trees hosted spirits. To appease the spirits, human heads were left inside the hollows of the fig tree (there were no heads in these trees). Trees 500-600 years old, sentinels of the rainforest, provided a basis for life in the canopy - for the epiphytes clinging to the branches, the treeshrews running along the branches in search fruit, the birds that followed the treeshrew while watching for the bugs it scared up. The forest floor was an array of fallen leaves of many sizes - rotting into the ground to create that preciously thin layer of organic material for other life to thrive off. Moss, fungus, and ferns feed off the decaying layer and fallen limbs. Palms, bananas, and other seedlings vied for the light that filtered down through the canopy. There was so much life, so much diversity at every level.
On our morning hike to the viewpoint, Adrian took us to the coffin/burial ground atop the hill. The natives believed in burials high upon the hills and they allowed the tourists to visit as long as we were respectful. There was a platform that we climbed to get a better view of the weathered limestone hillside. A small coffin had been exposed as well as a few pieces of human bones. At the viewpoint platforms, we looked down at the Danum river and the lodge. Forest stretched out as far as we could see. It was a welcome sight after all our travels through the palm plantations. We could hear Helmeted Hornbills calling below from the dense green canopy. Back down the trail, we stopped at the waterfall and swimming hole. Tourist can go barefoot to have the algae-eating fish nibble at their feet. I opted just to stick my hand in the waters instead. The fish quickly swarmed around me, nibbling my fingers and palm. It was actually more than a nibble, but less than a bite.
Adrian lead us up the canopy walk several times during our stay. The cable walkways were suspended 25 meters above the ground between tualang trees, which is the preferred tree to house the honeycombs of giant honeybees. Because the wood of the tualang contained high amounts of silica and was brittle when cut, these trees were likely to be left behind after logging. They were often the only trees left to tower above the secondary forest. But at BRL these trees made great supports for the canopy walk. Small platforms wrapped around the trunks of the trees, allowing us to admire the canopy from different angles. From this vantage point, I could view Black Hornbill, Common Iora, and Black and Yellow Broadbills at eye level. It was a nice change from the neck strain of birding from the ground. One evening Adrian took us to see the giant red flying squirrel emerge from its nest hole out of one of the tualang trees as dusk settled in. Dusk in the Bornean rainforest was marked by a startling and ear splitting buzzing song that was echoed throughout the scrub and canopy. The first time I heard it, I turned to Adrian and asked “What is that?!” From the smirk on his face I could guess that he got that question a lot. This cicada’s loud screech was like any I’ve heard in Central or South America - it sounded like a chop saw powering up to repeatedly cutting wood. Thankfully those cicadas only called the hour before sunset, like an alarm for the evening shift to begin. So as the cicadas began call, the silhouette of a squirrel head appeared against the darkening sky. It paused briefly at its hole before leaping downwards and gliding off to find a meal.
The longest hike we went on was the length of the road within the lodge’s property. In the morning, a truck dropped us off at the BRL property line and we began the 5 km walking back toward the lodge. It was a particularly misty morning, but it was probably our best hike for seeing birds. In fact, birding from the road in gave us a good view of the birds. There was still neck craning and bad lighting, but being able to spot the birds in an open area was key - there was less dense canopy and no scrub to look through. We saw quite a few birds along the road, including Bronzed Drongo, Chestnut-bellied Malkoha, Maroon Woodpecker, Gray-rumped Treeswift, Dusky Broadbill, Black-crowned Pitta, Black Eagle, and the Bornean Bristlehead. The bonus being the road was easy to walk, so I didn’t have to watch my step as carefully or worry about leech hitchhikers.
While we did see the leeches along the trails through the rainforest, the most leeches we encountered during our stay was right after an afternoon downpour. The one downpour was our only rainfall during our stay at BRL and it only lasted an hour. After the deluge, we meet with Adrian, who lead us on a hike through the forest. We could see the ground leeches crawling along the leaves and mud, something that wasn’t as obvious before. The tiger leeches were also invigorate by the rain - many of them sitting on the leaves next to the trail - waving about trying to grab on as we pass. As we hiked, I'd occasionally look down to scan myself and flick off any leeches. It was a little disconcerting to see this many holding on to my shoes and leech socks. When we returned to our room, we scanned our clothes. After showering, I was walking around the room barefoot and felt a prick above my ankle. Without thinking I instinctively wiped at my leg and knocking the leech onto the floor. It was a bit of a shock to realize we had tracked it into the room either on our gear or clothes. Later than night we found a second hitchhiking leech on the outside of the toilet bowl, waving its head and seeking out an unsuspecting meal. That one joined the first one in a flush down the toilet. After those incidences we were a lot more thorough about checking ourselves when we came back from hikes.
One complaint I re
ad about BRL was that it’s difficult to see wildlife - than compared to Kinabatagan or Tabin. And it was true, it’s harder to see wildlife at BRL. The reason we could see wildlife so easily at those other places was because of the fractured habitat surrounding those place. In the Danum Valley, there was actually a healthy ecosystem of rainforest - animals could move about more freely without feeling the confines of palm plantations. And there were actual trees - tall trees where animals can hide in the canopy. However all that said, we saw a lot of wildlife at BRL. I actually think the people who complain were not paying attention, weren’t looking hard enough, or talking so loudly they scared the animals away (and me too - I don’t appreciate the conversations about inane stuff while immersed in an ancient forest). Every day except for the last half day of our stay, we saw orangutans. They were spotted in the trees along the road between the main lodge and the staff quarters. It wasn’t hard to spot them either - because there was usually a large group of tourist gawking up at them. All the orangutans were studied by the field researches based at the nearby Danum Valley Field Center. I thought most of the orangutans were badly named - names like “Johnny” and “Bob.” The researchers who study them were from Japan, so it also explained why some of the orangutans had Japanese names. Still it seemed like they should have used a Malaysian name or word, which would suite any of them a heck of a lot better. Tangent aside, we probably saw 8-10 different orangutans during our stay, including one very large male who was close to the ground. I was walking by myself when I spotted him alone (no other tourists or guides around) and after snapping a few pictures rushed to retrieve Tor to have a look. By the time I fetched Tor, the large male was still there, but actively ignoring us with his enormous back to us. Annoyed at our presence or perhaps ready to move on, he slowly clamored away into the brush. No matter how many times we saw them it was always mind blowing to see this endangered animal in the wild - unrestricted and hopefully safe for its lifetime.
Troops of red (or maroon) leaf monkeys were also a common sighting near the lodge. Belonging to the langur family, this was the eighth primate we saw on the trip. They were named red leaf monkey because they eat the red (young) leaves off the trees and vines. Water monitors and long-tailed macaques were ubiquitous on our lowland Borneo trip. The water monitors were often seen on the riverbank or swimming in the waters. The macaques moved through the lodge grounds on several occasions. During the evening, Sambar deer grazing on the lawns in front of the cabins, and during a hike along the river, Adrian pointed out a pair of barking deer moving in the dense undergrowth.
The night drive was also an opportunity to spot wildlife - but changed nightly depending on luck. As with the night cruise on the Kinabatagan, we were lead by a tour guide with a high powered spotlight. As we bumped along the gravel road, the tourist sat in a large open back truck with benches on either side, while the guide stood behind the cab and scanned for eye shine. Our first night drive we saw a mouse deer (actually a rodent not a deer), a Sambar deer, a roosting Rhinoceros Hornbill, and a giant red flying squirrel. The squirrel was the highlight as we actually got to see it fly from one tree to another - its large parachute flaps opening as it glided. Tor requested a second night drive with Adrian and Adrain being the nice guide he was got us in for another night drive (typically tourist only stay for 3 nights and it only includes one night drive, but staying for 5 nights and hiring a private guide had its perks). The second night drive was with the National Geo expeditions ground that had just come in. They were the first (non-ex-pat) Americans we saw during the trip - and maybe the only ones. (Oddly enough most tourists we met were from Australia, England, Germany, Asia, or South Africa. maybe due to American’s lack of vacation time? not on Americans list of place to go? or other?). The National Geo tour guide helped spot light with the BRL guide, so we ended up seeing a common palm civet, a roosting Hooded Pitta, a White-crowned Shama, and a Black-crowned Pitta, a Sambar Deer and the same roosting Rhinoceros Hornbill. The aggressive wasp that is attracted to the spotlights showed up on the second ride. The guides violently swatted at them, smashing them into the roof of the cab. I guess the wasp stings were bad enough and the wasps were unreasonably aggressive that it warranted killing them.
Our other nights at the lodge were also times for finding wildlife. With Adrian we walked the road, and without him we walked the nature trail by the lodge. The ponds just outside of the staff housing was full of frogs - harlequin and file-eared frog calls filled the warm evening air. Diamond keelback snakes sat motionless among the frogs, patiently waiting for one fatal mistake. We were lucky (and one harlequin frog unlucky) to see a frog jump or fall right in front of one of the snakes. The snake struck quickly and despite the predator's small size pulled the frog to land and slowly began working its jaws around the frog's head. It was a slow process and the frog still struggled against the snake - holding on to the snake’s neck and at one point it managed to free its head from the snake’s jaws. But we could tell the frog was tired by then and the snake only had to wait a little longer before the frog was completely exhausted.
Further down the road, there was a small mud puddle of a pond right next to the road. In the evenings, it was another haven for frogs. The smaller puddle had a few different frogs - including a mahogany frog and yellow-bellied puddle frog. The second time we visited the pond (after the rain event), we were surprised to find Wallace’s flying frogs in the pond and in the branches around the pond. Tor was besides himself with excitement - the Wallace’s flying frogs were on his Borneo wishlist. While photographing the frogs, we heard one crash down into the branches joining the group. They maybe called flying frogs, but doesn’t mean they land with grace.
Along the dark road Tor spotted a Malay civet and I found the eyeshine of what turned out to be a Bornean horned frog. This interesting large frog had crazy projections (horns) from its nose and “eyebrows.” It also caused a lot of excitement among the guides as it's an animal a lot of people like to see. Adrian called in the sighting to the other guides (they all carry walkie-talkies). Even the truck from the night drive backed up 100 ft to see the frog. Its nice hiding place under leaves and short plants got stomped down in the process of show and tell. But the frog never moved, even when spotlighted and partial exposed. The next morning, we checked on the frog and found it in the same spot, turned around, but otherwise in the same location. Guess it was a good spot to lay in wait for food.
When we weren't filling ourselves with delicious food, trekking through the rainforest, or taking another shower to cool off, we did have a few hours in the afternoon to relax. We spent those free hours on the deck that overlooks the river in front of the dining hall (this is the time where the deluxe rooms would have been nice - we could have done this from a private deck overlooking the river). The bonus to the deck was the trees that surrounded it and the horned flying lizards that clung to the trunks and vines. From the vantage point of the deck, we could watch the sunbirds and flowerpeckers come into the garden, while also watching the swiftlets, needletails, and swallows dip low over the water for an afternoon drink. The riverbank that the nature trail lead too was also a nice place to hang out in the afternoon, with a closer view of the water and the forest across the way.
Sooner than I realized our 6 days at BRL were over. Everyday we saw something new, while taking in the beauty of this unique and diverse landscape. Despite the heat and humidity of the days and night, we were distracted from the discomfort by the birds, insects, orchids, frogs, lizards, and mammals. Although we saw a lot during our relatively short stay, I know there was a world of flora and fauna that we did not see. But the end of our stay was inevitable. Leaving BRL and driving through the secondary forest was somewhat of a shock. When we first past through the secondary forest I was impressed by the tall trees and diversity of new plants. But after spending so much time hiking the primary forest of the Danum Valley, the secondary forest lost a lot of luster and mystic. Compared to the rainforest, the secondary forest was sparse and meek. There was too much grass and open areas. The trees were short (except for the remaining taulang trees) and bare from lack of thick vines. Of course the secondary forest gave way to the palm plantations once more and we were soon back in Lahad Datu. The BRL staff from the reception office meet us at the airport and even stayed around to make sure we got checked in and on to our small prop jet back to Kota Kinabalu.
Flying into KK, we could see the jagged wide crag of Mount Kinabalu jutting up through the blanket of clouds. We took the taxi to the Horizon Hotel - located in the center of KK. Though I did a sort of random grab at KK hotels and though the hotel was somewhat dated, the Horizon Hotel turned out to be a good choice - being within walking distance of the markets and close to the mini buses that would take us to our next destination: Kinabalu National Park.

back to part I or continue onto part III



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page updated: 11/25/17