Sabah Stories and Tips

Twinkle. twinkle little firelflies


At the end of our holiday to Laos and Borneo we spent four nights in total luxury at the Rasa Ria just outside Kota Kinabau. This is a fabulous hotel resort but a long way from the city and many activities. My husband was really not keen on doing anything except relaxing but I managed to persuade him to do this firefly trip on the Klias River nearby.

We booked this through the hotel so it was probably a bit more than if you booked it direct with a tour company but as we were a way out it was very convenient to have them pick us up from the hotel lobby and return us there afterwards.

We booked through the activities desk in the main reception of the resort and give them your room number. We were not charged for this until they were certain that the trip was taking. You are to be at the lobby about ten minutes before departure in order to pay and sort everything out. The trip usually leaves around 7o clock in the evening but it doesn’t go every night so if you fancy doing this keep an eye out on the activities board and book. We were there out of season so not many were on the trip but it may get busy at school holiday time and numbers are limited to about ten or twelve each trip.

Fireflies do not like rain so if it is raining then the trip is cancelled and you are not charged. It was touch and go for us as it had been raining on and off early that evening. What is handy about booking through the hotel is that the staff will give you a call in your room about an hour before your departure time to confirm that the trip is going ahead or if has been cancelled due to adverse weather. Fireflies also do not like full moons or very windy conditions so the tour is not offered at full moon and is cancelled if windy as well. The hotel tour organising staff check with previous groups to see whether they saw the fireflies and so you can get told all this before you go out on your trip.

We were collected in an air-conditioned mini bus with another couple and driven about half an hour away. We were down dirt tracks to get to the jetty passing local villages and small holdings which was interesting too even though it was getting pretty dark they were all lit up so you could see inside the houses.

When we arrived at the jetty it was pitch black except for a couple of hanging lanterns . The men taking us on the boat trip lit the way with large torches and we had our own little torches with us to help pick our way down the wooden jetty and onto the lepa-lepa boat that we were going to travel in. I say jetty but this was pretty basic, realistically it was a few planks of wood floating on some barrels and I said said it is very dark so you do have to watch your step and make use of the wooden handrails.

These lepa lepa boats are canopied craft beautifully decorated. They are the traditional crafts of the Bajau people . This tribe of people have been a nomadic, seafaring people for most of their history and were often called sea gypsies. The Bajau are the second largest indigenous people in Sabah and are sunni Muslim with a combination of spiritualism.

Sadly as all things traditional these days even the seafaring Bajau are losing their boat-building craft skills because they are changing from using their beautiful hand-built lepa-lepa boats with commercially built ones. One of Sabah's largest festivals on the southeastern coast feature these lepa-lepa boats This is the annual Semporna festival when the colorfully decorated boats are raced against each other in a celebration of Bajau culture.

I was really looking forward to seeing these boats so it was a bit of a shame that we spent the whole time in the dark not really being able to see the boat that well. They are wooden craft and ours had a sort of cloth canopy over the top that hung down to give shade on each side. These wooden boats have a large decorated flag in the front as well as flags over the top. The front prow is elongated and they are slim and elegant craft.
Back to our firefly trip. There were four of us and two guides and another man driving the boat. Although the conditions were touch and go on the evening we went we saw hundreds so we were really lucky.

The guide shone or flashed his torch towards the trees in possible spots and if there were fireflies there they shone their little tails back in completion. It was quite amazing. We had been on a boat trip to see fireflies near KL but this was a much smaller oat and we were so much closer to them. It really was like one of those led Christmas trees all lit up and flashing on and off. Once one group had finished showing off we moved on to another light show up the river.

We had the motor off and drifted so that all you could hear was the water lapping at the boats edge and otherwise silence. It was truly magical to have nature’s light display in such a perfect setting. They took the boat pretty close to the trees so you get a really good look. I didn’t bother taking my camera as it isn’t good enough to take things like this but my husband had a try and some were okay but it was pretty near impossible really.

There was a bit of an anxious moment as one time when the motor was switched off it took some starting and I had visions of having to call out a rescue boat. In these days of mobile phones this is not such a huge problem of course. It did get started and we made it back safely of course.

On one of the occasions when we stopped the guides caught a firefly and I held it in my hand. They are about the size of a housefly which surpised me as I had thought they would be really tiny. One stayed flying around the boat for quite some time. I even got a photo of one in my hand which was pretty magical.

On the way back we had another of nature’s magical surprises and the water that splashed up beside the boat was glowing with phosphorescence. If you dragged your hand in the water it came out glowing. I was pretty amazed by this as I had not seen it before.

We also saw a few local people fishing in the river in the dark which seemed a risky occupation considering there are crocodiles in the river. They actually stand in the river with their nets. They waved as we passed by and the guides had a quick chat. I asked if they had caught anything and yes they had a few so their efforts had proved fruitful.

If you do choose to go on the trip then wear long sleeved light clothing and long trousers with shoes and socks. This keeps the mosquitoes away. The proper sturdy shoes also makes it easier to walk along the jetty and get in and out of the boat. They told us NOT to wear insect repellent as the fireflies are also insects and obviously they would be affected by the repellent too. I would say the tour took around an hour and a half so we were back for a late evening meal in the hotel. I thought that the price of around £5 or £6 was pretty good for the tour as I found it quite wonderful.

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