14 April 2019

A Bornean Adventure

A Bornean Adventure
Featuring Mahua Waterfall, Sabah : Part 1


The 17m high Mahua Waterfall

Usually, at this time of the year, I would take a short butterfly-shooting vacation up north to our usual hunting grounds in Fraser's Hill, Gopeng or further afield to Chiang Mai and Chiang Dao in northern Thailand. This year, we decided to try out something new and head off to East Malaysia instead. We chose Mahua Waterfall in the Tambunan District in Sabah after hearing of good recommendations from Yi Kai who was up there earlier this year.


A panoramic view of the Mahua Waterfall and its surroundings

The Mahua Waterfall is one of the listed locations in the Waterfalls of Malaysia website, particularly in the state of Sabah, so we decided to check it out. The Mahua Waterfall is located about 6 km from Kampung Patau and about 16 km from the nearest town of Tambunan in the state of Sabah. Although described as "moderate" accessibility, the roads that lead to the Mahua substation are now properly paved instead of a rough dirt track as mentioned in the 2006 article.


The main Admin building of the Mahua Rainforest Paradise

An elevated view of the Surau Room and the dormitories where we stayed (green roof)

Planning began with checking out flights with the most convenient schedules, arranging for accommodation, booking a car and so on. We decided on an AirAsia flight that gave us a good balance of price, schedule and comfort. Mei Yee's research turned up that the best location to stay was at the Mahua Rainforest Paradise (note : FaceBook link), so that there will be minimal commuting between our accommodation and the Mahua Waterfall.


The car rental counter at Kota Kinabalu International Airport

After I confirmed our car rental bookings with Hertz (conveniently located at Kota Kinabalu International Airport) and made all the necessary preparations, we were good to go! Due to conflicting schedules amongst others, only 3 of us - Mei Yee, Jonathan and me, made it for this trip. But it was a good recce trip to ascertain whether future trips would be useful.


Our approximately 2-hour drive route from the airport to Mahua Rainforest Paradise

The Mahua Waterfall is located about 88 km from Kota Kinabalu and a road trip of about two hours or slightly more (depending on traffic) across the ridge that spans the Crocker Range. "The Crocker Range is a mountain range in Sabah, Malaysia. The mountain range separates the east coast and west coast of Sabah. At an average height of 1,800 metres (5,900 ft), it is the highest mountain range in Sabah. Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia, is part of this range. Part of the range has been gazetted for protection as Crocker Range Park since 1984." - Source Wikipedia.

Day 1 (Sat 30 Mar) - From Singapore to Kota Kinabalu


Lunch at Kota Kinabalu

After a smooth two-and-a-half hour flight to Kota Kinabalu airport, and picking up our rented Honda City from Hertz, we headed out for a quick lunch stop in town before making the road trip to Mahua. After stocking up on bread and water (just in case), we headed off to our destination. The weather forecast for the Tambunan area was not promising as it showed rainy weather for the next few days. Along the road trip, it drizzled a bit, but nothing too bad.


The route to Mahua Waterfall.  Note the mountainous terrain

Along the way, we noted that the Kipandi Butterfly Park was closed, but we didn't plan to make a stop there this time. Driving along the two-lane winding road requires a bit of concentration on the part of the driver, especially if there is a slow-moving truck ahead and you need to find an opportunity to overtake it safely when there is no traffic on the opposite side of the road. So do factor in the slightly longer travel time, even if GoogleMaps show that it is clear traffic all the way.


The Administration building of the Mahua Rainforest Paradise

The main dining hall (right) and our dormitory (left) at the Mahua Rainforest Paradise

We finally reached our destination at the Mahua Rainforest Paradise just after 6 pm and after waiting a bit for the staff to get back to the place (they had left for the day as it was after their working hours). We got to our dormitory and settled in before heading out to Tambunan town for dinner. The drive to town is about 20 mins and there were limited food outlets to choose from. But those that we managed to find, had decent food and priced reasonably to meet expectations.



Dinner at a kopi tiam at Tambunan town

As in many Malaysian small towns, being able to converse in Bahasa Malaysia is often an advantage, although some of the Chinese kopi-tiams have staff who can speak Mandarin. After making another pit-stop at the local provision shop for our lunch the next day, we made our way back to our accommodation.


A standard bedroom comes with 2 single beds. There are blankets and bath towels, but bring your personal toiletries like bodywash, shampoo and toothbrush.

Our dormitory-style accommodation.  Toilets and baths are centrally located

Our rooms were clean and spartan, but it was surprisingly cold at night, (estimated in the 16-18 deg range) and the ceiling fan was not even needed! The common bath/toilets were clean enough, and thankfully, there was at least one bathroom with hot water! Other than that, expect the odd spider, moth or bee to share your accommodation, as they are attracted to the lights in the dormitory.

Day 2 (Sun 31 Mar) - Mahua Rainforest Paradise



Early morning view towards the Mahua Waterfall entrance building

The next day, we woke up to the sound of rushing water (our dorm was just next to the river) and chirping birds outside. The cool morning air was refreshing and despite being just past 6 am, the sun was out and shining bright already. We had our breakfast and prepared ourselves to go out and enjoy a day of butterfly-hunting with our cameras.


The ranger station and entrance to the Mahua Waterfall.  In the foreground is our puddling ground

By mid-morning on Sunday, the carpark was full of vehicles and picnickers heading for the Mahua Waterfall

We decided to take it slow and stayed within the grounds of the Rainforest Paradise and to look for puddling butterflies. Reminiscent of our Chiang Dao carpark (but certainly not as good!), there was enough activity to keep us busy for a few hours. We just focused on two puddling areas where many species of butterflies came down to feed. Also, as it was a Sunday, many local picnickers visited the waterfall, so we avoided getting in the way of the crowd at the waterfall.


A Mycalesis sunning itself

Although butterfly activity cannot be compared to what I had experienced at Chiang Dao, there were enough species coming down to puddle to keep us engaged for most of the day. The early morning butterflies that caught our attention were Lycaenids like the Udara sp. that started puddling. There was a Mycalesis that came down to sunbathe with its wings opened (and we encountered it again daily in the early morning hours displaying the same habit).


This thirsty Crow decided to drink from our mineral water bottle



There were a couple of large "Crows" coming down to puddle. Amongst the Danainae, we only saw these Crows, a Tirumala sp., a Yellow Glassy Tiger (Parantica aspasia) and the White Tiger (Danaus melanippus) making occasionally appearances.


A puddling Appias pandione whiteheadi


Amongst the Pieridae, we first encountered the skittish Appias pandione whiteheadi and trying to get a good shot of the species was challenging. Although there were several of them, they were always on the move. Then there was the Orange Gull (Cepora iudith hespera) that also appeared.



Two different Mapwings - Cyrestis maenalis and Cyrestis nivea

As the sunshine warmed up the puddling areas, two different Cyrestis visited the damp puddling areas. In a way, it was fortunate for us that it had rained the last couple of days and the puddles in the carpark remained until our final day. Both C. nivea and C. maenalis were observed. Although skittish, they were easy to shoot once they settled down to puddle.



The endemic Kinabalu Bluebottle puddling

Just before noon, our first Bornean endemic species appeared. The Kinabalu Bluebottle (Graphium procles) visited the puddling ground. This species is reportedly an endemic of the Crocker Range lower montane area and Mahua Waterfall area is precisely such an area. At about 1,400 m above sea level, the Mahua area falls in that elevation where this endemic butterfly is common.





Different views of the Green Dragontail puddling

Another Papilionidae, the Green Dragontail also appeared just around noon. As with all previous encounters of this species (and its close cousin the White Dragontail), the sight of this dragonfly-like species is always breathtaking as it flits around with its rapidly vibrating wings. After awhile, it settled down to puddle, giving everyone a chance to photograph it.





A variety of Lycaenidae greeted us

As the day wore on, several more common Lycaenids appeared. The Common Line Blue, Silver Royal and others fluttered around the damp puddling ground and kept us busy. We called it a day around 4 pm and washed up before heading back to Tambunan town for dinner. It gets dark pretty early here and by 7pm, it was pitch dark already. After dinner, it was an early night for us, as we got our batteries charged (both human and camera equipment) and ready for the next day.

Day 3 (Mon 1 Apr) - Mahua Waterfall



Bright blue skies and warm sunshine greeted us on the next day. After our morning coffee and breakfast, we were ready to make our first trip into the Mahua Waterfall trail. As it was a weekday, there were very few visitors and we practically had the whole place to ourselves. The short walk to the waterfall was pleasant and safe. Paved footpaths and steps made it easy to walk around although the mosses and wet areas may be slightly slippery at times.


The Silky Owl perched on a leaf.  It was surprisingly common at the Mahua Waterfall area.

However, before we made our journey to the waterfall, we were greeted by the Big Eyed Jungle Lady or Silky Owl (Taenaris horsfieldii occulta). Fluttering by slowly but always on the move, this species was surprisingly common in this area and we saw several of them over our stay at Mahua. However, as they often perch in very dark shady areas and are skittish, photographing them is another matter.



The Himalayan Jester 

Walking into the waterfall trail, the streams of sunshine penetrated the lush canopy at certain parts of the trail, and there was regular butterfly activity stirring in the cool humid forest. The first butterfly species that held our attention for quite some time was a friendly Himalayan Jester (Symbrentia hypselis balunda). As it puddled on the wet area outside the rest room, we had many opportunities to shoot the upper and underside of the butterfly.






Views of the forested paths and walkways that led to the main Mahua Waterfall

This was our first visit to the Mahua Waterfall, and the 'thundering' sound of water cascading from about 17m above into a shallow pool seemed quite therapeutic amidst the greenery of the forests that surrounded us. Over at the waterfall area, the air was cool and humid whilst the area was generally under shade except for the noon hours where the sun was directly overhead.


The Malayan Oakleaf

Throughout the forest trail, we spotted many forest-dependent butterflies like several Maplet (Chersonesia) species, Banded Yeoman, Vagrant, a couple of Sailors, and many Lycaenids that were skittish and difficult to shoot. The locally common Malayan Oakleaf (Kallima limborgii) appeared several times, and I was amazed to see how big this species was, compared to the ones I saw in West Malaysia and Thailand.




Amongst the lurkers in the forest understorey, we also spotted a Common Evening Brown, a Malayan Owl, a Yellow Barred, many Striped Ringlets and several individuals of the Malay Red Harlequin. Hunting down the Malay Red Harlequin was challenging, as it flits around like the typical Riodinid amongst the thick undergrowth.


A Club Beak puddling

Mei Yee demonstrates how to get a low angle shot of the Papilio acheron

The endemic Papilio acheron puddling

We came out into the carpark's puddling grounds again in the mid-afternoon as it was getting too dark in the forested trails for much butterfly activity. Out in the open there was more activity and we spotted several Bornean Mormon (Papilio acheron) another endemic of Borneo, puddling. Two other species - a Club Beak (Libythea myrrha) and a Black Rose (Papilio antiphus) joined in the fun.


Jonathan prones to shoot the endemic Kinabalu Swordtail

Right towards the end of the day, we spotted another endemic, the Kinabalu Swordtail (Pathysa stratiotes) puddling. Although not a pristine individual, we met the species again, several times in the next few days. This endemic is one of the prettiest Papilionidae amongst the Swallowtails, and considered not rare in Borneo.


A Night Market (Pasar Malam) in Tambunan Town

We called it a day just after 4:30pm, washed up, and headed back to Tambunan town for dinner again. This time, we sampled the char koay teow from another shop but decided that we should be eating healthier than this! After stocking up on more bread, water and this time, even eggs for our breakfast, we headed back to our dormitory and much needed rest.

We will complete this travelogue with more butterfly shots in Part 2 next weekend!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Loh MY and Jonathan Soong

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