The (not very) Wild Man of Borneo

 

 

It's getting to be a familiar route to Asia via Northwest's hub at Narita (Tokyo). This time, the first segment is to Memphis. Then on to Seattle, where the clerks and customers in the duty-free store are all Japanese and there are only Japanese language newspapers in the lounge.

 

For the Seattle to Tokyo segment, they are oversold and Northwest is looking for volunteers. They are offering a reroute via Hawaii in business class plus a $500 credit. I check my schedule; can't do. Damn! Gotta remember to start day a day earlier.

 

I grudgingly leave the cocoon of the lounge to face the expected abuse of mass travel. As I hand over my boarding pass to be scanned, the reader beeps. The agent hands me a new boarding pass and seat assignment. Business class! I am sooo glad that in Memphis I had them correct their records to reflect my gold status instead the lowly silver indicated on the boarding pass. I had stayed up all night and brought plenty of Ambien to prepare for the ordeal. Now, I am afraid I will fall asleep and miss out on some of the amenities. Also, not expecting a continuous availability of gourmet delights, I had stuffed myself with munchies in the club.

 

It's a new plane with clear, unscratched windows. The room and comfort together with an up-to-the-minute personal video system with a selection of movies I haven't yet seen make it best flight ever. On the video there is a choice between Heist, about an aging master thief being pulled in for one last job, and The Score, about an aging master thief who want to undertake one last job before retiring. Tokyo comes too soon.

 

On the final leg to Singapore I am back in coach hell. To ease the pain, when the drink cart comes by I order doubles. It's easy to decline the meal.

 

Arrival in Singapore is at 1 AM. It is not 24 hr place it's a sober place where people work, then rest for the next day. The transit hotel in the airport is full, so I select a budget hotel in the city. The taxi driver warns that it is in the red light district. I decline the hourly rate and check in for the night. The room is fine (though it does have quite a few tissue dispensers). It also has thin walls, but the noises from the neighbors diminishes around 3AM. When I check out at 9 AM, it is dead quiet.

 

Flying to Borneo from Singapore is an international flight. Across the causeway lies the city of Johor Bahru, which is in Malaysia and from which it a domestic flight for half the price. It's only a 30 minute bus ride to the JB airport, and then a two hour flight to Borneo.

 

Sabah state was formerly British North Borneo. Kota Kinabalu, formerly called Jesselton, is the capital. It was occupied by the Japs and then bombed flat by us in 1945. What has been rebuilt is modern and ugly. All the fast food chains are well represented. There is a luxury resort nearby where Nick Leeson hid out after his rogue currency trading brought down Barings Bank. Our hostelry, Ang's Hotel, is considerably more modest. It features an autosurfing TV -- as the guy at the desk in control of the satellite box constantly changes channel to suit his preference the room TVs are slaved to follow.

 

The group meets up. We are 8: 3 Swedes; 2 Canucks, a Scot, and an Australian, plus English leader. The Swedish couple are technically newlyweds: although they have been living together since 1968 and have grown-up children and grandchildren, they got married 3 weeks ago.

 

We depart KK the next afternoon for village stay. We drive for 2 hrs on good road then transfer to 4WD vehicles and bump along a dirt track for another 30 minutes.

We are staying in a Dusan village about 3100 feet up on the slopes of Mt. Kinabalu. They are a minority tribe who, like the sherpas in Nepal, make a living as guides and porters for climbers. They are Christian, not Muslim like the rest of Malaysia, having been converted by missionaries around 1970. (They converted from paganism, not Islam, which punishes apostasy by death.) There is a big Catholic church, and a much smaller Protestant one. The village got electricity 3 years ago. We stay in a guesthouse constructed for Intrepid, our tour operator.

 




We have dinner in the village. Afterwards the gongs come out. I recognize that this in a headache inducing event so stay just long enough for a demonstration of the tonal qualities of the instruments and the musical abilities of the players. Fueled by home-brewed rice wine (tastes like combination of sake, beer, and prison moonshine) the event keeps going long into the night. Even though our hut is far away, I can hear the gongs til 1 am. Competing with the din is the wind, which around midnight comes howling across the mountain at gale force, causing the cabin to shake and the temperature to plummet. A preview of the coming night on the mountain? Luckily, the nearest roosters are some distance away so it is possible to sleep past 4 am. In the morning, complaints about hangovers are heard from the rice wine drinkers and gong bangers.


 



After breakfast we walk around in the village. It was built long before the arrival of tourists, but it seems like a poor location -- the slope is too steep for any but tiny garden plots, and it's a real climb from one house to the next. Couldn't they find any flat land to cultivate? The village has 85 families and 900 inhabitants, so there is plenty of togetherness. The stench of fermenting rice wine is pervasive.

 

 



We drive to Kinabalu National Park, where we stay in very comfortable HEATED cabins. We have the afternoon is free, so I explore one of the many nature trails.

 

The next day we begin our assault on the mountain, the highest in SE Asia. Starting out at 500 ft, the first day's trek is 6K to the refuge at 11,000 ft. It takes me 5.5 hrs. The going is not too tough but it is tiring because the air is getting progressively thinner. Wooden steps assist in much of the vertical transition. The weather is perfect: cool and damp. (The climb is a whole lot harder when it's sunny and hot.) Much of the ascent is through the cloud forest in which you literally walk up through the clouds. There are many species of rhododendron in bloom, and the guides point out exotic orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants.

 

There is not much to do at the refuge. There would be great view except that it's too cloudy. It's also cold. I'm glad we have heat. In the late afternoon it starts raining. Looking out and up, I tell myself that if it is still raining in the morning, I ain't gonna do it.

 

 



Breakfast at 2:30 am, and departure is a half hour later -- the goal is to be at the top for dawn. The second leg is "only" 3K, but it's a lot tougher. The stairsteps have disappeared, replaced by climbing ropes. The only way up is with the ropes. It's like rappelling, only in reverse. It's still night, so it is all done by flashlight. I think this climb is done in the dark because if we saw it in the daylight we might turn back.

 

 



Luckily, the weather has cleared. Conditions are perfect: cool and clear although a bit slippery. The sky is full of stars, the Milky Way is clearly visible, and the lights twinkle in the valley below. Although the winds at the top can be fierce and the temperature is near freezing, I am wearing 4 layers and am quite comfortable.

 

 



The next segment is a long trek across the smooth granite slopes. It looks easy, but the going is hard and slow; I have to stop and catch my breath every few feet. From here several peaks are visible. We are heading towards Low's Peak, the highest of them. From its base the top of the peak looks so close and yet so far. This last bit is only a couple hundred meters, but involves climbing from boulder to boulder. I am exhausted, but the guides are offering encouragement and, quite literally, a helping hand. I reach the top at 6:30. I am practically the last man up, but I don't care.

 


I am also the last man down. Somewhere in my genetic makeup the mountain goat gene got lost --everyone else is scrambling down while I plod along step by step. I leave the top at 7:00 and don't make it back to the refuge until 9:30, where I am greeted with a round of applause.

 

After a half hour to pack up and "rest," it's time to head for the bottom. The guidebook refers to a two hour "amble." HAH! It takes me just as long to come down as it did to ascend. Step by step. The lack of need for rest stops is compensated by extra-slow going on the "easy" sections. My problem is a severe case of downhill toe slam -- my toes are painfully compressed against the toe of my boot. (No, it's not that my boots don't fit; I have delicate toes.) My legs are fine, the problem is all in my toes.

 

Once again I am the last man down. The rangers, guides and bus drivers have all been waiting for me to finish so they can go home. When I finally reach the gate they are just as glad as I am.

 

To recuperate, we repair to Poring Hot Springs on the edge of the park. The site was developed by the Japs during the occupation. They didn't discover it -- its location was no secret -- but it's hot enough in the tropics already that the locals didn't see the attraction of soaking in scalding sulfurous water. Observing the ethnic makeup of the clientele, I would say that the Japanese have reoccupied the place.

 

Our cabins are nice enough but there is one glaring deficiency: with hot water gushing free from the earth they can't be bothered to pipe it into the rooms. I am so tired and dirty after the climb that even a cold shower is a relief. A sign outside the door says that the springs are a 5 minute walk. That is 5 minutes too far for me. I don't leave the cabin at all, not even for dinner.


The next morning I limp off to a full day's activities. The first stop is the Orchid Conservation Center. No one has bothered to show up to collect the admission fee, which is a fair deal because only two types are in bloom. Next is the Tropical Garden. Good plantlife, but the animals are somewhat elusive. I am the only one there. (Since the Japanese travel in groups, the secret to solitude is to just be where there they are not.) Then, walking through the aviary, I hear a crashing in the trees. An orangutan! Excellent! They are wild in the park but like to hang around and watch people. This one follows me for awhile, then is joined by a friend. After what I hope is a good photo they wander off. The rest of the garden is an anticlimax. I check out the Butterfly Farm, but am disappointed. There are 950 species in Borneo, but most are small and dull.




I decide to try the springs. The hot water does nothing for my poor, mashed toes, so I hobble off to see the nearby 30 ft waterfall. There is a 400 ft high fall a 2 hr hike distant, but I have no enthusiasm for another jungle death march. On the way I encounter the Swedish couple who made the journey and now are on the way back. Their socks are crimson with blood -- LEECHES! Now I am REALLY glad I didn't go.

My final effort is the canopy walkway, at 190 ft the highest in Malaysia. It is a rope footbridge strung at treetop level to enable one to go where most jungle life takes place. There is a separate fee charged for taking a camera, which gets my expectations up. What a ripoff: there may be a few bugs up there, but the chances of any interesting showing up AND getting close enough to photographed are infinitesimal. The only photograph taken is of me on the walkway. Too many nature videos have lulled the public into believing that fascinating animals are abundant in the wild. Wrong! That's why we have zoos. I am impressed by the monster tropical hardwoods which anchor the walkway -- they would make great furniture.

 

We stay two nights at the springs and then are off to our homestay. It's like a rural bed and breakfast program, but dinner and ideological indoctrination are also included. It's one of those international do-gooder programs: fostering economic development by getting western tourists to pay big bucks to live like Asian peasants. Predictably, the principal economic expansion that takes place is in the program's budget.

 

The first stop is the headquarters, festooned with slogans and exhortations, where we get a "brief introduction" to the program. The lecture is largely incomprehensible but heavily laced with jargon like "community, ecologically-sustainable, ecotourism," etc. Then each staff member says a few words. The experience is akin to asking "randomly chosen" North Koreans for "candid remarks" about the qualities of their "Dear Leader." The purpose of the program is to create employment, which they fulfill by hiring themselves. There is a staff to guest ratio equal that of the world's finest resorts; the difference is that those other places there is someone offering to help with your luggage.

 

We are on the floodplain of the Kinbalangtan River, which is rich in wildlife. The late evening entertainment is a river cruise to spot some of it. Mixed success: a crocodile, lots of macaques, and a few birds, all fairly distant. The main attraction, the proboscis monkey, is a no-show.

 

My host is a widow (whom I never meet) and her 7 children. The recently deceased father was a headmaster, so the house is quite posh by local standards. The 21 year old daughter speaks passable English. She is what the Chinese call a "job awaiting youth." She finished school 2 yrs ago and is waiting to be assigned a job by (and working for) the government.

 

In the morning we reassemble for a trip to the nearby coffin caves. A limestone outcropping contain a number of ancient coffins. The coffins are now empty, but the guide stubbornly insists that it is unrelated to the numerous vampire bats roosting directly above on the ceilings. Ignorant fool! Hasn't he ever been to the movies?

 

 



We reboard the boat and make for our jungle camp downriver, a bit inland and next to a small lake (more like a pond). We set up our tents. The afternoon is free, so I use it to tap out this journal on my Palm. It's a nice setting, but would be more pleasant if it weren't so hot and humid.

 

At 4 pm we have our jungle walk. Plenty of jungle, but once again the wildlife proves elusive we see only elephant tracks and birds flapping in the distance. After that it is time for "showers," which means donning a sarong and trooping to the river. The bank is steep and the mud knee-deep. Whatever sweat we rinse off is replaced by mud. By the time I get back to my tent I am all sweaty again, only now I am sweaty AND muddy.

 

Dinner sucks: rice and sardines. This being an eco-friendly crowd and organization we can't anything like kill and roast an animal. I'll take Africa any day!

 

During the night we hear a proboscis monkey and a few other noises, but no way you mistake it for the soundtrack of a Tarzan movie. In the morning we break camp. They promised to serve doughnuts for breakfast, but, instead, we get banana fritters.

 

Equal time dept: the others are raving over the whole homestay and camping experience. As for me, I not exactly raving, more like muttering under my breath.

 

It's about an hour to our next stop, Sepilok, home to the famed orangutan rehabilitation center. No, they don't give them methadone, they try to impart survival skills to orphaned apes. The skills actually imparted mostly involve hanging around eating bananas while posing for tourists, but that's alright with me. Theoretically the orangs are to be reintroduced to the wild, but disappearing habitat is the reason they are orphaned in the first place. Places with suitable jungle already have all the resident orangs they can handle.

 

 



Still, the center is a terrific place to visit. Twice a day food is brought to feeding platforms. I expected it to look like check day at the welfare office, with dispirited, shiftless monkeys demanding free bananas, but most of the orangs come out to people watch and to show off. They get right down amidst the people on the platforms, where WE are the entertainment. Now HERE the camera fee is justified. (What is not justified is the process by which they take your entry fee and hand you an admission ticket, and then proceed to laboriously complete in longhand a camera permit form -- even though everyone brings a camera -- which is why it takes 20 min to get in.)

 

There is a strict "no photo" policy at the visitor info center, which is mostly a self-congratulatory photo display on the fine and important job they do. Hence, I am prohibited from taking a picture in their Hall of Fame of the orangutan "Algore," who looks quite a bit more lifelike than The Loser.

 

 



It is so good we all go back again the next morning. This time a mother shows up with her baby, and another youngster made an appearance. Just like humans, they start out cute and get uglier as they get older.

 




We are about half an hour from Sandakan, the former capital of British North Borneo. It too was flattened by US bombing and rebuilt as a modern, ugly city. The half day we have there is plenty.

 

On the way we stop at the site of the infamous Sandakan POW camp. Concerned about possible allied invasion, in January 1945 the Japs forced some 2400 Australian and British POWs to evacuate in what became know as the Sandakan Death Marches. None survived except for 6 escapees. The Australian War Graves Commission has built a very tasteful and informative memorial. The site of the camp is a park, which, ironically is now surrounded by government housing projects which look a lot like prison barracks.

 

The next morning we are off to Turtle Island, one of several tiny islets that comprise Turtle Island National Park,a protected reserve to which sea turtles come to lay their eggs. The eggs are collected and placed into hatcheries (to protect them from rats and other predators), and then the hatchlings are released. It all happens at night, which is why you need to stay over. The "big" (200 acre) island has accommodations for about 40 tourists. During the day we have free run of an idyllic tropical island with deserted beaches. At dusk, the beaches are cleared of tourists and we hunker down in the visitors center to await the first turtle sighting. There is a betting pool for the time of the first nesting and the number of eggs. I lose by an hour.

 

 



I have a great idea: to pass the time we could have turtle races. Just paint numbers on the backs of the babies and make book as they race for the sea. No cruelty involved -- use watercolors. No one else likes my idea -- insufficiently reverent. Perish thought of using animals for entertainment!

 

Around 9 pm the alarm is sounded. Turtle sighting! We troop over to the beach where a 3 ft green sea turtle has dug a pit and is laying eggs (count=110). As fast as they are deposited a park ranger transfers them to a bucket. When the mother is finished, she is measured and tagged. The eggs are taken to the hatchery where a hole has been prepared. They will hatch in 50-60 days.

 

The final part of the program is the release of the babies. A batch had hatched about an hour earlier and are in a basket. We get to hold the little buggers while the rangers go through a well-rehearsed but entertaining spiel. Sample: "If you hold the baby turtle to your ear you can hear him singing. Do you recognize the song?" At which point the rangers all break into a chorus of "Please Release Me, Let Me Go." And while recollecting the reptiles from us they sing "I Want My Baby Back." For the actual release the basket is tipped on the beach while a guy stands in the water holding a flashlight, simulating the moon. The little critters race towards the light and into to the water to swim off to parts unknown. It all takes place in the dark, and no flash photos are allowed.

 

In the morning it's back to Sandakan and to the airport. Mercifully we are flying back to KK. We fly right past Mt. Kinabalu. Seeing its peaks jutting above the clouds increases my sense of accomplishment.

 

I have another day left, so I decide to ride the only railroad in Borneo. The trans-Borneo RR built to get rubber from interior. The line runs from KK through Beaufort to Tenom, with a vintage train operating for tourists on the second half. The fare for the full run is less than $2,

 

 



Right on time an ancient two car train pulls into the station, and we go rattling and clacking down the track into the jungle. It is only cleared a couple of feet on each side of the railbed so the scenery is much better and closer than from the road. After only 20 minutes we stop. Breakdown. We limp into the next station. They call for the mechanic. An hour later he shows. No fool he: he arrives from KK via pickup truck.

 

Oops, I spoke too soon. His toolbox contains a wrench and a screwdriver. His repair efforts consist of pouring water in the radiator, only to watch it leak back out. Maybe, they figure, it would help to pour in water faster, so they hook up a hose to a tank. I watch as they attempt to get water to flow uphill. After 30 minutes they give up. Not to worry, another train will be along in 20 minutes.

 

The next train is a combined passenger/cargo train. A locomotive is followed by an empty flatcar, then 3 wooden passenger cars. We climb in and resume our journey. Rocking and lurching, we never exceed 25 mph. The problem is that this is a slower train. The first one would have arrived at Tenom before noon, leaving plenty of time for the return journey. This one is not scheduled to reach Tenom until 4pm, making it real tight even if I caught a bus right away. Reluctantly, I forego the best part of the ride and disembark at Beaufort, from which comfortable buses depart regularly for KK. On the train it took four and a half hours to cover 38 miles; the bus ride back takes less than an hour.

 

It's time to bid a fond farewell to Sabah. Back to mainland Asia, or, more precisely, the Malay Peninsula.

 

Singapore is hot too, but at least it's air-conditioned. I was expecting it to be like Hong Kong, but it is surprisingly spacious, green, and uncrowded. It is theme park Asia, sanitized for your protection. It is orderly and tidy, odorless and litter free. You can drink the water. Everyone speaks English. A multiplicity of races and religions like in perfect harmony, The Kibbutz (Israeli) restaurant is next door to the Cleopatra (Egyptian) restaurant. But don't be fooled; the Chinese run everything.

 

Singapore is also boring. The true ethnicity of Singaporeans is homo venditor and the only true religion is shopping. If you come from a place where there are no shopping malls, Singapore is your dream destination.

 

 



By the time I find a hotel and check in, it is mid-afternoon. It is also fixing to rain. I visit The Battle Box, the underground, bomb-proof, gas-proof bunker that was Malaya Command HQ during the defense against the Japs in 1942. Sealed for 50+ years, it has been turned into a high tech "live it now" attraction. Everything is pretty much intact, including graffiti on the wall. There are hi-fi wireless headphones for sound effects and narration, lighting effects, animatronic soldiers, and wax dummies of the actual commanders (but realistic-looking, not like at Madame Tussaud's). Really cool are the holographically projected ghost images sitting in the empty chairs coding messages, relaying orders, etc. It recreates the final days leading to the decision to surrender. Very good. (Much better than the cheesy display in the Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor (see my report from Manila).) The Battle Box is beneath the park smack in the center of the city.

 

After that I take a bit of a ramble. Singapore is surprisingly compact, with almost anything you would to see within walking distance. I don't see many people out and about. After dark, I head up to the night zoo, which I hear is pretty good.

 

I see why there is no one on the streets. They are all at the zoo. (It is Good Friday, a public holiday.) The place is mobbed! After a half hour waiting in an unmoving line just to buy a ticket with another queue after that for admittance, I abandon the effort.

 

The next morning I get an early start for my comprehensive tour of the city. I cover it all: The Colonial District; Chinatown; The Arab Quarter; and Little India. I am back by noon.

 




After lunch I do the National Orchid Garden and Botanical Garden. Both very pleasant. I still have time for both the day and the night zoos.

 

The Singapore Zoo is renowned as an open zoo, meaning it has hidden barriers rather than bars or fences. I have the opportunity to finally inspect the proboscis monkey, as well as the mouse deer, the slow loris, the spectral tarsier, the clouded leopard, and other species native to Borneo but impossible to spot in the wild.

 

The night zoo is different and good. You walk and ride amidst nocturnal animals under mild floodlighting at a level approximating strong moonlight. There are a couple of rules, like no flash photography and no touching the bats. (Not to worry about that last one!) You are also supposed to keep quiet, but one group of Chinese tourists cannot restrain themselves, probably carrying on about what a shame it is that they can't torture the animals and how good they must taste.

 

That's it for Singapore in a day. Back to the hotel for 3 hrs sleep before my wakeup call for my absurdly early flight in the morning. I should have gone back to the red light district and rented a room by the hour.

 

The flight home is on Easter, meaning plenty of unsold seats and no upgrade. Oh well, at least eastbound is the "short" half of the trip. I suffer in steerage, but take comfort in the fact that I have requalified for elite status so that's probably it for Asia until 2003.

 

 

Trip date: March 2002