A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December
John and Ik Hui are kindly dropping us to Key Point in the Beach Road area from where Golden Express Coach departs. Their hospitality has been amazing – as is all Asian hospitality from which Aussies have much to learn (ours is the more shut-the-door-on-your-way-out, laid-back kind). Whilst saying our goodbyes, the boys are looking the wrong way. I’m wondering why they are so rude and ask them to turn around. They say their goodbyes then turn back to study their original distraction – Doritos Man. Their jaws drop and they stare unashamedly as this fellow traveler stands awaiting the bus and eats an entire pack of Doritos without touching a single one. If you can imagine how that is done, you can understand why they would be so captivated. I might try it some time just to see how doable this is, but I feel it would be at the cost of very cheesy powdery lips.
Catching a bus to Kuala Lumpur from Singapore involves going to the Woodlands Checkpoint and exiting Singapore’s border control, then hopping back on the bus, crossing the border, hauling your luggage off the bus, going through customs in Malaysia, then hauling everything back on. It probably adds an hour all up to the five hour trip. On the bus the little boy next to me says “a lizard just crawled under your shoe” looking genuinely concerned. Without moving my shoe I say “would you like me to catch it for you”. His eyes widen and he shakes his head. Later, Lachie taps me and says I have a gecko on my shoulder. I ask him to grab it which he does. The kid is amazed but frightened. Lachie offers it to him but he’s actually petrified and his sister starts protesting. She says that if he touches it, he can’t sit next to her anymore. Their dad stretches forward with his camera and says “I have to take a photo of the hero!” People here poison them with insect spray because they’re frightened of them and think they’re dirty. We reckon they’re great though and they do a fantastic job of keeping the insects down. Lachie gets really close and checks the lizard out from head to toe. He names him Gary Gecko.
I enjoy the bus trip. From the confines of Singapore’s high rises, to the open road, the hills, valleys and now familiar tropical vegetation makes me feel relieved. Singapore is busy, densely populated and highly built up and while I enjoyed visiting, being a country boy I always like to fall back to open spaces. Along the way and bloke has been asking the driver to stop and dashing out to sort stuff out. I got to thinking “hang on mate, you’re holding all of us up here, why can’t you just sort your shit out?” It was getting a bit rich I thought. At the lunch stop however, after we re-boarded the bus, I couldn’t believe it when he was even given a turn at driving. When’s my turn?
Lachie, Oscar and I get lots of rest on the bus which is just what the doctor ordered. It gives us time to be with ourselves and our thoughts since we are sitting in the single seats. The kids actually enjoy this and said they preferred the coach to the plane. We arrive at KL around 3.30pm and grab a taxi to Mark and Deb’s in Petaling Jaya, just 16km out of town. I didn’t actually have enough cash for the taxi so I gave him everything I had including a Singapore $2 note. The cabbie took the lot. Inside, I say “Merry Xmas” to their smallest child (the one I dubbed “ninja” on our earlier visit) Ong Jia Chen. He replies “Merry Christmas. Who are you?” and proceeds to tell me that he likes Uncle Carter (his swimming coach) but that he made him disappear back home today…Ong Jia Chen has some powerful Chi going on in his little body. Later he asks him mum if he cries harder will I return?
We’re getting ready to go snakehead fishing. I’ve carried my rod and reel around Malaysia for four weeks hoping to target this species because they are widespread and have adapted to drains and ponds being a swamp type ambush predator that can even live outside of water. I saw a River Monsters program on the bullseye snakehead that is aggressively invading North America and was gripped watching Jeremy Wade catch these then track down its cousin, the giant snakehead that had allegedly killed a man in Thailand. One of these was kept in a tank at Nomad B&B in Kuching and when I’d asked if I can submerge my underwater camera for a shot, they mentioned that someone from Sweden had tried this and it bit him. Mark and his dad have organized some seventy little brown frogs for bait, and these are being kept in the shower and get a bath everyday to keep them hopping and fresh. We re-bag these ten at a time for each fisherman and load up our rods, food, drinks and eskies into the 4wd for a quick getaway in the morning. A couple of frogs did get loose in the bathroom, but they’re no match for ten year old boys.
At 05:30 there’s a knock on my door. It’s Jonathan, but I don’t don’t need a wake-up call, I’ve been awake since 4 – as is common when I’m going on a fishing trip. It’s a quick breakfast of enormous meat and veggie bao, out the door at 6:14 and into the pajero for the long drive to the district of Bidor in the neighboring state of Perak. One of Mark’s friends Sam joins us who is an equally keen fisherman. At Kampung Coldstream we pull off road and into farmland and palm plantation where ponds and lakes abound. We pull up at a beautiful large pond surrounded by tall tropical grasses and covered with thick kang kong pond weed (kang kong is one of my favorite vegetables by the way). One side of the pond borders a palm plantation, another has nesting storks in some tall trees adjoining a Peking duck farm. These scatter as I approach, all herding away from me. In the distance I smell a pig farm and at various intervals can hear the squealing of feeding time. There is a family of Asian Otters in the pond behind bobbing up and down busily (everything otters do looks busy).
Excitement mounts as we see fish rising all over the pond and arcing fins scything the surface. Big fish. These are the telapia and carp that are being raised here – I suspect on effluent from the pig farm – suspicions founded by the smell and crust at a drain pipe entering the pond on the other side. Mark shows us how to stun the frogs, then pierce their heads to kill them and rig them up so they can be cast and retrieved over the weed without getting snagged. This is foreign fishing to me. We cast the frogs on top of the weed and slowly retrieve them. They get caught as we drag them back toward us, then release in a jerky hopping motion which simulates a live frog. Top level predators, the snakehead living under the weed sense the vibrations and sound and strike at the frogs – that’s the theory anyway.
Lachie has a couple of hits that mangle his first frog but doesn’t hook up. I eventually have one grab a frog but on setting the hook, the frog pulls straight out of it’s mouth. The next take I get, I actually strip line to let it really swallow the bait before trying to set the hook, but the strike pulls it free again and the frog sails past my head. Mark has missed a couple too, though his dad has landed one. I’m a bit perplexed so I switch to something I know. Maybe being the aggressive “eat anything” predator, they’ll take a soft bait. I rig up with a hot pink Strike Tiger grub and start a slow retrieve and bang I’m onto a good fish first cast. These fish are so powerful and the waters full of weed and snags that we’re fishing high poundage line and a locked up drag so I just hold it and let it tire whooping “I’m on!!!” across the water. The kids grab the fishing bag and start running toward me. On landing the fish, it’s grabbed the lure so hard, I have to physically prise its jaws open and use pliers to get the hook out. I’m elated that I’ve landed my first snakehead. I lift up the fish and take a good look and snap a few shots. The head is flat and pointed like a snake with two beady black eyes on top. The mouth wide and hard. The skin on the fish actually looks like snake skin – black on top changing to white underneath with a primal type of fin running over it’s back and halfway under it’s belly. These ancient monsters are well represented in the fossil record and look like it too. They are prized for their healing ability when served as soup to convalescing patients.
After a few more casts, I lose the princess on a snag. Switching to an old faithful Berkley black and gold T-Tail after noticing some small grey baitfish in the water, a few casts later I’m on again. This one’s a bit smaller, so he gets to go play another day but he’s completely chopped the T-Tail in half. I head back toward the car where the kids have retreated and on the way back notice a snakehead hovering in the water a couple of feet from the bank. I toss out the T-Tail and draw it past it’s nose. I dangle it there, then jig it up and down – it pays no attention. Perplexing. Somehow these fish need to have their aggression triggered to make them strike – the most aggressive are ones protecting their nest. These have been known to attack people – such as the kayaker in Delaware.
I wander back to the opposite shore to find the boys have given up because it’s hard to cast and retrieve a dead frog continuously with no result, and are playing around the car so I tell them just chuck the frog in the water instead of baking it crisp on the roof of the car where their rods are leaning. The sun is really up now and starting its torment. The rods are now leaning against some tall grasses with the frogs sunk to the bottom. It’s not long and Oscar’s rod pulls flat. He races over and strikes to find nothing on the end. The hook fails to set again. These fish are tricky. I cast it back in for him, but this time strip of lots of loose line. The snakehead are taking the frog into their mouth, moving away before swallowing. Any resistance leads to the frog being spat out. The next time he’s rod bends, he has his first snakehead.
Around midday, the heat starts to beats us into submission. Even though we’ve got full sleeves and hats on, the heat is what I consider an preview to hell. Eventually, with my core temperature rising, I give up and sit in the shade of a short palm oil tree, half naked trying not to move. The boys accompany me and we suck back water and 100 Plus an isotonic fizzy drink. We are wilted. Husked. Punished. Oscar plays around a nearby palm trying to climb it and I let him know that there are sometimes ant nests in there. Sam who has joined us for some relief mentions that he doesn’t usually venture too far into palm oil plantations because of the cobra’s. I let Oscar know about this too.
Eventually Mark and his dad pull over and give way to the juggernaut that is the scorching, oppressive sun and sitting down in the shade with us. Mark has copped a leech helping land my third haruan (the local name) which was tangled in a mass of weed. We decide to head into the nearest Kampung and get some drinks and shade. Oddly, his dad recommends the curry noodles, which equally strangely were so delicious the boys were nearly licking the bowl.
I photograph the lady preparing them, scooping the noodles into a huge boiler to cook them and the old aunties around a plastic table on the corner all laugh and tease her in Malay. She ducks and looks embarrassed, which encourages me, so I switch to video and film the scene. A table of men are flipping and shuffling mahjong tiles. They must be escaping the heat too.
Around 4pm we head back checking out a few other ponds on the way, but returning to our original site. The boys continue with their bottom fishing as this seems to be the most effective method in the middle of the day. Jonathan has hooked a fish but struggles to land it. Oscar takes over manning the rod and Lachie gets down and hand-lines the fish in. They call it a team effort and chalk it up as a “Band of Brothers” effort. Lachie still hasn’t landed one on his own, but just before we call it a day, manages a small one, so we’re all happy.
Thunder clouds begin to roll out across the horizon and we hear the rumble. The odd lightning flash goes off and a cooler breeze has picked up. The light changes from the harsh white light of a fiercely hot day, to the warm evening glow of a monsoon clouded evening. The pond looks really pretty now, and I can see rain on the mountain range. I count the time between the flashes and rumbles and conclude the storm cell is still a few kilometres away. The breeze is waving the grasses and the white storks are hovering over their nests. Eventually it starts to spit and satisfied with our catch of thirteen, we decide to start our long trip home.
It’s dark now and the boys are all asleep in the back of the Pajero. We’ve had a sumptious feed of charsiew, roast pork, yam, fried sweet potato leaf, and soup on the way back through Bidor. We fly south along the Utara Selatan Highway toward Selangor and the road is relatively uncrowded. In the back it still smells froggy and the silence as each of us is lost in thought is punctuated by pounding on the roof of the esky, as the prehistoric channa striata launch themselves out of the shallow water and crash their bony heads into the molded plastic in a bid for freedom.
I still feel hot.
he 5am start today made it the equivalent of 8am AEST so going back to sleep wasn’t going to happen. I had walked Nani to her taxi and she asked me to photograph the drivers I.D in case she went missing. She either has a vivid imagination or an over active sense of caution.
It’s pouring rain which makes the shower drain in our lunch box sized room gurgle. Somehow the storm water downpipe and our shower drain are intimate in ways I’m sure are not healthy (something like brothers and sisters marrying). I pretend I like the gurgling like its a water feature as I lie on the hard mattress and wait for dawn.
The kids are awake around 6 so by 6.30 we can’t hold out any longer. We head down to the common room for the second B of the B&B. When we enter we rouse someone sleeping on the floor. It’s Chris the manager – now that’s commitment to the cause! He gets up and starts pulling out fruit, fresh bread, spreads, cups and plates. He laughs with the kids and teaches them to juggle while I toast their bread. After brekky he plays guitar while the kids play Jenga and scrabble on the floor. 16 Brisbane Grammar year 12 girls on an end of school trip with their minders appear. Time to clear out.
Chris makes Nomad B&B what it is. He’ll probably blow dart my aussie ass for saying this but oddly he reminds me of Rob Schneider and who doesn’t consider Rob a close friend? You can do eeet!
It’s not the most modern nor the cleanest of hostels but judging by former guests texta scrawls on the wall it’s one of the most popular. An Iban by birth Chris sports traditional tattoos by world famous Ernesto the Borneo Headhunter and his hand tapping method. He tees up an appointment for me to get a consultation for some inkwork on my shoulder.
A pet giant snakehead lurks in a fish tank in the common room. Ernesto had tried for 2 years to catch one before landing this one in a lake “somewhere” and repatriating it to become Nomad’s mascot. I ask if I can photograph it by inserting my waterproof camera. Chris says it bit the last person who tried. Snakehead have been described as the mafia of the waterways because they literally mug their prey without warning so I take a happy snap through the glass. The snakehead drifts towards me nonchalantly, eyeball swiveling as he sizes me up. He’s thinking he could take me.
A smaller fish swims around with him. This confuses me as snakehead are renowned for being aggressive and territorial. Chris explains it was put in there as food but it had refused to eat it. Normally it just inhales live fish so fast you can’t even see it happen, but it seems it’s taken this little guy under his wing and decided to befriend him. Chris said he did this with another fish once before. I ask what happened to it and he says the snakehead ate it after 2 months. Must have been a fishy falling out I guess.
I get to Celcom to buy a SIM card and am directed to a reseller because they didn’t have stock. The sun was merciless on our walk to the reseller. I break out the umbrella. After hacking a normal SIM down to a micro with some expert surgery involving a cutter and blade it’s slid into my iPhone. This is where things go pear shaped. We learn the phone is locked. This is after me calling Telstra last week to discuss using an overseas SIM. I jump on the resellers laptop and find a number for Telstra that can be dialed from overseas (not easy). I call and am on hold freaking out because I’m global roaming and I’ve heard the horror stories of the charges people have been extorted. Telstra ask for my IMEI and process the unlock (something they used to charge for) and tell me I will need to sync with iTunes after waiting anywhere from 5-72 hrs. Umm hello? I don’t have my Mac with me?!? Thank god I’ve sent the kids off to look around because this was starting to really stress me out. My head is starting to hurt. I pay for the celcom SIM wondering how the hell I’m going to sync to iTunes and take the kids to buy some sandals because when we arrived Oscar ripped his sandals apart.
We catch a taxi back to Nomad after lunch and on arriving Abbey says she’s lost her shoulder bag – I mean the shoulder bag Nani’s friend had lent her for the trip. You have to be kidding me! I round on her and say “so we have to spend another 24rm to go there and back to retrieve a bag with 10rm and a 6rm pair of socks in it? Huh?!” Then I read her the riot act. All I want is for you just to look after your own stuff!” I’m ticked. My head hurts. The taxi driver takes us back. We go upstairs to the hawker store and I make her ask the staff. No bag. I find the waitress who cleared our table. Nope. Now we’ve spent 24rm retrieving nothing. Hang on. Maybe she left it in the toilet.
We had been to the toilet earlier. A strange experience as there was a bloke sitting in front selling tickets. The boys walked straight past him. I stood and looked at what was going on. Half of the patrons paid, half just walked through. I decided to pay 20sen for Abbey. He gave me a blue ticket. Was there a ticket collector in there like at the movies? I ask for toilet paper when I see the little rolls in front of him. 10sen. I gave Abbey the TP and in she went. I then went in myself. Nobody collected my ticket. The urinal was an amazing baked on yellow color from decades of abuse and the smell might have been similar to the smelling salts they must give boxers who are partially KO’d because it really jolted me and cleared the sinuses. The boys reckoned the toilets were long drops and the floor was all wet in there and there were hoses lying in there for two purposes (use imagination). They thought it was amazing in an amusing “check this out!” kind of way. Fortunately my kids are used to gross stuff and have an appreciation for levels of grossness that deserves an award. What was amazing was that it was the only toilet we had been charged for and it was the worst! No wonder half the people didn’t pay – silent protest?
So we rush back to the box office of the toilet from hell and our ticket seller notices us and hands over the red shoulder bag. I make Abbey use all her money to pay the taxi driver. He must have pitied Abbey and gives me a 3rm discount.
I send the kids to the room to rest instructing them not to open the door for anyone. We decide on a line from their favorite movie Benchwarmers as my password for them to let me in. I wander over the road keen for some man-time to chill out and restore my zen. I knock on the door of the Borneo Head Hunter Tattoo Studio and Robinson lets me in.
I head upstairs to Ernesto’s dimly lit and smoky studio decorated with antique malay artifacts, statues and art. Neither Robinson nor Ernesto wear tops – just shorts. They have long hair and traditional Iban tattoos on their backs, chest and arms. Ernesto is playing a guitar. I meet another Aussie there who is psyching himself up to have a tattoo banged in with a stick the ancient tap tap method for which Ernesto is world famous for. He gets flown around the world by conventions who bring him out to demonstrate his craft. The Aussie from Melbourne teaches English in South Korea.
I start to chill out and we start to discuss what I want. I tell them my life changed after a difficult experience and that I had to fight to get to where I am today after experiencing severe depression. They discuss how Iban would symbolize this. Warriors used markings to commemorate significant events on their journeys. They say that the dragon represents my story of victory but I don’t want a dragon. Then they say the serpent has new life because it sheds its skin. I don’t want a serpent. I have second thoughts. We talk a bit more and they speak in Malay and Robinson starts drawing. I’m not sure what they’ve decided but I’m chilling so let it all happen. I flip through their albums and learn the significance of various patterns. I learn how the dragon is embedded in the pattern (unrecognizable if you don’t know what to look for). I ask if they can omit this element and they’re cool. I eventually find the style I’m looking for and Ernesto said that’s exactly the style they were working up for me. Bingo. It’s based loosely on a stylized crab prized because of its tough armor. The first draft is readied and held to my shoulder. But it’s not yet what I had imagined I wanted. I suggested some modifications and Ernesto and Robinson made some changes. It looks great. The consult has gone an hour and another Aussie arrives. he’s from Healesville but works in Singapore. I ask if his tap tap tats hurt much. He reckons its much better than machine and you bleed less so it heals faster.
It’s time to wrap up. The ESL teacher has waited an hour so i ask for a quote and we make a tentative date. they spread out a bamboo mat. I ask to watch a bit and he asks me to take a few happy snaps. Ernesto dips a long stick with a needle attached into the ink. Robinson seated on the other side stretches the Aussies skin and Ernesto starts tapping. I click a few off and it’s time to go.
After a good one hour man time my zen is restored and I cross the road to make sure the children haven’t become the contraband of a well oiled people trafficking operation and aren’t already en route to Thailand – one of Nani’s concerns about them being out of eyesight. They’re are still there and much password asking and giggling takes place. I doubt much rest took place.
With the kids still bouncy (remember that neither pooh, rabbit, or eeyore appreciated tigger’s bouncing) I had to take them out again despite needing zzz’s myself. I’m looking for shoes for Lachie that he can bash around jungle trails tomorrow. As we ready to head out the heavens open with a downpour and a few flashes of lightning. Everyone outside takes cover. We do too but ours is umbrella and waterproof jackets. We walk in the pelting rain that is so hard it penetrates my umbrella. We slosh through roads now running with water. The air is cooler now and much more pleasant. The kids are loving it. Isn’t it fun walking in the rain? Sometimes it’s good to be reminded to see things as a child.
After trying three or four shopping centers we find shoes. Our pants are soaked from the runoff but i didn’t buy quick dry for nothing. The kids don’t mind. Time to eat.
We ask shop staff and they point “down there” for some good makan. We eat chicken and mushroom handmade noodles and drink iced teh tarik. We finish this off with fried bananas. There were other fried things. We asked about them but language failed. A boy came over and tried to help but he couldn’t remember the English words for them either. I figured one was sweet potato and bought a few of the other small fried mysteries that were about chicken nugget size. The food comes with a plate of red sauce. The bananas were yummy but the sauce turned out to be sweet chilli so it was strange but we kept dipping. I bit into one of the nuggets and there was a nut inside it. A chewy fairly flavorless nut a bit like a chestnut but firmer. It wasn’t til I got to the end of it I detected a faint taste like durian then realized it was something like jack fruit and the seed wasn’t meant to be eaten. Duh. I informed the rest.
We decided to walk along the beautiful paved waterfront along the swollen Kuching river as the light faded. Small hawker stores dotted the banks selling drinks, ice creams, souvenirs and popcorn. Abbey says hi to a group of soldiers. Some say hi, others ignore her. She keeps going and I’m thinking “maybe not a good idea honey”. Then she starts marching alongside them (they weren’t marching).
We wend our way through the old part of town with its rustic old buildings, narrow streets and open drains buying pink and white sticky, soft chewy kway? Queh? The pink turtles steamed on a square of pandan leaf had yellow bean inside and the white golf ball looking ones had sweet shredded coconut.
I have succeeded in wearing out the kids. It was their best day of the trip so far they said. I’m wondering where on earth can I hook up to iTunes.