Travel Thru’ The Lens: Sabah Nature Trip at Mengalum Island and Bintuka Mangrove Swamp

It has been some time since I last visited Sabah for the Causeway EXchange cultural photography trip 2 years ago with the emphasis on capturing the tribes. We went all the way to the northern tip of Sabah and enjoyed the hospitality of the village head. It was a fantastic time and I had planned to come back then. So this time, thanks to the invitation by Ah Lee and Wing, I got back to the Land Below the Wind and enjoyed their natural wonders.

As the last trip was overland to visit the mountains, villages and rivers, this time round the trip will concentrate on going to the islands and coastal areas. There are numerous islands for the tourists to choose from but with tourist numbers crowding the area, it got tougher to actually enjoy the place. So we decide on Mengalum Island.

Mengalum Island 

Let’s be upfront a bit here. This trip was sponsored but still it wouldn’t bother me one bit if I report anything that is bad. Fortunately my experience with Ah Lee is pretty good. He don’t run super big groups to keep the cost per pax down so that would mean his trips are more expensive than most operators. The good side is that there will be fewer people to crowd the place with you. If you are going to dive/snorkel, then having lesser people means you have a clearer view of the place and your photos and videos would look much more pristine as a result. In the end, my feel is to cough out a bit more money so you have a much better experience if you are around a touristy area. As they say, you get what you pay.

Most people would have gone to Tripadvisor and read the reviews. Definitely something to do before any trip and I do contribute summary reports there too. So what’s my thoughts about the Island?

The view from Mengalum Island towards Kota Kinabalu. At first I thought it was part of a cloud formation but it slowly dawned (pun intended) on me that it isn’t so. This is why it is so majestic.

Accommodation – Definitely very good for the place. Do not expect 5 stars facilities but the room is clean. It is definitely comfortable.

Food – the so called buffet is nothing to shout about. Again if you expect 5 stars buffet lunch spread you would be greatly disappointed. I do have a solution. Go on a fishing trip with Ah Lee and then cook the fish you caught and let the staff prepare your catch. We had an excellent dinner because of that plus what fun to fish too!

If you do like to snack and have alcohol, my suggestion is to buy some from Kota Kinabalu supermarkets before you go. 5 cans of beer is going for 50MYR at the resort. A can of coke is going at 5MYR, not a surprise since we all are captive audience on the island.

Activities – Apart from the snorkelling, fishing and diving with Jeffery, there isn’t much things you can do. There is however a Karaoke bar something that most resorts around the area do not have. I did have a fun time singing there though.

The diving snorkelling kinds of reminds me of the old Tioman when I started diving way back in 1993-1995 in University. There are dead corals around but great patches with live and colorful corals and active fish. Fast forward to now, Tioman is definitely a place I won’t spend money diving on now with the huge number of tourists but Mengalum is a good place to start enjoying diving. If you are an advance diver, then the place to be would be the eastern seaboard of Sabah.

Others – Get water resistant insect repellent especially if you are going to the beach at night. The sandflies are vicious but hey that’s nature for you. Also do note that it will be about an hour’s boat ride out to sea so be prepared if you are easily sea sick.

When you are staying in cities like Singapore with tons of pollution, it is tough to really understand the beauty of nature. Here Mata Hari shows its glorious glow above the mountain range. Beautiful.
When you are staying in cities like Singapore with tons of pollution, it is tough to really understand the beauty of nature. Here Mata Hari shows its glorious glow above the mountain range. Beautiful.

The azure blue is simply captivating. Too bad there's a warning not to go into the water thanks to the stingray hiding amongst the sand bed.
The azure blue is simply captivating. Too bad there’s a warning not to go into the water thanks to the stingray hiding amongst the sand bed.

If you see such pristine beach and water, basically it is asking to be photographed! So here I am, using 15 minutes of my time to capture Miss Shen from Hangzhou at her most beautiful. So who wants me to capture their wedding shots?
If you see such pristine beach and water, basically it is asking to be photographed! So here I am, using 15 minutes of my time to capture Miss Shen from Hangzhou at her most beautiful. So who wants me to capture their wedding shots?
The local staff also fish around early in the morning. Check out the fin of the reef shark. I would rather see them in the water though.
The local staff also fish around early in the morning. Check out the fin of the reef sharks. I would rather see them in the water though.
Zheng Tao and wife fishing for our dinner. Yes you can also ask if there's a fishing activity once you are done with snorkeling. Trust me, it is good to have more seafood on the dinner table. It is worth it.
Zheng Tao and wife fishing for our dinner. Yes you can also ask if there’s a fishing activity once you are done with snorkeling. Trust me, it is good to have more seafood on the dinner table. It is worth it.
I am called to be a fisher of men by the Lord. Am not so good with real fishing though with 2 catches. However I know I have a super big fish at the end of my line but that got away and straightened by fishing hook. Yes it was that big.
I am called to be a fisher of men by the Lord. Am not so good with real fishing though with 2 catches. However I know I have a super big fish at the end of my line but that got away and straightened by fishing hook. Yes it was that big. Check out our haul just for the afternoon session.
Here's our BBQ chefs. Our fish dinner is still not ready yet.
Here’s our BBQ chefs. Our fish dinner is still not ready yet.

Here’s a video clip of the snorkeling around the Mengalum Island waters.

Bintuka Mangrove

The other highlight of the trip is the Bintuka Mangrove ‘cruise’ on a boat. Again, this is definitely a much better experience than going with a bunch of city dwellers who take their torch lights and shine at firelies and – gasp – attempt to take photos of said subject with flash from their compact cameras. I am good to take nature photography with a few good photographers who know what they are doing (if you are an amateur, please try to understand and apply some decorum when doing nature photography). And again, thanks to Ah Lee the experience with no one else but me, him and the boatman is definitely worth every penny. According to Ah Lee, the selling point of this Mangrove swamp trip is the lack of people. Yes definitely a good thing!

The local kids are a curious bunch.
The local kids are a curious bunch.

During the whole trip you would be able to shoot the fauna of the area and is definitely a treat if you are a nature photographer. During my time there I managed to shoot the Great Egret, Common Kingfisher, long tailed Parrot and other birds that stays in the coastal areas. I was also blessed to shoot a Silver Leaf monkey and also the Proboscis Monkey. It was a good haul of nature images made even more awesome with a fantastic sunset.

Within minutes of the start of the boat trip, this monitor lizard is just asking to be photographed. Good start!
Within minutes of the start of the boat trip, this monitor lizard is just asking to be photographed. Good start!

The long tailed macaque trying his best to expand his troop through some rigorous extra curriculum activity.
The long tailed macaque trying his best to expand his troop through some rigorous extra curriculum activity.
The long tailed parakeet
The long tailed parakeet
According to Ah lee this is a rare sighting of the Silver Leaf Monkey because they are very shy. This is really turning out to be a great trip after all.
According to Ah lee this is a rare sighting of the Silver Leaf Monkey because they are very shy. This is really turning out to be a great trip after all.
The Great Egret was flapping up river as our boat approaches. Just happen to catch it landing by the river bank.
It comes to a point it has no where to go but up towards a tree.
It comes to a point it has no where to go but up towards a tree.

The common kingfisher. Sky's turning dark and it got tougher to shoot the birds but...
The common kingfisher. Sky’s turning dark and it got tougher to shoot the birds from the river but…

…the setting sun is rightly positioned to light up the faces of the Proboscis Monkeys up in the trees.

Just check out the sunset here. Simply breathtaking with mirror effect of the sky as well.
Just check out the sunset here. Simply breathtaking with mirror effect of the sky as well. I shot this using the Huawei P9’s torch to light up the boatman’s face.
Here I am trying to catch the fireflies with ISO51200. I got a few specs of green!
Here I am trying to catch the fireflies with ISO51200. I got a few specs of green dots!
The milkyway was hiding throughout the duration of the trip until the last night. At least I got a peek but not at the best location.
The milkyway was hiding throughout the duration of the trip until the last night. At least I got a peek but not at the best location.

Equipment

The equipment I brought along for the trip is definitely nature photography centric. That means I have paired the Nikon D500 with a Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 (Sports) and the Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 expecting milkway shots and landscapes. The D500 with the 10fps and very good ISO performance, I was able to at least overcome the lack of speed of the Sigma lens. For the underwater shots I have actually brought along the Sony FDR-X1000V and the Olympus TG-Tracker with the later giving me a much easier time to record the underwater videos. For the street shots I brought along the Canon G7x and a review will be forthcoming once I have done more testing during my trip to China in the coming week.

Further Plans

There will be some plans for the trip to capture the 32 tribes in Sabah (ok not all 32 tribes but the easily accessible) during one of the festivities next year along with the mangrove swamp trip. If there is enough demand, the trip can be extended to the Eastern seaboard of Sabah that includes the famous Sipadan diving area and Semporna. If you are interested do email me.

To see the rest of the photo album please click here.

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