Sabah, Malaysia (Northern Borneo): exhilarating and sad!

I am out of the jungle. Pretty amazing journey once again! After my last quick entry, the spontaneous and magical moment of getting off the bus at just the right spot, seeing a sign for Uncle Tan’s, meeting Diego, renting a room, finding out I could go on the river trip that afternoon (in 35 minutes), unrenting my room, quickly organizing a river pack and in short order, getting on a bus and heading off for the Kingbatangan River.

For more information on the river: Kinabatangan River

For Uncle Tan information: Uncle Tan

My tour group consisted of Diego and myself. Perfect size. We drove for about one hour by mini-van, stopping along the way for rubber boats for the hiking as it’s high water now. The boat loaded with supplies and we were off. Within a short distance, we spotted a Hornbill, then a Macaque, and a little farther on the Proboscis Monkey. Before we reached camp upriver, we saw two Orangutan, more monkeys of various sorts, many more Hornbill and were both really impressed by the variety we saw on the short ride in!

Camp at Uncle Tan’s was very rustic and perfect. Mattresses on the floor of cabins covered with mosquito netting, a large dining area, a large meeting area, trees and vegetation all around, rising flood waters, amazing forest sounds and a wonderful staff. We were just off the shore of the river.

We met another group of nine coming back from their evening river trip as we headed off to our meeting. Dinner together, I met people from around the world all on some sort of adventure and all thrilled with their experience of the day. Rain cancelled our evening night boat trip so we joined the other group on the night hike jungle safari. Very interesting seeing a lot of insects and roosting birds, a civet cat, frogs, a tarantula, a huge poisonous Centipede and other miscellaneous creatures.

The next day was a mix of rain and sun. The morning river boat trip was nice but damp. Rain at 6:30 am kept most animals in their own hiding spots. Lunch and a 2 hour trek with Diego and our guide Leo up the hill where we learned a lot about the forest, spotted bottle bugs, birds but no mammals.

Our schedule continued: afternoon boat trip (in the drizzle so we saw little other than THOUSANDS of Flying Foxes, a fruit bat with wing spam of a hawk or eagle), night boat trip (lots of roosting birds, a Leopard Cat, dining Flying Fox) and a return to camp for music. The next morning, we had a 6:30 boat trip and saw lots of wildlife including a huge crocodile, the same species they have in Australia!

My first night was interrupted by rats eating through the side of my daypack after my “Fisherman’s Friend” cough drops I forgot were in there.

The second night was influenced by a growing cold. The jungle was hot, cold, dry, damp, windy, wet, cold, etc. My poor little body wasn’t sure how to deal with all of that!

Diego is a biologist now involved in biomedical research. We talked about the amazing amount of wildlife we saw on the river. During our trek with Leo and in conversation with others, we learned why there is so much wildlife here. This is all secondary forest only about 30 years old. It is very minimalistic compared to the original forest I hiked in Sumatra. In addition to that, the palm oil plantations come right down to the edge of the narrow forest strip. The government requires a 40 meter buffer but in places the palm oil comes right to the river’s edge.

Essentially, that means it’s not a forest but a corridor. The birds and mammals only can feed if they travel up and down the corridor parallel to the river.

In lonely planet, they described Borneo as “Mother Nature’s Fantasy”, maybe once but a long way from it now. They make so much money from the palm oil industry, they have destroyed most of the forest and thus the habitat of the Orangutan, Proboscis Monkey’s, and everything else. My friend Janet told me that Borneo convinced her that she never wanted to use anything with palm oil in it again.

In Taman Negara, they told me that an acre of land had 250 different species of trees. That is original forest on the mainland. When the palm oil trees come in, there is one species and nothing can feed on it. Kind of sad. Money drives so many decisions around the world. But often, the consequences are permanent, they estimate Orangutan could be extinct within the next 10 years and I heard yesterday there are only about 1,200 Proboscis Monkeys left in the world and only in Borneo.

I returned with Diego to Uncle Tan’s base camp where the trip started. Diego’s friend Sue was there from Sydney and preparing to head into the river trip. I grabbed my backpack, headed off to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.

A taxi beeped but I thought a 20 minute walk would be good. That was before two people told me I was going the wrong way and gave me wrong directions that had me walking nearly 2 kilometers out of my wan in a driving rain. Finally, backpack soaked, body soaked, legs tired, cold weary, I stumbled into Sepilok in time for the 3:00 feeding so I bought a ticket and located a place to store my backpack.

As I was heading into the storage area, Steve and Sam (Samantha) came out. They were part of the group of nine I met who came out the day before I did. Really great people, friends that hook up periodically and travel to exotic locales around the world, I was very happy to see them again. They told me when they left about a Jungle Resort Lodge near that had budget accommodations.

Weary and unclear, I thought about simply staying at Uncle Tan’s but something told me that wasn’t to be so I carried my pack. I walked past two budget places along the way and stopped a van from the Jungle Resort Lodge as I reached Sepilok. Then, Steve and Sam said they were leaving that evening. I was disappointed but thought I’d move ahead on my own.

After the feeding, they said they were going to catch a taxi into Sandakan and a little tingle went off inside. I knew that was where I was to be heading, finally clear. I asked, they said yes, we shared a taxi to town and wound up getting a triple room here together. They left this morning for Kota Kinabalu and a couple days on an island diving and snorkeling before Steve heads back to England and Sam heads off to look for work and an adventure of 9 months or so in Australia.

Surfacing in Sumatra

img_3851Listening to the birds and laughing children from my perch in Lek Jon Cottages looking out of the lake. Mountains ring the mainland on the other side of the water and clouds linger. Smoky and ethereal, morning and evening mist wafts through the trees. Yes, it is very peaceful here! 

Very different world from where I woke yesterday morning. Up before 6:00 in the jungle, it was dark outside. There, the mist drifts through the mountains all day long. I packed and went up to the road to catch my first ride of the day. Darkness lightener, treet rattled behind and I stood watching a group of Short Tailed Macaws swing and crawl through the trees. Even at that hour, the humidity was thick.

No schedules for transportation there, you wait and get on what you see. Most are pickups converted to transport with an occasional (rare) van tossed in. Children need to travel to Kutacane (pronounced Kuta CHa ne) for school so the transport starts early. After 20 minutes, one arrives. I load my pack and day pack and crawl under the shelter stooping since there is no space to sit up!

Honking and honking, the truck slowly proceeds down the road stopping where the driver knows children wait or where they stand waiting. Once the truck was full (my interpretation), the driver continues to pull over for more passengers (sardines without the oil).

This first transport of the day is a pickup like a small Datsun, fitted with a custom made cover about cab height and with open sides and front. Benches were built on wheel wells on both sides.  More and more passengers are packed in, girls sitting on the laps of girls sitting on the laps of girls. Part of the space taken up by the huge speaker behind the cab (two foot wide, 2 1/2 feet high and at least a foot deep)  with me shoved into the space on one side of it.  Fortunately the speaker wasn’t working properly or I’d still be trying to recover my hearing. Loud “thumpa thumps” music seems to be required to provide transport here.

By now, my little space is shared with seventeen of us, packed tightly and with 5 boys hanging off the bumper.  

They dropped me in town and Johan had told me to go to the stop light and keep walking.   Yes, only one stop light, a landmark for sure. Two people asked me where I was going and pointed ahead.  I saw the medium sized bus, I bought a ticket, got on and off we went.  

No kamikaze driver this time, more school zone driver:  don’t drive over 25 mph.  The slow drive so I got to see the country side and also a premonition for how the day would flow.  The drivers friend need a toilet so we stopped by the side of the road and he stepped out to pee.  The driver saw a friend so we stopped on the road so he could give his friend a cigarette and chat.  His friend had a huge dragon shaped party blower whistle and looked like he might be drunk a bit from last night.  A short while alter, a woman called.  We stopped to pick up a pink bag she wanted delivered somewhere.  
Very flowing day as I literally felt handed off from one form of transport to another.  Otherwise, I may not have made it in one day. Johan wrote a map of the towns I’d visit.  If I caught the first bus which want all the way to Sidikalang , I would have a long day but be OK.  

If I missed it, I’d have to improvise and go one of two ways hoping to catch a bus from one village to the next, hoping for connections and eventually I would arrive. Eventually!  Since I knew the name of the next stop, I always asked to confirm it was the right bus and let them know where I was headed. I also could show them in writing since a little mispronunciation error yielded total confusion! Of course this was immediately followed by asking how much the ticket was to avoid being overcharged on arrival. Getting clear first is crucial!

The drivers were extremely helpful getting me where I needed to go for the next bus.  Everyone on the bus in fact!  “Meestar, Meestar”, followed by much excited pointing and I knew my next ride had arrived.  

Eventually, hours later, we stopped for “eating” (accompanied by lots of motions of hand to mouth). It was some sort of police check point that I think was the boundary for Aceh. That was the first leg of the journey.  About 20 minutes later a mini-van pulled in, pointing and excitement followed and I moved my things before the van set off toward my next stopping point.  

Views from the mini-bus with accompanying reflections were an interesting view into the life of local villagers.  Lots of litter and debris everywhere, trash tossed out the window of every moving vehicle, lots of people sitting around on porches just sitting, no language skills on my part or an opportunity to ask but wondering what they think about sitting there much of the days?  Many yards with either concrete pad or blue tarp layered with nuts, beans, corn or some coffee drying, ladies with long handled wooden rake like tools rotating and turning the crops.  Lots of mud and dust, also lots of green and flowers.  Bus braked for ducks, sheep, dogs, water buffalo, etc.  Didn’t see any cats crossing in front of the bus so maybe they are more intelligent that I had thought?  

Arriving in a wet, muddy and grungy Sidikalang, I didn’t see a bean of coffee in what I had been told was coffee country. I was a hit though as people came out in groups to gawk at the tall tourist. My driver, upon arrival in this large town asked me where I was going? Lake Toba is on the island of Samosir. That one word and he turned, drove to a small cafe and pointed saying “Samosir”. No sign, no bus, only trust so I got off and thanked him.

Helpful traveler:

No one during this day spoke English. Not much of a language barrier when you can point and utter a few words. The young girl inside was embarrassed and went to the room behind. I wondered whether I would be dumped here needing to make my own way and literally mumbled, “a little help here”! Outside, two men sat at a table so I asked “Samosir”? “Yes, Yes” was the reply! Pointing to my watch and raising my hand in question he said, “Ten minutes”. Thirty seconds later, the bus drove down the street and both men waved at the bus and hollered for me.

Next phase underway! On the journey to Panguguaran, I saw coffee plants as we got higher in the hills. It must not be harvesting season as I saw no beans drying. On arrival in Panguguran, my driver stopped at a fork in the road and flagged down an approaching mini-van. He turned looking at me and pointing to the van telling me it would take me the rest of the way to Tuk Tuk.

By now, it was dark and late. I forgot to ask about the fare and was overcharged. However, he was such a helpful driver searching out where I wanted to stay for the night, I was happy to pay him extra.

Where I’ve landed:

Fingers crossed, days away from Christmas and hoping they would have a room, I got out. Before I picked up my pack, I heard a voice above asking, “looking for a room”. Landed, I had my new home for the next few days!