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

Sandakan and the Orang Utan

We fly from Mulu and I’ve booked a flight to Kota Kinabalu in the northern state of Sabah but inexplicably we are told the flight must go to the coastal town of Miri and we must get off, get some new boarding passes, go through customs (Malaysia is big on customs), get back on the same plane and continue.

I’m still worried about accommodation as we clear customs (again) in KK where we are to spend the night before catching our red-eye flight to Sandakan. I see some backpackers leaving the arrivals area and ask where they are staying. They say they don’t know yet. Very cool. We don’t know either, but somehow it’s not very cool with three small kids who keep asking where they are staying for the night. They ask a lot of questions.

The place I wanted to stay told us to rock up and see if there were any cancellations, so we called instead. There was nothing free. I decided we should take a 30rm taxi into town where there was the greatest concentration of hostels, then park the kids somewhere and walk around to find a bed for the night. We did this, but by the time we got to Jalan Gaya, Nani is busting for the toilet and had a headache (unbeknown to me, but I’m about to find out). She is not a happy camper by this stage. The first place we see is Rainforest Lodge. She surveys the room and came back and says it is acceptable. The price is higher than I want to pay though so I look hesitant and ask about bed bugs. The lady at reception says no but no guarantees and wants to know if we are concerned about noise because a live band plays every night. We say we’re leaving at 05:30 so don’t want noise and she says “no problem, you’ll be on the other side of the building”. The lady drops the price by 20rm. We take it.

Once inside the kids all need to poo. Abbey goes first but there’s no toilet paper. I say to use the bum hose and I hear a great excitement in the small room and Abbey says water is spraying everywhere. The boys and I laugh. Nani is not happy (she hasn’t gone yet). Oscar is next and gets wet too. Nani is not happy at him getting what she thinks is poo water on his shorts either. She is next and realises there really is no toilet paper. I shout through the door to use the bum hose. She says she doesn’t know how. I tell her to grab the hose, lean forward, direct it down into the toilet, then start it up and direct it upwards until contact is made. She doesn’t understand so I offer to spray her bum for her. The kids think this is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t get any traction. We hear a surprised “oooh” come out of the dunny.

After a quick bite and Nani is still a bit ticked because I haven’t been very caring and we’re lying in bed and she says we should change the itinerary to ensure we get Air Con wherever we go and make sure that it comes on quickly so we can cool down fast. I wonder what changes we should make and she says I’m not open. She suggests Turtle Island, but it’s in the opposite direction to Sukau where we are to visit the Kinabatangan River. She says cancel our visit to Mt Kinabalu. We’re both tired and it gets a bit heated. The kids have gone quiet.

Later in the night, the band strikes up and pounds a few sets into my skull. We manage to drift off to sleep, then suddenly are jolted awake at the sound of explosions. And then another. I think it must be thunder as it has been raining, but this sounds more like a bang than a rumble. Then more. Our building is shaking. Car alarms up and down the street are going nuts. Bang! Whump! Gas bottles? I’m starting to get concerned and Nani opens the curtains. She says to come and look. I see people across the street with mobile phones out filming our building – us! I go to investigate and head down the corridor to a small balcony and stick my neck out to see what they’re seeing. Fireworks. How the hell they are allowed to detonate this shit right next to our building I’ll never know. I go back to bed. It pours all night – literally the sound of torrential rain lashing the window, then I realise it’s just the sound of the dodgy air conditioner.

At 5.30am we get out and catch our taxi that was booked the night before by the nice lady. She said normally it’s 30rm to the airport, but if she books it, it will be 28. Nice. The night shift lady is now saying it’s 40. I crack the shits and say I’m not paying it. How can it be that we paid 30 last night, and now the price is 40? I tell the driver I’m not paying more than 30 in an irate voice. I’m not my best at 05.30 – I have a crazy “just-woke-up” look. On the way to the airport, Nani mentions they have higher prices at night. I ask the driver. He says before 6am it’s a higher price. He says it’s normally 45, and that he was discounting for Rainforest Lodge at 40. I feel a bit ashamed. I apologise. Quibbling over a few dollars is a trap travellers can fall into and I just did.

Abbey isn’t feeling so well. We’ve got a couple of plastic bags on hand just in case. Nani swaps seats so Abbey can be with me (her name means “her father’s joy”). Before the plane has lifted off she’s vomited in the sick bag – catching a vomit is a first for her so she’s quite proud. I tell her that I’ll hand it to the flight attendant and tell her not to open it until Christmas. Abbey thinks this is very funny. She vomits again in the taxi when we land.

Since we’ve arrived early in Sandakan, we decide to head to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, to see the feeding. As we make our way to the platform the canopy overhead shakes and we see the chestnut colored “man of the jungle” quietly approaching. In this case it was a woman, and she had a tiny one week old baby under her armpit. She gladly tucks into the extra food, but no of her sister join her as it is “fruit time” in the jungle and food is plentiful. She is basically topping up due to her pregnancy. A young male often comes, but he’s nicked off because of a wild alpha male who has moved into the area.

The local mafia Macaque monkeys turn up with glowing pink arses and ruin the party. Lachie notices one macaque wipe its ass and smell its hand and tells me another one was trying it on with one of the females. They storm the feeding platform by force and eventually their alpha male turns up raising his eyebrows and baring teeth and the 18 year old Mimi gives up and silently swings arm over arm back into the jungle, her baby clinging to her hair. After the macaques do their funny business and frighten a few onlookers, a lone black squirrel that would send Pepe Le Pew wild had her turn. Abbey lies on the ground wondering when we can go. I carry her on my shoulders and as we get back to HQ Mimi swings over the path literally right over Abbeys head into some bamboo and starts to feed.

We check into Winho B&B right in the centre of downtown Sandakan. Sandakan (which means “place that was pawned” but no one knows by whom or to whom) looks to be a bit of a concrete jungle that seems to run on timber and palm oil. It was bombed to smithereens by the end of World War II and rebuilt, but it seems to have been rebuilt hastily, so massive concrete buildings without any character or architectural significance have been thrown together street after street. It looks dirty and run down. I’m sure there is some beauty here, and am determined to find it. We sleep in the afternoon in our tiny cell-like concrete room on the first floor.

I carry Abbey to the Waterfront on my shoulders, where Nani finds some hawker stalls and eat delicious laksa, satay, and char quay teow overlooking the Naval Base. The kids try and feed a stray ginger kitten. At 18.00 the Naval brass appear on the bridge of each of the ships. The Malaysian flag is taken down. Whistle’s blow and salutes are executed.

I decide that Nani actually is a pretty intrepid traveller who can handle the grind of backpacking but that the thing that stresses her out the most is the kids getting sick or hurt. I think she would be enjoying this more if they weren’t here, but would wish they were here if they weren’t. The dilemmas of motherhood. We decide to stay at Winho another night, and find a travel agent booking Sukau Green View cancelling Uncle Tan’s Jungle Camp (no air conditioning) for our tour of the mighty Kinabatangan River.


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