Thursday, 21 October 2010

Orangutans and Scuba Diving, Borneo

From the mountain we jumped on a bus to Sandakan, on the east coast of Borneo. Sandakan town itself is still fairly undevelopped and has little to offer, but it is the place to be to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Sepilok, so tourists always have it on their itinerary.
It is, however, also home to an intriguing English tea house, set amid a manicured croquet lawn, with pet peacock and on top of a hill, looking out to sea. Quite why we decided we wanted to climb the 100 steps up to this venue the day after we just climbed up and down the mountain is beyond me, but we did have a lovely cream tea at the top (though they lost marks when didn't give us clotted cream, even though the guide book promised it!)

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the one you will have seen on the television. It's the biggest orangutan sanctuary (as far as I'm aware) and not only cares for orangutans but also releases them back into the wild when they're ready.
Set in an area of dense jungle, the only time you really get to see the orangutans is at feeding time, when the macaques also descend from the trees to fight the orangutans for the last scraps of food. For 30 minutes or so, the sight of primates swinging through the trees and on to the feeding platforms is the main attraction - and they put on a fantastic show - but then as soon as the food has been eaten, they
disappear back up into the canopy. It felt like it was all over a bit quickly but was a great sight to see nevertheless.
I would have been really interested in volunteering at the centre, but apparently the waiting list is two years - so another time, maybe.

Once our legs had just about recovered from all the climbing, we headed over to Semporna and enrolled on a scuba diving course (so within 3 days of being at 4095 metres, we were heading 18 metres under the sea!)
Day one was theory day, where we would realise there's a lot more to scuba than we had previously thought - including complex dive tables to calculate the levels of nitrogen in the body, and many technical things to remember. However, when we actually got into the water on day two, that's when the learning actually started and it was quite a challenge!

At first I felt quite claustrophobic being under water and consequently quite panicked - especially since some of the skills we had to learn were taking off the face mask, simulating we're out of air etc. Kev, on the other hand really took to it and picked it up easily.
The afternoon of day one we did our first open water dive in the resort of Mabul - which, after a morning of theory and technical skills was quite a relief. I even managed to enjoy myself down there! Conditions were fantastic and apart from a strong current during the morning dive we had thirty degree water, sunshine and ten metres visibility.

Still, the following morning I was nervous all over again, unsure of whether I wanted to continue, but I'm not one to give up easily - I've paid a lot of money for this after all - and didn't want to spend the afternoon sat on the beach (even if it is stunning) whilst Kev goes and gets certified. Fortunately, I picked up where I left off the previous day and had a really enjoyable couple of dives... We were lucky enough to dive with some fantastic marine life including giant turtles (they're HUGE!) barracuda, snake eels, pufferfish, grouper fish, angel fish, clown fish and many other tropical varieties - it was amazing and definitely worth overcoming the fear.

We've got a lot of travel coming up over the next few days. Once we get back to KK we've got a flight to Singapore, where we spend two nights, then it's off to Bali and the Gilli Islands (where we hope to do some more diving!)

I'll blog again once we're settled in one place!

Sarah & Kev xx

Friday, 15 October 2010

Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia

Mount Kinabalu dominates the KK skyline and is situated a few kilometres out of town, or in our case a bumpy three hour minivan ride away, through twisty and steep mountain roads.
By the time we arrive at the park HQ we are already at altitude and it's considerably cooler, which is a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the city. Though we did wonder if we had the slightest chance of being warm enough when we climb to the summit at 3am!
Before we left KK we stocked up on mountain climbing gear: headtorches, gloves, thermals and snacks (spending a small fortune) but glad to be as prepared as possible without going the whole hog and wearing walking boots and carrying ski poles!

We spent a night at park HQ and got up bright and early the next morning to begin our climb. As with Mulu National Park, bureaucracy requires all walkers attempting the summit to have a guide, even though the path is well marked and the only way is up.
First stop was 6km from HQ at Laban Rata, where we would spend the night. Climbing was tough in that it was uphill and rocky all the way (a bit like the climb up from Pedney between the beach and the cliff path) but with plenty of time and rest breaks we made it up comfortably in time for lunch. Apparently most people complete this first stage in 4-6 hours so I was really chuffed when we arrived in 3 hours 45 minutes - I guess we must be fitter than we thought!
Shortly after arrival at Laban Rata hostel the weather closed in, bringing with it thick mist and heavy rain so we were glad to have
completed the climb in the dry.

At the hostel we were informed that there was a problem with the generator so there would be no heating or hot water, and electricity for just 3 hours a day. At first we thought we would just have a quick cold shower but after hearing someone attempt this - and hearing his shrieks at how icy the water was at over 3000m altitude - we decided to forego the morning shower and just wash when we get back to base!

Fortunately for us meals are included in our accommodation package as the price of refreshments half way up the mountain include the cost of a porter carrying the goods up the mountain. We passed some porters on our way up, one carrying a large sack of onions, others with huge gas cannisters, vats of cooking oil and crates of canned fizzy drinks. It's mad to even consider doing that as a job - needless to say their thigh and calf muscles are like steel! The mountain guides here also climb the mountain 300+ times a year, which is pretty amazing.

We all went to bed at 7pm as day two involved an early start, leaving at 3am if we were to be at the summit for sunrise - not that we got a great deal of sleep, a) going to bed so early, and b) in anticipaticion of what lay ahead.

The following morning it was still and starry - perfect climbing conditions. We joined the long line of climbers in our fleeces, hats and head torches all making our way towards the summit.
As we reach the half-way point of the summit trail, the rocky steps give way to rock faces and we have to haul ourselves up with ropes. In the pitch black all we can focus on are the ropes and rocks ahead. On the way down we got to see quite how close we came to sheer cliff edges!

With the summit suddenly in sight and the sunrise starting the glow orange in the far distance we push on, even though our legs are aching and oxygen is in short supply in the thin air. We reach the summit (4095.2m) just in time to have our photographs taken by the signpost and to get a few snaps of the sunrise before the biting cold wind and freezing temperatures force us back down the mountain again.

What we didn't anticipate was that the climb down would be much more taxing than the climb up. Our legs were like jelly after the summit climb, so to have to descend all 8.72 km of the mountain in one go was a killer! It took us as long to walk down as it did to climb up and by the end we could barely remember how to walk at all! Still, it was all worth it for the achievement.

At the bottom of the mountain is a large sign displaying the results of 'the world's toughest mountain race', an annual race up and down the mountain. The winner in 2009 completed it is 2.5 hours, which I just cannot get my head around as it took us 12 hours over 2 days!

So from here it's off to Sandakan, the base for our next couple of destinations: Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre and Semporna.

Sarah & Kev xx

Monday, 11 October 2010

Gunung Mulu National Park & Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia)

Onwards to Borneo's number one tourist attraction! If you've ever seen television documentaries containing footage of Borneo's bats and caves then the chances are that it's Gunung Mulu National Park, who's access is via a short flight from Miri, or a day-long journey by boat. We opted for the former to maximise our time there.

Being the most popular tourist site gave the park an altogether different vibe to the other national parks we've visited. It's the largest national park with a fantastic variety of trails - but also the most bureaucratic, so in order to visit the caves or walk the 'canopy sky-walk' you have to pay a fee to hire a guide and visit in a small group. However this would turn out to be an invaluable source of information on the flora and fauna along the trails, and the geology of the caves.

The caves in Mulu are fantastic - and like none I have visited before. What strikes you first is the scale of them, with kilometres of pathways linking up the different caves.
Deer cave is an immense chamber and is home to 2-3 million bats, which eat 4-5 tons of flying insects every night. Since the bats take care of most of the mosquitoes we didn't get bitten once!
In the cafeteria one evening we watched a couple of bats circling round and feasting on the moths, mosquitoes and (big) cicadas (!) which were buzzing around the lights.

It rained for 36 hours continuously during our trip, which obviously posed no problem for visiting the caves, but sadly we didn't get to see the millions of bats flying out of the huge cave mouth (like in the TV footage you might have seen).

After Deer Cave our tour took us to Langs Cave, home to some weird and wonderful looking stalactites and stalagmites. Sadly our cameras could not do justice to the sights we saw.

The following day we took a longboat up the river to two further caves: Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave. Since it was raining so hard - and the temperature was relatively cool outside - we didn't feel any if the air currents in Wind Cave (which are caused by a difference in air pressure and temperatures inside and outside the cave), but the guide did show us an interesting mineral formation called 'moon milk', a white, moss-like covering over the limestone, found only in Wind Cave.

The final cave on our itinerary was 'Clearwater Cave', a deep chasm with a fast-flowing river and rapids running through it. The volume of rainfall since we arrived meant that the river was swollen and part of the pathway was flooded so we had to turn back, but it was fascinating to see the limestone cave being sculpted before our very eyes.
When we left the cave it was raining harder than ever so we headed straight back on the longboat and back to our room - no matter how stunning the location it wasn't worth getting soaked again. Instead of walking we enjoyed a few beers in the cafeteria with some fellow travellers...

The rain did finally let up by the following morning so we were able to fit in the 'canopy skywalk' - a rickety series of rope bridges 40 metres high amongst the tree tops - where we were lucky enough to see several hornbills (the state of Sarawak in Borneo calls itself 'the land of the hornbills'). Apparently it's rare to see quite so many, so despite not being massive bird-watchers, we were pretty impressed!

Next up on our itinerary was capital city of the state of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu (fondly known as KK to the locals). Much to Kev's amusement he found and purchased an 'I heart KK' t-shirt (photo to follow!) - to be worn ironically, I hope!

KK is a lovely little seafront town with a nice selection of bars and restaurants looking out to sea.
Just off the coast are the Tunku Abdul Rahman Islands, a national park consisting of five tropical islands of white sandy beaches and dense jungle interior. We caught a speedboat to Manukan Island and spent the day there, enjoying a relaxing day swimming, sunbathing and reading on the beach. After quite a lot of time in the cities and national parks it's nice to have some beach time again.
On the return journey the captain of our boat decided to race another tourist boat back to the harbour - what fun it was leaping (for want of a better word) across the waves. It felt like we actually took off a couple of times! Now I know why they insisted we all wore life jackets.

Despite there being a wealth of bars and restaurants here the absolute best place to eat is at the night market on the waterfront. At the far end are the Filipino barbecue stalls, cheap as chips and selling fish that has been landed that same afternoon. Last night we each enjoyed an enormous tuna steak and rice for just £1.50. Food is traditionally eaten with the hands - chopsticks or cutlery aren't even available - but we took along our sporks as we chickened out and didn't think eating rice with our fingers an easy task (not to mention a bit unhygienic)!

In the night market we also tried durian fruit (if you've not heard of it before it's a large segmented fruit in a spiky shell that smells really bad - a bit like a drain. It's taste is an acquired one: I have heard some liken it to vanilla ice cream but the bit we tried tasted a bit like 'creamy onions'! Yuk - still, at least we gave it a go.

Next we're off to our final national park in Borneo: Kinabalu Park, home to the 4095m high mountain that we've booked to climb. Seeing the peak on the KK skyline is certainly intimidating but we're up for the challenge.

Sarah & Kev xx

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Similajau National Park & Niah Caves (Malaysia)

Hello again.

I can't believe we're on to our second week in Borneo already. Time is certainly flying. Over the last week we have spent time in two more national parks along with a few days in a city in between, to organise the next part of the itinerary.
The original plan was to chill out somewhere for a week or so but we've honestly been too busy to do this - there's too much to see (and so many things that we just cannot afford to miss!)

Similajau National Park is much smaller than Bako National Park and contains far less flora and fauna of note, so consequently it gets less publicity and a lot less traffic. This, however was perfect for Kev and me: glad to get away from the wealth of insects and our simian
friends, the macaques, and to have the trails to ourselves.

It was a great relief to find that macaques are not a pest in Similajau as they are in Bako - although they can sometimes be spotted in the trees on the trails. I was over the moon not to come across any of the little terrors after my scare at Bako a few days ago - and so we enjoyed all our meals outside, overlooking the beach without fear of monkey attack!

Sadly (or fortunately!) we didn't see any crocodiles - which are reported to frequent the river mouths and streams - despite spending many a moment peering into the murky, muddy waters and straining our eyes into the shady crevices of the riverbank.
The threat of crocs also meant that swimming was mostly off the agenda. Even in the designated 'safe area' it's hard to relax into a nice, refreshing swim in the knowledge there might be a croc lurking!

It's not just crocs we had to worry about though and of you heed the warnings of the park HQ it seems there is a whole host of 'marine stingers' including jellyfish, stonefish, weaverfish and sea urchins, all waiting to get their spines into you.
That said, it was a shame that swimming was out of bounds because not only did we pass some beautiful, secluded beaches, but it was very hot and sweaty work trekking on the jungle trails - even the shady ones. Any respite from the humidity would have been most welcome.

The main trail at Similajau is 10km long and leads through the jungle, running parallel to the coast. It runs from park HQ all the way to Golden Beach at the far end of the park (passing Turtle Beach 1 and 2 at the 6 and 8km points along the way). We made it as far as Turtle Beach 2 before deciding to turn back as an 8km walk in one direction means an 8km walk back to base - and in those temperatures we were averaging about 2km per hour, so we needed to be sure to be back before nightfall.

After a long day walking we watched the sun go down on the beach - look out for the pretty sunset pictures to follow.

Although we didn't actually see any turtles, we did see the tracks on the sand, from where they had come ashore to lay their eggs.
By day the beaches are teaming with life. Down towards the shore there are literally hundreds of hermit crabs, big and small, all making their way down the sand to the sea, scurrying in and out of a network of tunnels dug on the beach. The entire surface of the beach is covered with tiny balls of sand from where the crabs have dug out their underground homes.

We spent two nights at Similajau and then headed four hours up the coast to Miri, a base for our next trip: Niah Caves National Park.

Miri, like Bintulu before it, doesn't have a great deal to offer, but we found a nice little hostel in the centre of town and a cluster of excellent seafood restaurants which serve fish, fresh from the tank, cooked to your preference - and all for about a fiver per person. The last couple of nights we've treated ourselves to red snapper, sea bass and bream - lovely!

Niah Caves National Park comprises three main caves: The Great Cave, Mooncave and The Painted Cave.
First up was The Great Cave, with its huge chambers, lit by shafts of sunlight and swarming with clicking and twittering bats and swiftlets. The boardwalks, handrails and floor of the cave are completely covered in droppings and guano, making for a stinky and very slippery excursion.
Next was Moon Cave, a pitch black passageway which makes you wonder what might happen if your torch suddenly died!
Lastly we visited the Painted Cave, once an ancient burial ground with cave paintings dating back 40,000 years. To the side of the (now very faded) paintings on the wall are a series of 'death ships' - coffins (empty, thankfully) excavated from Neolithic times.
A collapsed boardwalk meant getting to the Painted Cave was a bit of a clamber so we were the only ones there - and it was certainly spooky and atmospheric, given it's history.

Our return to the park HQ was a 4km walk back through the caves and along a wooden boardwalk through the jungle. As we exited the cave thunder rumbled noisily overhead until it culminated in torrential monsoon rain, from which we had no shelter. We stopped at one point to pour the water out of our shoes but it was a futile gesture as within seconds we were squelching along again!

So it's back to Miri for one night then off to the famous 'Gunung Mulu National Park', home to the limestone 'Pinnacles' and the enormous bat caves.

I'll blog again once back in civilisation.

Sarah & Kev xx

Friday, 1 October 2010

Kuching & Bako National Park (Malaysia)

After a smooth flight into Kuala Lumpur we had a couple of nights to relax and sort out our bags before our journey to the island of Borneo.
We took a stroll around the Central Market, where we stopped for some lovely (but very spicy) Malay food for lunch and then up through the market on Petaling Street to peruse the cheap, fake designer goods. Kev had a successful shopping trip, picking up some cool sunglasses but which he managed to leave on the bus the following day on the way to the airport.

It's nice to be back in a country where we can at least phonetically read the language (unlike Thailand and Cambodia!) even if we don't know any words yet. Though that said, everyone speaks excellent English here. There are in fact some similarities in the language to English - here are some of my favourites:

Kek - cake
Teksi - taxi
Poskod - postcode
Televisyen - television

Malaysia is our first time in a Muslim country so attitudes towards dress and what is respectible has changed somewhat. Being Western will attract a few stares anyway but unless I want to look like I'm wearing 'the emperor's new clothes' down the street, covering the knees and shoulders is essential. Unfortunately for me the day I arrived in Borneo was 'laundry day' so I had no choice but to wear my short shorts! Still, I survived - and promptly changed into my long trousers as soon as the clean washing arrived back in our room.

Our first experience of Borneo was landing in capital city Kuching, a small riverside town in western Sarawak. Compared to hectic Kuala Lumpur, Kuching is pretty much the opposite, which would make for a halfway point, perhaps, for the wilderness we were to experience in Borneo over the next month.

Kuching is the Malay word for 'cat' and as a result the city is kind of dedicated to them. There are statues of cats, a cat museum, lots of cats on the streets - and funnily enough I didn't see one dog!

A lot of the cats I've seen have lopped tails, which I thought at first was an interesting observation - until visiting a craft shop that sold cat tail keyrings! It's basically a small model of a cat with an entire cat tail attached to a keyring - and they are sold everywhere. Needless to say I won't be bringing any back as souvenirs!

Having taken in the city's main sights we decided to do a trip to the nearby Damai Peninsula, maybe stay a couple of nights, but it turned out to be one of those days where everything went wrong...

The night before departure we discovered bedbugs in our hostel beds during the night, so no sleep for us. Deciding instead on an early start we braved the monsoon rain to catch the bus to Damai. Except the bus was a bit of a scam - simply dropping passengers to an area containing only 5 star resorts with private beaches. Now this may not sound so bad, but as without checking into said 5 star resort were had no access to the beach or restaurants and consequently nothing to do.

Consulting the guide book and giving our doomed trip to Damai one last shot, we saw there was what looked like a nice little guesthouse just a couple of kilometres away with affordable rooms - and one which the shuttle bus was prepared to drop us at. However, on arrival we were met by two young girls who didn't speak a word of English and two small dogs who were intent on eating Kev's rain poncho. When in transpired that the room rates were double what was quoted on the website we decided to make a speedy exit - a strategy shared by the dogs who ran off into the distance the minute we opened the gate, leaving the poor girl to desperately run after them in the pouring rain. We don't know if she ever did catch them!

Cutting our losses we boarded the first bus back to Kuching and decided to put the whole experience behind us.

The following morning we awoke bright and early to glorious sunshine and jumped on the bus that would take us to the boat jetty for Bako National Park, about an hour outside Kuching and our first experience of the Borneo jungle.

Arriving at the park by boat we were met by high cliffs densely covered with foliage, wooden boardwalks marking the trails through the park and screeching cicadas sounding from the trees. Before we even reached the park reception we had walked past a wild boar, snuffling through the undergrowth, and could hear the proboscis monkeys in the canopy overhead, whilst shrieks could be heard from the open air cafeteria as naughty macaques stole food from unsuspecting diners.

We checked into our very basic hostel room (which incidentally smelled like monkeys had been using it as toilet), put up our mosquito nets and headed out for our first jungle trek - a short 800m walk to a nearby beach That said, the 800 metres was mostly steep cliff paths and was quite a scramble, and with the 35 plus degree heat and humidity it took us much longer than expected to reach the beach.

After a spot of lunch we headed out for our second walk of the day to another beach, 2.2 km away, but with slightly easier terrain than in the morning. Arriving at the desserted beach very hot and sweaty it was a welcome relief to swim in the sea before making our way back to base before nightfall.

You can imagine my delight at seeing so many monkeys around the park. The proboscis monkeys were especially fascinating to see up close as they crash around in the tree tops. I only wish I had a better zoom on my camera to capture them!
The macaques however are an absolute menace - at first I just thought them mischievous and cute as they crept up on the cafe tables to swipe food from peoples' plates but then they did it to me, spilling my coffee over me in the process and it certainly was not funny then!

Scarier still, on day two we decided to do another walk down to the first beach for a swim but on the way we encountered a group of four monkeys blocking our way. At first we just though by making a lot of noise, clapping and shouting, the monkeys would step aside and let us pass - but quite the opposite: they hissed and exposed their teeth, and then one charged at me to really see us off! We ran screaming, a good distance back up the path until we were sure we had not been followed.

We would later learn that the best precaution is to carry a stick (or in our case, an umbrella) - it must be what the park guides use as the monkeys do respond to a stick being waved menacingly in their direction. It goes without saying that I'm quite terrified of them now and if I never saw another macaque it would be too soon!

Monkeys aside, we didn't suffer too badly at the hands of the insects, though even with insect repellent, long sleeves and trousers, and mosquito nets it's impossible to avoid getting bitten. Getting into the shower in the morning the mosquitos swarm around. I must have killed about fifteen during my first shower.

The moths haven't been too bad either - no major scares for Kev yet, though it is a relief to have the protection of the mosquito net to sleep under and know that nothing can get in!

Last night we travelled overnight up to Bintulu, the departure point for our next national park: Similajau, which is predominantly beach at 30km long and just 1.5km wide. We'll spend a couple of nights there before moving on to Miri and the famous Mulu National Park in a few days.

I'll blog again soon when we're back in civilisation.

Sarah & Kev xx