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?
The rain started sometime in the night and continued through breakfast. We farewell the Ongs and stash our gear with security (although there was no one guarding it). I check if the canopy walk is still on and it depends on each guide but ours says for now “yes”.
I tear Nani away from facebooking in the gift shop and our family and two young Parisians join us. The walk is 5km return all up and takes us high above the forest floor into the canopy between 25-35 m above the ground. The Mulu canopy walk along rope bridges slung from tree to tree at 480m is the longest in the world. We are told that if it wasn’t raining we could see giant squirrels, hornbill birds, maybe monkeys and insects of all kinds. We don’t see any but after acclimating to the vertigo and the rocking rope bridges the experience of the canopy is peaceful and quiet – until Nani gets ticked off with the noise of our kids and them jumping on the rope bridges and gets stuck into them. No-one is enjoying the ambience now and abbey is crying.
I separate the kids from their mother and take them out of sight in front so she can chill and listen to the guide who follows up the rear. Our guide is a Penan one of the original nomadic jungle dwellers of Borneo. His name is Ishmael and he is also a Christian pastor after his grandfather a powerful shaman converted.
After descending from the tree tops the boys and I make for HQ stopping to touch the feral rattan plant we looked at yesterday. A type of palm, it supplies the familiar rattan for basket weaving, but is covered in nasty spines. This doesn’t make it feral though. When I touch it, the whole plant shivers and rattles like the sound of rice tumbling inside bamboo. What would make a plant react to touch? It’s symbiotic little friends the ants. When you touch the plant, the ants jump to attention all up the inside of the stem. You can’t see them, but I’m pretty weirded out by it because I can imagine the whole plant splitting open and a monsoon of ants falling all over me. I much prefer seeing the majestic metallic blue Raja Brookes butterfly fluttering past and the hammer head worm on the hand rail as we move on.
Mulu Park is run really well. The place is open 365 days, it is clean and the food is good. It caters for everyone (from hard core adventure caving to simple easy walks) and the infrastructure is impressive from the concrete paths and board walks which get high pressure cleaned to prevent them getting slippery, lights which tastefully show off features of the cave and the commitment to conservation and nature appreciation and education is laudable. All the amenities are clean and it’s easy to organize guided walks which are a bit exe but worth it and self guided walks are available too.
Abbey sings the flamingo song which is a ridiculous song she made up that seems to be constantly evolving. Initially the boys were hysterical but it has been overdone now and they hate it now, which inspires her even more. It is to a tune similar to the Farmer in the Dell;
flamingoes like to fly
They fly to the sky
They fly so high
That they die die die
The dogs start to bark
Cos the cats go in the park
A rhino comes along
And says roar roar roar!
And then a horse comes along
And scratches you across the cheek
With one almighty sharp claw
Lachie comes along
And stomps his feet
A cow comes along
And listens to the beat
Stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp stomp
Abbey comes along and eats a chewy bar
Chew chew chew
Oscar comes along
And says la la la
Dad and mum comes along
And says blah blah blah
We’re on our way to Sandakan
A slow start to the day is a good start. After brekky we attempt to book the canopy walk which seems to be really popular and all of the four or five for the day are full. The Ongs will miss out but I book in for tomorrow. I’m a bit worried about accommodation bookings for the rest of our trip as I haven’t made any – partly because i thought i would have a good window in Sarawak to do it before entering Sabah and partly because I thought it would be good to have some flexibility about where we stay and what we do. At heart I’m a planner but aa also intrigued by this notion of going with the flow.
I spend an hour online in the gift shop with a slow connection trying to find accommodation in Kota Kinabalu but because Nani wants a private family room that can fit us all in, these are scarce and booked out. We try three or four places with no luck but we do manage to book our first night in Sandakan. I’ll have to pull my finger out and do some serious organizing but not having 3G due to my SIM disaster I’m a bit crippled.
We go for a swim by crossing the Sungai Melinau river and heading down behind Good Luck Cave’fe (can you believe the play on words?) who have a Sunday special menu. The current is quite strong here but gently sloping and we only get knocked off our feet beyond waist deep. Abbey brings her new friend Olivia from Vancouver and her parents Heather and John who have travelled Asia extensively and rate Borneo one of the best places they’ve been.
Lachie cuts his toe on the river bank after pushing off and swimming across to one of the longboat pontoons. The 2cm gash is bleeding freely so we swim back and I push it shut praying that the river is clean enough to have flushed the wound. I wished I had my first aid kit to irrigate it properly with boiled water but it is big and bulky so I don’t carry it in my day pack. Maybe I should split it in two. Mark sprays the wound with adhesive water proofing and I bandaid it to stop it reopening. I hope he can walk on it because we’re off to the caves again this afternoon.
Nani refuses to eat at Good Luck Cave’fe (hmmm). Mark and I are keen because of the Sunday specials and cheap beer but Nani has her I’m-not-happy-face so wisdom prevails over courage and we head back to HQ for okra and eggplant with a sides of kaya French toast and roti canai.
After a snooze we’re off to the caves with our guide Jenny. Along the way she shows us the kind of tree that pygmy squirrels live in, the we see one – around the same size as a mouse busily feeding on small insects. She identifies the Ipoh tree where the Penan hunters get their poison sap for their blow darts. The blow pipes are armed with a knife so it can act as a spear to finish off wounded prey. She shows us caterpillars – the hairy ones become moths and the smooth ones butterflies. Oddly Nani loves butterflies but has a meltdown screaming if a moth flies near her head. We see inchworms, centipedes, and identify all kinds of frog and bird calls. Strange leaf hoppers sit on the hand rail with freaky looking giant stick insects. Some 50% of planet earths biodiversity is found in the 2% of equatorial rainforest that we are wandering around in.
Lang cave is beautiful. A powerful river flowed through here to carve it out then dripping water created all kinds of beautiful white formations; curtains, abalone shell, icing melting on a cake, jelly fish, and twisted columns. For some reason the ones i love the most are where a stalagmite and a stalactite are almost touching. I feel like rooting for them “keep going! Not far to go!”
Deer cave is named for the sambar deer that used to venture in to lick salt in the largest cavern. That is until hunters started to ambush them there and they stopped coming. Two things hit you at once; the warm ammonia and fecal smell coming out and the sheer scale of it is equally overwhelming. Inside powerful shafts of sunlight penetrate past a rock that forms the silhouette of Abe Lincoln’s face. Where light reaches the cave walls turn green with great hills of warm steaming guano underneath any of the overhead roosting spots. A trickling river runs through it past the Garden of Eden where a hidden valley is located that only 6 adventurers can pass each day.
Swiftlets circle in the mouth of the cave and curtains of water drops fall from the roof while sun glints off both bird and water alike. We are tiny in comparison to the sheer size of this cave and it feels like a “Journey to the centre of the earth” experience. There is something very primordial about this place.
There are thousands of bats – 10 species in this cave alone along whole ecosystems of insects feeding on bat shit, earwigs feeding on dead skin cells, cave crickets feeding on god knows what, and spiders and worms creating silk like webs that dangle from the ceiling. When these are pointed out Nani says “sick”.
I photograph a giant mutant cave cricket and take a large step over a gap in the rocks to get close enough Abbey tries a similar step but doesnt make it and stands calf deep in mushy guano. She isn’t happy but to her credit she doesn’t have a meltdown and I make her wait until as we exit Deer Cave I let her wade in the river to try and clean her leg and shoe. I feel sorry for her but grateful she’s fairly resilient. We notice a dying bat lying on the ground and step around it. I take a snap. As the kids head to wait for the dusk emergence, I sneak back into Lang Cave by myself to get some footage. As I enter I trip the sensor and all the lights come on. Everything is silent and I film a few minutes on my camera.
Back at the observation area the kids play Humburger which is rock paper scissors with some violence to spice it up. After each round the losers have to put their hands down in the centre. Players free a hand by winning. Once both your hands are in the “hamburger” you must wait until a winner has two hands free and gets to pound as hard as they can on the hand-burger.
Lachie, Oscar and Jonathan are the band of brothers. They’ve become quite attached and have developed a new martial art which looks like tiger style to me but the call it nipple cripple style which seems to be the objective.
The bats in time dutifully stream out and circle in donuts and tornadoes and great long black ribbons for self preservation making great entertainment for us in our little amphitheater. A lone bat hawk flaps about eager for a meal.
I record sounds on the way back as I walk alone in the dark jungle intrigued by the moans, barking frogs, pips, and chirps. Bats hurtle deftly down the corridor cut by our path. I’m glad at their presence because they love to eat mosquitos and these are my enemy.
After dinner we head back across the swaying suspension bridge (it positively bucks when we cross) over the Sg. Melinau and drink Heineken with the our new Canadian friends and talk about travels in Asia. The kids entertain themselves playing UNO and after that begin collecting empty beer cans from all over the restaurant and building a massive tower right in front of the screen on the wall. Other patron’s take photos of the tower. I tell them our kids are Aussies and that explains it all.
This morning we had the most amazing French toast for breakfast. The bread was fresh, soft and sliced thick dipped in egg and folded in half with kaya (coconut pandan egg jam) inside. We boarded longboats for the Wind and Clearwater caves via a local Penan village.
The long boats are just that – long and thin, they remind me of a Lebanese cucumber. Made of wood they require two operators – one at each end. They are colorfully painted, sit low in the water and passengers sit on moveable boards in single file. The operators are skilled at picking the best route through the sometimes shallow, rocky or log jammed river. We loved gliding along the turquoise jungle lined river with overhanging trees and vines dangling into the water from above.
The guided walks through the Wind and Clearwater caves are spellbinding. Many features of the wind cave are illuminated creating mysterious shadows and effects. Milk cave at the Wind cave entrance was somehow formed from limestone with the aid of bacteria but scientists aren’t sure how. The wind cave is named for the convection from warm and cool air meeting in the cave. The breeze was welcome relief from the ever present heat and humidity. At the end of the walkway inside is an enormous cavern called the kings chamber. Apparently he is out because it is Saturday. A group behind us is talking loudly in Chinese so I shoosh them in the dark and it carries well. They get the missive and tone it down. Deb says “good on you”.
Our softly spoken guide says he is a headhunter even til today but he only takes chicken heads. Hey me too! He says underneath us is a piece of tin and underneath that are skeletons that have been headhunter and says that’s why we don’t stay here. I can’t tell if he’s joking or not so I decide to believe him because it’s more exciting. He tells stories of his friend losing an arm in a caving incident and shines his torch and sure enough there is a formation that looks like an arm. Another is a frog, eagle, iguana and Pinocchio. The kids love it and are encouraged to use their own imagination.
Clearwater cave is the eighth longest in the world (was the 10th but more has been discovered) and reckoned to be the largest in cubic volume. We hear bats flying overhead, sonar chirping as they navigate blindly through the chambers. A river runs through this one and connects through to the Wind Cave along which spelunkers can take an adventure trip lasting six hours comprising walking, crawling, swimming and climbing ropes. Cyanobacteria through photosynthesis and respiration have produced carbon dioxide which sediments the limestone forming long needle-like structures at the cave entrance.
The Penan village was interesting but a bit sad as well. The Penan were the nomadic jungle people who in the tens of thousands roamed Borneo living a simple life. They were expert hunters using blow pipes that could kill a human in minutes. Some of them bathed in the river as we approached. Interestingly in their culture they had no word for thief or forest. No one owned anything and they had six different words for “we”. Peace loving people they have not been known to fight. For decades now first the missionaries and later the to government have been moving them into settlements and converting them to a cash economy. I felt sad to think their precious ancient culture was being eroded. In the village they have multiple boat loads of people arriving daily to whom they sell trinkets. The kids didn’t smile when I said hello which is unlike kids. I buy a wooden spoon made from nibong to remember the Penan but I guess they never had to suffer the stolen generation or life on a reservation like our indigenous people.
Lachie tells me he is somewhat torn about these people. He (and I) are attracted to their simple lifestyle but he is concerned about what appears to be a problem with poverty given the shanty type dwellings and complete lack of infrastructure. I tell him that the reason the government moved them was to provide free medical clinics and education.
Before boarding our long boats back to Park HQ we jump into the clear river and cool off. I just swim in my quick dry shorts and the kids are in their undies like kampung kids. I line the kids up on a submerged log and like a row of monkeys take a shot. Then I back flip off the log and find out that an even deeper log which I didn’t see took a liking to my leg. I bark half my shin on it and it goes red and bruised immediately. Obviously the reason for the no diving sign. Lachie says “Whoa I didn’t know you could backflip Dad!” so I guess it was worth it. Nani says I should show the kids the damage so I can be an example – of what not to do. Her sympathy is touching.
While the boys walk to Paku Waterfall – a 2.5 km walk along a muddy trail, Nani Abbey and I venture across the suspension bridge outside the Park in search of cheaper food. On the way out an American boy has caught a fire fly in his hands. He cracks them slightly and there it is a blinking LED made by mother nature. Nani tells me that her grandfather wouldn’t allow her Dad to have any light at night so he would catch a jar full of fireflies to study by their light. Sounds a bit like one of those “You think you had it rough?When we were young… ” stories. (My sisters and I grew up in a town of 1100 called Yea and had to milk cows before we went to school and walked the six miles in bare feet to get there).
Outside the park The Good Luck Cave’fe (I kid you not) have a banner stating 6rm (two Aussie dollar) beers after 5pm. I feel this would be a good place for dinner.
Further along the road as the sun is setting we walk along a grassy open plain with a few trees and the odd house dotting the landscape. One or two motorbike pass us. Nani says this place is so beautiful she would like to come back. I snap some shots of her with the dramatic mountains in the background and then I spy a rambutan tree that I noticed on the way in yesterday. Rambutan is a red hairy fruit similar to a lychee and the kids and I love them. I decided to try and pick a bunch and notice some peelings on the ground where others have done the same. I cross a plank over the roadside drain and easily swing up into the tree. As I stand surveying for the ripest cluster I notice fire ants marshaling an attack on my shoes. This scares me into jumping higher in the tree to a branch which looks clear of them. I brush the few that are biting my shoe but with dismay notice that now my new perch is swarming. Higher again and things are not improving. I’m shouting Fire Ants!! to Nani who has wisely stayed on the bitumen and I’m freaking out imagining being swarmed from head to toe. I decide I’ve got to forget the fruit and make for safety. I try and spot up some clear branches and Tarzan swing to the ground. There is one biting my neck, another inside my shirt so it’s off with that and a good shake out. I’m rattled. I didn’t know the little pricks were so aggressive. I tell Mark later and he laughs. He used to have a huge rambutan tree and the ants would have up to twenty nests throughout which if the branch supporting it broke would explode ants everywhere as it hit the ground. He got an arborist to cut it down and even though they smoked the ants out, three of the workers were hospitalized as a result of the stings and Mark had to pay their medical costs. I decide to just buy them in the future.
Back at the dimly lit but recently opened Good luck Cave’fe (yes that’s it’s real name) we tuck into Tiger Beer and Heineken while waiting for our meals along with a roomful of westerners (including a bunch of young Aussies who save money by staying at a Homestay round the corner). The kids watch Spongebob Squarepants projected onto the back wall. Our meals take forever because it’s a mom and pop operation. One of their kids that looks around 9 is bringing our food but none of the tables that have finished are getting cleared. It’s cheaper but the serves are a bit smaller. Suits me though because I try and eat to match my output. Nani reckons they’re slow so people buy more beer.
We cross back over the suspension bridge and because it’s dark I deliberately rock it up and down then notice a Chinese girl further down hanging on for dear life and walking in what looks like slow motion so I ease up. I pass the cafe at HQ and buy six small bananas for 2rm. They’re tasty and fire ant free.
This morning I wake early and pack because I’ve only a half hour window to collect my laundry and get the bus to the airport to fly to Mulu – around 250km north of Kuching (i think). On the way to City Laundry to see the grumpy round faced laundry madam i notice the roti man flipping his wares and frying hem on his hotplate. The laundry isn’t open on time and I’m panicking slightly that I won’t get my clothes before the bus leaves but I can’t help that so I rush back to Tunes and grab the kids to see the Roti flipper. It’s hard to explain what roti is but it’s somewhere between a pancake, flat bread and puff pastry. We tried this at home but it didn’t pan out great so we’re keen to see the expert in action. Hopefully when we have time in KK or Sandakan we can convince a hawker to let us try. For now, this one and his beautiful plump muslim wife with gold head cover are mildly amused to to have an audience but are under the pump when I order 10 Roti Telur – roti canai with egg. They are bundled up with curry dipping sauce just like the laundry (eventually) and we’re off. Later at Starbucks after Mark orders some plunger coffee, we spread out the roti still hot and tear it up dipping each piece into the gravy. Each bite of the chewy, slightly sweet, soft eggy pastry was delicious and filling. At 1.70rm the only problem is I can only buy this for breakfast.
Only MAS Wings the regional arm of Malaysian Airlines flies directly from Kuching to Mulu and apart from our group with Mark and Deb the other dozen people are all foreigners. I don’t think too many Malaysians come here because it’s considered fairly “ulu” which means it’s pretty backward, rural and remote.
As we fly in we start to get an appreciation for the terrain. Huge limestone craggy grey and white cliffs rise from the densely green forest below. The pilot gives a running commentary. When we arrive Nani has already fallen in love with the place. It seems like a forgotten or at least a little visited slice of paradise – all lush, humid and green but without the dirt, grime and run downedness that we have come to expect.
Mulu stands in contrast with Bako in so many ways. On arrival we cross the river over a suspension bridge Covered over with foliage like some kind of green tunnel and appear at Park HQ which is a large modern air conditioned structure divided into office and education centre. The place seems to run smoothly. Outside the various types of accommodation are spread out but well maintained boardwalks and lush gardens separate them. The cafe is huge with timber floors, cane chairs and tastefully designed and decorated with a reasonable selection of food.
We stay at Longhouse 1 in the Stonehorse Cave room and like its name it is truly cavernous. Whilst most places we stay are simply a perimeter around the bed, here we get double the bed space and 10 ft ceilings with AC and a fan plus two showers and toilet with double sink. I discover that the place is managed by an Aussie couple and I check with the bloke and all the water in the room taps are totally potable so we don’t have to keep buying water like in Bako. It’s not cheap but we have decided to splurge here because there really isn’t anything on planet earth quite like it.
After lunch to cool off we dive into the fast flowing river for a swim. I go across first to check the current and I’m taken downstream a ways. When I reach the other side at a sandy spit my feet sink deep into dead leaves. Wondering what might live in those deep dead leaves is not useful. I walk back up stream of the jetty where the kids are and dive off a dead submerged log and swim diagonally back. I decide the boys should be able to do it and with a little struggle they make it and enjoy the swim in the clear turquoise river shaded by tall jungle. Nani crosses over and gets into a bit of trouble claiming she almost drowned. Possible her waterlogged clothes didn’t help. Getting back the boys are swept rapidly by the current and I stay downstream of them to make sure they don’t miss the old wooden tyre-slung pontoon.
We take around 45 minutes to walk through the jungle the 3 km to Deer and Lang Cave along alternately boardwalk and concrete. It’s a fairly sanitised walk but I guess it’s a compromise between making it accessable to tourists of all ages. Wheelchair access is fine here. We’ve come like pilgrims from all over to watch the bats emerge from the caves on dusk. Its raining slightly so our chances of seeing them are reduced as they may just choose to stay dry. Some tour groups are leaving at 6 and Nani asks me twice “should we go?” I’m not too sure why she is wanting to go, but I just like to sit here below the yawning mouth of the Deer Cave set into a limestone cliff and just be. I say she can go if she likes. The kids are stressing her out a bit so I suggest they can stay with me, but she stays anyway.
Luckily we hung in there and despite the soft drizzle, the phenomenon that I believe only happens in one other part of the world (Carlsbad) begins after 6pm. To avoid the feared Bat Hawk, the mammals congregate in the huge caverns and then as one, stream out in spectacular ribbon, globular, tornado like formations. Some make a giant caterpillar in the sky, others look a little like a question mark. With each burst, onlookers oohhh and aahhh. It’s too dark to photograph so I don’t try.
It is barely over and rangers are moving us on. I don’t know what the rush is so I’m hesitant. Finally I move off and am left walking the little monkey princess while everyone, keen for a feed takes off. She starts whining about 10 minutes in about sore legs (she also hates being beaten so that’s a big problem) and the rangers following up the rear say “See?! That’s why we said you should leave!” this gets up my nose because Abbey has done a 16km walk before up a mountain but the trick with kids is to walk at a constant 2-3 km per hour. Any faster and they blow out their gas tank and feel pain and tiredness then stop too frequently. Now I’m growling at her and telling her off for being a big whinging baby. I tell her it’s just pain and it won’t harm her. I wish these guys would just let me walk her back at our own pace. Eventually they do and we make it back along he slipper boardwalk in the light of my head torch. Mental note – make sure sleeping beauty gets enough tonight.
We book in for a guided tour through the Wind and Clearwater Cave systems tomorrow (one can’t enter without a guide) and sample the delicious if slightly expensive cafe food. Abbey has made friends with three Swiss blokes and joins them in the smoking area for a game of fish. Amazing how fast the little whiner can recover.
Well here is the rough draft after much reading, surfing the net, reading forums, asking for advice and listening to podcasts.
At this stage there’s not much that we’re doing that requires us to lock in early, now that we’ve decided against climbing Mt Kinibalu so we can be fairly flexible.
1. Kuching 8 NIGHTS. Nani has a wedding dinner to attend here so we can’t shorten the time here in Sarawak. Having said that, it’s not hard to fill it in. We’ll visit Semmenggoh NP to check out the orang utan rehabilitation. We’ll do this in Sepilok as well, but at Semmenggoh apparently you get closer and on the odd occasion not many turn up so we’re hedging our bets between the two centres. The Sarawak cultural village and museum will be touristy but no doubt be really educational and I love learning new stuff.
Bako NP is an amazing place from all reports with loads of walks and it’s a great place to see the Proboscis monkeys early morning and evening. Apparently they’re quite shy so the kids will have to be in stealth mode. Because there’s so many walks there, and it’s a bit hard to get to (bus and boat) I reckon we’ll stay at least one or two nights in the park, although the accommodation is a bit sketchy from reviews. I’d suggest booking early rather than late, as it starting to book out months in advance.
Tattoos. I’m thinking seriously about getting some tribal ink in Kuching. International award winning Iban tattooist Ernesto Kalum (Borneo headhunter) is there, who’s recognised globally as being a leading tribal tattooist who also uses the traditional method. That’s the needle on the stick and bang with another stick method. I’m fairly sure the traditional method sounds a bit…. slow and maybe more painful than the machine, but the emails I’ve had from his offsider suggests it heals faster than machine – but I might just stick to what I know.
When I’m freshly inked I think we’ll check out the Santubong area north of Kuching and climb the mountain, do some walks, visit the fishing village nearby, grab a couple of kayaks and maybe stay in the Permai tree house for a night with the kids. How cool would that be?
Optionally (because we’ve got around eight nights in Kuching while waiting for a wedding dinner) is to head to Serian for a day trip where apparently there are some really nice waterfalls there.
2. Mulu. 3 NIGHTS. We’ll fly from Kuching to Mulu and stay at the Gunung Mulu NP for a few nights while we visit the famed caves there, dig around in the batshit and watch them fly out at night, look for carnivorous plants that might eat one or two of the kids and millipedes as big as your foot. I might even take the 10 year old and hike the Pinnacles which is a three day two night jungle trek with the last part hoisting yourself up rope ladders, which sounds like a great challenge.
3. Sandakan. 4 NIGHTS. We’ll then fly to Sandakan via KK and check out Sepilok Orang Utan rehab centre and then check in to Uncle Tan’s jungle camp. Apparently spartan but it’s on the Kinibatangan River which is the most densely populated wildlife place in East Malaysia so our chances of seeing elephants, orang utan, and proboscis monkeys will be great.
I’m really keen to do the historic walk in Sandakan and visit the war memorial and tell the kids about the 1400 aussie diggers that were killed on the death marches there by the Japanese in World War II. Only six, who escaped and were looked after by villagers survived. I’m going to pay my respects. Agnes Keith house will be fascinating too. She was an American author, who along with her husband and toddler, survived the brief occupation in a prison camp in Kuching and wrote about her experiences living in Sabah.
4. Mt Kinibalu. 2 NIGHTS. I don’t like the idea of flying everywhere. It’s disjointed from the landscape and gives a false sense of distance and time, so from Sandakan to KK we’ll go by coach. That way we can slow things down, and be forced to wait, watch, anticipate, rest, talk and think about what we’re doing. It will give us a perspective perhaps on the 250km march to Ranau that the diggers did through the jungle, some in barefeet. Stopping at Mt Kinibalu NP we’ll stay from a couple of nights and do some of the great walks in the area and get a good view of SE Asia’s highest peak.
5. Poring Hot Springs 1 NIGHT. After hopefully covering a few kilometers at Mt Kinibalu , we’ll head across to Poring Hot Springs nearby and soak in them and do some walks there and relax for a night. I think the kids will really like it here and we’ll probably stay outside of the park. There are some nice waterfalls to visit as well.
6. Kota Kinibalu 2 NIGHTS. After that we’ll finish up in Kota Kinibalu, the capital of Sabah (it used to be Sandakan before it was bombed to oblivion by the Japanese), where I’m dying to try the Filipino night market barbeque and visit the Tunku Abdul Rahman chain of islands to snorkel, swim and relax on the beaches before jumping on a plane and heading back to KL via Singapore.
We really want to be able to relax and take our time to absorb culture and a sense of place as we move through East Malaysia, so we will consciously resist the sense of “I’ve got to see as much as I can because we’ve spent so much to get here” which can easily suck you in. The harder you push with kids, the less enjoyable things are.
We’ve got relatives in Singapore and since we’re in the area, we thought we’d stop over there on the way back to KL for several nights. I’m not keen on this leg of the trip because I’m not a fan of the concrete jungle, but I’ve drawn up a bit of an itinerary that will hopefully be relaxing and enjoyable with the kids whilst steering clear of Orchard Rd and avoiding affluenza like the plague.
Any thoughts about our itinerary? Anything we could cut out or should maybe add in? I’m still agonizing about booking internal flights because I’m really not sure how long to stay in each place. Once again – a victim of procrastination.