April 24 ’08
From last newsletter, we invited everyone to join Archie and myself in our air safari but did not get any response. We hope the pictures will convince you that the place was magic. The locals call Danum Valley and Mulu the garden of Eden, UNESCO classifies it as a world heritage, for us it was a place full of adventure flying, confined landing spots, jungle hiking, mountain climbing, cave exploring, river boating, and meeting our closest primate ancestors-the Orang Utan (scientifically know as Pongo Pygmaeus and found to have genes 96.4% similar to humans).
It was an easy flight from RPVP to Kota Kinabalu. Since we were not pressurized, we requested for 10,000 ft and flew the B348 airways even if the MEA is FL150. Both Philippine and Malaysian controllers were very accommodating and HF was not really necessary since handover at Osanu was easy communication on both ends. Except for the usual Palawan build ups, weather was very cooperative but we were terribly embarrassed because our transponder conked out on us midway. I had to do a lot of explanation to the Malaysian ATC and intervention of our Sabah Flying club friends and local pilots helped us get away with mortal sin and were even allowed to continue our journey over the weekend over Malaysian airspace for the sake of encouraging tourism in their country. Having friends does make a lot of difference.
First day trip was Sepilok which was just a few miles off Sandakan. From KK, we had to cross the mountain ranges just a bit north of Mt. Kinabalu, which was about 13,500 ft. The ceiling that morning was about 5,700 ft. The GPWS (ground proximity warning system) and the Terrain Avoidance equipment was like the Holy Spirit guiding us through the Valley of Death. This age of modern aviation equipment have made flying easier than driving in Manila streets. The coordinates given to us was right on the spot but the helipad was tight with tall trees around it and one way in and out. I befriended the owner (Datuk John Lim) of the jungle resort so that he would cut the tree in front of the approach so that take off will not be as scary. To my surprise the next day, it was actually clear of obstruction except that the helipad was actually in soft clay and it was raining all night. Our main wheel was half stuck in the ground and our wheel chocks were actually pushed out as the wheels dug in. Thanks to Pratt and Whitney, we got out of it even with heavy fuel.
The day was fairly easy and we enjoyed the most while we were in the Orang Utan rehabilitation center. Our friend Capt. Naru of Sabah Air has alerted the staff of our arrival and the result was a special VIP treatment. We were even given a back door tour after the regular feeding to see the orphaned babies. It was a pleasant hike to the feeding area. It was a trail in the jungle and then it opens up to a platform where the rangers bring, you guessed it right-Bananas. Regular monkeys and the Orang Utans come over if they are not getting enough food from the jungle. The Orang Utans are solitary creatures and move quietly and gently around the jungle. We were surprised to see them just above the tree in our path and everyone got excited taking pictures.
Day two was an early morning flight to Danum Valley. We decided to fly low and enjoy the scenery. Miles and miles of palm plantation and dirt roads winding around the farms and rivers. Then it suddenly becomes rainforest jungle and nothing else. My landmark was the river and Capt. Naru warned us that you get to see the forest lodge only when you are on top of it because of the thick jungle cover. True enough and as we followed the river and GPS DME lowered, the lodge was in the river bend and the helipad very close to the water. It was a magnificent view and wish we could share with everyone.
We came prepared. We wore our leech socks just before taking a hike in the jungle with our ranger guide, Raybould. We learned about different plant and insect species and basic jungle survival techniques (which we never got to use because we were too lazy to walk farther than a few miles away from the resort). If my botany teacher could only see me, I could have gotten an “A++”. Trees were like four to five hundred years old with trunks and branches towering up to the sky to get some sunlight.
We hiked to the canopy walk wherein they constructed a hanging bridge for everyone to walk on top of the forest canopy. If the Orang Utans were chasing me across the bridge trying to grab my one and only banana, I would have felt like Indiana Joy again. But the afternoon was not filled with action like in the movies but instead with peace and serenity as we sat in the trunk of tree watching the different leaves and insects coexisting with each other. It made me wonder what my purpose of existence was in this rainforest and on earth. Woke up to reality when my stomach started growling and realized it was getting late and I was ready for dinner. This is like a parallelism to the Filipino way of life, the philosophical is often overtaken by the practical and the end result is always disaster-I gained weight again.
Day three was flight to Mulu caves in Sarawak. Scenery on flight was like watching National Geographic from your windscreen. I normally flight plan for 150 kts. However, that morning, we were only doing a ground speed of 118 kts!! I checked if my gears were down but they were up. I checked power setting and it was normal. Had to compute fuel flow vs. distance and we were just not going to be able to make it to Miri, which was our next, refueling stop after Mulu. We’d make Mulu (but no fuel in Mulu) but Miri was pushing it. At Pensiagan, which was midway, we decided to head back KK for a refueling stop. The headwinds were really bad. KK was were ground handling was available and refueling was easy even on a weekend. Made it to Mulu as flight planned but we were given the wrong coordinates and we were at the airport instead of the resort. We made several searching circles and still could not find the resort. There were three helipads in a structure but definitely did not look like a resort.
Finally, I heard an aircraft in the radio checking on us if we were on the ground since I reported arrival at Mulu from Miri Control about five minutes earlier. Just like a Filipino asking directions from the sari sari store, I had to asked him “This is RPC2726, I am at the traffic pattern looking for the Royal Mulu Resort. Would you happen to know where it is?” The polite and kind pilot must have had a difficult time stopping his laughter for stupid foreign pilots flying in their airspace. But he kindly said that you just fly past the runway and you should see it. Off we went to the southern side of the runway and there it was. Archie went straight in for the landing and the poor Dornier 228 pilot had to go around to avoid us. He wanted to stay clear of these lost pilots. The helipad was almost at the final approach of the runway and it shouldn’t have been there. This was a good excuse for us.
Another hiking afternoon for us at Mulu-3 kilometers in the jungle one way and 1 kilometer inside the cave. This is when the boys and the men( Very Old Ones) are separated. You can guess who were the two lagging behind. The caverns were huge and because of the lighting, it looked very dramatic. I still feel that our Sagada is just as pretty except that everything in Mulu is organized and is very clean. After the long hike, we waited at the cave opening for the bats to fly out that evening. It took about forty-five minutes for all the bats to get out of that cave. You can imagine how many millions of them lived in that cave. The next 3 kilometers hike back felt it was 30. There are 74 species of frogs in the Mulu forest and one of them blurts out a sound of “ WALK-KOK” every time we rested. This was the specie that we hated the most. We tried very hard to look for him to see how he looked like but it was very dark. Certainly hope that this frog was shaped like a Nike “just do it” form so he can live by what he says.
Early next morning was headhunter river trail. Another mountain climbing at the end of the river for another cave but the old folks decided that we will leave the cave exploring to Fred Flintstone and we will just take digital pictures in the entrance of the caves.
After lunch was a flight to Pulau Tiga island resort located between Labuan and KK. This island was featured in the TV program called Survivors. We had very high expectations but nothing beats the Philippine beaches. I guess we have become too spoiled. The food was excellent though and they had a Filipina staff who was very proud of having Filipino guests come in a helicopter. She said she was expecting Filipino actors and actresses. I told her we were except that we were the bad guys that were fed to the crocodiles and were beaten up by the good guys that is why she could not recognize us.
Next day was a quick refueling stop and CIQ at KK and off we were to Puerto Princesa where CIQ personnel were eagerly waiting for their exorbitant charges. Again, this is a typical “Only in the Philippines” type of setting.
We could not have done this trip if not for Richard Ong and Errol Flynn (He does look like the actor) of the Sabah Flying Club. The Malaysian Minister of Tourism should have statues of these guys at the airport for continuously encouraging people to fly to Malaysia and make Sabah as a general aviation destination for neighboring countries. Agusta helicopters should pay for good advertising because in all the stops we made, everyone was asking what kind of helicopter it was. I can assure you that Agusta is the most talked about helicopter now in Sabah and Sarawak.
Will be waiting for you guys to join us for the next adventure.