We got hooked on the idea of diving in south east Borneo in the hope of seeing the Bajau people fishing … An idea we got from some wonderful pictures by the talented Tim Allen.
With that as our goal we added on some jungle trips to see a bat exodus at the Mulu Caves and the orangutans at the Kinabatangan River just outside of Sandakan.
I’ve been to Borneo twice now. Once to Brunei (Do.Not.Bother) and the other time to the Malaysian provinces.
Malaysian Borneo totally blew our expectations out of the water. Just like the Phillapino fishermen blast for fish off the coast (the biggest fright I have ever got diving). So far 4 groups of our friends and family have used our itinerary and beta to do the same trip.
Important: if you want to save the wildlife from the tragic deforestation happening all over this island spend lavishly (like a few dollars) on local homestays rather that ecolodges. This gives people a real economic alternative to palm oil.
My sister and I each took responsibility for a segment and booked a two plus week trip – after spending some time doing some dental tourism in Thailand.
After flying via Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu (for about AUD40 with AirAsia) and staying at The Palace Hotel (relatively cheap dive, but seems to have been upgraded since and had the all important pool) Claire ate her first meal in days at a local roti Chennai place adjacent to the mall across the street. Amazing but I couldn’t give you directions if I tried. Spoiler, she got food poisoning in Thailand.
We then invested in a bag of salt for the leeches that we were meant to encounter in the jungle – unnecessary unless you’re going jungle trekking. I love hiking but not in those temperatures. Canopy walks and boat trips to see wildlife are just perfect.
Midyear is the best time to visit Sabah – dry season. But it’s still steamy!
We then took a $50 return flight to Mulu on MAS wings airlines on a little propeller plane. Incredible to see the jungle and the deforestation.
We stayed just outside the reserve in a homestay with the head local conservationist and his family which was a treat. Amazing food but basic accommodation and ablutions folks. They picked us up from the airport. Think they have all upscale since we were there looking at the website. Can walk to the park from the homestays.
Best food was at a longhouse just outside the park entrance. Lemon chicken and these amazing fern shoots.
We did a couple of tours organised at the visitors center – including a river cruise and the canopy walk, both awesome. But the best stuff was free – the bats which emerge for hours starting at about 4pm every day, and the night walks we did along the boardwalk with head torches. So many creepy crawlies!
Back to KK, and straight on to Sandakan.
Fly when you can, bus trips are loonnngggg and almost the same price
Grabbed a taxi to the Sepilok orangutan rehab centre. A must do.
From KK we had organised a shuttle from Sepilok to Sakau on the banks of the Kinabantangan River.
Mr Choy runs a shuttle between the Kinabatangan river and Sandakan: 019 536 1889. Call him when you are in Borneo.
All the fancy eco resorts are on the other side of these river but we wanted to stay with local folk and chose the last guesthouse on that road. My parents subsequently stayed at the Green View guesthouse and also enjoyed it.
Somewhere in the depths of Google is a map of the area that we used but this place is changing rapidly.
All these houses offer river outings multiple times a day. Morning and evenings are best for wildlife. Best to take a boat with people interested in the same things as you are. Loads and loads to see.
On the way back (Mr Choy drove us again) we needed to kill time in Sandakan. Not the greatest town and Claire wasn’t feeling well so we opted for a drink and mooch at the Hiltons infinity pool. Great choice.
From here it was a bit of an effort and some time to get to Mabul Island, where we had decided to base ourselves for diving. Flew in and out of Tawau, the Mabul Backpackers had organised everything including a (dodgy) taxi to and from Semporna (but we got there eventually), a night at the Sipidan Inn in Semporna (firm miss), our transfer to Mabul Island, and all accommodation and diving. Good pricing too!
Worthwhile taking a walk around the island and grabbing some local donut type things that are sold at the stalls in the village.
Best to stay on a pretty island close to the reefs rather than Semporna on the mainland which is dire and far from anything – although we dove Sipidan with a mainland dive company and had to go back for that day.