Crikey, I’m using Windows 98. So, Borneo. We flew into the port city of Kinabalu that lied a small distance from the mountain with the same name, the highest mountain in South Asia at a whopping 4015.2 metres. The LP labelled his as ‘an easy climb’, but for the record it was absolute hell and my limbs ached for a 3 days afterwards. Then of course taking into the account we started at 1pm instead of 8.30am like sane people, and the lack of oxygen at 3000 metres, and an early rising of 2am to climb up the last 2.5 km in the dark, it’s no wonder I was knackered. Well worth it though to be up at the summit for sunrise and the trip down was made more fun by the increasing volumes of oxygen and telling downcast up-hill trudgers the summit really wasn’t worth the effort. Ha ha ha.
I’d done the climb alone after Dwyer had fallen ill to a mystery illness (’common sense’ I think he called it), after we’d been playing with the orang-utans over in Sepilok. We’d hired a car to get out there, catching a glimpse of the famous Raffalesia flower (largest flower in the world and named after Sir Stamford Raffles of Singaporean fame) as we past. We also made a pit stop at the awful Poring Hot Springs. I’m not a fan of baths in general (let me finish), more of a shower man myself, but swimming in egg-water packed with other people’s dead skin is not what I do to relax. We lasted about five minutes before getting out and going for a cold shower in equally grubby water. Fortunately Poring also has a fascinating butterfly enclosure with some of the most beautiful specimens in the land gently frolicking amongst a rich and colourful arboretum. Unfortunately it was closed, so that completed our miserable time at that wretched hodge-podge of a place.
Sabah made up for itself though by the incredible orang-utan sanctuary. We arrived a little early for feeding time but decided to make our way to the platform anyway, where Dwyer luckily got up close to the massive ‘Mr. G’ who happened to be taking a the morning air. This huge strong male orang-utan had at least a 3 metre arm span and, as reported in the orang-utan film shown at the centre, is capable of tearing a man in half. After feeding we took to the trails and got attacked by some leeches for our efforts, but returned to the platform on the off chance of seeing one of the furry little fellas once again. We were in luck. Three young ones were playing around, one slightly aggressive and had developed a penchant for stealing stuff, another engrossed with the inside of a plastic bag the builders had carelessly left around and the last a friendly soul that walked up to us and held our hands. It was one of the best things we’ve encountered on this trip without a doubt. This incredible, delicate and intelligent animal took time to play with us, swinging from our arms and grasping my camera at every opportunity, the media hussy. Even at two years old, they have a really strong grip! I managed to capture a few videos of the mischievous little fella with the plastic bag and will try and upload them when I get to KL (naturally we told the centre that the little critters were playing the builders shovels, bolts and bags. We do realise you’re not supposed to touch the little orange men but hoped our informing the park of the various building hazards aided the karma a little).
We did some hard driving on bumpy roads in the rented Proton to the village of Sukau to take a short boat trip out to see the famously ugly Proboscis monkey with their large cartoon shaped nose, but didn’t get close enough for a decent photo I’m afraid. We didn’t have much luck in the nearby Gamontong Caves either as the bats refused to come out and play at sunset, the selfish sods. We then had to bribe our way out of the park as it was gone knocking off time for the security guard (by a half an hour). He tried to ease the tension by saying sorry several times when demanding the cash, so that made us feel batter….I imagine Dick Turpin did the same thing. “I’m dreadfully sorry my dear, it really is very rude of me to butt in on your journey like this, but would you mind passing over all your valuables and anything else of worth that you own? I’m dreadfully sorry you see, but I’m a highwayman you know, it’s just what I do. Thanks awfully, toodle-pip!”
On the way out of Sabah to Brunei, we made a small stop at the duty-free island of Labuan where a large bottle of beer cost as much as 5 ringit (about 80 pence for 750ml). Wicked! It’s also the site where the Japanese signed the peace treaty in 1945, and there’s a well kept Allied war cemetery just outside the city centre dedicated to mainly Brits, Indians and Australians. Labuan also had a futuristic mosque that attracted the notice of my camera lens, and along with the latter came oodles of locals eager to see what the hell I thought I was playing at. ‘Well, I’ve got a camera, and a tripod….what do you reckon I’m doing? Fishing?’ All were just curious of course which I can understand. I’ll make a point of hovering around anyone foreign looking with a camera when at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium next time I’m home, which may require a great deal of hovering indeed.
Next stop, Brunei and Sarawak!
There’s nothing like a rum nights sleep to motivate you in the mornings I find. We headed into the minuscule village of Pemberton where there was a very tall tree. The Gloucester Tree is as exciting as things get out here. 60m tall with steel spikes hammered into it to aid climbing it was a bit of a no-no for someone with my fear of heights. While Rich climbed it, I hung out with the Rosella birds down the bottom. They’re so accustomed to tourists that if you stand with your arms outstrecthed a shedload of them land on you. There’s always one exuberant fecker who goes for the head as well.
After this frivolity we hit the road again to the impressive sounding Valley of the Giants - supposedly home to massive tingle and karri trees and featuring a walkway 40m high to give you views of the tree tops. What they don’t tell you is the platform is not very long and takes about 50 seconds to walk across at a moderate pace and that the trees aren’t that big anyway. They’re wide at the bottom which tends to hollow out so you can stand inside but they’re not much more than 40m tall and pretty thin after the wide base. The effect is underwhelming. In short, this place is Bundaberg - don’t come here.
Desperate to find something other than sheep farms and empty roads to justify the long drive down here we ended up in the small town of Albany which boats the marvellously non-PC Whale Slaughtering Museum. They call it Whale World but all the exhibits are of the slaughter (apparently called flensing) that went on here until 1980. You can wander around the whale cookers and other processing machinery (they were basically flensed into pieces small enough to fit in them before being boiled down to an oily soup), an old whaling ship with harpoon gun, see the flensing knives and graphic photos depicting their use, oh and watch a 3D movie about how whales are our friends now and its much better to earn money by sailing a bunch of tourists after them in boats than it is to chop and boil them although the smell of all those tourists is worse than a freshly flensed whale in many people’s opinion. No one else seemed to understand why I found it so funny. Shitehawks.
After another Bundaberg night in the car we’d pretty much burned up all our options in SW Australia so we headed back into Perth. We headed out to Whiteman park where we saw a pretty cool birds of prey demonstration and got to hold a brown falcon for the obligatory cheesy photo. By this time, Mr Reed had flown in from Malaysia where he had been enjoying monsoon weather on Tioman island.
Over the next few nights we sampled the Perth nightlife, with trips to comedy (not bad), theme bars (cheesy) and live music (good sound quality but mostly non-descript cover bands). Perth was very quickly losing its appeal and given that you can walk around the whole city centre in about 40 minutes it isn’t hard to see why. We spiced things up with a trip to see an AFL game on Sunday (West Coast Eagles hammering Carlton) but despite being an entertaining match, there’s precious little crowd atmosphere. No chanting, no songs, no insults aside from the odd boo. Disgustingly civilised. In between these brave efforts to pass the time we’ve had to send a ream of documents to the customs people to get the car in (it arrived Saturday safe and sound) and book a quarantine inspection so they can milk a bunch of dollars from us when they find the ants nest under the rear wheel arch.
Arriving back into Kuala Lumpur we dropped the Landy off for its cleaning only to find out that the ship was leaving early and they wanted the car on Wednesday. This was going to be difficult but maybe just possible. I got the overnight train down to Singapore on Tuesday night, went to the Automobile Association and sorted out the documentation after a lenghty discussion as to whether our machine counted as a campervan. Apparently campervans are not allowed to drive in Singapore and have to be towed. Why? Nobody knows. Eventually sense prevailed and we got the necessary permission. So it was back to KL where the next 4 days were spent sorting out another ship and a travel plan for Borneo.
We got a very shaky and bumpy flight to Laubanbajo on Flores early Monday morning. The place proved to be a fairly grubby one horse town but its the only place you can arrange to get to Komodo Island from so we had no option but to live it up as best we could. On the plus side, we met quite a few other people in the same situation so we could group together to help reduce the cost of chartering a boat. The guys in Laubanbajo have got it pretty nicely wrapped up. There’s no official tourist office or anything so you have to go to one of the agents to sort out a boat and they’ve all got the price nicely fixed between themselves so there isn’t much room for bartering. We banded together with a French Canadian chap and an American girl called Leah and booked a 2 day trip to the islands for a bit of Dragon spotting. We thought we had it bad with the hassle in Indonesia but Leah being of Korean descent had to put up with a constant stream of “You Japanese?”, “konichiwa”, “You know Kungfu?” and other inane comments from people who no doubt thought they were beign friendly. In the space of a few minutes even I was getting tired of hearing it.
On Tuesday morning we got on the boat and headed out for 2 hours over rough waters to Rinca island (which is the only place aside from Komodo island where dragons live). There were a number of the beasties lying around the rangers hut but they weren’t that big and were determined not to move. WE headed out on a 5Km walk through the national park and came across a young dragon searching in a nest for eggs - they are cannibals and often eat their own young. We saw a bunch of other wildlife - wild pigs, buffalo, deer etc but that was it for dragons on Rinca so were a bit disappointed. Hopefully Komodo would prove better. We got back on the boat and headed out to a coral reef for some snorkelling which was cool. However, the weather started getting unfriendly and when we anchored off Komodo island for the night a huge gale and lashing rain ensued for most of the night which made sleeping on deck a bucketful of fun.
The next day we landed on Komodo and headed out for another walk. No one had been able to get to the island for the last 6 days due to the bad weather so were lucky to make it. We set off on our walk and within a few minutes came across 4 huge beasties gathered around a dead wild pig which had been hung up by the rangers. The poor creatures aren’t the brightest bulbs in the box and had been sitting there for hours just staring at it as if it was going to come down bu itself. We got very close and were enjoying the thought of having to leg it if one of them came for us when a bunch of Danish tourists arrived. One large woman got too close and two of the dragons began padding towards her looking mightily unhappy. This stirred up the other two who came prowling over our way. we tried to look cool as we edged away but these feckers were big, I mean badass, and their gaping maws are a harvesting ground for all sorts of poisonous bacteria. The rangers armed with thin sticks didn’t fill me full of confidence that if it came to a whooping match that they had much of a chance. It was time to scarper but we couldn’t run otherwise they’d go for us so we edged backwards taking care to keep the Danish woman between us.
We continued for another few Km until we came across a lone dragon sunning himself on top of the hill. He looked pretty lazy so the ranger took the opportunity to grab his tail so we could have a feel of the rough, scaly appendage. The dragon didn’t appreciate this much and ambled off in a sulk. He didn’t make it far before collapsing in the shade and looking glum. They aren’t so tough afterall. Afterwards we were back on the boat for the stormy trip back to Flores. Once there we booked our flights out to Lombok island for the next day.
We arrived in Bali again on Thursday but our onward flight to Lombok was cancelled due to strong winds which meant another night in Kuta. It was paid for by the airline though so it wasn’t so bad. Indonesia has been having a pretty shocking set of disasters recently with at least 3 plane crashes, 2 ferry sinkings and an earthquake in Sumatra. We weren’t overflowing with joy to be flying around again but there isn’t much other choice in Indonesia. Bus travel is torturously long and painful not to mention the hassle of having to argue with every bus driver.
So on Friday we got an early flight to Mataran on Lombok then took a taxi to Bangsal and a boat over to the 3 islands known collectively as the Gili Islands. This is a stupid name because Gili means island and all islands in Indonesia are called Gili something. The islands are nice and relaxing with good snorkeling and beaches. We took a glass bottomed boat tour of the islands and saw lots of tropical fish and turtles.
By Sunday we had to leave to get back to Java for our flight back to Kuala Lumpur so the journey began with a boat, then a bus then a flight then 2 more buses in the city of Surabaya. This is Java’s second biggest city and is as ugly as Jacarta. However, tourists hardly ever come here so there was no hassle and it was interesting experiencing the gamut of buskers and tat sellers that plague the buses. The place was mosquito infested though and there wasn’t much to see so we were fairly glad to be leaving the next day.
Indonesia has a lot of potential, especially with trekking and diving but the touristy areas have been destroyed by touts and overcharging is endemic. Travel around the country is badly organised and generally torturous. If you had some time to learn some Indonesian though and a few months to travel you could go to the more remote areas and experience some of the real culture of the country. Unfortunately, most people won’t have time to do this and are restricted to the main tourist areas and the associated hassle.
If you have 2 months, I’d recommend it. If you have 2 weeks, go to Thailand.
We arrived in to Yoygakarta at 6.30am which gave us plenty of time to see the sights. The palace of the Sultan was singularly unexciting except for some Gamelan music (Indonesian percussion orchestra) which I really liked. Its many layers are haunting and refuse to budge from minor key even for a moment. Other than that there was no real sights so we mooched about the market and streets for a bit before getting a bus to Borobudur. The bus proved to be a cramped minibus with loads of vegetables and chickens jostling for space. Good craic though. Arriving at the ancient Buddhist monument the touts swarmed like flies and we bravely sloughed our way through a never-ending hail of “Hello transport” until we finally found a really nice hostel on the outskirts of town. There was only one other family staying in the place which must of had at least 30 rooms. The low season is clearly the best time to visit Borobudur. The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn (Well Richard was, I was busy having another hours kip) and made our way to the temple. Its a pretty massive structure with four intricately carved square tiers topped off by another 3 circular ones. Its almost as good as Angkor Wat but isn’t as old or as detailed. The lack of anyone else being there made for a good atmosphere. After climbing all the tiers and taking 6 zillion photos we made our way back down and entering heated negotiations to hire a scooter to ride out a few Km to see another temple. The drawcard was that it has the only statue in the world of a normally seated buddha. That then, was it. The village is nicely situated in some rolling hills and is pretty chilled out when you get away from the touts but entertainment is limited. We got back on the bus to Yogjakarta and sorted out some transport to Mount Bromo and then Bali. Wednesday was a marathon minibus trip across the island until we finally arrived at the sulphurous Mount Bromo in the late evening. We hit the sack early as we were due to arise at 3.30am to take a jeep to the viewing point to watch dawn break over the active volcano. The huge clouds of white smoke pouring out of Bromo in the pre-dawn light with the more massive Mount Semeru belching out black clouds of ash at regular 20-minute intervals was a beautiful sight. Whn the sun was fully up, we descended from the view point and climbed the side of Bromo itself to stare into the source of its emissions. The rotten-egg smell of sulphur was eye-watering when the wind changed direction and blew the cloud over to our direction. Quality. Later we hit the buses again for the arse-breaking overnight trip to Bali. I’m starting to get tired of Indonesian buses already. Friday morning saw us arrive on the north coast of Bali at Lovina Beach. Five minutes later we were on a tiny boat on a dolphin scouting mission. For an hour and a half we plowed the waters but there was not a one to be seen until finally we caught sight of a school of the cheery looking feckers and the chase was on. They motor along at some speed, I’ll give them that. Dipping and diving in front of the boat they submerge themselves for about a minute at a time which makes following them a pretty difficult task. Our guy was good though and we managed to follow them for about 45 minutes before they gave us the slip, one of them launching himself in the air in a twisting somersault to show his scorn for our puny efforts. Lovina was fairly deserted and the water was too rough for any swimming so we headed further around the coast the next day. Same story here though and the constant arguments we had to have with bus drivers so as not to get charged 3 or 4 times the correct price soon proved enraging, so we decided to leave Bali for Flores and the Komodo islands. We arrived in Denpansar on Sunday and booked ourselves a morning flight to Laubanbajo in Flores for Monday morning. Unfortunately, this meant we had to stay in the tourist enclave of Kuta beach - the scene of the 2003 bomb attacks which appears to have fully recovered its place in the Aussie heart since then. Dwyer