A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
This morning at Green View Lodge on the Kinabatangan River, we are told vaguely that we’ll be taken to “the junction” where we can catch a bus to Mt Kinabalu. There is a junction at Sukau about a half hour away and then there’s another near Sepilok I think about 2 hours away but we can’t seem to nail down which one it will be. After the short drive, we pass the Sukau junction and the driver keeps going which pleases me. The further we can go in the car before getting on the bus the better I reckon.
We end up getting out where the roads from KK split to go to Sandakan and Tawau and he gestures where we should stand. We are to watch for a big white bus he says coming from “that way” gesturing again and then we are to wave it down (apparently you don’t bother booking). Most times when we get directions the person doing the pointing is really vague. I assume it’s rude to point with the index finger here ‘cos everyone points with their thumbs and being a pretty short object it’s pretty hard for me to get a line on that sucker.
The junction itself is pretty wild. A couple of rough unpainted wooden buildings on either side look like pit stops for the weary travelers. People selling all kinds of really fresh fruit and veggies under lean-to’s joined side by side stretch some 60m or so brighten an otherwise grubby roadside. Cars up and down the road are perched on the shoulder nosing in and out of the traffic to buy their wares.
A tout rushes over to us. He’s a fairly small guy who looks a bit like a rapper. He moves and talks fast and basically bluffs us into following his directions. He says “you wait over there, the bus will come from here (gesturing vaguely toward Tawau) and I will flag it down and you can get on. Don’t worry I will sort everything”. I don’t quite get why he wants us to wait on the wrong side of the road and figure maybe he’s drumming up business for the opposite pit stop. I must look bewildered because he repeats the instructions. We haul our packs on, clipping our daypacks to the front and do as he says because he seems to be in charge – even if self appointed.
The roadside drain has a few boards semi joined together but looking a little weary with big gaps (think ladder). Nani wants me to help her across but I’m pretty certain it won’t take our combined weight. The kids cross confidently and she hesitates before picking her way across. Oscar almost gets run over by looking one way and ignoring the speeding white car coming the other.
Dumping our gear on the wrong (east bound) side of the road Nani goes back across to get some supplies for the long trip. I have a look around and Lachie spots a baby green bird in a tiny carry cage. I photograph it and it looks at me nervously. I wander over to the tout who is a busy lad talking to lots of people and looking generally in charge. I ask how much to Mt Kinabalu. He says “40”. I say “And children?” holding my hand halfway up my body hoping that children are half price. He says “20”. I’m not sure if this is right or not. It pays to find out these things earlier.
The bus finally arrives after waiting maybe half hour and sort of tries to pull over but can’t beacuse of all the cars on the shoulder but it’s the thought that counts so no-one toots at it. We cross back over and Nani hands 150 to the tout who asks if he can keep the change. She says no. He finds the bus driver who has dismounted the bus and we stuff our packs underneath and get on board. There are single seats mostly up the back. The boys are together. Abbey and Nani end up next to Muslim women and there’s only one seat for me – next to a Muslim woman who doesn’t want to slide over. She twists sideways and I climb over her a bit wondering why anyone wouldn’t want the window seat. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m an unclean heathen western male or whether I stink or what but she’s looking over at Nani a few rows back and they do some female telepathy and end up swapping. Now Oscar wants to be with mummy (he’s a mummy’s boy) so I swap with him ending up between Lachie and the dunny. He says he got a whiff of it. I’m really tired and nod off quickly as the bus sways from side to side on what must be tired suspension. Our quick dash south meant we had crammed three river cruises and spent just 18 hours at Sukau.
Deep in sleep I awake suddenly with a jolt, slammed hard in the side of the head. As I come to my senses, it seems I have rolled my head one way while the bus has lurched the other and my head has collided with the wooden panel of the toilet.
Lachie wants to know why we are taking a bus instead of flying. I explain that it gives a sense distance from one place to another. We get to experience the route and the sights. It gives us down time – time to think – about where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing. I’m conscious that our time in Borneo is drawing to an end and slowing things down makes it last longer. He says he and I are alike because he likes thinking time too.
I dislike air travel a little in that at times it seems a bit clinical. We disconnect from one place and appear in another. There’s lots of lining up and showing of documents, re-lining up and shuffling in queues. It seems a bit disjointed and frenetic. Plus on this bus I get to see a little topless Chinese girl with tiny ponytails sticking horizontally out from her head drinking juice from a baby bottle and dropping her bottom lip when her father puts it away. She hangs her head and screws up her face and the bottle reappears.
A long haired rock star hipster in jeans, pilot glasses and long fingernails on his left hand nods off. A chubby little baby Malay boy with huge brown eyes grins a gummy smile at me from the seat in front no more than 5 or 6 months old and I feel the urge to squeeze his cheeks really hard. I screw up my face and make him smile more. Later he has a bottle (I don’t see anyone breast feed in Malaysia possibly because Muslims wear gowns so it would be impossible to do so even if culture allowed it) and he has just enough time to curdle the milk before the rocking bus mugs him as well and he heaves yoghurt all over the place. Off with the T Shirt and Nani offers a baby wipe (we’re loaded with these) which is gratefully accepted.
I see random roadside durian stalls with the green prickly fruit mounded up on wooden tables and hung from beams under rough roofed huts. Crowds of people gather around and I get excited – durian season is in full swing. Outside St Bruno’s Catholic Church great bunkers of empty husks are piling up after days and possibly weeks of this feeding frenzy. I need to get me some.
Pirates of the Caribbean starts up on the bus screen at some stage – maybe the driver has timed the ending to coincide with arrival in KK. It is in English with English subtitles so I’m fairly sure no-one apart from us is getting the dialogue.
Finally after 6 hours on the road and climbing high into the hills we reach Mt Kinabalu shrouded in mist and Bayu Homestay with Rumia where the climate is now cool and moist. The kids all have runny noses and coughs I think from the freezing air con and from being a bit run down so it will be nice not to be alternately hot by day then frozen by night and be able to have a R&R day tomorrow.
I walk to the front door of Bayu reception and slam my head into the low balcony. Looking up I see a cardboard sign that says ‘AWAS! 5’10″‘. All 6ft 2 inches of me now knows what “Awas” means.