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Going Trekking in Borneo

Written by: Kate Elliott

Ever wondered what a week long trek through the jungles of Borneo would be like? Wonder no more! Our intrepid gapper Kate Elliott has done it and wrote a day by day account of her trip to give you a taste of trekking, jungle-style. So sit back and enjoy the ride. It’ll make you want to go out there and do it yourself.

The Trek

Day 1

Although I was nervous at the thought of a long haul flight with a group I had only contacted via e-mail, the journey turned out to be the perfect chance to get to know the ‘team’. Plus, seeing a lightning storm over Afghanistan was really amazing!

Day 2

We arrived in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah in Malaysia. I couldn’t really believe I was actually there. It was so hot and there was 98% humidity but we ignored the jet lag and checked out the city, including a food market full of interesting local delicacies. Jc, our group leader, gave us a team brief about the start of the trek the next day, then we went out for dinner. I was totally jetlagged by the end of the day, but looking forward to trekking!

Day 3

We took a minibus to Kampung (Kg) Tabatuan. We trekked for three hours through rice fields, rubber plantations and secondary jungle until we reached the river, where we ate lunch – including the traditional dish of sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Two hours later we reached Kg Kaung, a small village in the mountains. We made a camp in the village hall, then swam in the river in a storm with water buffaloes upstream. First time I had ever washed my hair in a river! That night we had a pub quiz followed by drinks with our guides and interesting Malaysian/English drinking games!

Day 4

We left Kaung early in the morning. Again the trek was through the secondary jungle and small villages and farms, crossing lots of rivers, wearing our attractive leech socks. This was the day when Binker (one of our guides) decided to start calling me ‘princess’. Apparently the guides thought I must be a princess as I was far too clean to be in the jungle! I soon became known as Binker’s princess, to the delight of the rest of the group. The views were amazing and the jungle was just such an extraordinary experience, but the trek was really hard. It was quite fast paced over rickety bridges and up pretty much vertical climbs. I have to admit there were points when I really thought… what am I doing this for? But the views were totally worth it and the kindness of the guides really helped: whenever there was a scary bit you could guarantee there would be a hand held out to help you. We arrived at EB camp later on in the afternoon. It was in the middle of the jungle and consisted of some bamboo platforms (which we helped to finish building when we arrived) with a tarpaulin over the top. Very rustic! But being next to the river meant we could have a swim again.

Day 5

The fifth day was by far the most challenging! It poured with rain all day and the vertical climbs with sheer drops seemed a lot scarier when it was wet. There was a real rush of adrenaline, though. We spent the day trekking and were all feeling wet, cold and exhausted by the time we reached the river, where I duly found my first leech bite! One had found a way into my jacket and bitten me without me realising; pretty disgusting. So, we were all ready to make camp until we were told that the bridge across the river had been washed away with the camp on the other side! In the end the guides cut down a tree and pushed it across the river, then tied a rope to trees either side so we could walk along it to get to the other side. I’ve never been so scared, and we were relieved to get to the camp on the other side and dry off our clothes around the fire.

Day 6

On the last day of trekking we went around the edge of Mt Kinabalu, following part of the route from the days of Sir Hugh Low’s exploration of the area. The guides showed us how to make some animal traps – not very animal friendly but very interesting. The trek was a lot slower paced, so we really got to appreciate the scenery and got some really great photos. We got an amazing welcome when we arrived in Kiau, a small village on the side of the mountain where three of our guides lived, and spent the night celebrating with some lethal homemade rice wine. It felt like a real achievement to have completed the trek and it was so nice to get clean and sleep in a proper bed!
Trekking in Borneo

Day 7

We took a six hour coach journey to Sukau, the village where we were going to be spending the next few days. The home stay was quite luxurious compared to the jungle – a flushing toilet, shower (well ,a tap high up on the wall, but it was pretty close) and even beds! We mooched around the village exploring, then had proper food and an early night. The family we were staying with were really nice but didn’t speak any English, so there were lots of interesting charades.

Day 8

The eighth day was probably the highlight of the trip. We went to the orang-utan project, travelling by boat up river. The morning was spent tracking two orang-utans, a mother and a very young baby. Seeing them up close was incredible, literally bringing tears to our eyes. We watched the baby orang-utan playing and she was just like a small child investigating everything and just generally pestering her mum!

Day 9

On the ninth day we went to the conservation project and spent some time collecting saplings of the trees that the orang-utans eat and live in (for example Ficus trees). We then went to the ‘nursery’ and between the group planted 201 saplings, and a small tree each. All of those will contribute to the re-growth of areas suitable for the orang-utans to live in.

Day 10

The tenth day was the last full day at the project and at our home stay. We woke up very early to go on an early morning river cruise and saw gibbons, a reticulated python, proboscis monkeys and lots more wildlife alongside the banks of the river. We then went back to the Kinabatangan Orang-utan research centre and had a talk about the work done there and saw their lab. After lunch we went back on to the river to look for more wildlife. The river trips were so much fun, we found a ‘boat group’ and we ended up singing and joking the whole time. In the evening we had a traditional party with our home stay families, including some traditional music, then went to our project guide’s house for another farewell party.

Day 11

Day eleven was the day we left the home stay. We travelled to Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary (stopping off for a quick shopping break in Ranau) and saw four orang-utans on the feeding platform, it was amazing to see them up close again, but to be honest we were all a bit blasé by that point as we had seen them closer in the wild! After a look around Sepilok we headed to Sandakan airport for a flight back to Kota Kinabalu, where the group sadly parted. Some people stayed on for a few days in a beach resort and the rest of us flew back to Singapore. Singapore airport was so much fun! We spent four hours shopping and relaxing in the enormous terminal before boarding our flight and heading back to the UK.

Day 12

Arrived early in the morning, to be greeted by temperatures of 10oc. Ouch! Some of the trip had been challenging, but I really felt different as a person, even after a relatively short trip. I felt so proud at conquering my fears and achieving something that I wouldn’t have imagined I would be able to do. Plus, it gave me an insight into the rest of the world, and made me desperate to travel again. Clearly I was bitten by the travel bug.
Orang-utans in Borneo

The Five Best Bits

  1. Flying in to Borneo, one of the best moments had to be when the plane started to descend and came through a big bank of cloud. The clouds cleared and we had a perfect view of Borneo. I think that was the moment I realised after all the months of planning, fundraising and preparing, I was actually there.
  2. Arriving at the camp after the scary tree crossing. It was so nice to get warm and dry again!
  3. Blowing bubbles with the daughter of the family we stayed with, who had never seen them before!
  4. The river trips to and from the project became endless fun when we decided to create a ’12 days of Borneo’ song; even Uncle (who was steering the boat and didn’t speak a word of English) was in hysterics by the end of one journey.
  5. The absolute best part of the trip had to be seeing wild orang-utans. It was the most amazing experience, to have them so close by. Something I will never forget and really want to do again!

Trekking Tips

Be properly prepared! Practice with your rucksack so you can find out any places it will rub and practice carrying all the gear. It’s impossible to recreate exactly how it will be, but if you are able to easily trek the distance in this country, it won’t be such a shock when you do it in the jungle! Pack light. Really light! When you’ve been trekking for 3-4 hours your pack will feel twice as heavy as it did to start with, so the best plan is to leave behind anything that isn’t essential. Just take the bare minimum! Find a trekking buddy early on the in the trip. I love trekking, but there will be at least one moment where you find it a bit tough and it’s great to have someone to talk to! It’s important to have someone who can moan with you and enjoy the best bits too; also putting on a full trekking pack can be tricky without someone to help. Cut your toenails! This could be one of the most vital pieces of trekking advice we were given, if they are short they are less likely to push against the end of your boots… seriously, it saves lots of pain!

Useful Information

My trek was arranged through the Blue Cross, which is a UK based animal charity. They run lots of different fundraising activities throughout the year including a horse-back trek and Husky trail. We flew with Singapore airlines, and the service was amazing! Good vegetarian food, really attentive cabin crew, good films to watch. It was fun and we felt looked after.
After the trek I travelled with Different Travel who liaised with Borneo Experience; both were really great, everything was taken care of and I felt safe and looked after the whole time. I used Nomad and Blacks for my trekking kit. They were both really helpful at making sure I had the right items and it was all reasonably priced.
Also, from a post-trip point of view, I ended up with over 700 photos from my time away (yes a few were stolen from other group members from Facebook… but shhh!) and I found that photobox do some really good deals on printing out large quantities of photos and making souvenirs, etc.

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