This one snuck up on us.
Earlier this year, our close friend Rachelle proposed an itty-bitty vacation in Borneo as our last hurrah in Asia. Rachelle would be returning home to California pretty soon, so a relaxing week on a tropical island might be nice.
But then I started researching what Borneo has to offer. In my spastic hands, the itty-bitty vacation morphed into a two-week adventure trek. No beachside cocktails for us. Instead, Rachelle, Rebecca, Mary Beth and I would have a vigorous tropical romp. Before the trip’s end, we got bitten by exotic fish, we nearly drowned in some rapids, we climbed a mountain, we saw 3 different rainforests, we socialized with orangutans, we ate our weight in fried rice, and we all got some nasty tropical flu. This post will cover our adventures in Sabah, the northern state of Malaysian Borneo, that has a pretty bitchin flag:
That mountain is Mt. Kinabalu. More about it, in the coming post. First, I gotta talk about….
Budget Asian airlines have their quirks. As our AirAsia flight descended into Kota Kinabalu (Borneo’s capital city), an announcement took us by surprise: “According to Borneo health-laws, we will now be fumigating the cabin. You are advised to cover your face.” We did as we were told:
Never felt safer.
Then one of the flight attendants shook up two cans of….something, and sprayed them into air as he marched down the aisle. Still have no idea what I inhaled.
Kota Kinabalu, or KK, turned out to have a lot of charms.
Our hostel, the North Borneo Cabin, had some terrific people on staff. They arranged a lot of activities for us, and they even moved some bookings around to accomodate us after I messed up our reservation. Many thanks, guys.
Not only did the place have great service, but it also sat on some primo real-estate — very nearby some of KK’s main attractions, like the wet-market (for seafood and weird gelatin desserts), decent Italian restaurants, and the jetty where you can catch some boats to the Tunkul Abdul Ramen snorkeling islands nearby.
We picked up a stray British traveler at the hostel named Johanna, who turned out to be a real sweetheart.
The five of us went snorkeling on our second morning. We went to Sipa Island, renowned for its gorgeous reefs. Great snorkeling, but my photos didn’t turn out so great.
Eh, whaddya gonna do?
Sipa’s fish terrified me. Some tiny pink dudes got sassy when I swam too close, and they would charge at my goggles, thinking they could bluff me.
And they were right. It took maybe three “attacks” to scare me away.
From what I understand, the fish don’t normally behave like that. They’ve gotten aggressive lately because people have been feeding them.
There’s signs all over the park telling you not to do that, but we saw some tourists bobbing around with arm-floaties on, flinging meat-bits into the water.
The fish would frenzy, and we would suffer for it. 3/5 of us came away from that snorkeling trip with fish-bites. I don’t blame us, and I don’t blame the fish.
Maybe they ignored the signs (which were trilingual, so no excuses!).
Or maybe if you think it’s acceptable to be in your 30s and still wear arm-floaties, then you think other social rules don’t apply to you. Whatever.
After we got back to our hostel, we dried up and went to get some food.
The next day, we got up at 5 AM, to do some white-water rafting on the Padas River.
It took an hour by van, and then 2 hours by train to reach the right spot on the river. Along the way we talked with Ash, our cheeky guide who never stopped flirting with Mary Beth.
The rapids got to grade 3 and 4. I don’t understand the ranking system, but 5 is the top, so we weren’t doing so shabby:
Ash, of course, deliberately steered us into the most violent rapids, and told us to hoist our oars and put on a good face for the camera-man. I did my best:
Me at my most attractive.
Our posing didn’t matter much, though, because we would always end up like this:
We tumbled around, we banged ourselves up, we drank river-water on accident, and we had a blast. Tons of fun.
The rafting left us bushwhacked, so we called it an early night, so that we could be fresh for Mt. Kinabalu the next morning. Looking back, that’s almost funny, because no amount of “freshness” would have helped us!
Mt Kinabalu - Day 1
Mt Kinabalu, or Gunung Kinabalu in the local dialect, is Southeast Asia’s biggest mountain at 13,425 ft. Climbing it promised to be a high-light of the trip.
You do the trek over 2 days. On day one, you climb about 10,000 ft to a lodge called Laban Rata, where you eat a big buffet dinner and pass out. Then you wake up at 1:45 AM, stuff yourself with a breakfast, and climb the remaining 3500 ft to the summit, so you can see the sunrise.
God, it even sounds horrible on paper. But we thought it was a good idea at the time! Look at how happy we look, pre-climb:
None of us would be that happy again.
Before starting, we teamed up with our helpful guide, whose name I think was… Juice.
She had a lot in common with Mary Poppins.
Often, we wouldn’t see her for long stretches of time, but just as we would get lost, she would come ambling along, wielding her umbrella with a smile.
She has some serious stamina — she does this climb 2 or 3 times a week, and with a bum knee!
The climb started out with thousands of stairs winding up through the jungle at the mountain’s base.
Once in a while, we could catch a glimpse of the summit through the trees. At no point did it dawn on me that we were supposed to climb up past the rock, above the clouds.
Would have changed my plans, frankly.
Kinabalu Park is one of the world’s richest eco-systems. It has more plants in it than all of Europe and North American combined.
It’s not impossible to see an orangutan there, although it’s rare. We made some animal friends, though.
2/3 of the way through our Day 1 climb, we had to layer up. The trees started to thin out as we climbed higher, and the winds got cold.
Mary Beth, layered up and showing me what she thinks of me.
The plants got weird as they got sparse. Above the cloudline, they started to look like the scrubby little trees you’d find in Sonoma county:
We also got our first really good photo-ops up here:
The climb wore us out. After 5 hours or so, we could smell the food coming from our lodge, and not a moment too soon:
The buffet dinner surprised us — decent eats, and tons of em. I ate four plates, along with a gallon or so of tea.
The ladies behaved a little more civilized:
It also thrilled us to learn that our room was a four-bed private, and only 40 steps away.
Once we got to our room, we felt the mountain climate. Laban Rata is too high up to have a reliable supply of electricity, so our room didn’t come with heat.
It was chilly enough that Rachelle neeeded to borrow my long underwear, which were long enough to warm her from her torso down to her ankles:
The sun set at around 7:30 PM, and we passed out shortly afterwards.
Mt Kinabalu - Day 2
Then the alarm went off at 1:45. RISE AND SHINE!
I have yet to be forgiven for snapping this photo.
When you wake up before 2AM after a long day of climbing, you don’t feel your best. But I didn’t realize that, for me, a fever had set in.
I felt a little nauseous, but I suited up, choked down some breakfast, and started climbing in the dark.
Rachelle was a natural up there, and she bounded off ahead of the group. We wouldn’t see her again for a long time.
I, on the other hand, started having some serious problems at the rest-stop, mid-way through the Day 2 climb.
As soon as I got there, I slumped down on the ground. Then I politely excused myself to go vomit in the woods.
Vomitting always puts a little bounce in my step. Honest to goodness, I felt better afterwards.
Not by much, but better.
And a good thing, too, because the climb transformed from a simple hike up some stairs into a steep wall of rock. You need to use a rope to pull yourself along. Exhausting — no pictures, because I needed both hands.
The altitude affected us all dramatically. Our pace slowed to a creep. I needed to stop for breath every 10 steps.
But because I stopped so often, I got to soak in the views up near the summit plateau.
I’ll never see that many stars again. Here’s what it looked like when the dawn started to break.
From this point, the last leg to the summit of Low’s Peak felt horrible. Somehow we all dragged ourselves up to the top, though.
What a triumphant feeling!
I love this picture of Rebecca and I:
On the other side of the summit is Low’s Gully, one of the least explored terrains on the planet. Very intimidating:
Getting to the top felt like a big victory, but the biggest reward came from seeing what we climbed through in the light of day.
The views of the valley, the moutain ponds, the rocky plain of the summit looked gorgeous!
Here’s what the peak looks like, from below.
We said goodbye to the best view we’ll ever have, and started the climb down. Rebecca hated the ropey parts of the descent:
Pretty soon we discovered what most experienced climbers already know: the way down is awful.
Your knees scream at you all the way to the bottom. Just look at how Rachelle had to brace herself on a rock. She’s not exaggerating anything. That’s how bad it hurts!
Here’s Rachelle and Reba, walking like they’re 90 years old When we reached the bottom, none of us could do anything.
After getting back from the park, we went back to our hostels and we crashed.
Back in KK
The next day, we decided to see a couple movies to help us recuperate. The ladies’ legs were so sore that they could barely manage the stairs inside the theater.
Those are pain giggles
We saw Wolverine and RIPD, both solidly mediocre.
So following the films and some heavy eating, we crashed. Again.
And the next day Mary Beth, Rachelle, Rebecca and I went to the airport, to catch our plane to Mulu, where the next part of our adventure started.
The last entry about Borneo finished off with us packing our crampy legs into a small plane, to get to Mulu, in the southern Borneo state of Sarawak.
Sarawak has a Christian majority, so its people don’t love being a part of Muslim Malaysia. This creates some small immigration headaches when you want to go in to Sarawak.
So, in yet another bizarre Asian budget airline experience, we had to take an “international” flight to get to Mulu, and on the way we had to deplane in Miri to get our passports stamped. That’s a no-reason 45-minute delay, right there.
Didn’t keep us down, though. After the plane landed in the Mulu airport (the smallest airport I’ve ever seen), we skipped the 400 meters from the airport to our hostel.
The short walk brought us here:
D’Cave’s Homestay, situated right on the fringe of Gunung Mulu National Park, famous for its rainforests and its caves.
Our hosts here, Robert and Dina, gave us a comfy private room, some solid advice, and big breakfasts every morning. Couldn’t recommend them enough.
On our first day in the park, we got a few good glimpses of the sunset:
Afterward we took ourselves on a short night-walk along the park’s boardwalk.
First thing I learned about the rainforest: it’s loud! There was tons of yelping, and a constant buzz from cicadas that sounded as loud as a big engine.
We didn’t see much, because we didn’t know how to look. But when we stopped at a bar on the way home, we saw a housefly the size of a playing-card:
Aaay, this fuckin’ guy!
That bug set the theme for our time in Mulu — it was all about the atmosphere, and the critters.
The next day we toured the forest in the day-time. We climbed a tree-top tower (although we saw nothing in the canopy):
We learned a little about the local botany (although I forgot most of it):
Massive tree with a strangler-fig wrapped around it.
And we saw some interesting bugs:
We were told many times not to touch these
Later in the day, a guide took us on a canopy walk (the longest in the world!).
The bridges could only handle two of us at a time, and the wobbling made me nervous, at 200 meters above the ground. Looking more courageous than I feel.
It wasn’t until returning from the walk that we spotted this guy, lurking right outside of park headquarters:
A zoologist we met told us that these vipers are extremely poisonous. She also gave us a few pointers for spotting animals at night.
You gotta walk slow, with a flashlight right next to your head, and scan the trees for little points of light shining back out you. 8/10, those points of light will be spiders:
Sometimes they’ll be a little cuter:
Sometimes, they’ll be much creepier:
Most of the noise we heard in the forest came from toads like this guy:
They sounded almost like monkeys, barking in the dark.
After the night hike we passed out, and the next day we took a boat ride into a local village.
I proved myself to be a blowdart prodigy:
And from there our boat took us to Clearwater Cave and Cave of the Wind.
Those caves took up our morning, and after a long lunch-break, we went off to Deer Cave, the largest cave chamber in the world. On the way there we met this guy:
Deer Cave has two features that pumped me up. First of all, look at this, on the right. Notice anyone famous?
That’s right, it’s Abraham Lincoln. Uncanny.
The second exciting thing about Deer Cave is its bat population.
The cave hosts 3.5 million bats, and (almost) every night they fly out to eat bugs — the largest bat exodus in the world. After our tour of the cave, we plunked ourselves down and watched the entrance for hours:
BUT NO BATS!
Truly heartbreaking. I had been looking forward to the exodus for months. But sometimes nature guanos all over your plans. Oh well.
The next day we had to say bye to Mary Beth, who took a flight back home to Joplin, Missouri. Luckily I caught a photo of her in a contemplative mood before she left:
A few hours after she left, Rachelle, Rebecca and I went to the airport only to find, surprise, our flight got cancelled!
The airline took care of us, though. They set us up in the Royal Mulu Resort, fed us 3 meals, and paid for our transportation.
Here’s Rebecca watching The Interpreter (solidly mediocre) in the luxurious hotel bed:
I can’t handle the suspense!
After a refreshing night in a comfortable bed, and a nice warm shower, we caught our flight to Sarawak’s capital, Kuching:
Unlike Kota Kinabalu, Kuching didn’t have too much going for it. Just a stop-over junction for some of Sarawak’s cool activities, like the Semengoh Wildlife Reserve, home to a whole gaggle of orangutans!
We got pretty lucky at Semengoh. The day before we went, visitors saw nothing. It’s nature, you know? But within 15 minutes of getting there, we caught sight of this momma and her baby:
Absolutely adorable. Here’s another of the pair:
So cute it’s not fair. Here’s one more, of baby learning how to climb:
Now the reserve didn’t have just cute mommas and babies. It also had Big Ritchie:
Beeeeg fuckin’ Ritchie!
He’s the dominant male of the Semengoh troupe. He’s cute in his own way, but the park guides made sure to let us know not to mess with him. “If he gets angry,” they said, “Then there’s nothing we can do.”
Big Ritchie had a troubled past. He watched his mom get shot when he was as a baby. Now, when he sees someone setting up a camera tripod, he mistakes it for a gun and goes into a rage. You may not think that’s something to take seriously, but look:
People have lost their hands because they messed with Big Ritchie. Sobering thought.
After our trip to Semengoh, we found that the whole town of Kuching had shut down, due to the End of Ramadan celebrations. Seriously, not one thing open!
We resigned ourselves to a semi-boring afternoon, and prepared to go to Bako National Park the next day.
Bako National Park
Bako, like Mulu, has a lot of rainforest, but you can only get there by speedboat. It’s also home to some interesting fauna, like wild boar:
Some not-so-wild boar:
The bizarre proboscis monkeys:
Like a grumpy old man in need of his remote.
and, the “naughty Macaques”, which the park warned us about endlessly.
They have a reputation for swiping tourists’ bags. This guy definitely followed us around a lot:
I think he was staking us out. Luckily, we didn’t experience any monkey theft.
Bako didn’t have nearly the same high-end infrastructure that Mulu had, which was a little frustrating.
During one hike, we followed some sign-posts to a trail that promised whole hordes of proboscis monkeys.
The trail delivered — we saw 6 or 7 of the things take flying leaps across the trees ahead of us. But when we tried to follow, we found a soggy mangrove flooded with seawater, and we could go no further. Nobody had warned us about that, and the trail couldn’t take us to where the monkeys went.
Right after we figured out how stuck we were, the proboscises made a crazy racket. From what we heard, it sounded like they were roaring at a pack of boars who were intruding on their turf. We’ll never know for sure.
Can’t complain too much, though. The park had nice coastal views:
And a pretty comfortable place to crash:
That night the 3 of us played Texas Hold ‘Em, gambling with bananas and coins from 4 different countries. Confusing, but fun:
And that was the close-out of our trip. We had one more semi-uneventful day in Kuching, then another night in Kota Kinabalu, and then we flew back to Hong Kong.
Quite the adventure!