16.04.2012 - 07.05.2012
Hello again! Hope you're all having a fab May Day weekend. Can't believe I'm missing the
snooker world championship this year! Come on Ronnie!!
I have to apologise for the length of this next blog. I've found it difficult to narrow down what
to tell you, as my three weeks in Malaysian Borneo (or East Malaysia as it's also known), were
packed full of truly fantastic stuff. You might want to read it in stages!!
Right, back to Borneo then. I arrived in a town called Kuching in the south state of Sarawak, after
spending the flight with a Spanish Borneo tour company manager, I met by chance in the airport.
He helped me plan my trip which was handy. I faffed about and had a wander around in the afternoon,
to get a feel for Kuching, a pleasant little town.
On my first day proper day I rented a moped. Sorry to anyone who worries but I couldn't resist it!
It's years since I'd done this and it wasn't long before I remembered how much fun it is!
I rode to Semengoh, the Orang Utan rehabilitation centre. Well, I tried. The map the guy at the
rental centre had given me was terrible. It had been photocopied about a hundred times, and he
didn't even seem to know where he was on it! So I ended up being late for the morning feed and
all the Orang Utan had already gone back into the forest.
There was an afternoon feed too, so I headed off to Anna Rais longhouse village in the mean
time. This is a 200 year old village of the Bidayuh tribe. Longhouses are exactly what they
sound like. It's a traditional Bornean community living under one long roof. There aren't many
left now and some are open to the public even though the people still live there.
As I rode there, I quickly left civilisation and headed into the mountains on pretty much deserted
roads. It was fantastic flying along with the wind cooling me down and the mountains getting
bigger and more wild looking. Not realising quite how far it would be, I was getting low on fuel.
I stopped and asked someone where the next petrol station was and they pointed across the road.
I was delighted to have found somewhere to refuel but couldn't really see where he meant.
Anyway, after a bit of searching and this lovely Malaysian guy guiding me, I realised the 'petrol
station' was just a hut with a couple of blokes sitting around and loads of emptied plastic water
bottles filled with fuel!
When I arrived at Anna Rais, I was offered rice wine which was delicious, and a tiny old chap
came and showed me round. It was only slightly touristy, with a lady on a small stall selling
traditional beaded wares, and sadly, some tacky plastic crap probably made in Taiwan.
She gave me some tree bark tea to try which was also yummy, and I stayed and chatted to her
for a while. She was elderley and had been born in the village, and so had stories of old to tell.
After my tour I was glad to get back on the moped as the sun was meltingly hot. I arrived in
good time on this occasion and headed down to the viewing area to wait for feeding time.
Twice a day, fruit and veg (and some sneaky medication) is put out for Orang Utan to help
themselves to. Generally these apes have been rescued from nasty human hands, or have
been found abandoned as babies. They don't live in cages, but close-by in the open forest,
where they can still be semi-wild but can return for food where the ranges can keep an eye on
them. As me and a handful of others were waiting, the ranger near us got a message on his
walkie talkie to say that one of the tourists just up the hill from where we were had just been
bitten by an Orang Utan and had to go to hospital! I didn't like the sound of that so stayed
close to the ranger as the ape in question arrived to where we were. I'm not sure how the
incident occurred, but you are supposed to stay at least 5 metres away from these creatures,
so I made sure I did. The only thing was, you were constantly looking behind you all the time
to check that one hadn't popped out from the forest and joined the growing crowd of humans!
Anyway, it was amazing to see the 'Man of the Forest' for real, and we stood and watched as
the female they've called Hot Mama, arrived for a feast, with her baby clinging to her back.
The following day I went with some of the people from the hostel, to Bako National Park.
It involved a bus journey, and then a small boat down to a beach at the start of some treks.
It was great, I really enjoyed the day doing some interesting walking through jungle,
up a steep hill and along strange ground level sandstone formations. We saw Proboscis
monkeys which are endemic to Borneo, and a very cool Horned Spider! Wild boar, and
long-tailed macaques were also aplenty, one of the latter nicked my friends' lunch. And there
were also little colourful Fiddler crabs waving their huge (in comparison to the rest of their
bodies) pincer claws in the air to attract a mate.
Early the next morning I left for a flight north, to Mulu, a rainforest destination, via Miri, an
unimpressive small town. I met my guide and we immediately walked to the vast caves.
Wow, these are spectacular! Amazing rock formations, and an even better spectacle in the
Deer Cave. I'm guessing most of you have seen Planet Earth, presented by the god, David
Attenborough? Do you remember the one where he was stood on a huge pile of bat guano
which was teeming with cockroaches, watching millions of bats leaving the cave at dusk?
Well, that was the cave I was in. A huge cathedral of a cave, impressive on it's own, but
as the bats started exiting the cave that day, I was transfixed. It sounded like a huge
applause, as millions of bat wings flapped in the cave entrance. They appear in steady groups
of consistent size, circle in a huge donut shape, and then flying off in a trail, like a swarm of
bees. You can watch this repeating cycle for up to an hour, but your neck aches after about
15 minutes of looking up, and you have to watch out for raining bat poo!
Not long after that the rains came, and we tramped back to the dormitory accommodation.
Night was coming and the sound of the cicadas was so loud, I had to put my fingers in my
ears at one point! In fact that night, I've never had such an unusual and exciting nights' sleep!
There was no glass in the windows of the dorm, only mozzy screens, and the jungle was right
outside. I've never heard such a racket! I think it was mainly cicadas and frogs. I ended up
recording it on my mobile phone at 4 in the morning because I just couldn't believe my ears!
The noises the frogs were making became really funny, and as I laid in the dark watching
the continuous bursts of lightening brighten the room, the rain descended from the sky in
gallons. Earplugs were no defence, so I just took them out and enjoyed the show.
The next day we were joined by a lovely Japanese guy called Tetsuya, and a couple from
Poland. We spent the day trekking through the jungle to another area called Camp 5,
where we were to stay for two nights. Irena and Tomas were going to climb the Pinnacles
the following day, while Tetsuya and myself would walk the Headhunters Trail with our
guide. I decided against the Pinnacles climb early on, as it sounded like sheer torture.
You do get to see a rare Karsk rock formation, but to get there you have to climb ladders
screwed into sheer cliff faces in blazing heat, after a steep 8 hour trek. Looking back, now
I've climbed Kinabalu, I might have had a go, but by all accounts the Pinnacles is a lot harder.
Maybe next time.
Anyway, I wouldn't have wanted to miss the Headhunters Trail as it totally blew me away.
For centuries, until not that long ago, Bornean tribes used to decapitate unsuspecting
folk, as a show of their rank and force. They would put the heads on sticks around their villages,
to show people who might approach what they were capable of. Shockingly, women and
children were the best trophies. We trekked through the jungle, picking leeches off our
clothes and looking out for the legendary huge python that supposedly lives in the pond.
Willie, our guide, also showed us loads of Pitcher Plants. They are the carnivorous type that
grow pots of acidic fluid, which digest unfortunate insects, and sometimes even mice,
that have fallen in. They are fascinating, some of them have even evolved a little lid to
keep out the rain. Brilliant! After spotting miles of marching ants, and rare orchids, we
ended up at some rocks. I couldn't believe it, after we'd negotiatied a small but slippery
climb, that right there in front of us was a pile of human skulls! It took my breath away,
Willie hadn't told us anything about what we were going to see. There were also piles
of limb bones and broken pots which if I'm to believe Willie, were Ming Dynasty! The
whole lot was, according to him, 300 years old! We just sat and looked at it all, shaded from
the elements in this raised cave. I think we struck lucky with Willie, because he had
lived in the area all his life. He told us how he used to hunt deer with his father as a child
and drag them to the now called, Deer Cave for stashing. His grandfather had discovered
the original routes up the nearby mountain, and he told us that him and his brother had
discovered other caves with completely untouched Ming vases inside! He said he won't
tell anyone where they are for fear of the government finding out and tourism wrecking
them. He is an activist, and has been protesting against development of the site (a cable car
and golf course!) for many years. He is rightly angry, about the way Borneo
is being treated, with regards to logging and palm oil plantations, with which sadly almost
half of Borneo is now covered. It was an interesting few days to say the least!
By the way, palm oil is disgusting stuff, and is being used more and more in the production
of many things, including the foods we eat. So if you do anything, don't buy foods with
palm oil on the ingredients list. Not only is it bad for you, but I'm sure you will have heard in
the press, that the plantations are wrecking the 23 million year old rainforest, the oldest in
After Mulu, I flew up to Kota Kinabalu, the East Malaysian capital. I went for dinner at the fish
market with a Dutch guy called Luke, who I'd met whilst we were frustratingly trying to find
out where to get the bus from the airport. If anyone has ever been to Asia, you will know
just how vague Asians are when giving directions, or information of any type for that matter!
At the hostel I met Carole, a French woman also travelling on her own, and after some
discussion we realised we wanted to do the same things in Sabah (the northern state).
After a day off, we got a 7 hour bus to Sandakan on the opposite coast, from where we
were able to travel to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehab Centre, the Rainforest Discovery Centre,
and the amazing Kinabatangan River. Sepilok was more touristy than Semengoh, but still
good, and we saw some more of the red apes. Unfortunately it rained without stopping
for hours during that day so we missed out on the canopy walkway in the RDC. All the birds we
could have spotted were quite obviously hiding from the rain when we walked with our umbrellas
to the lookout towers! It was a good day regardless, as the monkeys still appeared, and we
ate gorgeous Malaysian food for next to nothing, in a scruffy cafe back in town.
The next day we travelled by another bus to the Kinabatangan River. Here it's relatively easy
to spot wildlife on the banks, from a boat on the river (ironically because of the shrinking rainforest).
Over the course of two days, and with the help of our lovely and hilariously camp guide, we saw
four types of snake, monitor lizards, crocodiles, Proboscis Monkeys, Red and Silver Leaf Langurs,
Long and Pig-tailed Macaques and four species of beautiful Hornbills, among other birds.
There had been pygmy elephants a few days before, and we saw how they had flattened the
grass where they'd been drinking, but sadly we didn't see the actual animal.
The highlight came on the final night when we took a night walk into the jungle with another
guide. I'd already done a night trek in Mulu, where we saw lizards, geckos, brightly-coloured
roosting birds, insects (including fab fireflies), spiders and glow-in-the-dark mushrooms (!).
It had been a flat trek on a well made path, with not too many obstacles, but this next one
was crazy! We fought through dense jungle, slipping about in the muddy earth, dodging horrible
poisonous centipedes and trying not to be scared of any impending snake doom! Well, the
reward came in the form of the smallest primate on earth, the Western Tarsier! Our guide
had known where to look, and found us one of these wonderful creatures. We couldn't
believe it. We were hopping with excitement, whilst trying to be quiet and still obviously!
The little thing didn't move when we approached with torches, and we managed to get some
fantastic photos. It was simply the funniest, cutest and most engaging little animal I've ever
had the pleasure and good fortune to see. We wandered back to camp on a pure wildlife high.
In the morning, Carole and myself, and the Spanish couple we had met, went to the nearby
Gomantong Caves. This is the main hub for bird's nest collection, which sell for a small
fortune in China. The Swift makes it's nest using it's own saliva, and people collect these nests
to use for making soup and jelly desert. Nice! Well, it appears to be big business as there was
a collection headquarters outside the mouth of the cave. Inside, there is a web of ropes that
the men climb to get to the roof, where the majority of the nests are. There are apparently
many deaths due to this occupation, and that didn't surprise me at all, looking at their
rudimentary equipment and non-existent safety harnesses. Now, this cave was also huge
and impressive, with masses of bat guano, which stank. But the main horror of this cave was
the Scutigera centipedes. You might have seen them on the kids program, Deadly 60. They
are horrible, just horrible. I'm usually ok with insects and spiders, but I've never seen
anything so grim (check out my pic). They are a couple or three inches long, and have 12
pairs of spikey legs on which they move like lightening! They were all over the walls of
Gomantong cave, and my poor friend Carole has a phobia of them (apparently you get them
in France). She screamed, practically hyperventilated and burst into tears. But I could see
why she hated them so much, so I gave her a reassuring hug, took some pictures and moved
swiftly on! I had to pretend they weren't there to get out of the cave! I was impressed that
Carole walked around the whole cave to try to overcome her fear. Yuk, yuk, yuk, yuk, yuk!
We were also told that they are poisonous and can make you ill for a week, which only worsened
our fear, although from reading on t'internet, I'm sure someone was winding us up!
So, onward to our last destination. The mountain. Some of you will have seen on Facebook.
that a week ago, I climbed the highest mountain in South East Asia, Mt. Kinabalu. It's true,
I did! And it turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done (and one week on, today is the
first day I don't ache!).
Mt. Kinabalu reaches to 4095m above sea level (not 5000m as I mistakenly told Rach and Debs!).
This is how it works. You stay at the base of the mountain overnight in a hostel. This is
already 1500m above sea level. At 9am the following morning, you collect your guide and packed
lunch from the Kinabalu National Park headquarters, and hike 6km up steep, difficult rocky paths
and steps to the Laban Rata resthouse, at 3323m. Then, at 1.30am the next day, you arise for a
pre-breakfast at 2am, and start the ascent to the summit at 2.30, to supposedly arrive at the
summit for sunrise. Well, we knew we weren't gonna be fast at this. I'm not as fit as I used to
be, and Carole is a party animal who never does any exercise! We didn't want to wreck our
legs for the Day Two climb, so we took Day One slowly and steadily, using walking sticks to
help (saving my dodgy left knee thankfullyl). We were lucky to spot wild Orang Utan in the
trees almost as soon as we had set off, which was cool. Then it was a 7 hour hike to the
rest point through the clouds. We were elated to arrive and queue up for dinner, as it had been
a tough walk, and the views were already great, especially at sunset. We didn't get much
sleep before getting up for our first brekky and then on we went, in a long torch-lit procession,
up the mountain side. I have to say, what a brilliant time to climb a mountain. The air was cool
and as the sky was clear, the stars were superb. Lightening continuously flashed on the horizon
each time you turned around, lighting up the clouds in the distance. And it was sooo peaceful.
Just the sound of our feet trudging up the mighty hill, and the odd chatter and breathless wheeze!
I could tell the altitude was affecting me almost straight away, as I felt dizzy and slightly sick.
We had been told just to keep stopping and taking breathers so that's what we did, eventually
every few steps, as we climbed higher and higher. We could see most people were struggling
so we didn't feel alone, and Carole and I constantly overtook each other as we in turn stopped
for breath. The rock faces were smooth and sheer and there were ropes attached to the rock
which you often had to use to pull yourself up. I did have a moment where I thought I wasn't going
to make it to the top, but I was determined to see the view so plodded on slowly but surely.
After climbing for what felt like ages, we stopped to have a rekky on the situation. It turned
out we'd been climbing for two hours already, and our guide carefuly informed us that we had
only covered 700 metres!! We just laughed in disbelief. It was at that point that we knew we
weren't going to make it for sunrise, and as it was so hard, we decided we were going to be
happy just to get there!
As the sun started to come up, the light cast on the mountain and the valley below looked
magical. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to be seeing the world from this amazing place.
Regardless of the sun's first rays, it was getting colder as we climbed higher, and we donned
all our layers for the last part. At 8km I had been walking with a nice chap from KL, when we
spotted the summit, already with people on top! In fact, not long after that, people were passing
us coming down, and we had ages to go yet! There is a yearly race up this mountain where
nutty marathon runners literally peg it up the mountain. The record for men is 2hrs up and down,
and for women it's 3hrs. Mad.
Anyway, at 7.15am on May 1st 2012, we reached the summit of Mount Kinabalu. The last
20 metres were really hard, and on seeing the view I promptly burst into tears! It was
unbelievable, and I was so proud of myself for doing it. I feel like crying just telling you about it!
So, have a look at the pics, I've uploaded right up to the end of Borneo. I'm in Kuala Lumpur
from now until Wednesday, when after a few changes of plan, I'm flying to Cambodia, not Vietnam
as previously scheduled. I had only planned to spend two weeks in Borneo but extended it by a
week because I was loving it so much. That only left me with 5 weeks to see KL, Vietnam,
Cambodia and Thailand. I had already tried to cram that into 6 weeks, which was never gonna
happen either. So, am gonna fly to Phnom Pen for a few days, head down to Koh Rong, a
a little beachey island, for a well-earned week-long rest from travelling, and then up to
Angkor Wat. I'll spend a bit of time in Thailand after that, before flying from Bankok to Kong
Hong, for the last leg of my magical mystery tour! 9 weeks left now!
If you've managed to get to the end of this entry, congratulations and thanks for reading!
Take care all, love Mel xxx