Borneo

May 1999

For this diving trip we would love to see mantas. So we checked several diving destinations where regularly mantas were spotted and Sangalaki had almost the whole year around a large group of mantas swimming around the island. When we saw that we had to travel by Malaysia and not by Indonesia, we decided to book a week extra to do a jungle trip at Sabah. Just 2 days after we had booked our trip, it started to get very troubled in the run of the elections. Borneo006.jpgEspecially at Kalimantan, almost 400 people got killed here. We had doubted a little whether we should go or not, but as Sangilaki was a very small island far from the inhabited world and not far with the border of Borneo, which could be reached by boat, we decided to go. We did notice nothing of the political tensions, except for 2 moments, the times that we arrived and left Berau, where you saw one car after another with the red Golkar flags, and they were shouting Golkar slogans.

We flew in at Sandakan, from where we went by jeep to Sukau, a small settlement at the Kinabatangan river. The Kanabatangan area is the last part of virgin rainforest of Borneo. The Kinabatangan river is the largest river of Borneo and a part of its basin belongs to one of the richest ecosystems of the world. You find here in a relatively small area so many animal- and plant life, including some very rare species. The Kanabatang area is specially known for its proboscis monkeys, with their big noses and a small population of forest elephants. Before arriving here, we drove several hours along enormous palm tree plantations. A really desolate view all those deforested hills where they had planted millions of palm trees in lines. Not far from the Gomatang caves we saw to our surprise our first orang-utan. We had Borneo013.jpgnot expected to see one in the wild, although we had hoped to see one. And this spot was not really virgin rainforest, it was not that far from a palm tree plantation. He/she was not adult yet. Probably she was fed every now and then by the bird’s nests collectors and other people who came here regularly. The Gomatang caves are limestone caves, known for its edible bird’s nests which swiftlets make of their saliva, a Chinese delicacy. It must be quite a hell of job to collect those nests, we saw still some very small rope-ladders all the way up in the caves. There were also other cave dwellers, bats. The floor of the cave was full with cockroaches, feeding on every available organism, and leaving nothing to waste. What a smell in those caves! The entrance of the cave was quite covered, just when we wanted to enter the cave, our guide pointed up. Just above our head we saw a big yellow snake hanging, a beauty, over 2 meters long. He could not tell us what kind of snake it was. He shouted to one of the locals that there was a snake, when we came out of the caves, the snake was gone. At the end of the day we arrived at Sukau, from there we went by boat to a jungle lodge, which was beautifully located at the Kanabatagan river. From here we made several boat trips and hikes. The boat Borneo012.jpgtrips were really great. From the boat we saw hundreds of proboscis monkeys, especially the males have big, round, flat hanging noses. Several times they jumped just in front of our boat to the other side. But some just splashed next to our boat in the water and spattered us wet, as if they did it on purpose. This was great to watch, they really had fun splashing in the water. But it was quite difficult to get good pictures of them, they were so lively. We also saw several other monkeys, especially long tailed and short tailed macaques, several species of lizards and lots of birds. The hornbill is really an impressive bird. And as usual we had again bad luck with the boat. During one of the boat trips the motor felt out. At that time we were several hours upstream of the lodge. Our boatswain had only one peddle and peddled slowly back to the lodge. We were sitting already for some hours in the dark at the boat, telling tall stories with our 2 Australian fellow-travellers, when another boat reached us. When our boat had not returned 2 hours after sunset, they went searching for us. Against 23.00 PM we returned at the lodge. The owner was that kind to prepare for us an extended diner, as we were starving.

Borneo017.jpgBack at Sandakan we visited the Sepilok Orang-utanReception Centre and Reserve. After a trip to virgin rainforest this was more a zoo excursion, but as they are such a great animals, I still wanted to visit this reserve. The Reception Centre / Reserve is some tens km² large, so they have some space. In this area they have several feeding spots, where we could admire some orang-utans. One adult male had been released several times in the wild, quite far from the reserve, but every time he found the way back to the reserve. It is of course quite comfortable to have fixed feeding spots with every day fresh food, so finally the people of the reserve gave up releasing him. And an adult male is of course an attraction for the reserve, besides the many young orang-utans.

From Sandakan we flew to Tawau and then to Kalimantan, Berau. The last part went by speedboat to Sangalaki. Sangalaki is a real tropical paradise, with beautifully white beaches, very small, within 25 minutes with low tide, you walk around the island. Except for a diving centre there is nothing, just 9 cabins for 2 persons and a few cabins for personnel and a community cabin. When we arrived there were 5 tourists, including a German camera crew who just had made a documentary about the turtles of Sangalaki. They left the following day. So we had 10 days the island for ourselves, except for a staff of 17 locals. The last couple of days 4 other divers had arrived. So it was a very quiet island. And Sangalaki was indeed the right spot to see mantas. Almost every day we Borneo037.jpgsaw many mantas, sometimes 12-15 mantas were circling around us, very impressive. Such a gorgeous animals, they swim/float so elegant. You have here 2 different types of mantas, the most were grey mantas with a white belly and some black mantas (dark grey) with a black belly as well. They were not that big as we had hoped, the most were just about 3 meters. But you never get enough of seeing mantas, every time we exited to spot them. But Sangalaki has more to offer than mantas. Sangalaki has an enormous variety of corals, soft and hard corals. Every dive it was like a movie passed by. So many fishes, also many new fishes for us (and we have seen already a lot), from the common fishes, like the butterfly- and emperor fishes, we saw also some new colours and patterns. Sangalaki is an underwater paradise for macro photographers, you saw hundreds of different snails and gobi’s. We had seen already several beautiful gobi’s, but we did not know that there were that many and such a special species. Very impressive! Many fishes we had only seen in books and documentaries, like very special and rare dragon fishes and ghost pipe fishes. We had a very enthusiastic dive guide, Yogi. Every dive he searched for those special fishes, he really had an eye for this. 2 Species of ghost pipe fishes just looked like a piece of seaweed, you really had to be with your nose almost on top of him to recognize and see him, he found them many times. Also some special gobi’s were just one cm. Mostly we made 3 dives a day, we also went to some of the neighbour islands to dive. Kakaban had something special, a big sweet water lake with 4 species of jelly-fish who don’t sting. There are only 2 spots more in the world where they have a sweet water lake with jelly-fish. You just could touch the jelly-fish, we did not dive here, just snorkling.

Borneo023.jpgAnother specialty of Sangalaki is its giant green sea turtles, 1,2 to 1,5 m big. They are nestling here all year through. We were at the low season for nestling turtles, but every night you saw 5-6 turtles digging their nests and laying their eggs around our cabin. Our cabin stood at piles. Some nights a turtle even dug under our cabin her nest. The first night’s this was great, but she makes a noise! First she had to dig all the sand away, so the sand and often her legs touched the piles regularly, and the laying the eggs. This costs quite some efforts, at each egg a heavy sigh and she can lay 80 to 100 eggs. The first few nights we watched the turtles, you just could sit aside carefully if she was laying her eggs. We saw also some nests hatch, we had seen this before in Oman, but this remains so special, so impressive to watch. Within a few minutes you see one tiny baby turtle after one other crawling out of the sand at almost the same spot, average 70-80 turtles per nest. It is a pity that in Asia turtle eggs are a delicacy. People pay 2-3 USD per egg. Officially the giant green sea turtle is protected, but for 10.000 USD you can buy a permit which allows you to collect in a certain region all the nests. At Sangalaki and its neighbour islands there was also an ‘egg collector’. Each morning before sunrise, he had already collected all the eggs that were laid that night. The diving centre was not that happy with the ‘egg collector’, but could not do anything against it. Then somebody had come with the idea that tourist can adopt a nest. This costs 20 USD, 10 USD for the ‘egg collector’, so he will leave the nest in peace. What he does, he also realizes that he must not collect all the nests, otherwise there won’t be any turtles left in the future, so no more income. The other 10 USD goes to a man of the diving centre, who watches the nests carefully. He makes a sign with the name of the adoption parent and date and number of the nest. At many spots you saw those signs. It Borneo028.jpgtakes 58 to 60 days before a nest hatches. So we watched well which nests had to hatch. So did the man of the diving centre. At the time a nest had to hatch, he put a bottomless crate at the nest. Several times a day he checked the nests, although the most nests hatch at night. Through the crate the baby turtles remained in the crate, than he made some pictures and counted the baby turtles and they were put into a basket. When it was completely dark the baby turtles were released at the beach, another picture was made and the pictures were sent to the adoption parent. So now there was also a sign, Anja & Han, 24-5-1999, nest 188. So within 2 months we will be the proud parents of a whole nest of baby turtles. A nice idea, to adopt nests, for protection. Due to this idea we saw several nests hatch. Those nights the turtle watcher knocked at our door and called baby turtles, so we jumped out of our bed. 2 Nests we saw hatch completely, 2 others for the second half. We helped counting and putting them in a basket. When we were watching the hatch, a crate was not used. Baby turtles are such a beauties, so tiny, you hardly can imagine that some will be one day 1,5 m big. The can get 100 years old. With 30-35 years the females lay their first nest. Also with diving we saw many sea turtles, we also saw them coupling. Borneo032.jpgSome females have to endure a lot with quite some attackers. A few times we saw a coupling that a second and a third male tried to climb at the first male and tries to get rid of him. We only saw adult turtles, only once we saw a semi adult turtle. The first night when we had arrived at Sangalike we talked with one of the Germans of the camera crew who was filming the giant green sea turtle. He told us there is still very little known about the childhood of these turtles and where they remain for the first 30 years. This was his 4th turtle Borneo033.jpgdocumentary. There were also some big monitor lizards at Sangalaki, unfortunately also these lizards are regarded as delicacy, so many adult ones are caught. Some were 1,3 m long (with tail). You also saw several coconut crabs, real  whoppers, many even bigger as a coconut. With their claws they can crack coconuts. But we saw only some unsuccessful attempts. Or is it just a tall story that they can crack coconuts? But they do have enormous claws!

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