Stardate October 1995 and I find myself in another part of the universe out beyond the gamma quadrant in Sabah on Borneo. I hope that some of you received a postcard and apologies to those who didn’t. Although I paid for the trip myself I was sort of combining it with work for the Trading Places (Ecological Economics CD ROM) Project as one of our case studies was Malaysia. I just happen to have a friend who works for the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia who invited me to go over and have a look at the forest situation there. This friend also does freelance photography and writes stories for various newspapers and magazines on tourism so I was also the lucky beneficiary of a few freebies along the way!
The first week in Sabah I stayed in Kota Kinabalu and relaxed and looked around. My friend was still working so I had to occupy myself. One day I went to the Sabah Museum and another to Pulau Sapi one of the islands off KK (as the locals call it!). At each of these locations I was instructed to fill out a form for one of my friend’s projects – a guide book to Malaysia’s top 50 ecotourism sites. One afternoon we went to hear a visiting boffin from London talk about the total eclipse of the sun that was due to happen in a few days time. Being one of the few Matsalis (foreigners) in the audience of course we made it on to the Malaysian news that night!
Another day I started out solo early one morning to see the Rafflesia Information Centre. The Rafflesia is the largest flower in the world at approximately 2 metres across and I was told that I would be guaranteed to see one at the centre. The journey involved climbing on board a local minibus full of locals and waiting until the bus was full until we could depart. One hour later I was still in the ‘car park’, fortunately engrossed in conversation with a teacher who wanted to practice her English. Finally we got away accompanied by the obligatory radio at full blast playing the mushy love songs that seem to be prevalent. Seriously…I’ll scream if I hear Bryan Adams tell me ‘it’s not worth dying for’ again!!
After a couple of hours the minibus let me off at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with vague waving of arms towards the little hut on the other side of the road. The hut unfortunately was shut for lunch and wouldn’t be open again for another hour. Not to be defeated I set off in search of a Rafflesia on one of the walking tracks. Unfortunately, there had been some very heavy rain and even with my ‘Himalayan’ trekking boots it was hard to keep my footing. As I stood for a while it dawned on me that no one knew where I was and that if I slipped and fell I probably wouldn’t be seen again! With this cheery thought in mind I gave up and returned to the hut. As I sat and waited another couple of tourists turned up in their 4 wheel drive. Lew and Bee were from the mainland – Kuala Lumpur to be precise – and had borrowed the car from his brother. Soon after the Centre opened, but we were out of luck. The Centre consisted of a few photos and information boards around the stunning centrepiece of a plastic tree and a few plastic Rafflesias! Apparently, the closest real Rafflesia was about 1 1/2 hours walk from the centre. Since there was nothing else to see I resigned myself to waiting on the roadside for the next minibus back to KK but fortunately Lew and Bee said that they would be going back to KK that evening and asked if I would care to join them on a tour of a few of the villages. I had a great afternoon. Lew and Bee plied me with food and took me to a few of the more interesting places.
In the second week my friend was on holiday so we set off on a few of the freebies. First we headed off to Gunung Kinabalu – to climb all 4100m of it! Although Mt Kinabalu is the highest mountain in SouthEast Asia, all the guide books say that it is the easiest of mountains to climb. Don’t believe all you read – even though I was quite fit and had been in the Himalayas it nearly killed me!
We got to the Gunung Kinabalu National Park HQ late afternoon in the rain. We had scheduled the climb for the next day so that we could catch the total eclipse of the sun half way up. The next day we set out with our compulsory guide, Bintu, for the 8 hour trek to Laban Rata, the staging post for the assault on the summit. I had taken a video camera from work and I thought it would be a good idea to try to capture the eclipse on film. Of course following the boffin’s advice we knew we couldn’t point the camera at the sun so we set it up pointing at the summit and thought we would film the light change. What we hadn’t accounted for was the automatic exposure changing each time it got darker and so we ended up with a fascinating 10 minute piece of gloomy video with me doing a voice over! Just before the eclipse we also lost the summit as the clouds rolled in! Film-wise it was a bit of a disaster but an eerie experience to remember for ever as all the birds stopped chirping and the gloom took over. Plus, not many people can say they were half-way up Mt Kinabalu in a solar eclipse.
Anyway we made it to Laban Rata along with a few hundred other people and crashed out early as we were to leave at 3am the next day to get to the summit. We shared our dorm with a couple from England and the woman was definitely suffering from altitude sickness, although she wouldn’t believe us. She insisted she was going up to the summit and I never knew if she made it or not.
At 3am the next morning in the cold, dark and rain we set out with all the other idiots people to climb the 2 1/2 hours to the top. In a way I’m glad it was dark as I couldn’t see the sheer drop as I gripped the guide ropes in some places. Even though I kept saying I couldn’t go on, I knew I had to as I couldn’t go back! Most people go to the top of Mt Kinabalu to take spectacular photos of the view of the whole of Borneo – we got to the top in thick mist and took photos of ourselves in what looks like the middle of a movie set complete with dry ice! Narrowly avoiding stepping over the edge and the 1800m plunge into Low’s Gully, we headed straight back for breakfast at Laban Rata. After a quick bowl of noodle soup, we had to race back down the mountain to HQ as we were expected in Sandakan that night. Just when you think you’re over the worst, the climb down tests out a whole new set of muscles. Five hours later we made it to base, collected our backpacks and certificates to prove that we’d done it and more or less sprinted out to the road to get a minibus to the other side of Borneo.
After 4 hours in the back of the minibus from hell we wished we were back at the summit! The drivers had done their best to kill us all several times and I had completely lost the sense of feeling in my legs. We then had to get on a local bus (the Marakesh Express we called it – animal carpet wall-to-wall!) from Mile 32 Checkpoint to take us the rest of the way to our hotel in Sandakan. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that we were going to stay at a 5 star Hotel for free at the end of it all. Just when we thought we were safe and about 5 minutes from our destination, the “monsoon” kicked in. My friend tried to bribe the driver to drive us, in this local bus, up to the Hotel. The rest of the passengers were keen as they probably had never been to the Hotel, but in the end the driver decided it wasn’t worth his job. I could just see us rocking up to the best hotel in Sandakan in a rickety old bus with all the passengers hanging out of the windows waving and jeering! In the end I arrived in the foyer looking like a lost survivor from “The Bridge on the River Kwai”! I’ve never been checked into a hotel so fast before.
All was forgotten the next day as we set out for our free trip to Turtle Island National Park to see the Green Turtles. The island is quite exclusive with a limited number allowed to stay on the island each night. We were there as guests as my friend was writing a feature article for the Malaysian Star newspaper. The boat took about 1 1/2 hours to get to the island. On arrival we had lunch and then we had the rest of the day free. I took advantage of a swim and a sunbake on the beach while my friend took photos. That night after dinner we waited for the rangers to fetch us for the turtle watching. I started up a conversation with a couple who turned out to be from Norwich! Then I heard a Bristolian accent – small world. Suddenly it was all action stations as the rangers came to take us to the turtles. Worst of all was the group of marine biologists from Holland who proceeded to break all the rules that go with turtle watching. I must admit I felt a bit uncomfortable about the voyeurism and tended to hang back so I didn’t get a really good view. The episode where we let the hatchlings go was also close to a farce as the Dutch group trampled the poor things in their effort to get closer to the action. The Malaysian rangers, who due to their cultural background do not like to be too assertive, just let it happen. I couldn’t help feeling that the turtles would be much better off if we left them alone.
The next day we went back to Sandakan and in the afternoon went to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. My friend had worked with the ranger there so we got some special treatment. I was filming some of the larger ones on the feeding platform when I felt a hand on my ankle. i looked down to see three of the younger ones that were using me as a climbing frame! It almost impossible to describe how cute they are, their behaviour is human in so many ways. Tiara the youngest threw a complete tantrum when she didn’t get enough attention. It’s very hard on the rangers as most of the Orangutans who are there have been illegally domesticated so the rangers have to encourage them to become wild again and even teach them to climb, when all they want to do is cuddle.
From Sandakan we flew to Miri in Sarawak and then on to Gunung Mulu National Park where we took up another VIP guest experience in the Five Star Royal Mulu Resort. Gunung Mulu NP is famous for its caves – the Sarawak Chamber, Clearwater and Deer Cave. We saw all of them in the rain! But I suppose that’s to be expected in the middle of the rainforest. To get to the caves you have to take a boat up the Barram River. Most of the boats are operated by members of the Penan tribe. The Penan are traditionally nomadic rainforest dwellers but increasing pressure from the government through rainforest logging has forced them off the land and to radically change their lifestyle. On the banks of the river are some of the longhouses where the Penan have been relocated. We visited one of the longhouses and were saddened to see the conditions and the boredom. We were however fortunate to have a ‘chat’ to the elder courtesy of some basic Bahasa Maleyu. This particular elder was 70 years old so we (and he) discovered when he handed over his ID card! He had the most fascinating face with the traditional Penan haircut and tigers’ teeth through his ears. These he also handed over for closer inspection. Once again I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the sense it was like gawking at exhibits in a zoo.
The last few days of my trip were spent in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak where we visited the Sarawak Cultural Centre – a living museum of the different ethnic groups in Borneo. Here we saw Bidayu, Penan, Iban, Chinese and Melayu groups in their traditional dwellings doing traditional arts and crafts. Good photo opportunities!
After my big trip I think the wanderlust got to me as I decided to apply for the Australian Volunteers Abroad Scheme whereby Australians get to work in a developing country for 2 years. I’ve now been through the whole recruitment process and I am awaiting my placement in July 1996. In the meantime however I’m going back to Sabah to work for WWF Malaysia in their Rainforest Interpretation Centre in Sandakan (UPDATE: now redeveloped as the Rainforest Discovery Centre) for three months. I’m going to be setting up some environmental education programs and since the Sepilok Orang Utan Centre is next door I could be doing some work there as well!
ADDENDUM: As it turns out the three months back in Sandakan turned into 2 1/2 years partially as a volunteer and partially paid…but that’s another story for another day!