>Borneo

>Damn I was going to Borneo. Gotta love that. I had no idea what to expect except well-dressed orangutans checking my passport at an airport tarpaulined with jungle and taxis driven by polite Native Indians. It took two days travelling to get to Sabah. A night bus from Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, an evening flight to KL, an overnight stay in a wireless McDonalds, followed by a morning flight to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah on the island of Borneo, my final Asian destination. 10 days here, a possible meet with Lauren, an old work mate who I hadn’t seen in near 6 years along with some trekking and our flame-coloured cousins. Not the Scots but of similar intellect. The journey left nothing to be reported on except I managed to lose my third pair of sunnies on this trip. Lucky, I buy the cheap ones eh!

I got in nice and early and hassle free. The taxi ride was simple. Nothing unusual yet. In fact, the town looked positively swarthy like a Graham Greene nightmare. The hostel room was small, dark and cramped. A prison cell with 10 beds occupied by a mix of an awkward Australian, a British diplomat on a diving course and a bunch of Cardiff University students on a summer jaunt, I mean project. They proved decent entertainment. 3 drinks in them and it was karaoke time. Japan it wasn’t except maybe that legendary afternoon with LP. Pocahontas is the music of choice these days. A shy but genuine bunch, some on their last night played Connect 4 after a few drinks rather than talk and get into trouble. Fair enough?

I had arrived on the Friday, always the best time (except pulling into town the night before a national holiday as I did in Mexico City. Everyone was getting hammered). But here in Kota Kinabalu it seemed a more sedate setting of fishing boats resting in the harbour and cars ambling along. I decided to chill out, peruse and see what the city had to offer. That took an hour in retrospect but it proved a pleasant seaside town to hang out. Fishermen plied their trade along the shore, bringing their catch to be sold at the noisy quayside markets and then devoured in the Filipino food stalls. As you cruised the outdoor restaurants, debating it was to be the red snapper or a slab of tuna after the humongous king prawns starters, I warmed quickly to the humid city and the vocal people of Sabah.

An Irish guy came into the room the next day. A happy go-lucky lad with a plan that could only go desperately wrong. And it did but not before he gave me a detailed breakdown of the smaller islands of the Philippines. I had planned to get there on this trip but time was against me. The Irish guy had got off the beaten track and loved the place. Guess I’ll put it on the list.

But this Irish lad’s next plan unravelled pretty fast and in all naive innocence. He was on a break from his working holiday visa in Australia. But it wasn’t his first visa and immigration had now found out he’d used two passports to get around the rules. Known as ‘Double Dippers’, he now had his visa cancelled. He still planned to return to Australia and work as a tourist. I highlighted some potential problems with that and did some research to back it up. He’d likely be deported at immigration and have to buy a ticket to the UK. A costly day that would be.

I was waiting for Lauren who was coming in from Cambodia on the Wednesday. So I wandered the town, visiting a sword-filled museum and watching the Olympics. Good time zone to be in. An English girl arrived and proved to be one of the most annoying, rude and arrogant girls I’d met in many a year. She had the unwanted knack of telling people how right she was and poor their efforts were. Chris, the diplomat was diving on rubbish sites. Helen, a Cardiff student had bought her predictable souvenirs from a rip-off shop. Even the Olympic swimmers were diving in too deep. She knew that because she had been a life guard at a swimming pool. And apparently her fat ass allowed her to be treated like an Indian in India because she wore locals clothes. Also aid groups were wasting their time and the locals in Cambodians should stand up and do some work. I had to walk away to keep calm numerous times.

While busily avoiding discussions with this dullard, I also researched diving in Sipandan and climbing Mt Kinabalu. Both were booked solid for weeks. With limited development, Boreno is best visited in low season. Shame but I will be back. There were other options though.

Lauren arrived. I got back to meet her in the hostel after spending the day, being an unpaid tour guide for Jennie from Kendall but a graphic designer based in London. We got along like a hilarious married couple, having a drink at the 5 star resort and looking for ways to put drinks on others rooms. That evening with Lauren, we all went out to an oishii Japanese restaurant. The menu got us both excited. We reminisced as we drank hot sake and munched tasty yakis. Ah Japan!

The next day we left for the city of Sandankan on the south east coast. Before the bus, Lauren visited the church where her parents actually married in the 1960s. Both Americans, they met in a small isolated town called Tandek and later married in Kota Kinabalu. The 6 hour bus ride took us over huge mountain passes into the clouds, switchbacking up and down valleys and through small nondescript towns. Sandankan, itself was far past its best especially for a town with once the most millionaires per head of population in the world. Those export industries days are over now and the town has a shabby, forlorn look.

But the prize we sought was Sepilok, just 20kms inland. For there, in the forests and jungles we were the people of the forest or translated orangutans. We got there early but not early enough. Crowds thronged the viewing platforms watching the rehabilitated apes eating bananas and playing. Only 5 showed up for they now lived in the forests, coming to feed if they please. The dominant male was nowhere to be seen. The second male, 16 year old Miskal fed himself on the bananas, occasionally glancing at the throngs of clicking cameras. After 20 minutes the crowds thinned. I stood there rooted, fascinated by the playing youths, hanging from the branches or grappling for pleasure. I tried to get some banter going but we didn’t speak the same language. Funny that.

At lunch along a rainforest trial, we were richly rewarded. The trees barely swayed or rustled. The forest was calm and dank. The walkways took us high into the forest, giving paranormic views. We heard movement not far away and stayed still as a little orangutan strolled cautiously past us. He was nervous but curious. We took pictures, staying quiet despite our awe. Then to our left, the branches on the trees arched over at increasingly angles. Our orangutan had a friend. After a few moments of silent anticipation, Miskal, the male from the morning poked his head round the foliage and strolled ever so quietly along a fallen tree right to us. I backed away slowly from the walkway banister and he climbed up, standing a mere 3 feet from us. He balanced unconcerned on the thin wood banister for a few seconds before calmly following the path. It reminded me of the chimpanzees in Uganda last year. The nerves as immense as the euphoria. I didn’t feel scared, just unsure. In reality, I would have loved to high five him.

Near the visitors centre, Miskal re-appearred. He calmly strolled along the path, climbed onto the roof of the centre and used its height to climb a nearby tree before disappearing again into his world, after improving mine. We relaxed on the front that night, Lauren, Jennie and myself, avidly talking over our day, drinking wine and letting out our smiles.

Mt Kinabalu is a mystical mountain in Asia. Despite being the highest in Borneo at 4400m, it’s a one day relatively easy climb. So much so, there is that 2 week waiting list. The bus from Sandankan took us north to the mountain. Our room balcony had stunning views of the cloud shrouded summit, riddled with sharp, granite spires and dotted with red puffs of clouds as the sun set. Each night Lauren and I finally got to sit down to discuss politics, law and architecture and generally solve the world’s crisises while drinking beers and wine on our balcony. I also became the ladies saviour, hunting down the huge, murderous spider in the bathroom to much acclaim.

The morning revealed the town was just perched on the moist, grey craggy massif. We walked to the visitor centre and started the Liwaku Trail uphill to the gate of the summit attempt. The humid trial was 6km long with some tough uphill sections. We reached the top exhausted and slumped on the benches where visiting locals asked to take pictures with us. We hitchhiked back down with the minivan of rich and educated Kuala Lumpur (KL) folks. Like everywhere in the world, the lingua football started the conversation. That night was the opening day of the season. Jennie supported Manchester United who were playing the beloved Newcastle United. There was no satellite TV in Kinabalu so we decided to wait until the repeat the next night and meet the KL guys.

We hitchhiked back to Kota Kinabalu (KK) in a pick-up and Lauren took a taxi north to Kudat and Tandek to research her parent’s romance. Jennie and I did some sight-seeing and wandering which translated means ice cream and eating at the amazing Filipino fish market as we waited for the game. The Irish Bar Shenanigans had live music and the football. As those who know will know, Newcastle (back in the good old days) put in a solid performance and held United at home. I won the bet with Jen. Ha ha, ha ha ha. The KL guys came in later and we drank whiskey until 4am.

20 minutes off KK are three tropical islands with great diving and trekking and shitloads of Koreans. Dont….start…..me. We took a boat out and walked a few Ks to the viewpoint on the end of the main island. A view of what I am not sure though I did enjoy watching the crabs fight. But on the hike back, we saw 3 huge iguanas strolling along the path. They moved slowly away from us using camouflage to vanish into the undergrowth. Walking round a corner, busy talking, we disturbed a huge iguana hidden in the bush. It panicked. We panicked and jumped. It fled away before stopping to peer at us before moving away. Shiitt.

Lauren came back the next day, happy after seeing the house where parents lived in the 1960s. We messed up a trip to ride horses by going to the wrong place and returned to the usual nightly solution; delicious food as the sun set and buckets of beer. Lauren had to get up early for her flight so Jen and I continued the night out in a terrible club followed by a bar where we had to be married to get a drink. So we were.

I loved Borneo. The people are amongst the nicest in Asia which is a helluva compliment. The fish markets and food stalls in Kota Kinabalu was the best food I ate in Asia. The orangutans are one of the highlights of my life and Mt Kinabalu offered a stunning vista. I met plenty of cool, fun people. As there is so much I didn’t get to do, a return trip is a cert.

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