30 September 2019

Four Days in Borneo: Turtle Island and the Borneo 'Big Five'

When I was at school, a number of my classmates raised money for a conservation trip to Borneo, combined with some jungle trekking and the climbing of Mount Kinabalu. I hadn’t yet got the adventurous-travel bug and didn’t go, but later came to regret that decision. Thus, I couldn’t spend two weeks in Malaysia without finally visiting the world’s third-largest island.

My tightly scheduled itinerary gave me four days and four nights in the north-eastern state of Sabah, and to make the most of my time, I joined a small-group tour with Borneo Eco Tours, partly on the recommendation of a colleague and partly because of their good reputation for guide quality and sustainability. I booked tour BB7E, which included one night on Selingan Island (the most accessible of Sabah’s ‘Turtle Islands’), and two nights at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, located in the rainforest along the River Kinabatangan, with stops at the famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and neighbouring Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

With all transportation, meals and guide services included, this cost about £750, including about £120 single supplement. There are cheaper and pricier options, as well as trips of varying lengths, so it’s worth doing some research to find your perfect itinerary. I booked about two months in advance.

The tour included a pick-up from either Sandakan airport or a Sandakan hotel on Monday morning. I stayed Sunday night at the Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan, having arrived from Penang, via KL. It’s possible to get a very early morning flight to Sandakan from KL, via Kota Kinabalu, but I fancied a good night’s sleep and a dip in the hotel’s infinity pool.

Our cheerful guide Jumaidi (who suggested we call him ‘Jumanji’ for ease) introduced me to the two British women who were joining me on the trip to Selingan, and after a five-minute drive we were at the jetty and then on the Borneo Eco Tours boat for the one-hour journey. NB, it is possible to book the Selingan Island visit directly with Crystal Quest, although they can be slow to respond to emails. Our boat was the first to arrive on the island, and after docking, Jumanji showed us to our rooms in one of the chalets. He noted that it had recently been renovated, although they were still very basic. There was air con and a fan, though, and the bed was comfortable enough.

After lunch, we headed to the beach. You can walk along the sand most of the way around the island, and snorkel through the coral reefs. As the tide was out, the water was very shallow, which made swimming over the coral quite challenging. But the visibility was good and I saw numerous different fish. It was very hot and sunny, so after a dip, I sat back under the shade. We had several hours to wait until the green and hawksbill turtles that nest and lay their eggs on the island started to arrive.

Female turtles that were born on Selingan, decades earlier, return to the island to lay their eggs — in clutches that can number 100–200. Only about 3% of these survive to adulthood, however, as a result of various threats, including predation by birds of prey and monitor lizards. To improve the baby turtles' chance of survival, the rangers collect the eggs and bury them in the sand in two special hatcheries kept at different temperatures (turtles’ sex is determined by temperature). But they don’t catch all the nestings and so we were delighted to discover the odd hatchling waddling down the beach and then taking its first tentative strokes in the sea. It was a glorious thing to watch.

Better still, we got to watch a whole clutch of hatchlings emerging from a hole in the sand— dozens of them in total — and finding their way down to the water. It was a remarkable and captivating experience. We later learned that over 4,000 hatchlings hatched that day (including those in the hatchery) — the eggs incubate for about 7–8 weeks, so it must have been a busy egg-laying day in late July.

We had to leave the beach at sunset, around 6 pm, to make way for incoming turtles. We had dinner (like most of the meals on Selingan, the food was buffet-style and fine but nothing special), and then watched a short film about turtles and the three Turtle Islands and their conservation efforts. I was fascinated to hear that what happens to the hatchlings until they reach maturity, around 15–30 years later, remains largely mysterious. After the film, came the waiting — the arrival time can vary, and it was after 10 pm that the tourists were able to go to the beach the night before.

We got the call just after 9 pm, and hurried down to the beach by torchlight. Although about 30 females came to the island that night, we were only allowed to watch one of them nesting, in order to minimise the disturbance. The rangers measured the young adult female green turtle and then, as it was her first visit to the island, tagged her flippers. She laid 67 eggs in all; they look exactly like ping pong balls. The rangers collected the eggs, and we proceeded to the hatchery, where they were buried in the sand inside an enclosed space labelled with the date, clutch size and turtle species. Finally, we got to watch the rangers release 21 newly hatched baby turtles into the sea. Happily, they all made it safely.

In the morning, I got up at sunrise (6 am) in the hope that I might see a turtle still nesting on the beach. Alas, they had all gone, so I went for breakfast. I later discovered that my tour-mates, who went to the beach later, did see an adult female on the beach, although she didn’t nest. We were on the boat by 7 am and back in Sandakan before long. One of the things that impressed me most about Borneo Eco Tours, was how it all ran like clockwork — even though throughout this second day, various other couples or small groups joined us and then branched off again, depending on their specific tour. In total, there were nine of us with Jumanji: three couples, the two British women and me.

We travelled by bus to Sepilok, and after watching a video about the plight of orangutans and the efforts of the centre to rehabilitate injured and/or orphaned apes, we went to the outdoor nursery. Unusually, an adult male was in there, hanging out on a swing, keeping an eye on the 6–8-year-olds (the younger apes live in the indoor nursery) who were busy learning the skills they need for their return to the wild. On the way to the 10 am feeding, we spotted a pregnant female walking along the boardwalk right in front of us. And then on the feeding platform, there were two mothers with young babies, so I feel that we did quite well on the orangutan front.

We then visited the neighbouring Sun Bear Conservation Centre, where we saw several sun bears — the world’s smallest bear (although about my size), named for the golden sunburst around their necks. After lunch (another buffet) at the Sabah Hotel in Sandakan, we returned to the jetty for the two-and-a-half-hour speed boat ride to Sukau Rainforest Lodge. The journey passed in a jiffy — I loved watching the scenery on both sides of the river, and our eagle-eyed guide even spotted a rare pygmy elephant (one of Borneo’s ‘big five’) feeding by the side of the river.

After the basic nature of the Selingan lodgings, Sukau was a lot smarter. We were welcomed in the hall of the lodge with a cold drink, and were then taken to our rooms. I was in one of the superior rooms, which was tastefully decorated and had twin beds, a rainfall shower and a window seat for wildlife observation, where I saw monkeys playing one afternoon. If you upgrade to the larger villas, you probably have a better chance of spotting more wildlife as they are more secluded. Each room is named for one of the conservation fellows, but unfortunately, I didn’t get the room where Sir David Attenborough stayed during his visit to Sukau.

We soon headed out on our first wildlife-spotting cruise in a small boat along the river. During the two (and a bit) days we were at Sukau, we went on two afternoon boat trips and another at sunrise on the second morning. During these trips, we saw dozens of different birds, including kingfishers, herons, egrets, some rare storm storks, and different species of hornbill including the rhinoceros hornbill (another of the Borneo big five).

We also saw many, many monkeys, including Borneo’s proboscis monkeys with their big bellies and long noses (another of the big five), various macaques and a couple of small crocodiles (also in the big five). Alas, no orangutans came to greet us — the fact that it finally rained on the second afternoon didn’t help; at Sepilok we learned that despite living in the rainforest, orangutans dislike the rain.

I also paid about £15 extra to go on a night cruise, where we saw a Malaysian civet with a tabby neck and spotty coat, flying foxes and other bats, hornbills, a tiny croc, and two types of kingfisher. At night time, it’s easier to get closer to the birds roosting in the trees so my photos came out better than expected. It was very atmospheric to float along the river in the dark, looking at all the stars and the Milky Way.

After returning from our sunrise boat trip, we went on a nature walk around the rainforest boardwalk that is part of the lodge. We didn’t see much but I returned several more times, spotting butterflies, squirrels, and, to my horror, a snake weaving in and out of the boardwalk. It wasn’t venomous but I’m afraid of snakes and I was wearing flip-flops, so I swiftly retraced my steps back to the lodge. There are a couple of dipping pools too, which I made good use of given that it got up to 33C one day.

The lodge’s restaurant is located right by the river, and it was a lovely setting. The food was good (mostly a mix of Asian and western dishes), although it was a shame that it was all buffet style. We were also encouraged to wear the sarongs provided in our room. It took a little while to master the wrapping, but it certainly made a difference from the khaki green life jackets.

On the last morning, we didn’t leave until 9 am so I had hoped for a lie-in but the monkeys had other ideas — this is, of course, the nature of staying in the jungle. I went for one last stroll around the boardwalk on the off chance that I might see an orangutan (I didn’t), and then it was time to board the boat for the ride back to Sandakan. After a brief encounter with the coastguard (they wanted to check our driver’s documentation), we returned to the jetty, and then after another hotel lunch at Hotel Sandakan — this time we could have a custom stir fry dish cooked to order if we were buffet-ed out — we were dropped off at Sandakan airport.

Needless to say, I had a wonderful time. We packed a lot in during the four days, and the sheer number of species we saw was impressive. The orangutan was the only one of the Borneo big five we didn’t see in the wild, although the encounters at Sepilok more than made up for it, and the experiences on Selingan Island were very special indeed. My two fellow Brits extended their tour with a couple of days in Danum Valley, deeper into the jungle, and although I’d have liked to have spent more time in Borneo, I thought my tour gave me a good taster to whet my appetite for future visits to the island.

I’d recommend Borneo Eco Tours as an operator and our guide, Jumaidi, was knowledgeable, hard-working, passionate and funny. I was also pleased by the efforts to minimise single-use plastic usage: there was filtered water available in a dispenser on Selingan, at Sukau and on the Borneo Eco Tours buses.

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