Hiking, Diving & Wildlife in Sabah – Borneo!

Kinabalu descent

There’s something to be said for being flexible and listening to travel advice from fellow nomads.  Travel plans were nearly locked in surrounding my sister visits, but my buddies over at SmashAdventures spoke with such passion about their Borneo excursions that I doubled back from Thailand down to Malaysia at the first opportunity.  I briefly contemplated spending my birthday lounging on a beach with a sugary drink in each hand, but that’s just not me.  I needed action, adventure and animals!  Here’s the Big 3 from a fast-paced 10 day birthday celebration in beautiful Borneo:

1)   Climb Mt Kinabalu

I was not in shape for this one, folks.  The relentless uphill hike might generally be a piece of cake, but I’d had too many pieces of actual birthday cake the night before!  This is the plan: hike up several hours to mountain lodges, enjoy dinner, try to get some rest, get up and ready to hike again around 2am, grab a bite to eat before finishing the ascent to 13,435 ft summit by sunrise.  Enjoy the view from the highest point in Borneo and the Malay Archipelago before the journey down.  The trek took me around 10 hour total over the two days.  Whereas the record is somewhere around 2.5 hrs.  Close, real close.  Expect rain, which makes the slab of rock very slick, and prepare to fork over too much cash (guide, lodging/food, permit)!

2)   Dive Sipadan

Off the eastern coast of Borneo the disputed*  island of Sipadan becons divers.  During my two dives I swam with numerous sharks, schools of barracudas, turtles and more.  The water was the warmest I’ve dove in to date and the visibility was top notch.  The currents were swift, but that just resulted in lazy drift dives!  Not a problem.  I also logged my 50th dive here, hooray!

Check out this video of a barracuda tornado:

Only downside is everything outside diving Sipadan – the town of Semporna and the island of Mabul (launching point for Sipadan).  Mabul has the potential to be a paradise destination, but for now there is trash everywhere and sewage dumped straight onto the shoreline.  Word of advice if you’re heading here, learn from my mistake, pay a little more for a for a decent dive shop (I know, it’s already expensive to begin with) if they have a permit available.

*The island is a territorial border dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia.  Even though the Int’l Court of Justice sides w/Malaysia in 2002, there was military presence armed in a lookout bunker on the island.  Supposedly an Indonesian boat had been seen in their waters the week before.

3)   Orangutans!


Borneo and the island of Sumatra are the only natural habitats for orangutans.  The Orangutan Rescue Center near Sepilok allows visitors to watch these great apes at feeding time.  I hung around after everyone left and was treated to an up-close encounter when a handful came down to the boardwalk rather than take the trees.

More animals! Just south of Sepilok is the town of Sukau where boat ride tours are possible along the Kinabatangan river.  Our boat driver was trying very hard to spot all the creatures along the banks, but alas there was no wild orangutan sighting that day, but we did encounter plenty of the amazing proboscis monkey and pig-and-long tailed macaques.  Mattiah and Sasha over at smashadventures (click for photo) lucked out and not only saw wild orangutans, but pygmy elephants too.  Very jealous of their elephant encounter! This boat ride was a half day trip departing from Sepilok, but it’s possible to stay in more rustic accommodations along the river…bring a gallon of bugspray!!!

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