A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December

Monthly Archives: May 2011

My Singaporean Dilemma

Singapore will be no doubt be a welcome and dramatic contrast with East Malaysia. Unique in that Singaporeans have managed to turn shopping and eating out into a national sport – I know because I’m married to one, and the son of another. If there were an Olympic event that involved a marathon of shopping and eating, a Singaporean would be atop the dais proudly lifting his gold medal as Majulah Singapura played. On days off, Singaporeans seem to plan their days around where they will eat and shop. When the food arrives, it is mandatory to photograph it for some reason. The mantra played out is “eat til you drop, then shop shop shop”. Everything else is incidental.

So my wife will be disappearing down some dingy hawker lanes periodically (approximately four times daily) and in between those times, shopping in massive malls. In Singapore, you can experience all the excesses of western consumerism and affluenza happily minus the chewing gum, spittle and graffiti. Unfortunately, being an Aussie and a country one to boot, I can’t stand it. Actually I lie. I can stand about an hour of it, then I go ‘troppo’ as we say down under.

The kids will only slow her down (she tends to move at lightning speed with the meal breaks also serving as a pit stop) as she attempts to cover as much retail floorspace in as little time possible, so they get sick of being dragged from shop to boutique to department store in about a half hour. All this means, the kids and I will be finding other more sedentary and enjoyable pursuits, hopefully away from the main tourist beat, where we can just enjoy Singapore and each other.

Here’s what we’re thinking of doing:

I haven’t heard of anyone who has visited Little India and said they didn’t enjoy it or didn’t recommend it to others. Travelers note that if they didn’t know they were in Singapore, they would think they were actually in India. Think amazing colors, people, food smells, buildings, shops and temples.

Although touristy, I think I’ll make a concession as the kids would absolutely love the Night Safari, Jurong Bird Park and Singapore Zoo. We’ll probably buy a 2 or 3 park hopper pass which will allow us to see these attractions for a small discount.

Stories are powerful and Australia has a shared history with Singapore given that many of our troops were stationed there under British command during WWII. Sadly the British believed the Japanese would only attack from the sea and had all their defences directed seaward. Instead the enemy cleverly commandeered bicycles and rode down from the north. Singapore capitulated in a short few weeks and 15,000 of our lads were imprisoned in Changi prison where stories of survival in Japanese internment are now legendary. I’m looking forward to our children discovering some of the story of our joint history at Changi Museum. Lest we forget.

Sentosa Island would be great (maybe), but we’ll probably shy away because of how much everything costs there including food and I’ll probably be sick of seeing tourists and being shuttled from one queue to another by that stage. I hate theme parks too, and while Universal Studios is located there, the whole of Sentosa Island seems to be one giant theme park (to someone who lives on an island 90 times bigger than Singapore with 10 times less people)

Early immigrants from Canton and Fujian provinces in China settled where Chinatown is today. It will be nice to just wander around here in the old part of town and maybe visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre, check out the old temples and shops.

The Singapore Flyer is a great way to see the city. It’s the equivalent of the London Eye only taller.  There’s also a rainforest discovery centre there, which may be a bit passe after Borneo, but we’ll see. The ticket also includes entry into the Journey of Dreams which is a multimedia and interactive experience around the history, culture, architecture and aspirations of Singapore and the building of the flyer.

Sands at Marina Bay, puts on a Water and Light Spectacular a 13 minute show to a 140 piece symphony orchestra soundtrack. It’s free and apparently it’s really good (possibly even spectacular).  Since I’m avoiding Sentosa, this is a little concession to keep Nani happy since she has fond memories of Sentosa’s light show. Show times are 8 and 9.30PM with an extra 11PM thrown in on the weekend. Wandering the Singapore river would be nice visiting Boat Quay, and Clarke Quay seeing the historical buildings, bridges and even doing a cheap river cruise.

As far as nature goes, Singaporeans have actually done a pretty good job of keeping the city green, despite their desperate need for more land and the effort they go to reclaim it from the sea. For just getting outdoors and experiencing nature their national parks look great. If we want to just chill out, we could visit Mount Faber, one of the oldest of the parks which connects to Sentosa via cable car. If we do end up at Mount Faber, I’d love to walk over Singapore’s highest pedestrian walkway Henderson Waves an amazing wave form bridge. At the end of gardening hub Hort Park a Canopy Walk through secondary rainforest connecting to Kent Ridge park looks beautiful. It’s 300 metres long and ends up at Reflections of Bukit Chandu which is a museum covering the history of Opium Hill and the battalion of the Malay Regiment in the Pasir Panjang Area 1400 of whom bravely took on 13,000 Japanese soldiers during WWII.

Finally, the most historic and oldest areas of Singapore is only a stones throw from the infamous Orchard Road in Fort Canning Park where ancient relics dating back to the 14th century have been unearthed and the Fort Gate, remnant of the fortress built in the 1860s, is a reminder of Singapore’s colonial past.

We’ll probably travel mostly on the MRT and by foot since the Singapore train network is one of the best in the world. Trains are a novelty for our kids, so just buying a top-up rail pass and getting on and off at random places will be fun. The MRT website is pretty cool, since you can select a particular station and see what attractions are around it.

So aside from these distractions, we’ll be catching up with plenty of friends and family and celebrating Christmas Day on this beautiful, clean, hi-tech but somewhat green island-city, also known as the cash register of Asia.


The mark of a headhunter

I’ve been tattooed twice. My first time I drilled three Hebrew words on my forearm; Battle, Beauty and Adventure. Author John Eldredge wrote in Wild at Heart: Discovering The Secret of a Man’s Soul that at the core of every man is inherent a desire to fight battles (think Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln). Also there is the instinct to rescue a beauty – specifically the woman of our dreams, but also more broadly for me, a search to find beauty in everything I do, or in everyday life. Lastly, life is an adventure. Domestication is a killer. Being a passionate hunter, fisher and having a love of the outdoors, I wanted to remind myself of what I was about, so I inked it on permanently during the mid-life crisis of burnout.

Later, I had my children and wife’s name etched on my upper arm in the chinese characters that make up their names.

Traveling to Borneo and reading about the tribal Iban and the significance and culture they have attached to their tattoos, made me think that getting a tribal tattoo would mark this trip with my family so I started to look about for a good tattooist and found the Borneo Headhunter Ernesto Kalum who is internationally renowed for his tribal work. Ernesto is one of the last Iban to tattoo using the traditional hand tapping method. In communication with his studio, they assure me that hand tapped tattoos heal quicker, but I’m pretty sure they’re more painful. I might just stick to what I know with the machine.

On the downside these guys are based in Kuching and I’m there at the start of my trip and aftercare for a tattoo is pretty important because the last thing you want is to get an infection or sunburn on the healing skin. Protecting the scab is important too because if they tear off, they can take the ink with them and I want to be able to swim and be comfortable while on my holidays.

I saw a fantastic documentary The Vanishing Tattoo on YouTube clip on traditional borneo tattoo culture and noticed they mentioned Eddie,  Simon and Lina David who run Borneo Ink out of KL and looked them up as well. I’ll be in KL at the end of our trip, so fingers crossed I can pay these guys a visit.

All the Iban tattoos that are gathered over the life of a warrior mark certain stages of his life (including the first head that he takes) and for me getting a tribal Iban tattoo, would be the same thought – marking a time in my life that I traveled to Borneo with my family. Hopefully I can find a design with a meaning that would be significant to me and blend in with my other work.

For further reading check out this great blog post on Iban tattoos here

Kids Gear Success!

I’ve finally bitten the bullet and ordered the boys packs today so I’m very excited. I decided to order now, because I’m planning on doing an overnight trek with my eight year old son next month.

Kids gear is really hard to find down under. Even in the US, there seem to be only a few places that really cater for serious young adventurers. I ended up doing a fair bit of homework and reading to select the boys packs. I had it narrowed down the the Osprey Ace (48L) and the Deuter Fox (40L). I’m not trying to get travel packs for the boys because I want to them to be able to use their packs for serious hiking and when serious hiking, it really matters that the pack fits properly so the weight is well transferred to the hips and is comfortable on the shoulders.

There was also an Osprey 35L version but I just felt that might be a bit on the small side for hiking because once a sleeping pad and sleeping bag is in, there’s not much room for anything else with a 35L pack. On the other hand, the 48L will probably run slightly large for backpacking through Borneo because they won’t be carrying sleeping or cooking gear, but hopefully the pack will cinch right down and not be too cumbersome for throwing on top of buses, or cramming under the odd hawker stall table or chair.

The Osprey Ace and the Deuter Fox run back lengths from 12-20″ and 14-20″ respectively. This is measured from the iliac crest (the top of your hipbones) to your C7 (the knobby bone at the base of your neck). They are pretty good quality (the Osprey probably just beats the Deuter) so they will probably last until they’re teenagers. I decided to get one of each so depending on what we’re doing, they can select which one to take, as I normally take them on adventures one on one.

I ended up purchasing one pack from a pretty cool site called Tiny Trekker which catered well for kids, had good quality gear and very good prices and free ground shipping. The other I purchased from Back Country Gear which also offered free ground shipping. I’ve had them both shipped to a freight forwarder (an Aussie girl living in the USA), who will consolidate the orders for me and ship to Australia for a small fee.

On Friday, I’ll purchase waterproof pack covers for them, which we’ll also use when putting them in transit to cover up the harness so it doesn’t snag on every conveyor belt between here and Kuching.

Of all things headlampish

I just love headlamps. I carry one wherever I go because they’re really useful – even in the daytime. If you end up crawling under a car or looking in a dark cupboard, just whip it out. Of course at night I use them camping, hunting, fishing, hiking and during a blackout. They’re even good for reading in bed without disturbing my wife!

Sadly, I’ve misplaced my Black Diamond headlamp which I really loved. I know it’s somewhere, but I haven’t seen it for over a year. I’ve had a cheap one and have been pinching my wife’s headlamp to tide me over, but now it’s getting to the ridiculous stage and I just have to get one before going to East Malaysia, where staying in hostels and being in Uncle Tan’s jungle camp will mean a headlamp will be invaluable.

Since headlamps are so cheap these days, you’re probably wondering why I just don’t go and buy one for $5 from the local camping warehouses like Anaconda (which I did – that’s a little cheap one to tide me over), but there’s more to headlamps than meet the eye. Just a quick cruise around Candle Power Forums will quickly reveal over 500 forum threads on headlamps alone and it gets very technical! There’s great information there though – the guys are absolute fanatics.

Basically when it comes to headlamps the things to consider are what you’ll be doing with it. If you’re running or night hiking and need to see in the distance, you’ll need good “throw” and some decent lumens. If you’re just around camp or using it in close quarters (in the roof,  under the car, reading a book in a tent) you’ll need “flood” i.e a beam angle sufficient to give you some peripheral vision and also the ability to drop the output so you don’t blind yourself or others.

Good headlamps can do a bit of both with a single beam for penetration and a few LED’s around it for flood. You’ll want a few settings such as high, medium and low so you can vary the intensity and save the battery. Also, the more power you need out of it, the bigger the battery pack, and more heavy and cumbersome it will be (plus carrying spares). Heavy duty headlamps take up to 4 AA batteries in a rear mounted pack, smaller headlamps take 3AAA’s most often mounted with the light.

Other options you need to think about is adjustable angle, some circuitry that allows constant voltage (rather than having brightness drop with the battery charge), easy to use switching, water resistance or water proofing, build quality so it doesn’t fall apart too quickly, head band comfort, overall weight, light color (bluish light in the cheaper ones tend to make everything look weird at night), warranty, price/value, and adjustable beam. For power supply you may want a headlamp that will run Lithium Ion batteries which last longer but will destroy a headlamp that doesn’t cater for them. If you like reading a night, a power pack at the rear of your head is going to get old very quickly!

Some headlamps like the Zebra can actually be demounted and used like a torch. Devotees swear by them and the forums are chockablock full of users who rave about their Zebra. New powerful technology uses Cree Lamps with tons of blinding power.

For more reading on what you should consider before diving in check out this guide from the boys at Candle Power Forum (yes that’s right, I don’t think there are too many girls over there).

I jumped on a couple of forums and asked a few questions and after much reading, I found the names that kept popping up were the Peztl (this has long been a classic), Princeton Tec (USA manufactured), Black Diamond (which I had), LED Lenser, Surefire and even surprisingly Coleman and  Energizer.

I decided that I didn’t want to spend more than $40, so given my requirements I decided I needed around 1 watt of power, predominantly floody, adjustable down to around 10 lumens for reading, taking no more than 3 AAA’s and narrowed it down to headlamps like;

LED Lenser H7

Princeton Tec Quad

Petzl Tikka 2

Coleman High Power

So there you have it. I ordered the Princeton Tec Quad from Ebay in the USA since our exchange rate is so good, and should be able to land it for about $30 and I might even try and source the LED Lenser H7 from Singapore for around the same if I’m lucky and do a comparison. Hope this post didn’t get too geeky for you.

Peak Bagging Mt Kinabalu – or not.

It’s taken me a while to make the call, but in the end, the idea of climbing Mt Kinabalu was doing my head in.

From booking the lodges, obtaining a permit, to getting a guide and all the ifs and buts of getting a family of five up and down the mountain, there was just too many variables that could have made the whole experience a bad one.

Mt Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in South East asia at 4,101 m high and reasonably easy to climb terrain-wise. It seems the logistics is probably the hardest part of getting it done. You can use tour guide companies to do your booking or book direct with although you will be forced to book two nights accommodation in the park if you do it online.

The climb involves walking up to the accommodation at Laban Rata, stopping in a cabin there for the night and then departing at around 2 a.m to summit at sunrise, no doubt a spectacular experience. Descending to the bottom all the way from the summit is probably harder than the climb up. The issue I had with that deal, was departing with three primary school aged children in the dark in what could be a foggy, cold and wet night making the terrain slippery and slow going. In peak season when the huts are fairly solidly booked, if the kids struggled with all of that and I wasn’t confident of getting back down, it could mean another night at Laban Rata and trying to find a bed there for them. The cold temperatures on the mountain would also mean having to carry extra warm clothing and lugging that around for four weeks.

The cost of it all would be around 550 MYR each, so it would be a hefty price to pay for what could be a really disappointing experience, so I’ve nixed it.

One climber blogged

Edging along steep drop offs that dropped away into inky abyss was scary but worse was to come when faced with steep smooth rock faces that required you to physically haul your body up. After two of these rock faces, the effort started to take their toll on us and our stops became more frequent and our progress slower but the prospect of the climb back down in the dark with now numb hands possibly failing to hold the rope, we pushed on.

But soon the rain and winds came stronger and made progress even slower still. At 3825m we stopped again and when our ‘Mountain Goat of Guides’ stood up and got blown sideways the decision was made that it was now getting too dangerous to continue and sadly so close to the summit we made the decision to turn back … only 8 fellower Summit Attempters made it that day and all they saw was clouds!

Climbing back down to the accommodation was scary. Our guides helped Kat and Sarah by holding their hands but I initially preferred to hold onto the rope little realising that when we hit a vertical bit my slow progress would mean the others would disappear from sight and I would be left totally alone in the darkness trying to control increasing panic.

Our kids love hiking and climbing and are really adventurous, but I’m not ready to gamble 2700 MYR to peak bag Kinabalu. So instead, we plan to do some of the fantastic walks around the park and check out the 5-acre Mount Kinabalu Botanical Garden (Mountain Garden) rich with biodiversity. The 6km Liwagu Trail, which follows the Liwagu River, is reportedly the most rewarding trail around park HQ, and it’s a great option for those who just can’t face the trek up Mt Kinabalu. We’ll stay nearby, spend a couple of days, admire the mountain and say to one another “one day”.

Adventures with kids

I love the website JM Cremps Adventures for Boys. Even though I haven’t yet purchased anything there, I love their idea “If you want a life filled with adventure, you better start when you’re young.” And they have very cool stuff, that I would have loved when I was a boy – hunting, fishing, military, science, camping and treasure hunting stuff – who wouldn’t love it?

Hence our philosophy with kids and travel. We regularly take the kids hiking, climbing, swimming, geocaching, fishing and camping. They absolutely love the outdoors and the way we look at it, everything is an adventure.

We reckon it stimulates them, promotes learning and is great for their health and it sets them up for a curious and active lifestyle as adults.

The trick is though, to avoid turning kids off (I’ve heard the stories of kids who hate fishing, because their dad took them fishing for hours and hours on end and bored them silly with it), their experiences have to be positive. That doesn’t mean they can’t have hardship – we definitely don’t cotton wool them, but the hardship can’t outweigh the positives. So what we do is make sure they have the right gear.

Yeah, I was taken to the snow in gumboots and jeans with no gloves as a kid, and if you’ve ever done that you know exactly what I mean – scarred for life. We try and equip our kids with the right gear to have a great experience. That means they have to be warm (if it’s cold) and cool when it’s warm. They need decent rainwear and footwear. Sleeping bags have to warm enough. When fishing, I don’t take them for hours and hours without a bite, in fact I do a fair bit of homework to make sure we’ll get fish. In fact, on one particular day Lachie and I caught so many trout an article I wrote about it was published in Freshwater Fishing Magazine.

The difficulty with all this is that it can get fairly expensive, especially when they keep growing out of stuff. Fortunately with boots and jackets, they can pass it down the food chain to the small one, so we can buy quality stuff so it lasts. Labeling is a big deal since they tend to leave stuff behind at various places (there’s a bike helmet looking for its owner in Low Head). Other stuff is going to be a compromise between decent quality and price if they’re going to grow out of it quickly.

We’ve found eBay pretty useful. Lachie’s first hiking boots are HiTec from UK. I think I paid about £4 for them and asked for the slowest (cheapest) sea freight they could find. Abbey is now wearing them. Other stuff we get online from the US. The sting with them is international shipping. I’m experimenting now with a freight forwarder who repack and ship with cheaper shipping options.

The other issue to keep in mind when it comes to gear is not to buy the best whenever getting into something. Some people decided to take their kids on a hike and end up spending hundreds of bucks on the best gear, never to be used again because the kid hated it, or it just didn’t press their buttons. You never know with kids. Not only that, they trash stuff. Get the good gear after using make-do stuff for a couple of years, to make sure it’s not just a fad.

Lastly, I think it’s best to consider moving slowly with kids. Everything takes about twice as long. They just take ages to do everything. They have to poo, wee and drink often. They like investigating stuff. They stand about talking to each other instead of walking. They don’t keep up. It can really frustrate if you’re running tight on time. So we plan to do half as much and have loads of time up our sleeve. In fact, moving at kids pace is an awesome way to go on holidays. The experience is so much richer and recharging.

PS. on the pooing issue – always carry wet wipes
PPS. nudie swims are really fun