The Botterills Big Adventure
2nd Jul 2010 – 20th Jul 2010
The last 3 weeks have quite literally flown by. I can’t quite believe how much we’ve managed to fit in already, but at the same time it feels like a long while since we left old Blighty. We have arrived exhausted in Brunei, finally with a few hours to spare to catch up on some writing.
It’s hard to summarise easily, but so far Borneo has exceeded all expectations, all in a good sense, but has also been one Long Hard Slog. From the minute we stepped off the plane into humidity-central Kuala Lumpur, to stretching ourselves to the physical limit climbing the Pinnacles..a bit like 3 weeks of Boot Camp, but in the tropics.
Day 1-3 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Esther
Not a huge amount to report from KL, plus it’s hard to remember 3 weeks ago now, oops. We were happy enough with Malaysian Airlines – Esther got 10 out of the 12 hours flight sleep and Sam watched 4 films on demand and the food was good. It had been a sad goodbye to families at Heathrow, and we were both feeling it a bit but trying to immerse ourselves in planning our mini city break for the next couple of days. KL was a cross between Singapore and Bangkok – pretty civilised and clean but with the slight haphazardness of getting around that you find in Asia (buses that don’t exist, taxis that charge sky high prices becuase you’re foreign) but definitely less of a scandalous feeling than you get in BK (i.e. not everyone is trying to rob you / make you buy a suit).
Our guesthouse (number 8 – a lucky number here) was lovely, clean, spacious and included breakfast. We found a great night market type of place for food both nights on the next street that did Chinese dishes. Quite basic noodle and rice affairs but super cheap and tasty. We spent the days visiting the big sights like the Petronas towers, telecomms tower, various quarters of the city and some lake gardens which were pretty ugly and brown for something that was meant to be the greenest place in the city.. The skyrail was quite fun and a welcome air-conditioned break from the intense humidity of the city. You could definitely tell we were near the equator. After hours of wandering and taking in the sights we felt we’d seen all we needed. Time to move on to Borneo..
Day 4-7 Kuching, Borneo By Sam
After an early start we landed at Kuching Airport and made our way to down town Kuching. Its a bit cooler here, dont get me wrong its still bloody hot but there is a bit of a breeze which is a relief after the sweat pit that was KL.
On our first day we got a boat across the river to see the old Fort James Brooke built to keep people out and protect Kuching from people like the French (possibly also the locals who disagreed with his rule as well). It was a nice place and no tourists there unlike the promenade by the river on the other side which was rammed with tourists.
When we get back accross the river we find out that there has been an international Hash House Harriers meeting so there are loads of ‘drinkers with a running problem’ from all over the world there which explains why its so busy.
The next day we headed to the National Parks office to book Bako NP as with all the tourists if we just turn up without booking we wont get accomodation. After this we just relax and mooch around as we haven’t really done that since landing in KL!!
The next day we head to Seminggoh to see some Orangutans (there is one called Annalisa) at a rehabilitation centre. This involves getting a local bus with no Air Con which is like a sauna but its not so bad when it get moving and there is a breeze.
When we arrive at the Orangutans its a 30min walk to the centre where we arrive just in time to see two mothers and their young being fed, they are so gracious the way they sweep from branch to branch. When it comes to main feeding time we are less lucky and have to leave after 40 mins to get the bus back and no Orangutan has shown up, some people have no manners…
The next day we head to the Sarawak Cultural Village where there are samples of all the different types of long house each tribe lives in and I have a go with the blow dart and just miss the bulls eye (with practice I’m sure we wouldnt have gone hungry).
When we return we pack and get ourselves ready for the next stage in our trip, Bako…
Day 8-11 Bako National Park By Sam
We wake up to walk to the bus station but its chucking it down and end up having to pay rediculous money for a really short taxi ride. To get to Bako its a Bus ride followed by a stint in a Boat, thankfully there are a few other people on the bus so we can share the cost of a boat.
We get to Bako by 08:30 and decide to do a short trail first along the coast to try and see some Proboscis Monkeys (the ones with the funny nose) and we strike gold within minutes first hearing them crashing through the trees overhead before we see them crossing overhead up at the top of the canopy.
After this we reach a beach which is all but deserted except a few other tourists who set off when we did, its so hot that we decide to have a swim in the sea and cool off but the sea is so hot we dont cool off that much!! Pretty soon the beach was rammed with all the other tourists who arrived after us and we decide to head to another beach further away from park HQ, the climb up over the hill is torturous and we finally get to the top for the jungle to clear and its all open to the sun but there is a great breeze so its nice and cool!!
We reach the next beach and this busy but not like the first one so we have some lunch and go for another swim before heading back as if we havent signed back in with park HQ before 6pm they will come looking for us.
The following day is our only full day in the park so we set off early in order to do a decent trek. As we are walking along we quickly realise we are walking at the same pace in the same direction as a French couple we it turns out are doing the same walk as us so we decide to team up and go together which was a good move as we didnt see anyone else along the trail so if there had been an accident we could divide and conquer. The trail was challenging and there were parts where we had to hold onto a rope and shuffle along a little ledge about 50m up in the air.
We reached our destination in time for some lunch (crackers from the little park shop as the food is pretty revolting). the beach here is amazing we have the whole thing to ourselves and eat our lunch sitting in the water floating and listening to the noises of the jungle. Thankfully in order to get back we dont have to go back the way we came as it was a loop that only took 2 hours!!
The canteen at Bako is an odd place where the food is stone cold and expensive and you have to watch your plate and the monkeys sneak up behind you and jump on the plate or try to nick your camera, they are very cunning and even the wardens (who are always armed with sling shots) dont put them off!!!
On our last day we walked a short walk up to a view point which looked over the park and see, we sat and watched the world go by before heading back down and gettingthe boat back to mainland. The bus this time was airconditioned but the ac didnt work so was like a tomb with no opening windows and we were glad to get off into the baking sunshine of Kuching!!
The next thing on our agenda is a bus trip overnight to Miri which is due to take 14 hours, when we booked the tickets we were shown a nice new clean bus what we get is an old thing falling appart with mould on the inside. Thankfully after a few hours the air con stops working so the drivers swich us onto a new bus in the middle of the night which is no better but at least the air con works!!
Day 12-16 Miri – Bario & The Kelabit Highlands (leech central) by Sam
We overnighted in the oil town Miri which would be the starting point for our next few destinations. We hadn’t heard great things about it but walking around we thought it wasn’t so bad, had a few decent eateries (rotis for one) and a nice cheap guesthouse where the only downside was a moody owner with too many cats!
Bario was amazing, until 6 months ago it could only be reached by plane and the road to Miri takes 15 hours to drive, it’s not really a road like we know it’s all dirt tracks with huge ruts and wet patches, bridges are made by putting the trees that were felled for the road on top of each other to form an abutment and then logs across and dirt on top. Sometimes the logs break and there is a huge hole in the ground!! All cars are big 4wd Hilux’s.
The owner of our guesthouse took us walking in the jungle and we were staying with a local family for two nights in a long house, amazing food and very generous people.
The walking was fantastic, Reddish (our guide) knew the jungle like the back of his hand and took us well off the beaten track hacking his way through the jungle with a machete as we went. We were both sweating wrecks at the end of each day.
Esther got bitten by a leech despite the leech proof socks, she made such a fuss you would have thought she had been bitten by a lion… (in a place you should NEVER find a leech she wants me to add)
The flight was impressive in a tiny twin otter which stopped in 100m at Bario sending everyone and everything flying!! It was not like any western flight as the cockpit was there for all to see and they x-rayed my bag and let me fly with my penkinfe..
We were staying with a local family in a Long House which was very interesting as it is basically a building over 100m long with a long room running the length and doors coming off it to each familys house, really interesting and amazing food, Pineapple Curry and we even ate Monitor Lizzard (suspected by Esther to have been snake..well it did make her ill) Power was by a generator and only for a few hours a day in the evening. The family were so friendly and put us first in everything as we would eat the same food as them and basically lived as they did but without the working in the rice paddys, they wouldnt even start eating until we had eaten what we wanted (thankfully we didnt eat them out of house and home), They even baked us a cake which seeing as there was no oven still surprises me!
Day 17-21 Miri – Mulu National Park by Esther
Back to the lovely Highlands guesthouse with Crazy Cat Woman as we’ve started to call her. Just a few hours to get some much needed laundry done, double check our plans with the travel agency for the Mulu trip and importantly…eat! Once I’ve gone through my list of questions with the woman in Tropical Adventures and am fairly happy they know what they’re doing with our backpacks (sending them on to our next destination so we don’t have to carry them along the headhunters trail for 20km) we decide to return to the lovely Roti place we’ve found in Miri and indulge in some more dahl, curry and lassis, delicious and cheap. It’s an early start the next morning but we’re treated like royalty with our pre-booked package – first to check in (cue angry glares from the queue of people waiting), all very civilised. The plane is full of tourists on their way to Gunung Mulu National Park, it’s probably one of the most famous destinations in Borneo with a handful of caves (one of which is the largest in the world) and some pristine rainforest full of wildlife as well as Mount Mulu itself and the Pinnacles – the tallest in the world at 45m, which we are intending to climb up and see.
The flight is very picturesque, with hills of lush greenery shrouded in fine mist, very annoyingly we have to fly there twice, as the first attempt is aborted and diverted back to Miri just before landing due to cloud covering the runway. Luckily it’s only a short flight so not too much time is wasted. We are keen to fit in the Rainforest canopy walkway so skip lunch at the lodge where we’re staying and ask to be dropped off straight at the park. It’s great seeing the jungle from the treetops, we’re so high up and the rope bridges are pretty rickety and only 2 people can go across at once which doesn’t fill us with confidence but it’s a great experience. After this we head to join our tour group (it’s compulsory to have a guide in this park but it’s basically a money making scheme..) to look around Deer Cave and Langs Cave. Deer Cave is the huge one, something like 100m high. It should really be called Bat Cave as has millions of them living in there, and absolutely stinks of guano (bat poo). It’s everywhere..on the floor, on the handrails, on your shoes..you get the pciture. We’re quite happy to finally escape after an hour. The cave is pretty amazing with lots of stalagmites etc, but there’s only so much of that smell you can take before you don’t feel too well. Afterwards we sit at the observatory outside waiting for the daily mass exit of bats at sunset, when they head off to hunt. After an hour of waiting it finally happens and is quite a sight, thousands of them filling the sky…having skipped lunch though we’re more than eager to get back for dinner! We’re not disappointed. Benarat Lodge is a very pretty site by the river with huts for accommdation – we have our own room with our own bathroom HURRAY. Dinner is fantastic with more and more plates arriving at our table, including sweet and sour chicken, lots fo different stir fried veg, rice and oither unidentifiable meat things, all very tasty.
In the morning we had a very western breakfast put in front of us (egg, beans and 4 slices of white toast!) but were quite glad as we knew we’d need it for the days ahead. We set off with our group in a longtail boat with just our small rucksacks crammed full of stuff we hoped would last the next 5 days (it really didn’t). After a short stop at a traditional tribal village we arrived to look at some more caves..nice as they were we had now clocked up 5 and there’s only so many times you can find a stalactite interesting.. The next section of the boat trip took us to the start of the Headhunters Trail. This would be the start of our 3 day adventure through the jungle. The trail was so-called due to the head-chopping-off activities the Kayan warriors used to engage in here. The journey there was an event in itself. As there hadn’t been much rain the river level was very low, so the majority of the trip involved scraping over stone at the bottom of the riverbed and several times, getting out and walking through the river so the boatmen could push the boat! It was a bit of a nightmare and I stubbed my toe about 3 times but we’ve come to expect this in Asia – nothing’s ever simple!
We set off the walk at a ridiculously fast pace in the heat – our guide seemed to prefer marching to walking, and it was all we could do to not slip over in the mud to keep up! Even though we had our leech socks on (we felt a bit silly as no one else in the group had them) I was on full leech alert, not wanting a repeat of Bario..and was very glad to have them after some others got nasty leech bites along the way. The jungle here was very dense, so we weren’t directly under the sun, but it was so humid that we were soaked with sweat pretty quickly. 8km later we arrived at our accommodation for the next 2 nights – Camp 5. It was a very basic affair with mats as beds in 16 person rooms, with a roof but no doors or windows or mosquito nets. By the time we arrived it was raining hard so we changed into dry clothes, drank some hot coffee and played cards until dinner. There was 6 of us in the group – including 2 swiss guys, 1 malay guy and a dutch girl, all young but all equally terrified of the challenge of the Pinnacles we were facing the next day.
In our briefing from the guide that evening he stressed several times how he would be turning people back who had not made the 900m mark within an hour. It sounds easy, but it’s a 2.4km climb which takes the average person 3-4 hours one way and is, as the book described ‘unrelentingly steep and taxing’…possibly the understatement of the century. We were also told that if it rained in the morning at all there was no way we could do the climb as it would be far too dangerous. The Pinnacles are huge limestome shards and much fo the trail we’d be walking was full of mini limestone rocks, all with many sharp edges, one small slip and whichever bodily part landed on the edge would be sliced open in a second. We were regailed with stories of deaths from people who hadn’t listened to their guide etc..it made for a pretty sleepless night of worry.
The morning arrived and we had to set off at 7am with a chance of making it back before dark. It was already drizzling but apparently that didn’t count. The walk turned into an incredibly steep track at only 200m and again, the guide had set an impossible pace. By 500m Thomas (one of the Swiss) had had to turn back and by 700m, hardly able to breathe and sweating profusely (despite the fact it was 7.30am and not hot at all) I began to consider making a retreat. Sam convinced me that we should try for a bit longer and go a bit slower and see how we felt. I was so glad we carried on as we made the 900m mark within the allowed time and by 1100m the track became a lot more rocky and the pace of the group slowed as we had to clamber over large rocks and haul our bodies up using ropes. The climbing was hard work but the pace was no longer impossible, and as each hour passed and we got closer to the final ladder section we knew we would make the top. By 9am it was raining heavily but the group and guide had come to a consensus to carry on..possibly stupid but no one wanted to give up now. The ladders were extremely difficult, slippery cold metal and the threat of falling off onto sharp rock making it even more hair raising. And then there were the sections where there really should have been a ladder, but there wasn’t, and you just had to haul yourself up vertical rock faces using whatever ledges you could cling onto. It was without a doubt the hardest thing either of us had ever done, but after 3 and a half hours we’d made it! It was by that point pouring with rain and we shivered eating our lunch at the top (did I mention we’d had to carry 3 litres of water each plus food?) waiting for the cloud to move so that we actually had a view of the Pinnacles. The moment came and it was an awesome sight, multiple razor sharp peaks of limestone just across from where we were. It was a huge sense of achievement being in the minority percentage of people who make it up there and we were feeling quite smug..until we remembered we had to get back down, which was likely going to be much worse. It was a tough 4 hours plus back down, taking care that each step landed safely on a fixed spot, although we manage many slips and trips between us, it took alot of hands and knees work to make it safely down. Our hands were cut to shreds and our knees grazed and bruised but the river outside camp 5 was waiting when we got back. I jumped in fully clothed (all soaking anyway) and the group celebrated later with some very expensive beer (RM 15 for a can, but we were too tired and relieved to care).
The next day (after another cold sleepless night) we put on all our wet clothes, eughh, for the final part of the headhunters trail. Even our socks and shoes were soaked, and our bodies were aching terribly. The last thing we felt like doing was another 12km through leech infested jungle, but we had no choice. Unsuprisingly Rizal, our guide, was going as fast as ever and when we whinged he just laughed telling us he could do it much faster! After all the heavy rain about half of the trail was flooded so we spent most of the time wading up to our knees through dirty water. Half the group were getting leeches all over their legs, it was awful. Luckily our socks saved us from that but at one pitstop I found one on my hand…yuck. That afternoon we reached the longhouse where we’d be staying with the local villagers. They did a lovely meal for us before we got a very early night, collapsing our broken bodies onto the mattresses on the floor just grateful to be able to lie down.
And that’s the end of our jungle adventure, we’re so happy to be in dry clothes in the city now. I’ve had it with leech encounters and am looking forward to a few low key days and hoping our bodies have recovered in time for Mount Kinabalu nect week…
P.s. If you’ve got this far, well done!!