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Getting around

Part 5: Sandakan, Pulau Berhala, Lahad Datu, Tabin wildlife reserve

9.8-10.8: Munich -> Dubai -> KL
11.8: KL
12.8: KL
13.8: KL -> Khao Lak
20.8: Bangkok -> Kuala Lumpur -> Kota Kinabalu
21.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Garama river -> Kota Kinabalu
22.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Pulau Tiga -> Kota Kinabalu
23.8: Kota Kinabalu -> Mari Mari cultural village -> Sandakan
24.8: Sandakan -> Sepilok -> Sandakan
25.8: Sandakan -> Pulau Berhala -> Lahad Datu
26.8: Lahad Datu -> Tabin wildlife reserve -> Lahad Datu
27.8: Lahad Datu -> KK -> Mamutik and Sapi -> KK
28.8: KK -> Mantanani island
29.8: Mantanani -> KK -> KL
30.8: KL -> Singapore
31.8: Singapore -> KL
1.9: KL -> Munich via Dubai

25.8: Sandakan -> Pulau Berhala -> Lahad Datu
Hotel Silom Dynasty, Lahad Datu. RM 148 for a room, relatively small, with a table, chair, mirror, tea making equipment, smallish LCD TV, fridge, phone. Free WLAN Internet, but so slow to be almost unusable. In fact after half an ahour I get fed up and connect to the Internet via the smartphone (tethering mode). Nice bathroom with shower. Breakfast included. The street below is a bit noisy.
Weather: overcast in the morning. From about 11am onwards the sky starts opening up and by noon there is a nice sunny blue sky, with only a few clouds. God weather the whole day, no rain.

Since the weather is bad in the morning I stay in the hotel until 11:30am, then check out. By now the weather is finally good. I walk to the harbour and negotiate a price of RM 130 to do a loop around Pulau Berhala.

Pulau Berhala is a largish island, very close to Sandakan. It has a village with stilt houses on one side, while the other side is almost uninhabited. The highlight seem to be the steep cliffs, which are suitable for rock climbing (advanced level I'd say). There are some beaches, but these are not that impressive and are full of garbage.

Garbage is a big issue on Pulau Berhala. The root cause is the lack of awareness of the local population. They through rubbish (even plastic rubbish) everywhere and don't care about disposing of it properly. They throw non-biodegradable plastic rubbish into the sea, and then this is swept by the waves onto the beaches. In the worst case some sea animal will eat it.

Anyway, Pulau Berhala could be a worthwhile destination for tourists who are interested in rock climbing or are looking for a beach close to Sandakan and are not bothered by some rubbish on the beach.

The seawater is unimpressive, because Berhala is too close to large human settlements. Quite dirty with lots of rubbish floating around.

Anyway, we get once around the island and make a stop at the stilt houses village. Then we head back to Sandakan, arriving there around 1:30pm.

I then walk to a KFC restaurant, have some lunch and then get back to the hotel. There I retrieve my luggage and then get a taxi to the bus station.

I'm there are 2:30pm. There is a minibus to Lahad Datu leaving at 3pm which is waiting for customers. Sort of a minibus which leaves when it has 12-14 passengers.

This one doesn't wait until it is full, it has a fixed departure time. And in fact, shortly before 3pm, with just 8 passengers (5 adults and 3 kids) the minibus leaves. The cost of the trip is RM 25.

In the meantime I have spoken on the phone with a car rental in Lahad Datu (http://carrentalkeretasewald.blogspot.com). They have erasonable prices for 4WD cars. The guy suggests that I take a car with driver for RM 500. I then SMS him, asking for more details, such as whether I can go to Tabin with the less expensive car (Mitsubushi Triton) and whether I can spend the whole day in the Tabin reserve. No answer follows.

The trip to Lahad Datu takes about three hours. Shortly after 6pm we arrive at the bus station. I check Google Maps and see that the hotel is only 500m away, so I don't bother looking for a taxi and simply walk with my luggage to the hotel.

After checking in I call again the car rental. Actually I try several times to reach the guy, but he seems to have switched off the phone (?!). I call the second phone number listed on the website. A lady answers, but when she hears that I want to rent a car, hangs up without saying a word. When I call again she doesn't pick up the phone. Weird people. They could at least say 'wrong number' or that they no longer rent cars.

In the evening Lahad Datu is a pretty dead town. It has never been much of a tourist town and in fact most of the business here comes from the palm oil plantations. I cannot see a single travel agency when walking in the streets (and not even a car rental, but perhaps these are out of the city centre).

With some effort I manage to find a restaurant near the Executive hotel. Not a great restaurant, but the food is not too bad.

Tomorrow I'll need to find a way to get into the Tabin reserve. It's still not clear how I'm going to get there and if a permit is needed to get in.

26.8: Lahad Datu -> Tabin wildlife reserve -> Lahad Datu
Hotel Silom Dynasty, Lahad Datu. I extend the room by one night and suddenly the same room costs only RM 125. Thank you Agoda for pocketing RM 23...
Weather: overcast in the morning, some rain. After about 2pm the sky starts opening up and by 3pm it's mostly blue sky and no more rain.

The achievement of the day is that I made it into the Tabin reserve, without a Tabin resort booking or their involvement. Here is how things went.

In the morning I extend the room and surprise, surprise, I get the lower rate of RM 125. After breakfast I call the kereta car rental guy again at 9:30am and nobody answers the phone. So I ask in the hotel lobby if they know a driver who can bring me to Tabin. Some phone calls, but in the end the person they know cannot make it.

So I walk on the street and ask a taxi driver if he knows somebody. He recommends to go to the airport (?). Suddenly I spot a travel agency opposite the hotel. I ask there, but the lady who works there cannot help.

Then I walk again to the taxi stand, looking for the previous guy. He's no longer there anymore, and the current taxi driver doesn't know anybody. I'm there wondering what to do. It's 10 something and I have no idea how to get to Tabin.

So I ask the taxi driver to bring me to the (mini)bus station (same place where the minibus from Sandakan dropped us off yesterday). Suddenly there is a guy with a 4WD who can bring me to Tabin. And he even knows how to get there.

Should I consider myself lucky that a 4WD car with driver is there available for me, or are there plenty of such rentable cars with driver in Lahad Datu?

We discuss the price and settle on RM 500 for the whole day. Driver will leave Tabin after sunset and we'll be back in Lahad Datu at 7-8pm. These RM 500 is the same amount the Kereta car rental guy was asking yesterday for renting a 4WD car with driver for one day.

I buy some food and drink and at 11:10am we start driving towards the Tabin reserve. Initially we drive along a road running parallel to the coast.

While driving I call Traverse Tours in KK and book a stay on Mantanani island. Will go there after the Tabin reserve.

At 11:40am we reach a junction, where on the left side a gravel road leads into the interior. There is a street sign stating "Welcome  Tabin wildlife resort 26km".

With photo stops these 26km will take over an hour. The road is really very bad. Full of large stones, i.e. you need a car with very strong tires. In addition, I can imagine that if it rains, this road becomes even more difficult.

Anyway, we start driving slowly and carefully on this road. For most of the time, except the last few km, the road is passing through palm oil plantations. We stop a few times to take photos of the scenery.

After half an hour, at 12:10pm we reach a liftable barrier. This belongs to a palm oil plantation (not to the Tabin resort). The driver gets out, tells something to the person in the small house next to the bar (probably registers his name) and the person in the house lifts the barrier, so that we can drive through. The barrier may be crossed between 6am and 7pm.

After that it's some more driving along this road through the palm oil plantations. At 12:18 pm we reach the gate of the Tabin wildlife reserve. This is open and there is nobody guarding it. Next to the gate there is a notice board stating:

"1. No visitors or tourists are permitted to enter Tabin Wildlife Reserve without permission from Tabin Wildlife Resort who is the Sole Concessionaire under the Forest Enactment 1968, Clause 2.4 of the Privatization Agreement.

2. For any entries into Tabin Wildlife Reserve, all tourists must be registered, of which, the registration forms can be obtained from our office (Kota Kinabalu, Lahad Datu or in the resort). Kindly contact us at Tel: 088-267266, 089 887620/ Fax No: 088-258266 and Resort HP: 0168106493, 0168106490 / Fax No: 089-885851.

3. For Wildlife Department related matters, a proper documented approval must be obtained from the Director of the Wildlife Department.

4. No hunting is allowed and trespassers will be prosecuted. (By JHL)"

The funny thing is that I have spent the last couple of days checking if a permit is needed to enter the Tabin reserve and have found nothing. Nowhere the faintest hint that permission is required. On the entire tabinwildlife.com.my website there is not a single page stating that a permit is required. And suddenly this notice board pops up.

From the wikipedia entry:

"The land belongs to the people of Sabah. It is under government ownership and has Reserve status. The Sabah Wildlife Department is the custodian of the animals in the reserve. The Sabah Forestry Department is responsible for the trees in Tabin."

I have even tried to call this morning the Lahad Datu office of the Sabah Wildlife Department using the phone number published on their website, but that number is no longer functional.

Anyway, after a brief photo stop at the gate, we continue driving. The road continues now at the western border of the Tabin reserve, with palm oil plantations on the western side and forest on the eastern side.

After 25 more minutes, at 12:45pm, we finally reach the Tabin widlife resort. Contrary to the Borneo rainforest lodge, which lies deep inside the Danum valley, the Tabin resort lies at the western end of the Tabin reserve. A bit strange that they haven't placed it deeper inside the reserve.

After arriving the driver talks to the staff of the reserve and informs them about us. Some discussion follows about what I'm allowed to do or not. They tell me that I need a guide if I want to walk on the trails.

No problem, I'll take a guide. But then this staff cannot manage to reach his manager, so in the end it's ok "if I walk around a bit and have a look at the place".

By the way, lots of people in serious "Camel trophy outdoor gear". Khaki trousers and shirts, real mountain boots. Quite a contrast to me, I'm wearing shorts and beach slippers.

So I check out a bit the resort. There are a number of chalets, which from the outside look ok, but aren't exactly luxury. A central cafe/restaurant building. The entire resort is on the east side of a small stream, which enlarges into a pond next to the resort.

There are a number of trails near the resort, with lengths ranging from 80m to 2.8km. Probably enough to keep you busy for 2-3 days. The trails are well marked, i.e. it's unlikely that you'll get lost, but the trail quality is not very good.

At the moment the ground is not too wet and I see no leeches. By contrast, the Danum valley near the Borneo Rainforest lodge (BRL) was full of leeches.

The forest is not as nice as the forest near the BRL, mainly because the trees are not as tall and majestic as in the Danum valley.

I spend a few hours walking around the trails, spotting the following wildlife: some birds, something big on a tree which I can't see (perhaps a gibbon), small lizards, either a monitor lizard or a small crocodile swimming in the pond and finally a mouse deer. Actually I wasn't expecting to see any wildlife in this dense forest, so what I see exceeds my expectations. A bit difficult to see wildlife in a forest.

At 3:10pm, since I'm tired and sweating a lot, I decide to drive back. The return trip proceeds smoothly and we reach Lahad Datu around 4:40pm. I go to the airport and buy a ticket for the 11:10am flight to Kota Kinabalu for tomorrow.

There are some people waiting to board their flight to Kota Kinabalu, so had I known that I was going to be back in Lahad Datu so early I could have taken this flight. Instead now I'm basically losing one day, because I won't be able to do much tomorrow in Kota Kinabalu. Perhaps I'll visit Pulau Sapi.

At 4:50pm we reach the hotel. Right now the late afternoon sun illuminates the city in a very special manner and Lahad Datu becomes very photogenic. I walk on the streets, to the open air market, shooting many photos.

Lahad Datu is a very colourful and photogenic town, full of life and photo opportunities. Many people see me walking on the street with a camera and pose for me or ask me to take a picture of them. They seem to have fun and enjoy being photographed, which is strange because usually in Islamic countries people are photo-shy.

Wherever I walk to people are friendly and approach me, wanting to talk to me. They behave as if they had never seen a westerner.

But the fact is that Lahad Datu is not at all a touristy place. There are a few hotels, which probably cater to people who travel for business purposes and (the few) tourists who are visiting the Danum valley or the Tabin resort. But otherwise there is no tourist infrastructure at all in Lahad Datu. No restaurants for tourists, no nice waterfront as in KK or Sandakan. The entire city is geared towards local Malaysian people.

In the evening I have again a dinner in the same restaurant which I visited yesterday.

Copyright 2013 Alfred Molon