Wednesday, April 29, 2009

TMsquared in Sabah 2008

Three most meaningful trips last year: Pantu, Penang... and Sabah. The series comes full circle. The plan was hatched in early May, and the secret well-guarded until 18 August itself.

SooT was all up for it, and in so many ways no words can express how grateful I am for the seven days (17-23 August) he put aside for this crazy idea. Thanks, brother.

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We spent the few hours after arrival at Borneo Backpackers hiking over the nearby hill to the Wetlands to do some practice shooting. The sun set during our journey back, and Kota Kinabalu (KK) prepared for the night.

Golden Screen Cinemas KK is housed in a refurbished old cinema building, so the halls are really big (unlike the puny-in-comparison shopping mall cineplexes we are now so used to). We watched WALL-E.

Borneo Backpackers, our KK base-of-operations. Comfortable and good value for the money; they also provide free airport transfer.

The reason we flew over in the first place. So we spent the first half of 18 August on the campus grounds of Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), exploring the Marine Centre and some of the faculties, before heading back to town for a late lunch.

That night, SooT and I had supper over a game of chess. I forgot the name of the place, but it's open-air with a simple roof, somewhere in the middle of town. The lamb was quite good for the price.

On Day Three we made the six-hour bus journey across Sabah to Sepilok, where we were to spend the night before heading off to Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp for the second half of the Sabah trip.

It was SooT who suggested doing something more than just the surprise visit, "since we'd be there anyway."

Pool table at Uncle Tan's Sepilok B&B.

Naturally, we visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC).

I had all the time and space to photograph these two when the crowd went after a lone orangutan who climbed onto the boardwalk, presumable en route to some other part of the centre. SooT went after that one...

... and got close enough for this!

We then explored the walking trail at the SORC; it is open to all, but visitors who intend to use the trail must inform the staff at the ticketing counter.

Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp is situated on the Kinabatangan flood plains, an area described thus by Lonely Planet (2007):

"Logging and clearing for plantations have devastated the upper reaches of the river, but by a strange irony the riverine forest near the coast is so hemmed in by oil-pam plantations that an astonishing variety of wildlife is crammed into its limited boundaries."

Incidentally, National Geographic ran an article in November 2008 on Borneo's vanishing biodiversity, highlighting monoculture oil palm plantations the greatest enemy to diversity.

The article quoted Glen Reynolds, chief scientist at Danum Valley Field Centre: "All of the big areas of primary lowland forest that can be conserved already have been. It's difficult, but now what you've got to do is convince people that what we think of as degraded forest can sustain biodiversity."

On the first night, we went on river safari, led by the incredible guide Tony. He could pick out a python amidst tall grasses from the middle of the (rather wide) river.

It was quite cold, as you can see; SooT is huddled up in my poncho.


We were fortunate enough to see the legendary Borneo Pygmy Elephants, Elephas maximus borneensis, a subspecies of the Asian Elephant. Tony was determined to find them, as we found signs of their presence in the damaged flora on some parts the riverbank.

After nearly half an hour racing downstream, we heard the trumpet calls of the elephants. We stayed on to watch them take a midnight bath in the river.

This Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis) was spotted on the next morning's river cruise.

Uncle Tan's is home to quite a formidable collection of books and handguides on the local flora and fauna, and a number of Kapok guitars which the guides use for their nightly jamming.

SooT was hoping to catch a glimpse of the Bearded Pig (Sus barbatus), not knowing they roamed the camp in not-so-small numbers!

(On our last morning in camp, I took a walk into the nearby forest by the lake and actually bumped into one. Our encounter, however, was very brief, the dear boar disappearing as soon as it realised it had been spotted.)

Bats asleep in a banana leaf. Spotted by Remy the land guide on our trek into the surrounding forest.

There were a number of strangling fig trees (Ficus sp.) in the forest.

The Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis) was a big hit with the European tourists, especially the Italians. Malaysians, and UM students especially, should be exceptionally familiar with this very mischievous animal.

This particular fellow seemed poised to attack me, and I was fortunate enough (probably with a lot of help from SooT) that the monkey thought the better of it and retreated. The kitchen windows are covered with wire mesh to keep the invaders away.

Another common sight at the camp: the Monitor Lizard (Varanus sp.).

On my way to the bathroom/toilet complex in the evening, I stumbled upon this frog which was resting on a leaf.

We went on our third river cruise on the evening of the second day at camp, and managed to see lots of Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) up in the trees.

It was 'mission accomplished' for us as we'd been able to see all the animals we'd hoped so much to see: for me, the Pygmy Elephant and the Proboscis Monkey, and for SooT, the Bearded Pig.

A night view of the raised huts at Uncle Tan's.

We learnt that kingfishers (such as this Blue-eared Kingfisher, Alcedo meninting) are nearly blind at night. On the night walk led by Jeff, I was able to get within 20 centimetres of this bird resting on a low branch.

We even managed to spot, very briefly, what Jeff believes was the Binturong, or Bearcat (Arctictis binturong).

That night, some of us baited the Malay Civet (Viverra tangalunga) with biscuits. The civet would approach the food in the complete darkness, aware, of course, of our presence simply by its sense of smell. And then countless camera flashes would go off and the (no doubt startled) civet would retreat down the steps.

This cycle continued twice or thrice, and then everyone left for bed. I stayed on in hopes of one or two more shots, but the furry fellow kept its distance. Occasionally I heard a growl or two coming from down the steps, and truly it was quite spine-chilling!

On the morning of the third day, I took a walk to the nearby lakes in hopes of catching a glimpse of some otters. It was in vain, but I did get a few shots of the egret.

It's true when they say, "It isn't over till it's over." On our boat ride back from camp, we stumbled upon two egrets resting on some pieces of wood in the river, near the bank. I asked Ampong, our boatman and one of the guides, to get closer for some photographs. Up to this point, all my egret shots had been lacklustre owing to the limited range of my 55-200mm lens and my carelessness in metering and framing.

To my amazement (and delight!), the egrets did not take off as expected, but stayed put long enough for me to get shots of them at rest, and later in flight. It was only upon inspection on the computer screen much later that I realised I'd photographed, in a single frame, the two species of egret that live in the Kinabatangan area: the yellow-billed Great Egret (Egretta alba) and the black-billed Little Egret (Egretta garzetta).

The 'jetty'.

We flew back in the evening, in time for dinner with Audrey, Yen, Joan and Zheng at Kim Gary, Mid Valley. For all the amazing animals we saw in the Kinabatangan, I daresay Homo sapiens remains among the most enigmatic of creatures on this planet!

Yen hosted SooT and I that night. Thanks, Yen!

I was glad to be home finally, on 23 August. I'm sure my dear Canis familiaris was glad too!

(It is somewhat ironic that I should be naming these animals, having spent the day studying systematics and taxonomy ahead of my test on Thursday!)

* * * * *

Polypedates leucomystax, from the courtyard pond at Rimba Ilmu.

28 April is Save the Frogs Day.

Frogs were a major part of this semester's coursework. We cut up lots of them in search of parasites.

There exists a void in local zoological studies where the herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) are concerned. And certainly there are not enough parasitologists apart from the medical parasitologists who are mainly occupied with zoonotic diseases.

It occurred to me, along the way, that I might want to study these things in greater depth, and I do believe I've coined a new term: herpeparasitology.

Who knows?...


siedne said...

Aaah the best kept secret of the better half of last year! ;)

wideopensky said...

love the orang utan pic

silentsoliloquy said...


SimianD said...

Which orangutan pic? :-P