A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
It was a 5.30 start this morning and a huge day of fishing getting home around 9.30pm but I can’t sleep. Together with Christmas presents and Nani’s relentless shopping she will be flying Tiger Airways to KL where we will rejoin and fly through to Melbourne on AirAsia. There are two things I’m panicking about. One is that I’d asked Nani to call Tiger and book a check-in bag for Abbey (Tiger don’t allow this to be done online whereas AirAsia does) for all the extra stuff we’ve accumulated. I find out she hasn’t done it and she wants me to sort it out. She says she couldn’t get to a phone all day today. Hmmm. The second thing I’m really worried about is that I discover that there are in fact two airports in Kuala Lumpur about twenty kilometers apart and I heard that Tiger flies into KLIA whereas AirAsia will depart from LCCT. This means Nani will have to virtually run through KLIA customs (people hurrying through customs is not a good look), get a taxi and whip over to LCCT to catch our international flight out, with no time to spare.
I call a friend in Singapore who works for Tiger and he’s going to see if he can fix something with the baggage, but given that their call centre doesn’t open til 9am tomorrow, and Nani’s flight is 10, it looks slim. On the plus side, he assures me Tiger does fly into LCCT. I’m relieved. I can sleep now, but the taxing day hasn’t done any favors to my chest infection and I double over whenever I cough.
We eat a huge breakfast before saying farewell to Mark and Deb and their wonderful family. Jonathan doesn’t come down to stay goodbye to the boys because he’s a bit teary. I tell Ong Jia Chen the miniature whirlwind that if he eats and sleeps well, I’ll see him again one day when he’s bigger (time doesn’t mean much to four year olds). I tell him that he doesn’t need his mum to feed him anymore.
At KL Sentral buses seem to leave every two to three minutes (basically as soon as they’re full) and only costs some paltry 6RM for adults and half that for kids for the 75 minute trip to LCCT. On the way we pass the Malaysian Sepang Moto GP circuit. We bump into a flustered Nani at the airport after first spotting Abbey. She has had a drama trying to check in her luggage at the wrong terminal. Thinking she could save time by scanning her bags (an operation performed before baggage check-in) while waiting for us she has had an altercation with a bunch of what she describes as Arab men. Apparently they accused her of cutting the queue and made her get to the back, whilst ushering their mates in front of her. The irony is, she was at domestic, and we were flying international and there’s no need to scan bags prior to check in. I find out that an announcement was made on the Tiger flight to wish Abbey a happy 7th birthday and the captain personally met her.
On AirAsia, Abbey lets the flight attendants know it’s her birthday following on from the success she had on the Tiger flight from Singapore. A group of the flight attendants come down and sing happy birthday to her, and one re-sings it in Korean. They present her with a cute little AirAsia bear. Abbey of course is delighted.
Ahead of where I sit, I notice some beautiful marketing from tourism Malaysia on the bulkhead. It’s a huge poster covering most of the space available. A gorgeous looking Asian couple runs down a white tropical beach. Her yellow sun dress flies in the breeze with a full head of jet black flowing hair behind. He is in a white cotton shirt and knee length khaki shorts. Laughing with gay abandonment they run bare footed, hand in hand toward… the camera I suppose. In the corner written in white script, are the words;
Tranquil Nature. With her tranquil waters and clear blue skies, it is the perfect place for that getaway you deserve. Watch the sun rise and set with your loved one, or spend the day frolicking on the beach with your family and friends. It’s not what you do, it’s where you do it. Malaysia. Truly Asia.
I like the award winning Truly Asia campaign and will really miss Malaysia, but there should have been a postscript saying PS – the sun is friggen hot and will sneak up on you and belt the life out of you if you don’t hide in the middle of the day. Sweat will pour off you and you will dehydrate. Any frolicking in the midday sun without a hat or umbrella will be punished by severe sunstroke and heat rash culminating in a visit to hospital involving a drip.
As you can guess, I still feel hot after yesterday’s fishing adventure.
Later, on touch down just after midnight Disney’s Happy Birthday Princess plays over the PA and Abbey proudly and loudly announces that she’s in fact the birthday girl, just in case anyone around us had forgotten. Whilst taxiing toward the terminal, an announcement regarding Australian border security makes no mention of drugs and the death penalty that we’re used to hearing, instead the message is all about animals and plants. I love that about Australia. Let’s protect the great outdoors – our native flora, fauna, agriculture and aquaculture. We don’t give a shit about druggies and we’re definitely too laid back to kill people anyway. I recall that India recently sentenced someone to the death penalty but all their hangmen had gotten old and given up, and they had to track one down and resurrect him from his retirement to bump off a particularly nasty criminal.
We reflect on our travels as we exit Melbourne airport. It’s 1.15am and the air is beautiful and cool. There’s a three hour drive ahead to dad’s farm in western Victoria but no-one is bothered. We consider making up a bunch of Borneo 2011 t-shirts for the Ongs and ourselves as a memento of an epic adventure. We decide we wouldn’t have changed much about our holiday but after backpacking for a month with my family I have wondered a few things though ;
Why is it that when kids take the last biscuit they hand you back the empty packet?
Don’t you love how your kids hand you back your iPhone and the screen looks like they used it to eat takeaway food off of?
Should there be a word for when your spouse takes your iPhone and doesn’t hand it back until the battery is in the red?
John and Ik Hui are kindly dropping us to Key Point in the Beach Road area from where Golden Express Coach departs. Their hospitality has been amazing – as is all Asian hospitality from which Aussies have much to learn (ours is the more shut-the-door-on-your-way-out, laid-back kind). Whilst saying our goodbyes, the boys are looking the wrong way. I’m wondering why they are so rude and ask them to turn around. They say their goodbyes then turn back to study their original distraction – Doritos Man. Their jaws drop and they stare unashamedly as this fellow traveler stands awaiting the bus and eats an entire pack of Doritos without touching a single one. If you can imagine how that is done, you can understand why they would be so captivated. I might try it some time just to see how doable this is, but I feel it would be at the cost of very cheesy powdery lips.
Catching a bus to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore involves going to the Woodlands Checkpoint and exiting Singapore’s border control, then hopping back on the bus, crossing the border, hauling your luggage off the bus, going through customs in Malaysia, then hauling everything back on. It probably adds an hour all up to the five hour trip. On the bus the little boy next to me says “a lizard just crawled under your shoe” looking genuinely concerned. Without moving my shoe I say “would you like me to catch it for you”. His eyes widen and he shakes his head. Later, Lachie taps me and says I have a gecko on my shoulder. I ask him to grab it which he does. The kid is amazed but frightened. Lachie offers it to him but he’s actually petrified and his sister starts protesting. She says that if he touches it, he can’t sit next to her anymore. Their dad stretches forward with his camera and says “I have to take a photo of the hero!” People here poison them with insect spray because they’re frightened of them and think they’re dirty. We reckon they’re great though and they do a fantastic job of keeping the insects down. Lachie gets really close and checks the lizard out from head to toe. He names him Gary Gecko.
I enjoy the bus trip. From the confines of Singapore’s high rises, to the open road, the hills, valleys and now familiar tropical vegetation makes me feel relieved. Singapore is busy, densely populated and highly built up and while I enjoyed visiting, being a country boy I always like to fall back to open spaces. Along the way and bloke has been asking the driver to stop and dashing out to sort stuff out. I got to thinking “hang on mate, you’re holding all of us up here, why can’t you just sort your shit out?” It was getting a bit rich I thought. At the lunch stop however, after we re-boarded the bus, I couldn’t believe it when he was even given a turn at driving. When’s my turn?
Lachie, Oscar and I get lots of rest on the bus which is just what the doctor ordered. It gives us time to be with ourselves and our thoughts since we are sitting in the single seats. The kids actually enjoy this and said they preferred the coach to the plane. We arrive at KL around 3.30pm and grab a taxi to Mark and Deb’s in Petaling Jaya, just 16km out of town. I didn’t actually have enough cash for the taxi so I gave him everything I had including a Singapore $2 note. The cabbie took the lot. Inside, I say “Merry Xmas” to their smallest child (the one I dubbed “ninja” on our earlier visit) Ong Jia Chen. He replies “Merry Christmas. Who are you?” and proceeds to tell me that he likes Uncle Carter (his swimming coach) but that he made him disappear back home today…Ong Jia Chen has some powerful Chi going on in his little body. Later he asks him mum if he cries harder will I return?
We’re getting ready to go snakehead fishing. I’ve carried my rod and reel around Malaysia for four weeks hoping to target this species because they are widespread and have adapted to drains and ponds being a swamp type ambush predator that can even live outside of water. I saw a River Monsters program on the bullseye snakehead that is aggressively invading North America and was gripped watching Jeremy Wade catch these then track down its cousin, the giant snakehead that had allegedly killed a man in Thailand. One of these was kept in a tank at Nomad B&B in Kuching and when I’d asked if I can submerge my underwater camera for a shot, they mentioned that someone from Sweden had tried this and it bit him. Mark and his dad have organized some seventy little brown frogs for bait, and these are being kept in the shower and get a bath everyday to keep them hopping and fresh. We re-bag these ten at a time for each fisherman and load up our rods, food, drinks and eskies into the 4wd for a quick getaway in the morning. A couple of frogs did get loose in the bathroom, but they’re no match for ten year old boys.
At 05:30 there’s a knock on my door. It’s Jonathan, but I don’t don’t need a wake-up call, I’ve been awake since 4 – as is common when I’m going on a fishing trip. It’s a quick breakfast of enormous meat and veggie bao, out the door at 6:14 and into the pajero for the long drive to the district of Bidor in the neighboring state of Perak. One of Mark’s friends Sam joins us who is an equally keen fisherman. At Kampung Coldstream we pull off road and into farmland and palm plantation where ponds and lakes abound. We pull up at a beautiful large pond surrounded by tall tropical grasses and covered with thick kang kong pond weed (kang kong is one of my favorite vegetables by the way). One side of the pond borders a palm plantation, another has nesting storks in some tall trees adjoining a Peking duck farm. These scatter as I approach, all herding away from me. In the distance I smell a pig farm and at various intervals can hear the squealing of feeding time. There is a family of Asian Otters in the pond behind bobbing up and down busily (everything otters do looks busy).
Excitement mounts as we see fish rising all over the pond and arcing fins scything the surface. Big fish. These are the telapia and carp that are being raised here – I suspect on effluent from the pig farm – suspicions founded by the smell and crust at a drain pipe entering the pond on the other side. Mark shows us how to stun the frogs, then pierce their heads to kill them and rig them up so they can be cast and retrieved over the weed without getting snagged. This is foreign fishing to me. We cast the frogs on top of the weed and slowly retrieve them. They get caught as we drag them back toward us, then release in a jerky hopping motion which simulates a live frog. Top level predators, the snakehead living under the weed sense the vibrations and sound and strike at the frogs – that’s the theory anyway.
Lachie has a couple of hits that mangle his first frog but doesn’t hook up. I eventually have one grab a frog but on setting the hook, the frog pulls straight out of it’s mouth. The next take I get, I actually strip line to let it really swallow the bait before trying to set the hook, but the strike pulls it free again and the frog sails past my head. Mark has missed a couple too, though his dad has landed one. I’m a bit perplexed so I switch to something I know. Maybe being the aggressive “eat anything” predator, they’ll take a soft bait. I rig up with a hot pink Strike Tiger grub and start a slow retrieve and bang I’m onto a good fish first cast. These fish are so powerful and the waters full of weed and snags that we’re fishing high poundage line and a locked up drag so I just hold it and let it tire whooping “I’m on!!!” across the water. The kids grab the fishing bag and start running toward me. On landing the fish, it’s grabbed the lure so hard, I have to physically prise its jaws open and use pliers to get the hook out. I’m elated that I’ve landed my first snakehead. I lift up the fish and take a good look and snap a few shots. The head is flat and pointed like a snake with two beady black eyes on top. The mouth wide and hard. The skin on the fish actually looks like snake skin – black on top changing to white underneath with a primal type of fin running over it’s back and halfway under it’s belly. These ancient monsters are well represented in the fossil record and look like it too. They are prized for their healing ability when served as soup to convalescing patients.
After a few more casts, I lose the princess on a snag. Switching to an old faithful Berkley black and gold T-Tail after noticing some small grey baitfish in the water, a few casts later I’m on again. This one’s a bit smaller, so he gets to go play another day but he’s completely chopped the T-Tail in half. I head back toward the car where the kids have retreated and on the way back notice a snakehead hovering in the water a couple of feet from the bank. I toss out the T-Tail and draw it past it’s nose. I dangle it there, then jig it up and down – it pays no attention. Perplexing. Somehow these fish need to have their aggression triggered to make them strike – the most aggressive are ones protecting their nest. These have been known to attack people – such as the kayaker in Delaware.
I wander back to the opposite shore to find the boys have given up because it’s hard to cast and retrieve a dead frog continuously with no result, and are playing around the car so I tell them just chuck the frog in the water instead of baking it crisp on the roof of the car where their rods are leaning. The sun is really up now and starting its torment. The rods are now leaning against some tall grasses with the frogs sunk to the bottom. It’s not long and Oscar’s rod pulls flat. He races over and strikes to find nothing on the end. The hook fails to set again. These fish are tricky. I cast it back in for him, but this time strip of lots of loose line. The snakehead are taking the frog into their mouth, moving away before swallowing. Any resistance leads to the frog being spat out. The next time he’s rod bends, he has his first snakehead.
Around midday, the heat starts to beats us into submission. Even though we’ve got full sleeves and hats on, the heat is what I consider an preview to hell. Eventually, with my core temperature rising, I give up and sit in the shade of a short palm oil tree, half naked trying not to move. The boys accompany me and we suck back water and 100 Plus an isotonic fizzy drink. We are wilted. Husked. Punished. Oscar plays around a nearby palm trying to climb it and I let him know that there are sometimes ant nests in there. Sam who has joined us for some relief mentions that he doesn’t usually venture too far into palm oil plantations because of the cobra’s. I let Oscar know about this too.
Eventually Mark and his dad pull over and give way to the juggernaut that is the scorching, oppressive sun and sitting down in the shade with us. Mark has copped a leech helping land my third haruan (the local name) which was tangled in a mass of weed. We decide to head into the nearest Kampung and get some drinks and shade. Oddly, his dad recommends the curry noodles, which equally strangely were so delicious the boys were nearly licking the bowl.
I photograph the lady preparing them, scooping the noodles into a huge boiler to cook them and the old aunties around a plastic table on the corner all laugh and tease her in Malay. She ducks and looks embarrassed, which encourages me, so I switch to video and film the scene. A table of men are flipping and shuffling mahjong tiles. They must be escaping the heat too.
Around 4pm we head back checking out a few other ponds on the way, but returning to our original site. The boys continue with their bottom fishing as this seems to be the most effective method in the middle of the day. Jonathan has hooked a fish but struggles to land it. Oscar takes over manning the rod and Lachie gets down and hand-lines the fish in. They call it a team effort and chalk it up as a “Band of Brothers” effort. Lachie still hasn’t landed one on his own, but just before we call it a day, manages a small one, so we’re all happy.
Thunder clouds begin to roll out across the horizon and we hear the rumble. The odd lightning flash goes off and a cooler breeze has picked up. The light changes from the harsh white light of a fiercely hot day, to the warm evening glow of a monsoon clouded evening. The pond looks really pretty now, and I can see rain on the mountain range. I count the time between the flashes and rumbles and conclude the storm cell is still a few kilometres away. The breeze is waving the grasses and the white storks are hovering over their nests. Eventually it starts to spit and satisfied with our catch of thirteen, we decide to start our long trip home.
It’s dark now and the boys are all asleep in the back of the Pajero. We’ve had a sumptious feed of charsiew, roast pork, yam, fried sweet potato leaf, and soup on the way back through Bidor. We fly south along the Utara Selatan Highway toward Selangor and the road is relatively uncrowded. In the back it still smells froggy and the silence as each of us is lost in thought is punctuated by pounding on the roof of the esky, as the prehistoric channa striata launch themselves out of the shallow water and crash their bony heads into the molded plastic in a bid for freedom.
I still feel hot.
I missed out on getting a tattoo in Kuching where former lawyer Ernesto the Headhunter and sidekick Robinson had done up a really nice traditional Iban design for me. I hadn’t been sure about it, so only asked for a tentative booking a week later but this was taken up by the time I’d decided. I put it down to serendipity – it just wasn’t meant to be. In Singapore however, I thought about getting some ink to remember our Borneo trip together and had been thinking about a Singapore Orchid because we had these in our wedding. Mine on my lapel, and Nani in her bouquet. I thought about sticking it around the characters of Nani’s name already on my arm.
I surfed around various forums to find out some names of the good artists in Singapore and turned up a few, writing them down and the areas they were in. This way wherever Nani decided to shop, I’d have somewhere to go and have a chat with someone and see what they thought. Far East Plaza down on Scotts Rd came on the radar, and I pulled up the iPhone note and scanned it and located Boon Wen Kai who works for Primitive Tattoos on the fourth floor. I wander in and there’s one bloke having lunch there, and I ask for Boon, and he says “that would be me”. He is a slight fella, with a bit of a Beeber hair do but pretty down to earth. He doesn’t look like feral so Nani and I start bouncing some ideas around with him. Eventually we work out what we want – a couple of purple Singapore Orchids with a few buds.
After signing some disclaimer and negotiating a price, Boon gets out his inks and gun. He plasters the outline on my arm to get the positioning. He says he doesn’t want to turn it too far this way, because it’s a bit painful there. I wish he hadn’t mentioned this detail. I hadn’t actually thought about the fact that my inner bicep might have fairly thin skin, but was about to find out. He tosses a bunch of magazines my way and I say “won’t need them” and he says “you’ll get bored otherwise” and I say that boredom isn’t too bad – gives me time to think. But I reckon Boon is worried that I need something to take my mind off things. I pull out my iPhone and dial up a podcast – it’s a Radio National talkback program about forcing people to do things they don’t want to do (like your mum making your learn piano or violin, or your boss making you go to that weird team building day). Boon cranks up his gun and it starts chattering away. Nani takes a few happy snaps and she’s off – shopping.
I’m listening to this podcast and Boon’s drilling away, but it’s not feeling great. Ten minutes and I can’t really focus on the story so I decide to find the happiest music I can which turns out to be Atomic Kitten’s greatest hits. I figure happy music might raise some endorphins that might make things feel a bit better. Boon’s got my arm resting downhill on a support so whenever he stops and reloads his ink, I raise my arm to get the blood to flow because it’s starting to go all pins and needles but then I wonder whether I should stop this as the numb arm might have actually made things better.
It’s starting to feel like Boon is my mate in grade 9 giving me a going over with the compass point, scratching in some nasty initials or the like. It bothers me a bit and Atomic Kitten is going flat out but I have to try something else. I decide to try relaxing my body, but as soon as I take my mind off it, my legs tense up and lower back arches up off the reclining seat, which has become more of a dentist chair than a Laz E Boy. I’m praciting mindfulness now – paying attention to my thoughts that are all like “shit this hurts a bit” and “this is wearing a bit thin” and not fusing with them but letting them go. I try distraction and focus on the skateboards on the wall – there is one decorated with some tattoo art. It’s a chick that looks all Kat Von D from LA Ink. Her hair is black and long with a white streak. she’s looking over her shoulder with a topless back showing an entire back tattoo. Her pants are low slung and the ink reaches to her buttocks. She’s obviously a lot tougher than me.
I’m into Paul Simon’s Graceland now after finishing Atomic Kitten. There are some spots he hits that makes me involuntarily jump and others that make shooting pains reach my fingers. Some interesting nerves must be tucked in the inner arm. I am feeling distressed at this point. Not anxious because I don’t have that dread feeling. I know the pain isn’t harming me, just distressed. At one point it feels like he’s accidentally set my armpit hair on fire. Eventually Boon decides to have a smoke. I think he’d been expecting me to have a break, but I just want it done as fast as possible. Why drag out the agony? He nicks out and I think bugger it, I’ve had enough of this, and inhale a couple of ibuprofen. Nani pops back in to check on progress, takes a couple more happy snaps and then gone again.
Boon is etching away again with his implement from hell. I start to think that if this was involuntary and I was blindfolded, this would be a form of torture. I’m no sissy, and already have three tattoos, but none of them felt this bad. No offense to victims of torture, but if this was against my will and I didn’t know what was happening, after an hour of thinking your skin has been flayed into tiny strips would make me ask exactly what secrets would they like to know. Eventually he’s done and he asks me to take a look. My legs are a bit shakey from tensing too much and the intital feelings want to yell “Brilliant Boon, I’m out of here” but I actually do look properly over the tattoo. He’s done a fine job though, so I just get him to touch up part of one of Nani’s tattoos where I had lost a scab and some ink out of it as a result. He glad wraps me up and blood starts to ooze under the plastic. He explains that color is a bit more painful because you have to keep going over the same spot to build up the depth.
Nani is back and she peers through the wrap but can’t quite make out the design. We wander toward the escalator and she says “220 bucks! We weren’t getting Christmas presents this year because of the trip”. I say, this isn’t a Christmas present for me, it’s a Christmas present for you – I mean it’s an orchid and all, enhancing your name on my arm! I secretly hope to God that she hasn’t bought a Christmas present for me because I’m not sure that carving some ink into your arm would really count as a Chrissy present for the little wife and I haven’t bought anything for her. I can say though, that I really earned this one.