This blog post has been a long time in coming! We didn’t mean to leave you all in the dark. For awhile, it seemed that we had nothing interesting to write about, and then we were too busy! We landed in Sabah, Borneo, to discover that durian season had not started yet! Oh noes! Erratic weather this year means that the durians will be dropping about 3-4 weeks late. Thank you global warming for depriving us of our daily durian.
We still found durian around Kota Kinabalu, at the beach near our hostel in Tanjung Aru and at KK Plaza downtown. The vendors there told us that twice a week they drive the 7 hours to Sandakan, on the east coast, to pick up a load of durian. We were staying a five minute walk away from the airport, so when Rob
found tickets for 80 RM each, it was a no-brainer. We bought tickets the
night before, and walked across the street and onto an airplane the next morning. After a breezy
45 minute flight, we landed in Sandakan, hungry and hoping for durian.
We took a shared taxi to Sandakan Town, and when I spotted a durian
vendor just outside the Sandakan airport we became giddy with joy that we were back in the land of durian at last.
|Japanese/Chinese Cemetery near Sandakan|
Disappointment was lurking. Sandakan is the second largest city in Sabah and has an annoying layout.
It’s divided into three urban clusters all spread a few kilometers
apart, so that whatever it is you want is located in the other part of
the city. For us, that was durian.
We stayed at one of the backpacker
hostels nearby the Central Market. Although there were plenty of other delicious fruits that demanded our attention, there were no durians. After
walking around the market looking, it became apparent that it was basically
not durian season (okay, it wasn’t durian season at all). All the durian
vendors had set up shop on the roads leading outside of the cities,
with a cluster of them at Mile 4 and Mile 7.
We hopped in a taxi and requested Mile 4 durian. Fifteen
RM ($5) later, we were dropped off in front of a supermarket with about 5
vans in a line, their trunks full of durians. I was excited for all of
30 seconds. And then something started to feel wrong. The durians looked
awfully…Thai. The fruits themselves were huge, always a bad sign,
with large square spikes and a dusty brown exterior. On further
examination, the stems were dry and shredded, indicating the durians
were really, really old.
It turned out that these durians were
not from Borneo at all – they were imported from the Philippines! Twice
a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, a ferry arrives from Zamboanga with a
load of durians and other goods. Our vendor in Kota Kinabalu had been
making the drive to pick up Filipino durian! We felt discouraged, but
decided that that was nothing a durian couldn’t fix. Still, I prepared
to be unimpressed with a lackluster, imported Filipino durian. But when
the vendor presented us with the open fruit, my eyes just about
bugged out of my head. The flesh of this durian was immense, a single
pod taking up the entire space of my palm!
We immediately began considering taking the ferry
to Zamboanga to see where this durian was coming from. Unfortunately,
it was Thursday night as we ate the durian, and the ferry left without
us Friday morning before we had even woken up to make some phone calls.
That meant we had to spend the entire weekend in boring Sandakan, sans
durian. Oh, the horror!
All sorts of exciting things happen around Sandakan, but the city
itself ranks among the most boring place we have visited so far on our
trip. There is really and truly nothing to do, except wait to leave for
the (expensive) nearby attractions, like the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, Turtle Island, or Kinabatangan River. We spent one late afternoon at the Rainforest Discovery Center, which at 10 RM each was totally worth it. From Sandakan take a bus to Sepilok Junction (about 1 hour), and then walk 2 kilometers to the center. The main attraction is the 300 meter canopy walkway, which wasn’t nearly so cool as just walking along the darkening paths at twilight and listening to the roars, hums, and undulating calls of the jungle settling in for the night.
Not able to handle all the nothingness, we bit
the hook and bought our very first packaged tour – an all in one nature
trip on the Kinabatangan River. One of my contacts in Sabah had suggested we visit Kinabatangan during the durian season to see orangutans and pygmy elephants eating durian in the wild. We knew there wouldn’t be any durian dropping yet, but figured it would be a fun vacation and a way to make some contacts in the area. It was totally worth the hit to our bank account (335 RM, or $110 each).
We stayed at the Kinabatangan Nature Lodge, one of the budget river tours. If you want to, you can pay up to twice that much for a similar expedition.The cost included the 2.5 hour bus ride to the lodge, two nights accommodation in a private room, and all meals in addition to the guided walks and river cruises. We saw Probiscus Monkeys, Orangutans, Silver Leaf Monkeys, Pig-Tailed and Long-Tailed Macaques, three types of Kingfishers, two hornbills, and even a Western Tarsier. It was great.
But of course, we had only one thing on our minds. At last, our guide asked us “Why are you always asking me about durian?” We explained our project.
After that, every time we passed a durian tree on the river he stopped and pointed it out to us. These trees were enormous, at least 100 feet tall, rising high out of the jungle. One of the trees, dotted with neon yellow fruits, still had an orangutan nest left over from last year.
Our guide warned us that we probably wouldn’t see orangutans this time of year because they are all deep in the jungle eating durian. The other members of our group resigned themselves to disappointment, but I retained some hope – the durian season was late this year. On our last morning my hopes were rewarded. We spotted two Orangutans swinging sleepily through the canopy. They were obscured by too many leaves to get a good picture, but we were elated to see orangutans in the wild. Luckily it wasn’t durian season yet!