So much to do in Borneo, yet so little time as usual
08.07.2008 - 23.07.2008 32 °C
My adventures in Borneo started with a whitewater trip to the Kiulu River near Kota Kinabalu, in the north-eastern corner of Borneo. So I went to the Kiulu expecting mild rapids, as I'd been told that it was only levels 1 and 2 white water rafting. Well, my 'mild' rafting adventure resulted in me being thrown into the river three times! In fact, the one rapid held me under the water for what felt like forever - it was probably just a few seconds though. Despite wearing a fat life jacket, the water was still strong enough to keep me under, and before I knew it, I was being thrown around in what I guess, in white water terms, is called a 'washing machine.' It threw me up to the surface as I was beginning to imagine never surfacing, and I came up a little short of air, but pretty chuffed by this wild Bornean experience (what a tourist... ).
Kota Kinabalu is a pretty nice little city. I stayed at North Borneo Cabins - a classic backpackers lodge. I met Brits Tom, Natalie and Becs - and we hit the local bar Hunters for some well-earned Carlsberg Towers on a couple of nights. Our pool playing skills declined as the nights grew longer.
The city (KK) is centrally located for plenty of adventure stuff: rafting, climbing, jungle trekking, etc. I used it as my base for a few days and after doing the rafting I headed to the world-famous island of Pulau Sipidan/Sipadan for some ridiculous diving. My accommodation: an oil rig...! I dived with SeaVentures, an operation based off the beautiful Mabul Island. To cut the diving talk short, I can honestly say that Pulau Sipidan is the most amazing underwater experience a person can get, either through scuba or simply snorkeling. To give an example - I was taking a break on the island after my first morning dive and decided to go snorkel for a few minutes. I entered the water and within 60 seconds an enormous turtle had swum passed me, a reef shark cruised beneath me and a giant barracuda was just chilling in the current a few meters from me. I stuck with the turtle for a while and we cruised along the reef for about five minutes, only a meter apart. It didn't mind at all.
I ended up doing 13 dives on Sipidan and Mabul. I was blessed with massive amounts of sealife on every dive, Sipidan in particular because it is an island that literally rises straight from the depths of the ocean. On one side of the island the water drops to a 900m basin, while on the othe side it drops to 2km's. You literally do wall diving where you stare into the inky blue beneath you, knowing that the deeper you go, the bigger the fish get! I stayed pretty shallow...
On the way back from one of the dives, we came across some whales. The skipper lined up the boat so that the whales came right passed us. They were perhaps 8 meters away when the the last whale decided to dive deeper. It was incredible watching it spurt water right in front of us, and then lift it's tail into the air as it dropped down to deeper water.
On the last dive, I saw perhaps forty turtles. It was crushing leaving the island, but there was more in store for me at Gunung Mulu National Park...
Gunung Mulu National Park:
Gunung Mulu National Park is famous for a number of things: The Pinnacles (weird limestone formations on top of a mountain), immense rainforest, massive flora and fauna diversity, and the world's biggest caves. I took a little MASWings twin-propellor plane to Miri (re-named 'Miri Resort City' with lots of cheasy adverts at the airport), and then flew in to Mulu airport, which is more of an airfield. Its brilliant actually: to ensure good conservation, the park managers decided years ago, that to prevent the chopping down of the rainforest, they would make the park accessable only by air, or boat. No roads lead into the park.
[As a sidenote, flying from Kota Kinabalu to Miri allows you to see the infinite wealth of the small nation of Brunei.
It only takes 10 minutes to fly past the country, but if you look north out to sea, you'll notice dozens and dozens of massive oil rigs just a couple km's from the coastline. The Sultan is clearly still making a killing - apparently he owns 3000 cars or so.]
The park has plenty to offer in terms of adventure. First on the list were the famous Deer and Lang's caves. Wow. I tried to take some pictures to illustrate the sheer immensity of the Deer Cave cavern, but sometimes pictures just can't match actually being there. Visitors walk through the rainforest along a wooden boardwalk starting from the main camp, and after 3km's of dense, wet forest, you face some large limestone cliffs. The one cliff face has an enormous cave entrance and once you get into it, you find yourself inside the world's largest cave cavern.
My first thought was that it resembled the inside of a hollow mountain. Its that big. The park states that you could fit 5 St. Paul's Cathedrals into the cavern alone, and 40-odd Boeing 747's into the entire cave. It is enormous!! There are numerous waterfalls INSIDE the cave, falling from the ceiling, 120-160m above you, as well as a river that flows right through the cave system. One of the fascinations of the cave are the 3 million bats residing inside (you're never sure if its water dripping onto your head or guano!) Most afternoons, the bats depart from the cave in huge groups to feed on the insects of the rainforest. However, viewing this amazing event takes some luck, as it rains a lot in Gunung Mulu, especially in the afternoon. And when it rains in Mulu, it rains hard!
After three 6km round trips to the caves, and being drenched on the way back every time (raincoats are useless in such downpours), the bats finally decided to make a trip out of the cave for some food on my third lucky viewing. The bats exit in small groups at first, becoming progressively larger as the evening light fades. They fly in formation, resembling a giant snake, swirling about and moving as one. Thousands of little bats make up each group, and you can hear them, chattering away as they fly over the rainforest canopy. Bat hawks watch from the cliffs and dive into the groups, hoping to make a kill. I didn't see any successes during my viewing. Before I knew it, the open skies had closed in, and the rain came down, and thus ended the spectacular viewing. I trudged back elated!
The 3-day Pinnacles trek is recognised as a pretty tough trek by Sarawak standards. I met up with two Belgians, Martin and Heleen, and we organised for a guide at the office. We joined another group made up of Danes and Englishman Andrew. We stocked up on supplies at the reception (2 minute noodles mostly) and set off the next day, taking a longboat upriver to the trek starting point, which is literally in the middle of the rainforest. We trekked 8 km's to Camp 5 and upon arrival were confidently told by our guide that the next day would be a killer! Great...! He also promptly told us that although the trek would take us 4 hours ascending and five to descend, he had once done the whole thing in 3 1/2 hours. Show off. Nothing like a good confidence boost before doing the trek.
We set out early the next morning. The trek is actually only 4.8km there and back, which made it seem impossible that we'd be trekking all day.... that is, until you see the path. Its pretty much a 45 degree climb. Every 100m feels like an achievement...! We got to the top of the mountain after 3 gruelling hours, and what a view:
After an hour soaking up the view, we headed down - we didn't want to get caught in the afternoon rain in such terrain. I can confidently say this was the toughest 2.4km walk/trek/hell-march I have ever done! Every foothold was slippery, I wiped out a good few times, and every one of us really had to watch how we descended. Many of the sections had ropes and ladders to help you down. The tropical heat was thankfully beaten back by the rainforest canopy.
Camp 5 Power plant..!
The next night, back at camp headquarters, Martin, Heleen and I gorged on hamburgers at the restaurant... we'd earned it!!!
Belgian trek team-mates Martin and Heleen - in happier times... ie. pre-Pinnacles trek!
I have previously found Malaysia to be a little boring compared to some of the other countries I've visited to date, but I must say Malaysian Borneo is just fantastic. If you are even mildly interested in outdoor activites, this place is for you. Its also been great to be in such an organised country. The National Park was just brilliantly run. Compared to the Philippines - dealing with administration here is just a pleasure! My only worry in Borneo is the tiny amount of national parks, in both Malaysia and Indonesia. Any national park map of the giant Bornean landmass shows hardly any areas have been reserved for conservation. This is really worrying, and is confused further by the varying levels of conservation. Ie. In Malaysia you get Nature Reserves, Protected Parks, and Totally Protected Parks... what is the difference, actually? For someone who loves nature, I found the vast landscape of converted rainforest/palm oil plantations around 'Miri Resort City' to be a little sickening. From the air you can see just how much land has been converted to palm oil plantations. It turned my stomach a little. I'd hate to see what remains of the Indonesian side of the rainforest.
And finally, now I'm in Kuching, capital of Sarawak.. and land of the White Rajah's! I won't bore with that piece of history. Google it, if you're interested. Awesome little city, there are lots of nice, old, colonial buildings and a great waterfront with loads of people selling lots of Milo shakes. Don't ask me why thats so popular here...
Yesterday, I went to a local Orangutan sanctuary. Those are some darn funny monkeys I must say. Unfortunately, they didn't do much other than eat coconuts and bananas at the touristy feeding platform.
The hyper-aggressive, foul, territorial, "7 times your strength" dominant male didn't appear either. However, I was well-warned by the ranger that getting within five meters of this fiercesome jungle-beast would probably result in my 'instant' death. I think some of the kids were on the verge of tears after the speech. Personally, I think its a mythical creature, as no-one else at the backpackers has seen it either.
This month's ratings:
Worst Backpackers in the world:
Dieng's in Gunung Mulu National Park.
Biggest Culture Shock Moment:
Opening up a Malaysian Time mag, and seeing an article and pictures of Marijuana covered by govt stickers, going on about unauthorised public viewing or something.
I have one more day here and then I'm off to Sydney to see my Uncle Jim! 11 years is a long time...
Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie!
Oi Oi Oi!!