Friday, 12 September 2014

Bukit Fraser, Malaysia, July 2014

On our second day in Malaysia, our guide, Andrew Sabastian, took us to Bukit Fraser to meet our next guide, Durai.  Andrew had phoned ahead to say we would be late. Then, even though we were already really late, we stopped to bird at The Gap, which is at the bottom of the hill from Bukit Fraser (Fraser’s Hill under British rule).   After an hour or so, we rushed up the hill with Orange-breasted Trogon and Red-bearded Bee-eater seen well. 

Andrew stayed with us for the rest of the afternoon and the four of us birded down the road and saw our top target bird for this site, the Peninsular endemic, Malaysian Whistling Thrush.  This is another bird that used to be really tough to see but came in immediately with a little whistling, curtsy of photographers feeding it.  We couldn’t complain with two tough endemics seen on day two.

Malaysian Whistling Thrush, Bukit Fraser, Malaysia
Photograph taken by and copyright Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig

Fraser’s Hill is an old British Hill Station two hours from Kuala Lumpur (KL).  It’s a place stuck in time with its beautiful 1920’s wooden houses that are slowing decaying.  But the important thing is that it’s great for birds.  It’s also got nice hotels, good food and is at a cool temperature (unlike most of Malaysia) and so our top Asian birder friend, Andy Mears (who was with Dad in West Papua), suggested it as the perfect destination for Mum and I to spend our week without Dad.  The problem? We didn’t have a car and neither did Durai.

And so we had no option but to spend hours at a time walking up and down (mainly up) hills, doing roughly 15 km a day.  There are two roads which are both one way, the left one for going up and the right one for going down.  The road going down to The Gap is 9 km long, but Mum absolutely refused to walk all the way because (a) we wouldn’t get to the best birding sites before 1pm and (b) we were (or are) too lazy to walk that far unless it is the ONLY way to see a great bird. 

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig, Bukit Fraser, Malaysia
Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig

There used to be only one road.  I can remember hearing “tales” about this road from our world birder friend, Digby Munns.  The road is steep and narrow, so traffic went up for one hour and then down for one hour.  You were not allowed to stop, but birders (never being people for rules when there were birds to see) couldn’t help themselves and always ended up stopping.  Then the people at the top would have to put a siren on and if still no sign of the birder, a motorbike would have to be sent down to find them and give them a ticking off.  So in those days, the only way to bird the road was on foot and Durai was a traditionalist!

On the first full day of birding, we decided to go back down to The Gap.  Now, at Fraser’s Hill the roads are kind of a \___/ shape.    So after much protesting from Mum, Durai called a taxi, which was the only (licensed) one and Mum told him to drop us off about 4 km from the bottom.  However, because neither of us was actually paying attention, we had no idea how far from the bottom we were and just assumed, when we were dropped off, that we were 5 km down the road and 4 km from the bottom.  We spent the whole morning walking, and walking, and walking, and walking. Until finally we got to a ‘3 km to The Gap’ sign and decided to ask how far we had walked, to which Durai answered “about 4 kilometres”.  Mum was not happy.

By the time we got to The Gap it was midday and too late to see much of anything as it is quite tropical at that altitude.  Needless to say, we were there for only half an hour or so before we left because of the pure shortage of birds. We told ourselves that we would have seen more, if not for the fact that Durai didn’t have playback (he had dropped his MP3 player a few weeks before and not been able to replace it yet), but judging by Dad’s experience a month later, it didn't make any difference.

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig, Bukit Fraser, Malaysia
Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig

Don’t let my negativity fool you though, we saw lots of birds throughout the 5 days we stayed there.  It was just that we had to walk a fair way between flocks and had to work hard for most birds, so that it didn’t really feel like we had done so well.  I ended up seeing 92 NEW birds in that first week in Malaysia, which was brilliant.

A couple of days into our visit, we bumped into a custom tour from Bird Tour Asia (BTA).  It was really funny because mum saw a woman with bins and asked her if she was birder.  Just as she said yes, the man with her turned to face us and I could see that it was Richard Schofield, retired Birdquest tour leader.  I had met him in Colombia and chatted to him at 4.30 am waiting for the tricky Gorgeted Wood-quail.  I had moved away from the group to eat my bar and he had done the same to have a cigarette and we had a chat about birding (and TV).  Then the lady, Diana, said to me “you were in that Twitchers programme, but you were much younger”.  It’s funny when that happens abroad.  Then Mum had a chat with the BTA guide, Mike, doing what she usually does which is comparing birds seen!  BTA are the best in Asia, but were fully booked by the time Mum contacted them.  Rob Hutchinson from BTA is a good friend of Andy Mears and was a great help to us during this week and throughout our trip. So thanks Rob for everything.

Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Bukit Fraser, Malaysia
Photograph taken by and copyright Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig

Having dragged ourselves back to our hotel, there was another guy in his 20’s in reception with bins.  Mum quickly found out that (1) he was a Tropical Birding Guide, called Scott and was from Canada (2) his clients were sick and not coming (3) he had a car and playback and (4) knew Andres Vasquez really well, our guide from Ecuador, who is lovely and I had a special friendship with.  The message from Andres to Scott soon afterwards was “did you survive the meeting??”!

That afternoon was spent with Scott, Durai, Mum and I trying to get Scott three new species, to hit 5,000 - IN A CAR.  As he dropped us off, he was still one away but no doubt he got the extra bird in the morning before heading off to Taman Negara Rainforest.

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig, Bukit Fraser, Malaysia
Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig

Some of the amazing birds I saw:
Orange-breasted Trogon
Blue Nuthatch
Black Laughingthrush
Great Hornbill
Sultan Tit
Black-thighed Falconet
Malaysian Whistling Thrush

Fun Fact:
On the last day we discovered that our hotel had been withholding crucial information from us – they had heaven on wheels aka a minibus that we could use

We had walked 6 km down to a waterfall and about 2 km back up before we got picked up by the hotel minibus (arranged by Durai who had clearly known of it’s existence throughout).  By this point, Mum and I were too knackered to bother complaining.  We had been extremely unfit (well Mum more than me) and Fraser’s Hill seemed too much, but we had coped with it and got much fitter in time for Sabah.  So thank you Durai for our training regime! 

Later, after another 9 km in walk in the afternoon, it was finally too much and the next morning we left early to meet up with Dad.  We thought we would give him a lovely surprise at seeing his beloved daughter and wife, instead of allowing him to recuperate from his gruelling 3 ½ week trip to West Papua.

Unfortunately, Dad’s flight had been delayed and he had only just got to bed when we arrived.  So his reaction was more along the lines of “what are you doing here?  I was trying to sleep.”  Mum and I were extremely affronted.  After that warm greeting, we swapped horror stories from our separate trips, though Dad’s were much worse than ours.  He was completely wiped out from getting up at 4.30 am every day, trekking through miles of jungle, up near vertical slopes, and camping on forest floors.  However, he did see stunning and amazing Birds of Paradise, including Wilson’s Bird of Paradise.  Maybe I’ll just go to see a couple of the easier ones at some stage. Not to be outdone, Mum then complained for an hour or so about Bukit Fraser.

Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig, KL, Malaysia 
Photograph taken by and copyright Helena Craig

The next morning, we left for the KL airport (200 metres away), for the main part of our trip, Sabah, Borneo.

Next up: Sepilok and Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo