18.09.2015 - 07.10.2015 30 °C
So in the whole planning of a seven month trip, it is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, and sometimes in the reality of working, preparing a house for sale, and getting rid of thirty years of living, it is difficult in January to plan ahead to September and figure out exactly where to go and what to do. This was the challenge of planning Borneo. To backtrack, Bormeo was a place we had been thinking about visiting for a few years; mainly to see the endangered orangutans. Also my father served in the army in Sandakan at the end of WWII, so I had an interest and motivation to visit this area. Other factors to be considered were the fact that we had to leave Europe in early September because by then we were approaching the 90 day maximum allowed according to the Shengen convention. Then we had a prebooked guided trek in Nepal beginning October 9. So. We had to leave Europe and spend a few weeks in Asia before picking up our flight to Nepal, which was departing from Singapore. We spent the minimum number of days in Singapore necessary to obtain our visas because Singapore is expensive. That left almost three weeks in Borneo. I wasn't sure about this, as I didnt know much about Borneo, and to be honest, I didn't have a lot of spare time to research it. So I booked a week in Kota Kinabalu, 10 days in Kuching, then 2 more days back in Kota Kinabalu before we fly back to Singapore to pick up our flight to Kathmandu. Why did I organise it like this? I honestly don't remember. Probably because by then I was exhausted from organising all the Eurpoean stuff and got a bit overwhelmed by it all. I would spend hours on the internet reading travel forums, looking up destinations, and finally quit when my head was about to burst.
So we flew into KK (as it is called) on Friday September 18, not too sure what to expect. The airport was reasonably rustic, but ok, and we caught the airport bus to the centre of town, as the bus terminal also happens to be opposite our hotel; the Dreamtel, a very comfortable hotel three star hotel centrally located. It had all we needed; great free breakfast with a wide variety of food, air con, comfy bed and helpful staff who could organise tours for us. We spent the following day wandering around the town in the steaming heat, then booked for a day trip to Mt Kinabalu the following day. There were plenty of restaurant options in the town; local food could be purchased very cheaply for around $3 a main course, or European food for around $10. Being Muslim, the Malay restaurants were non alcoholic, but there were a couple of restaurants with western food where we could buy beer, wine or cocktails.
The day tour to Mt Kinabalu was big. We were picked up at 7am and driven for 1.5 hours up into the mountains before we stopped at a village with a breathtaking view of the mountain.
From here we were driven to the bottom of Mt Kinabalu where we did a short jungle walk; our guide educating us about jungle plants and wildlife. Then we continued to the Poring Hot Springs where we did a treetops canopy walk, followed by a walk to a waterfall where we could sit with our legs and feet being nibbled by fish. Following this we soaked our feet in the natural hot springs, then had a delicious three course lunch of soup, rice, curry and fruit.
The Gods must have been smiling because the famous rafflesia flower, which takes nine months to grow, then only flowers for seven days, was in bloom that day. In fact there were two rafflesia flowers blooming in the nearby gardens and orchard. We visited this exotic plant, which every four hours exudes an odour akin to a corpse. In our fenced off section of the garden, we couldn't smell anything, but you could see that an odorous factor was at work by all the flies crawling within the large bowl-like inner section of the flower. If you look closely, you can see within this are some quite nasty looking spikes. It is hard to gauge from a photo, but the flower is quite large; around 70cm across, and it grows from a large vine on the ground, with no leaves or supporting vegetation. The black marks on it are caused by the sun, as the flower is very sensitive, and gradually these marks expand, until the whole flower turns black and dies. This is why it is fenced off; any thing or anyone touching it also creates a black mark.
We wandered around the extensive orchard and tried all the different tropical fruits that were growing there; rambutan, mangosteen, and Landsat, but we declined the offer of the strong smelling durian.
From there we headed to the town of Ranau, which is where the death march from Sandakan ended in 1945. The Japanese occupiers forced 2000 Australian, NZ and British POWs to march 260km from Sandakan in East Borneo to Ranau. Only six Australians survived, only because they escaped; three of the escapees being harboured by a local, who was later awarded for his kindness and bravery. It meant a lot to me to visit this memorial as my father served in the Australian Army in Balikpapan and Sandakan at the end of the war, when troops came into rescue the remaining POWs after the Japanese surrender. I still remember the stories my father told me of the atrocities the Japanese had committed against the POWs and the civilian population. Shocking to think of those poor men trudging for 260km through the steaming jungle, most of them surrendering to exhaustion and malnutrition.
On Monday September 21 we took a boat out to one of the many islands that lie Just off the coast. The process for this is that you walk into the ticket hall, where a variety of boat operators sit behind counters and immediately begin shouting at you to buy a ticket from them. This is somewhat bewildering to the uninitiated, as you think it's just going to be a straightforward process of buying a ferry ticket. So we chose the guy who was the most frantically trying to attract our attention (big mistake). It makes no difference in price, as the price is set, but as we discovered, the service can vary considerably. Once they had our money we were told to go and sit down while they prepared our ticket; the boat would be leaving in 20 minutes. 15 minutes later we were still sitting there, so we got up and walked over to the counter, asking for our ticket. They tried to fob us off "sit down, sit down, soon", but we stood our ground and demanded our money back. Suddenly the ticket magically appeared, and we were told to go down to the jetty and wait, he would be there soon. More waiting, until finally he appeared and motioned us toward a small boat with an outboard motor. Pretty soon we were bouncing across the waves on the 20 minute journey to Sapi Island.
We had been told by a few locals that this was the best island to visit. Wrong. There were hundreds of Chinese and Malaysian tourists there on package trips that included lunch, so they were all sitting around tables or snorkelling in the shallow water wearing life jackets. It was almost impossible to find a bare patch on the small beach, so we followed the track that went around the island, to try and find a quieter beach. When we arrived at the next beach it was covered in rubbish. In the water and all over the sand were plastic bottles, plastic bags, discarded takeaway cartons, etc. it was so disappointing. So we walked back to the main beach and eventually managed to find a spot on the sand where we sat and had a few swims in the shallow water until we caught the boat back to Jessleton Point. At least the water here was fairly clean, and there were some coral reefs you could snorkel over.
Tuesday September 22 we rose early and caught a taxi to the wetland centre. The tourist information brochure stated that it opened at 8am, but to see the birds it was best to arrive at 7am and pay on the way out. The taxi dropped us off at 7.20am, in front of a huge locked gate. There was no way we were getting in there early. We stood around and waited, until just before 8am a very friendly Japanese guy arrived on his bike, and let us in. We wandered around the boardwalk, through the mangroves. Again, plastic bottles and other rubbish were strewn everywhere in the water, and wedged in the mangroves. We saw very few birds, although we could hear some. David did manage to see a bright blue kingfisher, but wasn't quick enough to get a photo. The boardwalk was in poor condition, many of the boards rotting, and there were very few fish in the shallow water; no doubt due to the poor water quality. We returned to the entrance where their was a display about preserving the environment and the importance of clean water. It would be good to see the authorities put their rhetoric into action.
At 2pm we were picked up by our tour company for our afternoon/evening trip to see the proboscis monkeys and fireflies. Many of the day tours are 7 hours long, mainly because you need to travel such distances to the wildlife attractions. We were driven north from KK for two hours, arriving beside a river where a marquee was set up with tables and chairs, and we were given afternoon tea consisting of small pancakes with pandanus leaves, and fried banana. Very tasty. From here we got into a boat and were driven up the river in search of some proboscis monkeys. In no time our guide pointed to some trees close to the shore, the branches shaking with monkeys jumping around grabbing leaves. The boat pulled into the bank and we sat in awe for quite a while watching around four monkeys as they leapt around the tree, grabbing leaves and eating.
After a while the boat continued its slow journey down the river, stopping to observe the bird life as we saw a kingfisher and a purple heron.
Further on and someone spied some macaques on a tree overhanging the river. There were a lot of mothers with babies clasped to their fronts, and a lot of very cheeky young ones, constantly play fighting on the narrow branches, with one frequently tumbling off into the vegetation below, and quickly clambering up he tree to continue the game. It was a continuous cycle. After a while some of them noticed us in the boat watching them, so climbed out on branches towards us to further show off their agility and stare at us with bold inquisitive faces.
We returned to the bank side restaurant for an early dinner of stir fry chicken and vegetables, then back into the mini bus to the beach to watch the sunset. Unfortunately we couldn't see the sun, owing to the haze from the fires in Indonesia, but David did manage to take this very artistic photo of a boat on the beach.
From there we were driven to another jetty for a boat trip to see the fire flies. By now it was 6.45pm, and completely dark. We set off in the pitch black down the river. Suddenly the trees along the bank began to glow with tiny lights, like tiny Christmas candles. It was magic. One of the locals on the boat produced a torch, which he waved around. Before we knew it, the lights began to slowly make their way towards us across the river, and soon we were surrounded by tiny flying lights; all around our heads, landing on our clothes, they were everywhere. These were the fireflies, attracted by the light from the torch, which they thought was their queen. They say if you catch one and make a wish it will come true. We caught many; it was very easy. Some just sat in your hair, their light blinking on and off like a tiny beacon. It was a magical experience, and our guide kept telling us that the gods must be smiling, because we had seen a lot of wildlife that day. To see so many proboscis monkeys, macaques and fireflies in one day was most unusual, and we were very fortunate. We continued slowly along the river and the fireflies continued to fly out from the banks and into our boat like clouds of tiny Christmas lights.
The flowing day we caught a boat out to Manukan Island, which was much quieter and cleaner. It has a much longer beach, and it is possible to access deep water for swimming. When we first arrived however, we swam in a shallow section where there was a lot of coral, and we were both bitten on the leg by a small fish. It wasn't terribly painful, but it was a bit of a shock to be bitten by a fish! After that we swam closer to the jetty, where there were swarms of beautiful blue striped fish, who surrounded us; obviously expecting to be fed. And then later we moved further along the beach and discovered the deeper water.
We were planning to return to Manukan Island the following day; we liked it so much, however it was raining in the morning, so instead we visited the Sabah museum and cultural village. Here we saw some fascinating displays and information on Sabah's history, culture and wildlife. The cultural village included a number of traditional longhouses with bamboo floors and some beautiful lily ponds.
We flew to Kuching on Friday September 25. As this is further south, and very close to the Indonesian border, the smoke haze was very thick here, and the sun made feeble attempts to penetrate, casting an eerie orange glow over the landscape. Kuching was much bigger than I expected, some distance from the coast, and with a constant stream of heavy traffic in perpetual motion. Luckily our hotel was in a sheltered little garden oasis, around 25 minutes walk from the centre of town. A pleasant retreat to relax and cool down after a morning spent sight seeing.
When we arrived the 'Mooncake' festival was in full swing, with dragon boat races on the Sarawak River, and Blowpipe competitions on the bank. In addition were some pretty cute water taxis you could take to cross the river.
Our arrival in Kuching also marks an acknowledgment of a slight low point in our gap year. Whilst in Europe our approaching transition to the tropics had been regarded with some apprehension; apparently well founded. After almost five months in Europe, Asia is a big culture shock. Despite having travelled extensively in Asia in the past, and loving every aspect of it, now it has lost some of its shine. To be honest, we were a little disappointed with Kota Kinabalu; all the things I have previously found exotic and liberating about Asia, I now find frustrating and somewhat depressing; the pollution, the smell, the holes in the pavement that make street side walking a risky endeavour. We had convinced ourselves that Kuching would be better. But it's not. It's worse.the smog, the traffic, the lack of public transport, the risk of being a pedestrian in chaotic traffic with no pedestrian crossings or culture of giving way to pedestrians. In Europe you can go out for the day and choose how much money you are going to spend on entertainment. In most towns and cities the public transport is efficient and cheap. You can choose to spend very little. Or a lot. But with a little care and planning you can have a rich, fulfilling and busy day without spending a fistful of cash. Here in Borneo, to go out and see the wildlife you have to spend around $AUD100 or more for a full day tour. Which probably doesn't seem a lot, but for us away for 7 months, we cannot spend $100 a day + food and accommodation. Perhaps it's also a case of a lack of research, and circumstances. We have allocated too much time in Borneo, with not enough to keep us stimulated and occupied. Also we have been traveling for so long, at our age perhaps one just gets over travelling after a few months. I spoke to another Aussie about this today who said that while she loves to travel, she has to have regular breaks at home in between trips. We certainly won't plan a long stint like this again. It's a long time to be away from family and friends and I think we both miss the regular contact with other people. The volunteer work in Europe also created plenty of opportunities to mingle, whereas staying in hotels people tend to keep to themselves. Nepal and Cambodia will provide much needed opportunities to be with others in busy, productive activity.
Monday September 28 we take the morning visit to Semmengoh wildlife park, which is an orangutan sanctuary. Visitors are admitted only for one hour between 9 and 10am, or between 2 and 3 pm; these being the times when food is left for the orangutans in the feeding area. On arrival it is explained clearly that there are no guarantees you will see an orangutan. It's entirely up to the orangutans whether they choose to come through the jungle to the feeding area; most find plenty of food for themselves and are rarely seen by the keepers. A lot depends on the time of year and how much fruit is growing naturally in the jungle for these animals to eat. Our guide pointed out the large nests high in the treetops, where the orangutans make their home. So the group of around 30 people walked through the jungle to the feeding area, where we stood waiting in the viewing area, while one of the rangers put out some bananas and other fruits on a wooden platform, which had a number of ropes attached to trees leading down to it on 45 degree angles. The Rangers were calling and making strange noises, summoning the orangutans. We waited for around 5 minutes in silence, as we had been told these creatures are very shy and will not come if there is noise. Suddenly we noticed some movement high in the trees around thirty metres away, then a flash of orange as an orangutan leapt and clambered through the high branches toward us. As it came closer we realised there was a baby firmly attached to its front. Then it was descending down the rope right in front of us, toward the feeding platform. I felt so blessed to be able to see these amazing creatures so close up. I have been reading about them for the last few years, and the threat to their habitat by palm oil plantations. Their dexterity was a sight to behold; their hands and feet have the same claw-like structure for grasping ropes and branches, so they are able to issue their arms and legs interchangeably; so much so that at times it was difficult to establish which was an arm and which was a leg. Both the mother and her baby alternated which limb held the hand of bananas, while another limb was used to eat, while the remaining one or two limbs were attached to the rope. The baby, 'Ruby' was just as dexterous, climbing all over her mother, and snatching bananas out of her hands and mouth. We all watched, mesmerised for a good thirty minutes as the pair of them descended down to the platform to grab more fruit, then back up to the rope to eat them. The mother was very aware of her appreciative audience, obviously playing to us and enjoying he attention. Then finally she had eaten enough, so off they went, up another rope, to disappear back into the jungle. What an incredible experience!
The Basaga Holiday Residences; the three star hotel where we are staying, provide a free shuttle to the centre of town twice per day, at 10.15am and 2.15pm. So we spend our days catching the morning shuttle into town, wandering around and checking out the museums, the souvenir shops, the hotels and shopping malls, before returning early afternoon to spend the rest of the day in the pool. By Tuesday September 29 the smog level is pretty high, and we use the free face masks from hotel reception to keep out the pollution. The smoke haze is becoming a major concern; schools are closed, hotel guests return from the airport saying their flight was cancelled because of the smog. On the Singapore news each night it is the headline story, with the commentary focussed on sanctions and punishment of the Indonesesian perpetrators. It is a massive problem with no simple solution, particularly when it is caused by actions in one country, leaving the other two countries relatively helpless to intervene.
That day it rains for a couple of hours, which clears the air quite a lot, and suddenly we can see further along the river, and view more distant buildings that we hadn't seen before. The improved air clarity lifts our spirits a lot, and we feel a lot more relaxed about our departure on Monday, as the threat of a cancelled flight seems significantly diminished now.
Wednesday September 30 the rain is finished, so we bite the bullet and spend $176 on a day tour to Bako National Park. We leave the hotel at 8am, the hotel manager and tour operator Brandon driving us thirty minutes to the jetty where he hands us over to our guide for the day. He is a big, friendly man who laughs after every sentence and after initially telling us to call him "Madi", two minutes later the instruction is to call him "East". We are so confused by the two different names that we don't call home anything for the entire day, despite that fact that he begins every sentence with "Sue and David...."
We catch a small boat, driven by his cousin, which heads downriver into the South China Sea for around thirty minutes, until we pull up at a beautiful, clean beach at the park headquarters.
It's only around 9am, and we spend the next three hours walking along various jungle tracks, our guide looking for proboscis monkeys and other wildlife to show us. Every so often we meet other Europeans with their tour guide, and all the tour guides share information about the location of different animals, which results in frequent changes of direction and setting off on different tracks. Our guide often stops and listens for monkeys jumping in the trees. Pretty soon we can hear them too, and then we see, far above, the treetops shaking and catch glimpses of brown/orange fur as the proboscis monkeys leap around in the branches. Unfortunately they don't come any lower for us to get a closer look, so we continue along, seeing more movement from long tail macaques quite close to the track. Our guide tells us not to make eye contact, and he walks quickly onward, explaining that these monkeys can be aggressive, and will interpret eye contact as aggression from a predator. If one decides to chase you, the whole group will join in. We follow our guide, looking straight ahead and hoping the macaques will leave us alone. We continue, stopping now and then while our guide points out snakes, wild boar, crabs and spiders. All are so well camouflaged, it is amazing how he notices them.
Eventually at noon we arrive at a beautiful beach, where we sit in the shadow of an overhanging rock and eat our provided lunch of sandwiches and local donuts. All over the sand are crabs carrying variously shaped shells. One makes repeated attempts to climb into David's backpack, which is lying on the sand.
After lunch we walk back through the jungle and the mangroves to park headquarters. It is very hot and humid and our clothing is soaked in sweat. Eventually we climb back into the boat, and our guide takes us further up the coast to see some amazing rock formations. The jungle covered cliffs descend steeply to pristine beaches. It is such a privilege to see this beautiful landscape from the sea.
We return to the jetty and Brandon is there waiting for us. On the drive back to the hotel we talk with him about local food, and how we eat a lot of Asian food at home, and particularly like dim sum. He tells us that in Malaysia the usual time to eat dim sum is in the morning, for breakfast, and offers to take us out to his favourite dim sum restaurant the following day at 9am.
So Thursday October 1, Brandon, his partner Tanti, David and I go to an open air cafe where Brandon orders chicken feet, prawn dumpling, pork and pork buns, which he and Tanti wash down with coffee. I pass on the chicken feet, which David tries and tells me later they are full of bones. On the way back to the hotel Brandon stops to buy takeaway for each couple; a rice mixture wrapped in banana leaves, containing coconut milk, fish paste and peanut. We eat these in the afternoon for a late lunch.
The rest of our time in Kuching we spend in a leisurely fashion; much time is spent in the hotel restaurant, because that is the only place I can get on the wi fi. We have a lot of research and booking to do for the remainder of our trip, as well as emails and reading the paper online. Now the weather is starting to change as the wet season begins, so we start to see some rain, which also brings welcome cooler breezes. We try out a different restaurant each night; one that we really like is 'Tribal Stove' which serves very tasty food of Sarawak; midin, which is a green vegetable similar to spinach, cooked in garlic with baby corn, and shredded beef, a dry beef dish cooked in coconut.
We also catch a water taxi to visit the orchid garden and the Sarawak museum, which includes a reproduction longhouse, complete with skulls hanging from a beam; a nod back to the grisly days of headhunting.
David tries to find a hotel or bar with a big screen that will be screening the Australian Football League Grand Final on Saturday October 3rd, but he is unsuccessful. Despite the fact that a high proportion of tourists here are Australian, AFL football is not really recognised here. We end up spending the afternoon with four other Aussies who are spending the weekend at Basaga after two weeks volunteering in a local zoo which conserves animals who cannot live in the wild independently. Their work and accomodation has been gruelling and basic; working all day cleaning out cages, concreting, making up treats for the animals, painting pens, and staying in simple huts in this tropical heat. I admire their commitment and particularly the fact that they have devoted their holiday to helping endangered animals in Borneo. So the six of us sit around in the restaurant, watching the grand final on David's laptop, and chatting.
Sunday October 4 we decide to visit some fairy caves, around 50km away. As we have blown our budget for day tours on the trip to Bako, we elect to take the local bus and make our own way there. The hotel shuttle into town drops us at the bus stop, and we catch the Number 2 bus to Bau. Everyone we speak to pronounces this town's name slightly differently, so every time we ask someone how to get there, or how much the bus ticket us, they don't understand us, then laugh uproariously at our terrible pronunciation. We catch the clapped out old bus, with natural air conditioning, which stops every 100 metres or so, and finally an hour later at 12noon we arrive at Bau.
Enquiries at he bus station however, elucidate the information that the bus to the fairy caves does not depart for three hours. So we take a taxi for the 9km journey. The taxi driver drops us off, assuring us that many of he cars parked at the entrance are private cars for hire; we just need to hire a drive to take us back to Bau. We pay our entrance fee and climb around 4 flights of stairs.
From here we enter the rock face, and climb more stairs, only now they are wooden and slippery with water dripping from above. The light is dim and the space to climb through quite narrow, as we ascend up the steep staircase we enter a large cavern, much of it covered with bright green vegetation. It is all a bit like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' with steep staircases heading off in different directions into the depths of the caves, and bats eerily squeaking far above.
When we return to the entrance there is no one around. We ask the ticket seller if he can call us a taxi, but he doesn't have the number. We are out in the jungle, with the nearest town of Bau 9km away. It's about 34 degrees and very humid, so walking it is not an option. The ticket seller tells us to walk to the road junction 300m away and wait for the bus, which should arrive in around 90 minutes. Not being greatly excited by this idea, we set off down the road, and each time a car passes, David sticks out his thumb. Finally two young guys stop, and give us a lift back to the bus station, just in time for the next bus back to Kuching.
Monday October 5 we fly back to Kota Kinabalu, to stay in a three star beach resort; Langkah Syabas resort in Kinarut, which is around 20km south of the airport. We stay here for two nights, enjoying beach walks, swimming in the pool and generally relaxing in a different part of Kota Kinabalu, before we will fly back to Singapore, then onto Nepal, for a 10 day package which includes some trekking. The beach sunsets are amazing, although in the daylight the rubbish on the beach is disheartening. Someone needs to develop a 'Clean up Malaysia' campaign!