Sitting in my hostel in Singapore, I was struggling with deciding on my next destination. I had to be in Australia to meet my girlfriend at the end of October, so had some time to fill. I'd initially planned on seeing if I could journey to Australia without taking any flights, but after researching this further it turned out it could be done, but not within my timeframe, or indeed without slightly jeopardising safety.
So, I booked my flight to Darwin for mid-October and set about getting there...via Borneo. Like with so many of the countries I've visited, I didn't really know much about the place, but had images of thick jungles and tribal inhabitants living by traditional non-westernised means.
Borneo is a big place, comprising Indonesia in the south, and Malaysia and Brunei in the north. Most of the action appeared to be in the north, and my main reason for coming was to dive Sipadan. Whilst I was here I thought I'd take in some rainforest and see the country ruled by the famously wealthy Sultan of Brunei.
I touched down in Miri, a small city in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak, checked into the only hostel in town and set about seeing what there was to see. Borneo already felt different to my recent travels through 'developed' South East Asia, and I could tell my experience here would be more akin to my travels through Africa; more challenging but consequently more rewarding too. There were noticeably few westerners here.
Miri is the gateway to the Gunung Mulu National Park and Niah Caves. I made my way to the caves the following morning via a couple of complicated bus trips (my Malay is severely limited!), and arrived just before lunch on the fringe of primary rainforest. Although the 3km trek through the rainforest is made easy for visitors, it felt exciting to be in a part of the jungle where there were so few people, and most of those I met were natives.
The caves didn't so much as loom into view as suddenly appear, dominating my field of vision - cathedral proportions. At least a hundred meters high and extending back a couple of km, the view from the entrance was spectacular. Until recently, it was thought the worlds oldest homo-erectus skeleton had been found here, dating back 40,000 years; an older specimen has been more recently unearthed. But like with Egypt's tombs in Luxor, archaeologists are still making valuable finds today in the caves; just a few weeks before I visited they discovered three more skeletons which are currently being excavated. One of the American travellers whom I'd met in the hostel had told me about these. He'd jumped the fence and pulled back the plastic sheeting covering a skeleton to get a photo, but I didn't have the bottle to do this; there was a sign up saying the penalty for interfering with an archaeological dig was two years in a Borneo jail, not something I was keen to experience. I wish I'd been able to see them though!
I spent a couple of hours exploring the depths of the caves. I felt like a kid again at one point when I felt my heartbeat elevate. I'd just seen the site of the recently unearthed skeletons, and to get back to the entrance had to walk through a pitch black 200m long passage. My torch was dodgy and kept failing, it was wet underfoot so whenever I tried to walk too quickly I slipped, and my imagination was running riot; all I could think was 'I'm in deepest Borneo, by myself, in a pitch-black cave where they keep on unearthing ancient skeletons! Oh, and what was that noise?!'
Like a true hero, I emerged into the light of the main cave unscathed. The caves provide a living to a number of brave locals in the form of birds-nests. Birds nest soup is a delicacy and can fetch as much as $500 per kg, not that I'd try it, it sounds pretty disgusting when you hear that it's actually the bird's spit holding the nest together that provides the 'exquisite' flavour! Acquired taste? The guys who venture up into the lofty heights of the cave ceiling are either incredibly courageous, or tapped in the head; either way I bet they don't get afraid of the dark! In order to access the nests, they suspend huge lengths of interconnected bamboo from the ceiling, and shimmy up it. With a noticeable absence of 'HS&E', it's an incredibly risky way to make a living, and deaths from falls are not unknown.
I was pleased to leave the hostel the next morning, I wouldn't recommend a stay here to anyone. The woman running the place is seriously strange, and not that kind to the hoard of cats that provide a certain aroma to the place; she is a truly cruel individual.
My journey to Brunei reminded me of the escapade from Southern Laos to Siem Reap in Cambodia. It was a bit of a complicated affair. Another distinction of Borneo is that due to lack of appearance on most travellers' itineraries, there is very little set-up in the way of tourism logistics - again, this can (at times) add to the fun. So, my journey into Brunei comprised a bus to the river crossing where whilst I was waiting for the boat, one of the local fishermen showed me his prize catch of the morning, a Leopard Shark - not good. The boat took me across the river where I boarded another bus which took me to the border crossing. Off that bus, through immigration and onto yet another bus which took me to the local bus station where I boarded my final bus which took me to the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (rolls off the tongue). Like I say, all part of the fun. Brunei
I thought the streets would be paved with gold; they weren't. I arrived early afternoon and by the evening, I'd seen everything I'd wanted to. The bus journey up from the west of the country had revealed how Brunei had made it onto the world map; oil. For about an hour I passed row upon row of nodding-donkeys (land based oil pumps), that's a lot of crude. There were even pumps dotted along the greens of the golf-courses on which the Shell ex-pats were hitting below par - there's not much else to do at weekends unless you venture into the neighbouring Malaysian states, so these guys get a lot of practice.
The landscape changed to a usual South-East Asian city as I approached Bandar. After seeing the mosque (one of the most grand in South-East Asia), I took a river boat trip to see the Sultan's Palace and the floating villages. My guide had obviously been bought up in the tourist trade, and with his limited command of the English language it was quite a quiet boat trip. It turned into a comedy tour. I was asking him if he could explain the sites, he'd reply with descriptions such as 'bird', 'house', 'boat' or 'river' before returning to his cigarette which he'd left burning on the gas tank. (I've noticed that as I've been travelling I've increasingly picked up Americanisms, 'gas', 'cell phone', 'trunk'...Hollywood's influence means it's easier to communicate like this).
After the previous night's Chineese theatre, it was time to say goodbye to Brunei and hello to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo's adventure state. After an equally complex journey by bus and boat, I arrive in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu. We made quite an entrance. With a window seat I could see our boat draw closer to the dock, when suddenly everyone on the pier started running. As the boat's captain lined the boat up for our entrance he accelerated hard at which point the engines cut. We were drifting at speed, and the people on the dock must have anticipated what was about to happen. The front of our boat slammed into the pier, riding up on the splintering concrete. The front of the boat was damaged, and the pier in a mess. Despite this, we unloaded and the awaiting passengers boarded the boat for the return journey; I would not have been comfortable making the next crossing!Malaysian Sabah
Kota Kinabalu (KK) is a great city. I only stayed one night, but from what I saw of it, I was impressed. Famous for its sunsets, it also has probably the best food night-market I've been to. I'd heard about the Filipino BBQ, and thought I'd give it a go. Eventually finding the stalls among the myriad of culinary options, I made my king-prawn selection and sat amongst the locals who helped me create just the right mix of soy and chillies for my dipping sauce. Eating proved tricky, the rice was not the sticky variety and trying to pick this up with just your hands is a challenge! This was one of the best meals I've had so far on my travels (although it still doesn't compare to the feeling of finding Subway in Tanzania after a long hard month - sad isn't it!).
After eating, I went to buy some trekking gear. I'd signed up to climb Mount Kinabalu. At 4095m, the mountain is the highest in Borneo and despite being no Kilimanjaro, it's still a challenge. Table Mountain in Cape Town is a short but intense climb due to it being steep the whole way up. Mount Kinabalu is like this, but it's two days up and down as opposed to a couple of hours, with 99% (this is an underestimate) being unrelenting knee-high steps. Our group opted to take the long route up, short down. With the route being so steep we gained altitude quickly, and the views were impressive early into the climb. It took us around 6 hours to reach Labana Rata, our rest-point for the evening prior to starting our summit trek around 2am. With hot-chocolates in hand, we ventured out onto the wind-swept decking to watch the sunset. And what a sunset; I'm not lying when I say this is the most awesome visual spectacle I've ever witnessed. The myriad of intense colour forming the backdrop to the silhouette of the dark jagged mountain side reminded me of the NASA images you see of sunset over the earth; it was an experience I'll never forget. I took a ridiculous amount of photos and found it nearly impossible to delete any. (I also got to use a fellow climbers digital SLR camera; the difference is incredible, I've got to get one of these!).
We were all fairly tired so after three plates of pasta we hit the bunks around 8 o'clock to get some much needed rest. One of the Chinese guys in our dorm was sound asleep already when we entered the room, something that was obvious from the high decibel levels emanating from his nostrils. Needless to say only one person slept well for the precious few hours we had, but it was still fun throwing pillows at him and trying pretend nothing had happened when he woke! The youth of today!
It was cold when we started out in the middle of the night, but after about an hour the relentless steps turned into rock into which ropes had been tethered. Despite now having to pull ourselves up on these ropes whilst ascending the rock face, this was a welcome respite from the steps. We reached the check-point around 4:30am, a time that meant we were doing just right for a summit sunrise. Our guide had the key to a hut too, so whilst all the other groups were resting outside in the frosty wind, we got our energy levels back in sheltered comfort. The final push was a 1 ½ hour trek up the granite before a final steep ascent to the top, which I actually ended up doing on my hands and knees! It had been a challenge but we'd made it to the top, and timed it perfectly. A number of climbers had ascended too quickly, and got so cold waiting at the top for sunrise that they had to descend early. About five minutes after we summited, the horizon started to brighten. The sunrise was pretty awesome with the surrounding mountains slowly coming into view. On Kilimanjaro I'd suffered badly from the altitude on the last couple of days and summit day had been incredibly difficult; I was still climbing when the sun came up over Africa...on Kinibalu I'd been determined to make it in time.
After the obligatory success photo's we made our way back to Labana Rata where we briefly stopped for breakfast before continuing our descent back to the park headquarters. We made good time, but our legs were destroyed. One of the girls in our group ended up needing antibiotics for her swollen ankles. It had been an awesome couple of days, something I hadn't expected to do in Borneo.
After collecting our gear from the base, three of us decided to go to Poring Hot Springs. The thought of soaking our aching muscles in natures natural Spa sounded too good to be true; unfortunately it was. Whilst the springs at Poring (handy name for a town that has natural springs) were set amongst the quiet forest, they had been set-up to effectively be tiled baths which take around 2 hours to fill (no joke). Anyway, it was good to have a few beers that night and refresh ourselves,
My journey towards Sipadan took me to the town of Lahad Datu where there wasn't much of note, then onwards to Semporna, the base for Sipadan. With one of the world's best dive sites just off the coast, I was imagining Semporna had capitalised on this and become a little like Koh Tao; I was mistaken. It's a run-down town with the main attraction being the market. It's a pretty filthy place full of mosquitos, and so it was good to get on the boat the next day to head out to the Oceanic island of Sipadan. The dive more than lived up to it's reputation - incredible.
I had to wait for an opportune moment for the turtles to swim past so as I could get a clear photo of the reef sharks - awesome! My dives the next day didn't compare, and I made the stupid mistake of jumping off the boat onto what I thought was a sandy bottom. The coral sliced my foot like a hot knife through butter, but I had to just grin and bear it, as I still had a full day out on the boat ahead of me. They had no first aid kit on board, and coupled with the dodgy equipment, this led me to cancel the next day's diving.
To get into Indonesia, I'd planned to drop south into Kalimantan, Indonesia's Borneo state. I bused it to Tawau to get my visa from the consulate, only to turn up and be told the consulate was closed for the next six days due to Ramadan. So, plan B. Fly from Tawau to KK and onwards to Jakarta where I would be able to obtain my visa on arrival at the airport. Not too much of a re-route, but this meant I was forced to travel all the way down Java towards Bali; my original intention was to get a boat from southern Kalimantan to Surabaya (Eastern Java) or
Borneo was a fantastic, unexpected addition to my itinerary. During my two weeks there I'd trekked through primary rainforest, been within 20m of wild Orang Utans, scaled a 4000m peak and witnessed the most incredible sunset, and descended into one of the world's best dive sites teeming with incredible marine life.
So, what treasures will Indonesia reveal?