Monkeys, Mud & Marine Adventure in Majestic Borneo

Trip Start Feb 29, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Monday, May 21, 2012

Borneo. The last splurge. Caning the Australia landing fund. Foolish maybe, as when I now arrive in Oz I will have only my overdraft to support me and will need paid work super-quik-sharp. But its ok. This is the last solo adventure, into the unknown lands of apes and rainforests, the wilderness of untouched jungle. Or not…?

Touching down in this personally-unresearched land I recall looking out of the window of the cheap-as-chips Air Asia flight and seeing hardly any city lights at all. Compared to flying over Bangkok it looked baron, and I remember thinking this must be the proper jungle wilderness without electric – oh how wrong I was! Kota Kinabalu, the main city in Sabah (this region of Malaysian Borneo) is one of the most rich, developed and built up cities I have been in yet. Driving along the road one night on the way back from a trip I recall thinking 'if Britain made jungle states, it would probably look like this'. English plugs (first time the adapter has stayed in the bag), people speaking perfect English (its their second language) and driving on the left side of the road, I crossed three roundabouts before seeing a Shell garage and tripping out for a second thinking I was back in Milton Keynes! It was only the following day, plodding around the Sabah museum that it started to make sense. I came across a bank note from the 1950’s with the words The Bank of British North Borneo and I had to do a double take. But there it was, our young Queen Elizabeth’s face peering back at me. It seems in my ignorance I didn’t realise that we used to run Borneo.  Britain did make this jungle state afterall!

Borneo is indulged in an ubundace of breathtakingly beautiful scenery and inhabitants. The people are lovely, smiley, polite and always happy to help you, and the plants and wildlife are mind-blowingly otherworldly and complex – the biggest of this, the smallest of that, the only place this exists, the world rated number one of that. My first few days at the lovely Lucy’s Homestay (55 years old and she has opened up her home to travelling backpackers for the last 17 years!) was spent with one hand in the lonely planet and the other on the laptop delving into some hardcore research to dig out the cheapest ways to see everything. Borneo’s tourism industry is so well run (a little too well run for my liking on my last adventuring stint) that it tries to cater for all your needs, but at a price. For the shoestringer its hard to cut through all the red tape and sift out the info you need to do it alone. And most of the time I couldn’t be bothered.

I took a great tourist trip to the Mari Mari Cultural Village, where 6 different Bornean tribes have setup a living museum to show off their cultural ways in house construction, cooking and hunting among other things. I I got taught how to shoot a blowpipe, make rice wine, cook strange rice cookies and smoke the local pipe, before settling down to a feast of traditional local cuisine and a tribal dance and music display. Block out the fact that I was with a group of snap happy tourists and that I suspect some of the ‘tribesmen’ were in fact sort of am-dram actors, and in my head I was Levi-Strauss, I was Malinowski, I was a pioneering colonial anthropologist discovering the ancient ways of this undiscovered tribe! It was a great and informative trip though, and I kicked-ass on the blowpipe. Oh and I left my wallet behind. The second wallet to go astray. New cards please…

Another trip was to Mount Kinabalu, which unfortunately I couldn’t climb this time around due to lack of funds for a permit, so I spent the day walking around the park at the base of the mountain seeing all kinds of plants and flowers including the amazing Rafflesia Flower, the largest in the world which can grow up to a meter in diameter. I also conquered my vertigo to cross a 200m canopy walkway 45 meters above the rainforest floor walking along a 1ft wide wooden plank in the pissing rain, every slippy step accompanied by my slow calming chants: ‘your feet are welded to the ground. You’re almost there. Stay cool, that’s it. Easy and solid!’ I was gripping on to both hip-height ropes for dear life and lowering my centre of gravity by swatting slightly and taking every step on the wet beams with focus and caution. Apparently these necessary survival techniques for the taller gentleman where quite the amusement for the gaggle of giggling Asian girls who met my final triumphant step off the causeway of death with mockery and laughter – ‘you waak li’ a cat!’  That night was spent hoboing it on a street corner, drinking bottles of orange vodka and vanilla coke with some new friends and feeling like I was 14 again! Being a muslim country they don’t really go in for drinking here, and those bars there were were bloody expensive, so we decided for the cheaper option. At 2355 I realised in a panic that Lucy locks her doors at midnight and so had to leg it back to the guesthouse before I spent the entire nigh on the street.

So then it was off to Sepilok, and to a place I have wanted to visit for about 7 years -The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, one of the best places in the world to see our orange cousins in the wild. Watching them munch their way through fruit given out by the centre for those Orangs that have not fully caught on to life back in the wild yet (free food? Id stay close to the centre too…) was a special experience. The work the centre do here is top notch, rescuing Orangs orphaned by the destruction of their forests for Palm Oil plantations and raising them by hand, teaching them the skills necessary to live life back in the wild. I have driven down most of the east side of Malaysian Borneo now and have seen first hand the extent to which the rainforest is being cleared for Palm oil plantations, and its quite shocking. Staring out of the bus window seeing nothing but uniformly planted palm trees for hours upon end, the problem of deforestation has been quite apparent. Of my 12 hours overland travelling, I would say 10 of them has been spent looking at monocrop plantations. Quite the industryy, and unfortunately, one that is making a lot of Borneos diverse wildlife and plant life extinct.

Another interesting Monkey experience was seeing the Proboscis Monkey at a sanctuary close to Sepilok. This dude has a massive dong-shaped nose as well as a permanent twitching red boner which he shares with his 20 odd wives frequently -  I witnessed one male doing his thing 3 times whilst watching him for an hour. The locals call him the Dutch Monkey as he’s fat, orange, and likes sex...I also did a great walk around the Rainforest discovery centre here, learning about all the plants and wildlife before setting off for a three hour trek around the trail where i didnt meet a single other felt like i was alone in the rainforest. It felt great!

And so to the Kinabatangen River for 3 days of safari. Crocodiles, monkeys, snakes, lizards, orangutans and the beautiful Bornean Pygmy elephants were among the wild creatures I spotted crusing up and down the river and trekking through the rainforest….BAREFOOT! That’s right, im a hardcore jungle mofo, but it wasn’t planned this way. Id come to the jungle lodge expecting to hire their wellies but upon arriving discovered they didn’t stock size 11’s. That’s fine, Ill make do. As I turned up for the 3 hour jungle trek wearing just my sandals, a smug yank guest passed me and said, ‘theres no way you can do it in them, you wont be able to go’. F**k you I mumbled under my breath as I walked away, Ive paid a lot of money to be here and im going on the damn trek – its not my fault they don’t cater for the larger Westerner is it?! Slightly doubting myself now though, I checked with our guide. ‘Are these ok? They’re all ive got’ I said presenting my barefoot sandals to him. ‘No, you cant, Not these. Leeches’. ‘Ok, what do you propose I do – you don’t have the correct footware to fit me, so what should I do’. … Nothing. Blank faces. Finally, ‘It very muddy, you need rubber boots’. !!!!  I know this f**k wit, but I don’t have any, so how are we going to solve this little problem?. ‘Do you have any plastic or bin liners I can wrap my legs in to stop the leeches?’ After checking with his college I was given the negative response that they are out of bin bags. Sod this, Im on my own here in the search for a solution. I stomped away feeling thoroughly annoyed at the lodge’s lack of interest in seeing a paying customer right and set off to find some leech proof material. 5 minutes later, and with the whole group waiting on me to leave, I returned with my sandals, now complete with socks, into which were tucked pink bin liners I liberated out of our bin, strapped up to my knees in white gaffer tape. Boom! The guides were laughing, as were the group so I decided to be bold – walking into the centre of the gang, my hands outstretched, ‘Ok Im ready - lets go!’

My smugness lasted for most of the trek, and to my credit, my pink sealed calves were indeed leech proof, much more infact that peoples wellies which let the little blighters in through the gaping hole at the top. The trek was quite hard and although it was 9am, the sun was beating down and started the sweat pouring, stomping through up to 6 inches of sloshy mud on the well trampled trail (by visitors and elephants) following the river to the oxbow lake. Every ten minutes or so we would stop to rip alien-like leeches from our bleeding skin, all turning away to stuff our hands down our pants double checking the vitals, and continuing on through the mud. And this was serious mud. Muddy boggy swap that clutched at my soggy mud-soaked feet like a vice as I tried to pull my flappy oversized sandals up through it. 5k walk – 3.5 hours they said. Really?? 3.5 hours for 5k? I run that in 25 mins! But oh yes. I would say on average a single step took 4 seconds, to pick your spot, keep your balance, shift your weight and then pull your foot out, this was quite an arduous process. But I made it to the lake with my makeshit rig fully in tact, leechless and ever so slightly full of British smug! Washing our feet off in the lake (before remembering that there were salt water crocs on the prowl – we’ve all seen Crocodile Dundee!)  we then began the trek back, which I am sure the guide deliberately altered the route of in order to take me down. And that he did. The 6 inches of muddy bog turned into 10+ inches with even the welly-brigade struggling to keep their step and pull their footware out of the swamp. But I had no chance. By this point my wet brown socks were slipping inside my bog-coated sandals on a layer of liquid mud making each footing a severe test of balance and every other step was met with the full resistance of the clay-like ground grabbing onto my size 12 rubber soles. Suffice to say, the footware that had done me proud for the last 7 years met their match and my left shoe snapped on one particular pullout, leaving me hovering like a one-legged flamingo with no other option (after ten further attempts to make the dangling sole work for me and digging my arms elbow deep in the sludge to recover it time and time again) than to holster it on my bag , plunge my foot back into the mud and continue back to the lodge in my bare (socked) feet!

Suffice to say the laughing began again, and I hobbled along the rainforest terrain constantly batting off queries into my wellbeing with lies such as ‘Its fine actually, it gives me more balance as I can grip with my toes’. This kind of bullshit line saw me home well, and I returned to camp the triumphant jungle hero who came, saw, and conquered the trail in only his bare feet! (…socked)

By this point in my Boreno experience its fair to say, having spent a week staring into treetops and bushes and snapping anything that moved with my camera, I was if im honest a little bit sick of monkey spotting. Time to move on. Bus to Sandakan, 2 days in a hotel to recover and id be on my way for some world class diving. Things were going well in my air-conned hotel room, swapping my regular meal of fish and rice for back-to-back KFC meals and swapping my book for some Fox network American movies, until upon almost falling asleep I decided to engage my dozy mind and body to move my laptop off the bed in case I…..smashed it on the floor. BOSH! The plug was connected to the wall which yanked it out of my hand and it accelerated to the floor at an alarming speed. It was totalled. Hard drive error. My source of information, comfort, family, friends and entertainment, not to mention my photos, GONE! I was heartbroken and didn’t sleep a wink that night, having nightmares about being lost and alone and I woke up feeling really depressed. I cant really explain it, but it felt as if my lifeline to the normal world, as well as my navigational tool of this alien world had been taken from me and along with it all my memories of my adventure so far. Gutted. After 5 minutes of sitting up in bed the next morning and feeling very alone, I decided to go out straight away and buy a new notebook. There was nothing else for it. I felt better having made this decision, and was quite excited about setting off into this small Malaysian town with the task of locating and purchasing a new gadget, albeit one that entailed a horrendous waste of my travel budget. After three unsuccessful encounters with local Malays (‘do you know where I can buy a computer? You know, computer??’ No, you obviously don’t, you sell noodles for a living), I reaslied that the only place that might be able to help me was the big hotel over the road, and so I obtained an address of Digi-World, mile 4, outside of Sandakan and set off, last of budget in hand. Taxi please!

I type to you now on my brand new Acer Aspire One netbook, fully recovered with all my photos and videos thanks to my astuteness in not wiping any of the memory cards yet (always, ALWAYS back up!), and I sit in the Dragon Inn Floating Resort, in Semporna in a bar that ever so slightly sways with the waves underneath, not enough to notice, but enough to make you feel slightly queezy after a few beers. This cool seafront hotel is the venue for my final night in Borneo, and it follows my final adventure here, having just returned from the AMAZING dive island of Sipadan, which is considered one of, if not THE #1 best dive site on earth. And by god, its quite something.

You need a permit to dive Sipadan. Only 100 odd are issued each day by the Sabah Parks Authority that now manage the restricted island and the marine park it sits in. Sounds a lot, but that means each dive centre operating out of the port of Semporna only has 7 permits per day. I chose to dive with Uncle Chang’s partly because of the name (I pictured a slick-haired chinese-malay drug baron operating out of a restaurant in China town, selling guns and coke on the mean streets of Malaysia and ruling his people by way of the machete whilst operating a tourist dive shop on the side to launder his dirty money – yep, too many eastern gangster kung fu films!) and partly because they were the cheapest and the only dive centre to offer me a 1 day Sipadan dive (most are tied up in a 3 day package). And so I set off on the 5 ˝ hour journey from Sandakan to Semporna at 0600, to catch the 3pm boat from Semporna to Uncle Chang’s resort on Mabul Island (the nearest to Sipadan that you are allowed to stay on) confident that I had plenty of time once there to locate the and board the boat. But this was not to be the case. The bus broke down and I spent two hours on the side of the road in the blistering midday heat surrounded by non-english speaking Malaysians therefore not knowing what the hell was going on, watching the time tick away towards my ever encroaching deadline of 3pm when the only boat of the day left port for my one time only dive experience. Finally the backup coach and driver arrived and we set off, only to stop for another hour so the new driver could eat lunch! Imagine if you will the scene at a makeshift Malaysian roadside café, 50 or so Malays kicking back on their plastic red chairs and engaging in their fish, rice, tea tarik an cigarettes, with all the time in the world to watch the day float by and talk among each other about their views on plantation and family life. Then in the corner an angry pacing Englishman, sucking on his ciggy with short sharp inhalations and scanning an evil eye across the peaceful scene to find out who the driver is and scold him. I must have stood out like a saw thumb.

I finally got to Uncle Changs with minutes to spare and arrived at the stilted seaside resort. The room I was meant to be in no longer had a roof thanks to a storm (or tornado, depending on who you talked to) the other night which ripped the entire roof off the chalets, so I took a dorm room instead. The dive was the most beautiful and special thing I have ever seen. Massive turtles, circling sharks, shawls of barracuda, parrot fish, and whole array of multicoloured delights dominated all 360 degress around me in this beautifully landscaped underwater treasure. I have talked about diving already in this blog, so wont repeat myself, but suffice to say that this dive spot was something else and never have I seen such a breathtaking underwater scene. Thankfull I rented an underwater camera for the dive so have proof of its beauty.

So now my SE Asian adventure is winding up and I have merely 3 days in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur before I head to Perth where Darragh has just secured himself a job for THREE TIMES what he earns at home. I need this fortune too as I am now officially the poorest I have ever been in my life. But also the most travelled and enlightened.


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