I remember some time back watching a program on TV called holiday showdown. It’s essentially two families who are polar opposites sent on each others holidays. One family was from the lower echelons of society and loved the simple things which camping in a rainy field brought them. The second family were wealthy self righteous and quite obnoxious individuals that loved luxury and the finer things in life. Their holiday was to see the orang utans in Borneo. I remember a quip from the campers “whats the point travelling all the way to a rain forest on the other side of the world to see a ginger monkey” in their mind they had a point.
But the point I am trying to make is that Borneo is set up to cater for wealthy tourists, not of the kind that drive ferraris to school, but holidayers who want two weeks in luxury, in a tropical getaway surrounded by some of the best nature in the world. Where endangered species swing in the trees and where diversity in nature is amongst the best in the world. Of course they likely retreat to pedicures and manicures whilst sipping mojito through a straw and feeling like they have done something wonderful.
Borneo is the largest island in Asia and the third largest in the world. It is spread across the tropics and is home to one entire country, and two parts of countries. You have East Malaysia which is a sliver of rainforest across the north of the island. Then for the South you have Indonesia and some where sandwiched on the west coast the tiny nation of Brunei. If you were to look from the air at Borneo (I have actually done this) you would see what looks like a huge rainforest surrounded by pristine looking beaches and turquoise seas that spread across coral reefs. It really is a nature lovers paradise.
On the surface it is an expensive part of Malaysia and the locals think every white person is minted and more than willing to feed the five thousand. Every attraction has multi pricing where often tourists pay some fifteen times more and taxis are amongst the most expensive we have ever come across, more-so than the UK and though every local we have met has been exceptionally friendly, they are more than happy to lose a fare and are extremely unwilling to shift on their first offering of a price no matter how ridiculous it may have been.
Anyway, we rocked up at Kota Kinabalu with nature in mind. KK as it is more favourably known is revered highly by guide books and it is hard to see why. There is a few things to do which either resemble maritime or colonial time. But we didn’t find any real reason to linger and so set about making our way across Borneo and to Sandakan, a megacosm personified.
The bus costs 43/25MYR (£8.50/£4.80) and took some 6 hours. After about an hour I was completely zonked and I must have sensed something going on, turns out every one was staring in awe at something on my side of the bus. Being a Yorkshireman I am by my nature nosey and so shifted a cursory glance to my right. Instantly I too was mesmerised, we were at the foot of the highest and grandest mountain in SE Asia. Some 4000m high (about half the height of Everest) we were close enough to touch it and with blue skies with a few clouds rolling over the flat summit it was a sight to behold.
Sandakan is a simple place and easy to navigate. Buses run from the centre of town to various mile points. Generally they all go up one main road that extends out of town to certain points. The mile points are called Batu. And so if you needed to get to the main bus station at batu 4, you would jump in a batu 4 bus, or any batu higher. Coming in the opposite direction you are in luck as every single bus passing you is going to Sandakan terminal. Additionally there are loads of mini buses flying around town in a similar batu style fashion. Fares are around 1 ringgit per 4 mile jolly or part thereof.
Taxis are notoriously and ridiculously expensive and there really is no reason to use them as everywhere is either walkable or well connected by public transport.
The main reason for us being in Sandakan was the same as it was 4 years previous; to see the most elusive and intelligent primates on the planet. In fact Orang utans exist only in two parts of the world, that is in the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra (Indonesia) There are just four places in the world dedicated to seeing our orange wispy haired tree loving friends and Sepilok (some 14km out of town) is the best place to get up close.
Feeding times are at 10am and 2pm and is how the centre supplements the orang utans diet whilst giving the public a way to experience what has alluded zoophiles for centuries.
Tickets cost more for foreigners (naturally) and come in at 30/15MYR (£6/£3) and a ticket is good for the entire day, so if you excitedly turn up for the 10am feeding and our ginger friends cant be arsed tree swinging you can try again in the afternoon.
Looking to get to the 10am feeding (since we had other things planned) we went to catch the batu 14 bus only to be told it wasnt running. But guess what, there was a mini bus heading that way. I wiped the sign from my forehead that must have said ‘dick head’ and then walked off instantly finding a batu 14 bus parked around the corner.
The journey takes about 45 minutes and you get kicked off at the junction for Sepilok. From there you can either hop in one of the taxis all waiting to screw you readily, or walk. Those are your only two options (genuinely) But knowing the walk is only about a mile and half we set off (its actually a decent enough walk) We were on a time scale and so we tabbed it out for about a mile until some bloke in a pick up pulled up. An elderly, frail looking Malaysian guy, he wound the window down and his wife’s head popped out of his window “would you like a lift” she asked. We didn’t need asking twice and piled into the back of the pickup. We graciously thanked them and they told us they were then heading to the Proboscis monkey centre and we could literally be ferried around with them for the day if we liked. We politely, and gratefully declined and posed for a photograph they had asked of us.
The kids were in excitement overload as we walked the wooden pathway through the rainforest. Stopping and gawping every few steps at some other beast of beauty they discovered which included a viper coolly hanging from a branch above. The sound of male insects looking to get it on was deafening yet somewhat relaxing at the same time. In any case it all built the suspense for the event that we hoped awaited us.
The viewing area is surrounded by rainforest and being in the tropics you sweat profusely in the harsh humidity. But that didn’t matter as we stood looking ahead as some fella pulled out a large bucket of fruits on a raised platform just feet away. Primate screeches rang out and loads of little silver back monkeys appeared keen for a freebie. Their efforts were futile as within seconds huge orange arms gripped the vine and graciously swung what we had all come to see into view. Over the next twenty minutes we saw a total of eight orang utans come out of the trees. It was what we hoped for, but somewhat surreal. From where we were stood we could see before us maybe fifty or so monkeys, plenty of funky looking birds and then completely stealing the show were eight gorgeous yet so sadly endangered orang utans, there were four adults and three small ones and then a baby which clung helplessly to its mother. It was an event words cannot justifiably describe and every one of us left amazed, excited and grateful.
It was more discerning to know that by the time the children are my age orang utans may well be confined to history, described only through images of time gone by. Notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, in the face of mans desire for increased habitat at the expense of nature, our closest relations (94% of our DNA is identical) are on a one way road to extinction. And that is sad and made our moment ever more poignant.
Just down the road, or about a kilometre, is the rainforest discovery centre. Usually the only recognition the RDC gets it gawps from bus loads of tourists all headed for Sepilok. But having been in 2009 (albeit briefly) I knew this could be a place we could spend the remainder of the day. Entrance is a measly 15 ringgits (£3) with kids being something like half, and under 6 free. Naturally Abi rolled back her years and we were sorted.
Now, picture a wooden decked area covered with rainforest vines and to the backdrop of natures finest and thickest fauna and trees. Look out the front and you see a small, yet pristine lake glimmering under the blue sky. Disturbed only by the shade from the rope bridge which crosses it, it kids an adventure pending. It is as picturesque as you can imagine, and when you mix into the fray tranquility, serenity, and a bio diverse collective of ecosystems stemmed from the tropical rainforest which encompasses it, you can somewhat imagine the Rainforest Discovery Centre.
We walked for miles that afternoon, we climbed canopy walkways and spat off the sides trying to work out how high we were. We spotted rare birds and various other creatures, animals and insects. All the while to the sounds of nature. What we did that afternoon was be kids again, all of us. We ran, laughed, fell over and had a no holds barred afternoon where nothing mattered. There were no rules, no issues, no problems and we felt like we had Borneo to ourselves. Jack did his usual gangam style dance at any opportunity he got and we, by going back to basics learned to love the world around us. And try as we might (and we did seriously put it to the test) the rope bridge was as safe as you could hope for. Though it did almost flip over at one point taking Abi with it, much to the amusement of the rest of us. Though Abi still doesn’t see the funny side, some five days later.
Every now and again I slip into the trip rest days, which is kind of a misnomer really as we don’t actually rest. But most days we get back to the hotel around 7pm after leaving at around 8am. It gets exhausting and so what we do is plan just a simple thing, then we get back the hotel for maybe 4pm and then relax. Our final day in Sandakan was penned as being one such day. The only variance was that we would head to the memorial garden in the morning and then go back out at night to a local bowling alley having spent a few hours chilling out in between.
The memorial garden is dedicated to 2500 Australian and a few British prisoners of war who were forced on a march across Borneo to Ranau by the Japanese in World War Two. Tragically only six soldiers survived, and this was because they took an opportunity to escape. The events were famously renamed the ‘death march’ and the concentration camp from where they departed was made a memorial garden in remembrance of those who lost their lives on the march.
To get there, take a bus to batu 6 and ask to be let off at Taman Rimba. Its a ten minute walk up the road past the garage on the right.
Entering the grounds we saw how well kept it was, gardens of pristinely manicured bushes all make the relics of the camp seem even more obtrusive than they would be normally. The kids were drawn to a huge lizard racing across the floor, but when we all calmed down that it wasn’t in fact Godzilla I sent the kids off to find out the significance of where we were. They came back and told a tale of tragedy and sadness, and we set off to explore. At the memorial monument we saw lots of wreaths and as we looked on sombrely an elderly Australian woman with her husband approached us. She explained that today was Memorial Day (we had no idea) and they had flown from Australia for the occasion. But, and I have reflected on this since, they had no connection whatsoever to the march other than their sovereignty. I questioned why they had come specifically and the answer was succinct, “in Australia we have no history, and so this is our history” It was one of those moments that comes along every now and again where you realise there are still some really good, heart warming individuals around.
For me though, the proudest and most significant event which happened not just in Sandakan, but on the whole trip so far revolved around Abi and Jack. There is a visitor centre in which the tale of events is laid out both visually and textually. The kids were sat watching a video of what had happened and as I walked around reading the boards, Abi came over and cuddled me. I responded with a soft squeeze and noticed she was crying. In answer to my asking what was wrong she tearfully answered that what she had seen had upset her. I suggested she go sit outside and she agreed it was the best thing. About a minute later I realised I had had an absence of mind and that I should be with her comforting her and so went out. I saw her sat on a step and next to her was jack, they had their arms around each other and I walked over asking if Jack too was upset to which he answered “a little bit, but I saw Abi was sad and came to give her a cuddle” It was one of those moments where as a parent you could just melt, where you realise just what good people your children are. It was one of my proudest moments as a parent, in Abi I had a daughter that could recognise and empathise, that could see tragedy and understand it way beyond her years and in a way which physically saddened her. Yet in Jack I have a little six year old boy who knows very little in life, but he saw his sister upset and took it upon himself to comfort her, to physically embrace her and hold her close to him as if to protect. It was a moment perhaps insignificant to Jack and Abi, but a snap shot in time I know I will never forget.
On the way back to Sandakan we grabbed some ice creams and made our way back to relax for a few hours before heading to Champs Bowling hall, Sandakan.
The prices were clearly marked on a board that adults were 8.50MYR and kids under 17 were 3.50MYR. Pretty reasonable fees by all accounts, but in order to prove the kids ages you need to hold a Malaysian identity card. The fact Jack stands just a couple of feet tall or that Abi could hide behind a blade of grass was irrelevant. I pulled out all our passports and they too were not acceptable. It seems that a passport can get you into a country, but isn’t sufficient proof of age for Champs bowling. Its complete bollocks, and what is really happening is that tourists are being forced to pay full price. The bloke in charge refused to budge and accept that my miniature sized doppelgängers were below 17 years old and so I refused to be openly ripped off (he was laughing with his crony and speaking in Bhasa Malaysian) they knew what they were doing, and so our rest day became more of such.
Waking up the next morning I began to pack our things and asked the kids whether they had enjoyed Sandakan to which they all agreed they had. So much so, a forty minute exchange of what they all loved ensued. On my part, I agreed. I loved Sandakan and what we did, but between a mixture of unscrupulous bastards, inflated entrance prices and apparent penalisation for being a foreigner I really do feel like I deflected a lot of bull shit that perhaps might otherwise have ruined what was ultimately a dream few days in one of the most amazing places in the natural world.