Caves, rivers and forests in Borneo

I wanted to do some diving before our big trip to Komodo in August and the Hari Raya (Eid) holiday makes a perfect opportunity. The public holiday falls on a Wednesday and my team are all travelling so I take the start of the week as holiday and have a five day mini-break. Bruce and Fung were excellent hosts at Black Sands Dive Retreat so I book myself back in. Annoyingly the direct flight to Manado from Singapore is fully booked so I have to go via Jakarta instead - a 4 hour detour. All goes well and one of Bruce's team meets me at the airport. It is about 80 minutes to Lembeh from the airport - dodging motorbikes (typical Asia family of 4 on one bike with baby at front) and alternating between good and bad roads. Fields full of tapioca, papaya, banana and maize and towns buzzing with activity. Steep volcanic cones dominate the hilly landscape.

Rather scary Giant Frogfish

Black Sands Dive Retreat is a small but very comfortable resort on the side of the Lembeh Strait. 6 bungalows sit in pretty gardens on steep slopes above the water with lovely views (see top). Bruce's excellent manager, Rustam, welcomes me when I arrive. Each room is well equipped with everything you need as well as nicely designed semi-outdoor showers. The restaurant serves a mixture of Indonesian and local food and the dive centre is friendly and well equipped. Having visited the much hyped and much more expensive Wakatobi resort in Southern Sulawesi six months earlier you wonder whether the huge price difference is justified. OK the food is more classy and the dive area remote and unspoilt but actually the accomodation was no better. Strangely many of the (mostly American) guests at Wakatobi go back time and again and wouldn't consider anywhere else.

Zebra Crab on Sea Urchin

Lembeh may not have the spectacular reefs of Wakatobi but it does have the critters. This time I was prepared for the drifts across black sandy bottoms in 12-20m of water looking for unusual creatures. In three days I see many frogfish, nudibranchs, octopi, eels, crabs and unusual shaped bottom dwellers. This is a great place for macro photography - see the tiny zebra crab on top of a sea urchin above or some of the pipefish and cowries in the slideshow below. I have just added a second strobe (underwater flash) to my camera set up and am very pleased with the results.

Early July is not the best time to come to Lembeh as the winds are strong and the viz not great. This means that it is harder to take clear photos but at least it is much less crowded than Oct-Nov so you have the creatures to yourself. The wind also makes it a pleasant temperature. I did not turn on the air-con the whole time I was there.

You can see coral and reef fish as well. On a dive under two old, imobile, liveaboards, (The Biancas), we spend a happy 20 mins at the end of the dive watching cardinal fish, including the stunning Banggai Cardinalfish above, as well as mandarin fish swimming among the coral and anemones.

But true Lembeh divers are not happy without their more unusual finds. We have been looking for the hairy frogfish (above) for several dives and on my last dive are dropped from the boat right on top of two of them. The black one looks pregnant while a smaller (and hairier) brown one is doing a bit of fishing with a worm on a line as bait. I also find a blue ringed octopus which I have always wanted to see. Unfortunately I did not realise what this very small (2-5cm) creature was at the time so don't spend much time trying to photograph it and the pictures I do get are out of focus. Never mind - a good excuse to come back one day.

I am flying out on Wednesday so I do my last two dives on the Tuesday morning. About an hour's drive away is the Tankoko Nature Reserve which we failed to visit last time we were here (feeling a bit lazy). This reserve is famous for a unique species of Macaque monkey and also for the Tarsier monkeys (above) - the smallest monkeys in the world. The Tarsiers of Eastern Sulawesi are also a unique and rare species.

My Austrian diving companions, Christian and Marlina, come too and we arrive via some very hilly roads. Our guide, Julian, meets us at the gate and then zips ahead on a wet, potholed track to the parking area before we set off into the reserve. The forest is very fine with teak, huge fig trees with great butressed trunks, and lianas hanging everywhere. After about 20 minutes we come to a big group of Macaques - we follow them for half an hour as they swing through the trees, eat mushrooms, drink from tree stumps and groom each other. Then we head off on a longer walk hunting for Tarsiers. It is still a bit early for them and a bonus is a family of 3 large cous cous bears climbing high into a tree. These sizeable animals looks too heavy for the tree but they get up OK. After sighting a large red beaked kingfisher and hearing (but not seeing) a hornbill near its nest we find another group of 3 cous cous. We peer inside tree trunks looking for tarsiers without luck. As it starts to get dark Julian leads us off at quite a pace through the forest until we come to a spot where about 10 fellow tourists are already shining torches at a tree where 6 or 7 tiny monkeys are sitting on the trunk, slowly waking up and thinking about heading into the forest for some food. Very cute but clearly not relishing all the attention. After torturing them some more with torchlight and photos we head off through the forest to the trail that leads back to our car. A great few hours in the forest.

Click here for more info on diving in Lembeh and check out the photos in the gallery below.