With the cost-reduction “thou shallst take holidays” edict still in effect and having just been in the UK for a lovely wedding, it seemed like a good idea to go somewhere far, far away for the subsequent Christmas weeks – but where? Well, the island of Borneo looked interesting, and being about 5 times the size of the UK and shared by 3 countries (Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia) it gave some scope for exploring, so I booked a cheap flight which routed me via Moscow.
The alarm went a 4 a.m. and I got to the airport only to find a flight delay of 30 minutes, which worried me, as my connection in Moscow was just an hour, and I was more worried when I was refused entry at the gate. Despite the e-mail confirmation that I would not need a Russian visa (learn, Stacey), it turned out I did. I was delighted as this meant it was now Lufthansa’s problem to get me to Asia on time. The ground staff was a little taken back as it was the first time they had bumped a passenger who was happy about it. But Lufthansa rose to the occasion and I was soon on my way again, this time via Munich. As I approached the gate I was refused entry again and had to go back to the counter, but this time it was good news as I was handed a business class upgraded for the 11 hour flight. Happy Ian.
Arriving in Asia, I teamed up with a good friend and our first major point of call was Brunei. The guide books are a bit sketchy about “attractions” in Brunei – we quickly did all the sites in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan; the mosque, boat trip around stilt village and the Royal Regalia Museum, where the coronation display answers the question “what do you give the sultan who has everything” – a huge beer mug (from UK) and a golden miniature oil rig stand out. With nothing else to do, we hired a car to visit two real highlights for me, the billion US$ white elephants that the Brunei finance minster (by chance the Sultans son) built while in office (at a time the $ was worth something).
The first is the Empire Complex, which cost US$1.1 billion – an amazing conglomeration of hotel, country club, cinema and golf course of epic proportions – beautifully maintained it would work in Las Vegas, but is simply too big and opulent for such a small country. The second at the other end of the maintenance scale is the haunting Juradong Playground Park – an amusement park with formerly world class rides. After being built, the principle of free admission for the people meant there was no money coming in to maintain anything and as the rides decayed they were simply closed. Now it is like walking through a bad Scooby-Doo cartoon, with beautiful decorations crumbling to the ground, ghostly roller-coasters and eerie, empty water-ride plunge pools, which I am sure once delighted screaming guests. The silence in the park was deafening.
From there we headed to Malaysia to explore the eastern part of the Island of Borneo, known as Sabah. The flight with Brunei Royal Airlines was interesting, as we taxied out the PA system broadcast a rather long prayer asking Allah to bless the flight, which seemed to work just fine and we arrived safely at the surprisingly modern Kota Kinabalu Airport. The town had a lot to offer, modern shops and a huge food market where fishermen hawk their catch. You simply select the nicest looking fare, sit down, have a drink, and by then your seafood selection has been grilled and served on a plastic plate complete with steamed rice. I gorged myself on monster shrimps – some of the best I have ever eaten.
The next morning we were up early to continue our route to the impressive Mount Kinabalu peak, Kinabalu National Park and the associated botanical garden. Now call me old fashioned, but a botanical garden for me is a big glass constriction (à la Kew Gardens), here it is a simply a sign painted on a gate and you walk further in to the jungle. After seeing some orchids and a really rare blooming raffesia we then traipsed up the canopy walk in 35°c heat, which necessitated a subsequent cooling dip in the adjacent waterfall pool – brilliantly refreshing. From there we drove the 200kms over somewhat paved roads to the Sepilok Mountain Lodge, where we arrived at dusk and were greeted by a lovely welcoming committee of 40,000,000 mosquitoes.
We headed off to visit the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation center, a not uncontroversial body that collects orphaned and stray orangutans, tags and tattoos them to prepare them for a life back in the jungle. After the usual propaganda video, we watched a feeding – normally about 8 of these rather languid creatures turn up, but naturally on our watch only 3 arrived – my theory was that the rest were recovering from hangovers from a boozy Christmas Eve party the night before.
We moved on to the Kinabatangan River to the Proboscis Lodge, so remote it is only reachable by boat. Luckily, the mosquitoes from Sepilok had phoned ahead to let their brethren know were coming and far bigger welcoming committee was waiting, but we took to the river and did 3 boat expeditions (dusk, night and dawn) as well as a jungle trek. I had for foregone the leech socks for sale at reception, so the trek was interesting as it gave me the chance to come face-to-face (well, face-to-thigh) with a number of tiger leeches, which were luckily spotted and removed before they did any serious sucking. Perched on the end of a leaf, they reacted aggressively to body heat stretching out with an urgent desperation. These harmless, but revolting creatures, don’t frighten me per se, but let’s just say I was wearing 2 pairs of tight underpants that day expressly to prevent and unwarranted sucking in the control zone.
On the boat expeditions, the amount of wildlife our local guides could spot in the dense foliage was incredible and we witnessed a plethora of animal life including pigmy elephants, monkeys, orangutans, snakes, crocodiles, monitor lizards and numerous birds. The highlights had to be watching 2 proboscis monkey families showing off to each other across a river tributary and a kingfisher at night that froze in our light beams and allowed us to come literally within touching distance – the colour kingfisher blue has new meaning for me after that encounter.
We then headed off for our final port of call, Sandakan, stopping off on the way at the Gomantong Cave to witness the locals harvest birds’ nests at insane heights on flimsy ladders, whist breathing the ammoniac stench of bat guano and having their (and our) feet overrun by cockroaches. Sandakan was a jumping-off point for Turtle Island. The point here was obviously to see turtles laying their eggs at night. They can come ashore anytime from 8pm to 5am, so an overnight stay and a lot of patience is called for. There are only 22 rooms (with primitive, shared facilities) on the island, so invariably there are about 50 visitors, who cluster around a frightened animal when she finally makes it on shore and digs a hole. We saw 2 turtles, the first one made it in at about 9:30pm, but she was a nervous first timer (she was not tagged) and only laid 14 eggs, so we waited for the 11:15pm showing, where an old hack turned up and dumped 87 golf-ball sized eggs. Then the hatchling from a previous laying were released and I strategically stood close to the water – the absolute highlight was when the water washed two of them next to me, which necessitated a serious climb over my foot and toes. I suddenly felt very close to these tiny creatures and wish them well on their long journey to become a responsible adult (chances of making it < 5% – about the same as mine, I reflected on the long journey home.)