They Don't Speak English But They Love To Dance

Trip Start Jun 25, 2003
Trip End Sep 2004

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Monday, January 5, 2004

Greetings from Borneo,

It has been a really busy couple weeks since we left the beautiful, relaxing beaches of Cambodia for the steamy jungles of Malaysian Borneo. But after two full days of travel by motorbike, bus, airplane, bus, airplane, taxi and finally ferry we arrived in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. We stayed at Gayana eco-resort on Gaya island right outside the city in Tunku Abdul Rahman marine national park. This seemed like a good idea as it boasted lots of activities and after lazing around in Cambodia we both felt in need of some activity.

Our first day on the island we decided to go for what the eco-resort billed as a "nature walk". Feeling like we were being a bit over prepared for such a simple 4km walk, we grabbed a bottle of water and a couple granola bars and headed off to embrace nature. The first signal that this would not be a simple nature walk was the large sign at the start of the trail warning "Beware of Snakes". Not being a fan of snakes Janice decided I should go first. Normally she leads as I have a horrible sense of direction, I've gotten lost on the Upper East Side let alone the jungle, but as there was the possibility of having to wrestle with a 12 foot python I got the nod. We headed off under the dense, steamy canopy immediately wishing we had worn hiking boots instead of sandals and put on mosquito repellent before leaving for our simple "nature walk". I went along very slowly at first, remembering something from the Discovery Channel about sneaking up on snakes being a bad thing. But as we progressed further into the dense jungle I felt a strong desire to move faster so as to end our "nature walk" as soon as possible. But the trail was narrow and often blocked by either fallen tree limbs covered in massive ants or rattan (palm branches covered in spikes) so the going was slow. Then the truly expected occurred - I got us lost. Not sure how I did it, one minute we were on the trail, markers every 50 meters, next thing we are at the bottom of a steep hill in the middle of a mangrove swamp with no idea which way to go next. We had about an hour or two of sunlight left so deciding sleeping in the jungle was worse than running into a snake Janice forgot her fear of snakes, pushed me aside and powered off into the jungle to find a way out. I won't bore you all with the details of our daring escape from the "nature walk" but it did involve an iguana.

Not wanting to repeat our disaster on land we decided to spend the next two days at sea getting our advanced PADI scuba diver certification. The course itself was pretty uneventful, and the visibility of the diving was really bad so we couldn't see much except floating bits of mud, so the highlight was when one of the dive masters played Santa Clause at the resort's Christmas party by wearing a scary white guy mask with a beard. Fortunately, he didn't ask either of us to sit on his lap and tell him what we wanted.

After another day or so at the eco-resort spent snorkeling in the national park, and eating at the wonderful seafood restaurant - I know it sounds bad to eat seafood in a marine national park, but it was just so fresh - we met the other travellers who would be joining us on our group trip through the rest of Borneo. Everyone seemed non-axe murdererish, which is always a bonus on a group trip, and we headed off for a small village at the base Mt. Kinabalu before our ascent the next day. Mt. Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in S.E. Asia and had only first been summited within the last fifty years. Upon reaching the summit it used to be tradition to sacrifice 7 white chickens to appease the gods who lived there, but now that KFC has come to Borneo the gods can get chicken any time they want and the sacrifice is no longer necessary. The night before the climb we met our guide Sapingee who decided the best way to prepare us for the arduous climb, was to pickle us in his home brew rice wine. The whole village joined us for a big disco party in which I soon became falling down drunk, probably a good thing to get the falling out of the way before the mountain climbing bit. I'd tell you more stories from that night but my memory is a bit fuzzy, though it is possible one of the guys on our trip, Steve, got married to a village girl.

Next morning we hoisted our packs on our backs and were off to conquer the mountain. The first day we pushed ourselves almost straight up six kilometers of steep trail. On either side of us was a gorgeous rain forest which gradually changed as we gained altitude from tropical ferns and palms to smaller stunted trees to rhododendron and finally to nothing but sheer granite. It rained on us the whole way up with clouds shrouding the mountain in mist making it all beautifully eerie. After four hours hard slog we were rewarded with hot showers at our trekkers lodge 4 km from the summit. We arrived early afternoon and we wouldn't begin our summit ascent until 2am, so as to arrive for sunrise, so we had time to spend relaxing. Not wanting to waste an opportunity I brought out my deck of cards and taught some fellow trekkers poker. I figure if I bide my time I could have this trip paid for in no time.

After a brief sleep, we got up at 2am and flashlights in hand walked out into the pouring rain headed straight up for the summit. The low cloud cover made the sheer granite face of the mountain slippery as ice, and the driving rain turned the narrow trail into a swift moving waterfall. We pulled ourselves up ropes attached to the sheer rock face which made holding a flashlight difficult further limiting the visibility in the torrents of rain which had by now soaked us through. Despite a few slips and falls we made it 50m from the summit when the rain miraculously stopped and the sun rose. We could see the mountain in the first light surrounded by sheer drops plummeting into the tops of the clouds. Seeing the mountain for the first time after such an arduous climb was breathtaking, it was hard to believe we were actually standing there. The wind began to howl and it became quite cold standing there marvelling at it all, plus my fear of heights was kicking in, so we took some pictures above the clouds in the gorgeous morning light and using the ropes headed back down the mountain. After some serious repelling down the granite, and another three to four hours of steady downhill we reached the bottom and were "safely back in the jungle".

Needing a rest from all the exertion we next headed to Poring Hot Springs. Poring's hot springs were first used by the Japanese in World War II and ever since has been a favorite place for the locals to get away for a weekend. Aside from a chance to soak sore muscles it also boasts a nature sanctuary on the edge of the jungle. Our first night there after coming down from the mountain was New Year's Eve - Happy New Year! - but as we had been up since 2am climbing up and down the mountain we were in bed by 10pm, so much for a big, Borneo New Year's blow out.

The next day we walked along a jungle canopy walkway - a suspension bridge 41m above the jungle floor slung from the massive trees - providing a fantastic view of both the tree tops and the jungle floor below. It was really an amazing experience to witness the amount of life so high above the ground, not to mention a bit scary looking so far down to the base of the trees. We were resting after our canopy walk having lunch when we heard an orangutan had been spotted in the trees of a small jungle reserve nearby. Despite being really tired we didn't want to miss out and headed off cameras in hand. The small reserve is home to "spoiled" orangutan - they are too used to humans to survive in the jungle, so they receive food and care from park rangers. Just as we arrived "Jake" had come down from a tree and was busy eating bananas and drinking coconut milk. It was incredible being so close to him and watching the expressions cross his face as he ate a leisurely lunch. He hung around for about an hour watching us watch him watch us before he headed back to a tree for a snooze. It was fantastic though despite all my prompting he never did slap a hand across his eyes and make a "sheesh" face like in the movies, I guess he's just not "spoiled" enough.

Next day we were back on a minibus headed toward a large jungle reserve along the Kinabatangan River to stay at the Batu Puith village. We drove four to five hours past massive palm oil plantations which have replaced the jungle in much of Sabah. Once we arrived we met some of the local people involved with the conservation and reforestation efforts along the river. After seeing such destruction by the palm plantations it was nice to see they were doing their best to protect the area. Then we were off in little speed boats up the river for some wildlife spotting. We were pretty excited as the locals had told us the river was in flood and a lot of wildlife was in the tall trees along the banks. The area is home to many species of hornbill and we quickly spotted several pairs roosting along the river as eagles circled overhead. After a short time we came upon a large tree which was crawling with monkeys. They were a troop of long tail macaques and were busy climbing around and grooming each other. I was in monkey heaven. We motored up and down the river spotting more birds and monkeys, made easy by Jim, our local guide, who was truly expert at spotting the animals hidden away in the trees.

That night we were supposed to stay in the jungle but the flood had put our camp under about 3 meters of water. So we were off to a local family's house to spend the night. As Jan and I got out of the minibus Jim said "You should have fun, they don't speak English, but love to dance." I was immediately picturing what type of interperative dance would be necessary to explain where the bathroom was. We arrived in the spacious stilt house and the large extended family was very warm and welcoming. Jan and I had an excellent dinner sitting on the floor, eating with our hands as Grandma watched us and continually filled our plates with food. After dinner we looked through photo albums with the family pointing and smiling when the most harrowing thing from this entire Borneo adventure happened. They put on a CD of local music and began dancing, beckoning us to join them. Of course Jan was up immediately and very quickly picked up the local dance moves. I did my best to resist but quickly found myself holding the hands of two eight year old girls as they tried to teach me to dance like a Malaysian. As we danced along I kept hoping for a power outage, skip in the CD, orangutan attack - anything to end the dancing.

Next morning we were off for a jungle trek. We hiked into the dense forest where earlier that morning the guides had heard the calls of gibbons, the apes other than orangutans native to Borneo. After about an hour we heard their calls and eventually caught up with them. They are smaller apes with long arms that help them swing in the trees high up in the jungle canopy. We saw about four or five about eighty feet off the ground swinging in the trees. They would jump from a branch and crash through the leaves falling twenty feet before catching hold of the next tree. Truly unbelievable, amazing, beyond description. After our trek we took a couple more boat rides up and down the river spotting wildlife. We saw many more long tailed macaques and other monkeys, an enormous orangutan that bent the trees as he climbed through them, and a wide variety of beautiful birds all scattered through the amazing trees standing half submerged along the flooded river banks. Then tired from our long day in and out of the jungle we headed back home for more dancing with Grandma.

We left Batu Putih Village and headed for Sepilok. Sepilok is a small town on the edge of very large jungle reserve which is home of a large orangutan rehabilitation center. My first thought was of addicted orangutans sitting around in group therapy smoking cigarettes and talking about how they hit rock bottom. But in reality it's for orangutans rescued from ruined habitat, or who were kept as pets and need to relearn how to survive in the wild before being set free in the jungle reserve. The park rangers do absolutely amazing work healing the injured animals, and teaching the young ones survival skills. We watched the orangutans interacting with the rangers and each other at meal times, not to mention knocking the monkeys around who had gathered to try to steal the food.

Now we are in Sandakan, the second largest city in Sabah. Tonight is Janice's birthday and the group is planning a dinner for her, so I am off to try and find an ice cream cake in Borneo. Should be a snap, after all we have just climbed a mountain, escaped from the jungle and spent two nights dancing with Grandma.
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