Tag Archives: Monitor lizard

Luck on a river safari….Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia

Sabah is the eastern most state of Malaysian Borneo. It is set up very well for package tour groups. Lots of companies offering transport, lodging and attractions for exorbitant prices. Since that is not really our style, we had a bit more of a challenge to figure everything out in the cheapest possible way from Semporna to Sukau.

We eventually found a reasonably priced bus from Semporna to “the junction”, which is a fancy name for an intersection with a couple of signs and a covered bench. The buses in East Malaysia are not the fancy three-across reclining ones like we encountered around KL and Singapore. They aren’t the worst though and the only hiccup on our 4 hour trip was the family of seven (yes, five children) attempting to buy just the two seats behind us (yes, only two). This resulted in a long delay when a large group boarded the bus an hour into our trip. The children were exiled to the aisle, slightly reminiscent of our hell-on-wheels Myanmar journey, except the person with their head on Riki’s seat was a cute, polite little girl, not a smelly, dirty, rude man.

When we were dropped at “the junction”, we walked in the appointed direction to find a minibus to Sakau. Except there was no minibus, at least according the man at the covered bench, who conveniently could take us the 45 minutes to “town”. Our driver loaded us into the most rickety little sedan I’ve encountered and sped off through 40 some kilometers of palm oil plantations.

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Sukau has a small slice of protected forest that boasts easy to spot wildlife along the Lower Kinabatangan River. The reason wildlife is easy to spot along the river: the palm oil plantations have pushed all the animals into a narrow strip of land. They congregate along the water, making boat trips popular up and down the river. We were there to spot the elusive orang utan (man of the forest). And if that failed, our backup was to hit up Sepilok Nature Reserve, where they have an orang utan rehabilitation center with a popular feeding program.

But we were incredibly lucky. On our first afternoon boat trip, we spotted an orang utan with her baby high in the trees along the river.

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Mother orang utan and baby
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Close up of the baby orang utan

We also saw many black hornbills, a small eagle, two types of macaque (long and pig tailed), AND the funny-nosed Proboscis monkey. These were my favorite, as they were very active and the females have cute pointy noses, while the males have fat, floppy ones. There are two types of Proboscis monkey groups – a male with his harem of “wives” and the bachelors. We only encountered the first group type, but were able to make out one of the shy males.

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Pig tailed macaque
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Lower Kinabatangan River
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Proboscis monkey – males have long, droopy noses but are very shy and we didn’t get a good photo
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Definitely a female Proboscis – between the pointy nose and the nursing baby, its a dead giveaway

 

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Black hornbill

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Eagle of some sort

Returning from our afternoon boat trip, we saw a small fishing boat on the side of the river with a man making a rather funny gesture. His hands were fanned and wiggling by his ears. This could only mean one thing – pygmy elephant. What luck!

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Pygmy means small, but other than his ears, this guy was pretty big
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Pygmy elephant

The fact that it is lucky to see one is very sad. According to our guide, there used to be many, many more animals along the river. The palm oil plantations have taken over and the wildlife has died or migrated elsewhere.

Later that evening, we went on a night cruise. Its much harder to spot anything at night, but our guide had a strong flashlight and wasn’t afraid to blind the wildlife. We saw some nesting swiftlets, who attach small nests to the side of the rock right over the water – a rather precarious situation.

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Swiftlets

We also saw the eyes of a baby crocodile. a puffy faced owl and some sleeping Proboscis monkeys. It was much tamer than our eventful afternoon.

The next day, we hit the water at 6 am for our combo river cruise and short trek. The monkeys must have been hiding, but we spotted another puffy faced owl and a crested serpent eagle, as well as a few other birds.

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“Puffy faced owl” though it must have another name
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Python
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Big monitor lizard
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Another python
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Lots of sticks and logs in the water
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The ferry

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As we entered the small creek leading to the start of our trek, we realized a large tree had fallen across the water and completely blocked the way.

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We backtracked and found another path, which connected to the other one. I was about to write the morning off, thinking we had used up all of our luck the day before – the guide was getting excited about common butterflies and cicada shells – when Riki spotted a lone orang utan headed our way. You know its good when the guide, who does this everyday, whips out his phone and starts taking photos. The orang utan made its way right over our path and stopped to eat some leaves about 10 meters above us. It made the most incredible sound – best described as a kiss squeak/grunt – which Riki has been mimicking ever since.

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Little orange bugs
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Green lizard
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Orang utan – means “man of the forest”
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Thorns

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Water hyacinth perhaps?
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Cicada shell

And our luck had not run out. On our final afternoon boat trip, we were spotting monkeys left and right along a small river. A mama kingfisher was guarding her nest, and when we got too close she flew off, revealing tiny chirping mouths.

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Other boats

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Macaque
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Baby macaque

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Another baby macaque
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Mother Kingfisher

 

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Baby Kingfishers

 

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But the climax of the day, and the final animal on our Sakau checklist was yet to come. While taking endless photos of monkeys grooming and playing right along the shore, we heard a loud crash just across the creek. Another loud crash and we saw the tail of a giant crocodile come down hard on the water, breaking a large branch.

We followed slowly as this 4-5m croc swam across the river with a bloody carcass, which our guide said was probably a monkey caught drinking at the water’s edge. Can’t get much cooler than that.

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Giant crocodile
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Back of the crocodile’s head – the pink part is the carcass

Despite seeing the orang utans in the wild, we decided to continue on to the rehabilitation center to see some more. We took a shuttle with a neighboring lodge to Sepilok, while stopping on the way at the only ATM in the area (and everybody and their mom was there to use it).

 

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Snake neck crane
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Kingfisher

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We got a bit too close for this guy

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Lots of visitors, invited and not….Tioman Island, Malaysia

After a four hour bus ride from the west coast of Malaysia to the east coast, we bought boat tickets for the next ferry to Tioman Island. We still had a few hours to spare and we spent them buying supplies and enjoying the air-conditioning and free wifi at the local KFC (perhaps my first KFC encounter ever). We eventually boarded the ferry, after a chaotic check-in and completely confusing process (no queueing here). We spent the next two hours in the frigid boat hold, so cold the windows were completely fogged on the outside.

Luckily, the end justifies the means, and we arrived on Salang Beach just before dark. Having called ahead, we found our beach front bungalow to be simple, but just our style. This being the “party beach” we were at the end and it was pretty quiet.

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Napping on our porch

We spent the next few days before our friends arrived reading, swimming and relaxing in the hammocks along the sand. Cats are everywhere on the island, and our place had particularly friendly and well cared for kittens. Great fun watching them attempt to climb palm trees and run around in the sand (aka giant litter box). We also glimpsed a giant black squirrel, which I have been hunting since Penang and some monkeys clamoring along the shoreline.

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The elusive giant black squirrel
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Hiding in the tree
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Giant black squirrel about the same size as the cats on our beach

We hung out with some people from our hotel and went to a “party” where Riki sang Taylor Swift with some German girls. The party scene was pretty low-key, though on the weekend, people from Singapore flocked to the island. And so did our friends.

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Our beach
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Sunset
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High tide
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Salang beach
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Rocks on the Beach
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Salang Beach
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Rocks on the Beach

We were delighted to meet up with our New Orleans friends, this being the first time we’ve had visitors, though really we were crashing their family vacation. Same, same. Tioman Island is duty-free, so the alcohol and chocolate are relatively cheap. Duty-free makes it sound fancy, but I don’t think there was even an ATM on our beach, there was no cell service and wifi was only available in a few spots. Rustic, right?

We went on a snorkeling trip with our friends, and 20 other tourists. On a boat made for 12 (there was a sign). We made a few stops and saw some beautiful coral. And lots of colorful fish. I managed not to get burnt, courtesy of snorkeling in my t-shirt, though if I were like most on our boat, I could have just worn a life jacket for sun protection.

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Tioman from the boat
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Drawing out the clownfish

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Clownfish

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Anemone and clown fish

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Parrotfish

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Swarming the bread
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Riki showing off

For lunch, we stopped at a white sand beach, where we were discarded while the captain drove off to fix the engine. Shortly after our arrival, three giant monitor lizards must have smelled our food and came to harass us from the forest. They must get fed here regularly, as they were not afraid of us and our guide threw chicken bones and sausage at them. Same guide who was feeding the fish loaves of bread. It’s not something I like to see. I’d rather the wildlife stay wild.

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White sand beach
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Riki & Co.

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Monitor lizard a bit too close for comfort
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Monitor lizard getting friendly
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Lunch spot
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Coming out of the forest

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Looks a bit like the proboscis monkey (pictures to come)

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The next day we all boarded the ferry back to Mersing, where we caught the bus to Singapore and the others went back west for a day before meeting up with us again.

For the love of naan….George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Malaysia has figured out buses. Three seats across, almost fully reclining, AND no people sitting in the aisle. Yes, they are a bit more expensive. So that was our 6 hour journey from Kuala Lumpur to George Town, Malaysia. We listened to NPR podcasts and even managed to doze off. Did I mention the highways are smooth and not windy? Amazing.

George Town is located in Penang, on an island on the west coast of Malaysia. It is the second largest city in Malaysia and is a UNESCO World heritage site. And it has amazing food. It was founded in 1786 by a trader for the British East India Company and grew as a prominent trading post. Its historic center has small streets, many museums, and great architecture.

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Cool roofs
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Nice juxtaposition of buildings
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Remains of the old fort
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City Hall
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National Museum

Our first day, we ventured out in the rain and toured the National Museum, where we saw comparisons between the different cultures inhabiting the island. It is incredible how this country became mixture of Malays, Indians, Chinese and even Europeans. And they seem to get along pretty well, relatively.

We immediately discovered great food, not that it is hard in George Town. Tons of little stalls form around clusters of tables, for a variety of cheap eats all in one spot. We feasted mostly on Indian food, as their naan was really good, but also tried a fishy soup and pork dumplings.

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Street art
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More street art

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Chinese temple
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Making friends
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Steam buns proofing? on the sidewalk
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Making more friends

We took the public bus out to the Botanical Gardens one day. While it was great that the gardens were free, it was obvious why. None of the plant houses were open and the rainforest walk we did was a bit run down. We did see some monkeys and came across a startled monitor lizard. Having been told the bus would run every 45 minutes back to town, we were surprised to see it leaving 15 minutes ahead of when it should have, according to our first bus driver. Which meant we had to walk to another bus stop. And this is where Malaysia is steps ahead of the countries we have visited. We pulled out the smart phone, found the bus’s website, complete with map, and walked 20 minutes to another bus route. Like I said in the last post, its like being back in civilization. You don’t get the local interaction though, pantomiming with some nice guy to figure out another way home (which is something we’ve gotten good at).

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Iguanadon / Monitor Lizard
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Orchid
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Monkey walking upright
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Hold me!

We made it back fine, and ate at our new favorite Indian place – we went every day and I got the same thing, despite trying to order something else. Except the last day, when they miraculously had the Tikka Masala I had been asking for all week.

BAG UPDATE: Christmas hit again, and I retired my $20 Saigon knockoff backpack for a slightly smaller, higher quality $60 no-name one. My former bag had lost some buckles and the attachments for the back straps were slowly but surely breaking one by one. I removed my New Orleans patch and emptied the various pockets, finding a few forgotten items in the process. Riki’s 30 year old bag still presses on. Lowe Alpine should hire us for a commercial.

On our last day, we took the public bus about an hour out to Penang National Park. It was muggy and extremely hot, but we trekked about 2 hours across the park to see the turtle sanctuary. There were loads of newborn turtles and three older, white skinned ones. It was cool to see them so close, but a bit strange as they were captive. Not at all like seeing them while diving in the wild. But knowing they would be released when large enough helped. Only about 1 in 1,000 baby turtles here make it to maturity, which is anywhere from 20-50 years. Many don’t even make it off the shore. So helping them out until they are a bit bigger seems like a good alternative. Even though they have to live in a blue plastic wading pool for awhile.

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White skinned turtle
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Couple days old turtle

We trekked back and came across a couple of monkeys and a few monitor lizards (formerly known as Iguanadons). We took the air-conditioned bus back to town, which felt good to start, but we were so sweaty that we were shivering by the time we reached George Town.

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Beach monkey
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Bigger iguanadon / monitor lizard

Riki was able to get some night shots in George Town, despite the erratic rain. Its a very picturesque place, so if it hadn’t rained so much, there would be more than the 500+ pictures we now have.

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