Malaysia’s Wildlife – Sipadan and Tioman

Terrestial Life Forms of Sipadan Island

Sipadan island, off Sabah, has in recent years become synonymous with scuba diving but Dr Chua Ee Kiam and Billy Kon took time out to beach-comb and trek the dwindling patch of rainforest, discovering not only gigantic Robber Grabs but a Green Turtle nesting and the elusive Megapode bird.

A frenzied cry coming from the direction of the beach drowned the soft splash of water lapping on the shore and stirred the normally laid back divers and snorkelers on the verandah of Sipadan Divers (resort). The turtles have hatched! Everyone dashed out, making tracks for the beach, but carefully enough to avoid stamping out the life of these tiny creatures. Armed with torches, plastic bags and pails, the excited crowd combed the grounds to pick up the vulnerable hatchlings of Sipadan’s famous Green Turtles. These newly-hatched reptiles are particularly vulnerable to attacks by predatory rats, fish, monitor lizards and sea birds.

We noted with concern that instead of heading for the sea, these young reptiles were being drawn to the chalets by its bright lights. With so much commotion all around, the hatchlings appeared shell-shocked. Not surprisingly, when they were picked up and released on the beach, they still appeared disoriented and continued heading for the chalets, though the lights were now some distance away. Finally, gentle hands had to put them nearer the waterline and coax them into the sea. If not for the sandflies that were biting viciously that night, I felt good shepherding these baby turtles into the sea.

Cycle of Life

Getting the hatchlings in to the relative safety of the sea completes the birth process that had begun when the Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) had come ashore. Weighing up to 400 lbs (about 160 kilos), the gravid females come ashore when the tide is high. Heavy with eggs, it’s a struggle for the turtle to hoist and drag her body forward on the powdery soft sand. She searches for a suitable site. It should not be too dry or too wet. If too dry the eggs can get dehydrated, that is, all dried up. If too wet, the eggs may get washed out to sea when the tide is high. Finally she finds the right spot for her nest and, when it is time, she strains away, shedding copious tears to flush the sand out of her eyes. When all her eggs have been laid, she uses her flippers to cover them with sand to protect them from the elements and also from human and other predators like monitor lizards, crabs and rats. That done, the Green Turtle heads back to sea. The hatching period is usually 5060 days. Billy and I were lucky to see a Green Turtle nesting. Lucky because security measures forbade visitors to walk on the beach at night and night rambles through the forest were also strictly forbidden. But, thanks to the goodwill of the Wildlife Department, we managed to see the ponderous Green Turtle in her nest. The next morning we saw from the trails made by the turtles that at least 10 managed to come ashore, but not all the turtles laid their eggs. This could have been due to either human interference or the unsuitability of sites on this beach.

Observing an elusive bird

It was also a distinctive cry that drew our attention to another of Sipadan’s terrestrial life form. This time it was the maniacal cat-like cry of the Megapode bird (Megapodius cummingii) which occurred in the morning. When tracked to its source, we found this large brown bird scratching the ground, churning up the leaves and even the earth. Its large claws, much like a chicken’s claws, were effective excavators. These birds rummage the forest floor looking for fallen fruits, snails and worms. The male of the Megapode plays a most useful role in ensuring that the eggs laid by the females are kept at the right temperature. First of all, the male uses his beak to detect the temperature of the egg chamber, then he makes the necessary adjustments. If more warmth is needed, he adds more decaying vegetation, if the temperature needs to be lowered, he adds sand. We were most pleasantly surprised to see this bird as it had been so elusive when we tried to see it on an earlier trip to Pulau Tiga, off the west coast of Sabah.

Birds Galore

Besides the Megapode, the cackle of the White-collared Kingfisher often filled the air as we trekked through the remnants of the rainforests. Then, following the coos of the Pied Imperial Pigeon (Ducula bicolor), we were led to a flock of about six birds. Although a bland black and white, the Pied Imperial Pigeon’s creamy white is conspicuos as it rests on the island’s tall trees.

A common sight were the Nicobar Pigeons which could be seen feeding in the undergrowth and by the shore at low tide. In flight its short white tail is unmistakable. Roosting on the forest trees were migrant birds like the Blackcrowned Night heron. Other birds we encountered were the Green Imperial Pigeon, Olive-backed Sunbird and the Philippines Glossy Starling.

Coconut-feeding Crustaceans

But a main attraction for its on Sipadan were the Robber Crabs, also known as Coconut Crab (Birgus latro). This largest of terrestrial anthropods has been so named because they are widely believed to feed only on coconuts; however they will also scavenge for anything organic on the ground. Incidentally no one has reported seeing these Coconut Crabs pry open the coconuts but certainly their huge claws would be capable of tearing the husk open. Robber crabs are awesome creatures. Bluish or coppery brown, these gigantic crabs are endemic to oceanic soils. They behave like typical hermit crabs. Protected by law, and by the sea shells they use as their “home”, they grow until they are too large for the shell, which they shed. After this shedding they continue to grow until they reach gigantic proportions.

Besides these huge Robber crabs we also encountered a Box-crab (possibly a Calappa hepatica). Gently turning it over we saw a wing-like expansion of the carapace which allows its legs to be concealed when withdrawn. This means it is totally protected when upright.

Rare Finds

The other land creatures we encountered include two distinctively colored snails (belonging to the F. Camacnidae family) and skinks, with their blue tails. Sensing our presence, the skinks scurried through the undergrowth and up the coconut trees. Skinks have conical heads, somewhat similar to a snake’s head, cylindrical bodies and long tails. They are often seen basking in the sun. Not without good reason. The sun’s rays help to thermo-regulate them, maintaining a body temperature that is suited for activity to begin. We could not identify the species we saw but surmised that it was probably a juvenile as some of the slightly larger skinks do not have blue tails.

We also knew that we could come across pangolins. These scaly creatures, also known as ant-eaters, had been introduced because the islanders found too many ants for their comfort. Most memorable, it was not the dwindling forest, it was our walk on the firm oceanic floor when the tide was out. The tide went far out to sea.

Beach Combing Bonaza

In the shallow tidal pools we spotted sea cucumbers, star fish, brittle stars and even moray eels, a giant clam and a puffer fish about a foot long. This fish got stranded in the shallows when the tide receded. We also saw sea snakes among the sea grass and more crabs. If it were not for the steady drizzle we would have walked right to the edge of the drop-off!. We had not imagined that beachcombing could be such a fruitful and thrilling experience.

More thrills were in stock when we donned borrowed flippers and snorkels and went snorkeling off the jetty. Immediately we were mesmerized by the verdant liquid universe we encountered. I was a tremendous experience swimming with a pack of 300-400 jacks. One could actually feel the tails of these fish, each fish measuring more than a foot in length, flapping against our sides.

Then, near the drop-off, a barracuda swam close and eyed us. I could never forget this experience. It was on my mind as our launch chugged across the plateau, back to Semporna on mainland Sabah. We counted more than 10 Green Turtles finning in the shallows. They were probably cruising around, waiting to come ashore to lay their eggs, later in the night. Then, the azure waters surrounding Sipadan slowly faded as we put more distance between us. But the beauty of the island was partly masked by the diesel fumes exuded by our launch!

Pulau Langkawi

Pulau Tioman

Bukit Tinggi 1

Sprawling sub-montane hills at 3,500 ft above sea level, is privately owned by Berjaya Resort.

Mulu National Park

Gunung Mulu National Park is named after Mount Mulu, the second highest mountain in Sarawak. Access is via MAS to Mulu Airport – a short distance from the Park. Watch the spectacle of millions of bats flying out before twilight (27 species have been recorded). Near the entrance is Deer cave – a huge cave with the roof as high as 90m and from inside, one can view the profile of Abraham Lincoln. Venture to Clearwater and Wind caves by boat to fully appreciate the magnificience of a World Heritage site.

Long Pasia

The intrepid pair were lured by stories of the glorious pitcher plants in that remote region but they found far more -not only heath forests rich in medicinal plants, rhododendrons, and a splendid show of wild orchids in bloom, but a graveyard of burial jars on a hill so ancient that no tribal person could tell them when this mysterious burial ground was abandoned.

Far south of Kota Kinabalu, close to the Sarawak border, is Long Pasia, a fertile basin which is home to the Lundayeh Muruts, one of Sabah’s tribal people. Enticed by stories of the glorious pitcher plants in that remote region of Borneo we headed for their village which was to be our base ‘camp’ while we explored the nearby hills and mountain, covered with heath forest.

It was fortunate that we had planned our ‘adventure’ for March (1996), as it was their dry season. Had we tried to get into the village during their rainy season, we would have found ourselves sloshing in leech-covered mud and torrential rain. Even then it was an arduous trek into the village of about 40 homes and 200 odd villagers. (see box on ‘Getting There’). The Lundayeh Muruts still live a life very little different from that of their ancestors hundreds of years before them. They plant hill padi and harvest bamboo shoots, mushrooms, ferns and many other edible plants from the nearby forest. They also harvest damar (a resin that is obtained from the bark of dipterocarp trees and used in some paints and coatings) for sale, and that appears to be their only commercial activity

They hunt deer and wild boar which are abundant and fish in the clear, clean waters of the Pasia and Matang Rivers. Their village Long Pasia, in Lundayeh language, means “confluence” (Long) and “red river’ (Pa Sia).  

To us urbanites, loaded with our sophisticated gear, it was hard to fathom why anyone would want to live in such a remote place without any modern amenities whatsoever. But they appear a contented lot and their only health problem seems to be high blood pressure. This is apparently due to their heavy use of salt. As wild animals are plentiful, their hunts bring in more meat than they can immediately consume. So excess meats were salted.

That first night, after dining by flickering candlelight (there being no other forms of lighting), we found the chill creeping in. Night temperatures at this elevation (1000 metres), can be as low as 18 degrees C. Undeterred we decided to do some trekking by torchlight, led by our sure-footed Lundayeh guides.

On our way into the village we had passed clumps of the spectacular Torch Gingers (Etlingera sp.) and also grove after grove of bamboo. We headed out to see some luminescent fungi. We spotted some tiny ones but it was difficult to capture them on film. On the way, training our eyes across the river, we spotted a civet cat, probably on the prowl. We also met a couple of villagers who said they planned to spend the night by the streams, waiting for the fish to spawn that night. Like salmon, these fish also swim upstream to lay their eggs in the shallows where they are fertilised. Unfortunately, this is also the time when the fish, fat with roe, are most vulnerable. You guessed it. Some landed in our cooking pot!

We spent the night at the village, in one of the rooms in our guide’s home. Bed was a thin mattress and blanket was a bedsheet. When dawn broke, we were raring to climb another 1025 metres, to reach the 2025 metre high Bukit Rimau.

It was a slow climb of eight hours, over undulating terrain which drained our energies. But 1 must say that the slowness was due more to our frequent stops to photograph the splendours of nature, than anything else.

At the initial ascent we saw an Aroid in bloom, spotting it by its characteristic spike-shaped inflorescence. We also came across quite a few wild Ixoras, a woody shrub of about five metres festooned with orange flowers. Not only were we drawn to these outstanding blooms, but butterflies too crowded around them. In some areas of the lowland forest here, Tristania (from the Myrtaceae family) flourish. These tall trees which shed their easily – the bark peels off in scroll-like pieces, exposing bare and smooth trunks.

Another common sight were spiders with such gigantic abdomens their heads were well hidden. But not only are their abdomens outstanding in size but in colour too. A flashing metallic blue and orange hue, the spiders are probably so brilliantly coloured to warn predators of their toxicity. As we climbed higher, the vegetation changed. Rattans became common. Though attractive, they were a thorn in the side. Literally. This was because the extended rachis from their leaf stalk bore recurved spines that frequently ripped our clothing and tore into our flesh. Sometimes we even had to take a couple of paces back to detach the tenacious rachis. (Some thorns may remain in the flesh and the area could become tender and filled with pus. To prevent this, dig out all thorns with a Swiss knife.)

Another bugbear on these trails are the leeches, yes, even in the dry season, But special “white leech socks,” worn over the usual socks effectively protect the feet. Should any leeches manage to attach themselves on our skin, we find that the best way to dislodge them is to dab them with “Axe Balm” oil (Minyak Chap Kapak).

Naturally we were exhausted by the long trek -burdened too by heavy camera equipment. But the sight of the glorious pitchers that had lured us on the long hard haul to Long Pasia brought the smiles back. Nepenthes stenophylla were in abundance, most of them being aerial pitchers. At the plateau summit, we had a gloriously clear view and could see, far worked up an appetite. The hill rice tasted good with wild boar ‘jerky’ and rebung (bamboo shoots). The water, albeit clear, was the colour of tea due to the presence of tannin from fallen leaves. To be safe, we boiled the water before drinking.

Our native guides, in particular Fauzi bin Daud, were very knowledgeable about which plants were edible and which were not. They taught us that young rattan shoots, when trimmed off its tough covering, can also be eaten. It has a mild sweet taste and a light crunchy texture. After sampling some we could understand why elephants periodically raid the rattan plantations in Kinabatangan. (Kinabatangan river lies east of Sabah and herds of elephants are found there).

We also got to sample wild mushrooms. But only the fresh buds are tender. Once in full bloom the texture becomes as unchewable as leather. (Billy claims that nothing beats Nepalese chicken for rock-hard toughness.)

We also came by some wild raspberries. These are pretty but the berries have an empty core and taste a little insipid. Then we also had shoots which grow wild by the river’s edge. The villagers collect these and we found that it tastes like asparagus. Another edible plant, this one grows wild along the trails, is a fern which the locals call “Parkis”. Only the green shoots are collected. (The Malays also cook “Parkis” in a curry with sweet potato and it is delicious but these shoots are pinkish and could be a different species!)

Having mostly had bamboo shoots from cans or the markets, we now had a chance to taste it harvest-fresh. Our guides identified the rebung, deftly chopped it down and removed the outer covering. Even with the outer layer peeled off, the rebung was about the size of a small missile about 800 cm long and they said it would be enough to feed a family of five for a few days. We ate it and found the taste mild and refreshing without the tinge of urea odour one normally gets from barnboo shoots in the market. Besides the array of edible plants presented to us, we also learned that the forests around Long Pasia are rich in herbal/medicinal plants. But it was beyond our scope to explore this in the short time we had.

The next day, there were more uphill trails to tackle. Another woody shrub, we encountered, were the Rhododendrons with brightly-coloured and showy flowers. A few species were seen in the montane forests. (When photographing the blooms, do not move the branches too much. The petals drop off all too easily)

Many species of wild orchids were in full bloom, a visual feast for orchid fanciers! Trekking, here in the heath forest, was a little easier as the ground had a natural cushion-like feel to it. Heath forests (also known as “Kerangas”) are vegetation which can grow on nutrient poor cidic soils. Unlike the empty floor of lowland forests, the soil is covered with thick carpets of liverworts and mosses.

More glorious pitchers awaited us. The Nepenthes veitchii with their rims streaked with red, the almost sensuous N. reinwardtiana and the very attractive N. tentaculata. Our journey back to the village took us about 10 hours, due mostly to the numerous photo stops and detours we made.

The next day, as our primary objective – the pitchers -had been reached, we decided to climb a lower hill, Bukit Butoi, to investigate what we heard was a popular burial ground in the past.

We had to trek along some rather steep trails to get to this burial ground which was located at the mid-level of the hill. What we finally came on was a graveyard of earthenware jars, some of which were glazed. Some jars were placed on flat ground, some along the mountain edge and others in shallow caves We learned that this burial ground did not have a recent past, but a past shrouded in the mists of time and intriguing legends. How did the jars get there? Of what origin were they?

We learned from the local guides that these jars had been brought to Borneo in trading sailing ships, way back in history. Written records show that as early as the ninth century A.D., Borneo was trading with Imperial China and exporting camphor wood, pepper and bird’s nest. These precious cargoes had been stowed in earthenware jars.

But here in Borneo, among these tribal people, the large jars clearly found another use. Like something out of the Arabian Nights (shades of Ali Baba), we learned that the large jars were sectioned near the top and the deceased placed in it. The top was then replaced and a hole made at the bottom to allow the fluids to drain out.

A year later, the bones would be transferred to a smaller jar and then both the jars would be carried to the hill and laid to rest in the tranquil forest surroundings. The practice had been abandoned a long, long time ago. The villagers could not tell us when.

More mystery was in the air when we came on a mound, shaped like a tortoise, at one of the burial sites. The explanation the guides offered had a distinctly sinister ring to it. They said that this mound marked the place where the victors of tribal wars or disputes gathered to celebrate and drink themselves insensible after they had slain their enemies or rivals. Again they could not put any dates on when such gory celebrations had taken place and one can only surmise that it must have been at least a couple of hundred years ago. We heaved a sigh of relief that headhunting was definitely a thing of the past!

Our guides cleared the area, cutting down a few trees (reminded me of what we do during “Qin Ming”) and then solemnly observed a few moments of silence.

Having satisfied our curiosity about the burial grounds and the victory round, we began to observe the flora and fauna around Bukit Butoi. Bright orange longhorn acorns (seeds of oak trees) scattered on the forest floor and noted that they would be an important food source for mammals like the Bearded Pig. Besides the common Bearded Pig and also common Sambar Deer, our guide told us they frequently sighted Long-tailed Macaques, Gibbons and Red Leaf Monkeys. We only, heard the Gibbons call but spotted a black-spotted green frog. It sensed our presence and jumped off the instant my camera flashed. Naturally easier to see were the gingers with their brilliant scarlet flowers.

Before we left Long Pasia we made arrangements to photograph a Lundayeh girl and she turned up early the next morning waiting by our “landing” all rigged up in traditional attire. Like her fellow villagers, and our guide Fauzi bin Daud, she had a Malay name but they are mostly Christians. (The missionaries have been as busy as the loggers!)

Yet another Last and possibly Lost Frontier?
We have been told and we can believe that the forests around Long Pasia are home not only to the Lundayeh people (one of 32 ethnic groups in Sabah), but they also are a storehouse of medicinal plants. We can only fervently hope that these forests will be gazetted a national park before the loggers switch on their destructive electric saws. In adjacent Malingan, timber lorries ply the roads almost unceasingly From out plane we saw the scarred forests of Malingan. The forests of Long Pasia – are they the shrinking last frontiers of the once mighty wilderness in Borneo? Or will they end up as the lost frontier?

We wish to thank the following for assisting us to identify the flora & fauna in Long Pasia: Anthea Phillips (plants) Anthony Lamb (plants), Prof D H Murphy (beetle), Kelvin Lim (frog) and Joseph Koh (spider). References: Pitcher Plants of Borneo by Anthea Phillips & Anthony Lamb and Borneo Magazine Vol 2, Issue No. 2, March-April 1996. “Long Pasia -to the Borneo Triangle and Back” by Henry Coleman.

Getting There-A Long Hard Haul
Our trip was organised by Borneo’s Memories from Kota Kinabalu, capital city of Sabah. Expect to pay about M$1,500 to $2,000 for a week’s stay for one person. From KK, the 4WD we travelled in took three hours to reach the town of Sipitang. Expect to hit the roof a couple of times as the the roads are badly rutted. From Sipitang we had hoped to get as close as possible to the village of Long Miou, which is the village before Long Pasia. But the road was even more badly pot-holed and it took us five hours to get reasonably close to Long Miou. Even then we were still an hour’s trek away ftom Long Miou.

In the monsoon season the roads will be impassable to vehicles even 4WDs. From Long Miou we had hoped to get a long boat that could take us upstream (M$50 per boat) to Long Pasia but unfortunately, for some unknown reason, the boat was not operating. So we had to trek another three hours to reach our final destination. Fortunately we didn’t have to back-track to get out. There is an air-strip about 20 minutes walk from Long Pasia. So we flew in a 19seater MAS twin-otter (M$35 per person), from Long Pasia into Lawas where we hired a car for the one hour journey to Sipitang. As Lawas is in Sarawak, we had to have our passports re-stamped, a border regulation despite our still being in Malaysia. Do note that the plane only flies into Long Pasia every Thursday, so if you’re on a tight schedule, meticulous planning is called for before you embark on this “adventure”.

The Glorious Pitchers
Worldwide, there are about 70 varieties of this plant which are pretty to look at but a deadly trap for insects. Most pitchers grow naturally in Malaysia and, in a cover story entitled “Pretty Deadly Pitcher Plants” in Nature Watch (Oct-Dec ’94). Hugh T W Tan featured several species, including the mottled brown Nepenthes rafflesiana. All pitcher plants belong to the genus Nepenthes in the family Nepentheceae and it is interesting to note that the ones featured in Hugh’s article are different from those that Dr Chua and Billy came across in Long Pasia. Hugh had photos of the cute cup-shaped Nepenthes ampullaria, the elegant Nepenthes gracilis and Nepenthes trichocarpa.

The first clusters of pitchers encountered in Long Pasia were Nepenthes stenophylla, most of them being aerial climbers. Others seen and photographed were the Nepenthes veitchii with their spectacular red-streaked rims. They are the only pitchers that clasp tree trunks to grow vertically. The Nepenthes reinwardtiana with their curvy shapes appeared most sensuous to the exploring duo who were also impressed by the size of Nepenthes tentaculata they encountered. Most of the pitchers were well-filled with water, possibly because the rainy season was just over. Some had holes in the base and it appears that these holes were made by small mammals who nibbled at the water-filled pitchers to quench their thirst. Dr Chua also noted that N. tentaculata were larger and more attractive than those encountered while climbing Mt. Kinabalu on a previous trip.

Fraser’s Hill

Fraser’s Hill is a popular haunt for briders and bird photographers. One can expect to see the Fire-tuff Barbet, Silver-eared Mesia Chestnut-capped Laughingthrush, Green Magpie, Red-headed Trogon, Long-tailed Broadbill (Elvis bird), just to name a few.

Taman Negara

The trip began with 21 of us having to carry all our luggage across the Causeway as the bus we chartered never came. It was a prelude to a sense of adventure!

After some negotiation for transport, we finally kicked off after a 3 hour delay. Unfortunately, the bus driver and his 2 co-drivers had never been to Sungei Tembeling and each had his own opinion of getting there. Even Patrick’s map was considered inaccurate. Nevertheless, we arrived in the morning to be greeted by Southern-pied Hornbills, Parakeets and a Coppersmith Barbet. We then began our 3 hour boat ride to Kuala Tahan.

The 60km ferry ride into Taman Negara National Park revealed one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Up the river, we came across lavender flowers of the Bungur trees, the red river figs and many orange flowers of the forest trees. At the river bank perched Black-capped and Stork-billed Kingfishers. Three Small-clawed Otters with muscular tails were frolicking in the waters as the Bee-eaters soared and glided. The place was swamped with Magpie Robins and Striped-throated Bulbuls but the Hornbill sightings were less probably due to the construction of more chalets in the area.

Our first stop was at Lubok Simpon, a small stream to dip in and a place to savor the cool clean air. A black Drongo and White-rumped Sharma appeared at close range. I suspected that they must have been nesting nearby. Night was spent on insect photography covering the flatworms, moths, stick insects and many others. Unexpectedly, Jason spotted a cicada emerging from the dorsal slit of its pupa. Watching the changing hues and the unfolding and lengthening of the gossamer wings in less than 30 minutes was sheer delight. I must have fired away half a roll of film. We even sighted a tame Sambar Deer grazing on the fringe of the forest. Thanks to Eddie and Diana and help from a Bird Guide, we were able to identify some of the many birds we spotted – Black and Red Broadbill, Gold-whiskered Barbet, Buff-rumped Woodpecker and Blue-throated Flycatcher.

Bukit Teresek ia a low hill (300m) in the reserve. Many of the forest trees were labeled, for example the Sengkuang, Mengkundor, Meranti and Telinga Gajah. We came across a variety of mushrooms, wild ginger, flowers, a Black Scorpion amd many unfamiliar plants. Dr Wu spotted a pair of Argus Pheasants while Ai Kwee received a fright when a Civet Cat ran past her.

Gua Telinga (translated :Ear Cave) is a limestone cave which is literally full of shit. Attired in our worst gear and gloves, we managed to crawl and negotiate the many slippery sinuous guano littered cave floors. The cave is home to the Roundleaf and dusky Fruit Bat, Giant Toad and Black–Striped Frog. We were fortunate enough to observe a Cave Racer coiling around a bat. One thing for sure, one needs to be slim to weave through the crevices!

The waterfall at Latah Berkoh was a 45 minute boat ride away. The cool, gushing waters massaged and rejuvenated our weary muscles. Raja claimed that a lady once lost her bikini in the torrent and so forewarned everyone to hang on to their garments. A swarm of butterflies converged onto Eddie’s shoes as he dried them in the sun; it probably smelt of last night’s guano. The boatmen pointed out to us a pair of Greater Coucals and some wild ducks.

We “shot” the rapids on the way to Trenggan but it was an anti-climax as the water level was low due to the lack of rain. According to the care-takers, tigers have been sighted during the durian season. A Long-billed Spiderhunter was observed feeding among the light orange flowers. We also saw one of the largest squirrels – the Prevost’s Squirrel which was magnificently coloured with a chestnut-red belly, black top and separated by a streak of white.

One group went to Blau Hide ( a raised hut equipped with bunker beds) and the next to Yong hide. Initially, the hide felt like a sauna but it became comfortably cooler at night. We did not see much except for some deers and Black-thighed Falconets at the salt lick.

On the return journey, we visited the Orang Asli settlement with a population of 35. The menfolk were out hunting and the women were with their usual chores. Four teenage girls were dancing to the beat of a Hokkien song on a tape recorder and they were able to mime the words! Many of them recognized Raja and hence we did not have to pay “photographic tax” as demanded by the elder.

The train journey to Singapore was not the most comfortable but thanks to Raja, everyone had their share of adventure. I think everyone, especially the five children on the trip, can pride themselves in having ventured into one of the richest wildlife habitats in the world. Perhaps Gunong Tahan now awaits to be scaled. We will come again to be enveloped in the tranquility of the canopy of the forest reserve and be overwhelmed by its diversity of wildlife.

Insects of Bukit Tinggi

Cameron and Gentings

Conquering Kinabalu

Shifting clouds were trying to smother the lofty peaks of Mount Kinabalu as I viewed the summit from the park grounds. Were we crazy to want to scale the South-east Asia’s highest peak? Each of us in the group of about 14 had compelling and sane reasons. None were intimidated by the awesome and formidable heights.

At the vantage point of Low’s peak (a misnomer at 4,101m), we stood braving the cold (3° C), the moon still visible as the sun’s amber rays burst over the horizon. Before we started the ascent, we learnt that the mountains belonged to nobody, but the spirits. It certainly commanded the greatest respect.

The boulder terrain during the trek upwards to the Morris Poris river on the first day was unexpected. As none of us had any experience in rock climbing, we clumsily grappled with the searing granite and plodded through the swift waters, often in danger of being swept away. As we sought moments of peace in the chilly waters, I wondered if this part of the trip was more difficult than the climb itself. Perhaps it was a prelude to the main event.

Team spirit was evident as each offered another a helping hand. The day also tested our agility to the limit as we had to balance gingerly on fallen trees over ravines. Exploring the rainforest at tree-top level during the canopy walk at Poring was in interesting change. The lowland primary forest is also a site for the Rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower in the world. We soaked ourselves in the invigorating hot sulphur baths. The nature trails in the park grounds were lined with oak and chestnut trees. Trilobite larvae were very common.

The nearby landscaped Mountain Gardens had examples of the plants found in the wild. After a grueling assault to the summit, our spirits were a little deflated as the supposedly splendid view was marred by clouds. John was the fittest in our group, had the stamina and courage to conquer the less attempted peaks as well – the South Peak and Ugly Sisters.

It rained on both the days we were on the mountain. The camera crew was hopelessly drenched but nevertheless had some exciting shots. At the summit, water cascaded down the bare granite in the treacherous torrents as we waited for the storm to abate.

Botanists and photographers on the climb found a paradise carpeted with pitcher plants like the Nepenthes villosa and Nepenthes rajah, rhododendrons, wild orchids, ferns, mosses and liverworts. A large brick-red flattened worm that looks like a giant leech was seen swallowing another worm. Birds like the Mountain Blackeyes, wild raspberries, hanging lichen, and the gnarled bonsai-like trees of the cloud forest were an amazing contrast to the lowland forests we knew.

After coming down from the mountain, we rode on a diesel train to the Padas river for a white-water rafting adventure. The turbulent waters seemed to overwhelm our rafts. I remembered Alice screaming her head off, only to have a gulp of the Padas mineral water. We never had enough of the tumultuous waves.

Mount Kinabalu and its vast parks will remain a revered place. I looked up at the mountain, its peaks hidden within amorphous clouds. How did I ever manage to conquer her- was it myself or was it with the help of the spirits? As I turned my back on her, I knew I had to return – some day to pay tribute to the spirits.

(This trip was the beginning of the love affair with Sabah).