Climbing Mt. Kota Kinabalu
My wife Inge and I got married in July, 2005 in Copenhagen, Denmark. We decided to go on our honeymoon in October, and had heard nothing but great things about Borneo. Seeing as I love to climb, and she loves to travel, we figured this place would be enough to keep us both happy. Was it ever!
We arrived in Borneo (very jet lagged), and got a ride to drive us up and up to the base of Mt Kota Kinabalu, which is 4103 m (13,400 feet) high. We had only slept 3 hours, so were pretty tired. We were met by a mountain guide (all climbers must hire one), and we started a 6 hour hike up steep trails to our cabin at 11,500 feet.
Our hike brought us through dense rainforest with the insanely loud buzzing of cicadas (you have to yell to hear each other speak) and up through all sorts of crazy huge plants with leaves the size of me! At 11,500 feet, we arrived at our spot for the night, and we spent that evening staying warm and trying to acclimatize to the altitude. We had the most beautiful sunset ever, with the sky fire red and a sea of clouds all below us.
We woke up at 01h45 in time to grab some food and head out with headlamps behind a giant group of japanese tourists. There were about 80 of them, all kitted out in the fanciest gear, with some of the most ridiculously packed people. One lady actually brought a suitcase, and had a porter bring it all up!
We snaked along as if in some strange funeral procession of headlamps,
following a long line of hikers on their way up the steep cliffs. We
managed to pass almost all of them, and by the time we cleared the treeline, we felt pretty much alone. I can't believe how bright the stars were! You could hardly recognize constellations because of the huge number of stars in the sky! We saw a huge shooting star that spat out flames of debris.
Step by step, we made our way up towards the summit cone, and finally
reached 4103m (13,400 feet) right as the sun rose. We snapped alot of pictures and then headed back down, since we still had another 9 km to hike to get to the base, and 2300 m of VERTICAL to go down. We walked and hobbled down, back through misty rainforest jungles, and we even got to see some huge pitcher plants that eat insects. We eventually made it back down, and then came back to our hotel in Kota Kinabalu, where we promptly slept for 13 hours. What a start to a honeymoon!
Avoiding Malaria Like the Plague
From the town of Kota Kinabalu (KK), we got a ride to a town called Kota Belud. Our driver was MUCH better than the last one, who seemed to think he was in a race.
Interesting (to me, anyways!) sidenote: we passed by TONS of cars that look just like stuff we have in North America, like Ford pickups, Honda Civics, SUVs, but they are built by a company called PROTON. They are a Malaysian company that copies cars and then calls them their own. Rip-off-riffic.
We drove west from Kota Belud and then hit the real Malaysian country side. There were all sorts of green plants everywhere. It's really just exploding with life! The leaves of some of these things are as big as a car. It really seems that if people don't keep up effort to live in the jungle, nature will just eat everything up.
On the roads, the drivers have to constantly avoid cows. Man, these things are all over the place. The farmers let them free to eat and poop all over the road so it doesn't make a mess of their farm, and then somehow, the cows know to come home at the end of the night. Sorry, I can ramble on about them till the cows come home. Groan!! Everyone avoids hitting them though, since if you do, you owe the farmer a new cow. But you can keep the one you hit. Weird.
We arrived at a port and avoided a bloated dead dog that washed up on shore to get on our boat. The boat was called the Lobster King! Waa hooo! We sped off towards a tiny island called Mantanani.
All I can say about that place is....holy cow! (sorry for the bovine references; it seems I have a theme). There are cows roaming around freely there too! Along with Herons and strange squawking geese. They were all over the place, including right outside of our window. It's incredibly beautiful there. It's a small island with super clear water, with a little fishing village on one end, and our tiny resort on the other. We got a small cabin that overlooked the water, and went on a walk that night and swam in 30 degree water! No, not fahrenheit. It's amazingly warm and salty.
As we walked along the beach, tiny white crabs would scurry along, running sideways and into their holes.
A beautiful sunset was a welcome sight, and we went to bed. The next morning we woke up to a glorious sunrise and then had first breakfast. Inge and I were able to snorkel around and see all sorts of critters. There were banner fish and all sorts of butterfly fish. After that, we came back, had second breakfast (sounds like we were staying with Hobbits from Lord of the Rings), and then took a kayak out to the nearby island to explore it and to snorkel a bit more. We were hit by some giant waves, due to my poor navigation skills, and one wave broadsided us and thoroughly drenched us. We eventually made it there and then swam around. We saw all sorts of coral, and even a sea snake!
On the way back, we saw a sea turtle in the water beneath us, and at our cottage, there were cows all over the place. Two of the weird geese were hiding under our cottage to get some shade. Squawk!
We had another amazing evening, and we had two little buddies in our room, too. Tiny little geckos that are really cute were crawling around, but we didn't mind them.
The next morning, we woke up nice and early for first breakfast, before going out on a really long snorkel. We were at this coral reef that came up almost to the water surface, so we were very close to all sorts of strange fish. There were glowing blue starfish, corals of all sorts, and bright orange, yellow and blue fish. It was like an aquarium! At one point, we looked around and saw three Baracuda swimming by near the surface. They look pretty mean. We were under for an hour and a half, and then came back to the cottage, where we were going around, looking for Dodongs (or Sea Cows, as they call them). I think it’s a Manatee, like they have in Florida. We didn't see any, but later on we saw a Monitor Lizard about a meter long run away from us. It runs really strange. It's the size of a small crocodile. Crickey!
We made our way back to Kota Kinabalu that afternoon, and then we walked over to a giant market filled with all sorts of sounds and smells. It was so cool to see what people there eat. There are giant fruits of every possible color, with chickens and fish heads all over. We bought some curry, cinnamon, and some deep fried bananas, before sitting down to have a coconut. The guy just lops the top off a coconut, and gives you a straw. Yum!
Peculiar Primates Primarily Pick Peanuts and Papayas
The previous leg of our trip started with our leaving early in the morning and flying out to Sandakan (which is to the east of the province of Sabah), near the Philipine border. We arrived there, and were met by our guide named Haswan. He was absolutely hilarious during the four days he was with us. He's a local, who was brought up in the jungle, and decided to be a jungle guide. He knows all about how to survive in the wilderness, and really helped us out!
We first went through the town of Sandakan, and saw how nearly half of the inhabitants are chinese. The town used to be called 'Little Hong Kong'.
Next, we were driven to a jetty near a giant Mosque and taken by a really speedy boat to Selingan Island, also nicknamed Turtle Island. We showed up to a true island paradise. The entire place is less than a kilometer long, and probably only takes a half hour to walk the circumference. We had a chance to snorkel again and to see lots of fish. The true excitement was that evening. We waited with our guide till one of the rangers on the island had spotted a sea turtle landing on the shore.
The rangers then watch till the sea turtle starts laying eggs, which only leaves a 5 to 7 minute window to see it all. We had to run to right near where we had sat on the beach earlier, and we saw a gigantic green sea turtle. She had lumbered onto the beach and had spent the last hour digging a hole, and laid 60 eggs, which a ranger would pick up and place carefully in a basket. We could hold the eggs and help out, and after that, the turtle tried to cover up her hole and what she thought were her eggs, although it was empty.
They do this to ensure that the eggs aren't eaten by the many predators on the island, one of which is the huge monitor lizard. There are tons of those! We got to transport the eggs to a safe place in the sand, where they can be kept safe until the little guys hatch in 2 months. Every night, these cumbersome animals come to lay their eggs, and there are usually 6 to 7 of them that do so.
That meant that there were some hatchlings ready to be released to the water that night, so we got to hold them and try to calm them down so they could conserve some energy for their long swim. We were told that only roughly 2 percent of them survive to adulthood, since there are so many obstacles in their way. They really flap around in your hand! We then set them on the beach and shone a light near the water, since they follow the light, and it was truly a touching experience to help these little guys get to the water. I hope my little guy survived.
The next morning, we were taken back to Sandakan, and then to the Sepilok Orang Utan rehabilitation center. Orang Utan is the Malay word meaning 'Man of the Forest'. They are really amazing animals, in that they are so amazingly smart and strong, yet very gentle by nature. Sepilok is a place where they try to teach orphaned Orang Utans to survive in the wild. Sepilok usually gets their babies from Palm Plantations, where the mothers have been killed, and the locals take on the babies as pets, since they're so cute and cuddly. When they get bigger, they aren't as cute, so they're left in the forest to fend for themselves
, if by 'fend for themselves', you mean 'die'.
Sepilok is a place where they teach them to swing on trees, and to find their own food. It's a huge place at the edge of the jungle, and during feeding time, people can go near the feeding platform and see some of them come to eat. It's the hope that the Orang Utans won't come back to feed any more, since that usually means they've found they can feed themselves. We got to see lots of them climbing along a rope system, coming in to grab bananas and milk. It was remarkable because they're such agile climbers. They seem so relaxed in the trees and on ropes! There were Macaques (which are a nuisance because of how they steal food) that were living up to their name.
One of the young Orang Utans threw a banana peel at one of the pesky Macaques. Get him!
After all that, we were ready for our next adventure.
The real jungle.
We boarded another fast boat and took a two hour ride to the longest river in Sabah, called the Kinabatangan. I had a problem with my stomach, but that ended up being all sorted out in the end…(pun intented)
We arrived at a true paradise! It's called the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, and all I can say is....WOW! It's super duper, neato and terrific. The whole thing is built five feet above the ground on stilts to keep above the wet jungle floor. They have terrific food and staff, and we had a chance to go on very quiet boats to see wildlife. The boats are built by locals and use electric engines. As far as simians are concerned, we saw long tailed macaques, pig tailed macaques, silver langurs and of course the rare proboscis monkeys. They have this pendulous nose, and look really funny. We saw one who was a big fat male. He had a huge stomach and an enormous floppy nose. He was just sitting in a tree, waiting around. The only thing missing was a beer in one hand a remote in the other.
We were really lucky to see three wild Orang Utans too! People rarely see them, but we seemed to have some truly super guides. We got out of our boat to see a mother in a tree with her little baby, and on the way back, were attacked by bees. I got a few stings but was just fine.
Other animals we saw: A mangrove snake, two monitor lizards, all sorts of birds, like blue eared king fisher, a big yellow king fisher, a bird called snake bird, and these really weird birds called Hornbills. They have what looks like an extra half a beak stuck on their real beak. They make the most horrible sound when they squawk. I could imagine the early explorers being terrified it would be some man eating animal. It's just a bird that looks really funny.
We saw a flying fox, (yep, they really exist!) and a leaping lizard, just like the expression. Oh. And lots of Egrets too. Those are white birds that really stand out compared to the green trees behind them. (note: egrets are not an asian mispronunciation for a baby eagle). And we saw eagles too. Sorry, no speckle throated yaks or anything else. We missed out on seeing pygmy elephants and a sumatran rhino that live in the jungle there, although we did see elephant tracks.
We had a chance to do something really amazing and go on a jungle walk with our guide. We had to wear these leech socks that look just like Santa Claus socks. You have to wear them because the leeches there are really aggressive. And extra creepy! I had three on my legs, but got them off before they bit into me. We were able to walk into the jungle, and hear the symphony of animals and insects. It's like some other world, with all of the noises. It's really loud! One would think there's some unseen musical conductor controlling the rolling crescendo of noises. Wow.
After we got back to the lodge, I noticed I had a leech bite on my stomach, which was really REALLY gross, and when I asked one of the guides how to stop the bleeding, a couple of American tourists heard and were thoroughly freaked out. They would ask every time I would see them if I was alright, and if the bleeding had stopped. It was pretty funny actually. Leeches don't really cause any pain at all.
That evening, we went on a night cruise and saw two crocodiles, some fish owls, and all sorts of sleeping birds and monkeys. Of course I was asked by the Americans if my bleeding had stopped.
Hey White Man!
On the last leg of our trip, we flew to Kuching, to go on an adventure with a local Iban tribe.
We were picked up early in the morning, and driven 5 hours east of Kuching into the jungle. It's amazing how many rice fields and pepper plantations there were along the side of the road. We shopped for a present to give to the tribe we'd be staying with. More on that later. (not MORON)
When we arrived at the end of the road, we went with our guide, Wan, to meet up with a boat driver from the Iban tribe. To say it was warm outside doesn't really describe it. Imagine a sauna. Now imagine it outside. Yeah. I have to say, Inge's much better at handling the heat than I am. I really relished the moments when we were in an air conditioned car.
We met our boat driver and put our gear into this tiny little boat. Surely it's just for gear. People could never fit into that thin little sliver of a boat. You know of course that we did go in it. What a tippy little boat! It's quite long (6 m), hence the name of Long Boat. It was about 3 feet wide, so there wasn't even room to change your mind. The boat driver started up the engine, and away we sped along the Skrang River. It felt like we were sitting ON the water, since we were so low!
After a few hours of travelling into the most remote jungle I could imagine, we pulled up to a small sandy outcrop, where a few other long boats were tethered. We walked up the stairs and met the people we'd be staying with for the night.
I don't know how to explain this properly, since words don't really convey how I felt. It was totally alien, and yet inviting. The long house is quite....long (oddly enough). It's about 60 meters long and houses 24 families, for a total of 160 people, although they weren't all there. We met a few of the tribe people, mainly young children and elderly, since the others are away working in the rice plantation, in the pepper plantation or hunting. The kids aged 7 to 18 were away at boarding school for the month, since they live so far away from civilisation. We were shown around by an old man who seemed very friendly. We walked around the house, and saw where they kept the chickens, pigs and dogs.
The Iban tribespeople work really hard. They work from about 07h00 till 18h00 every day! No matter how hot it is, they do backbreaking physical labor. When they come home, the women usually cook dinner, and then make woven fabrics or mend clothing as needed. Everyone's so thin and tough looking!
I have to say though, that they were exceedingly friendly. The people love having guests, and they truly give you the best of what they have. We ate dinner with the chief and his wife and son, while sitting on the ground, since they don't use tables or chairs. The food was pretty good, and they really went all out to give us a taste of what they had. We ate rice that came from the plantation, as well as fresh picked pineapple, tapioka, chicken from just outside, and rice wine (strong stuff!).
Inside the long house were a number of skulls in baskets. These are relics from the days when the Iban were a head hunting tribe. They used to fight with other tribes, like the Bedayuh and Orang Ulu in the area, and when they killed an enemy, they would cut off the head and keep it as a trophy. They would use a blow gun (Ren and Stimpy style) and hit someone with a poison-tipped dart. We even got to try out the blow darts! No poison or anything, just on a target.
They stopped head hunting in the 1920s, but after the Japanese had occupied Borneo, the British and Americans had asked if the Iban would help rid them of the Japanese invaders, so they have plenty of Japanese skulls in their baskets now.
After seeing them put on a show with dancing and drum beating, we spent a night in the long house, under a mosquito net. We awoke at about 03h00 to the sounds of roosters doing their call (I don't know the proper term....cockadoodledoo-ing?) Seriously, these roosters need to fix their internal clocks, since it wasn't even light out yet.
We then went on a walk through the jungle with our guide, and saw where the Iban tribe used to have their long house. In the old days when they fought with other tribes, their location was more tactical, in the middle of the jungle, on a steep hill. It was hidden away, and fortified with deep trenches filled with sharp poisoned sticks and many other traps. How strange to see old relics from such a violent past.
We ended up meeting four of the Iban at our boat, and we headed back, but not until they made us a traditional Iban picnic. They stopped on the side of the river and started cooking with only the most basic tools, like matches and knifes and some chicken and rice. They went into the jungle and cut bamboo chutes, which were used to boil the food over a fire. They would wrap the rice in palm leaves, and cook it all in the bamboo. When making plates, one lady just went out and came back with palm leaves that she had just stitched with sharp pieces of plant. How cool! They made a set of tongs for turning over the bamboo and everything! They people really can survive and thrive in the jungle.
When we look at the jungle, we may see danger and a forbidding environment. The Iban see a supermarket. They eat just about anything! In fact, one of our previous guides from the east had said about the Iban people that they'll eat anything, except maybe a 4 x 4 truck.
We eventually headed home along with some passengers: the chief's son and his wife. They only go to TOWN once a year, so it's a big deal. Most of the other tribespeople had never left the long house! He was talking excitedly to our guide about everything and anything, it seemed. He was most excited about ice cream. We of course had to stop to indulge him. How fun! Someone else who loves ice cream! It was great, seeing someone so at ease in the jungle be so out of place in the city. A big reversal of roles for us city slickers.
We headed back to Kuching, spent a rainy night there, and then took a flight to Kuala Lumpur the next day. We had a whole day there, so we got to see some of the city. KL is a big city! It's crazy bustling with bazaars and people trying to sell 'Real Rolex, 5 dollars!'. People there will sell you anything. In a strict Islamic country, where there’s the death penalty for dealing drugs, and people go to jail for selling porn, it doesn't seem to stop them. We would walk by, and people were selling burned CDs and DVDs at every corner. When they'd see I was a white man, they'd ask if I wanted any porno. So many people would ask me that!
At one point, Inge was walking behind me, and within about 20 seconds, three different people would whisper to me 'You want porno?'. What the? Maybe something about me said that's what I'd want. Go figure. At one point, taxi drivers (spelled Teksi) would yell at us if we wanted a ride. One guy just yelled from far away 'Hey white man! You want taxi?'. White man? Well, I guess it worked and got my attention. I definitely stood out. My short-by-danish-standards height was truly gargantuan by Malaysian standards!
We went to visit some of the temples and beautiful mosques in town, and ended up in the Petronas Towers in a really fancy area, eating dinner at an Indian food place. Yum!
With that, we headed home for a 12.5 hour flight to Amsterdam, and then an hour and a half to Copenhagen.