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Revenge of the Killer Tomato


Friday, 25 June 2010

1500: Ow! I’ve just managed to poke myself in the eye with the corner of my camera bag. I don’t quite know how I managed that. I hope it’s alright – not from the poke, but from the man-handling it received, being flung around like a box of tissues, by the ignorant creature screening it at Wellington airport. The stuff in my camera bag probably cost as much as she earns in a month. Neanderthal.

We are now at Auckland International; not a bad place, as airports go, but I can’t see the entertainment value lasting for the next 11 hours. Not once the Coke Slushy that Bex is working her way through hits her bloodstream, anyway.

We’re about to embark on one of those surreal composite days you experience when crossing time zones. In round numbers, we arrived at Auckland airport at 2:30 in the afternoon, and we fly out at 2:30 next morning. It costs around $60 for a cab into town, and it’s not worth it when you get there. (Trust me: I’ve worked in this town for 18 months or so. It’s just sterile. It’s like the cultural equivalent of a neutron bomb went off, stripping out everything of any value, and leaving only the money behind. It’s a city for Ray Bandits; what I call the “beautiful people”.) In retrospect, I should probably have just swallowed the cost – enough bile with it, and you hardly notice – and taken the family off to Rainbow’s End. But then we’d have been even more tired, grumpy, and bitching by bed-time on Saturday.

Anyway, I didn’t.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

0200: The wait at Auckland could have been worse. I’m not sure how, exactly, but my instinct tells me that escaping a 12 hour wait at any airport without actual fatalities is probably an optimal outcome. After that, we endure another 10 or 11 hours on a plane. The Royal Brunei flight is a bit quaint, really, with its pre-recorded blessing, little complimentary toiletry bags, elaborate headscarves on the female cabin crew, and ... there’s good leg room. But it’s still not really possible for an old crock with a stiff back to get any real sleep in an economy class seat, especially not with a nine year old slumped against one arm.

0600: A couple of hours before landing there’s breakfast, some sort of garbled mantra on the PA about the death penalty (for drug trafficking I assume, though it might have been smelly socks for all we could understand it), and then we’re quite suddenly in the arrivals hall at Bandar Seri Begawan, in Brunei.

0900: We have a dayroom at the Radisson hotel included in the flight plan, where we head off for a wash and to dump our back-packs (our two suitcases having been checked right through to Kota Kinabalu). The city centre, assuming there wasn’t more of it tucked away somewhere else that we didn’t find, is small and near to the Radisson, which is a blessing, because we’re tired and inappropriately dressed for a day in the sauna. We walked in past the state mosque and back past the Regalia Museum, where we took a few pictures (most memorably of a small gecko on the pavement), but, to be honest, the only place of much interest – little enough – was the mall and surrounding streets. Bex bought herself a raspberry sundae; Jo and I rather less wisely decided to share a “green tea blizzard” which was utterly revolting.

So, that was Brunei, as far as we were concerned.

1400: Back at the Radisson we dozed for an hour or so, then caught the airline shuttle back to the airport for our departure to Kota Kinabalu. The flight was very short; only about 40 minutes. We spent more time in the coffee shop next to the departure gate than we did in the air. But the day was taking its toll: When Jo complained about how cold the aircon was at KK International, I lost it. Spare me, woman. How are you going to climb a mountain when just a chilly room sends you into paroxysms of moaning? Anyway, we had words.

2000: We treated ourselves to a cab to our hotel. This cost RM30, 50% more than Lonely Planet had led us to expect, and the CIMB bank at the airport gave us a shitty exchange rate, too: 2.8 RM/USD versus 2.9 at our hotel, and 3.2 in any mall. If anyone from the Sabah Tourism Board ever reads this, you should close the bastards down. Getting ripped off by some arsehole bank is not the first impression you want your visitors to have.

Fortunately, Le Méridien was welcoming and well-appointed when we got there. An extremely courteous, helpful and efficient young man by the name of Adonis (my vote for employee of the month, if anyone is listening) was able to arrange the additional days we wanted to spend, and we were soon travelling up to our room in one of the four lifts. As we gained more familiarity with the hotel, we realised (Bex twigged to this long before I did) that each of the lifts had its own soundtrack – birds, water, different music – and we even found ourselves having a favourite lift each. I felt a bit guilty not having anything to tip the bellboy with. He seemed to expect it (hovering around showing us how to operate the light switches was a bit of a give-away) but, having just changed the first of our money at Criminals Incorporated Municipal Bank, I had only large denomination notes which I am much too miserly to part with.

2100: We were all just about at the end of our rope by this time, so the only adventure we were still game for, after getting settled into our room, was a brief wander across the road to the night market, and dinner at a noodle stall where the plates were put into plastic bags prior to serving, because there was no running water in which they could be washed. The food was simple and delicious, though with almost no meat. Our water was not bottled; it came from a pitcher on the rickety table. I guess that might be considered to be courting disaster, especially for so early in our trip, but what the hell? I think you can spend so much bandwidth, taking precautions, that you forget to enjoy yourself.

2200: Sleep.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

0930: Officially designated as a rest day, we did nothing but mooch around within a block or two of the hotel. Although there was quite a number of breakfast options, we were still not feeling sufficiently acclimatised to face a bowl of curry or spicy noodles at half nine in the morning, so, in fact, we ended up at Starbucks for scones and danishes and coffee, and I’m not even going to pretend to be embarrassed about it.

1000: Most of the shops hereabouts claim to open at 10:00, though, in practice, the great majority of them were still dark and shuttered at 10:30. Mind you, it was Sunday; a fact one tends to overlook on holiday. Nevertheless, one by one, the girls managed to find acceptable avenues for their lust to spend money; a trinket here, a new top there. At one stage, even I was ahead of the game with a couple of tee-shirts, a headlamp, and a book about teaching science to K-12s, but I was soon overhauled by the professionals. Even my simple plea to stop for some lunch went unheeded in the retail frenzy, and a second request – to cross the road and look at the harbour – was treated with complete contempt.

1430: In the early afternoon, still wanting for my lunch, we returned to the hotel so Rebecca could investigate the pool. This turned out to be a most civilised interlude: Bex frolicked in the pool, while Jo and I lazed back on recliners – Lord and Lady Muck – eating fruit salad kebabs (something to eat at last!) and, in my case, drinking beer. No doubt I’d regret it later, when the bill arrived. After a short time, it began to rain heavily, and kept it up on and off for perhaps an hour or two.

1600: It was still drizzling in fits and starts when we set off for a few groceries, which we’d require for Tuesday. I got a bit snippy with the girls on this journey: I was very hungry, bored shitless with clothes shops, and fed up that neither of them would bring anything (“no pockets” apparently) so that they constantly expected me to have everything they might need, including, of course, money. I felt like a sort of combination pack mule and travelling ATM banking service. Matters came to a head over the painstaking selection of chocolate bars (“Oh, for Christ sake, just pick one!”) and then we were on our way back again.

1830: A quick tour of the fish market took us through to 1830, when the hotel restaurant opened. Hainanese Chicken Rice for two, fish and chips for one, and – at last! – my stomach could stop grizzling.

Monday, 28 June 2010

0340: I was awakened from strange technicolour dreams, in which people I work with capered bizarrely, by ringing from my mobile. I must have left it switched on overnight. Forgetting where we were, Dad rang for a chat. Still, at least the headache I’ve been nursing since the flight from Auckland seems to have abated....

0900: Another day of doing essentially nothing. I’m bored with it; fed up really. But apart from a couple of sporadic suggestions from Jo, not given effect by any concrete action, that we seek out a city tour, the girls seem content with a re-run of yesterday. We even broke fast at Starbucks again, though that was not wholly bad. Raisin scones with good New Zealand butter, and a decent coffee. Better by far than the foul shit Starbucks serves up on Lambton Quay, at home.

My back is sore from standing around interminably in- or outside shops. I can walk all day, but just standing around in shops is painful – in multiple senses of the word.

1800: The afternoon rain did not reappear; we felt gypped. Worse, the heat and humidity just kept climbing. Time to move on, and tomorrow we do ... thank goodness.

Mt Killer Tomato

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

0700: This day started off with the gut-wrenching discovery that my beautiful Sigma macro lens was missing. I recalled getting it ready to go in our suitcases, but of course I could not be sure if I’d done something asinine like leaving it out in the last minute preparations, or if something more sinister had befallen it. Either way, I was gutted. I had imagined taking dozens of brilliant macro photographs of rainforest plants and insects, and suddenly the whole holiday lost a dimension for me. [It was not at home; it can only have been removed from our suitcase at or between Wellington and Kota Kinabalu airports.]

0900: We left our large suitcase with the concierge and waited in the lobby for our guide to materialize, which he duly did: Andrew was the name he gave, though he is obviously local and I suspect it was not his birth name. The drive to Kinabalu Park was interrupted by a couple of stops: The first at a suspended footbridge across a river, with a market on the bank, and the second at a tiny speck of a town called Nabalu. These stops are noted as features in the package itinerary, though, to be honest, neither amounted to anything. The riverside market was stinky and the poverty depressing. There was little more at Nabalu, but at least it wasn’t so dirty, and we were entertained by a spectacular downpour.

1200: Andrew dropped us off at the park HQ, where they took our small suitcase into a baggage room, because our hostel wasn’t ready for checking in yet. For lunch we actually left the park again, though only a matter of 100 metres or so, and ate at a small and rather run-down place across the road. Their lemon chicken and rice was superb.

Returning, we walked to the Botanical Garden, which was well hidden off one of the trails, partly closed (everything in Borneo seems to be in a constant state of running repair) and surprisingly small for one of the world’s famous botanical mother lodes. But, what was there, and the additional bits and pieces (including a spectacular Nepenthes raja) which we could see through the fence of the nursery, were worth the walk and the few ringgit admission charge. The small plants I take an interest in were surprisingly familiar-looking, except for the orchids, and the strange absence of thallose liverworts (though there were many more Jungermanniales instead).

It began gently raining as we drifted back to check in to the Grace Hostel, which was just delightful. We played charades to kill a bit of time while it rained heavily, then, when it eased to a light sprinkle, went to pick up our suitcase and scope out the books in the gift shop. Some promise there. Before going back to the hostel, we briefly checked out the cafeteria, where we saw Andrew having a coffee with two Australian girls who had just come down. They were cheerful, which gave us some encouragement for next day, though a comment from one of them – “retrospect is a wonderful thing” – sounded a sinister little warning in the back of my mind. We returned to Grace Hostel for some more charades and a cup of tea in the kitchen, which we shared with a large moth. He was camouflaged to look like a leaf, though the effect was rather lost on the painted wall of the kitchen.

1800: At 6 I made my way, though torrential rain, to the climber briefing. I was first to arrive, followed soon by an English couple. I said “hi” in the usual way you do, but they looked through me as if I wasn’t there and didn’t reply. May they fall down the mountain and break bones. The briefing started with just the three of us, but others straggled in up to 20 minutes late, which is when it ended. But, if they’d read anything about the climb, they’d have been as well-informed, anyway.


Wednesday, 30 June 2010

0800: We picked up a packed lunch from the cafeteria. It was pretty unappetising, to be honest, and was provided in the world’s stupidest packaging for climbing a mountain: a plastic box, suspended in a twee little cloth handbag. Needless to say we biffed this rubbish and put the food in our backpacks. And if we ever go again, we’ll take our own food.

Although our little room at the Grace Hostel was snug and comfortable, Jo and I – especially her – had a roughish night. I was still being plagued by my ridiculously colourful work dreams. In Jo’s case, it was due to a bad mix of anxiety about the climb and a mushy tummy. She needn’t have worried about the ascent, though. Both of the girls did magnificently today; it was me who was slow and sick. The altitude kicked in at around the 2 km mark (~2300 m) and by the 4 km milestone (~2700 m) I was in the depths of black despair. I can’t write much about the ascent after that; all I can really recall is a series of impossible staircases, one after the other. My heart raced the whole time we were moving, I gasped constantly, and although, oddly, I didn’t actually feel tired, the strength simply left my arms and legs, leaving only a strange sense of betrayal. My guts turned to jelly and at one stage I even had to blunder off the track and into the bushes for a dysenteric crap. So much for leaving only footprints.

The clothes we wore were much too hot. Everything we’d read prior to the trip, including the excellent Lonely Planet book, had warned of the cold. But, in fact, it was 10°C or so; much the same as we’d left behind in Wellington, just a few days before, and I walk around in that wearing only a business shirt and trousers, everyday. I can’t vouch for the summit, because I didn’t get there, but to reach Laban Rata, at least, all anyone needs is a tee-shirt, shorts and trainers. If you’re precious about wet clothes, take an umbrella. Raincoats are too hot. We survived on 2 litres of water between the three of us, but it wasn’t quite enough.


As we climbed higher, the vegetation began looking more familiar to New Zealand eyes: tree ferns (Cyathia, as far as I could tell) replaced the palms, for example. The mosses looked familiar, too. I was sure I saw Distichium, Leucobryum, Dicranoloma and, rather less convincingly, Ptychomnion, on the rocks and fallen branches beside the path. Our guide, Francis, also pointed out some Nepenthes below Villosa Shelter, but I was too far gone to take in the species name (though it may well have been N. villosa, of course) or even to snap a photograph.

1600: Although we were booked into Gunting Lagadan Hut, a few hundred metres up the trail, the receptionist took one look at our little party and found us a room at the Laban Rata (3272 m). Just as well; that last hundred metres might have killed me.

1900: I couldn’t face any dinner: I was feeling too shattered to even vomit, so I just lay down and slept intermittently. Apparently I didn’t miss much. Some guy, a room or two down the hall, was retching noisily most of the night. Poor sod.


Thursday, 1 July 2010

0200: In the end, and amidst tears, Bex didn’t feel she could go up to the peak. It was a decision she would regret bitterly for a few days, and I wish I’d been in sufficient mental state to help her decide to go. She could have done it, and I had full confidence in Francis to get her there and back safely. But waking up a nine year old at 2 AM, and just handing them the decision, like that, was not the way to handle it. Nor could I help thinking that Jo’s lately announced intention to accompany her, since I patently was in no shape to do so, took away some of the determination she’d shown the previous day. It was no longer so special; she was no longer the family standard bearer. Between us, Jo and I, we botched this challenge very badly, and denied her an achievement she’d earned in spades. [It is to Rebecca’s eternal credit that, even at her age, she holds herself, and only herself, wholly accountable for the decision. Honestly, I feel quite a lump in my throat just thinking about it.]

The male half of the couple sharing our dorm had no such doubts, however. He strode off purposefully into the dark, only to return some time around 5 or so, to tell his partner that he hadn’t made it. Poor bugger; he sounded not far from tears.

I’d have to say, though, that the tour packages are set up to fail. Sure, if you’re fit, unaffected by the altitude, and you especially want to see the sunrise from Low’s Peak (4095 m), then maybe you do want to climb most of the day, then carry on to the summit at 2 the following morning. But, for the rest of us, it would be far better to have a good rest, and another 12 hours to acclimatise to the height, then attempt the peak during the daylight, followed by a second night at Laban Rata before descending on the third day. Actually – and contrary to cruel rumours circulated by my family – I’m not entirely stupid, and I had figured this much out from my living room back in New Zealand, before ever coming here. Unfortunately, I could not find any package that was structured this way, and I’d left making our booking too late to have any choice in the matter: I just had to take what I could get.

But I don’t want to give the impression that the climb was a bust. Ok, we didn’t make the summit, and my trousers would never be the same again, but the views were fantastic, the experience felt like a “real” expedition, the flora was amazing, and – hell – I’d do it again tomorrow. Except I have to go to work instead, bugger it.

Apart from some noisy gas, I had nothing left inside me that morning, a situation I was most certainly not about to change by eating breakfast. One bout of diarrhoea among the ferns was quite enough for me. The girls went and ate something while I dozed in my bunk, trying to convince myself that nausea is all in the mind. By this morning, we all had bad headaches; the altitude again, I assume. Water helped a little, but only a little.

0800: My god! Going down was worse! Well, it was and it wasn’t. Although I’d felt sick climbing up, and my limbs were floppy and didn’t go where I told them to go, it didn’t actually feel tiring. Climbing back down, though, really was pretty tough on the legs. Or it may have just have been that I was in a condition to sense it; I hadn’t sensed much of anything on the way up. After a kilometre or so, my breathing got easier and my headache, with the attendant nausea, began to clear. A clutch of Nurofen and lots of water saw it off completely by around the 4 km milestone. At this stage, I was becoming pretty chipper, despite the sore hams, and helping Jo who, despite being as sure-footed as I am walking uphill, goes to pieces on the descent for some reason. Rebecca, bless her, pranced back and forth the whole time, chattering away non-stop until Jo got crabby and silenced her. Yes; she could have made the summit.

On creaking and increasingly sore legs, we ground our way down, passed occasionally by various faster travellers, several having their gear ported (how we scoffed at them!), a man with a stuffed knee being stretchered past, and, incredibly, one woman being piggybacked by her guide. I reckon I’ve seen everything, now.

1530: By about 3:30 we were back at Park HQ, and contemplating lunch at the cafeteria. But between the HQ forecourt and the inviting doors of the Balsam Café lay about 50 steps, which is simply sadistic. Bex ran down them, of course. Mad as a March Hare.

Just prior to leaving, I ducked into the gift shop to buy an interesting looking book on the Mosses and Liverworts of Mt Kinabalu. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I guess, but I wanted it. The cost was RM 20: not much, but I didn’t have much cash at all, so, noticing they had the facilities, I took out my MasterCard. Unfortunately, they refused to accept a credit card for any purchase less than RM 50, and wouldn’t budge (showed a complete lack of interest, actually) when I got lippy. I’ve encountered this before – in Frankfurt of all places, which I had hitherto understood to be part of the first world – though rarely. At home, I can buy a $3 coffee with my credit card if I choose. And it pisses me off. The MasterCard people should defrock these vendors altogether. “For everything else, there’s MasterCard” should mean what it says. I suppose I ought to have left without buying the book, though I don’t think they’d have given a stuff one way or the other, and I saw that as cutting off my nose despite my face. So I caved, and gave the sulky bitch behind the counter my last note.

And, so, the bellboy at Le Méridien dipped out again. Sigh.

Points East

Friday, 2 July 2010

Awas. Awas. I am so over bloody awas. It must mean ‘care’ or ‘warning’ or something like it, and there is an awas sign every 50 metres or so of the 325 km road from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. Hundreds of little bumps and dents on the road have a sign; some as many as three. At least one benign little undulation had markers at 150m, 100m and 50m. But many serious hazards, some deep enough to rip the wheel off your car if you hit them at speed, have none. And by far the greatest hazards of all, of course, are the other drivers. They are uniformly awful. Two thirds of them seem to be incapable of making it out of second gear; they creep over the landscape at a snail’s pace, weaving left and right, or almost stopping in the middle of the road for no apparent reason. I’m talking 20-50 km/h on open road rated for 90.

The other third of the drivers overtakes the first lot on blind corners.

If we ever go to war with Sabah, we’ll be able to win easily, simply by shifting the venue 100 km at the last minute. By the time the survivors get there in their cars (a good quarter of them are unlikely to make it at all) it will all be over.

Even the commercial drivers are useless. Right in front of us – close enough to be hit by the shrapnel – two trucks passing in opposite directions, on a straight stretch of road, easily wide enough to accommodate both, drifted in towards one another, with mutual annihilation of wing mirrors. Mein gott!

We ground slowly up the spine of the island behind an endless succession of dangerously under-powered vehicles, eventually passing Kinabalu Park and the turn-off to Poring. After that, the traffic thinned out a little. A good proportion of what remained were the big palm oil tankers.

The next landmark we passed was Ranau, destination of the Sandakan Death Marches: one of the smaller but no less hideous Japanese war crimes from World War II. Reduced to a handful of words, the Japanese murdered 2428 Australian and British POWs by starving them in camps at Sandakan, then marching them 250 km into the mountains without boots, and shooting them when they fell over. Six escaped; the rest were killed, either on the marches or by working them to death upon arrival at Ranau. Although nearly 1000 Japanese were eventually executed for various atrocities, Japanese war crimes have never stood tall in the global zeitgeist. And, as we all know, the slimy little bastard Hirohito got away Scott free. Perhaps nothing could ever seem comparable to the holocaust, or, perhaps, it was just that all eyes were on Nuremburg. Either way, one of the consequences, today, is that contemporary Japanese are largely oblivious to their nation’s role as a barbaric aggressor during WW2, and have been able to recast themselves in the role of victims. I am told that Japanese histories are laughably obtuse; the annual updating of the rolls each year, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is sick.

Joanne was also sick, and in a far more proximal sense, so we hauled up at a roadside truck-stop to allow her to scarper off to the loo. She has never spoken of what she found in there. Bex and I found some sausages and rice to eat. The other offerings, especially the fish, made we want to vomit. So much of real Asian cuisine – not the sanitised version you get in the west – is small animals hacked to bits with a cleaver, boiled, and served with rice. The flies didn’t add much appeal, either.

Then there was some rain, and we discovered the good folks at Hertz have diligently waxed our windshield, but somewhat less diligently neglected to replace the badly worn wiper blades. It was an ... exhilarating combination.

Miraculously, we eventually arrived in Sandakan, and made our way to the marble colonnades of the Sabah Hotel.

“Made our way”, of course, is a euphemism for driving around in confusion and increasing desperation, accompanied by much swearing, for at least an hour, including a stop to investigate one ghastly accommodation which didn’t appear to have windows in the lower three floors, before spotting the Sabah quite by chance (as we zoomed completely past it) and remembering something positive being written about it in our Lonely Planet.

The Sabah looks quite flash, and its appearance belies some remarkable quirks. Although the architecture looks colonial, in fact it was flattened during WW2 and so it’s all rebuilt. And, somewhat incredibly, the bedding arrangements come in only two sorts: those rooms with two single beds, and those with one massive king. So what the hell are families supposed to do? Hellooo. You’re catering to the tourist industry, here, people! Not business travellers.

Well, we all crammed into one king-size bed, which got us through the nights, though it was hardly comfortable. Still, at least Bex enjoyed the pool ... though even that would have me standing agog the next day.

Dinner was – how shall I put this diplomatically? – fucking awful.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Another rough night for Joanne. The Diastop wasn’t stopping anything and one of her shoulders was blistering. Mornings in our household are never quick off the mark – we’ll be late for the apocalypse; you can bank on it – but this morning was even more protracted than most. Eventually the planets aligned, sort of, and we made it down to breakfast. Fortunately, it was a fairly ordinary continental buffet sort of arrangement. By this time, I’d pretty much lost patience with disgusting food and I don’t think Jo’s stomach could have coped with even the sight of anything seriously authentic.

Afterwards, we went to the travel shop in the hotel, to try to organise some snorkelling for Becky. We were advised against Libran Island (“the water is not clear” – I was suspicious, but, as far as I know, it’s true) and steered towards Turtle Island instead. The price was outrageous – no surprise there, then – at about three times the rate published by Lonely Planet. But, having failed to get Bex to the summit of Kinabalu, I was driven by some internal need to make it up to her and simply took out my credit card, without any theatrics. We couldn’t depart next day – probably for the best, considering Jo’s health – but got a berth for Monday. So we decided to spend an extra day at the Sabah, hoping Jo would recover.

We settled in for the rest of the morning, to watch Bex frolicking about in the pool, where we were privy to the wonderful workings of the Asian mind. Each time it rained heavily – three times, over the course of the morning – some little flunky came running out of wherever he was hiding, to turn off all the little fountains and waterfalls, and close the pool. We could only presume this was to prevent the bathers from getting wet. A magnificent north Queensland woman (I do like Australians, other than their cricketers, of course, who are scum) simply ignored the wee twerp, and kept swimming. Of course he didn’t have a clue what to do about that, so he just stood under an awning and glowered at her. Economically, perhaps, Australia and New Zealand are, indeed, a part of Asia. But I don’t think there’s much prospect for any real meeting of minds any time soon; we’re just too foreign to one another.

This little incident reminded me of a documentary I’d seen on television, in Kota Kinabalu. (I thought it was CNN, but Jo assures me it was just some no-name travel show on a minor channel.) Some Chinese government apparatchik was escorting a kowtowing reporter around Tiananmen Square, skiting that it is the largest public square in the world. How wonderful! How very Chinese. As far as I know, yes, Tiananmen Square is the largest wasteland of flat concrete in the world, and ‘wasteland’ is exactly the right word: it is charmless, ugly, and serves no useful purpose except, perhaps, as an execution ground for unarmed students asking for nothing less reasonable than a role in their own governance. Of course, the grovelling reporter – a disgrace to her profession – didn’t say any of this; she merely fawned.

The afternoon was more of the same, more or less. Bex and I vowed to stay up for Argentina vs Germany, but we fell asleep, leaving Jo watching Frost/Nixon on her own.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

0630: Bex and I began watching the replay. Germany was 3 up when we went to breakfast, and it was all over by the time we returned to our room ... to wait for our respective stomachs to decide what they were going to do with it. Then we headed off to Sepilok.

Driving to Sepilok involved retracing our steps some 20 or 30 km back along the road to KK, mostly through the outlying suburbs and industrial parks north of Sandakan, which proved a good deal easier than finding our way there in the first place, so we were soon at the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. This place was both wonderful and infuriating at the same time. For a start, they’re a cash-only enterprise. The entrance fee is very reasonable – I wouldn’t quibble about the amount at all – but tickets for two adults, a child, and permits for two cameras amounted to RM 95. If there’s an ATM within 50 km, I haven’t found it, so it’s a major piss-off that Sabah’s second or third most popular tourist attraction won’t take a credit card. For god’s sake, people, get your shit together.

1100: We’d missed the morning feeding, which was at 10:30, so we decided to go for a walk. Alas, there was only one short trail open, and – another eye-rolling moment – it closed at noon. Now surely anybody with two functioning brain cells would open the trails between feedings, to give the visitors something to do. But, no; this is Asia. They close every goddamn thing, including the gift shop, so the tourists can’t even spend their money. (To be honest, though, the shop, when it finally re-opened, was a crap-fest anyway. I wasn’t even remotely tempted by any of the kitsch on offer.)

As it happened, the lousy hour we were allowed on the Bird Trail was as much as Jo’s tummy troubles would allow, and was totally brilliant, too. We met ants the size of Rebecca’s thumb, at least 2 centimetres, macaques, a beautiful forest millipede trundling along like a miniature tank, trees with fabulously huge buttress roots, our first leech (“Eek, eek, get it off me!”; no chance for a photo, then, love?), epiphytic orchids, and a few attractive butterflies. As I’d been alerted by my Kinabalu bryophyte book, there was a strange dearth of moss (I saw a few) and no liverworts to be seen at all. Very odd for a kiwi! These plants totally carpet the forest floor, back home.

1230: So ... some lunch perhaps. Well, at the cafeteria there was a choice of soft drinks, ice creams and crisps. Not really lunch, I’d have thought, though at least it wasn’t closed; everything else was. We sat inside for as long as felt reasonable, then moved to a gazebo type of structure, to sweat uncomfortably in the heat and humidity, and doze a bit.

1400: At 2, the interpretive video starts automatically. Unfortunately, the staff are all too lazy, too dopey, or too absent, to remove the ‘Closed’ sign from the door of the theatre. At 10 past, a group of Japanese tourists take matters into their own hands, and opened the place themselves. Jo and Rebecca went in too, but the video was nearly over. (The timer would automatically kick it off again ... next morning!) I couldn’t be arsed going in. No shoes allowed, and I was wearing lace-ups. All charity having abandoned me, by this stage, I assumed the no shoe policy was to save on the effort of sweeping up. I reckon I’ve pretty much taken the measure of the management hereabouts, lazy sods.

1500: In plenty of time, we slowly wandered out along the boardwalk towards the feeding platform. For a short while, we had the place virtually to ourselves, but over time a small crowd of perhaps 50 people built up, watching a couple of orangs hanging about just at the edge of our vision. At 3, two rangers appeared under the platform, and climbed up to it, followed by a hairy friend. The other two soon swung in along some conveniently strung ropes to join them, ate for a bit, then took to the ropes again to pose for the crowd. There is no doubt in my mind they were showing off. As the crowd drifted away, two of the apes reappeared beside the boardwalks, and each climbed onto one of the rangers, who took them off somewhere, one of them gifted with a wet trouser leg and leaving a trail of pee, courtesy of his passenger.

1530: We somehow managed to take a wrong turn on the way back to Sandakan, even though this was our third time over that road, but eventually spotted the tall hospital building, homed in on that, and reoriented ourselves. Back at the Sabah Hotel, more swimming for Bex, a couple of beers for me, and ... you get the drift.

Jo and I still have stiff legs from the walk down Kinabalu!

Monday, 5 July 2010

0930: After checking out, we lodged our suitcases with the Bell captain, and were picked up by a cheerful chap whose name sounded suspiciously like Awas. No; it can’t have been. Our first stop was the Sandakan town centre which, to be frank, is a bit of a dump. Nevertheless, Rebecca managed to sniff out a nice little dress, and was gutted when Jo didn’t buy it for her. (The various conclusions which the two girls reach in the matter of buying clothes appears so utterly whimsical, to me, that I stay well out of it. What makes one item suitable, and another not, appears to have more to do with how each of them is feeling about the other, than with any intrinsic property of the garment in question. On the few past occasions where I have ventured an opinion, it has not only been wrong – which I am not bothered by – but has somehow also managed to earn the enmity of both of them. So now I just walk away as soon as the debate begins. I get grief for that, too, of course, but it is the lesser evil.)

Soon, the other members of the tour package joined us, and we were off to our jetty, which is embedded in a water village. It seemed to be low tide, and the space between the houses and the shore was a mud flat. However, it was hard to see the mud on account of the paper and plastic litter which covered much of the surface. A water village sounds quaint; the reality isn’t. In contrast to the filth below, several of the houses featured delightful and extensive window gardens, often including wonderful orchids. Inside the jetty building were fish tanks and ponds, one of which was home to a pair of horseshoe crabs. I’ve never before seen these animals at first hand, and I was enthralled, but had to hurry to keep up with the party and had time for only one quick snapshot.

1030: The boat ride to Turtle Island took about 45 minutes, during which time we passed some strange contraptions, like hammocks on stilts, far out at sea. Alas, we didn’t get close enough to see what they were. Shortly after that, one of the outboards began making a strange noise, but a brief adjustment from the boat’s pilot corrected that, and we arrived with no further drama. We had a little room in which an extra bed had been installed for Bex – one up on the Sabah, really – and as soon as we’d dropped our gear off, Bex got into her togs and we went and hired some snorkelling kit for her. She hit the water, blood warm, about 1130; by 1140 it had started to rain, and – I couldn’t believe this; give me strength – the life guard closed the beach. “The conditions are not good.” You stupid, stupid, lazy, damn, bloody, arsehole. No; I didn’t say that. It was nearly lunch time, so I just swallowed my gall bladder back down and figured we’d come back afterwards. On the way to the mess, we walked past the hatchery, where three little early-risers were puttering around the sand, no doubt looking for the sea. Lunch was, ah, dubious. I guess it was nutritious enough, but, to be blunt, I’ve had enough of Asian food preparation (hack small animal to death with machete, deep fry, serve with noodles) for the next 50 years.

1430: It was still drizzling when we returned to the beach in the early afternoon. The life guard was nowhere to be seen; it must have been siesta time or something. I let Bex go in anyway, still within the marked area, and, perhaps emboldened by our presence, she was soon joined by a few others. In the end, she had quite a good, long swim, and got the hang of using the snorkel properly. She’d stop swimming every few minutes, stand up, and deliver a shouted recitation to me on the beach, about what she’d just seen.

1930: Dinner was at 7:30, at which time visitors are banished from the beaches. After that we just had to wait. The first group was called about 9:30 or so, but we didn’t get the word until well after 10. When we did, we had to hurry through the dark until we reached “our” green turtle that was laying. The ranger collected 105 eggs, pretty much as they were being laid, while we tourists stood around and took pictures by torchlight (no flash). Later, we trooped back to the hatchery, to see them re-buried under the safety nets, which keep out the crabs and gulls. After that, we all went back to the beach again, to watch the release of three dozen hatchlings, including, presumably, the three we’d spotted just before lunch. It was perhaps 11:30 when we got to bed.

No horseshoe crabs, alas.



Tuesday, 6 July 2010

0700: The boat ride back to Sandakan seemed quicker than the trip out, though it may not have been. We had breakfast (sausages, eggs and chips; aah) at the pier, and this time I got a slightly better look at the horseshoe crabs (alive), and a small ‘museum’ of other sorts of crabs (dead and dried). We were dropped back to the Hotel Sabah and, after picking up our bags and a few words of explanation to the parking attendant, we were on the road again. We retraced our way back towards KK for 50 km or so, before turning off the south, and new territory for us. The traffic on the road to Lahad Datu is not so dense as that on the KK highway, though every bit as inept, and equally dominated by the big palm oil tankers.

1200: I figure that pusat bandar means city centre. Armed with this epiphany, whether it was true or not [it is], we took the correct exit from the final roundabout, and coasted majestically into Lahad Datu. It’s a small town, so we found the right road by the simple expedient of driving through the place, looking at street signs, and parked on the road directly outside the Hotel Perdana. I had been trying for weeks to get some kind of response from the inept bastards at the Asia Hotel, using the application forms and email address provided on their web site, without success. (The useless pricks never did reply.) So, one day before departing New Zealand, I’d looked up Lahad Datu, accommodation, in the trusty Lonely Planet.

Our host remembered my somewhat frantic call, and had a room ready for us. Really, he seemed unable to do enough for us. The whole of the staff were wonderfully friendly, two of the girls immediately descending upon Bex and taking pictures of themselves in various combinations. We had a light lunch, went out for a walk, then slobbed out in front of the telly. Our room was smallish but perfectly adequate; the TV better than the one we have at home. The shower is one of the water-heater contraptions we first encountered on Turtle Island, except that this one worked. The three of us had to share a single king size bed again. It’s sufficient, but, I must admit, I was getting sick of it.


Wednesday, 7 July 2010

0900: Following a rather wobbly sketch map provided by our host, we drove semi-directly to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge tour operator’s office, and checked in. There were the usual Sabah Parks forms, and an indemnity form. Then we were all aboard the bus, and off for three hours of mostly bumpy travel over logging roads. Jo still wasn’t well, so this part was pretty uncomfortable for her. But I think her apprehensions departed quickly enough when we arrived, and were ushered into the dining room with refresher towels, cold fruit drinks, and flax leis. The only drag was that this was another no shoes place; fine if you’re wearing slip-ons; I was not.

1330: Lunch was simple, but probably the best meal we’d had to date in the whole of Sabah, our water glasses constantly topped up by attentive staff. Our room was palatial, and came provided with an outdoor bath (the girls were both in it, singing, as I wrote this part of my diary), and – thank god – a separate bed for Bex.

1500: Our assigned guide, Mesius Yusin (“Mishi”), led the three of us, plus Eva and Susan from the cabin next door, on an orientation walk of about 1½ to 2 hours. This was a marvelous time for me. I suspect not everybody was quite so enthralled, because we saw only a handful of birds, and no mammals at all, but I was just delighted by the ants, big and small, the huge spider (as big as my hand), the Mimosa, and another lovely forest millipede. We stopped to persecute this poor fellow a bit, marveling at how he curled up into a perfect ping pong ball-sized sphere when we poked him. A passing Japanese photographer, Yusuke Abe, toting possibly the world’s most enormous camera, on assignment for the Sabah Tourism Board, took some pictures of Rebecca holding it, and later gave copies to us on CD. They were superb.

When everyone had gone, I waited for the little creature to open up again, helped him turn right-side up, and saw him safely off into the trees again.


Thursday, 8 July 2010

0600: Up at 6: the hills around are delightfully misty and the night chorus still largely underway. We were a few minutes early for breakfast (break out the history books; that’s worth a note on its own) which was brilliant: fresh juice, cereal, fresh milk, yoghurt, sausages, hash browns, pancakes, or, alternatively, rice, noodles, and various authentic local offerings which I no longer even looked at. The sausages are chicken, though, because there seemed to be very little beef or pork hereabouts, and no maple syrup. The butter seemed to be a local brand, whereas everywhere we’d been previously had served up good New Zealand ‘Anchor’ butter to us. Oh, well: even at two grand a day, you can’t have everything.

It was pretty damn good though!

0800: Mishi led us out again, this time on a path which eventually reached a lookout, high over the lodge environs. I guess most people would have found the far off glimpse of a family group of gibbons to be the highlight, but I liked the toadstools, several more millipedes, a centipede with bright orange legs, and the pale orchid flowers (Coelogyne, I think). I also saw a brilliant green damselfly at the “Jacuzzi Pool” where we stopped to swim – well, Rebecca did – but I couldn’t get close enough for a photograph.

1500: Our afternoon jaunt involved a couple hundred metres of walkway suspended between tall, emergent trees. We really were a long way off the ground and, although I daresay the contraption was safe enough, it looked rickety enough for an Indiana Jones movie, and swayed about with very satisfyingly alarming lurches. Arriving back at the lodge, the wild boar mooching about under one of the chalets was soon overshadowed by much running about and excitement over a wild orang which had taken up residence in a stand of trees near the main building. We watched for a while, but the trees were so tall I found it hard to see.

Washing the mud off Rebecca’s shoes afterwards, we found two leeches, one lurking on the tongue, under the laces. We coaxed them out and onto a piece of paper, where I tried to photograph them, but with indifferent results. (No macro lens; sigh.)

1845: Darkness falls early on the equator. We went on a short night-drive (~4 km; 1 hour) looking for animals with a spotlight. The spotter claimed to see a flying squirrel high in a tree (I couldn’t see anything at all) and just before returning, we got a very good view of a mouse deer. I guess most of the guests were disappointed; I know Bex had been hoping for a Western Tarsier. But I was happy. The lightning bugs and the stars were a good enough show for me.

2030: Upon returning, we headed in for dinner, and this seems as good a moment as any to comment on the restaurant. By and large, the food is tasty and healthy: Jo’s and my dysentery vanished, although Jo’s stomach remained uncomfortable. Still, she was sicker for longer, so I guess that stands to reason. There was lots of fresh fruit and a choice of Asian or western cooked food. The service would be rated highly in most places, but there is some confusion about the distinction between good service and merely being obsequious. When I went to the bar and asked for a beer, they would insist upon bringing it to the table in a few minutes. It’s not that the service was slow, although it could be; it’s that I just found it exasperating that they wouldn’t give me a fucking beer there and then. I don’t need it on a tray; in my hand will be fine.


Friday, 9 July 2010

0600: An early start today, to get ready for a dawn walk with Mishi and his trainee, Rachel, to see what might be about. We had a good view of some Red Leaf Monkeys (Presbytis sp., I believe), but the highlight was a pair of wild orang utan. The female crossed the trail directly above us, high in the trees, without fuss. The following male, however, stopped above us and was obviously upset by our presence. He crapped and peed in our general direction, with mercifully poor aim, made a lot of noise, and later threw sticks which he broke off the trees. Quite a tantrum, really. Not wishing to upset him further, we returned down the trail up which we had come.

I’d have been content with another millipede.

0930: After some breakfast, Bex instructed Jo in the operation of her mp3 player, then she and I went tubing while Jo reclined, in solitary splendour, on the lounger on our veranda. The tubing was fairly sedate; most of the time the water was only a few inches deep, but there were some fast currents and three of us (Bex, then Eva, then me) went under. Only Susan survived unscathed. When we were just floating on calm water, though, it was very relaxing watching the forest slowly unfold as we drifted down the warm current.

1500: I gave the afternoon excursion a miss, which proved to be a mistake because the girls came back about 5 with tales and pictures of more Red Leaf Monkeys, a snake, fabulous bugs ... and Jo got leeched! Alas, the great blouse still didn’t hold still for a photo of that.

2015: The evening walk was less spectacular. Although a tree located near a fixed light yielded a brilliant selection of arthropods, the only other things we saw were a couple of fireflies. Still, they were pretty cool, too.


Saturday, 10 July 2010

0815: Our last outing with Mishi and Rachel this morning; quite a long ramble over a couple of trails and back across the canopy walkway. We crossed a bridge in the company of a column of termites that were also crossing the river, and of course there were plenty of opportunities to stop for the helicopter game.

1330: The trip back to Lahad Datu seemed both longer than the trip in, and bumpier, though I daresay it was neither. Bex sat with Rachel, who was headed home for the weekend, and they chatted away like a couple of old mates until they both fell asleep on one-another’s shoulders. We eventually arrived back at the depot, where our rental was sitting ready, right outside, and one of the staff promptly handed me the key. I took a last photo of Rachel with the girls before we, rather sadly, got in and drove away.

Back at the Perdana, our host moved his Merc to give me a park directly across from the hotel entrance, and once more we were happily ensconced in the room at the end of the fourth floor hallway.

We made a brief foray to the Guardian to buy, among other treasures, some long overdue nail clippers, then bought some buns and pastries at the bakery around the corner. While everything looked familiar enough, there, we discovered too that nothing was quite as it seemed....

We slept three-up again, but this time the cold draft from the aircon unit, on the wall directly above me, kept me cold and sleepless most of the night. Dunno why. It was the same as last time.



Sunday, 11 July 2010

0530: Ah, yes. I’d forgotten the rooster across the road. I want to buy him.

0830: I can’t remember what game we watched, but we must have caught some of the World Cup that morning. As I caught up my diary this morning, Rebecca was in the shower, dancing and singing lustily: Tsamina mina eh eh/Waka waka eh eh/Tsamina mina zangalewa/this time for Africa! Downstairs there were some more pictures to be taken – Bex holding a baby – and a continental breakfast, Borneo style: a strange honey-like substance for jam and the coffee arrived with milk and sugar already added. I’m told this is called 3-in-1, and it is every bit as yummy as it sounds.

Time to pack up....

We drove north from Lahad Datu. It was the usual exciting trip: there’s nothing like coming over a hump in the road to find the car in front of you virtually stationary, at just 40 kph on the open road, or cruising around a blind corner to find an overtaking truck coming straight towards you. We had both these experiences in short order. Everywhere you go, outside the cities, there is this kind of homogenised mongrel dog on or beside the road. I had unconsciously imbued these beasts with great animal cunning, which provided them with immunity from the traffic. I was wrong though; a little furry corpse in the middle of the road proved that. And then there was the much larger corpse of a black SUV, with the roof torn off, in a ditch beside the road, too.

At the time, I felt the entire driving population was crazy. It was as if the whole damn lot of them had been given their licences just last week, plugged into their boxy little Proton MyVIs and Vivas, and turned loose on the country’s roads like a jar-full of beetles up-ended on the bathroom floor. With the benefit of some reflection – back home, and safe from imminent death at the hands of one of these lunatics – I reckon I might actually have been on to something. It does really seem likely that cars are quite new to large sections of society; that they have not grown up with them, as we have; and that people there are not born just instinctively knowing that it is safest for everybody to drive at the same speed, stay on an agreed side of the road, etc.

After maybe an hour, we came to a place where some small caves very high up in an isolated limestone peak had been used as burial chambers. We stopped, and just before we could secure tickets, a group of young visitors to the place pounced on Becky for the usual round of photographs. Once that was over, we set off up a series of leg-achingly steep steps, to climb this thing. It was incredibly hot, but we made it eventually. And then we had to come down again....

As we approached the main KK-Sandakan highway, we got caught up in a procession which had built up behind a very slow truck, sporting the name of who I presumed to be its owner: Wee Soon. Well, to be blunt, I hope the bastard’s bladder burst, because the inconsiderate swine never once pulled over, nor even moved into the crawler lanes. He drove in the middle of the lane – the middle of the road, as often as not – leading a miles-long tail-back all the way. We finally managed to sneak past around about Sepilok.

Eventually we made our triumphant return – having navigated both the ramifying maze of roundabouts and roadways, and the homicidal traffic – to the Sabah, where the girls’ familiar faces immediately scored us a room upgrade. We quickly settled in and went down again to the pool. An Australian family we recognised from the BRL was also there, so we chatted to them for a little while before they and the girls hit the pool. Then dinner in the bakery and an early night. Bex was initially unwell with a bout of diarrhoea, but felt better by bedtime. The rash she’d been suffering for the past two days was going down as well. My fingers were crossed that night.


Monday, 12 July 2010

0900: We didn’t get up or stay up until 2:30 AM to watch the world cup final, but tried to find a replay in the morning. Instead, we just saw the final score flashed up repeatedly, and with no warning to look away, then a few crappy minutes of highlights. The TV coverage up to that point had been fabulous, and had verged upon the unthinkable: turning Bex and me into soccer fans. But this was so shitty we didn’t even bother watching the highlights. The undecideds decided; we switched over to CNN.

Actually, CNN performed pretty poorly, too, that morning. With all that was happening in the world – quite a bit – their “news at the top of the hour” was all of two minutes long, and half of that was about the soccer, too.

After the usual pleasant breakfast – quite a long while after, actually; mornings in our household are seldom marred by smooth efficiency – we departed for the Sandakan Buddhist Temple and somebody’s house. Somebody famous. Famous-ish. Well known in these parts. The temple was picturesque, heavily subscribed by local devotees, and a surprisingly (to me) pleasant stop-over. The only thing I regretted about our visit is that I wasn’t allowed to sound off the huge bell. That would have been just so cool! But Joanne wouldn’t even let me anywhere near it. Just in case, you know? We did come away, however, with a handful of complimentary literature, which I browsed through later in the afternoon. Having known almost nothing about Buddhism until being enlightened over my Heineken, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it recognises no gods – not really a religion at all, in the usual sense – but that it does recognise an external, objective truth, which adherents seek to learn and understand, rather than accepting anything on faith or the strength of authority. That is very much how I feel about life in general, and science in particular. Alas, I can’t see myself getting to grips with rebirth anytime soon. (How can one “know” or “understand” about that? I’d better read on....)

What’s-her-name’s house was a disappointment, though. It was a house. Yes, ok, there were a few antiques and a genealogy on the wall, but I normally expect a museum (especially a pay-per-visit job, like this one; RM 15 per head, no discount for the 9 year old, and a particularly offensive “European price” premium) to provide some sort of insight, or at least a narrative. This was just a collection of period trinkets. Give it a miss.

I enjoyed the Devonshire tea, though. As far as I’m aware, we didn’t have to pay a specially elevated price for that, on account of being European.

1400: The afternoon we spent slobbing by the pool. Well, I did, with Mr Buddha’s book and a beer; the girls swam.


Tuesday, 13 July 2010

We spent most of today just driving from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu. It was slow going, and the locals’ driving as poor as ever. A new hazard I didn’t recall from the trip over, was the propensity for little men in enormous SUVs to drive screaming past us through road works, kicking up rocks from their over-size tyres and scattering debris in all directions. Our windshield survived, mercifully, though not my temper. But having calmed with time, I no longer imagine these little bastards were actually malicious: just thoughtless.

The girls both slept for much of the trip, including through almost the entire time that we were driving past Kinabalu Park. For an hour or two, the views were simply stunning, and I’d have given an arm to be able to kick back and enjoy them, instead of peering nervously ahead, wondering who was going to try to kill us next. What a waste.

Driving into any largish city for the first time, I’m usually at least a little apprehensive, despite having survived Rome, which surely plays host to the worst city traffic in all the world. One has to both navigate, which is often difficult enough, and also contend with congestion which usually contrives to foil your plans; for example, by preventing you from changing lanes at the last moment when you suddenly spot the street sign you’re looking for. Today, however, Jupiter must have been in the ascendant. I managed to drive straight to Le Méridien, by possibly the most direct route, with no drama. And you can’t ask for better than that. In doing so, too, I was forced to concede that the standard of driving in the city was as good as anywhere I’ve ever been, and certainly better than in Wellington, where I live. Let alone Rome!

I’d also been apprehensive about finding parking. But we were able to leave the car right on the hotel forecourt.

Jo went out to explore for a bit, while I “took Rebecca swimming” for a couple of hours. What this actually meant, of course, was lying in a deck chair, drinking beer, while she swam somewhere vaguely in my line of sight. Most of the time. Well, she’s a better swimmer than I am, anyway.

Looking down from our room, later, I spotted a large sign on the street below, advertising the presence of an Amateur Fatalist Centre. This raised the intriguing possibility of there being such things as professional fatalists. It was not a career choice I had ever considered before. I wonder what the pay is like?

Jo and I thought we’d try a vegetable curry for dinner. Alas, it was pretty awful. Bex had the last laugh: her fish and chips were great, apparently.


Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Today we’re starting with a logistical challenge. Can we return the rental to the Hertz depot after 12, when we’re due at the airport anyway, or will I be obliged to make a special trip to return it at 9, as printed on the check-in form? Yes, it appears we can – for a price, natch.

As we headed off along the road, just wandering aimlessly, a twinge of anxiety from Jo prompted me to recheck the flight arrangements. Just as well; the 3 o’clock time I had fixed in my mind is our arrival time in Mulu, and departure is two hours earlier than I’d been thinking. So, just time to change the last of our USD, get some breakfast (raisin scones and coffee at Starbucks again), and shop for some more hair conditioner at a Guardian. This last item required 20 minutes of indecision before the purchase was finally effected and, again, I lost patience. To be candid, I threw a paddy. But I was feeling fed-up anyway. I’m expected to make all the bookings, know all the times, fill out all the forms, change all the money, have the money, have the passports, have the car keys and the room card, drive, lift, carry, and ....

Honestly, I feel like the hired help.

Now I’d reached that part of the trip where I swear to myself: never again. Next time, I’m going to have a real holiday. I’m going to travel alone. But, of course, I hardly ever carry out this threat. Instead, I just arrive home again, feeling as jaded and stressed as the day I left. At least that makes it easier to go back to work, I suppose.

In due course, we drove to the airport, returned the car, yada yada. The flight to Mulu, in north east Sarawak, is via a short stop-over at Miri on the north coast. For some reason I do not understand, all of us transit passengers were obliged to get off here, receive new boarding passes for the same seats, troop past a bored immigration official who stamps our passports but doesn’t have any equipment with which to read the electronic bits properly, and then get straight back on to the same plane. Meanwhile, on the tarmac, we can catch glimpses of our bags being tossed off the plane onto a trailer, sorted for those getting off at Miri versus those of us carrying on to Mulu, and the latter lobbed, with equal abandon, back on. We hope.

The Miri-Mulu leg of the flight is short and, when the clouds permit, scenic, featuring beautiful brown ox-bow lakes on a looping river plain and, near the end, some sheer white limestone bluffs. Our luggage is thrown off at the airport, then it and we are conveyed to the Royal Mulu Resort – apparently the only accommodation within the park itself – in the company of a Scottish couple with two boys, the younger of whom is grizzly and loud. After 2 or 3 kilometres, we cross a narrow bridge and arrive at the resort reception. We are briefed by our assigned guide, Nelson, and then turned loose on the plank-walk to find our room and haul our suitcase (23 kg; four weeks’ travelling kit for three people) up a flight of stairs to our room. One hopes that any old ladies who happen to come here are provided with some assistance in this latter endeavour. This is most definitely not the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, though it does provide a swimming pool, aircon and a TV in our room, and I’m profoundly grateful not to be whipping my damn shoes off and on every few minutes.

Alas, the best the TV can stump up with is some horror from the interminable CSI franchise, and Bex announces she is constipated. The joys of the day seemed to be without end.

After a time – probably less than an hour, but subjectively much longer – we troop out for a ramble back up the road, towards the airfield. Ironically, the squirrel and the enormous beetle (something like our New Zealand huhu beetle, Prionoplus reticularis) which we found around the bar, were the most spectacular wildlife we saw. Well, that’s not quite fair: across the bridge we saw a pretty awesome cicada, too, and were later to observe a crescent shaped formation of what we took to be birds, but so high up it just looked like a shadow passing through the clouds. It was quite eerie, really, but we would have to wait another day for the solution to this mystery. Later still, a dozen or so swifts flew through, around, and over us. Rebecca christened them all ‘Taylor’. The Taylor Swifts. [For anyone who is not the registered owner of a nine year old girl, Taylor Swift is a crossover country-pop singer with a relentless need to chug out monotonously similar songs of the “my boyfriend just dumped me” variety.]

The scenery was also stunning, but the lightning and thunder rolling around the hills kept us from getting too adventurous, and we returned to the resort after about an hour. It was still a few minutes before dinner time, 1830, so we hit the bar and Jo indulged her sense of adventure with a Martini Rosso instead. It tasted like sugary port.

Of course we’ve been spoiled by the BRL, and the difference showed up most sharply at dinner time. But, hey, the potatoes weren’t bad, and this whole four day tour is costing me just half of one day at the BRL.

So I no complain.

It belted down during dinner and, apparently, after I’d gone to sleep, too.



Thursday, 15 July 2010

A morning at the pool. This interlude was quite idyllic until the small, grizzly Scottish boy threw a tanty. Quite properly, his Mum did not immediately rush to console the little sod; alas, the appropriate delay for which she held out was filled with noise.

And then we were off. Nelson was waiting for some new arrivals, so we were temporarily annexed to another party for the canopy walk, and would meet up with our “proper” group afterwards, for the excursion to Lang’s and Deer Caves. To be honest, I felt a little rushed from the outset. It occurred to me that the five or so other tourists in our group, the girl from Camp 5 and several other unsmiling, teutonic-looking twats, were simply hurrying along to “collect the tee shirt” – to say they’d done it. [Don’t quote me, but I believe Camp 5 is where the intrepid souls who set off to climb Gunung Mulu spend their third night.] Only the tall Swiss appeared to possess a camera, and the only photograph we actually observed him to take, was of the stairs leading up to the canopy walk. Perhaps he is an engineer. But we were taking our time, wishing to actually see something along the way, and, of course, Rebecca and I were enjoying taking photographs of anything which took our fancy. After each time the trekkers stopped, with exasperated postures which stopped little short of foot tapping, to allow us to catch up, we fell behind again almost immediately. Well, screw them.

Our temporary guide from Park HQ, when we were close enough to hear her, was spouting off a load of simple-minded animistic bollocks, of the “nature is good; everything we are comes from nature” variety. I was immediately put in mind of Neil from the Young Ones (“First we sow the seed...”; you know the episode) and found it difficult not to laugh. Yeah, typhoid and Dengue fever ... very lovely.

The canopy walk itself, is long, high, and sufficiently Indiana Jones-ish to give anyone who’s a bit nervous about heights a good scare. To be honest, although I’m pretty good with heights, I didn’t hang about up there myself, and I certainly wasn’t game for any larking about. Generally, each end of a given span would be attached to a solid platform, built around a substantial tree. Most amusing were the “flying curves” which simply wobbled around the trunk, rather than being stuck fast. The Lonely Planet writers describe this skywalk as the best in SE Asia, but I’m unconvinced myself. At Danum Valley it was quieter, and nobody was in a hurry, so we saw a great deal more. This thing was more like a carnival ride than a close encounter with the rainforest ecosystem. Or so it felt to me. But I get the feeling that your typical Lonely Planet writer has more in common with Camp 5 girl than with me.

We had to go across first, to catch up with our proper party, so, again, we were being hurried along. On the other hand, at least we got to ditch the tee-shirt tossers.

Catch up we did. The others, Michelle, Pat and Steve, all Australians, were an altogether more civilised and personable bunch of folks. Thank god.

Lang’s and Deer Caves, as per the hype, are enormous. Both are rich with dripstone formations; generally coarse and knobbly. I didn’t notice any of the delicate, straw-like stalactites I’ve seen elsewhere, though we stuck to board-walked parts of both caves so my impression may not have been representative. In Lang’s Cave we saw an animal, presumably an insect larva, which lived in a silk hammock and trailed sticky lines to capture other insects. It looked to me exactly like the New Zealand glow-worm (Arachnocampa luminosa), except it is not bioluminescent. I tried to get back to photograph it but, alas, a dozen Japanese were clustered about it by this time, and although it briefly crossed my mind to disperse them with a kamikaze war-cry, I thought better of it in the end, and left to catch up with the rest of the party – again.

Deer Cave seems to be the preferred roost for bats. We could smell them from long before we reached the cave. Nelson said the smell was ammonia, but it seemed more like hydrogen sulphide to me. Within the cave were mounds of guano, supporting an unusual ecosystem of their own. There were cockroaches, of course, but my attention was arrested by a centipede, deftly plucked from the bat-poo by Nelson (rather him than me!), which ejected a luminescent material, presumably to distract a predator while it scuttled off into the dark.

Just before dusk, we left the caves to go to a vantage point where we could watch the bats flying out for the evening. And what a sight that was; I’ve never seen anything like it, and it certainly surpassed my every expectation. The animals fly out in a sinuous stream which coils and swirls and snakes around, and almost seems to be a life-form in its own right. The “show” started with a series of numerous small streams. I’m not sure if these were coming from the two large caverns, or from any of the numerous other, smaller, caves. These were followed by the principal exodus, from Deer Cave, which just went on and on, for a good 10 or 15 minutes without stopping, and must have comprised millions of individuals. One day I would like to return, and actually sit in the cave while they were flying out.

As it began to get dark, we began walking back to Park HQ, and the van which would take us back to the resort. Then the skies opened.



Friday, 16 July 2010

After breakfast, our little band, including Steve, Pat and Michelle, clambered rather apprehensively into a wobbly, very shallow draft boat, powered by a two-stroke Suzuki outboard, and motored upstream. The river is wide enough, so that even once we’d left the resort complex, there was no real feeling of being hemmed in, much less oppressed, by the jungle growing down to the water’s edge on either side. Moreover, every now and again, there were cleared areas – gardens I assumed – and the odd boat ramp or building. I’m not saying it was a punt on the Avon, old bean, but it wasn’t dark and spooky, either.

Our first stop was at a longhouse, with a small craft market. My first impression was of warped, unpainted weather boards; mangy, starved-looking dogs; a few chickens; and stagnant water. I understand the local indigenous people used to be semi-nomadic – subsistence gardening in the rainforest, and hunting, of course – but have been “encouraged” to settle down in one place by the government. Now, I don’t know what that meant in practice, though either way I reckon it was probably inevitable: if not sooner, then later. But the settlement looked desperately poor to me, even allowing for the fact that a few holes in the walls are no big deal in the tropics.

Still, the people there seemed just like any people. The kids were hanging out together in the bored, desultory manner of kids the world-over. They didn’t appear sullen (well, no more than any other teenager) and certainly never menacing. I felt safer there than walking down Manners Street on a Friday evening. So perhaps they’re ok. We can but hope.

Our next stop was the Cave of the Winds. The most memorable features here, apart from the momentary refreshing slight air movement – hardly a wind – which gives the cave its name, are the stalagmites which grow far faster than their feeding stalactite. As a result, the cave is filled with these bizarre looking spindles growing from the floor. Some, of course, reach the roof in due course, but the most spectacular are those which don’t quite reach. The formations are quite unlike the dripstones I’ve seen in any other cave. The phenomenon may occur elsewhere, though I’ve never heard of it before.

The Cave of the Winds, and Clearwater Cave, which was our next stop, are both parts of a huge system of interconnected chambers, which reportedly stretches for at least 180 km, though just how that is measured, I am unsure. Presumably the various entrances can be pegged down by GPS, and the underground maps scaled accordingly. It would be a hell of a trip from one end to the other, assuming it is even possible.

Upon our next, and final, return to the surface, I watched as a very patient man with a Nikon stalked a Brooke’s Birdwing butterfly (Trogonoptera brookiana), framing it again and again, only to have it flutter half a metre further along the track, without stopping long enough for him to get a shot. Finally, the little beast stopped for a few seconds ... he composed the shot ... and four unsmiling arseholes – a couple, a girl of about 12, and a young man – in knapsacks, long shorts and hiking boots marched in single file right through his shot.

Germans, I though uncharitably.

In due course the wobbly boat conveyed us back to the resort, where we found the swimming pool being dominated by a bunch of Nordic oafs, in bandannas and Dire Straits sweat-bands, the largest of whom was tossing kids around and charging back and forth across the width of the pool, which prevented Rebecca – who was irresponsibly trying to swim there – from using the full length without risking a broken back. [A day or so later, Bex delighted Jo and me by confessing she had accidentally kicked the prick in the guts as she swam past him. We both cheered.] Meanwhile, I introduced the bar staff to the exotic idea of simply handing me a can of beer when I asked for it, instead of having some flunky deliver it to me in a glass 20 minutes later. Obviously not enough Australians come here; they’d soon send the plonkers packing and sort the place out.

Whereas lunch had been one of our best meals here, dinner was awful. Bex asked me to cut up her piece of lamb, but I couldn’t, though I bent the cutlery trying. It was like a boot. Every now and then you hear some acquaintance pontificating about Asian cuisine, but I really have to wonder if these people have ever once stepped outside of their five star hotels. As a broad generalisation, most Asian people are poor, and the food they eat is crap. The meat is coarse, gristly, and you use up more energy gnawing around the bones than you get from eating whatever’s attached to them. Even the boot which Rebecca had just been served is better than what these people have most of the time. The chillies are not added by inspired chefs seeking that special piquancy; they’re there to disguise the taste.

On the walk back to our room, we passed the “Jungle Jim” gymnasium, where somebody was grunting away on some bit of machinery. Working out. In the jungle. On the equator. What a twat. Far more interesting, there was a bright yellow frog on the plank-walk. Partly manoeuvring for a better look, but mainly just anxious that he didn’t get stepped on by somebody in the darkness, we clustered around. We needn’t have been too concerned though: he shuffled along for a few moments longer, then did what frogs are famous for, and launched himself into a nearby tree in a single magnificent hop.

Bex and I returned to the restaurant for the show at 8 o’clock. Dancing and blowpipe games.



Saturday, 17 July 2010

Coughing and a sore throat woke Jo in the small hours. Who else but the human salamander (Jo finds temperatures in the mid 20s “a little chilly”) could possibly catch a cold on the equator? She tossed and turned for a while, which woke me, then got up, took something, and went back to sleep.

I didn’t.

In the morning, we set off to find the little path which would take us to a limestone bluff overlooking the resort. We were talking, and the path is a little weedy track only a few inches wide, so we missed it altogether, and ended up reprising our earlier wander up the road towards the airfield. Jo was feeling pretty miserable, however, so we returned to our room without doing anything exciting. Afterwards, Bex and I went back out again, and this time found the trail, though we reserved going up it for the following morning, when we hoped Jo would feel more like joining us.

Lunch was a new high point: chilli chicken with punch. Yum.

After lunch, Nelson took the three of us out in a boat again. This was an extra; not part of the package we’d booked from New Zealand. If we’d not arranged this with him the previous afternoon, this would have been free time spent, no doubt, around the pool. Only the three of us had signed up for the trip, so we had Nelson and the small boat to ourselves. We motored downstream until we joined the big river, then upstream on that. I borrowed Rebecca’s camera to make a little movie, as each bend unwound and revealed another view of the rainforest: each one different, all the same. A bit like the sea.

Our first stop was another longhouse. The main building – the only one we saw closely – was two storied, and partitioned like terrace housing: lots of individual little houses, each of one or two rooms, it seemed, upstairs and downstairs. This was a more intimate visit than the last; we chatted with a few of the residents, Nelson translating where required, and got a better idea of how the place functioned. Sure, there were some tables laid out with the bead-work and bangles that the residents sell to tourists, to eke out the subsistence gardening and hunting, but there were also kids watching television in a communal room, and a couple of guys refilling the mosquito spraying tanks, and mums playing with their toddlers, too.

On the way back to the boat ramp, a Brooke’s Birdwing was drinking on the path, remaining still enough for me to capture my own picture of this little beauty. Some other butterflies were gathered in the same spot, though I couldn’t identify any of them.

As we clambered back into the boat, I noticed a few mosquito larvae in the quiet river water, by the grassy bank. Although there was the evidence of the spraying equipment at the longhouse we’d just left, and we all acquired numerous bites and itches during our time in Borneo, in the whole time we were there I only ever caught one mozzie adult actually feeding on me (something it will never do again) and these were the only larvae I saw. Nelson told us that the bats keep the area pretty clear of flying insect pests, which seemed plausible to me, especially having seen the astonishing evening exodus from Deer Cave.

Nelson steered us upstream for a bit longer, to where we could see the bottom of some rapids, and then we turned around and headed back downstream. Although the riot of growth on either side continued to appear uniformly impenetrable to me, there came a point where Nelson turned the boat toward the bank, the shadows parted, and somehow we were puttering up a small, shallow tributary, full of mist and mystery. Of all our many days in the rain forest, here and in Sabah, this was the defining moment for me: this was real McCoy, ‘Boys Own Adventure’ jungle. The water shallowed quickly, and Nelson lifted the outboard as the bottom crunched over stones just a few inches deep. When the engine noise ceased, the contrast seemed like silence; and then I became aware the chirping, buzzing, cheeping noise of the jungle, which is constant. It was perfect.

We beached the boat and waded upstream for a little while. Not far: there was nothing specific he’d brought us here to see. It was just a place to be. It was that brilliant moment of authenticity where there are no boardwalks, no other people, no hint that anyone but us had been here – ever. I daresay this creek was and remains a pretty standard spot where all the guides bring people for that special taste of the “real” jungle, but at the moment it felt as if we could have lain undiscovered here for eternity.

We didn’t though. We got back on the boat, drifted backwards on the gentle current, back to the main river, fired up the engine and headed back to the resort. I was sad to leave the little creek – though, really, what was I going to do there if we’d stayed longer? – but the ride back was exhilarating in its own way.

Upon arriving back at the resort, Jo retired again – not feeling well at all – while Nelson walked back across the bridge with Bex and I, to confirm we had correctly spotted the track to the bluff. If we missed it again, we’d probably miss it for good. Mind you, if we’d realised then that it was less than 10 minutes walk to the top, we’ve have done it there and then, as well as taking Jo with us the next morning. On our way back to our room, Bex confided to me that she was “really pissed off” that she hadn’t insisted on going to the summit of Kinabalu. Oops, she got that expression from me, and I think that maybe she was probing to find out how I’d react to her using it. But I was far too bummed out by her disappointment to object to a soupçon of mild swearing. [Note to self: Warn Bex not to say “pissed” at school.]

Conundrum for the day: How will I dry my shoes in time for our flight back to KK tomorrow?

On the subject of which, by now I was really hanging out for some cooler weather back home, but utterly depressed about going back to work. The dreams never did stop; I’d had them every night, and couldn’t see them stopping at this late stage. Four more sleeps and I’d be back in front of the Board again. Joy.



Sunday, 18 July 2010

Jo was still pretty unwell in the morning, so Bex and I set off to the limestone bluff overlooking the resort on our own. It was only a 10 minute walk to the top, where some nice views awaited. Some of the finest outlooks were directly into the sun, so we weren’t sure our photographs would really do them justice. They didn’t look much on the camera screens, but you can’t really tell until you get them onto your computer, or printed.

As usual, we saw few animals in the bush (swifts, some butterflies, ants if you look for them) but the plank-walk back to our room provided the highlight of the day, and possibly the trip, in the form of a surreal phasmid. At first, Bex insisted it was a stick, until I pointed out its fabulously ornamented legs. It was just gorgeous, brown with red detailing, and a pair of wonderful, bright yellow “leaves” at either end. I’ve never in my life seen an insect quite so remarkable.

He seemed to evade attention – from birds and guests alike – for the rest of the morning, too, so we were able to show Joanne later, as we trundled our suitcase past, on our way to reception, the airfield, through confusion and more bureaucracy at Miri ... and, finally, “home” of a sort, to Le Méridien in Kota Kinabalu.


Monday, 19 July 2010

In Kota Kinabalu.

We had a day to kill because our flight out wasn’t due until 1800. We sleep-walked through the packing up, in that kind of reluctant way you do when the holiday’s over but you don’t really want to leave, and then caught the free shuttle to the 1Borneo “hypermall” for a few hours. Frankly, it was a bore: all apparel and accessories. It’s useful enough, I suppose, if you need some clothes, but dead short on entertainment value. I’m probably being unfair. There was a bookshop there, too, quite a good one at that, and I’m sure I remember places flogging cell-phones and watches. But it’s still just a bunch of shops, a parade of brand names – some you know, some you don’t – which makes this place Any Mall, Any Where.

Even one special place – just one – could have made the difference. But there wasn’t any.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

1400: Home. It’s cool. There’s no sheen of sweat over my body: I feel clean.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

0530: The alarm goes off. It’s time to get up and go to work. It’s raining.



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