Borneo beckons….

14 November 2001

Exactly 1086 km to go.  And that is only to get to Hong Kong, my first destination en route from good old Egoli.  Five-thirty kick-off this morning to beat the traffic to Cape Town International, followed by a smooth glide into JHB, so if all goes according to plan, I should be in Hong Kong by around 06h00 SA time. (Still have to figure out what sort of time difference I will have to cope with, but expecting a whack of jet lag).  Despite the fact that I end up with the luxury of a full row of seats, the six hours we lose effectively leaves me with 3 hours of sleep.  It is therefore with a stomach slopping with noodles and eyes like sandpits that I gaze at the shimmering waters as blaze into Hong Kong across the South China Sea.  Facing up to a two hour wait before connecting to Kaula Lumpur on the final leg of the flight to Malaysia.

Hong Kong airport is, as expected, extremely futuristic and organised, with speed trains linking you between the hundreds of gates and various terminals.  One thing that does surprise me is the relatively high prices of cameras and other electronic equipment.  With the final push to KL (a three hour flight) up next, I decide to leave the shopping spree for later.

Humid as Hell itself when I arrive in KL and dodging taxi touts adds to a day now stretching towards 36 hours.  Decide on the airport coach, at RM25 a better deal than the taxis at triple the price.  At the coach station, I manage to hook up with some other backpackers in search of a holy lodge and our trail eventually leads us to Pondok, where good-sized rooms with air-conditioning clicks in at MR50 – not bad, so two of us explore the neon outback along Jalan-Bukit Bintang into the heart of the Golden Triangle, settling down to feast on Tiger Beer and chicken noodles (MR18) at Restoran Lily.  This is slap bang in the centre of KL’s club-land, where trendy street cafe’s, karaoke bars and night clubs rub shoulders with hawker stalls and Chinese shops dating back to a previous century.  A multi-cultural flow of people flood this area known to the locals as the Golden Triangle.  It is in the mega-mall precinct where shopping is king, with multi-storey plazas touting wares from a bizarre mix of stalls, brand name shops and lively bazaars.  You can buy anything in this materialism wonderland.  Dried sea cucumbers, DVD players, pig’s ears, CK lingerie and shark fin.  To the west of the Golden Triangle lies the historic Chinatown and colonial sectors where an oriental ethos rules the roost, permeating the sidewalks with the aroma of fried ginger and lychee.  Travel north along Jalan TAR beyond Chow Kit market, keeping a low profile as this is supposed to be a roughish region, until you reach Little India.  Again it will feel as if you have stepped beyond a country’s boundaries as the Hindu culture kicks in, with blossom wreath-makers crowding the pavements below Hindu temples adorned with fantastical figurines and carvings of a range of benevolent deities seemingly modelled on the cast of Barbapapa.

15 November 2001

Good, solid, eight hour sleep, despite a body clock wake up at some weird, dark zone hour.  I keep breakfast simple settling on some lychees and a few mangoes, before heading off in search of camera equipment in the mall chaos of the Golden Triangle..  Short and sharp bargaining sessions follow until I throw in my lot with Lilian Lo, a friendly businesswoman in BB Plaza driving a hard bargain.  Her prices are the best though by at least 10 percent and I settle on the Sony S85, also ordering the MZ-S Pro Body from Pentax.  Once all the attachments and paraphernalia have been added the bill comes to just on R20 000, but I know I’m sorted for at least the next three years.  Lunch is a colourful affair involving huge slices of watermelon, zesty jackfruit and a very flat duck (bill included) from one of the roadside markets.  Excellent value for money and just the right thing to sustain the energy before heading to the Batu caves situated just beyond KL’s northern city limits.  An important Hindu religious site, these vast limestone caverns play host to a variety of annual festivals, including Deepavali and  Thaipusam Festival, the latter during which tens of thousands of followers of the son of Shiva congregate at Batu.  Scenes of self-mutilation culminate in a parade where disciples pierced with fish hooks, rods and a mind-numbing variety of sharp objects move up the steep staircase in a macabre procession.

I arrive there during the mid-afternoon and are forced to share it with a few hundred others (a variety) of faithful, curious onlookers and a great multitude of sneaky monkeys.  Despite the indisputable natural beauty of the surroundings and the many mythical Hindu statues, the incessant noise and overwhelming pollution detract from what could have been an amazing experience.  A stroke of luck sees us bumping into one of Malaysia’s expert spelunkers (I have only his word for this) who convinces us to sign up for a dank and dark tour through the nearby caves of Selangor.  More than 4 million years old and with a ceiling rising up to over 300 feet, it is easy to see why our guide Suja waxes lyrical about these limestone caves.  His enthusiasm is catching and we lose ourselves in this speleological wonderworld where unseen swarms of sonar pings, ancient stalactites and stalagmites, columns, gour pools and other limestone formations shimmer in the light of our torches.  One section of glittering cave wall turns out to be a carpet of scuttling cockroaches, but we make it out into the muggy Malaysian afternoon without any mishap.  And then it is a taxi into the technicolour core of Chinaton in search of cheap food.  A delicious pot-pourrian cultural clash culminates here at sunset when a section of street blocks are closed to traffic to make way for a pasar malam, or night market.  Anything goes here, from bootleg DVD’s, fake Rolexes and nasty Raybans to spicy satay keabs, rounds of shiny Fuji apples, baskets crawling with spicy lychees and authentic Chinese confectionery.  The jangle of bicycle bells and sharp shouts of vendors touting their wares blend with the aroma of naan bread, Pashtun curries and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, erupting in a miasma of sights, sounds and smells delivering a mach force body blow of concentrated Malaysian culture to your senses.

16 November 2001

The rain is here to stay. it seems, staring in Chinatown last night with a menacing rumble and a few searing bolts of lightning, the deluge has gripped the KL streets in its sopping maw, seemingly intent to prove it’s status as monsoon season.  I poncho up and head into the Big Soak to finalise my shopping spree before settling down to breakfast and a corresponding slice of street life.

By midday the rain eventually stops and I slog down into Chinatown in search of the National Mosque.  Situated adjacent to the statuesque old Railway Station, the mosque is not that impressive, but the surrounding buildings make up for it, juxtaposing Eastern turrets dating back to the colonial millenium architecture erupting along the skyline in the background.  From the mosque, I tramp below the skytrain to the museum of Islamic Art, a glass and concrete monolith with inlaid panels of intricate tilework and quiet halls filled with ancient scriptures and artefacts many centuries old.

From these hallowed halls I wander into the KL Bird Park, apparently the largest, enclosed aviary in the world, swapping the quiet museum atmosphere for the honk and twitter of swarms of mynahs, peacocks, orioles and hornbills.  The latter species is well-represented with fantastical specimens strutting their stuff in the dense tropical vegetation.  Squawks, a great clattering of beaks and mighty wings beating the air accompany their squabbles, but it is the ground and rhinoceros hornbill’s exotic looks and spectacular casques that steal the show in the end.

By 6pm the beer craving cannot be ignored anymore and I stop at the street market for a kingsize Tiger and a bunch of satay skewers, watching as KL kicks into nightlife mode.

17 November 2001

Travel time again, so its bite the bullet along the highway to KLIA with a Chinese taxi driver suffering from an acute case of verbal diarrhoea.  We pass through endless palm nut oil plantations with the sun colouring the east in a tarnished amber, skirting Putrajaya and Cyberjaya, Malaysia’s “New City” and “Cyber City”.  At the core of the country’s information technology thrust, these developments feature the latest modcons of the computer age and many of KL’s cyber citizen’s are moving here.

Sabah manages to miss the typhoon belt by a hair’s breadth, offering tourists a natural paradise resplendent with rainforest, mangrove swamps and towering mountains, with Mt Kinabalu in the Crocker ranges clocking in as Asia’s highest peak at 4101m.  Another highlight of the region is it’s diverse and delightful array of fauna, headed up by the endangered orang-utan, the incorrigible probiscis monkeys, bearded pigs, Asian elephants and various other interesting primate species.  The reptile world weights in with endearing groups of leatherback turtles who use the Sabah coastline as their breeding ground, while those who venture into the south Chinese sea are bound to discover a dazzling underwater realm where tropical fish and coral reefs combine in breathtaking beauty.

NOTES:

SABAH  -  The Land Below the Wind

MT KINABALU  -  Malaysia’s first world Heritage site

DRUNKEN CHICKEN dish with white wine and huge chunks of ginger

And although the Borneo region seems to be grudgingly losing the battle against modernisation and the trappings of world culture, many traditions may still be experienced by those prepared to step off the beaten trail.  At least 80 dialects are spoken by a variety of ethnic groupings in Sabah, with the Kadazan / Dusan, Murat and Bajau the most easily recognisable.  An influx of Filipino and Indonesian immigrants are adding to the erosion of the regional culture.

Kota Kinabalu, or KK as most people know it, is a rather inauspicious entry into this wild and wonderful paradise.  Having had most of it’s architecture destroyed during a period of Japanese occupation during the First World War, I fly into something reminiscent of a boomtown Klerksdorp high on humidity.  Peregrine, the tour operator arranging my Sabah journey, has dispatched the tour leader, a twenty-something Malaysian guy by the name of Chris, to pick me up at KK airport.  We head through the muggy downtown to our stopover for the first night, the very swanky Beverley Hotel, where I meet the rest of the group, two pommies and four Aussies – and so the scene is set.

18 November 2001

Group meeting at 09h00 just after breakfast with the departure time set for 11h00.  This gives me an opportunity to explore the Filipino market and port area in what probably rates as KK’s sleazier parts.  The harbour plays home to a collection of way beyond decrepit barges and tugs roosting like sluggish vultures at the swaying quay.  Flotsam and jetsam and all manner of crap drift around the mooring area, while the stench rising up from the drainage system sets my stomach off on a series of involuntary spasms.

Inside the adjacent fish market, basically a large shed enclosed on two sides, the aroma is ever so slightly more wholesome, although this does not seem to bother the stallholders or customers.  Haggling and good-natured bartering seems to be the order of the day between the predominantly Filipino and Chinese crowd, with the adults doing fishy deals while toddlers run amok between glistening piles of tuna, barracuda, reef-fish and shark.

I escape the back streets to head back to the Beverley Hotel, just in time for our eventual departure to the Kinabalu National Park.  The scenic two hour drive from KK rises gradually from the coast, winding it’s way into the low foothills of the expansive Crocker ranges.  High, steeply sloping hills ridge away into the distant mist, taking us up to an altitude of approximately 1500 metres.  But as we climb, the weather turns and by the time we reach the Fairy Gardens Hotel, it is literally pissing it down and the mountain itself is utterly covered in cloud.

This does not stop Tim, Marcus, Donovan and Luciano from donning our ponchos and heading up to the park offices to check out things.  I buy an excellent bamboo walking stick (which sets off a bit of a buying frenzy) and we immediately set off along the internal park trail section to test our purchases.  The forest does not disappoint, with huge emerging trees, covered in moss, epiphytes and orchids shooting skywards to create a dense canopy.  Donna has a bit of a leech incident but the sunset from the viewpoint is spectacular and we hoof it home to the chicken rendang pots in high spirits.

19 November 2001

The main reason for doing this trip must be ascent attempt on Mt Kinabalu, South East Asia’s highest peak.  Climbing the peak is a whole process, with permits required from the National Park headquarters before ascending any of the peaks.  Guides are a prerequisite too, as the mountain can be very dangerous to inexperienced trekkers.  (A British backpacker dies earlier this year when she was separated from her group during an attempt on the mist-wreathed summit and her body was only found five days later).  Luckily for us, all these arrangements were co-ordinated by Peregrine and all we have to do is be on time for the taxi to Kinabalu HQ.  From here we are bussed to Timpohon gate (1890m), the official start of the trail, where the compulsory “before photo” is executed by the whole of the group.

Initially the trail follows a downwards route, winding through tall tree ferns and indigenous forests, passing by the beautiful cascade of Carson’s Falls.  Big smiles from most of the group, although Steve the Aussies goes a bit giddy at the first shelter.  We’re doing about a 4:1 ratio over the first two kms to the Lowii shelter, with me and Tim leading the way.  While we’re waiting for the others, we’re mobbed by a mountain ground squirrel family who score an apple and crisps big time.  We wait for the other guys, Marcus and Donna solidly doing their thing at the rear.  From here the trail levels out to some extent, with the forest crowding in around you as you pass through the dappled jade of neon moss, wild ginger and climbing creepers growing in prolific profusion.  At Layan-Layan hut I take another break and wait for Tim to catch up while getting stuck into the packed lunch we bought at Fairy Gardens.  From here the trail goes gnarly on me, with steep ascents along natural rock staircases leading to the Paka Cave area.  The vegetation morphs into high altitude, Alpine mist forest, with gnarled trees and spiky shrubs taking their stand against the harsh environment.  Thick stands of bearded moss festoon the overhead branches and the rocks are covered in fields of fungus growth.  Beyond the mist (which has now come down in dense, sheeting banks), the sounds of a gushing waterfall can be heard.

About half an hour later the sun breaks through as we pass the Waras hut, eventually cresting the ridge to reach Laban Rata Guesthouse, our stopover for the night, just after 1pm.  The others arrive around an hour and a half later, sunburnt and knackered, but still on a high from the amazing walk.

Later that night we sit in the freezing dining hall at Laban Rata with toasty mugs of Milo firmly clasped in our mitts.  Below us, when the fog eventually lifts, the sun fires out a fusion of rays over a blanket of candy floss clouds.  To bed at seven o’ clock, but unable to sleep due to a barrage of really bad jokes.

20 November 2001

Hectic wake-up call at 2pm from Alex, our appointed guide for our summit attempt on Low’s Peak.  It has been a rough night but it seems as if we have enough of a weather window to make it up to the bare granite summit – kitted out with head torches against the dark, ponchos and waterproofs against

the rain and thermal clothing against temperatures that often drop below zero, only four people from our group are up to the attempt.  Other guides lead their own groups, with a total of 31 trekkers on the mountain, less than 20 actually set off into the dark.  With Marcus already taking some strain from the altitude, we decide to set off last.  Immediately the rain comes down, initially just in a light drizzle, but then switching to tropical downpour mode.  We shelter in one of the huts for a while, hoping for the weather to improve, eventually deciding to push through when there is no sign of clearing after twenty minutes.

The first kilometre of the second day’s leg up Kinabalu is by far the worst of the climb.  With an altitude to distance ratio of 1:2, you climb nearly 500 metres in order to reach Sayat-Sayat hut, the last shelter as you push into the hard rock chaos of the Kinabalu massif.  From Laban Rata, a series of ladder-steps disappear into the dark and drenching night, occasionally giving way to natural rock steps ascending along rocky ravines and stream beds.  With the latter filling up with water fast, we’re soon ankle-deep in rushing rivulets and insidious droplets soon penetrate the defences of our rain gear.  My main concern is the R80 000 worth of camera gear in my backpack that I’m lugging through the storm, but my mind is made up – Kinabalu’s summit is a once in a lifetime experience and there is no turning back.

We meet the first returning trekkers just below the rope section, in places you have to haul yourself up the freezing mountain slo0pe hand over hand while trying to keep your balance in the face of white water cascades tumbling down the rock face.  I volunteer to go up first in order to grab some photographs with my underwater camera as the others struggle upwards against the elements.  Despite the deluge, the rough granite surface offers ample traction, but the freezing weather and rough rope take it’s toll as you move upward through the spider webs of water rushing down the slope.  I find a vantage point, grabbing some shots from a stable ledge before moving on, following the rope towards the dark and invisible profusion of peaks.

Here the rock face eventually levels out along the plateau and it is only a couple of hundred metres to Sayat-Sayat hut.  The final approach takes us through a gushing stream and then we’re inside, dripping wet and freezing.  Both the other climbing groups been driven to take shelter, and a dozen trekkers plus their guides huddle in the damp shelter while the rain hammers on outside.  Marcus hauls out a hipflask and we take a helpful/thankful/grateful swig of brandy to bolster our flagging spirits.

An hour and a half later, dawn sneaks in weakly through the banks of fog and pelting rain.  There seems to be no chance of the deluge letting up and, more worrying, the streams tumbling down the plateau have swollen to rumbling rivers.  Our worst fears are confirmed when the guides decide that a summit attempt would be too dangerous and that we have to return to Laban Rata.  Despite our protestations we know deep-down that Alex is right and cross back over the stream out side the hut which is now swelling dangerously.  The return goes without any major hitches, although I take a dangerous tumble when I slip along the rope descent.  I manage to hang on however, escaping with a sprained finger and a quick thank you to the mountain gods.

Tim and I reach Laban Rata first, slogging in at just after 07h00 and electing to continue down to the park headquarters without a rest.  Weather forecasts and the guides have indicated that the rain will continue for at least a few more days, thus making any further attempts on Kinabalu improbable.  Disappointed as hell, Tim and I slog it out with gravity occasionally casting a backward glance toward where the hulking mountain slumbers behind the clouds.  Who knows, maybe one day I will walk here again, having stood on the top of Kinabalu.  (An interesting fact we later find out is that only 10% of the 170 000 climbers that attempt Kinabalu Mountain annually actually make it to the top.  See fact panel on lowland dipterocarp rainforest).

Aches and pains seem to be the order of the day and a later afternoon diversion to Poring Hot Springs is therefore just the right medicine.  Set inside a prolific ethobotanical gardenscape, you have a choice of outside tubs, cottage spas and a huge outdoor pool.  With the sulphurous water (at a temperature of around 50-60˚C) luring/tempting the rest of the group, I escape into the surrounding jungle.  It is another stiff climb up to the waterfall with its natural swimming pools and then beyond to the Bat Cave.  It is in the cave that the leeches spring their ambush;  I am able to ward off the first few, but one gets stuck into my leg and I decide to beat a hasty retreat in order to get some insect repellent.  With the de-leeching done, I settle down with the others for some Singapore style fried noodles and an ice cold Tiger beer before hitting our beds at the Fairy Gardens Resort.

21 November 2001

Big time travel today, heading west past Kundasang and Telupid towards the west coast city of Sandakan.  Although the city itself is an ugly urban sprawl of industrial architecture, Sandakan serves as the springboard to some of Sabah’s top nature destinations.  Not only is it possible to trip by speedboat to the Turtle Islands National Park, you can also visit the close-by Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, do a riverboat trip on the Kinabatangan river near Sukau or visit the Danum Valley conservation area further south.

We’re booked into the Sepilok Forest Resort, but decide to check out the afternoon feeding at the sanctuary before dropping off our bags.  After visiting the educational centre and watching a video on these amazing primates, we head into the towering forest along wooden walkways linked to the various feeding platforms.  The Orang-utans beat us to the feeding area, with six or seven gangly brick-red apes loitering with intent on or near the platform.  These tailless apes may live up to 30 years and sharing 96.7% of a human’s genes, they are truly Borneo’s “men of the forest”.  Dominant males grow up to more than one and a half metres tall and may weigh as much as 160?kg, and although they are mostly docile, may harm a human as they do not realise their own strength.  A menacing rumble cues in the rain and the downpour sheets in across the forest, drenching humans and apes alike.  My rainproof poncho saves my camera, but I am soaked by the time I get back to the centre.

It is Chris, our tour leader’s birthday, and a few of head into sandakan to do the karaoke thing.  Bad move, with one of the worst renditions of American Pie ever performed in this part of the solar system effectively torpedoing our evening.  A good night though, with a few memorable sightings of Chinese homeboys in check shirts doing Shanghai style country and western impersonations.

22 November 2001

A leisurely start to the day with our departure planned for 11h30.  This gives me just enough time for brekkie before wandering down to the feeding area again.  This time the Orang-utans are even more friendly, with two of them lurching onto the walkway to stage a mock wrestling contest in between a gaggle of Japanese tourists.  The wrestle is soon forgotten and the combatants pass out, seemingly overcome by heat induced lethargy.  I get some excellent close-ups of their expressive faces yawning and sighing, all the while peering inconspicuously at the camera.  Additional action comes from a troop of macaque monkeys intent on cashing in on the Orang-utan feeding scheme.  These large monkeys are truly wild however, unlike Orang-utans, most of which are being reintroduced into the wild.  Orang-utans get to Sepilok in a variety of ways, but most are either orphaned due to conflict with man or confiscated from people illegally keeping them as pets.  Especially high in impact are agricultural activities, in specific the sprawling oil palm estates covering vast tracts of what used to be prime virgin rainforest.  In worst case scenarios, the Orang-utans raiding plantations are killed, although more conscientious estate personnel alert the Sepilok rangers.  Sometimes it is necessary to travel several hundred km’s in order to dart and capture these primates who are then returned to the sanctuary and released after a quarantine period of 90 days.  In the secure Sepilok environment, these intelligent creatures are soon re-integrated into the wild and assimilated into the social structure of the local orang-utan population.

With orphans and young pets however, the process is distinctly more complicated and it might take as long as five to seven years before an individual primate may be able to fend for itself in the forest.  Dedicated staff members have to bathe, feed and nurture infant orang-utans for the first years of their life, teaching them forest survival skills and social interactivity without making them dependent upon humans.  Some apes may become so attached to their foster parents that they refuse to socialise with their own species, therefore maintaining a balance is imperative.

Back at the feeding platform, the ranger has arrived with a heap of bananas and loads of milk, a set diet which encourages the orang-utans to supplement this by foraging for wild fruits.  A dozen gangly sub-adults and adults crowd onto the platform introvertedly nuzzling up to the ranger while filling up on the take-aways.  Although some apes hang around in order to finish off their fare, others swing away into the forest with their bunch of bananas in order to finish it off at their leisure.  Although wary of the orang-utans, the macaque monkeys, awaiting their opportunity with arrogance, charging in to snatch a fruity prize when the opportunity arises.  One of the less aware tourists have a close encounter with a very bold male macaque;  having disregarded the rules barring any food from the feeding area, he brought in some bananas in his bag.  Alerted by his keen sense of smell, the macaque launches himself at the unlucky man, wrenching the bag from him and, in the process, scratching him quite badly.  No major harm is done, but the incident illustrates candidly just how precarious the balance between man and nature can be.

From Sepilok, we travel southwards along the protruding belly of the Sula sea along steadily deteriorating roads.  Approximately two hours to the south of Sandakan, we stop at the famous Gomantong caves where the main ingredient of Chinese birds’ nest soup is harvested.  Inside the two caverns, Simud Hitam and Simud Putih, you will find nesting colonies of black and white nest swiftlets.  Simud Hitam, the easier of the two caves to reach, is home to the black nest swiftlet, who constructs its nest out of a combination of feathers and saliva.  Inside the 60m high cavern, harvesters scale a Heath Robinson network of rattan ladders and climbing ropes twice a year in order to collect this delicacy fetching upward of RM40 per kilogram.  The white-nest swiftlets’ nests are made of pure saliva and is even more prized, with a market value in excess of RM500 per kilo.  Under the watchful eye s of the Sabah Wildlife Department, two yearly harvests are permitted to owners of the cave system, rich men who live in cockroach covered shacks perched on mountains of bat guano inside the caves.

Our final destination for the day is Proboscis Lodge, situated approximately an hour from Gomantong on the primal Kinabatangen River.  A largely underdeveloped section of forest along the river’s lower reaches features a wealth of fauna and flora teeming with gibbons, orang-utans, Asian elephants, bearded pigs and crocodiles.  An impressive bird list includes serpent eagles, Brahminy kites, stork-billed kingfishers, oriental darters and a great number of hornbill species, making the Sungei Kinabatangan one of Borneo’s premier wildlife destinations.

23 November 2001

Prowled to the banks of the Kinabatangan (Chinese Coming) river last night, looking for weird creatures of the night.  Saw huge millipedes, camouflaged tree spiders, quick as a flash translucent geckos, a hunting spider ready to pounce and a bark gecko nearly indistinguishable from the tree it was crouching on.  Then retired to bed in our wooden cabin to drift off to sleep to the sound of insects and frogs going cacophonic in the marsh stretching inland from the river.

After breakfast, we’re back onto the river with Chris to go and do some jungle trekking in the Pinnacle area.  Deep inside the emerald gloom, shafts of sunlight pierce the canopy to spotlight flitting butterflies wafting from tree to tree on gossamer wings.  One of the emergent forest giants burst into life to the sound of grunts and whoops, with a troop of gibbons darting along the high branches.  We don’t spot much, but it’s great to just tramp through this hot, humid heaven.

We return to the hotel and I decide to explore the banks of the Sungei Kinabatangan upriver from Proboscis Lodge.  Recent foraging by a herd of Asian elephant has cleared a muddy track through the riverine forest and I navigate along the muddy spoor of these gentle giants.  There are leeches all over the place, wriggling up my boots in search of an O+ fix, forcing me to stop every ten or so minutes in order to do a proper check.  While crossing through a particularly marshy section, a metre long monitor lizard bursts from the swamp grass at my feet, scaring the shit out of me.  It scrabbles away towards the water’s edge, stopping for a few seconds to stare at me with flint sharp eyes while flicking at the air with its forked tongue.  I don’t see the elephants though, eventually returning to the lodge for lunch.

Two hours of leisure before boarding our sleek cigar boat onto the Menanggol River, a tributary of the Kinabatangan.  We’re in search of Proboscis monkeys, weird primates with huge schnozzes and ample pot bellies, also known as Dutch monkeys (possibly after the early colonisers with their European features).  Unlike most other monkeys, they have partially webbed feet and are proficient swimmers, enabling them to cross jungle rivers in search of the young leaves of the Sonneraita mangrove tree.  On either side of the waterway, dense green walls of lowland dipterocarp rise up sharply, reflecting  off the dark river in a shimmer of reflected rays.  Occasional swirls on the surface betray the presence of fish or other unknown water creatures, while dragonflies and swiftlets skim the eddies in search of insects.  A loud splash along the riverbank alerts us to a monitor lizard prowling the shadows in search of prey, while long-tailed macaques chatter at us from the low, overhanging branches.  The proboscis monkeys prefer the towering buttressed trees, lounging like overindulgent lords of the manor in the high branches.  Despite their beer bellies and exaggerated facial features , they display their nimbleness by taking huge leaps of faith , flying from branch to branch in jumps of up to twenty feet.

The sharp eyes of our boatman do not miss much and we are all eyes when he guides the boat in towards the riverbank, pointing out some low branches hanging down above the water.  Clustered in a slither of coils, we watch in revulsion as a yellow-banded snake peers back at us with pin-prick eyes as dark as night.  It refuses to budge as I go in close to get a photograph, occasionally flickering it’s forked tongue to test the humid afternoon air.  We see two more snakes, another yellow-banded and the other a lethal looking yellow racer, henceforth eyeing the low branches we are passing under with a healthy respect.

It is nearly six and the sun dipping into the western forests when we start making our way back to Proboscis Lodge.  In addition to the monkeys and snakes, our bird tally for the day includes pied and rhinoceros hornbill, stork-billed kingfisher, the rare oriental darter, pink-necked pigeon and a close-up sighting of a large owl which we were unable to identify.  Back at the lodge, we feast on giant tiger prawns before retiring to bed.

24 November 2001

We depart from the natural paradise of Kinabatangan, jarring our way along a dusty dirt road to Sandakan airport.  We are booked onto an internal flight to Kota Kinabalu, but have an hour to spare and therefore stop off to visit the Sandakan War Memorial Park.  A tribute to the Allied and Malaysian soldiers and civilians who died during WW2′s Japanese occupation, the Pavillion of Remembrance recalls the tragedy and heriocs of a tragic time in Borneo’s history.  We depart and for a while everyone in the group seems caught up in their own thoughts.

We land in KK at mid-day and decide to do an impromptu trip to the Tuanka Abdul Rahman National Park, a group of five small islands dotting the South China seas a few kms off the KK coastline.  Bundling into a minibus taxi, we make a beeline for the port and one of the various speedboats bobbing around the jetty.  With a squall coming in over the ocean, we’re off on a choppy run to Sapi (cow?) island, apparently a favourite beach and snorkelling destination for both locals and tourists alike.  Ten ringitts secure us masks and fins and we’re soon drifting lazily in the warm tropical waters in the company of a multitude of multi-coloured sea creatures.  It is however obvious that it is a heavy people traffic area and the amount of damage to the coral reef system is sad to see.  Snorkel and scuba enthusiasts will do well to go the extra distance to Malaysia’s many other underwater sites – Sipadan and ?   come to mind – which legendary aqua adventurer Jacques Costeau rates as the best in the world.  A visit to TAR N.P. is by no means a waste of time, and exploring the less frequented islands will yield a treasure chest of marine and forest splendour.  (Check out the section on TAR N.P. in guide).

Final night out as a group and we dine on some of Malaysia’s best before heading for the Stadium Bar where we get progressively pissed around the pool table.  Win some, lose some, eventually moving on to the Beverley Hotel where the Silhouettes, a group of cover girls headed up by China White, decides to pick on me.  Talk crap until 02h30 before I make my escape, leaving Luce to deal with the girls and their bill.

25 November 2001

Wake up completely hung over and not even the shower and breakfast treatment manage to sort it out.  Final goodbye to Marcus, Donna and Tim who I will miss, and also Steve, Angela and Luce, who I won’t.  Air Malaysia flight to KL is basically the usual shit, followed by a rush hour bus trek through the traffic.  Book back into Pondak Lodge, sharing with a guy Chris from Oxford I met on the bus.  No hassles – he seems quite together and we end up sharing 2 jugs of Tiger before going our separate ways.  I pop over to the street market, opting for satay at the stall where I am now a celebrity white from darkest Africa.  The hustle and bustle beats anything I know, mixing the strain of Chinese, Indian and Malay into a chord resonating with Africa’s rainbow nation dream.

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