Monday, 5 September 2011

Malaysia & Borneo, the first 12 days, 23rd August – 3rd September 2011

It took us 10 days to find it, but I think we have stumbled across our own little bit of Borneo paradise. ‘Sepilok B&B’ is quiet, simple and surrounded by wildlife. We arrived here a few days ago by coach from Kota Kinabalu, which by comparison was not such a nice place to visit. Mel and I have vivid memories of our last backpacking journey through Asia and all the guest houses and bamboo huts we frequented along the way and since we arrived in Borneo (after spending one night at the ‘Tune Hotel’ at Kuala Lumpur airport) we have been searching to find a similar place. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it ticks most of our boxes. Mel would still have liked hammocks and fresh fruit on demand, but apart from that it’s amazing really.

We flew from KL to Kuching – the capital of the state of Sarawak the day after arriving into Peninsular Malaysia. Kuching is a nice town. It has everything one might expect from an increasingly developing Asian state capital. Lots of shopping, lots of restaurants and hotels. There is a real blend of the old and the new. We spent our first 2 nights at the Singassama B & B on the fringes of the old town. This was a good, clean hostel with an excellent roof-top bar which also served as the breakfast room in the mornings. We enjoyed our stay there. The staff were very nice, if a little too cool for school in attitude during the day. I’m not sure what they smoke there, but the apathy was well rehearsed.

Borneo is famous for its native wildlife and when pressed to tell you what animals come from Borneo, most kids will say orang-utans, or perhaps; “Those orange monkey things”. 20,000 of the worlds 27,000 orang-utans are here and no trip to Borneo would be complete without visiting one of the rehabilitation centres specialising in re-introducing them to the jungle. This is a process which can take many years and as a result, many of the young orang-utans remain close to the staff and the rehab centres as they can always receive free fruit twice a day without actually having to do any work for it. We visited Semengoh orang-utan sanctuary after a short local bus trip out of Kuching and we were happy that we did so.

Semengoh rehab centre is situated at the end of a 1 km road that takes you from the main highway through the jungle, past some amazing botanical collections, before snaking its way down into a valley where one is met by a welcome sign and a clear warning not to approach the wildlife, because they may injure you. It was such an awesome experience to be so close to these primates and we had timed our visit to coincide with the 3pm feeding time. Overall we must have been able to view 8 or 9 orang-utan, including a mother with her young baby. I can hear your collective ‘aahh’ from here!! The park rangers were very clear that we should not do anything to spook the animals like no noisy cameras, no loud talking. Of course, the three gap-year Brits next to us spent the entire time talking loudly about how amazing their camera was and pointing and laughing loudly at the natural behaviour of the orang-utans – makes me so proud!

Semengoh appears to be a well run place and despite the annoying idiots who come to visit from time to time, it is well worth the visit and so much better than watching animals in the zoo. There were even a couple of very large crocodiles in very small caged enclosures, basking in the 34 degree temperature. We made some short films there and they are available for you to see on Flickr at your leisure (once our internet condescends to upload them!).

After a short walk back to the main road, through one of the botanical collections of bamboo, (did you know some bamboo can grow as much as 1.2 metres in length each day) we were back at the bus stop where we put our feet up for an hour and watched a stray looking dog dodge expertly in and out of the fast flowing traffic. Millhouse would have been flattened many times in that hour.

We wanted to visit Bako National Park from Kuching and we were able to do so by local bus and then a small boat. We arrived and hopped off our boat to be greeted by our campsite neighbours, the very friendly Mosquitoes! It was only 10 Malaysian Ringgit per night to camp out there, that’s £2 or roughly $4 to the rest of us. Not bad, for an almost empty campsite in the very heart of Borneo’s jungle.

It is very hot and very humid here, not really surprising, but I can tell you in all honesty that I was not able to sleep at all in the tent during our 2 night stay at Baku because it was so unbelievably sticky. It was defiantly worth the trip though. We saw so much wildlife and enjoyed quiet beaches and hiking through the jungle. It would have been even better if there hadn’t been a chronic water shortage and therefore no showers or any means to flush the toilets during our stay. How lovely we smelled!!! To be fair though, the sea was warm and we just did our best to wash in there each morning. We actually found 1 tap near the entrance to the cafĂ© that worked, so we managed to fill a bucked and use that to wash hair on the second day.

We came into close contact with the following jungle dwelling creatures during our visit to the park: bearded pigs, a monitor lizard, a vine snake, pit vipers, stick insects, a flying lemur, lots of geckos, skinks, kingfishers, a drongo, Proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, bats, swallows, ants, mosquitoes, bees, fire-flies, hornets, assorted fish, spiders, squirrels and Speedo wearing German tourists! Mel was attacked in 2 separate incidences by the Macaques. It was only her fierce Scottish tones which saved her from physical harm, as the screaming little Chavs attempted to intimidate her into surrendering her bottled water. I was not present at either altercation, but I was able to hear the attacks from some distance away.

During our trip to the jungle there we also came went on a night walk with a guide in the hope that we would see some of the mammals which frequent the forest at night. Sadly, we didn’t see any rare cats or tree dwelling mammals, although I was bitten by an ant which felt like someone putting a cigarette out on my ankle! While there, we met a Spanish brother and sister who went out at night in search of wildlife and showed us some lovely photographs of snakes and a cat, so at least we know that they were out there somewhere.

The humidity was eventually broken on our second night in the tent. The thunder claps and lightening started at around 12:30am and it began to rain at 5:30am, sending me and fellow camper Matt scampering out in the rain to grab our still wet clothing off the washing line in our boxer-shorts. We must have looked hilarious, the American and the Englishman, running around in the half naked in the dark of the jungle, frantically trying to collect our belongings before the real deluge began.

That morning, in between rain showers, we had breakfast with Matt, a programmer from Atlanta who works wherever he wants, due to the nature of his job and Naomi, formally a Ballet dancer turned world explorer, from Skegness, Lincolnshire. We all got a boat back to the port together and met up for a drink that evening at the roof-top bar of the hostel we had stayed at on our first 2 nights in town.

There is plenty to get your teeth stuck into in Kuching, including a good selection of markets and shopping centres, as well as different types of food, as long as you like everything fried. We were able to find a vegetarian place which weighs the food you choose to eat from the buffet in order to figure out how much to charge you for your lunch or dinner. I think that is a much better way of doing the all-you-can eat thing than charging a flat rate to everyone. KFC is everywhere, and judging by the ever increasing number of fat people here in Malaysia, it is consumed regularly.

We went on an evening sunset cruise on the river on our first evening there, and we also went to visit the interesting cat museum. They seem to really like cats here -the cities name, Kuching, means cat in Malay. We also spent time searching for bargains and trying out new and interesting looking fruit in the old towns’ market area. Most of the stalls selling clothes sell knock-off polo shirts and so-called designer sunnies. It’s a shopper’s paradise really, not quite as good as Thailand for value, but getting close.

Before long it was time for flight number 3 in just under a week, as we moved onto Kota Kinabalu, again with the impressive Air Asia. We were really looking forward to another city with lots of character and its own unique atmosphere, as we had found in Kuching, but to be honest we were not that lucky. We arrived during the meeting of the end of Ramadan and other national holidays to a city which is more or less empty and closed up at this time of year. We made our way via a hostel that no longer exists, except on the internet, to the ‘Borneo Adventure Backpackers’. Not a nice place to stay, we moved the next day to ‘Lavender Lodge’ which is much better and included breakfast.

During our 3 nights in Kota Kinabalu, we enjoyed our first wedding anniversary. It had been a year since we were standing in the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane with Tim, Debs, Savannah and Rob and we decided to celebrate by taking a trip to a nearby island to go snorkelling. Sapi Island was packed with more people than it could comfortably fit on the main beaches, so we ventured around to an empty beach to enjoy the clear waters and do a spot of snorkelling. It turned out to be OK. We were a little saddened by the piles of rubbish everywhere, glass, plastic, all floating everywhere and destroying the otherwise pristine waters, if you discount the non-existent coral. I guess it’s just a sign of the times. That day we met a couple of nice Kiwi ladies who are teaching in Jakarta and we all agreed that the best time to visit this area was probably 50 years ago. For our anniversary meal, Mel and I visited a really nice restaurant and enjoyed lots of fresh, unfired veggies (really very rare in Borneo) and a nice bit of home-made chocolate brownie each.

That all brings us rather nicely to our trip by coach across the state of Sabah to our current location of Sepilok. The coach journey was a good experience, we could see the mountains on both sides of the road, including the world renowned Kota Kinabalu which was very impressive. The saddest thing has been the amount of destroyed jungle, cleared for mono-culture and in particular for palm-oil groves. If you have any respect and concern for the wildlife of this world and the global impact that has been brought about by all this truly awful destruction of native, irreplaceable rainforest and jungle then please stop buying products with palm-oil in them. Buy ethical cosmetics from companies like ‘Lush’ and always read the label before you buy anything which contains oil. By making your own feelings known by buying ethically, the extremely rich oil producers will be forced to find ways of producing oil without damaging primary rainforest.

Our accommodation here, as previously stated, is much more what we have been searching for since we arrived in Borneo. The place seems to be surrounded by all the sights, smells and sounds one would expect from the jungle. On our first evening here we spotted an Oriental hornbill in the jacaranda outside our room, they are the most stunning birds, apparently they are everywhere here, I hope so.

2 evenings ago we visited the ‘Rainforest Discovery Centre’, which is a 5 minute walk from the B & B. If you are ever here then you simply have to visit that place. It has one of the best collections of plants that you simply can’t grow in our home climate, as well as lots of jungle walks and a fantastic canopy walkway. There was practically nobody there and Mel and I had the canopy walk to ourselves as sunset approached. It was quite something to watch all the parrots and a hornbill flying around trying to find a suitable roosting spot for the night. There don’t really appear to be any staff around either, so if you are staying close by then you could probably just walk in the early evening and enjoy the place for free, not that it costs much to get in anyway. Just make sure that you don’t hurt yourself because there would be nobody to help!

We had thought about booking to go and spend the night on ‘Turtle Island’, so we sent into Sandakan city yesterday to go and find out more. Having explored the costs and weighed everything up though, we decided against it. It sounds like a great deal of money for another over populated trip where you are told when to eat, when to take photo’s and no doubt when to buy over priced tat. We have decided that 4 more nights in the jungle suits us best, much more our style. The trip into town was enjoyable though, as we made our way up what are known as the ‘100 steps’ to the ‘English Tea House’. We enjoyed a pot of tea and some lovely crumpets beside the Croquet lawn. The light breeze and the great views were a welcome break from the rather intense tropical heat.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Christchurch 20th - 23rd August 2011

To be honest we weren’t sure exactly what to expect from our trip to Christchurch. We were reminded each and every day on the news about how much damage had been done to the CBD and how they have had to endure literally thousands of aftershocks since the last big quake in February which killed 183 people. We had actually been fortunate enough to find a Warm Showers host for a few nights, Richard, a real stroke of luck, given that more than 50,000 people have been displaced during the last year of earthquakes. Richard even had plumbing in his house. Richard, a Psychiatrist, actually had many extremely cool things, such as a warm welcoming character, a passion for cooking and a million dollar view from his apartment, high up on the hill in the Cashmere area of the city. Richard was working nights at the hospital when we stayed, but he still took the time to drive us round some of the affected areas of the city (Littleton and Sumner), along with his good friend Chris, another doctor, from Auckland, visiting for the weekend.

After loading up our bikes after our long bus trip from Te Anau, we cycled up to Richard’s place and experienced our first Cantabrian earthquake of note. The city shook all around us as a 4.3 struck just 10 Km deep. It was the first of 3 notable quakes which we felt during our stay with Richard. We arrived at Richard’s to a note on the stairs inviting us to make our own way in and help ourselves to a very tasty dinner of vegan curry, still warm on the stove and to make ourselves at home. We had just put our stuff into his massive spare room when he and Chris arrived. We enjoyed a chat and his great hospitality that evening, before heading off to bed, wandering how many more quakes we might feel before next morning.

I’m told that there had been quake during the night, I was not aware of it though – although Mel was still awake at 1am and felt everything shaking. After cooking porridge we all made our way across the hill to Littleton, one of the seriously damaged areas of town. We played Petanque and drank coffee together at the recently created Littleton Community Garden, an area of wasteland created when a warehouse collapsed in February. Everywhere we looked buildings had been removed or had been given different coloured stickers attributed to homes and public buildings designated for either repair of demolition. There were lots of families out spending time together, I noticed lots of parents our age playing with their kids or out drinking coffee in the impromptu cafes dotted here and there. Indeed, everywhere we travelled we met families who were happy to be together outside in the early spring sunshine.

We made our way through town a few times to visit different attractions and Christchurch still has much to offer the visitor. The Botanic Gardens and the Air Force Museum were both well worth the free entrance fee. We had to leave our bikes outside the Botanic Gardens one day and we were lucky to return to them with anything left on them. A thief had decided to open up all the zips on my cycle panniers and my tool kit. He took a couple of things, but nothing worth any money, a swiss army knife which Mel had found on the side of the road and a spanner that had cost me $3. Why not just take the cycle panniers? They are worth hundreds. People are strange.

Our time in NZ was coming to an end for now and we were both all too aware of that. We spent quite a bit of time walking round the Botanic Gardens together and reminiscing and acknowledging all the great events we had experienced together and all the great once-in-a-lifetime moments we had made possible by jacking in our old lives for a while in search of the adventure. As the plane took off from Christchurch airport and as it flew way over the Southern Alps before crossing the Pacific and the great land mass of Australia there was more than a frog in the throat and an understanding smile shared between us. The best year of our lives? Probably.

South of the South Island, NZ -Te Anau 13-20th August

Te Anau seems another lifetime today. I’m sitting on a park bench in the semi-shade of a timber-framed lodge set in the heart of what is left of the Bornean jungle in the state of Sabah. Since my last entry many thousands of miles by land, sea and air as we continue what can only be described as the most self-indulgent honeymoon in history. 

It is hard to overstate the juxtaposition of our experience during our final days in NZ to where we are now, so I’ll simply describe our final days in wonderful South Island and then go on to describe our first 10 days in Malaysia and Borneo in a separate entry.

Te Anau is one of the gateway townships that lead to the massive Fiordland national park that sits on the far south west of New Zealand. It is still relatively unspoilt in areas and still contains vast stretches of forest untouched by humans since the dawn of the country. Packed with stunning landscapes of mountains, lakes and lush woodland, it attracts masses of tourists every year and although we do leave an impact, it is still fair to say that DOC have done their best to keep much of the area intact.

We booked onto a tour from Te Anau to Milford Sound on our penultimate day in the national park and we were treated to fine weather and a really good tour guide. We were chatting with him about our upcoming trip to Borneo and he explained how he and his wife had been here and they hired a car and saw lots of the island that way. We decided it was food for thought. He also told us how sad it was to drive through the thousands of acres of Palm-Oil groves here, where there used to be jungle (more on that later). The tour took us on a winding road through ancient forests of beech and over crystal clear waters, past enormous avalanche piles on both sides of the highway and these served as a reminder as to how lucky we were with the sunny conditions that day. That highway is the only road in or out of Milford Sound and due to the large amounts of tourist buses going through, up to 150 per/day in the summer months, they do a pretty good job of keeping it clear.
The Mirror Lakes on the road to Milford Sound

Avalanche area!

The road ahead - a bit chilly

On arrival at the ferry terminal, they tried to sell plane and chopper tickets to us for our return journeys, with prices starting from as little as $600 for around 35 seconds in the air I estimated. They do make their money! Once herded onto one of the massive boats, the 2.5 hour trip around Milford Sound began. I had heard it stated that it is impossible to describe the beauty of Fiordland because of it’s immense scale; powerful waterfalls, 2,000 metres to the bottom of the Fiord, 1,500 metres to the top of the mountains, dolphins, penguins, fur seals… You get the general picture. Had Mel and I had a little more time on our hands, I think we would have spent the night there though, so that we would have a chance to see all these things without the other tourists. There were people on that ferry who didn’t even go outside to look at it all. The was a young boy of around 12 who sat and read his book for the entire journey, a spiteful look on his face, and everywhere, the sound of digital cameras turning off/on/off/on. People spend more time photographing things of interest and outstanding natural beauty than they do looking at them. Why travel at all if this is your obsession? We had a brilliant time, don’t get me wrong, It’s just people I don’t understand at times. Over the last few years, the same thing had been happening during every event imaginable. Kids filming other kids getting beaten in the classrooms, people fighting to get the front at a Kings of Leon gig to watch the entire thing through their blue-screened little touch phone, after the riots in Tottenham, people meeting and greeting the Prince of Wales, not even looking at his face in case they missed a chance to capture it for their Facebook or Youtube site. I must be getting old or out of touch, but does anyone else out there agree that we should think about enjoying the reality of things a bit more again? My point being that Milford Sound can only, truly be experienced through your own senses, any effort on my part to seriously describe it can only fail – go and see it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. Failing that, check out the photos and smell my hypocrisy.

Mel and I were really pleased we took in the national park and we felt rested after being confined to our room for the vast majority of that week. Just as well really, as we were about to head up to the shaky city on a 10 hour coach journey the following morning.