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About the Author - True Life Story: Sabah, Borneo

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

I’ve been all over North, Central, and South America, but the trip my wife and I took to Borneo is the one that my mind drifts back to. We made it our honeymoon, though as you’ll find out from my journal, it was far from the stereotypical honeymoon most people take. It started off with missed flights and illness…

Days 1-3

We left the house in Columbus at 5:45 am for our 7:45 departure with Alaska Airlines. The first leg of our trip to a speedy 2-hour layover in Seattle where we would next continue to Soul, South Korea, then to Kuala Lumpur, and finally to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo. The drive to the airport took 45 minutes, leaving us over an hour and a half to go through security and board the plane. In Montana, that is plenty of time, usually. The first hiccup was the long-term parking. The gate was out of order, so we had to spend a few extra minutes driving around the parking lot to get back to the short-term and find a spot. No big deal. We arrived at the check-in with over an hour to spare before boarding. Nobody was behind the counter. We thought, strange? Oh well, we’ll just check in at the kiosk. I went to use. The Alaskan Air Kiosk, and it was shut down. They were all shut down. The message red, you must check in an hour before your flight. I looked at my phone. It was over an hour till departure. I told Mags it wouldn’t let me check in and saw the oh shit look come across her face. If we missed this flight, that was it. We missed all our flights because the next one wasn’t until 7:45 pm and our only flight to Seoul was two hours after we landed on the first flight.

We ran to a nearby airline and asked for help. They told us the woman checking in closed it down before we got there. We tried calling the airline and had a time getting through the automated messages to a person. By now, it was less than an hour before the flight and there was nothing we could do. We missed it. We should’ve left earlier or checked in the night before. I still think that they were understaffed and the person checking in closed early when it didn’t look like there was anyone else coming to check in.

After a lot of calls to my parents and the airline, we had to re-book our flights on the way there. Not off to a good start. When the woman who closed the counter and kiosks came back, she kindly helped us check in on the next flight, printed our tickets and assured us we were now checked in. She also denied closing early, which I was skeptical of, because of my cellphone time.

We went home, feeling pretty sick with ourselves over missing the flight. We’d planned a fun 24-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before our pre-planned/paid two-week adventure in Borneo began. First on the list was to do a two-day climb up the tallest mountain in Borneo, and we needed to get there in three days. Luckily, by catching the evening flight out of Billings, we would get the first flight from Seattle to Seoul and make the last flight we had booked following our planned layover in Kuala Lumpur. With our alternative plan sorted, we relaxed, though Mags had a hard time relaxing now that the start to our big trip was in shambles. That was the first bout of illness.

This time, we made sure we were at the airport three hours before check-in. The flight was delayed an hour, but we’d already gone through security with the boarding passes we had the woman from that morning print us. Finally, the plain out of Montana was ready to board and we lined up with our seat and row assignments shown on the boarding pass. After handing the boarding pass to the gate agent, it flashed red. He told us to step aside. We did, waiting for direction. That’s when he started calling for any standby passengers to board. I stopped him, saying, you can’t do that. We have tickets and haven’t been seated yet. He scanned it again, telling us, no we did not have seats on this plane. Well, my wife said it’s one of the few times she’s heard me raise my voice at a stranger. Hearing what happened to us already, he asked who was working the gate that morning. One of the other employees told him and he rolled his, sighed, and said, “oh, her.” Luckily, there were two open seats still on the plane after standby passengers got on and we made it on the flight out.

With all the stress up to that point, when we got to Seattle, Mags nearly blacked out and we got the nearest hotel, wondering if her condition was serious enough to go the hospital. She was getting sick, but thought it was just from the nerves and stress from the day.

After some oatmeal and Gatorade, the next morning we continued to Seoul. Mags was feeling well enough to travel, even with family in front of us passing day old egg rolls to the little girl in the window seat next to us. We had two hours in the Seoul airport before getting on the flight to Kuala Lumpur. The next 12 hours was a blur through the airport gates and on to the small plane to Kota Kinabalu, in the state of Saba in Northern Borneo. Once there, a driver picked us up and we went straight to the ‘cave’ as we called it. Our hotel where we drew the shades and caught up on sleep.

Day 4

Woke up feeling sick, but ready for our trip to Mt. Kinabalu. I don’t know if Mags is well enough to make the hike, but after reading about the National Park where the climb starts, it sounds like the perfect start to our adventure. Lots of nature trails with self-guided walks in the high elevation jungle. Our driver picks us up in two hours at 11am.

When checking into our hotel at the base of the mountain, we informed the guides that we’d changed our plans of summiting Mt. Kinabalu to staying at the base for two nights. They were more than happy to accommodate and gave us an upgrade to a beautiful mountain sweet. We spent two hours walking a nearby nature trail where we saw all kinds of birds and insects. I love the trees, they’re massive! After completing a loop in the jungle, we got a first look at the sweet. We have a massive room with a fireplace, a balcony overlooking the jungle, and wonderful bird watching right from the balcony. This is awesome!

Tomorrow we’re going to hike the trails around the base of Mt. Kinabalu. We’ve been reading about them in our Lonely Planet book and they sound outstanding and will give us time to appreciate this lush high elevation forest.

Day 5

Well, today was a blast and I’m already having a tough time keeping track of all the new bird species we’ve seen. After breakfast at the National Park Headquarters, we packed our day packs and set out to hike the base of Kinabalu. We explored a botanical garden where we found a wealth of new flowers I’ve only seen in documentaries on TV. Our trail led north up a steep slope and onto a ridge. We were so many neat plants, birds, and insects. The trail linked up with the main road where the climbers access the summit trail. On the road, the clouds parted, and we caught a glimpse of the granite domed top of Mt. Kinabalu. That mountain, including the base area is steep! We found a trail that led down this canyon and along a creek. We found a strange insect that had an armored shell, black with orange trim. It was a great solo experience for us. We only saw two other people all day. At the end of the day, we walked back to the room and got ourselves some food and beer. The forest seems so lush, yet the people keep telling us it’s been unusually dry and hasn’t rained in over a month. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Day 6

At breakfast we drank tea in the morning sun and birdwatched off the balcony. It’s so cool here. We went for a walk around the jungle in the morning, then met up with the drivers in the early afternoon to make the two-hour drive back to Kota Kinabalu and it rained! We saw people running out of their homes and washing in the rain with big smiles on their faces.

After getting all settled in the hotel, we set out to explore the night-market. It was early afternoon, so we spent several hours walking the docks by the ocean and drinking some beer. A group of locals came up to us and interviewed us for their college report. I’m not sure what report it was, but they were very interested in where we were from. They gave us a hornbill and sea turtle key chain.

At the night market there was no avoiding being treated like a tourist. We’re white and it’s obvious, so we let the vendors pitch their seafood and fruits and we dined. I had a huge tiger prawn I picked out from the stand. They grilled it right there and served it with a blended-up watermelon drink. We tried all the fruits that we’d never seen before. After filling up on fresh seafood and fruit, we head back to the hotel. On the way, there was an old foundation with pillars still standing. The city had turned it into an art display, and they were each painted with something unique.

Day 7

Today, we got up early and went to the Kota Kinabalu airport. We flew Air Asia to Sandakan. It seems like everything is a little more slow-paced here. We found a restaurant and I had a massive breakfast, because I had no idea what I ordered, but it tasted amazing.

After about twenty minutes we boarded a boat and went to the next part of our adventure, Turtle Island. It’s a chain of islands close to the Philopenas Border where sea turtles come to breed. Malaysia turned it into a National Park and has been studying the sea turtles since the 1970s.

The ride over was a little bouncy, but the island is beautiful. White sands, green trees, a reef to snorkel in and the National Park building with some bunk houses. Right away we got a tour and learned about what Turtle Island is all about. It’s a nesting ground, and we can see the recently dug nests with sea turtle tracks all over the beach. Back within the trees and behind the buildings, they have a fenced enclosure with stakes in the sand marking dates and times. This acts as a safe hatching zone free from the predators lurking on the island. When the mother sea turtles come to shore at night, dig their nests, and lay their eggs, the park biologists collect the eggs before the mother turtles can bury them. They take them within the fenced area and burry them there. When the babies hatch, they release them safely into the ocean. There are two types of sea turtles that come to Turtle Island, Hawk and Green. The biologists stay busy making sure the turtles safely hatch by collecting eggs from turtles that land on the beach every day from July through October. And we were there to see it.

During lunch we saw one of the predators prowling the beach, a six-foot monitor lizard. The cooks fed it some raw chicken and told us to watch out for him hanging out in the trees. While we waited for nightfall, Maggie and I went snorkeling around the island and sat out in the sun on the white sand beach. Without realizing it, Mags got really burnt, dehydrated, and fell ill again to heat exhaustion. There were no boats coming for medical reasons until the next day and she didn’t want to miss the hatching, so we tried to get water to stay down and hope for the best.

Unfortunately, Mags hit the peak of feeling the effects from head exhaustion when night fell, and the turtles came. She told me I had to see it for her, so I left her in the room with some water and aloe while I went with the biologists to the beach. We came onto a green sea turtle who was digging her nest. They waited for her to lay her eggs and collected all 84 of them. The mother doesn’t know that the biologists are taking the eggs because she can’t see what’s happening behind her. When she was done, we approached and watched as they logged the turtle. Since she didn’t have a tag, she was new to the nesting area and we got to see them record their data. They did some measurements and placed tags on her fins. When the excitement was over, they went to go plant the new eggs in the enclosure and wait for the nights crop of babies from some time before hatch. Then they released them into the ocean. I went back to the room though to make sure Maggie didn’t get any more dehydrated.

Day 8

It’s Mag’s 27th birthday on Turtle Island. I feel bad that we didn’t take better precautions in the sun and she got so sick last night. Today she is better and eating and drinking water. We met a man from Poland on the Island who gave her a homemade tincture that worked. So that’s exceptional. Today, we have a boat ride back to the mainland where we will take a tour of a conservation area with sun bears and orangutangs. After that, we drive to the Kinabatangan River where we will do wildlife tours on the river.

The boat ride back was smoother in the morning and it was nice to sit in an AC car while we drove to the conservation area. When we got to the parking lot, we could hear elephants in the nearby distance. We didn’t get to see them, but they were close! There was also a male mckack, that we stayed away from because our guide told us they are aggressive and could bite us if we made eye contact. With the monkey gone, we watched a quick video about the sun bares and what conservation work they did at the park. We went on board walk tour through the jungle where we saw some bears rummaging around below. After watching them for a while we went on to the organa tang portion where we watched one eat fruits on a baiting station and some mothers and babies swing from a playground equipment. Overall, it was cool to see these endangered species so close.

On the way to the Kinabatangan River, we drove away from the conservation area and through massive palm oil tree farms. We read about the deforestation but seeing it and how dramatic of an ecological change it has on their forest type was depressing to see.

Our driver dropped us off at a dock along the river in the jungle. We faired across to our lodge and were greeted with an itinerary for the coming days. Following the brief, we were taken across a boardwalk about five feet off the jungle floor to our bungalow in the jungle. When we asked if the boardwalk and homes were on stilts because of flooding, the guide nodded, and said, snakes too. He told us he saw a king cobra there two days ago.

Before we ate dinner, the guide took us on a sunset boat ride with some of the other lodge guests. We saw the two types of mckacks, proboscis monkeys, gibbons, and a whole bunch more birds. The hornbills are very cool looking perched on the tops of trees. Also Storm Storks are humongous, and the kingfishers are bubblegum ice cream colored. The guides warned us not to spend any longer on the docks than we need to load and unload the boat because of crocodiles. Maggie and I were crossing our fingers to see elephants but didn’t. Apparently, they were in the area a few days ago.

Back at the lodge, we ate buffet style food and drank a few beers. All in all, for both of us it was a birthday to remember.

Day 9

This morning we got up early and met the boat guide for our sunrise wildlife sightings. We saw silvertip langroons, mckacks, proboscis, hornbills, kingfishers and more new birds I’ve never seen, a new lizard, and some crocodiles. The crocks were small. We ate breakfast after the ride and took a break before doing our daytime jungle walk. Our guide pointed out more plants that I can remember and many insects. He showed us his grandparents stick house. He told us his grandfather lived in the jungle for 110 years. We got to talking, and he told us as a boy he used to swim across the river to school because he didn’t believe anyone that crocodiles were in the river. This year, and it’s the end of march, he said only three people have been attacked by the crocs, and that’s seemed low to him.

After the jungle walk, we asked about the elephants and if we might see them. We’d heard there was sightings nearby. In the area where they were last night, we’d have to pay for the extra gas to get there because it was a few hours up the river. So we did and found a few more people to come along.

Right away leaving the docks we saw a 18 foot croc surface next to the boat. It was the same length as the boat. That thing was a monster! On the ride, we saw more monkeys and birds. Passing by a village, we spotted a male orangutang hanging out at the top of a very tall tree in the jungle. We got to a point I the river where if we continued, we wouldn’t be back to the lodge before dark. The others on the boat convinced our guide to go a few more bends in the river, but we didn't see the elephants. We saw their tracks and where they’d come to the river the day before.

After dinner, we did a nighttime jungle walk with our guide. We saw a civet in a tree, which is this crazy cat-racoon thing, and many sleeping birds. We could talk and stand right next to them and they didn’t fly away. I guess they don’t spook until they feel vibrations on the branch they’re perched on. Our guide showed us this bright green thing on a tree. We stared at it for a while, thinking it was moss before he pointed out the tail feathers sticking out of it. It was bird that stuffed itself into a hole in the tree and was sleeping upside down. Our guide told us this bird does that to protect its eggs. Crazy. Right near the end we saw a king scorpion. It was pretty neat.

Day 10

In the morning we did our last boat ride tour on the Kinabatangan River. Some people slept in and didn’t make the boat, so we had the boat to ourselves, which was awesome. Saw more monkeys, some jumped on our boat, and more crocs. One croc was eating a monkey. There was a king fisher sitting on the branch directly over the croc, waiting for scraps. I wouldn’t want to be that monkey!

On the way back, our driver had to stop and leave us because there was a medical emergency in another group that needed to be driven to the hospital in Sandakan. Since we were going the other way, our guide stayed a little longer with us and showed us to a cave where the locals collected swallow nests for bird nest soup. The cave was hundreds of feet tall, and the people collecting the nests off the walls were climbing rope ladders made from bamboo. No safety ropes. The only ropes used were for lowering buckets of bird nests. It was insane.

Finally, a new driver picked us up and dropped us at the bus station. It was more like a pullout on the side of the road where busses usually stopped. Since the driver was pulled away from us the first time, we missed the bus we’d planned to catch and didn’t know how long it would be till another came. There was a few taxis waiting on the road and our van driver helped us get a local to agree to take us to Lahad Datu, the town outside a massive wildlife research center in the jungle. The driver agreed to take us 90 kilometers for $10. Now that’s a good deal! As we drove past palm oil plantation after palm oil plantation, our driver blasted techno music and continually asked if we wanted to smoke cigarettes with him. When we got to Lahad Datu and showed him our hotel name and address, he didn’t know where it was because he’d never been there. That blew our minds, but after using google maps he dropped us off.

Lahad Datu wasn’t a tourist destination, so we wondered the town, found a mall and bought a noodle dinner. We headed back to the hotel for a good night’s rest and preparation for the Dannum Valley portion of our trip.

Day 11

We’ve read a lot about Dannum Valley and it sounds like we’re doing it right. It’s like a wilderness study area in the jungle with an ecosystem that’s largely untouched. The scientists there find a new species of life once a week on average. There are two options for tourists to stay, one that’s elegant and expensive, and one humble with a bunkhouse and dinning lodge, which doesn’t sound half bad. Kind of like a summer camp.

Our driver picked us up from the hotel. We met two people from Poland, Barbra and Lukas, who were also on their honeymoon. They are our age and seem like good people. We also picked up one other guy, Neil, from Denver. He’s outgoing and really funny. Seems like a great group.

Dannum Valley was a 3-hour drive and on the way in, we saw elephants! Two that ran across the road in front of the van. After getting to there, we put our stuff in our room, which has AC and a warm shower. Nice. The lodge has a beautiful balcony where we can drink tea and eat our meals. It looks right out into the jungle, which is awesome.

As we ate lunch and met another American who was there to photograph wildlife, a beautiful hornbill came and ate berries out of the tree right next to us. While we watched, we saw wild boars walking under the balcony.

In the mid-afternoon, we went for a jungle hike to a river. We saw more birds and insect. We were the lookout for orangutangs and spotted red leaf monkeys. After the trek, we sat at the lodge and had dinner and a few drinks. A civet hung out right under the balcony for a while. They are crazy looking. After dinner we did a night drive on the road we came in on, hoping to find the elephants. It felt like Jurassic Park, because we sat in the back of an open top Jeep. The drivers had spotting lights and we saw some tiny deer, leopard cats, flying squirrels, some martins, and more civets. No elephants out on the road.

Day 12

After breakfast and more wildlife viewing from the balcony, we hiked to ‘the rhino pit’. It was a place where rhinos liked to go. There are a few still out there, but the chances of us seeing one are very low.

It’s crazy hot in this jungle, and we need to hike with leach socks, so they don’t stick to our legs. We heard some great argus birds this morning and found their dance floors. They’re like the size of a turkey, but colorful like a pheasant, and they clear a spot on the jungle floor to do their mating dances. We walked 6 miles, which, without a guide, we’d be very lost. It’s a thick jungle. Didn’t see any orangutangs, but did see some hornbills, more birds, and moon jacks. On our way back to the lodge for lunch, we saw a pit viper in a tree. It’s so green!

After lunch we did another hike to some coffins, where the indigenous people of the area left the dead as offerings to the elements. It was pretty cool. We saw a devil spider that was crazy looking. It looks like a devil. We came across some elephant tracks and with my direction Mags picked up some elephant poop for a photo. Our guide told us not to do that because that’s how elephants follow their trails in the jungle. So if we smell like elephant poop, they might come for us. They’re smaller than African elephants, but they’re still big and I wouldn’t want to be run down by one.

After our hikes, we took a swim in the river where we were joined by gibbons and red leaf monkeys. It was so beautiful and made me feel like I was in the Jungle Book. We had some dinner and went for a tight walk in the jungle. Right away we could hear the cuckoo birds. It sounded like a clock shop. I found an insect that our guide had never seen before. We spotted some owls, deer, frogs, lizards, stick insects, lightning bugs, spiders, sleeping birds, and civets.

Day 13

We watched the sunrise this morning from a lookout tower overlooking the entire wilderness study area. We heard the jungle wake up as the sun burned the clouds off the treetops. Absolutely amazing and truly a one-of-a-kind experience that is hard to put into words and the pictures don’t do it justice. We did another walk after breakfast and packed up. We said our goodbyes to Barbara, Lukas, and Neil and left.

We drove three hours to Semporna. It’s a touristy place on the ocean that’s going to be our more classic honeymoon experience. After getting into our hotel, we hit the streets and got away from the tourist traps. We had fresh crab from the ocean and a coconut to drink. We wondered the local market and tried some street chicken and more fruits. People kept wanting to take pictures with us because we were Americans haha. When it got dark, we walked to a bar and got beers, then went back to our room.

Day 14

We got up early, had a continental breakfast that was more like a massive buffet, then headed to the boat taxi where we shuttle out to Mattaking Island. Oh, it looks plush and like a real honeymoon island.

After the hour shuttle, we were greeted with cold iced tea and they carried our bags for us. We got a beautiful beach house a few feet from the white sandy beach where we can snorkel with sea turtles! There are peacocks too on the island. The dinning lodge here is awesome and the staff really likes us because we say thank you. I think we’re getting special treatment because we’re the only Americans here.

We spent the day snorkeling on a vibrant reef flush with life. We swam with sea turtles and drank cocktails. This is the good life and just what we needed to relax before our big trip back to Montana.

Day 14

More snorkeling on the most vibrantly colored reef I’ve ever seen in person. It’s just like an ocean documentary. There’s so many colorful fish and turtles everywhere. I did get zapped by some small jelly fish, but it’s a small price to pay to see such beauty.

In the evening we took a boat out and did some handline fishing. Mags killed it and even gave the guides a run for their money with how many she hauled in. We saw tuna jumping in the distance and the sunset was to die for. Back at the lodge they made fried chicken for the hole resort, but they seemed so excited for Mags and I to eat it, I think they did it just for us, haha. While we were eating our meal at the water’s edge, Mags spotted a stingray swimming in the shallows. More cocktails and off to bed.

Day 15, 16, & 17

After a relaxing morning of snorkeling we left Mattaking and took a van to Tawau where we fly to Kuala Lumpur, then Seoul, and Seattle, and to Billings. On the drive, I was pretty glad we were sitting in the back. I had to pee something fierce and couldn’t hold it. The driver didn’t speak English. We had empty water bottles and I did the old sneaky pee in the back of the bus. I don’t think anyone noticed, but who knows. By the time we got to the airport and I emptied the bottle into the toilet, Mags was finding out she got pretty burned on the last day of snorkeling, right on her rear end. Not the best time before 36 hours of traveling.

We didn’t have any issues with the flights back. In Seoul we followed my dad’s direction and took the train to downtown, where we wondered and found a Korean BBQ. They had the grills right in the restaurant table and gave us all the raw ingredients. We were confused, but they showed us what to do and we understood. Cook it yourself.

On the flight from Seoul back to Seattle, I got to talking with the flight attendant and spent a good chunk of his life fishing many of the same rivers I have. He gave us some bottles of wine but customs stole them as we didn’t have receipts. The rest of the trip to Montana went smoothly. It was one crazy time and I already want to go back for more!

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