Rumbles in the Jungles..
Trip Start Sep 1999
16Trip End May 2004
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For the first-classers amongst my readership, close your eyes now.
The accommodation was basically, erm, basic. A mattress. A roof. In keeping with the true spirit of low-impact building, our huts in the jungle had no windows or doors. This could have been a cost-cutting exercise or an experiment to see just how much discomfort a backpacker will actually endure. But as a "Greenie" I like to think it was just superbly planned, leaving the thousands of insects undisturbed in their natural habitat and giving them 24-hour access to us, even in our beds. This was helped along further by the massive holes in our mosquito nets, technically more hole than net. And animals a little further up the taxonomic tree also liked to invade us at night. Instead of counting sheep in our heads to sleep, we were literally counting monkeys swooping over our heads.....
Dining was al fresco, in the true sense of the word. We feasted on the local food courtesy of the jungle and the mosquitos feasted on us. The mosquitoes got the better half of that arrangement.
For those virgins to jungle life, you should know that a barrel of rainwater and a bucket make a fine shower. Its open air and drip dry (which the exhibitionist in me has to admit is strangely compelling...!). The toilets were up to Asia's usual high standards i.e. a hole in the floor. Visiting the toilet at night is quite exhausting, as you have to perform a strange wriggling and arse-slapping dance whilst squatting, fending off the viscious attacks from mosquitoes on every side, all drooling over your glaringly white bare bum cheeks. It is all a little too painful and energetic for real ablutionary comfort.
I remember this and scoff at those executives recruiting for Survivor last year in the UK, who failed to put me through to the last round, with the prize of a few weeks surviving on a desert island. I thought I was an ideal candidate. Compared to this experience, thrusting through the forest like a modern day Livingstone, it would have been a holiday. I was desperate to get to wrestle with the native wildlife, believing myself to be the female re-incarnation of that mad Aussie Steve Urwin. We did spend a morning stalking wild elephants and cats but saw only their tantalisingly fresh footprints in the mud or heard the odd elephant trumpeting nearby. We just never quite saw the real thing. Unlike Steve, I did manage to change my clothes once during my stay, favouring camouflage green rather than Steve's head-to-toe beige look. My hair however, did not stand up so well to the jungle treatment of daily monsoonal drenchings followed by steam-and-frazzle sunshine.
The days and nights were spent trekking or gently river rafting in the stunning primary forest. Dawn on the last morning was incredible. As the sun was burning off the last of the cool forest mist, a mother orangutan and her baby came swinging lazily and noisily through the treetops. She was completely unbothered by our frantic photographing, 100% wild, 100% free and a rare privilege to see just 30 feet above our heads. Thankfully this appearance was natural, without the food bribery circus that the urang utan rehabilitation centres here are in danger of becoming. The baby cried, the mother reached over and beckoned to it and then pulled it to her breast and hugged the poor little thing. Then I cried.
If you want further evidence, were any needed, of primate intelligence then here it is. A few days ago a group of orang-utans pissed from a very high height all over some important tourists (Government officials and the like) visiting the forest. Which is some small justice really. The Malaysian government has been pissing all over the orangs for years with their hopelessly inadequate and almost non-existant restrictions on logging in the forests. These forests are shrinking faster than the "Wild men of Borneo" can possibly cope with. Eagles, otters, kingfishers, proboscis (big nose!) monkeys, macaques, owls, egrets, hawks, hornbills, crocodiles, spiders, butterflies, elephants, wild cats, wild pigs, orang utans...I saw and heard all of these in just a two night visit. Maybe in ten years time all you will see is open grassland. All you might hear will be an unnatural silence or the devastating sound of chainsaws. We are in danger of watching all this unique wildlife being destroyed as their habitat is traded for furniture, firewood and more palm oil plantations. It's a unique and inspiring place - and a tragedy.
But back to the beginning of this trip...
I arrived in Kota Kinabalu (KK to us locals). If Kota means "town" then Kinabalu must mean "unexciting hole". The Colonel's been busy proliferating KFC's at every corner, which does little to improve the town's standing. From inauspicious starts do great disasters grow. KK had little to recommend it in the beginning except some fair-to-average diving and the fact it's "borrowed" a nearby mountain as a claim to fame. In reality Mount Kinabalu is 80 kms away and a bit of a pain to get to. After a nightmare at the airpoirt, it had even less to recommend it to me. Firstly, Tourist Information was a misnomer. They seemed to know nothing about anything vaguely useful for tourists. Their SAS training to withstand interrogation was working out well for them but not for me. I asked where the bus stop was. They didn't know. They also did not know where a hostel was. Or possibly couldn't be bothered to tell me. Either way, I was praying for Scottie to beam me up. Luckily a knight in shining armour, aka hostel owner Jimmy, was beamed down instead. Imminent bloodshed was avoided by offering me of a cup of tea and a free lift. It doesn't take a lot to make everything right in Aitch's world.
The hostel is comfy. The first day I sank into the usual jet-lagged coma. When I woke up I had a million (possibly a slight exageration but....) tiny bites running in lines across my chest and stomach. I suspected a squad of malicious or hungry mosquitoes. But after slumping onto the floor, I found out that the culprits were masses of tiny marauding ants. They had munched their way across me first before munching on the much more attractive rotting apple under my bed. I moved the apple to the bin and hoped they would detour round me later.
My other more welcome dorm buddies included a silent Irish girl (a rare find indeed). Her waking hours were early mornings and late at night. Any other hour of the day would find her asleep. There was also a lovely Leeds bloke. He was unfortunately recovering from the dreaded 3 D's - Dengue Fever, Dehydration and Depression (= homesickness). You wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy. We had a few short conversations. He definitely had the makings of good company but shortly afterwards he found himself a cute Malaysian girl to nurse him back to full fitness. I saw very little of him after that. Luckily I was doing my Rescue Diver course anyway and after a day in the water wasn't usually up to scintillating conversation.
Having now passed my Rescue Diver qualification, should you ever be drowning or in a diving accident somewhere near me, it would really help if you are
a) at least 20kgs less in weight than me
b) the size of a very small child
c) still breathing
d) in trouble in a flat calm waveless sea and
e) only 20 metres from the shore.
Otherwise it might take me a while to rescue you, with no guarantee of success (if my trial runs are anything to go by). I presevered and got the hang of it eventually but it was absolutely knackering. My instructor assured me that the rush of adrenaline in a real-life situation will upgrade me to "Wonderwoman". I hope the leotard and boots are optional (sorry boys...). Not that the idea doesnt appeal to me, but simply for logistical reasons. It would waste valuable time to put them on and the cape might cause even more drag in the water than my boobs and bottom do already, slowing down my rescue time even further!
If I had two more days here I would try to tackle Mount Kinabalu, highest peak in South East Asia. When in Rome and all that. From the air it's certainly impressive. I was flying over it on the way in to KK. There's a vista of just clouds and then suddenly this towering vertical black granite slab rises imposingly out and upwards. It stands dark and bleak, 3500 metres above the patchwork countryside below it. From the ground it probably looks much the same, only distinctly less inviting!
Judging by the traumatised faces of the returning conquerors at the hostel, it is NOT the gentle afternoon stroll that the Lonely Planet might have us believe. Judging from their stories, its something closer to a gut-wrenching, oxygenless slog in minus degree temperatures up sheer vertical rock cliffs. This is done in wind and usually rain at this time of year. And its all for fun! It takes an average person a *memorable (*substitute harrowing or painful as applicable) 8 hours to get to the top. They then mostly sit imagining the sunrise, which you can't see because of the thick clouds and smoke (its tree burning season in neighbouring Kalimantan). And then its a knee-shattering 3 hour slide down again. But I'm told, and sadly am foolish enough to believe, its one of those "must do's" that I must do (some other time) at the end of a trip up through Sarawak and all its amazing parks and caves and mountains. I'll put it in my diary.
I have now showered out of respect to my fellow air passengers but worry about the (self)walking boots slowly stagnating in my daypack - Eau de rotting feet 2002. I've hatched a cunning plan to leave them in overhead luggage at least ten rows from my seat and watch the drama unfold. Meanwhile it's Brunei-calling tomorrow. This a Mecca for fans of gold-roofed mosques. Or a lunch stop otherwise on your way to another country.
I read somewhere that the Sultan of Brunei recently "lost" $80 billion in one day. Damn careless. Enough to have both his wives scrambling to stash the family jewels for a rainy day. If I bump into him I'll be sure to leave my number incase he feels careless with his money at any other time in the future...
So now just looking forward to my 2 hours on a bus, 3 hours on a ferry, 12 hours on a plane. Did I REALLY say I loved this life??! See ya in Oz. Terima kasi