Kota Kinabalu & Sandakan
Kota Kinabalu is a busy town and as it’s the leap frog place for a lot of snorkelling / jungle / trekking adventures and has a fair few touristy eateries and bars. The hostel we were staying at was called Lavender Lodge and it’s an easy walk to the water front, shopping malls and Jessleton point, which is where all the boats depart from. We had a clean and large double room with attached bathroom (we’ve not actually braved a shared bathroom this trip yet) and they did a simple coffee, toast and fruit breakfast each morning. It gets a bit boring by the 3rd day!
The first afternoon we headed out to explore and ended up at the waterfront. Prices here are a bit inflated compared to inland, but beer, wine and decent pub grub is on offer at nearly every bar. We stopped at Shamrock Irish bar and as soon as I saw snakebite n black on the menu I kinda had to have one. We watched the sun setting out to sea and watched the fishing boats coming and going and then became aware of the dark clouds gathering overhead. Lightning and thunder started and people started gathering things to move inside. Within 10 mins the heavens opened and the view of boats, nearby island and even the end of the waterfront decking was obscured by torrential rain. Shame as it meant we had to have another snakebite while it passed! The taxi driver that dropped us off had recommended a food place right next door to our hostel, so when the rain had lessened we went back there. The restaurant was called the Sri Melaka and we had the most amazing Beef and Tofu, Chicken Satay and fried Tofu.
Unfortunately, KK is quite similar to a lot of other Malaysian towns it has a few markets, some parks, a couple of historical buildings and a few shopping malls. Having stayed a few nights in quite a few similar but different towns they had started to blur together for me.
One morning, after toast and fruit we visited the Atkinson wooden clocktower, which is the oldest structure in KK having been built in 1905. We then climbed up through a wooded hillside to the viewpoint overlooking the town and harbour and enjoyed an iced coffee at the top. On the way back, we disturbed a large monitor lizard that was just clambering about the side of the road before he plodded off into the woods – I don’t think I will ever lose the excitement and amazement that I get every time I see one, even though they seem to be quite common.
Gradually over the past month we have seen an enormous amount of political flags going up around Malaysia’s roads and towns. We knew that there was a coming government election but as the vast majority of flags were for the same party (the Barisan National party) we thought it was probably a one-horse race. We only knew the date of the election because some companies said they would be closed so everyone could vote and other companies were running slightly altered schedules.
It was on this day we decided to have a break from the town and go snorkelling at a nearby island. All the reviews we’d read said Sapi was the best of 3 local islands, so after an early start we made our way to Jessleton Point. There you have a huge hall lined with different tour operators all trying to sell the same tours to you. We’d heard that one of the cheapest was stall number 10, so that’s where we headed and got a 1 island pass for both of us with fins for 70myr, but I suspect you could have gone to any of them for a similar deal.
Tickets clutched in hand we were herded to a waiting area where we had fins thrust at us and then we were herded onto a waiting boat. It seemed a lot like chaos but as we ended up on a boat to the right place it must have some sort of logic to it. The boats go roughly every hour, or when full and drop off at all three islands in turn in the morning, then reverse the order for collection later that afternoon.
Sapi was the first island so after a quick crossing in the speedboat you arrive at a wooden jetty set in crystal clear water. You then pay another 60 myr entrance fee (as it’s a marine park) and after you are apparently free to wander as you like. What we didn’t realise before we went was that you can only swim from 2 areas that are next to the jetty and they have specific areas for swimming and snorkelling which is policed by very enthusiastic whistle blowing life guards.
You can follow an inland trail round the island but you can’t swim where you would like. The snorkel areas were small, no fins would be needed here and there didn’t look like there would be much to see, plus the small beach area was slowly filling with families and coach loads of Chinese tourists.
To say we were disappointed was a massive understatement and thinking we were stuck here for 4-5 hours didn’t make our moods any better. I gave both the snorkelling areas a go and whilst it was lovely to be back in the water there wasn’t much coral or fish in either safe area – there was some beautiful looking corals in a further sectioned off bit and I can only hope that they were protecting them from clumsy or ignorant swimmers by closing them off. We decided to try and get an early boat back rather that stay there, so I got changed in the grotty smelly women’s shower and we went to plead our case to the boat drivers. Turns out there was another group of people that wanted to leave, a boat was found and we were soon speeding back to the mainland.
Dinner that night was at a small but very busy Mexican themed bar. The Scuba Junkies team do a pub quiz there on a Wednesday, so we thought that would be a laugh for at least one round while we demolished fajitas. Sadly, we didn’t know many of the answers so never had a hope of winning. I would have probably stayed for the laugh if the quizmaster hadn’t upset me by saying Leonard Cohen who, went I corrected her about Hallelujah being a Jeff Buckley song. Sad thing was no-one else in the room corrected her either.
The next day I checked the election results news and was surprised to see that the 60-year rule of the National party had been broken. The people had spoken and elected the coalition party, which was fronted by a former PM, now 92 yrs old. He’d declared the next two days national holidays.
It was also laundry day, which is normally a boring chore but this time Paul had found a fancy restaurant whose gimmick is it’s attached to a laundrette and they were offering a 30% discount on food. For 15myr (£3) they will wash, dry and fold your clothes and you can enjoy a meal while you wait. We both had a brunch plate with eggs, salmon, beef or chicken patty, salad, herby mushrooms and toast - It was amazing and the iced coffee was delicious. The washing did take quite a while but we got chatting to the young waiter and he was telling us how happy everyone was about the election results.
Dinner that last night was a bit of a non-event but it was free as we’d managed to get 2 free chicken dinner vouchers for Kenny Rogers Roasters when we got Pauls new phone in Miri. We didn’t want them to go to waste so when we found a shopping mall with a Kenny Rogers outlet we decided to use them up.
The next day we were ready to set off to Sandakan, which is on the east coast of Sabah and the gateway to jungle exploring.
Our taxi driver to the airport was full of the joy of the recent election and even boasted about how he used to work for the old BN party being an informant, collecting info from unsuspecting clients via the CCTV in his cab! All sounded very dodgy but he was happy that he’d swapped sides in time, although carried two photos of himself and the former PM in his glove box which he proudly showed me.
Sandakan is another gateway town, with daily trips out to the Kinabatangan River wildlife reserve, Sepilok Orangutan sanctuary and Turtle Island but little else in the town. It’s also a bit tatty to be honest, the shoreline and streets are littered with rubbish, wafts of stagnant sewer water are frequent and there are gangs of children that look anywhere between 7 and 12 all puffing away on communal cigarettes. We were booked into the Sandakan Backpackers hostel for the next 4 nights because it was very cheap and central. They upgraded us to a family room when we arrived, which meant we had a double bed and single bunk beds – just as well as the double mattress was like a pile of bricks covered in a sheet, so we actually slept in a bunk each. None of the rooms have attached bathrooms, but there was clean showers and loos on every floor plus a nice little roof garden overlooking the sea front.
Taking a wander through town we came across the central market. It looks like a multi-story car park but on the ground floor is the fish market with every type of fish you can imagine - All had clean gills and bright eyes and would have been fresh off the fishing boats that morning. On the 1st floor is clothes and craft work goods, plus a small toiletries section and up the top is a food court with loads of different kitchens cooking away. There didn’t seem to be any menus anywhere so I guess this mainly used by locals that know what’s cooked at each station. There are loads of very healthy looking cats lolling about on every level, I’d imagine between the fish market and the food court they are never hungry.
For dinner Paul managed to find a grotty looking hotel that promised a rooftop bar and restaurant called Balin Roof garden. I found this hard to believe but after getting out of the 7th floor and stepping over the cockroach we opened a wooden door onto a bright smart bistro bar. They squeezed us into the last table, explained there would be a wait and presented us with arty looking menus advertising things like Lamb shank, Fish n Chips, Mac n Cheese. When I say it wasn’t cheap I only mean in terms of normal food court stalls and restaurants in Malaysia, compare this to the UK and it’s a steal. We had 2 mugs of beer, fish and chips, oat rolled chicken with chips, chocolate lava cake, ice cream sundae and 2 wannabe espresso martinis all for about 183myr (£33). Completely stuffed we waddled back to our hostel.
Early start the next day as we’d splashed out on a once in a life time, day and night on Turtle Island. It’s part of the turtle conservation park and allows up to 50 guests to stay on the island to see what they do. This is best booked direct with Crystal Quest as they are the official tour operator for Turtle Island and hence you don’t get 3rd party booking fees, which is a saving of about £120. As we’d booked the hostel room for all 4 nights we got to leave our main packs in the room and just take small overnight bags with us, which was ideal. The meeting point was at the Crystal Quest Jetty 10mins walk out of town at 8:30 am. The boat left at 9:30 with us, a lovely Swiss mother and daughter, 1 guide and 3 miserable looking Danish girls onboard. Next stop Turtle Island.
The actual island is tiny, you can walk on the beach round the island in about 10mins but it is one of several islands that has Green and Hawksbill turtles nesting on it year-round. It’s completely protected with full time rangers that watch for nesting turtles, gather the eggs as they lay them, measure and tag the females then rebury the eggs in hatcheries on the island. This protects them from poachers and most natural predators and will hopefully allow the turtle population to increase. They release the babies that hatch there so that they will return to the same island when it’s time for them to lay eggs of their own.
We were expecting very basic accommodation there as that’s what so many reviews had warned us of but we were pleasantly surprised by what we got. There are 4 chalets (A, B, C and D), each chalet has 6 separate rooms and ours had aircon, ceiling fan, twin beds and private cold shower bathroom.
The chalet is a small distance away from the main reception, past the hatcheries, down a path with other trails leading off through the small central wood to beaches. There are two hatcheries one under some shade from trees and the other one in the open - This will help dictate the sex of the hatchlings as warmer sand incubation produces females and cooler produces males.
It took me quite a while just to walk the short distance to the chalets the first time as there were Monitor Lizards everywhere! There was a small one on the path sunning itself, then you’d see movement to your left and there is a much larger one slowly plodding through the undergrowth, then 2 tiny lizards would race down a nearby tree……I could have stood there a lot longer but with other people anxious to get past I had to move.
As all the turtle stuff is in the night you have the day to do as you please. One side of the beach is sectioned off for snorkelling and swimming and we dumped all essentials and raced back to explore the water. I think this was the clearest sea we have snorkelled in and although there aren’t massive reefs, there were a few live corals and a few territorial fish about. The fish aren’t above deciding you have floated near them long enough and coming in for a toe nibble or a bum nibble in my case as I sat in the shallows. Paul managed to get a picture of the weirdest looking fish hiding in a hole a few metres from shore – it looked more like a monster from a fantasy film than any fish I knew about and it looked like his mouth was full of a reddish jelly. (found out afterwards it was a male Dendritic Jawfish with a mouthful of his eggs)
I’d had enough aggressive fish for one day and really wanted to see more lizards so left Paul to it and went back to get changed. Walking back slowly along the deserted path I spotted a large monitor lizard digging in undergrowth, I stopped to watch as he lost interest in the pile of leaves and walked slowly towards where I was standing. I love lizards and as he came closer I could see he was about 1.5m and still heading straight for me, slowly flicking his tongue in and out. I really wish I’d had a camera but I’d left everything in the room which was the other side of him. He passed very leisurely on the path about 2m in front of where I stood and got lost in the undergrowth. I was gobsmacked and vowed never to pop anywhere without my phone so I could capture moments like that again.
Part of the package on the island is a lunch and dinner that first night, then breakfast the following morning. Lunch was a buffet of rice, fried chicken, squid in a sauce plus some other veg dishes. All filling and very tasty. For the rest of the afternoon we hid from the sun, snorkelled some more, hunted lizards and generally lazed about. There was a small incident in one of the hatcheries as a Monitor Lizard had got in and demolished one of the nests. The staff attempted to get him in a mesh trap, which he neatly avoided hissing and spinning his tail at anyone that would get close. Eventually one of the lads got him by his tail and threw him out of the enclosure. It is sad that he destroyed one nest but it was natural predation so I can live with that.
Night fell and we got to watch a video explaining the work that is done on all the turtle islands and then we had dinner - Another delicious buffet of soup, curry, pan fried fish and veg. Next came the boring bit as you aren’t allowed to wander around the island, they want to keep everyone together so you can’t go back to your room and you just have to wait around until the rangers have a turtle laying eggs that it’s safe and convenient for you to go to. The wait was too much for 2 ladies as at 9pm they said they were calling it and went off to bed. At about 9:25 we heard the shout to go and they rushed us back up the track and out onto the beach almost at a run, this is mostly done in complete darkness as they request you keep your torches off so as not to confuse or disturb the turtles.
As we rounded a corner we saw a torch illuminating a huge female Green turtle that was slowly releasing her eggs into a sand dip. These were then gently scooped up by a ranger kneeling next to her and placed in a bucket. We were all allowed to kneel behind and take photos, before moving on and allowing the next person to come in. She laid 74 eggs in total which is about average. Whilst she was laying they kept us behind her shell and only the guide could have his torch to avoid lots of commotion but as soon as she stopped laying the guide moved us round the front so we could see her completely. Again he asked us to only have his torch on, no flash photos and no videos. I’m not sure why you weren’t allowed to take vids but most people were taking shorts ones discreetly. The ranger measured her, checked her over and then checked her tag – she was a known returning female which is great news. We then picked our way back along the beach where you can see the tracks of other turtles and even hear them moving about but the rule is the guests only disturb one turtle a night.
They took us straight to the turtle hatchery where a new hole had been dug and they added all 74 eggs. Sand is lightly filled in, a wire cage is added to deter the rats and lizards from raiding them and then a date and number tag is added to the nest. The eggs need about 50-60 days before they hatch and we were lucky that some had hatched earlier that night which they were going to release.
We were passed to another ranger who had a basket writhing with baby turtles. He led us to the other side of the island and down near the shoreline. He placed the basket a few feet up and then went to stand in the surf shining a bright light onto the surface of the sea. He explained that the baby turtles would race towards the light and so it was important that no other lights or torches came on to confuse them or divert them back up the beach.
Sadly, not everyone understood how important this was and so when the basket was flipped up and 66 babies all started towards the sea a couple of very brief but bright torch lights flickered on from various people. I understand why as you couldn’t get photos in the dark and we all wanted some pictures but it did cause some to turn back, one started scrabbling back over my sandals and I had to pick him up and point him in the right direction. Another ended up right behind Pauls feet and he couldn’t move until the guide safely cleared a path.
I vaguely recall that the reason they head towards the bright light is something to do with the moon, I’m not sure that’s true but they certainly headed towards whatever nearest light they could find. Even the ones in the water were just swimming around in the pool of light created by the torch.
That was the end of our turtle evening and it hadn’t even taken up an entire hour but what an experience. We walked back leaving the rangers to get on with their long night of egg collecting and wondered how many new nest tags there would be in the morning.
We had a beautiful clear night and the stars had been so clear and bright above us but after being back in our room for about 30mins we were really surprised to hear torrential rain. A lucky escape for us but lousy conditions for the rangers still out there.
The next morning you are allowed back on the beach at 6am and sometimes if you are lucky and get there early, you can find a turtle still laying or heading back from her nest. It seems all the ladies had timed it well the previous night as there were no stragglers but plenty of tracks and sand dips that showed how many had visited in the night. I lost count as we walked round the island but think there were 18 new nest tags in the hatchery – not bad considering peak months aren’t until July - Sept. At 6:30 breakfast is served and then at 7:00 your boat leaves back to the mainland.
Having decided to go and spend some days on the Kinabatangan river we spent some time checking out different tour operators. We eventually went with Greenview as they offer 5 cruises, 2 jungle walks, 2 nights’ accommodation, all meals and transfers to and from Sandakan for 499myr each (about £93). You can get cheaper packages, or do it cheaper still by getting to the river under your own steam and picking cheaper accommodation, tours etc but we were looking forward to that all being done for us with the package.
With that booked and the pickup arranged from Sepilok Orangutan centre all we had left to do was laundry, sort photos, read, nap and wait until Tuesday when we would go.