Borneo

Trip Start Jul 20, 2007
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Friday, May 16, 2008

Our decision to come to Borneo was based on 4 photos we saw in a book on Malaysia. We had come to see Pulau Sipadan, a pinnacle of land Jacques Cousteau described as the second most beautiful in the world. It lived up to expectation. Sipadan is a tiny speck of land in the ocean, small enough to walk around in 10 minutes. Walk out from the beach for 6m and nothing appears spectacular. Take another step and you meet a 600m vertical drop covered with untouched coral reef. Diving around this pinnacle was one of the highlights of the trip. The open ocean creates a strong 15mph+ current that propels you from one amazement to another - hundreds of sharks, eels, turtles, trigger fish, 3000 strong schools of giant barracuda, 1.5m long bump head parrottfish. I felt like an extra in the BBC's blue planet imagining David Attenborough - "this is a strange creature, a menace to the other marine life, lacking elegance in the water using the inefficient doggy-style approach and after years of research we are still unsure of the use of those hideously hairy legs." Cheeky git.

From Sipadan we headed to another of Borneo's wonders - the orangutans. Found in only Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, it was a privilege to actually shake hands with one in the rainforest. They are truly amazing creatures - well I should think that seen as their genetic make up is 96.4% identical with humans. Admiring the incredible suppleness of their hip joints, and their feet, which look and function like human hands, I started thinking that maybe we were better off before we evolved. Imagine opening and drinking a beer with one foot, changing the channel with the other, holding a burger in one hand, and answering the phone with the other. Human kind could double its productivity! And these female orangutans look quite fetching don't you think?
Maintaining the animal theme we also visited the most evolved creature in history - the 200 million year old crocodile. Unfortunately they looked as scary as My Little Pony. Were they playing dead or had they been smoking opium? You could stand in the crocs mouth and they wouldn't even bat an eyelid. I jumped over the fence to do my best Steve Irwin impression but a Malaysian guy beat me to it. 

While the scenery and wildlife have been spectacular, Borneon cities have been real dumps. Dirty, dull and with very little of interest. Also, the people have a guardedness towards foreigners, more so than anywhere else we have traveled. It has been unexpected, particularly considering that the people living here are a random mix of Malays, Indians, Chinese, Philipinos and Indonesians. I hadn't imagined such defensiveness from this eclectic blend of people. While it has been different from other places in Asia I have been admiring some of the steps they have taken to stave off the Westernization that forces itself on pretty much the whole world. Just like everywhere else they are obsessed with Levis and Manchester United, and repetitively listen to that incredibly irritating song that goes "umbrella ella ella eh eh eh umbrella ella ella" (can crimes against humanity be brought against this singer?). However, they have their own versions of fast-food restaurants and a government policy to keep out the likes of McDonald's. They have also done a good job of demolishing nearly all the remnants of a colonial rule that only ended 51 years ago. The general ideology seems to be 'this is Borneo - if you don't like it you can piss off.' I'm enjoying it far more than Thailand's 'this is Thailand, give us some money and we will make it just how you like it.'

You may be wondering how we made it to the eastern tip of Borneo without flying. Well, I'm sorry to say but after 20 countries and over 22,000 miles our overland adventure came to an end when we boarded a flight in Kuala Lumpur. Despite being part of the same country, the only way to reach Borneo is by plane. I actually really enjoy flying for one main reason. When you land and the captain says "please remain in your seats until the plane has come to a complete standstill," everyone simultaneously jumps from their seats and starts swinging around the bags of duty free alcohol that were stored in the overhead compartments. The air stewards look all flustered and everyone stands around for ages wondering why its taking so long to open the exit doors. Then everyone charges off, using their elbows as they jostle for the lead. One day I'm going to put a sign on the luggage carousel - "Congratulations, you've beaten your luggage to the carousel...again. Enjoy your wait."

Although we were initially disappointed we have to admit that the actual process of traveling had become too monotonous and boring. Whereas once we were loving how the scenery was gradually changing throughout the trip, after 10months we couldn't be arsed any more. Furthermore, our proposed route into Australia by land had hit a serious hitch. We were planning to reach East Timor where there is a large Australian Navy presence, hoping to hitch a lift to Darwin with them. However, an opposition party tried to assasinate the president of East Timor, leaving him in a coma and the country on the brink of civil war. The British foreign office advises against all travel to the country, the same warning it gives for Iraq. I'll wrestle a croc but not a man with an AK47.

For the people who have been reading this wondering how you can get to Australia by land, these are the alternatives.
1) A freighter ship that travels between Singapore and Freemantle, near Perth. This is a sure thing, but it takes 7 days, costs $1000, and spending a week on a freighter rather than flying didn't exactly fill us with inspiration.
2) Hitch a lift with an Australian yacht owner from Bali, West Timor, or another Indonesian island. Our first choice before we left we soon discovered that this was going to be extremely unlikely. No one we have met in 10 months has ever heard of anyone doing this. Everyone we met from Darwin laughed at us, saying that if we wanted to travel on someone else's yacht we better make sure we have a suitcase of money to pay them for the 24hour+ journey.
3) Make it to Papua New Guinea where you are that close you can see Australia. The only hurdle being boats from Indonesia only go to the North of the island and it would take about a month to cross the worlds second biggest island North to South because there are no roads through the mountains. This would be an incredible journey but not one for our time limits or depleting adventurousness.

Hopefully that helps a few people. 

For 23 years while I lived in England I was remarkably unpatriotic (apart from the football team). I didn't hold England in any great esteem. However, since coming away and seeing so much of the world I've realised how amazing my country is. So, at the risk of alienating most of my readers, here is

Reasons why England is great (to me) # 1) English Tea and the willingness to change

I know your thinking, isn't English tea actually Indian tea. It is, and this is my point. What other country could so easily accept and integrate a foreign concept and make it fundamental to their own culture. Curry is now our national dish and we're happy about it. We love curry so why not? You don't get people marching around with banners saying 'save the sprouts' or 'be English - have yourself a Shepherds pie.' We found the greatest ever hot beverage and made it our own. Have some of that.
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