A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
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.
We’re on the MRT to East Coast Park to sample some of the best seafood Singapore can offer with Nani’s school friends. I like the MRT particularly the touch screen ticket machine where all you have to do is poke a spot on the map you want to go, slip some money in and bingo, out pops a swipe card for a few bucks. The trains seem pretty efficient although to the utter horror of Singaporeans a train broke down recently stranding passengers in the dark tunnel and grid locking peak hour. Not an issue in Australia, just get off, go find a bus or phone a friend. Singaporean’s want blood though. Heads must roll and at a minimum the CEO should be fired and made homeless. A comforting female voice recording drifts through our carriage encouraging me to report any suspicious people or activities and to by all means feel free to press the little red button next to the sliding doors. I eye the red button and hope that I don’t look too suspicious.
I do have a confession to make though, now that i have this nasty chest cold from the kids, i did cough up something that looked like durian and spat it in the bin. Am I in trouble? By the way you aren’t allowed to bring any flammables, weapons or durian on the train. $500 fine.
East coast park on reclaimed land is where Nani learned to ride a bicycle. These can be hired cheaply and the pathways along the beach with the sea breeze made it tolerable. I don’t think many people own bikes – for a start there’s nowhere to store them and anyone who thinks “this would be a great city to bike around” probably hasn’t had the pleasure of being drenched in sweat two minutes into their ride. Although Cambodians use them extensively they ride slowly and don’t wear suits to work.
Jumbo Seafood serves up a mean chilli mud crab arguably one of Singapore’s most famous dish. I’m not sure I’ve had it before but I loved it, although someday I’d like to try a less sweet one. This was complimented by bamboo clams, stir fried baby squid (crunchy), crumbed whole prawns (you eat the head and all), sesame seed crusted squid and mee goreng. Our waitresses name is Bell Song. I try and motion to everyone when she is standing at our table to look at her name badge but no one seems to notice. When she leaves I point out “did everyone see her name? It’s Bell Song – get it? Bell – Song??” Everyone is blank. Ken explains gently that they pronounce this surname “Soong”. As a teacher he can understand why I might read it the way I did. A former company I worked for had our regional head office in Singapore with a receptionist called Dawn Poo. I suppose this isn’t funny either.
We’re invited to dinner with the Hi (prounounced Hee) family. Driving past the botanic gardens and national orchid garden with its 1000 species on the way there I really wish I could go in. We’re obviously in the upper end of town because all the homes here are gated and free standing. As we pull into the driveway I notice three Mercedes and an in-ground pool. Mr and Mrs Hi have been bestowed the prestigious titles of Datok and Dating which I think are a bit like Lord and Lady and reserved for people who have made a bucket-load of money. They must be wondering what happened to us when we arrived looking bedraggled and exhausted from travel and our colds (there should be another name for this in the tropics). Lachie falls asleep on their couch. Dinner at a restaurant at the six story shopping mall Great World City though, was sensational. The highlights being the shark fin and crab soup, along with roast pork and roast duck. Still in need of rest, I make an excuse to leave early to take the kids back to Pearls Centre and their beds leaving Nani to enjoy the company who all communicate in Foo Chow. There’s only so much nodding and smiling one can do when one doesn’t speak the lingo no matter how appreciative of their generosity.
Christmas is a laid back affair which I love. We had decided to celebrate with Nani’s side of the family on Christmas Eve because we were intending to catch up with my side Christmas Day, but sadly they felt it best with our coughs and colds, to not expose my elderly grandmother so we won’t be seeing them this trip (one of my main reasons for going to Singapore). John has booked the function room at his River Valley Rd condo alongside the three pools, sauna, spa and downstairs from the gym. Luxury. Honey baked ham with scored fat and a little clove in each square made by the scoring glistens invitingly. The turkey tastes smoked and while a little dry is very tasty. This complimented by hainan chicken, satay and topped off with trifle (yes trifle!) makes for an east meets west fusion Christmas dinner.
The kids after being inspired by The Karate Kid were doing the usual moves on each other and having a wrestle, but were all being told by well-meaning adults to either stop it or be careful. I told one mum that as long as our kids don’t bleed or break bones we didn’t mind them bashing each other up a little – it’s all part of growing up isn’t it? It appears this behavior is off limits to Singaporean kids and she replies she didn’t fancy a trip to the hospital tonight. One child was even told to be careful sitting on a fitness ball. It was annoying that the kids couldn’t really be kids and I end up telling Nani that the next person who says “Be careful!” was going to get it. The words were barely out and a shortish lady with a brown top and short hair (looking somewhat Filipino) said to one of the kids “Be careful!” I mutter into her ear that I have to shoot the brown-bloused lady now. Apparently rough housing is not the Singaporean way but the way I figure it you can mend broken bones and stitch up cuts, but raising kids to be afraid of getting hurt is something much harder to fix.
I’m trying to book this train to Kuala Lumpur for boxing day and not having much luck. I’ve registered online with the Malaysian transport website KTM Berhad and it’s telling me that there are five seats available, but when I jump through all the online hoops, the final step tells me they don’t accept online bookings less that 48 hours before the journey. WHAT?!?! I finally find a phone number that someone will answer and they tell me there’s no seats left. But there are online I say. They repeat that there aren’t any. I say well what about tonight? Can I book the night train? She says that she can’t sell me tickets, but there are berths available if I just rock up at Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore (about 45 minutes away) I should be able to get on. I’m thinking, so I’m supposed to get two boys and their packs to Woodlands by 11pm tonight and maybe, hopefully, possibly get a ticket? I’m starting to get frustrated. I have been so looking forward to going cross country to Kuala Lumpur off the bitumen and through the country side by train due to some nostalgic idealism that train travel would somehow be quaint and going clickety clack rolling through the Malaysia would be a great segue to the fishing day that we’d planned there. Brother in law John confirmed my thoughts. I would have to coach it instead. I conceded that it was still better than flying. Yes it is only and hour and fifteen by plane, but it seems so surgical and artificial. Ground travel gives time to absorb, to think and reflect. To really leave one place and arrive in another.
While all this is going on, it’s Christmas day and where else would Nani be than shopping? She puts in a five hour effort today. Looking for what and buying what is anyone’s guess. I suppose she figures that she’ll make hay while the sun shines – not many people get to shop on Christmas Day after all. I wonder how things would go down if I went fishing on Christmas Day, but I don’t dare to find out. Call me under-the-thumb – call me whatever you like, but experiments like these are best left to either the more daring, the more stupid or both. She has been saying that she doesn’t know how she will cope coming home to Tasmania because she’s gotten so used to being able to buy whatever she wants to eat, whenever she wants it.
Nani regales her horrified family with tales of how dangerous it was to visit Bako National Park and warned them against being there. She said the boat she traveled on was virtually un-seaworthy. She mentions how it got so bad the boatman ordered her pack off and life jacket on and how the waves were so big her small boat almost capsized. She claims that tour guides don’t book people to Bako during monsoon because it’s so dangerous – and that’s just getting there. Once there she claims the jetty is crumbling and she almost fell through. Crazy monkeys with fangs like “this” (demonstrating on her own face with a couple of index fingers how big the incisors are) and poisonous vipers hanging from every tree not to mention the sting rays. She goes on to tell the spell bound audience that “no-one goes to Sandakan” (not sure how she knows this) and claims that the men on every street corner with dark skin who stared at her until she was out of sight were in fact pirates. At what point pirates jump ship to sit on street corners and leer at Chinese girls is anyone’s guess, but there you have it. I’m annoyed and interject claiming that they’re great places to go and not to listen to her. I had booked the itinerary after much reading and discussing with other travelers and had good reason to be in those places. She switches to mandarin and finishes the story in a language I don’t understand. I resign to being misrepresented but also with some satisfaction that no-one would listen to Nani tell stories about the good times she had shopping at ViVo, Ion, Far East Plaza or Great World City mega malls. At least I’d given her tales to tell – and tales that grow taller with the passage of time.
Being our last night Ik Hui has really bent over backwards to try and check off a couple of things I’d mentioned we’d like to do whilst in Singapore so we’re off to the luxury Marina Bay Sands to watch the water show Wonder Full. On Singapore’s famous waterfront a couple of times each night is an amazing celebration of life using light projection, multimedia, sound, lasers, sprays and jets of water. Sitting together on the steps we are wowed by the display together with a few hundred others in the warm night air. The back drop of Singapore city was equally picturesque. I watch as our children jump up to try and grab illuminated bubbles floating past and failed to make them sit down. There is something about bubbles that are magnetic to children isn’t there? After the show, people were slow to leave. While it was crowded, it seems that the beauty and wonder of the show somehow united our humanity and we were connected by a common experience and the emotion generated.
Singapore may be a place geared entirely around making money the most efficiently as possible. Its benevolent oligarchy has ensured that anyone who gets an education and works hard has the opportunity to be wealthy, live in a condo and employ a maid. In the little spare time that families have, the two national past times of eating out (which can be done incredibly cheaply) and shopping in the latest and greatest malls are pursued with passion but it’s the constant kaching-kaching of Asia’s cash register that actually allows them to put on amazing free displays like the one we just saw and develop one of the world’s most beautiful waterfronts – just because they can.
After the show we slowly walk to Cold Rock for an ice-cream (the one where you choose the flavor and lollies you’d like smashed into it) and wander past Fendi, Armani, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton. I wish I could tell you that these were people we met on the way but I can’t. Chrome and glass and the polished tiles refract and reflect light coming from every direction in this luxury shopping area. At some point, Nani can resist no more and walks into Tiffany & Co for a quick look. I don’t understand why. Bemused, I try and shout through the closing bullet proof glass doors as she darts in that I’d already got her a Tiffany ring but she appears not to hear. I had visited a diamond mine in the Northern Territory of Australia a few years earlier and bought a champagne diamond. Together we trawled the Tiffany website and selected a beautiful white gold diamond ring, printed the design off and sent it all to my aunty in Singapore a jeweler who had it made to size and sent it back. All this to replace the original diamond engagement ring I’d bought Nani after proposing. She lost this one within ten months of being married – it’s loss presumably contributed to by the fact that she considered it more a grain of sand than the “rock” she was hoping for. But the replacement – this counts as a Tiffany ring doesn’t it? Evidently not, because Nani says one day she wants to get something from Tiffany in that little blue box. I wonder to myself if those boxes can be bought on Ebay.
We’re at Tiong bahru market for breakfast, an enormous food hall. The range of cuisine here is absurd! I only ever eat one of two things for brekky back home; muesli or oat porridge. Here we eat roast chicken rice, noodles and char siew, char siew bao, chicken glutinous rice, goreng pisang (deep fried bananas) and other dishes I can’t identify. The vast number of stalls selling every kind of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Nonya cuisine you can think of beggars belief. If one could measure say food density of a nation – say tonnes of food per square kilometre, I reckon Singapore would take the durian cake. I take video of the various stalls until the Kuih stall lady yells at me to go away. I dig kuih, but I”m not buying any of hers today.
What I can’t understand is that despite eating huge breakfasts, cooked lunches, and dinners there are actually skinny people here! I can’t eat the quantities of these people who are three fourths my size and they are still thin?! I feel these people should be co-opted and dissected to find out by what dark magic they process all these calories defying the laws of thermodynamics and remaining thin.
A huge sign on a building with a leaping tiger says Tiger Balm works where it hurts – but if you ask me there are definitely places that might hurt (particularly orifices) that you definitely don’t want Tiger Balm anywhere near – think Deep Heat.
Our next stop is the Wee Clinic which has nothing to do with urology. My aunty Wee Hong Neo (the phoenix lady my brother in law tells me) is an excellent GP. In fact on our way home from India in 2000 Nani was similarly sick and we stopped by and she diagnosed our first pregnancy – news to which we were both aghast due to the cocktail of vaccines we had been pumped with to go to the sub continent. She’s probably getting sick of us being sick and dropping by to arm ourselves to the teeth with scripts but goes about her business in a very business like manner but generously (and surprisingly) produces three ang pow for the children, who are quite amazed. Sadly because of the condition of the kids, she feels it best not to visit for Christmas because their great grandmother may just not be strong enough to fight their germy germs so we’re at a loose end for Christmas day. I had been looking forward to seeing my Singapore relatives, but it won’t be this trip.
We have stashed the kids with John at River Valley Rd and Nani urges me to visit ViVo an enormous new shopping centre. She says I need to experience it to have my world broadened. Who is she kidding? I politely decline (well, I just decline) and she knows well enough not to persevere without wasting precious shopping time takes off like an Olympic sprinter.
I head out of ViVo situated on the water front along the almost deserted 525m Sentosa Island boardwalk across the causeway to “Asia’s favorite playground”. Think Disney World meets the far east. Along the way, marketing plastered on columns tells me;
Exciting variety awaits.
A dazzling musical extravaganza
A theatrical circus spectacular
The worlds largest anamatronic crane performance (there are others?)
Ride the movies
Indulge in luxury shopping and rejuvenate yourself
Savor eclectic favors
With such anticipation tempered by some healthy skepticism I eagerly pay the $1 entrance fee.
I wander through the visitor centre and there seems to be lots to do here so grabbing a map, I head off. Happily the place seems fairly deserted (it comes alive at night when it’s cool – only dumb westerners would come here in the day). There are a few people around the entrance to Universal Studios – maybe everyone else is inside. I’m here to see what I can see for free though so I keep moving.
I’m looking for the Lake of Dreams – this appeals to me and might be a good place to just contemplate. It turns out to be a complex series of sculptures and
various pools and water that shoots periodically into the air. The sculptures are kind of other-worldly so I can see the connection to dreams but it’s no place to dream
except of finding a urinal which so far has eluded me. It seems there is one at a nearby hotel (there are lots of hotels here. I can’t believe anyone would stay though) – but alas this one is closed for cleaning.
Another building proudly proclaims “A million moments. One World.” which I like really because I have no idea what it means. It’s cryptic – the sort of thing a sage would tell you when you’re young and then when you are old you realize he was right and you nod knowingly. A huge statue of Rodin the great philosopher sits contemplating above the lake of dreams. He’s doing what I like to do. Sitting and thinking. I’m pleased that some thought has been given to … thought here because all the other statues are of pinnochio and his kind. Rodin is wondering what “a million moments – one world” means. I leave him to it.
I ascend past the five foot high letters that spell Sentosa. It is here that I discover an interesting game – photographing people photographing people. I mean simply photographing the word “Sentosa” would be boring for me and even more so for the people upon whom I inflict my slide show when I get back. So the challenge is thus; capture the photographer, their camera, their subject and the thing their subject is standing in front of. I always mock these kind of tourist photos – “oh this is me in front of the colliseum. And here’s one of me in front of the Great Wall. And that’s one of me in front of the plane we flew on”. These photos are as boring as bat shit (and after Mulu, I know my batshit). and they are totally uncreative so this game – which I admit is a little stalkerish really does make it fun and quite a challenge because you have to be really fast to get into position and catch that Kodak moment.
Ascending further I take mild interest in the 37 metre high part lion, part mermaid the famous Singapore mythical Merlion. The 16 toothed (not four as you would initially think) beast has 320 scales and is decorated with a “sand dollar” icon, or so say the cutesy little information boards. It’s nice that the sculpture that is most identified with this nation pays homage to the mighty dollar. I mean what do Aussies get? A furry mammal with a pocket in front that has a penchant for jumping in front of cars and B Double trucks! Great.
Pleasantly I start to notice some luxurious gardens and cooling waterfalls. A beautiful and colofully designed Merlion Walk through which water flows among sculptures of fish and other aquatic life gently slopes down toward Beach Station. Trees on both sides reach their canopies toward one another forming a green tunnel through which I walk. I get a few more tourist photos of tourists wishing that I could get one standing behind a spouting fish that would make me look like I’m doing a whizz, but the people here look so… wholesome, I don’t dare ask them.
Beach Station where hot pink shuttle trains on the overhead skyflier rails weave their way across the island has a huge indoor sky diving centre The Singapore iFLY “where anyone can fly” – except I assume the very young, the very old, the pregnant, the stroke victim, the blind, the…. From here I can see the beach but I’m running out of time – so much to see and I’m actually enjoying myself.
Heading back toward the mainland I hear the familiar scream of cicadas in a strip of virgin rainforest. The Imbiah Nature Trails fork here and I’m sorely tempted. Near a place where huge brightly colored Macaws sit with tourists for photographs is the beginning of the Feng shui trail. This could be just the yang I need to counter Singapore’s all-pervading consumer yin, but sadly I have to settle for descending the leafy and impressive plantings of Imbiah terrace at the bottom of which is KFC which to my amazement sells egg tarts. At 5pm having not eaten since breakfast the devious consumer Yin wins and I succumb bowing before the Colonel’s great multinational.
On my way out along the still deserted boardwalk (does everyone drive or catch the train across?) Bosch speakers mounted all the way along plays acoustic instrumental music (sounding to me like Tommy Immanuel) and a butterfly drifts past. The plantings beside which i walk are tropical rainforest (a sign tells me so). I wake the sleeping ticket counter lady to ask what the music is. She doesn’t know. No matter, I feel happy. Reaching ViVo to meet Nani with seven minutes to spare, opposite Marks and Spencer I notice the white tiles, are gold flecked.
We are leaving KK and once again suffering the ignominy of the dehumanizing process that precedes air travel. Somehow queuing for the boarding pass machine, the baggage scanner, the baggage check-in, security scanning, and once more at the gate shuffling in long lines with fellow queue shufflers as we herd from one process to the next making me feel like I’m part of some digestion process like a great colon. We are ingested at departures and endure this colonic process until we are shat out the other end at our destination in arrivals. It’s no wonder it’s called cattle class.
I’m tired and coming down with the kid’s virus so I’ve swallowed a couple of Claratyne containing pseudo ephedrine (clandestine speed labs can’t get enough of this stuff) which is making me drowsy. At one point Nani wakes me up because she can’t find Abbey. I had told the kids they could do whatever they liked as long as it wasn’t near me – which obviously Abbey took literally because after a search she was found in duty free putting an arm lock on a sales assistant and telling her to tap out. She was also offering to guillotine the obliging assistant who politely declined. The mixed martial arts training via TV is really paying off.
Nani has visited the toilet at the airport and comes back devastated. The lady in the cubicle next door to hers has things get out of control with the bum hose and sprays under the partition wetting Nani’s legs. She imagines a deadly fecal spray has infected her and she is aghast.
Meanwhile I sleep until my subconscious hears the words “Singapore” after the mandatory “tuan tuan dan puan puan” blah blah blah. Nani hasn’t heard the announcement and I drift off again while the shufflers queue once more. By the time I come to again boarding is over and the doors are closed. I say to Nani “that’s our flight – the doors just shut!” she propels into action, rounds up the kids and we are the last to board (it wouldn’t have mattered because AirAsia couldn’t close the door and had to get the engineer to fix it meaning we sat on the tarmac for forty minutes before takeoff).
I haven’t quite figured out what’s up with AirAsia’s seating arrangements. We checked in days beforehand (on my AirAsia app) but for some reason when it comes to printing our boarding passes we are all five sitting separately – four of us around rows 7 to 9 and Abbey down at 30. Nani takes Abbey’s seat and I try and keep an eye on the kids. Oscar hits the jackpot though because the person next to him must have taken pity and bought him a hot Milo and chicken wrap. I’m not so lucky because I’m in the kiddy section (which is normally down the back of the plane) with a five month old beside, an ear-splitting shrieking toddler behind and another kid looking over my shoulder to see what’s on my iPhone eating with his mouth open in my ear.
I’m a bit apprehensive about going to Singapore known as the cash register of Asia. Being more of an outdoorsy wide-open-spaces kind of peace-and-quiet type of guy, big cities don’t exactly light my fire. I am looking forward to catching up with family here though as both Nani and I have relatives to visit. An announcement on the plane says that drug use is penalised by the death penalty. Do they mention this casually so the drug laden tourist has time to shit themselves, break into a sweat and turn white before reaching customs? The feeling of Big Brother, Police State and the myriad of fines here makes me want to read some porn, chew some gum, spit it on the footpath, tag a wall and pee in a lift. (Hopefully Singaporeans will know I’m kidding).
When I was thirteen I made my first international trip here. At the time my grandfather bore the prestigious figurehead-of-state title of President of Singapore. As such, his daughter and her children were afforded VIP treatment as we were whisked through arrivals and customs and out of the airport with a valet parked driver to take us to our accommodation. I still remember the wall of hot humid air that I walked into exiting the building and gasping as it felt there was not enough oxygen in it. It was the first time I’d experienced tropical heat.
Today, with my fondly remembered grandfather long passed away we arrive just like regular people, although the comparative opulence of the new Changi Airport does make the weary traveler feel slightly VIP just passing through. Nani metamorphosises from shedding the husk of her weary-traveler three-week sanitation vigilance and is visibly relieved, her backpacking ordeal over. She all but kisses the polished, mopped, swept, white tiles of world class Changi airport excited at the clean auto flush, auto soap, auto tap, auto dry, auto door toilets. She says she is home now and claims that Singapore is clean, ordered, and safe thanks to the fact that Chinese pay attention to detail. East Malaysia on the other hand may be a little too freewheeling for her.
I probe a little bit and while she, her brothers and her father were born in Malaysia she feels no affinity for the place. She says she feels home in Singapore, Taiwan and even Hong Kong but not Malaysia. Then it clicks. She feels comfortable wherever Chinese is the dominant language and culture and for her she felt the culture shock of finding it difficult in the predominantly Malay-speaking East Malaysia. She also feels that Chinese cultures are cleaner and more efficient. Oddly enough after barely seeing so much as a cockroach in all of Borneo we find two the size of small mice just after arriving – one of which we put on her shoe for a little entertainment.
I will grant her this though; Singapore is pretty. The drive along the smoothly flowing roads with manicured plantings and whipper-snipped lawns all the way into the city is a delight. The cities’ buildings that are eminently serviceable, much like the cells in a human body constantly renewing themselves – are being torn down and replaced by bigger, better, higher and newer. All this though is at the risk of making the city sterile, clinical and soulless – a place organized purely around making the most money with the least hassle. But I stand to be proven wrong and hope I will be.
Nani’s brother John drives us in his new Mercedes to a famous Bak Kut Teh place Ya Hua and it’s delicious. I wallop the tender pork rib in spicy garlic soup, seaweed and fishball soup, pork liver, pork kidney, rice and vegies until I can’t move. I wish that we could doggy back the soy sauce pork hock, but Nani says it isn’t the done thing.
John and Ik Hui have kindly lined up a room with a relo on the 14th floor of the Pearl’s Centre near the Ottram Park MRT train station. We’ve teed up to catch up with our mate Johnno who lives the expat “high life” in Singapore (although he still refuses to pay $80 per kg for Cold Storage grapes). He has a midnight flight down under for Christmas and only has time for a quick beer before heading to Changi.
Nani decides she better go downstairs to find him and asks if i can go with her. I ask why? She says one of her friends (hello Esther) says its a bit of a dangerous and seedy area. What?!?! We’ve wandered around Sarawak and Sabah for three weeks and finally make the safe haven that is Singapore and she needs protection to go downstairs?! I refuse to go down saying that she just told me Singapore was totally safe, death penalty, blah blah blah and make her go down alone. Ten minutes later she predictably comes back with Jonno all in one piece.
This morning Nani is gunning to go shopping after having had a small taste of what Suria Sabah located right on Kota Kinabalu’s picturesque waterfront has to offer but I’m keen to bang some posts up after ‘net constipation from the lack of wifi at Sukau and Mt Kinabalu and the kids haven’t bathed for three nights now so I put them in the shower and upload. By the time all this is done and I’m still dragging the chain she has her not-happy face and says “Are you still blogging?” but it’s not a question which demands an answer besides which answering would only continue to see her robbed of precious shopping time. Confucius say one should never stand between a born shopper who has been in the jungle for two weeks and a shopping mall in a country that has a mad awesome exchange rate.
I make all haste and we pour out into the street to find breakfast at the Fook Yuen bakery cafe. I make a joke about the name, pronouncing it Fook Yu…en and the kids laugh. Nani doesn’t find it humorous. My eyes are greedy here. All kinds of baked goodies, fried food and steamed yum cha line the shelves and Bain Marie’s. The kids don’t really like the creamed corn steamed bao they get for breakfast but we’ll see if they stay down before they have any alternatives. Nani and I chew on fried fish balls, a crispy chicken wing, sambal rice in banana leaf and steamed sticky rice. Yummm.
We bolt breakfast and arrive at Suria Sabah to discover the shops aren’t even open and the escalators aren’t running. Shopkeepers are still arriving and (did you know Christmas reindeer have testicles here?) opening their doors and straightening Christmas stars that have fallen over Tarps still cover the cheap sock, bra, undies tables in the corridors. We are slightly deflated but Nani is undeterred. Being here at the dawn of another shopathon means she has beat the crowds and gets first crack at the bargains before her competitors arrive in their hordes.
I’m really not sure why she wants to shop because she can barely fit what she’s carrying now and already overweight, but I try and think of it like my approach to fishing. I’ve caught trout before but I just love it and will do it rain, hail or shine whenever I can. I think for her shopping is like this but I still find it hard to get the “point” of it and how anyone could be so passionate about it.
Oscar needs to sit somewhere. He’s weak from a lack of food. We head up the lift to eight floor but there’s no chairs at the cinema. We find some at the Timezone hall in front of dazzling screens and pounding music which is a little jarring in contrast with the serenity of the jungle. Nani gives the kids a few bucks and disappears with a two way and we play some games, although the kids are pretty bad at them so they don’t really get any time extensions. Some games are over in less than a minute so it’s all a bit glum. I team up with Lachie and Oscar and we play a shoot em up game as machine gunners in a chopper. This is fun, I think mainly because we get to play together which we don’t do much.
Our excitement sky rockets after discovering the movies are a paltry 6rm for kids and 10 for adults we quickly analyze what we could see. We decide on Alvin and the Chipmunks 3, Arthur Christmas in 3D, and Puss in Boots. We draw a timeline on a piece of paper and plot the movie times of all three and try and identify a critical path (an engineering approach) to cram them all in to our very own personal movie marathon.
The kids don’t think Chipmunks 3 is as good as as one and two and I must admit to feeling drowsy three fourths of the way through (although we have been awake since 06.30) but I liked the music – possibly because the voices make me think of people who drink too much at parties and start sucking the helium balloons.
Arthur Christmas by the makers of Wallace and Grommit and Alice in Wonderland is great especially in 3D. Arthur’s father, Santa is worn out and his brother Steve (a snow-it-all) has taken over executive functions of what is now a high tech operation but has lost the spirit of Christmas and misses one child. Clumsy Arthur (a lost claus) together with his arthritic grandfather (all cane no candy) drag out the mothballed wooden sleigh and have to make it before dawn to deliver the present. It’s a hoot.
The kids are still trying to expel a lung from their now thinner rib cages so Puss in Boots will have to wait. This marathon appears “to be continued”
Over breakfast of curry puff, enormous bao (about the size of a dessert bowl) noodles, a couple off egg tarts and unbelievably, fish head soup (something I cannot believe should be consumed for breakfast) I manage to piss Nani off. She wants to borrow the camera to take underwater photos today when she goes snorkeling but I say it’s a waste of time trying because they always turn out blurry (I have preserved with the Lumix FT1 but have had very little success at half decent photos). Apparently I’ve rained on her parade a little and I should have said “Sure Honey let me show you the setting”. She snaps how come stupid teenagers with stupid cameras are all taking underwater photos and I say I didn’t know about this. We’re both running out of patience because the kids sicknesses are really hamstringing us and today is our last day in East Malaysia – a trip we’ve planned so long for. I wish I was better at knowing when she’s got no patience for my opinionatedness (this could actually be a word because it has no red line under it!).
Must dust off that Dumbass Husband 101 when I get home and review. Sadly we won’t be together as a family today because Abbey looks pale and now has the squirts in the restaurant which oddly has no toilet paper in the dunny. She comes out asking for some, goes back in, then comes back out handing me her undies. Things are reaching a new low. I ask her to toss it but she wants to keep them. I bag the offensive garment like a mystery bao not even wanting to know what kind of filling from hell is inside it. I take the smallest two back to the hostel leaving Nani and Lachie to their own devices.
I wash the knickers in the handbasin and hang them up and we rest in the room and Oscar starts to cry. He says ever since we planned the trip he looked forward to snorkeling. Full of compassion I say if he doesn’t stop the waterworks I won’t take him to the movies later. I wish i had said that I was really sorry that he felt sad and was a bit more compassionate and gentle but I was still a bit pissed off over the camera business. I put head phones in so I don’t hear the sniveling.
Today it’s the Muppets. I feel negligent as a parent. Kipling yes. AA Milne, Enid Blyton, E.T, Karate Kid yes. Our kids can even identify 80’s music by the synth and electric drums. But exposure to muppets? Parenting fail.
There was only two things I really wanted to see in KK and they were the Filipino night market and the Tunku Abdul Ramen Islands just offshore. At least Nani and Lachie have seen Sapi Island so we meet up with them and go for a walk along the waterfront, but I’m not sure where the night market is. The wet market is packing up and after a short walk in the punishing sun, the kids are hot and in need of food and fluids. We turn into KK Plaza which looks a better place for shopping to me (crowded with people and stuff piled everywhere on all floors smells like bargain central to me). After a pretty B Grade meal, we leave Nani to shop and make her own way back, and we walk past the truckloads of durian and night sellers buying fresh guava and mango juice to suck on before reaching Travelers Light for our last sleep. I think I have a scratchy throat.
The night was punctuated with cats complaining, children coughing and one in particular who roused himself from bed to his feet and promptly vomited on the floor. Thankfully Nani collected that one after asking me “what should I do?” whereupon I answered “wipe it up.” I’m not sure what the other options are for vomit.
By 6.30am sunlight was streaming into our darkened bacteria and mucous filled cave like a ray of hope that translates “I hope I get to see the mountain today”, “I hope the laundry gets dry before we have to push on westward to our final destination in East Malaysia”, and “I hope the kids get better today because I don’t think I can carry all their packs.” I mix up some gastrolyte because Lachie has just thrown up and is dehydrating.
I decide that after two days without one I ought to shower. I have hesitated knowing that using my travel towel will mean it won’t dry til we get to KK and will stink by then, but the sunlight means I’m in with a chance. The wall mounted water heater whirs into life sounding like my Breville food processor when I finally locate the mains switch for it and soon a thin dribble of water is burning hot. Evidently these double as an urn for making tea and coffee. I turn the stem of the knobless dial down a little and know with shampoo in my hair it goes cold. I try and clear my eyes and locate the dial again and ease it up. Various insects share the shower toilet cubicle with me including a large impressive green beetle swimming in the water bin. Nani had already cancelled her shower out of fear of the moths in there. I look out the gaps in the wall and across the valley. The fog has lifted and I can see for miles. I emerge from the shower feeling brand new, grab my daypack and head for The Mountain while Nani volunteers to man the ward.
By now after two days of taxi, bus, hard bed and cohabiting an infectious disease unit, I’m keen to pay the triple the local fee to get into what has become by now my Mecca Mt Kinabalu National Park.
As i walk the winding short 300m to the entrance past the nuggety black headed dog that looks part pitbull, past the half grown water buffalo bull with a rope through its nose, past the cafe that aren’t sure when they will serve food, I see it emerging from the canopy above the roofline of Park HQ.
Mt Kinabalu is the highest peak between mainland SE Asia and New Guinea and is a massive grey granite mountain along which several climactic zones determine what flora anf fauna will proliferate. While it was explored in the 1800’s as recently as 1966 climbing the mountain still meant that seven white chickens had to be executed to appease the dead spirits whom villagers believed made their home there.
The park itself is bigger than the island country of Singapore at 75000 ha and is now privately run by the pay-through-your-nose Sutera Lodges. I see bandana clad climbers readying themselves rushing from accommodation to buffet, packs of all brands mounded up outside the restaurant, to the pick up point where they will be transported the 4km to the Timpohon Gate where they will begin the grueling guided 8.7km climb at 1866m above sea level to Laban Rata where wet and cold they will pay through the nose for a cold shower and a bed for some of the night. At 2.30 am they will rouse pull on a headlamp, gloves, beanies, fleece tops and raincoats, to combat the cold and begin their ascent. If they have all their ducks in a row (or better still, seven white headless bloodied chickens) the gods will smile on the efforts of those who don’t have a stroke and they will see the sun rise of a new day at Lows peak 4095m above sea level walking a total of 8.72 km. The unlucky will have hearts racing and lift headedness from altitude sickness, possibly hypothermia, will be rained on and in the mists, drizzle and cloud at the top will see nothing. At this point tired from a lack of sleep climbers will descend to reach the bottom in the afternoon with legs no sturdier than Aeroplane jelly on a warm afternoon. Walking sticks are highly recommended.
I happily join the ranks of the 70% of people who visit without climbing the mountain satisfied I’ve made the right choice after getting short of breath just climbing the steps to Park reception (it’s the altitude).
I wander around and check out the breakfast buffet being served in the cafe (looks pretty flash). I continue around past various kinds of accommodation options inside the park along a walking path with generously provided shade stops erected with some rough seats and oddly little concrete barbecues. Odd because I can’t remember the last time I saw a dry stick that would burn.
I make it to the Liwagu Restaurant which opens at ten. Outside the restaurant in the foyer is an inviting lounge with a view of the mountains imposing green jungle clad flanks. This is where the climbers briefings are held the night before.
Upstairs is a visitors centre which is a small room with information about not only Mt Kinabalu NP but also the other parks in Sabah. Details on the formation and geology of the mountain I’m not interested in so I keep browsing. The only other person in the room is a Malaysian lady about seven months pregnant. We don’t talk. Vegetation and climactic zones are covered but the bit I like the most is the stuffed animals – rats, civet, python, tarsier, mouse deer – probably the closest I’ll come to seeing these in Malaysia.
At the gated and locked Botanic Garden I jump on the Silau trail and cross a small mossy arch bridge nearly losing my footing on the slick timber. I love temperate rain forests and the little busy creeks and streams that run through them. Shafts of eye piercing early morning sunlight stream through the foliage ricocheting of wet leaves and puddles. The fresh cool air a welcome relief from the sick bay that is our hostel room. As I walk up the yellow muddy trail there seems to be more bird life here than in the tropical rainforest as I hear more different calls than I have in the other places we have been.
There are kilometers of beautiful walks of lengths ranging in a few hundred meters to a few kilometers around the park. I’m sorely tempted to bum a ride the 4km to the Timpohon Gate where the climbers begin so I can take a short sneaky walk up the first part of the actual climb but in the back of my mind I know Nani is looking after the kids catching all kinds of nasty and voluminous expectorant variously blown, coughed and vomited out.
I enjoy a breakfast of cold Nescafé Kopi Latte in a can (why haven’t these taken off down under?!) and a few Kuih Kacang Hijau which is a yellow bean filled pastry similar to moon cake minus the moon.
I’m camped on the steps of the Gallery waiting for it to open right across from the Dewan Kinabalu Exhibition Centre World Heritage Monument whose massive timber double doors aren’t open either. The info sheet handed to me by the nice Sutera Sanctuary Lodges girl says opening time is 9.00. It’s now 9.15 but no signs of life. I persevere because maybe things run on Malaysian time here. The toilet is being cleaned but the lady lets me in for a leak anyway. I’m not shy. I continue my stake out, which only serves to lift my expectation. It’s 9.40 a.m and a few cars arrive but they’re only tourists. I go to the little book cum souvenir shop and ask “what time open?” They can’t work out what I’m saying. I wish I had a Malay phrase book. I show her the map and point at the building with the opening times next to it. She indicates that the building I’m pointing to is up the road. Hmmm there are two galleries and world heritage monuments?? I walk around the road, and up the steps (puffing) and bingo I’m back at reception.
It’s ten o’clock now and I probably would have been charged pay-through-your-nose-foreigner-Sutera-sanctuary prices to visit them and only have minutes to spare now so I chalk it up to serendipity. I figure the mountain will still be here for another eon or so and when I come back I will buy another Kopi Latte, suck it down and vacuum up with my eyes everything I see in those buildings. I later discover it is Sunday…. Opening time 10.
I notice the mountain is already gathering her misty skirts and quickly disappearing from view barely 3 hours after the sun rose and exposed her peaks. Soon climbers will be shrouded in mist, slowly making their way up her side but I’m confident for most of them they will be focused on their next step.
If we’re going to have any hope of catching the 11.30 through to KK I will need to get back now and survey the damage. I put the kids chest infections, runny noses, coughs and vomiting down to travel tiredness and cold AC reducing their immunity, and not being able to fight off foreign bugs (we haven’t seen any locals with coughs
or colds). I guess it’s something that was inevitable and their immune system will be better of for it. On the upside I’m chuffed that they don’t have the squirts. Now that would be a disaster of epic proportions.
The kids are all sick. They are sniffing and coughing up great gobs of phlegm swallowing it, then vomiting. Their temperatures are running high. I dose Oscar up with strawberry flavored kiddy paracetamol and he rushes out of our room half naked wearing just a top to vomit. He comes back and says he doesn’t make it. I kinda expected this to happen and tell him to come with me and make him stand next to the vomit so no other guests go for a slide. I find a rag on the sink and try and wipe it up but it’s a conglomerate of sticky yellow mucus and pink paracetamol and is the sort of think that must be juggled and won’t be soaked up. I manage to get most of it and then try and wash the rag out but it’s clingy stuff. I pass it to Rumia’s daughter and explain it’s been on the floor and needs to go in the laundry.
I re-dose him by smashing up a tablet and mixing it with Ribena from the next door “Bayu Restoran”. Lachie swallows one and Abbey holds out. She gets worse and eventually caves in a takes a dose.
It has been raining all day. Mist covers the mountain and visibility is about 100 meters. The temperature is low 20’s and the air is fresh. We must be the only family to travel so far to stay at Mt Kinabalu and not bother going into the park. On the other hand being so wet and rainy (our laundry isn’t drying outside) and the low visibility would make it useless so there wouldn’t be much to see anyway. It is a great place for a recovery day as the kids sleep on and off waking to drink a little and eat a little without air con freezing them and drying their throats out. Nani bums a ride with an old couple to Kundassang the nearest kampong and buys some Chinese cough medicine.
We meet some Aussie medical students from South Australia at night in the Restoran who are climbing the mountain the next morning. They are playing cards and Lachie watches on. They switch to Gin Rummy so he can join in. I decide that Bayu Lodge can’t be that bad if these guys are staying here. Pity them though climbing in this weather. The final stage is started around 3am to summit by dawn so in this weather it would be single digit temps, dark and slippery. Not my idea of fun especially if I had to pay the 1000rm to do it.
In actual fact Bayu Homestay is pretty good. It is clean, the hostess Rumia is helpful and runs a pretty good operation. There is no tea, coffee, sheets or towels provided free and no wifi but it is comfortable enough (except the mattresses are too thin) and because there’s no-one else here after the students leave we have the only bathroom mainly to ourselves. The Restoran next door is pretty reasonable and cheap. Front of house seems to be run exclusively by teenagers. Oddly when we ask at night for rice porridge for the kids they say it’s all gone. In the morning at 8.10 we enquire again. Same answer. I look around confused as there is only a handful of people here. How could it be all gone? It gets the better of me so I ask “When will you have rice porridge?” the girl says “maybe tomorrow?” I say “what time?” She says she doesn’t know. I think she just doesn’t want to say no. They have rice porridge by lunchtime today. Amazing.
Three cats are yowling and stalking each other right outside our window. Annoyed, I watch them for awhile trying to figure out what is going on. The dark brown tabby sounds like a midget that has been stung by a hive of wild bees howling incessantly with a high pitched “Yeow! Yeow! Yeow!” I figured maybe it was on heat and desperate to be raped maybe by the ginger tom that prowled and slunk around under the silver Isuzu Vanette outside our window.
These are the same cats that woke me up with their feline hijinks last night. By this stage something primal has been unleashed inside and I’m pissed off. I’ve put up with it for long enough and I don’t care whose fucking cats they are. Right now i want to rape the back of its skull with one of Rumia’s mountain walking sticks that have recently been banned by the park rangers presumably because they are cut from an endangered mountain tree. (Used to hunt feral cats when I was a kid and sell their hides for $7.50 a piece. Good money for a little tacker)
I decide to get out there and give them a dose of Aussie curry. I head out of my room carefully ducking my head (Awas) and the tabby has gone round the back of the restaurant. I grab a stone (not big enough to kill it) and pelt it. It runs past me and I put the boot in (my aqua shoe actually) and it disappears under the pagoda, but not for long enough.
Rumia tells me they aren’t hers and they belong to the restaurant. I decide I better not get caught killing their cats in case they poison me. I once saw my dad castrate a Tom cat and since it turns out that the tabby has balls (Rumia thinks he’s calling females) I turn my dark thoughts to bagging it, cutting a small hole to pop his nutsack out and razor blading it open and deseeding the little shit. I guarantee he will lie low for a couple of days after that. Oscar wishes it would get run over. If I was at home I would trap the little shits and the last thing that would pass through their minds would be a hollow point piece of lead about .22 of an inch in diameter.
I notice a rat disappear from around the back of the rice cooker and disappear into the laundry and wonder why the hell these damn cats don’t do what they’re supposed to do and why aren’t any of those mangy thin tick-ridden yellow dingo-like dogs loitering around here to keep the cats minds off sex and fixated on survival?
Nani and I wander up to the cafe near the park for lunch leaving the comatose kids to their comas but a handwritten paper on a sandwich board announces they are not making food and only serving drinks. We ask what time will they start serving food and they say they don’t know. These people take being laid back to the level of grand master.
We wander into the park in search of something other than Bayu Restoran food but the guard at the gate stops me. He wants 30rm for us to get in. I try expanding we’re only after food but he’s adamant. Later I manage to get past him and find some tourist information on times for the botanical garden and guided walks.
The upside of having half dead kids is there’s very little bickering which provides for quite a happy day from my end of things. At one point Abbey musters enough energy to tell her brother off with “Oscar don’t wipe your snot there. Other people have to sleep in that!” This coming from the girl who just vomited in her mouth and proudly swallowed it to my relief but then said with dismay that a portion must have escaped because there’s now some on her pillow. A feverish Lachie managed to spill most of a bottle of water into his mattress by not capping it properly so I flipped it onto the other side. Snotty tissues decorate the floor pretty much making this room the room from hell. Oscar successfully makes it to the dunny this time to spew so things are improving in that department. Our hostess must be wondering what on earth she has struck and is probably looking up the centre for infectious disease to report an outbreak. If you ever have the pleasure of staying at Bayu Home Stay be sure to request a room other than the one at the front door.
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.
“Hey man sing me a song
When we were everyone
We were more than just a slice of American pie.”
Slice by Five For Fighting is the pre-dawn alarm on my phone that signals 5.40am. One by one the kids voices join in as the chorus repeats over and over. We scrape ourselves up and apply repellent. Oscar says Nani needs to do her hair unless she’s going to school for crazy hair day.
The grey sky is spitting a little so we arm ourselves with jackets and umbrellas and I hope it clears up because the animals don’t like getting wet any more than we do. It eases momentarily and we watch a troupe of proboscis feeding although we don’t see the Dutchman. The mothers hungrily stuff their faces while the little ones who were supposed to be having breakfast were playing silly buggers, jumping and squealing loudly. Sounds like our home at breakfast time. The proboscis is easy to find in the morning. After bedding down their smell is musky, sweet and slightly smokey and reminds me of pizzle stain odor that wethers get on their bellies from pissing on their own wool.
The rain increases and sadly our trip is cut short. I’m pretty disappointed as we turn back pulling our jackets tightly over our heads as rain pelts our faces. I put an umbrella in front of Abbey and she shrinks towards it but doesn’t complain. I spot a Malaysian otter dart across a gravel boat ramp and dive into the water. A village woman in a simple sarong does laundry in the rain on a rough pontoon made by two large logs on which a small wooden shelter serves as their bath house.
In the absence of seeing some of the wildlife I had longed for, I fall back on nostalgia and romance to console my disappointment by recalling times long gone where explorers like the Johnson’s traveled the length of the great Kinabatangan and I imagine the sights and the richness of wildlife they encountered. I’m drawn to this place I guess because of their stories, the fact that is still off the beaten track, and it’s a wild place with wild animals and I think there’s something in me that longs for wild things.
I guess there’s a danger of inflating our expectations of such places. I guess in some part I did have a bit of a mental checklist trying to tick off the animals. The guides would pull up at a group of macaques and I’d be thinking “Can we move on and find something else already?” After all it’s a wild place with wild animals that roam great areas not zoo animals on display (which I’m not a huge fan of).
After breakfast we sit in the cafe. I read them the story of the the spotted leopard and the biologist who “hunts” it with a camera, to study it’s secretive habits. It’s only spitting lightly. Oscar doesn’t want to go home he says because its “awesome” here but doesn’t elaborate and Lachie wants to live in a kampung because it is so peaceful. Nani counters and says Tasmania is peaceful too and wages are better than kampung wages. Is she defending Tassie? Can’t believe my ears. Abbey says she has loved it because she hasn’t seen many wild animals before.
It’s time to leave and we’re packed and waiting for Nani – she’s the official room checker. The driver turns to me and says “Prom?” rolling the “r”.
He repeats “Prom?” and I can see he’s searching for another way to ask but he’s unable to find an alternative. I say “Prawn?” unsure if he’s offering me prawns or what. I’m bewildered. He perseveres “Where prom?” ohhh “Australia” I say.