into the wild

My travelling plan this year as I have been telling everyone is to do “cuti-cuti Sabah”, meaning holidaying in and around Sabah — domestic travelling!  Being in the hospitality industry sometimes I do feel slightly embarrassed that I have been to less places in my home state than many of the tourists from around the globe that I have come across over the years.

Visiting places in Sabah on the island of Borneo is almost synonymous to being out in the great outdoor and getting close to nature as we are famous for our eco-tourism with mountains, islands, huge span of tropical rainforests and an array of flora and fauna.

The first place to visit on my list this year was Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu, a small town only one hour’s flight journey away from Kota Kinabalu.  After some planning things were eventually firmed up and dates were set for the early May Labour Day long weekend with a few friends.

The team at Tabin sales office in KK was helpful with all the arrangements and their 3 days 2 nights full board package with return airport transfers and all the hikes included was well organised and hassle free.  All we had to do was to ensure that we pack all the essentials such as insect repellent, anti-leech socks, rain jacket, sunblock, water bottle and proper hiking outfits etc. and we were ready to go.

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from west to east, Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu, in one hour on a small plane

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this shows how small the airport of Lahad Datu is…

A friendly employee of Tabin met us at the airport and brought us right next door for registration before putting us on a passenger van that would take us to the resort about an hour and a half away.

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26 km of a slightly bumpy ride on unsealed road through palm oil plantations after we got off from the main road about half an hour after we left the airport. Hmm, rain…. we weren’t expecting this!

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we are here, finally!

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wild animals crossing expected…

The Resort

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the main resort building

We were greeted by the team of Tabin at the front steps and before we could finish saying hi to everyone hair wreath made of scented pandan leaves was put on our head and refreshing cold towels handed our way.  We were pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome and understandably we enjoyed the moment so much that none of us thought of capturing it on camera!  When we managed to bring our excitement under control we were ushered to the cafe with a glass of chilled lemon grass drink waiting for us.  Ahhh, bliss!

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we stayed at the River Lodge — warm, clean and spacious room with fan and air-conditioner, and newly renovated bathroom with hot shower

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front of the River Lodges

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river view from our balcony after the rain

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Hill Lodges

The resort has only 10 River Lodges and 10 Hill Lodges so it will not be too crowded even when they run full house during peak seasons.

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suspension bridge in the resort

First day
Our guide Rafel met up with us just before we were about to start our delicious lunch and gave us a detailed briefing on the schedule and our preparation for the first hike after lunch.  In addition to reminding us of the necessary things to bring we were given very clear instructions on our gear; I guess in view of us being first timers to the jungle it was necessary to be detailed.  We were told to put on the leech socks, wear proper hiking outfit with long trousers and our shirt tucked in so that the blood sucking leeches that are usually attracted by body heat would have no chance of getting under our shirt! Our first adventure would be a short trek to the mud volcano.

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we were told to leave our shoes in the room and help ourselves instead with these bright yellow rubber boots that would be more practical for the some times very muddy treks!

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all ready for the first trek with my leech socks and rubber boots on!

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our main transport

We hopped on to the truck that would take us to the starting point of our first trek and, lo and behold, only minutes after we left the resort it started to rain, and it rained heavily! We scrambled to get into our rain jackets but as the rain was bucketing down so fast no one was spared from getting drenched.  We waited for about 10 minutes at the car porch of a nearby building and seeing the rain not only had no intention to stop but seemed to get even heavier, Rafel had no alternative but to cancel our first trek!  So back to the resort we went.

I enjoyed the time out in the afternoon as for busy professional city folks like us it was pure luxury to have some time off doing nothing constructive but just rest and relax!  When the rain eventually stopped in the early evening we took a nice relaxing walk around the resort in the cool evening air.

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a mild introduction to wildlife…

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we walked down the path leading to the entrance of the resort and saw this — tall coconut trees with the evening sky as backdrop

After dinner we got onto the truck again and were taken out for night safari.  The 6 of us shared the same truck with another Japanese couple who had returned to Tabin for the 4th time and they were guided by another forest guide Jessica.

During the night drive we were amazed by how Rafel and Jessica who were standing on the truck flashing their spotlights on the dark forests on both sides of the road actually managed to spot quite a number of nocturnal animals as well as birds that were resting on the tree branches.  Their eyes sure were sharp!

The highlight of the night safari came when we spotted a herd of Borneo pygmy elephants not far away from the road we were travelling on!  Even Jessica was excited because she apparently had not seen them since the end of last year as the animals have been moving around the 30,000 acres of land within the wildlife reserve.  We were truly blessed to have encountered these precious elephants indigenous to Borneo during our first trip to Tabin as not every visitor was this fortunate.

Second day
We set out early at 7:00am the second morning as we had to combine both the mud volcano trek that was hampered by the heavy downpour the day before with the one to the waterfall.

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Rafel planned to take us to the Mud Volcano Trail (0.7km) but the 2 Japanese on our truck wanted to go for the longer trail so we compromised and went with them to the 2.2km Elephant Trail.

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commencement of our trek after a detailed safety briefing

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on we go…

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a glimpse of the tropical rainforest

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the natural beauty is breathtaking

The trek was not demanding but what actually tired us out in shorter time than we had expected was the incredibly high humidity.  One could practically stand still and still sweat profusely!

Rafel, being one of the best guides at Tabin after spending 14 long years in Danum Valley, another nature wonderment in Borneo in an even bigger scale and my next destination, guided us through the forest in a steady pace.  He explained to us patiently many of the interesting vegetation, pointed out various types of mushrooms and fungi to me and also identified to us all of the animal footprints and telltale signs of their appearance in the area.  He was also very alert and would stop at intervals for the slow hikers among us to catch their breath and to remind us all to drink water to keep hydrated.

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close examination of Tarzan’s and Mowgli’s mode of transportation

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a tall tree

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and an old tree, 260 years old we were told

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I looked up, there was beauty above me

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I looked around, I was mesmerised by the sight before me

After trekking for about an hour an a half we came out of the rainforest and reached a clearing.  The landscaped changed drastically and we knew we had reached the mud volcano!

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a different landscape…

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look, the pygmy elephants were here!

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mud full of minerals

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Rafel said he would not give us the certificate if we did not do a facial with the mud! So there we went, mud and pygmy elephant pee and all! (I do think there was elephant pee in it if the elephants had been spotted wandering in the volcano!)

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view of the mud volcano from the observation tower

After a good view of the mud volcano from the observation tower we came down and continued our journey.  A short trek later we came out of the forest and were greeted by our driver Ismail who had brought the truck round to pick us up.  Our next destination is the 0.4km Mouse Deer Trail to Lipad Waterfall.

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on the trail we stopped to enjoy the sighting of birds and were fascinated by the various bird calls made by Rafel

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almost there… couldn’t wait to wash the mud off our faces to see how beautiful we looked after the beauty treatment!

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refreshing water! the girls jumped right in while I just sat on the big rock, soaked my tired feet in the cold water and enjoyed the view

When we got back to the resort it was not even 11:30am yet and it seemed like we had done so much!  After cleaning ourselves up, scoffed down yet another sumptuous lunch and a short rest in our respective chalets afterwards, we went for a short pampering session in the afternoon with herbal foot soak and another volcano mud facial for further beautification.

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this time I could just sit back and relax…

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so clever — lotion on a leaf for our feet after the foot soak!

In less than 2 days we had quite an accomplishment —
Night safari, done!
Mud volcano, done!
Waterfall, done!
Foot soak and mud facial, done!

So what was next on the agenda?
Of course it was the dusk drive from 4:00pm to 6:00pm!

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narrow path meandering through the forest

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interesting vegetation, wild figs I think that was what Rafel said.

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elegant tree – Rafel explained that the bees build the hives high up on these honey trees so that the sun bears could not get to them!

Sitting on the back of the open truck with the cool and fresh evening air blowing on our faces, travelling along small path meandering through the lusciously green forests, stopping to watch birds perching high on the tree branches, being amazed by the trees and plants that we had never seen before, occasionally trying to catch a glimpses of macaques and gibbons jumping from one tree to another, being surprised by a few wild boars crossing the road just metres in front of our truck and hearing nothing man-made except for the engine of our truck — it was a new and yet delightful experience that did not take me long to get accustomed to.

I was immersed in the awesomeness of nature, and I could almost hear the forest breathe! The urban life and everything associated with it that we were familiar with seemed so far away and nothing could beat that serenity and the closeness of nature.

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we stopped to enjoy the sunset on our returning journey

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another stunning view of the evening sky

Was that the end of our adventure?  No!  Rafel said after dinner we were to put on our leech socks and boots again and also to bring along our torch for a little night walk around the resort.  How exciting!

Guided by the faint light of our torches we cut through a small pathway and came out of the back of the staff quarters.  The sharp-eyed guide spotted some tiny creatures which would have otherwise been missed by our untrained eyes; he pointed out a small snail, an even smaller millipede, a tiny frog, a fruit bat and a gecko (ok, the gecko was big!) and it was indeed an interesting walk.  We ended our little tour in front of a water lily pond where a few beautiful flowers were blooming under the starlit sky.

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a night walk around the resort

Third day
Rafel showed us an impressive video of Tabin Wildlife Reserve after breakfast followed by a little ceremony for the presentation of certificate for our visit to the mud volcano.

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Rafel helped to put volcano mud on my hand

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proof of homo sapiens spotted at the mud volcano!

There was still plenty of time for us to explore the surrounding area further before our departure at 1:00pm after lunch.  As usual I was drawn to the flowers…

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just before we bid farewell… it would not be complete without a group photo!

A great thanks to the team at Tabin who helped to make our journey a memorable one.  In the picture:
1. guy on first row – our excellent and very knowledgeable nature guide Rafel
2. guy on second row – Ramzu, Resident Manager of Tabin Wildlife Reserve
3. guy on third row – Ismail, the experienced driver who took us on his truck to all the hikes, night and dusk drives
4. girl in orange on last row – Jessica, the friendly guide who guided the Japanese couple but got on well with us
5. guy on last row – Harold, Jessica’s husband and the cook who kept us well fed with his delicious cooking

Thoughts and reflection:
I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, with the intense humidity and all!  I personally felt that of all the short treks that I have taken in our Malaysian forests over the years, this was something of a different kind.  Being in the age-old rainforest with a combination of mainly secondary forests with primary forests and seeing the flora and fauna in their natural habitat, I was moved and inspired! This is nature in its truest form!

My deepest sense of regret is seeing our beautiful nature in this part of the world gradually losing its battle against its biggest enemy of all — human, in a vast scale and great speed with their exploitation for greed in the form of logging, legal or otherwise, palm oil plantations or other commodities with great commercial values and poaching to name a few. The authorities have only started to try to conserve and protect what is left in the last 20+ years or so and I cannot help but wonder if it is not already too late!

We know many of the wildlife in our Borneo rainforest are endangered and the top 5 being the Sumatran rhinoceros, pygmy elephants, sun bear, orangutan and clouded leopard. We were informed that in fact, the Sumatran rhinos are believed to have become extinct as there has not been any sighting of the rhinos in the wild since 2007 as per report by the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) and there are now less than 10 in captivity with 3 at their sanctuary in Tabin reserve (

Some of us might not be able to do much on a grand scale to help preserve our nature but I believe we all can start somewhere and start small, like sharing our love for nature, educate others and help to create awareness in eco-balance and a better understanding of nature conservation.

Let’s put down our high-tech digital gadgets and go offline for a while, go outside, get in touch with nature, breathe in the fresh air, enjoy the greenery, be wowed by the living plants and animals in their natural habitat and trust me, you will be enlightened!

Naturalist John Muir said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” and I guess that says it all.

I wish you all a wonderful time exploring and getting close to nature!

— END —

My sincere gratitude to the General Manager of Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Lawrence Chin and his team for taking care of us before we even left KK until the end of our tour.  I loved every minute of it at the reserve and I believe my teammates all had an amazing journey too discovering and getting close to nature. We truly appreciate your warm hospitality and your care for us, and we also thank you for your love and contribution toward nature. Please keep doing what you are doing.  I will be back soon! (

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9 thoughts on “into the wild

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