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.
After holing up perched high on the side of the Mt Kinabatangan foothills where ears pop, chip bags swell, ancient mists swirl, cats howl and the cool air is a relief our kids have excreted every imaginable nastiness throughout the Bayu Homestay I think we’d overstayed our welcome. We hadn’t even left and Rumia was in our room stripping the mattresses desperate to decontaminate her lodgings and drag it back out of the third world into which we had sunk it.
I transported our gear to the bus shelter just down the end of the muddy gravel carpark past the rickety lean-to’s selling fruit and veg. Everyone is pretty vague about what times the bus comes but maybe the bus is pretty ad hoc about its own timetable. I leave Nani a two way and as I see the bus I radio her to bring out the dead and we climb aboard, each one sitting by ourselves. It’s not long and Oscar is spewing again and I’m starting to get real concerns about dehydration. He’s not even keeping water down now it seems because he has a constant gutfull of slimy boogers. I have some immodium but I checked back home and it’s not prescribed for kids. I pull out the map of Kota Kinabalu to see where the hospital is because if we can’t get him to drink and keep it down, he’ll be on a drip within 24hrs. The joys of travel with kids.
I have ended up sitting next to toilet. This seat is free because it’s evidently the worst place to sit because of the fumes that emanate every time it opens. I direct my air vent between me and the door settling back to watch The Last Air Bender for the short, uneventful 1.5 hr trip down to the hot lowlands of the coast.
Having tried the top five rated hostels according to Hostel Booker and Hostel World, and not finding anything available (most people seem to book the day before but because no deposits are taken, people over book and don’t turn up) we ended up finding a room of 4 bunk beds at Travelers Light located at (appropriately named) Australia Place. Our first overwhelming impressions are “hot” and “feet”. The first is the oppressive heat in the corridor upstairs due to the complete absence of any ventilation and the latter a result of three things; the enforced “shoes off” policy, a herd of teenage boys on a school trip from Brisbane and finally the stifling, immovable wall of hot humid air that allowed the tangy, musky toe jam smell to ferment mid-air.
Aside from that, the room and the showers are kept clean, the AC is effective (although they turn it off during the day) the staff are helpful and nice, and the location is good too. There are four or five backpackers just a few doors away from this one (some we jealously notice have Christmas decorations and air conditioned lounges).
The kids are still zombified and in desperate need of forced bed rest so Nani and I leave them in the room after twisting the staffers arm to turn our AC on (she says she might have to flick it off if her boss arrives and i think to myself, your tightarse boss will get a piece of my mind of it gets turned off) and we head out to the shopping complex Suria Sabah for some food and a look see.
Suria Sabah looks like a new complex with the kinds of shops you would find at Chadstone Shopping Centre in Melbourne. It has four stories of shopping, three for parking and the top floor has eight cinemas and a huge entertainment area and proudly announces that it won the 1Malaysia National Clean Toilet Award Competition 2011 which is a big deal. Nani looks visibly relieved – she has reached civilization. She just doesn’t feel comfortable in remote places – there’s too much to stress about and there isn’t anywhere on planet earth that makes her feel more alive and safe than neon lights, crowds of Asian people, traffic, shops and restaurants and it is in massive complexes like Suria where her two greatest loves come together – shopping and eating.
I, on the other hand feel like I’ve sold out. Borneo is a place of adventure, jungles, rivers, mountains, rare wildlife, heat, rain, mist, trekking, climbing, rafting, night walks and sunsets and here I am in a glass, chrome, halogen, tiled jungle packed with shoppers on safari hunting down a bargain and bagging a plate of food hall chow. I hate consumerism and the way it creeps into ones soul and the little lie that it sells me that just buying that one more thing will make me happy. I must be looking whiney and muttering something about what happened to adventure and that shopping isn’t an adventure she says why don’t I just look at shopping as an experience? I say going to a brothel is an experience but not one I really want to have (what’s more it’s one that can keep on giving). My whine continues; this mall looks almost identical to Melbourne’s with maybe three or four less white people, so I could have this experience for the cost of a one hour flight from Tassie. Luckily we have promised the kids we’ll be back soon so we have a quick bite, see what’s on at the movies for them and head back.
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.
Abbey has a fever and is listless and hot to touch but she says she’s cold. It’s nearly time to leave Sandakan so we pack and then I scoop her floppy little moist hot body off the bed and sit her on the dunny. Then I start up the shower on lukewarm and begin hosing her down. She seems to like it but afterward says she’s feeling cold.
I don’t have kiddy Panadol so I jump online to find the dosage. 15mg per kilo of body weight. I ask the boys how much she weighs and they reckon around 25kg so one 500mg tablet should be more than enough. She stalls and doesn’t agree to take it and wants time to think about it. I’m a bit whatever. If she wants to sweat it out she can. If I make an issue of it she’ll start to whine and then probably spit it up anyway. I offer her a lolly and break a tablet up in some water and add a little sugar. Eventually she takes it and gets it all down. The waiting game works.
We check out of Winho Lodge B&B and aside from our room being as small as a prison cell and the floor being rather sticky and the bathroom not very clean, we’ve had free wifi, breakfast provided, 24 hr air con, TV (2 channels) and the use of their computer all for 80 rm per night. Bargain. Our driver Faris whose people are the Sungai (river) picks us up along with Tom the German (would that make it Thom?) who climbed Mt Kinabalu up and down in a day and drives us the 2.5 hours south to Sukau Kampong where we are to stay the night on the banks of the legendary Kinabatangan River the second longest in Borneo.
On the way he pulls up at what looks like the Malaysian equivalent of a 7/11. It’s a grocery shop that sells freshly baked goodies sweet and savory, fried fishballs and chicken, rice things steamed in banana leaf and Kuih (my favorite is the soft chewy green pancake wrapped around gula Melaka coconut filling. Outside the front door three or four hawkers are selling steamed corn in eskies. Next to them a little girl around 5 or 6 years old is selling mangoes and rambutan. I assume belonging to her parents but I can’t see them. I buy four mangoes and a bag of rambutan while Nani gets a big tray of goodies. I get so excited I photograph it at the register.
The only excitement on the 2.5 hr run through to Sukau is seeing two trucks run off the road being retrieved. Along the way is wall to wall palm oil trees and the associated industry (plantations named “prolific yield palm oil industries” etc) trucks laden with seed and tankers. One plantation has electric fencing and signs of one man pointing a rifle at another man surrendering. Apparently it’s open season on trespassers.
The road gets worse until we slowly trundle through Kampong Sukau and past beautiful (I use this word in the nostalgic sense) ramshackle little wooden houses on stilts, yellow skinny dogs, blokes in nothing but shorts hang out around little hawker stalls, feet up smoking cigarettes next to tiny grocery shops with various packets all pegged up along the front and we finally reach Green View Lodge.
After a quick rest and a cup of tea in the restaurant it’s off for our dusk safari. We are joined by a group of students who as it turns out are Aussies. It seems wherever we go they keep turning up. This time from a private school in the mid south coast hinterland. They were a bit noisy and I would have preferred to soak up the peace of the jungle but on the whole they were pretty well behaved and at times somewhat funny.
The river looks about 200m wide and is brown, turbid and slow flowing carrying clumps of plants, sticks and logs toward the sea. On the banks are water bottles tied in two’s as floats for prawn traps. Bamboo fish traps are placed along the bank that are the same funnel design and simple constructions that have been used for centuries by the people of the region.
Our Yamaha 15 and 25HP four strokes purr gently but powerfully as they deftly propel our long fiberglass boats. We see white and purple herons before the kids find a group of ivory hornbills the size of black cockatoos feeding on some fruit in a tree. As we watch they fly at the fruit, expertly grab one in mid air and alight on a branch before trying to toss it back like a tequila slammer. Numerous times they miss and the small round fruit falls to the ground. I realize they are expert at grabbing these in flight because they must get a lot of practice. I’m glad I have lips.
We pull up and watch a group of long tail (crab eating) macaques playing in a tree. Up and down they race, pulling on each others tails, leaping, falling but always grabbing something to break their fall. One humps another on the ground but I think they’re just playing too. I wonder if they ever miss and fall into the water and get whacked by one of the crocs that haunt this river.
I’m grateful when we move on because I’ve seen plenty of macaques. I’m really desperate to see wild proboscis and most of all the “man of the forest” the Orang Utan and the Malaysian elephant that were spotted about three days prior.
In the distance I spot a proboscis monkey but too far away to really see. The guide says we will see more in a half hour or so because they nest near the water. Turning up a narrow tributary with thick jungle either side we find a troupe at the waters edge in the overhanging canopy. Everyone is still making noise and the visible ones turn their backs, move a couple of meters and are so good at hiding they simply and quietly disappear from view. The proboscis is much shyer than the macaques and the noisy Aussie students learn the hard way.
We find another troupe feeding and watch them in silence for a long time stuffing their faces with leaves. We are told they have two stomachs – one for poisonous leaves, the other for regular foliage. The monkeys have long grey legs and tail, light browny orange backs and become more intensely orange around their heads. The females have a short comical pointy pink Pinocchio nose. The alpha males look even more comedic. They have a strong muscular backside, a huge beer gut and their nose is long and bulbous. But it’s the way they sit that makes them look really funny. One foot up, the other dangling down, legs wide open, leaning back with a huge gut stuffing their faces with their old fella proudly on display. It is this look that earned them the nickname “Dutchman” by the locals.
The alpha male has up to 20 females in his harem and is the most shy of all of them keeping mainly out of view. Apparently their prowess encourages the Chinese to hunt and eat them for their aphrodisiac properties. I would be shy too.
We stop and watch another troupe of macaques but in the distance I see a tree shaking and branches moving. It is an orang utan building a nest to sleep in but we can’t see it. We watch straining our eyes but it settles down and we don’t get to see it. These solitary primates that are some 97% similar to us genetically can build up to five nests a day. I’m disappointed I didn’t see it.
Some wild pigs come down to the water to drink warily. The adult sow sniffs at us and looks agitated. This is when crocs have the best chance at fresh pork. Colorful kingfishers take flight low across the water as we approach.
On our return an enormous barge being pushed by a junk carries two big fully laden lorries down the river.
A delicious buffet dinner was served by the Green View crew of rice, stir fried beef, fried beans, curried veggies (melon, pumpkin or sweet potato, green chilli, and tomato) fried beans, and spicy omelet followed by some canned fruit and jelly. We’re hungry so we bolt our food and go back for more except for Abbey. She is still pretty sick and lays across two dining chairs but she’s not complaining and I’m grateful for this.
We are alone for the still warm and moonless night safari and the guides
shine a powerful spotlight up and back sweeping the waters edge and up into the canopy as we glide along the now dark river. A large fishing owl has caught its dinner and holds the fish in one talon and a branch in another. It must be blinded by our light and spreads its wings to get out of the way. As we continue down the river I’m desperate to see some of the Bornean mammals – tarsier, clouded leopard, flying lemur but I settle for a very small croc, a stork bill kingfisher, an uncommon black capped kingfisher, and sleeping proboscis monkeys.
Suddenly our visibility is cut as thick fog rolls in. The guide says “too much fok. We go back”. I’m disappointed that we didn’t see as much as I thought we would, but glad that we were getting Abbey to bed – she desperately needs the rest and we are waking at 5.40 for the dawn safari. The guides warily shine spotlights ahead in the mist to dodge oncoming logs weaving their way back to our jetty where allegedly crocs like to hang out.
Because we’re not really up to speed on Malay food and usually eat Chinese hawker food (Nani being chinese can’t get enough chinese food) but it’s a bit harder to find in Sandakan downtown so we wing it. My grandmother is a Nonya who fused chinese and malay food and is an amazing cook (her recipe book was recently published) so I at least know some dishes.
We order our lunch:
Nasi Lalap is a crispy skin chicken and rice dish served with cucumber and a delicious chilli, ginger, lime and what tastes like laksa leaf dipping sauce.
Mee rojak is a cold yellow noodle dish with loads of spicy satay sauce with crunchy cucumber, fried bean curd and prawn crackers sprinkled on top.
Bakso is a bee hoon style noodle soup with beef balls.
Char Kway Teow (we eat this a lot) is a flat rice noodle stir fried with a slight charred flavor with chicken and prawns and a silky gravy.
After our first night eating at the waterfront we find a shopping center three stories high called Genting Mas. Nani switches straight into shopping mode and she’s going to cover this sucker from top to bottom. I drag my carcass as far as the second floor but am overwhelmed by the sheer amount and variety of merchandise on the shelves leaving very little room to move around other shoppers. I go all sensory overload. All I want is some hair bands for Abbey. I notice a sign near the escalator that said “No Spitting” with a great demonstration on how not to do it. Next to this is a photocopies sign saying “No Photograph” so I take a sneaky pic – for posterity.
Finding a bench to sit on with the little one, I sit while the boys free range and the mother who is a shopping machine goes to work. Presently we are surrounded by a group of urchins- two girls (around five) and a little boy of maybe four. The girls are really pretty, one with dimples and long silky hair, the other with curly hair. We all start high fiving and asking names. The little boy had a nasty habit of driving his index finger into the girls crutches so I warned Abbey about this. They follow downstairs and help carry our groceries, passing through the check out with us and into the street. We walk a little ways and they follow. We aren’t really sure where they belong, or to whom.
The next night back at the waterfront, we’re ordering our food and the girls come round the corner, this time with a new friend. They stop for only long enough to introduce her to us and keep moving down to a hawker stall where loud pop music is playing and start dancing. Our kids are fascinated giving us updates – “they’re dancing with a pot plant now Dad!” We still have no idea who they belong to.
After a diet of noodles and rice, Lachie, sorely lacking in fibre, has returned from the toilet at WinHo to announce that he couldn’t flush it down. He’s basically given birth to a foot long brown sea cucumber that lurks menacingly in the bowl stubbornly refusing all efforts to get him down . The hideous monster survived 24 hours the flushing of our family of five before it gave up it’s foothold and retreated presumably back out to sea to where it belonged.
The stores in town close (reminds me of home) pretty early but a market thrives at the bus station amidst the chaos and diesel fumes selling all kinds of things. I feel the need for more mangoes, rambutan, durian and bananas. On the way to get some durian I had asked the taxi driver if he eats it and he nods enthusiastically. I ask how much do they cost – berapa? He says he doesn’t know. Go figure?!
It’s not easy to engage people and ask for directions. English is pretty scarce here so my wonderful, resourceful (and talented) wife gives up on English and picking out Chinese from Malays she chats to them in Mandarin or Cantonese to find where to eat or shop. This works pretty well. I’m guessing that because it’s a bit off the beaten track, there isn’t much need to speak to foreigners or use English – but the fact that it is off the beaten track (lonely planet trail) I think is what makes it attractive to me.
I’m starting to wonder why foreigners are charged double prices? I’m not talking about being ripped off, I mean admission fees and the like. There’s a price for foreigners and a price for locals. I wonder if Malaysians would like it if they traveled abroad and had to pay double or triple to get in places.
I missed having a bum hose at WinHo and realise I’m pretty much sold on them. They really get into there and make it spotless. A little dab with dunny paper to dry off is icing on the cake (or cellulose on the coit if you like). You just have to watch the high pressure ones and clench up a little, unless you want a colonic irrigation. I’m confident I can rig something up back home.
Sandakan is a pretty laid back place. It seems a bit of a port town to me. It’s easy to walk the length and breadth of downtown and The Heritage trail is a great walk and well put together. Nani reckoned that she was stared at too much which unnerved her and Lachie said the random blokes who squat on every street corner smoking and following us with their eyes didn’t make him feel safe, but I felt fine. At one point a young bloke actually laughed at me. When I raised my eyebrows, he said “so tall!” Apparently being 6’2″ is funny?
Lachie confided in me the little Genting Mas boy got him in the bum.
We argue on the side of the road and I send the kids around the corner so they don’t have to hear it. The kids have pissed Nani off all morning with various antics but mainly because she wrote our hostel address on pieces of paper in case they got lost and they thought it was silly. Then I got in trouble because I hadn’t taught them to respect her properly. I offer to take them on a walk and she can have some down time but she wants to come. I’m worried that if she comes she’s going to be a bear with a sore head and it will ruin something I’ve looked forward to for months. “So it’s all about you then?” she’s says. Now I’m getting pissed off and there aren’t going to be any winners here. She says that she will calm down if I sort the kids out and keep them on a leash – if they die it’s your fault kind of thing. I agree and we patch things up a bit.
Up the 100 steps we go (the kids count around 121) alomg the Sandakan Heritage trail and out of the concrete jungle to Agnes Keith House on the hill. I had read the beautiful story The Land Beneath the Winds and loved reading about pre war Sandakan and her story as wife of Conservator of Forests Harry Keith. I had read snippets of the book to the children months ago.
Here are my thoughts on our visit to Agnes Keith House
We walk through the English Tea Garden after hearing a peacock calling and crossed the croquet lawn to investigate. We found a male peacock. Apparently he had a girlfriend but she got sick and was taken away to recuperate. He and I both have woman problems I guess.
Back down the hill and we’re at Sandakan Museum. It’s a funny museum because aside from recreated palm, bamboo, rattan traditional model houses from various tribes there wasn’t much to see. Most of it was reading posters about adventurers, hunters and explorers Martin and Osa Johnson who explored much of Borneo. It was exciting though looking at photos of their journeys up and down the mighty Kinabatangan River and all the tribes and wildlife they encountered.
My tourist map is about A6 size so I have trouble finding the chinese Sam Sing Kung temple the oldest building in Sandakan. I know I’m near it but feel like I’m circling a bit. Near the sports ground a bunch of kids – most likely illegal immigrants’ children, are playing soccer. We join in and make it Australian Socceroos v Malaysia for a penalty shoot out. Lachie bangs the first one home and we defend a few corners well, but fittingly they prevail and we wave goodbye spying the temple at the back of the soccer ground.
We take our shoes off and shelter from the burning sun inside the temple. There is a dour lady selling incense and fake money to be burned and she seems to hesitate before a cursory nod. I disable flash photography – it doesn’t seem appropriate and I try and capture a sense of the place. It does seem a little dark and mysterious. It seems to be more of an ancestral worship temple more than just worshipping Buddha. I sit for a bit of a rest and a think but Nani wants to go. She says the incense smoke is getting into her lungs. I have a sniff and it doesn’t seem too bad but don’t want mama bear back so we move on.
Across the road we negotiate a teksi to the War Memorial. This is main reason for my being in Sandakan. I have been captivated by the plight of the 1500 or so Aussie POWs stationed here during WWII (some 900 British soldiers were with them). The memorial is a large park beautifully designed at the location of the original camp. Some original artifacts still remain. A central building tells the shocking stories of brutality, attempted escapes, the cage, work on the airfields and the death marches. Of all the soldiers that were in Sandakan only the six Aussies that escaped into the jungle during the death marches survived to tell the story.
I think that of the men who did not arrive, they were all shot. Those who could not march in the morning would fall out and go to a spot when we moved out, after which we could hear shots all the time. Chaps who dropped out of the march would be accompanied by a guard who would come on later, alone … In the morning, when the men were too weak to stand, we used to shake hands with them and say goodbye as they more or less knew what was going to happen.
Aussie spirit does shine through though. One POW said he determined to get out of his bunk each day to try and annoy at least one Jap. He says he would never let them win and that even though they beat his body, they won’t break his heart or mind. Others sabotaged the constructions they were put to work on. Tools and supplies mysteriously disappeared. Crews that had to dig out unexploded bombs weighing up to 500 pounds while guards would take cover. They would put lifting logs under them and ‘accidentally’ stagger towards the guards who would yell and point where to take them.
The kids are very sad and deeply affected as they read the accounts, and quotes and watch a slide show of the faces of the POWs. Lachie says he doesn’t want to visit Japan anymore and Oscar is angry. He says he wants to fight someone. I try and explain the best I can.
Back at the entrance, we take a minute silence – Lest We Forget.
On the way back into the city we stop the taxi driver to buy Durian. I don’t really know any westerners that can handle this fruit. The saying goes that it “smells like hell tastes like heaven” but most foreigners think it smells like shit so forego the tasting. The roadside hawker sniffs a good one out and overcharges us before hacking the thorny green outer rind open with a cleaver and deftly transferring the yellow custardy flesh covered seeds into a polystyrene tray. I try and hold the bag tightly to avoiding stinking out the teksi but it’s not possible. We get dropped off at another memorial in town (most buildings ban durian) and stuff our faces. The smaller two reckoned that they didn’t want to eat it but they have a go and end up asking for more.
After a dinner of steamed whole fish, belacan kang kong and Tom Yum soup at the waterfront we wander back to the square outside the museum as the churches of Sandakan have a Christmas celebration. St Mary’s choir are fairly serious and Calvary Charismatic have a lively drama in Malay – something about Sunday Christians not being very committed and then some real deal Christian with a samurai sword turns up and turns the heat up on everyone including the devil (wearing a Slayer T-shirt). Our favorite is the little kids from Sandakan Baptist. They’re really cute. Our kids were given balloons and a little gift box of cakes. Sitting on the ground listening to some carols was a great way to spend the night.
For me, the temple was a bit of a dark and grim place. The christmas concert was bright and happy and told of Jesus love. The war memorial, sandwiched in between was absolutely heart wrenching. I wonder where those poor diggers thought God was, or did they think they were already in hell? Then I decide not to think about it because these kind of questions never seem to have a satisfactory answer.