Trip Start Oct 20, 2008
19Trip End Oct 20, 2009
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"Do you want to see the Bearded Pig?"
"We could go and have a look at the largest flower in the world"
"Is that the one that that smells of rotting flesh?"
"Does the insurance cover us for being fired out of a cannon?"
.....and so things are shuffled, scheduled and prioritised without ever really knowing what obstacles lie ahead.
Before continuing to Borneo we had a 5-day interlude in Singapore mainly to sort visas for Vietnam & China and landing directly from Delhi felt like we'd been transported from biblical times to the set of the Jetsons. Trawling our backpacks through this immaculately cultivated world we craved some sharp new clothes and a shave (well, Fiona anyway). So, living the dream in the land of wealth we shared our dormitory with 3 others: - Andreas - a 39yo Swedish guy who entered the room announcing he was two-thirds through a rabies course of drugs after being bitten by a dog in Vietnam and if he should start growling and frothing at the mouth in the night we should probably leave but shouting and swearing in his sleep was normal. Second was an effeminate mute Filipino on his holidays who, when he left, gave us all a gift, some piso currency and a written note. My shell necklace was accompanied by a worrying note which read "keep the love burning" which sounded as painful as it was to read. Lastly there was Habib, a happy and well-mannered Pakistani of about 25 whose amazing skill of balancing perfectly on his top bunk without a wobble whilst praying to Mecca was only matched by his will and unending smile in trying to find a job. Despite a deadline to return to Pakistan (something he was worried about in the current climate) being offered a job at the Filipino's massage parlour in Kuala Lumpur, sitting through a 4-hour sales pitch for life insurance which he thought was going to be an interview and a persistent interviewer inviting him to a Christian bible study group failed to dent his optimism. But as far as I was concerned nobody snored so all were welcome. In fact, being nothing more than a stop-off point for travellers between worlds we counted ourselves extremely lucky with our merry band noting a whole raft of oddball characters roaming about this International Mental Home for the Itchy of Feet. After 5 days Singapore's plastic fantastic world and impressive but suffocating efficiency was enough and without the spare cash to splash in the dizzy array of shops we were keen to move on.
We flew into Borneo and were a little disappointed to find our mental images of a lush green jungle paradise dashed by towns of 60's concrete carbuncles whose layout and atmosphere we didn't really understand. It was difficult to see what Malaysia was? For our 4th wedding anniversary we stayed on one of the many idyllic, Robinson Crusoe islands off the coast. With a bit of truth twisting (or lying as it used to be called) we were upgraded to a double storey, 4-person villa on the beach. With every detail set in dark wood the sights and smells of luxury were difficult to give up the next day having had the best night's sleep, on the best pillows, in the best bed I'd ever slept in.
Apart from this occasion we had to retreat nightly with the general public back to the built up mainland. Itching to leave the town of Kota Kinabalu we arrived in the equally depressing town of Sandakan and checked into the Mayfair Hotel at the end of a long concrete maisonette. The hilariously grumpy owner, Mr Lam, sat in a low chair on our arrival in reception watching TV in his briefs and white vest and grunted, knarked by the interruption of paying guests. We liked him immediately and, like smiling assassins, took every opportunity we could over the 4 days to wind him up for the craic. If he wasn't good value enough the room was a complete replica of a private hospital room.
Apart from hanging around with the cool-as Orang-utans in Rehab and a moving afternoon at an old Japanese POW Camp we were left in these soulless towns pondering our whole reason for visiting Borneo and feeling trapped in some Orwellian nightmare. As we saw it if India was for the culture, Nepal the natural world then Borneo, however much it unnerved us, was about the living world so we went all out to find some rainforest to satisfy ourselves. We did some research and delving and got wind of a place called Maliau Basin - a lost wilderness discovered by chance in 1950 and never inhabited by humans due to its density. Still only 25% mapped and normally only available to the scientific/research fraternity (1982 being the first expedition to go in) this primary rainforest sounded just the ticket. We found an authorised operator who offered 5days/4 nights trekking even though the area was not yet officially open to the tourist public and wheels were set in motion. We were back on track. Having to sell one of Fiona's kidney's to pay to go (lucky we were already staying at a hospital) and requiring a certificate of health from a doctor that we were fit & healthy we had a week to prepare ourselves properly with the urine samples, paperwork, equipment etc so we thought it best just to hit the beaches on the other side of the island to kill some time.
We took a coach along the lush green lined roads to the town of Semporna, a springboard to major diving sites on the outlying islands and the next day took an hour's speedboat out to the island of Mabul. The gentle waters were littered with refugee Filipino boat-people as we whizzed passed picture-postcard sand islands with single palm trees atop.
We hired a couple of snorkels and headed for the white sands on the other side of the island (a 10-minute walk). Floating on the smooth, crystal clear water was like looking into a giant fish-tank, the bizarre array of fish (i wish i knew the names of) swishing amongst the exposed brains and colourful plumes of coral. Some larger fish like barracuda and the scary looking crocodile fish that came to say hello sent me spluttering into my snorkel but despite my initial ungainly sloshing and gargling of seawater the fish were no more bothered by me than people would be if i played for of Accrington Stanley. Who are they? Eggactly!
Unfortunately on the second day walking back through the village we noticed a crowd of people gathered round. Curiosity forcing me forward I peered over the circle of people and saw the sad image of a child lying pole-axed on the floor with blood coming from his nose. I hastily retreated but found out later the boy had been hit by a large coconut falling from the palms above (not the furry brown ones!), a relatively common occurrence. Despite help from a passing western medical student (there is no doctor on the island) and a boat to the mainland (an hour away) the boy's body was returned the same night having never regained consciousness. On the quiet island there was no sign of hysteria or overt an show of emotion - village life seemed to continue in the same quiet relaxed vein into the evening. We were told the boy was taken out that same night by his family for a traditional sea burial and this unflinching finality together with the fragility of a split second left us feeling a little numb.
After a few days on the island we headed back and took a further bus to Tawau where we were getting picked up for the rainforest trek. On the morning of the off the rain continued to beat down as we made the 5-hour ride by pick up with our guide Zool (is that the name of the baddie in Ghostbusters??) who bounced around like Zebedee excited to be visiting Maliau Basin. We stopped briefly at a viewpoint off the dirt track but outside the conservation area we were heading for. The vegetation was tangled to such an extreme density it was difficult to imagine walking through it let alone charting a pioneering course across it. The canopy layers we could see at our lofted height were a sea of a million greens - bottle greens, mint greens, racing greens, pea greens and emerald greens all blending to hide the millions of habitats below. The sobering reality of logging trucks had passed us occasionally and from our viewpoint you could see the difference in the area being cut as a stark fragile green merged nervously into the protected bushy blanket of health.
We reached the 1st camp in the afternoon, the sleeping area housed in an open, corrugated iron shed with 2 rows of taut canvas stretchers jutting out from the walls and a central walkway all elevated off the forest floor.
We set off the next day at 7am with a tough climb up to the lip of the basin. Mercifully, the humidity wasn't too high as the inclines were so steep in places that loose rope banisters and 20ft metal ladders were laid out on the trail. Visibility through the thicket was a trick on the eyes as the matte of thin wiry trees and leaves made it difficult to assess distance and space. It felt like all the seasons were playing themselves out all around us. There was the dank wetness of a British winter, the sprouting promise of spring, the humidity of a tropical summer and an autumnal bed of red and brown leaves springing beneath our feet. At the top, tired sweaty and keen for a break from the army of leeches, we took in the panoramic view of the basin and the distant areas of this lost world untrod by humans. The onslaught of persistent leeches eventually became easier to manage pick and flick off ourselves although the trouble with making yourself a paranoid fortress is that once breached the stealth leech will feed and feed until it just falls off fat and drunk on blood. My blood.
We continued in the afternoon along precarious slippy tracks, steep drops, knotted roots and spongy moss until the tangle gave way to Takob Waterfalls. Marveling at the natural amphitheatre Zool and myself jumped in the stewed tea-coloured pool and swam under the shards of waters falling over 2 layers of rock strata aver 20 metres above. There is no greater feeling of freedom than swimming in nature's swimming pools.
As the light faded at 6 the forest came alive with the noise of those waking up and those clocking off for the day. It was like the fevour of rush hour traffic - a symphony of hoots, toots, squawks and shrieks in the descending blackness. We had caught glimpses through the day of langur monkeys, deer and the much lauded bearded pig. That night at our second camp a curious Malaysian civet cat and a leopard cat came up to to say hello but none of the animals including the monkeys we saw were used to human contact and were mainly frightened. That was also true (if not more so) of the larger animals we didn't see like sun bears, clouded leopards and pygmy elephants (although in reality they probably stalked us all the way). We were also only told at the end of the trip about the flying snakes! (no joke)
A carb-heavy breakfast in the morning was needed for our second day 20km trek as we re-entered the forest, the rangers hacking at the overgrown path with hunting knives. We were soon up and into different rainforest (dipterocarp) which was much denser underfoot but gave a clearer view of the sky. The trails were no more than 30cm across and with the mesh of thin trees, twine and branches it was easy to lose sight of a person 5-10 metres ahead. With the leeches quieter in this area we could enjoy the view a bit more, the bright but grey skies turning the forest an ethereal silver and the comforting cover of moss billowed out of the floor. Trekking back into the 'normal' (montaine) rainforest the ground was slippy and craggy after heavy overnight rain and apart from the occasional rope to help you abseil down the steep slopes we spent a lot of time just sliding until we could cling onto an available shrub. Filthy and almost swimming in the humidity we arrived at the pinnacle of our trek, Maliau Falls - a seven-tiered waterfall of such majesty it was difficult to imagine it had lay undiscovered for so long. More pool swimming but the force of the water and spray from the falls meant I couldn't even get close.
Over the remaining two days we continued through the magical shady wetness gradually being worn down by the humidity, sweat-sodden clothes that wouldn't dry and constant thirst. We had loved every single minute - a true challenge in a pure environment - and we felt very privileged to have been able to visit. On the last morning, safe and unharmed, we bid farewell to everyone. Out of the conservation area and with the skies now bright we drove past mile after mile and hour after hour of cleared rainforest. In its place were neat rows of palm tree plantations used for their oil in a range of products (including biofuel). The"lush green roads" we'd driven along to Semporna were the same and we realised these arching fans of exotic beauty were responsible for the death of part of Borneo's incomparable biodiversity. Borneo is literally being shopped to death with current estimates putting an area the size of Switzerland having been deforested in a 40 year logging legacy (not to mention the strip mining). It was just more pronounced to us having just experienced what had been irrevocably destroyed and it then became clear to us the puzzlement we'd had with Malaysian Borneo on our arrival. Despite being the most genuinely happy and friendly people we'd met it just didn't feel as though anything other than indigenous people should be settled there. Observing the incredible coral and fish and the staggering array of animals, many endemic to Borneo, man's presence simply looked and felt awkward and cumbersome.
(apologises for the self righteous, Jerry Springer-style Final Word here - promise to tone it down!) .
We flew out of the more cosmopolitan city of Kuching in the southern state of Sarawak ready to play the green, wide-eyed traveller again in a new country.
PS We have finally found some super duper fast internet connection and Fiona's photos are finally up-to-date and you can see what i've been warbling on about. www.flickr.com/photos/fiona236a