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?
We’re invited to dinner with the Hi (prounounced Hee) family. Driving past the botanic gardens and national orchid garden with its 1000 species on the way there I really wish I could go in. We’re obviously in the upper end of town because all the homes here are gated and free standing. As we pull into the driveway I notice three Mercedes and an in-ground pool. Mr and Mrs Hi have been bestowed the prestigious titles of Datok and Dating which I think are a bit like Lord and Lady and reserved for people who have made a bucket-load of money. They must be wondering what happened to us when we arrived looking bedraggled and exhausted from travel and our colds (there should be another name for this in the tropics). Lachie falls asleep on their couch. Dinner at a restaurant at the six story shopping mall Great World City though, was sensational. The highlights being the shark fin and crab soup, along with roast pork and roast duck. Still in need of rest, I make an excuse to leave early to take the kids back to Pearls Centre and their beds leaving Nani to enjoy the company who all communicate in Foo Chow. There’s only so much nodding and smiling one can do when one doesn’t speak the lingo no matter how appreciative of their generosity.
Christmas is a laid back affair which I love. We had decided to celebrate with Nani’s side of the family on Christmas Eve because we were intending to catch up with my side Christmas Day, but sadly they felt it best with our coughs and colds, to not expose my elderly grandmother so we won’t be seeing them this trip (one of my main reasons for going to Singapore). John has booked the function room at his River Valley Rd condo alongside the three pools, sauna, spa and downstairs from the gym. Luxury. Honey baked ham with scored fat and a little clove in each square made by the scoring glistens invitingly. The turkey tastes smoked and while a little dry is very tasty. This complimented by hainan chicken, satay and topped off with trifle (yes trifle!) makes for an east meets west fusion Christmas dinner.
The kids after being inspired by The Karate Kid were doing the usual moves on each other and having a wrestle, but were all being told by well-meaning adults to either stop it or be careful. I told one mum that as long as our kids don’t bleed or break bones we didn’t mind them bashing each other up a little – it’s all part of growing up isn’t it? It appears this behavior is off limits to Singaporean kids and she replies she didn’t fancy a trip to the hospital tonight. One child was even told to be careful sitting on a fitness ball. It was annoying that the kids couldn’t really be kids and I end up telling Nani that the next person who says “Be careful!” was going to get it. The words were barely out and a shortish lady with a brown top and short hair (looking somewhat Filipino) said to one of the kids “Be careful!” I mutter into her ear that I have to shoot the brown-bloused lady now. Apparently rough housing is not the Singaporean way but the way I figure it you can mend broken bones and stitch up cuts, but raising kids to be afraid of getting hurt is something much harder to fix.
I’m trying to book this train to Kuala Lumpur for boxing day and not having much luck. I’ve registered online with the Malaysian transport website KTM Berhad and it’s telling me that there are five seats available, but when I jump through all the online hoops, the final step tells me they don’t accept online bookings less that 48 hours before the journey. WHAT?!?! I finally find a phone number that someone will answer and they tell me there’s no seats left. But there are online I say. They repeat that there aren’t any. I say well what about tonight? Can I book the night train? She says that she can’t sell me tickets, but there are berths available if I just rock up at Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore (about 45 minutes away) I should be able to get on. I’m thinking, so I’m supposed to get two boys and their packs to Woodlands by 11pm tonight and maybe, hopefully, possibly get a ticket? I’m starting to get frustrated. I have been so looking forward to going cross country to Kuala Lumpur off the bitumen and through the country side by train due to some nostalgic idealism that train travel would somehow be quaint and going clickety clack rolling through the Malaysia would be a great segue to the fishing day that we’d planned there. Brother in law John confirmed my thoughts. I would have to coach it instead. I conceded that it was still better than flying. Yes it is only and hour and fifteen by plane, but it seems so surgical and artificial. Ground travel gives time to absorb, to think and reflect. To really leave one place and arrive in another.
While all this is going on, it’s Christmas day and where else would Nani be than shopping? She puts in a five hour effort today. Looking for what and buying what is anyone’s guess. I suppose she figures that she’ll make hay while the sun shines – not many people get to shop on Christmas Day after all. I wonder how things would go down if I went fishing on Christmas Day, but I don’t dare to find out. Call me under-the-thumb – call me whatever you like, but experiments like these are best left to either the more daring, the more stupid or both. She has been saying that she doesn’t know how she will cope coming home to Tasmania because she’s gotten so used to being able to buy whatever she wants to eat, whenever she wants it.
Nani regales her horrified family with tales of how dangerous it was to visit Bako National Park and warned them against being there. She said the boat she traveled on was virtually un-seaworthy. She mentions how it got so bad the boatman ordered her pack off and life jacket on and how the waves were so big her small boat almost capsized. She claims that tour guides don’t book people to Bako during monsoon because it’s so dangerous – and that’s just getting there. Once there she claims the jetty is crumbling and she almost fell through. Crazy monkeys with fangs like “this” (demonstrating on her own face with a couple of index fingers how big the incisors are) and poisonous vipers hanging from every tree not to mention the sting rays. She goes on to tell the spell bound audience that “no-one goes to Sandakan” (not sure how she knows this) and claims that the men on every street corner with dark skin who stared at her until she was out of sight were in fact pirates. At what point pirates jump ship to sit on street corners and leer at Chinese girls is anyone’s guess, but there you have it. I’m annoyed and interject claiming that they’re great places to go and not to listen to her. I had booked the itinerary after much reading and discussing with other travelers and had good reason to be in those places. She switches to mandarin and finishes the story in a language I don’t understand. I resign to being misrepresented but also with some satisfaction that no-one would listen to Nani tell stories about the good times she had shopping at ViVo, Ion, Far East Plaza or Great World City mega malls. At least I’d given her tales to tell – and tales that grow taller with the passage of time.
Being our last night Ik Hui has really bent over backwards to try and check off a couple of things I’d mentioned we’d like to do whilst in Singapore so we’re off to the luxury Marina Bay Sands to watch the water show Wonder Full. On Singapore’s famous waterfront a couple of times each night is an amazing celebration of life using light projection, multimedia, sound, lasers, sprays and jets of water. Sitting together on the steps we are wowed by the display together with a few hundred others in the warm night air. The back drop of Singapore city was equally picturesque. I watch as our children jump up to try and grab illuminated bubbles floating past and failed to make them sit down. There is something about bubbles that are magnetic to children isn’t there? After the show, people were slow to leave. While it was crowded, it seems that the beauty and wonder of the show somehow united our humanity and we were connected by a common experience and the emotion generated.
Singapore may be a place geared entirely around making money the most efficiently as possible. Its benevolent oligarchy has ensured that anyone who gets an education and works hard has the opportunity to be wealthy, live in a condo and employ a maid. In the little spare time that families have, the two national past times of eating out (which can be done incredibly cheaply) and shopping in the latest and greatest malls are pursued with passion but it’s the constant kaching-kaching of Asia’s cash register that actually allows them to put on amazing free displays like the one we just saw and develop one of the world’s most beautiful waterfronts – just because they can.
After the show we slowly walk to Cold Rock for an ice-cream (the one where you choose the flavor and lollies you’d like smashed into it) and wander past Fendi, Armani, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton. I wish I could tell you that these were people we met on the way but I can’t. Chrome and glass and the polished tiles refract and reflect light coming from every direction in this luxury shopping area. At some point, Nani can resist no more and walks into Tiffany & Co for a quick look. I don’t understand why. Bemused, I try and shout through the closing bullet proof glass doors as she darts in that I’d already got her a Tiffany ring but she appears not to hear. I had visited a diamond mine in the Northern Territory of Australia a few years earlier and bought a champagne diamond. Together we trawled the Tiffany website and selected a beautiful white gold diamond ring, printed the design off and sent it all to my aunty in Singapore a jeweler who had it made to size and sent it back. All this to replace the original diamond engagement ring I’d bought Nani after proposing. She lost this one within ten months of being married – it’s loss presumably contributed to by the fact that she considered it more a grain of sand than the “rock” she was hoping for. But the replacement – this counts as a Tiffany ring doesn’t it? Evidently not, because Nani says one day she wants to get something from Tiffany in that little blue box. I wonder to myself if those boxes can be bought on Ebay.
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.
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.
We repeat the night safari with Nani but the girls don’t go this time so it’s just Mark and his boy jonathan, Lachie, Oscar and I. We are assigned two guides for 45rm so i get the chance to have a really good talk to one heading down the lintang trail in search of adventure. The mafia have retreated to their favored tree to sleep in pairs cuddled up together like fur pom poms in an almost defoliated tree. The guide tells me the proboscis never sleep in the same tree twice to avoid predators which makes it a challenge finding them each day. He say he can tell the species apart by the broken foliage trickling from the canopy in the distance even before he sees the animal.
Tonight we see frogs, and the lone kingfisher again, and stick insects. We find a pool and the guide pulls out some boiled rice and sprinkles some in. Native catfish make a feeding frenzy in our torchlight.
Oscar has decided to skip wearing socks tonight claiming all his were wet and now his feet have blisters. I try and wipe them off with a wet one. His feet is full of sand so he has obviously sanded his skin. Theres not much I can do except bandaid the worst of them and try and do his laces up better to stop the rubbing. He is the pits when it comes to lacing up properly and when we look at him he nearly always has at least one shoe partly unlaced and no amount of reminding or lecturing him has any effect.
Nani provided some entertainment on this walk. Earlier I showed her the viper in the tree near our cabin and she exclaimed “fuck!” and covered her mouth. Having known her for 20 years I can offer the translation as “fuck that’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen! fuck why am I here? Fuck I can’t believe I’m staying in a place where so many things want to eat or kill me! fuck, my children are here and they could get seriously hurt! Aaarghhh!”. So she was pretty amped up even before the night walk and then I noticed it. A spider on her shoulder. This after we’d already been wowing over a tarantula in its nest. I told her to keep still that she had an arachnid on her and she froze in a cardiac arrest type stillness while I got mark to photograph it for posterity then flicked it off as gently as possible (the guides were watching).
At one point I flick off my headlamp, sneak up behind and grab her ass – a favorite trick of mine. She jumps and lets out a muffled yelp. Down the trail further she suddenly jumped and starting saying “ouch! Ouch!” and grabbing her ankle, brushing it. The guide says keep moving. She’s standing on a convoy of fire ants. I guess most people have the same reaction – to stop and try and deal with it, but moving forward at least prevents you from being swarmed. The guide cheerfully says it will only hurt (itch was his word) for a half hour and that camphor will help. I feel a bit sorry for Nani now and I let her know I have some back at the cabin. She is right out of her comfort zone and I try and reassure her that since she was born in Sibu just north of here, this is in her blood, but deep down I know she’s an amazon of the concrete jungle.
Later I get swarmed by a giant moth the size of a sparrow. It tries to have sex with my headlamp. I want to check it out but can’t focus that close so I switch off and it goes over to Mark. I tell Nani and she has another mild heart attack. Moths are her feared sworn enemy. When she was a child her mother told her some bullshit story about moth wing dust being able to blind eyes instilling a fear in her I have not been able to put a dent in over the last two decades of trying. She covers her head with her hands to try and protect herself.
The guide asks us to switch off lights. He turns on his UV and a scorpion sitting outside its nasty looking burrow glows in the dark. He offers it the tiny stick he has carried all night. After noticing his stick and the cicada on the end of it I has wondered about this. The scorpion latched on and the guide is trying to lift it out of the undergrowth. There is a tussle which the scorpion manages to win by tearing off the cicada and hunkering down its burrow to enjoy its meal. He won’t be lifted up for tourists to photograph tonight. That would make it one all over the last two nights.
The boys are up early this morning hunting the comical Proboscis monkey and watching the mafia trying to drain a stray soft-drink can. I had a bad dream about a uni professor making me do an assignment in the nude and woke up at 4am. Things are not good in the sleep department.
At breakfast as we overlook the beach, boats start rolling in bringing the days’ tourists. It dumps the first lot on the beach. I’m keen to see a loud fat American get dropped off in the water for my own humor. The next load draws near and I take off across the beach to get some happy snaps of the beach landings Bako style. The next load is a family from Selanggor. The dad tells me he studied business admin at RMIT in Melbourne.
The mosquitos are a bit feral here. They bite through clothes and gaps in repellant. I hate mosquitos and whenever I see them or think about them I feel itchy. I try not to scratch.
As the tide pushes up Proboscis troupes generally make their way inland. A troupe is swinging wildly through the canopy, crashing through foliage smashing branches as leaves flutter like confetti to the forest floor. We watch them launch themselves onto the roof of our cabin and they pound the roof with their hands banging the tin loudly. They’re either having fun or the dominant males are asserting themselves with a show of intimidation.
Back at the cafe a few Poms arrive having stayed at Marco Polo hostel in Kuching which they rated. They had been to Mulu and said they couldn’t get over the smell of the pillows in the hostel which took two days to shake. Thankfully we booked the longhouse. One of them takes a banana from his daypack, placing it down to zip up when one of the mafia spies it and comes down and like lightning it’s up the rafters eating it flat out. I’m laughing and tell him he’s busted for feeding the monkeys. The thief consumes the banana stuffing it into the loose skin under its chin which now looks like two testicles but it isn’t done yet. It moves to the exit stairwell to cut off the poms retreat because it saw he had three left. It sits there menacing him until I threaten it with a 2 liter bottle. Plotting, it slinks along behind the Pom who tells it to fuck off ever so politely.
We head out for one of the many possible jungle walks and Abbey tells me someone was stung by a sting ray on the beach and got stretchered away. She asks if I believe her and I say yes. When we get to the office to grab a map, a malay tourist in a shitload of pain is doubled up in a wooden chair with one of the guides sponging his leg. I get closer to inspect the wound. He looks like he’s been shot in the foot. He’s sucking air through his teeth and exhaling in groans, eyes tightly shut. I offer to irrigate the wound with a large syringe but the guides are boiling water to put his foot in a bucket of warm water. Rays have venomous slime on a razor sharp barb which causes amazing pain. I ask if they have given him pain killer and they say yes but give him more. I take a couple of snaps and we’re on our way.
Spider leaf monkeys move through low shrubs pulling the newer leaves and and busily chew on them. A nocturnal flying loris is trying to sleep but he’s chosen the wrong spot right next to the path outside chalet 7 and can only get 40 winks in between tourist arriving to point and use flash photography. I point him out to the kids, take a couple of flash assisted pics and we head down the Pacu trail.
Afterward I hit the travelers wall. It’s a combination of early mornings and possible reaction to the heat. Whatever, I’m buggered. I feel sleepy, slightly nauseous with the beginnings of a headache. I tell Lachie to buy the other two some lunch. Abbey returns to complain that Lachie is mimicking her. I hate whining so I make her miss out on lunch and she sobs uncontrollably on the bed next to me ’til her eyes are puffy and face red. It’s about this time her mother arrives from Kuching who gives her some food.
Abbey sings a song to get to sleep; “when I was young I used to smoke whoa ho ho then I had a stroke. My health is out there, out there somewhere…” to the tune of a Bruno Mars song. I don’t know why she sings these things.
After breakfast and a swim in the cold mountain stream fed pool it’s time to farewell Permai Rainforest Resort. Truth be told it isn’t really a resort because it just doesn’t have any resort facilities. There is a cafe with very limited menu and half is westernized food. There is kayak hire on the small beach but and high ropes courses but that’s about it. The cabins are fairly run down but that’s to be expected given it is 20 years old.
In its favor is its footprint and that it’s a good jumping off point to climb Mt Santuobong, and visit the cultural village. It was probably before it’s time in eco development because aside from the foundations of each cabin no forest has been cleared. Even the pathways wind awkwardly around existing trees. It’s very quiet and you feel totally immersed in the rainforest and it’s sounds. We saw a troupe of different monkeys today who threw branches at us as a warning and a beautiful black striped squirrel. Five star travelers wouldn’t like it, but I loved it and so did the kids. Huge discounts for staying during the week.
AJ the minivan guy came to pick us up to drive us to the dock from where boats depart for Bako. Even though i was tired and not in the mood for talking I quickly found out he’s more than just a bus driver. He is from the bidduyuh people who still live a simple village life around two and a half hours from Kuching by 4wd close to the border with Indonesia. His people wear the brass rings on the arms and ankles during ceremonial times and live a simple life tapping rubber, selling fruit and a little palm oil. Instead of clearing the forest he tells me they plant desirable trees inside the forest. He is passionately against clear felling and talks of how unnatural it is to have proboscis monkeys and orang utan living together but it happens because palm oil plantation and clear felling forces them into tiny strips of native land. Married to an Iban he tells of the ancient custom of taking heads in preparation for planting new ground. If the planting fails another head has to be taken. He says some heads were taken in 2003 in Indonesia. His grandfather is 90.
At the launching point for Bako we tee up two boatmen as the park can only be reached by sea. There are crocodile warning signs at the jetty but the croc skull near the registration desk drove home the point a little better. Im impressed by the skill of the men in their 12 foot wooden boats as we head out to sea. We pass wooden structures built free standing in the water used to net fish. The ferrymen dodge the waves and gun the engine to cross the next one before it peaks. The boat slams into the trough and the kids squeal. Partly with excitement but i can tell they’re a bit worried.
We arrive at Bako’s jetty having timed our arrival for high tide. Arriving at low tide involves being dropped on the beach in waist high water – something we wanted to avoid with a heavy pack on. As the song says we don’t pay the ferryman until he gets us to the other side and definitely not until we get his number – unless you prearrange pick up you can’t get out.
We toss our gear into the pretty rough Semi-detached B cabin. One side the boys sleep in the other Abbey and I. There is no hot water for showers. And the tap on the boys sink is non existent. Good way to save on water I guess. There is no toilet paper and the ball float in the open cistern doesn’t work so I manually fill the cistern and pull a rusty wire to flush it.
We are warned of a few dangers namely falling coconuts, pit vipers and bad ass macaques who act like the local mafia. Apparently it’s the one you don’t see that does the damage (pinching food, phones, drinks and general stand-over tactics).
We sit at the cafe trying to find some shade and water and are amazed to see the elusive Proboscis monkeys swinging across the path so i dash down and sneak up for a photo. These monkeys are a tan orange color and fairly solidly built. One of the guides says their bum looks like a woman in a G String. As the name suggests, these monkeys which are only readily seen in two places in East Malaysia have a huge nose. The smaller ones have pointy pink Pinocchio noses and have obviously told a few lies but the big males end up with a pink Fred Flintstone phallic honker and this apparently really gets the girls.
The bearded pig is akin to the circus bearded lady – its ugly but you can’t look away. Even the sows had pretty impressive wiry Abe Lincoln beards going on, each one followed about by a handful of small coffee colored striped piglets. I tell the kids not to upset the piglets as that is the only thing that would make a sow a danger.
Laundry has been a disaster for me. I still can’t dry anything and the clothes go musty and stink overnight. I make the kids re-wash their clothes in buckets with mushy soap found in the bathroom but I help with the wringing because they’re not strong enough. We hang them outside wondering if the mafia steal clothes as well. One sniffs Abbeys shoe and makes to grab my T Shirt so I scare him off.
We lie down under the fans and sleep in the hottest part of the day. I’m over undies as they’re impossible to dry plus i’ve run out so I’ve decided to go native and sleep in the buff. It seems the proper thing to do.
After tea we gather a dozen of us for the Night Safari. Guides direct us down the path – a dozen head lamps strobing the night sky. The kids are particularly annoying when they fully blind you. We stop at the mangroves and turn off all lights and out of the dark emerge the blinking lights of fireflies in a tree. We are mesmerized. Each fire fly going about his own business but collectively they Christmas decorate the whole tree. I wanted to stay longer but we were moving again this time down the beach.
In my left ear the sound of the jungle, cicadas and crickets and in my right ear the south china sea breaking on the gently sloping beach sounding a little irritable due to the increasing wind which tells me rain is approaching.
The guide stops and searches a particular tree until his light illuminates a particularly venomous green pit viper coiled on a branch. He explains it is hunting and we can get closer for a photo but not too close. How far can it strike I ask. “About half” he says. Half it’s length? Half a metre he answers. I move in fairly unconcerned and take some snaps. I’m wary of snakes but not scared.
We continue on, and are swallowed by the jungle and become immersed in it and the blackness. Sound seems amplified and an orchestra of insects and frogs play for us. We stop again and turn off lights. Something glows on the ground ahead, and under the slippery boardwalk. Bio luminescent tiny white fungi light up on the forest floor.
At the first spits no-one reacts but I haven’t experienced a shower here that remained a few spits so I haul out the umbrella for Abbey and goretex jacket for me. The boys get drenched because they didn’t bring theirs. I figure they’re old enough to think ahead or experience the consequences. The guides take us to a cave in which we shelter. Inside they scan around and mention that they often see black cobra in here at night. I look around too.
As the rain lightens it fools us into emerging to make a dash back to the cabins and redoubles its efforts. Water is running down the muddy tree root tangled trail and deep puddles are appearing which is a bitch because for the first day in the last four, I managed to dry my shoes. Frog calls swelled as we trudged back heads down rain running off my jacket soaking my pants. The guides kept their eyes out and despite the downpour stopped and using a stick, picked up a five inch long scorpion. I’m not sure if it was just the light of the guides torch or whether it really was green and purple in color.
The jungle experience was surreal for me. The stillness, darkness, the sheer volume of the chirping, whirring, piercing frequencies were all strange and new. To feel like I was not just in it, but inside the jungle and hunting for nightlife was exciting as it always is when I go spotlight shooting vermin in Australia.