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Borneo & Hong Kong

Borneo - Orangutan

Day 1-2 - Hong Kong

We began our adventure with a memorable flight from London to Hong Kong under the care of Captain Brian (a friend of a friend). After a night of sporadic sleep, we awoke to the noise of the city. Hong Kong is a vertical playground of steel and glass skyscrapers encased in a rainbow of neon lights and towering green mountain peaks. It is extremely beautiful but extremely busy with an overwhelming sense of organised chaos; the kind of city that smacks you round the face and conducts a ferocious assault on your senses. The kids were in for a large dose of culture shock!

We had an ambitious first day planned visiting the Peak, the Big Buddha, Po Lin Monastery and a night-time tour of the harbour. We hadn’t quite planned on the queues (Hong Kong has lots of these) and our journey up the Peak Tram was quite literally packed like sardines. The weather was hazy but the views were astounding just the same. We escaped some of the crowds by doing a quick circuit of the Peak Circle Walk before heading across to Lantau Island for the cable car to the Big Buddha (who we can confirm is indeed rather large). After side-stepping the free roaming cows (a bit of a surprise!) we found solitude in the Po Lin Monastery with its beautiful Buddhist temples and statues.

As evening closed in, we heading across to Kowloon for our night time tour of Victoria Harbour to coincide with the Nightly Symphony of Lights show. The city skyline looked spectacular from the water and the lasers were great but we were less than impressed with the music (Prodigy or Orbital would have been the preferred choice). After dim sum and ice cream it was time to rest our aching legs (days step total=21,000=large gin)

Day 3-4 - Hong Kong

Day 3 was dedicated to the kids – an action-packed day at Ocean Park! We slightly overslept until 11 am (oops!) but still managed our Starbucks breakfast before boarding the MTR to Hong Kong Island. The day was hot and humid and being a Sunday, the park was packed with local families. We managed 3 rides and a show in the first 4 hours before completely blitzing the remainder of the park in the last two hours when the crowds thinned out. The Rapids were a huge hit (for the cooling effect) as was the Hair Raiser (for the loop the loops!). The cable car back down the mountain rewarded us with fabulous sunset views over Repulse Bay and Stanley.

Our final day in Hong Kong was all about escaping the city. We really wanted to visit one of the out-lying islands and chose Lamma for its seafood restaurants and 5km family hiking trail. We took the ferry from Central to Sok Khu Wan (which we literally caught by the skin of our teeth due to coin-related issues) passing by the lobster and grouper tanks before our uphill ascent to the gondola bestowed summit. From here it was downhill all the way to the Hung Shing Ye Beach for a cooling dip before the winding path towards Yung Shue Wan for a celebratory drink and fresh shrimp skewers. We had probably expired around a pint in sweat along the way so really needed to top up our reserves.

It was a quick hop back to the hotel to pick up our luggage, before heading to the airport for our short flight to Kota Kinabalu. Borneo here we come!’

Day 5-6 - Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

It was an early start after our late-night arrival heading towards Mount Kinabalu. Along the way we passed vibrant green paddy fields laced with rustic local villages before a brief stop at the local handicraft market where the kids practised their bartering skills (to varied success!). Eventually we emerged at Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kinabalu National Park, home to an enticing list of world-record holders (world's largest moth, largest stick insect, largest orchid) residing happily amongst the vocal birdlife such as the ashy drongo and the chestnut-capped laughing thrush.

Our lovely guide ‘Luke’ took us on a guided walk along the nature trails in the botanical gardens where we saw carnivorous pitcher plants and rare orchid species. Along the way, Francesca acquired a bloodsucking friend (AKA Larry Leech) which required some iodine and a large plaster but luckily recovery was swift. Afterwards, it was time for our short drive to Sabah Tea Estates for a delicious Malaysian feast (accompanied by dive-bombing rhinoceros beetles) before settling in to our estate cottage set amidst the foothills of Mount Kinabalu.

The following day after breakfast, we took a guided tour of the tea plantation factory (interesting for adults but not so much for the kids). The smells were amazing though! It was then onto the local fish spa for hundreds of borab, belian and catfish to ‘nibble’ on our feet. Our 8 years old absolutely loved this place although the odd borab offered a more enthusiastic nibble! It was then time to head to Poring Hot Springs where the kids were very happy with cold pools, water slides and private hot tubs. We also got a bird’s eye view of the rainforest from the treetop canopy, which naturally the kids bounced up and down on like hyperactive wallabies. Afterwards, we paid a small fortune to see a blooming Rafflesia (the largest flower in the world) before heading back to Kota Kinabalu for our overnight stop.

Day 7-8 - Sepilok, Borneo

After a ridiculously early flight (what possessed me to book that?) we touched down in Sandakan. Along the way we flew over acres of palm oil plantations, a truly depressing sight. Palm oil is in 50% of the packaged products that we buy in the UK, from pizza to lipstick but these plantations have decimated huge swathes of primary rainforest, threatening wildlife such as orangutans, elephants and tigers. Some UK companies have recently committed to using only sustainable palm oil in their products whilst Giki (a mobile app) has recently launched a ‘palm oil badge’ which allows you to scan a barcode which tells you whether there is palm oil in a product and whether it’s sustainable – please download if you can

We arrived at our beautiful nature resort on the edge of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve to the welcome sight of fresh smoothies, pizza and cocktails! After ordering one of each, we headed to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The aim of the Rehabilitation Centre is to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back in to the wild. We arrived at the start of feeding time in the outdoor nursery where six playful orangutans emerged from the rainforest. The first orangutan plonked himself down in the middle of the food and proceeded to eat for the next hour whilst the remaining five decided to perfect their forward rolls and play fighting techniques. They were all completely adorable and the kids were enthralled. It was an absolute privilege to watch them.

The following day we ventured on more wildlife quests. In the morning, we visited the Sun Bear Sanctuary. The world’s smallest bear appeared extremely fond of carrots and watermelon and did a great deal of digging and scratching. Lunch back at the lodge provided one of our holiday highlights! As we were eating, we spied a couple of hairy legs saunter past and looked up to see an orangutan swipe a basket of fries from the table next to us and clamber up into the nearest tree. With a bashful face she polished off the fries (apparently Rosa was her name) before clambering down for an accompanying salad and a fruit smoothie. It was quite literally surreal! We then spent the afternoon visiting the Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary at Labuk Bay where an estimated 300 wild monkeys live in a 6sq km reserve. The remarkable males sport dangling noses, flat-top hairstyles, pot bellies and red pointy willies! The kids were in stitches and the schools What’s App groups were soon flooded with zoomed in photo shots! My apologies to any parents who may be reading! We spent the remainder of the day chilling back at the lodge and sampling a few more local cocktails!

Day 9-11 - Sandakan and Kinabatangan River, Borneo

Day 9 was a ‘down’ day to chill, enjoy the pool and a spot of shopping in Sandakan. We had a good mooch around the local shopping mall with our blond-haired kids getting plenty of attention. We also had a lovely dinner on a nearby roof terrace with sunset views complete with retro paper light shades.

The following day we headed deep into the Borneo jungle - like wannabe Ed Stafford’s! From Sandakan Harbour it was a 1½ hour boat journey up the Kinabatangan River to our wilderness lodge, deep into Nipah palm & mangrove territory. This was the home of superstar species such as the saltwater crocodile, pygmy elephant and clouded leopard. We arrived to an amazing buffet lunch and the incessant hum of cicadas. Bearded pigs and their piglets casually snuffled past.

After an hour’s rest, we were off on our first boat cruise armed with binoculars, cameras and 50+ sunscreen. We were soon greeted by long-tailed macaques hunting for fresh green shoots and honking proboscis monkeys leaping between branches. Over our heads flew rhinoceros’ hornbills whilst kingfishers darted by the river’s edge. It was like a scene out of Planet Earth. After dinner back at the lodge, we set out on a guided night hike spotting lithe-bodied civets and the timid mouse deer.

It was a 6:30am start the next day for our dawn boat cruise to the nearby ox-bow lake. The tributaries of the Lower Kinabatangan were abuzz with activity at this time in the morning with long-tailed macaques hunting for crabs and saltwater crocodiles catching the morning rays. We dared to dream that we might spot a pygmy elephant but luck was most definitely on our side that morning as a random tributary offshoot led to an encounter with a lone bull elephant taking a morning dip. OMG!! We spent a blissful 15 minutes observing him wash, swim & dive (I didn’t know elephants could do that) before he decided to swim the full width of the river to the opposite bank. An amazing, once in a lifetime experience that we will never forget!!

Later that day, we took another boat cruise where we spotted silver-leaf langurs and a beautiful Asian paradise flycatcher. After another fabulous Malaysian buffet dinner (we quite literally ate like kings) we set off armed with torches and UV lights for our night cruise where we spotted the steely eyes of saltwater crocs hiding in the mangroves below the shimmering light of the fireflies. Absolutely magical!

Day 12-16 - Kota Kinabalu Beach, Borneo

It has to be said that our last few days have been rather relaxing. We have been staying in a beautiful resort with swaying palm trees, numerous swimming pools, a white-sandy beach, amazing food and cocktails galore. My latte fix has indeed been fixed but alas any weight lost through sweat and exertion appears to have been reacquired (oh dear!).

We have ventured out to a local cultural village to visit the traditional houses of the Dusun, Rungus, Lundayeh and Bajau tribes as well as the famously feared headhunting tribe Murut. We also got to sample some of the traditional foods and rice wine as well as attempting to start a fire, shoot a blow dart, bounce on a wicker trampoline and watch an ethnic dance performance complete with bamboo sticks, drums and lots of quick feet!

After experiencing so much over the last 16 days we definitely needed this time to reflect & unwind. Borneo has completely delivered on everything we hoped for; we have trekked the foothills of mist-shrouded mountains, visited hot springs and tea plantations, learned how orphaned orangutans are rehabilitated back into the wild and weaved the waterways of thick primeval jungle looking for the elusive pygmy elephant. What an amazing family journey this has been! Selamat Tinggal Borneo!

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