Sanctuaries and jungle camps

CURRENT LOCATION: Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

Sam:

Settle in folks, this might be a long one! A lack of time, combined with a lack of reliable internet has meant that we're combining two posts into one here - Sepilok, and the Kinabatangan River. Go make yourself a cuppa - you might need it.

We arrived at the Sepilok Jungle Resort, our home for the next few days, optimistic about our accommodation. It was recommended by a girl we met at Tampat Do Aman, and the website looked great. Since we'd booked a river cruise for the 25th, we had a bit of time to spend in Sepilok, so we were excited that the resort had a pool. As we pulled up, it looked promising. Reception was air conditioned, the staff were friendly, and we were sent to check in at the restaurant. We walked along raised wooden walkways, over ponds and water features. The setting was beautiful - the whole place was surrounded by trees and flowers, and it really did feel like you were in the jungle.

 Sepilok, Malaysia

We checked in and were shown to our room, which was pretty basic, but that suited us just fine. We had room to unpack and do laundry, and we had a fan. Perfect. We spent most of the afternoon alternating between doing some much needed laundry and watching some episodes of The Americans. Eventually we dragged ourselves out of the room for dinner. We got chatting to an older Australian couple next to us, who were in Sepilok as part of a package tour of Borneo. Over the next few days we noticed that Sepilok was LOADED with Aussies, all on package tours - obviously it's the season!

After dinner, we went to explore Sepilok. We knew it wasn't big, but we needed to stock up on bug spray and shampoo, so we went in search of a convenience store. We were out of luck. What we didn't realise is that Sepilok literally consists of accommodation and animal sanctuaries - that's it. No shop, no ATM, nothing. It's one road. So we were now stuck in the Bornean rainforest with no bug spray. I spent the next 4 days convinced I had dengue fever (we're on anti-malarials, or I would've had that too). So our evening stroll was very short - but it still earned us an ice cream before bed.

We were up early the next morning to do one of the things we've really been looking forward to on this trip - visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, and watch an orang feeding. The centre opens at 9, and at 10 they have a 'feeding', where they give out bananas on a platform near the boardwalk so that you get a chance to spot a semi-wild Orangutan.

Some background on the centre:

The animals at the centre are all rescued, either from poachers, from being kept as pets, to stop palm plantation owners from killing them, or as babies who have been orphaned. They are brought to the park and rehabilitated, with an end goal of being re-released into the wild. The sanctuary is 4294 hectares, and once they've been taught to survive, the orangutans have free roam of the park. There are no enclosures, except if they are receiving medical treatment, or are unable to survive on their own for any reason. Currently,  the park is home to over 200 orangutans. Each day, twice a day, they give out bananas on the feeding platform. Sometimes the oranges turn up, sometimes they don't. They use bananas every day so that they get bored of them, and don't use the feeding platform as their main source of food.

Orangutans are listed as endangered, with only 54,500 estimated to remain in the wild. This is largely due to habitat destruction, although the illegal pet trade plays a small role. Large areas of the natural rainforest have been cleared to plant palm oil crops. While I've said in previous posts that they're beautiful to drive through (which they are), they're incredibly destructive to the natural ecosystem.

Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, grown in the African oil palm tree. 85% of all Palm oil originates from Malaysia and Indonesia, and is not grown sustainably. The industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuse. According to the World Wildlife Fund, an area equivalent to 300 football fields (American? Soccer? They weren't specific, but either way, A LOT) of rainforest is cleared every hour to make room for palm oil plantations. In total, more than 50 million tons of palm oil is produced annually, supplying over 30% of the world's vegetable oil. It is found in 40-50% of household products, such as toothpaste, shampoo, cosmetics, confectionary, baked goods, and detergents.

There are a number of ways in which you can help, from donating money to organisations dedicated to helping animals in need, to lobbying companies to stop using palm oil, but by far the easiest way is to become a more educated consumer. Luckily, this has been made even more simple with the development of an app called the Palm Oil Guide and Scanner (http://palmoilapp.com/). This app allows you to scan the barcode of an item and immediately see its Palm oil status. The app was designed in the U.S., so for the NZ readers, I'm not sure how great the product range is just now, but the more people that use it, the better it will get.

One thing worth noting is that the designers of the app stress that boycotting palm oil altogether is not the way to go - it's so widely used that it's just not practical. Instead, they encourage you to choose products which use sustainable palm oil. Other parties think that the term sustainable palm oil is an oxymoron, and is just green washing a very serious issue. They believe that it's just a cop out, and that most sustainable palm oil is sourced from the same places as non-sustainable palm oil. Do some research people - decide where you stand! Be the Lorax! Anyway...

We arrived for the morning feeding about 20 minutes before it was due to start, and the platform was crowded - there were probably about 80 people there. We had read that the morning feeding was the busiest, as this is the feeding all the tour groups come to. Sure enough, we could see all the Aussies from the restaurant the night before, along with loads of other tour groups. Of course, there are signs everywhere urging you to keep quiet - the orangs won't come if it's too noisy. Frustratingly though, you could tell that about 1/3 of the people in attendance weren't interested, and were only there because the bus dropped them off, so they wouldn't shut up. Kind of takes away from the amazing experience when you have to listen to people having conversations about what they ate for breakfast and what they thought of their room.

Anyway, the actual feeding platform was about 50m away from our viewing spot, so we settled in to wait for 10am. The platform and surrounding trees were already filled with long tailed macaques, the monkeys that Zev and I can now safely confirm are the assholes of the animal kingdom. They're aggressive, loud, obnoxious, naughty - they're the worst. But they're still pretty cute. Promptly at 10am, a keeper arrived and climbed on to the platform, carrying an enormous basket of bananas, and a huge stick. As we soon realised, he clearly thought the macaques were assholes too - the stick was to stop them from stealing all the bananas! Don't worry, he didn't hit them -  he'd hit it against the platform near the banana to scare them off.

 Sepilok, Malaysia

No sooner had he arrived than a young orang made its way to the platform. I'm going to call it a he, but since it was so young, it was difficult to tell if it was male or female. He spent about half an hour hanging around on the ropes near the platform, eating ALL the bananas and enjoying the attention of everyone there (well, not the chatty Cathys in the crowd - their attention was on their conversation). Once the bananas were gone, the keeper headed off, the orang left, and the macaques scattered. The tour groups went on their merry way, to be shuttled off to their next destination.

 Sepilok, Malaysia

Zev and I hung back for a bit to let the crowds disperse. As we wandered along the boardwalk, we passed a few cheeky macaques hanging out on the railing, posing for pictures. Although I'm pretty sure they were just using their cuteness to distract you - one smiles at the camera while the other one steals your wallet.... We detoured to the outdoor 'nursery', where they keep the orangs who are transitioning from being looked after by keepers, to being allowed to roam free in the park. Here, they can mingle with the free roaming orangs, but the keepers are nearby.

We stopped for a quick bite to eat before making our way to sanctuary number two for the day: the Sun Bear sanctuary, housed in the same protected forest area as the Orangutan rehab centre. Sun Bears are the smallest bear species in the world. They are under threat in similar ways to orangutans, as they share the same habitat. In addition to this, sun bears are targeted as pets, because they are so small and cute, and for use in bear paw soup, and bear bile farms. All of the animals at the sanctuary are rescued bears, and where possible, they are rehabilitated and re-released into the wild.

 Sepilok, Malaysia

At the viewing platform, we met an incredibly knowledgable and helpful staff member, who was great at spotting the bears through the trees, and set up binoculars so that we could get a close up view of these super fluffy little guys. We were lucky enough to have one wandering right along the fence edge. She was super curious, and would stand up on her back legs to try to see us. The staff member explained that many of the bears have been kept as pets, so they don't realise they're bears. They walk on their hind legs, and have no idea how to find food. While sun bears are usually solitary in the wild, in the sanctuary, they keep them together so they can teach each other bear behaviour.

We spent about an hour hanging out, chatting to the staff, spying on the bears and relaxing in the shade. Our ticket from the orangutan centre was valid all day, but there was still a bit of time left until the afternoon feeding, so we headed back to the resort for a swim.

Just like the rest of the facility, the pool was dated, but lovely. It was huge, with a massive fake rock waterfall. There was even a kid's pool with a shark waterslide! We spent a bit of time splashing around and cooling off, although the water wasn't much cooler than the outside air.

We had been told that the afternoon feeding session at the centre was quieter in terms of people, and busier in terms of our furry orange friends. As soon as we arrived, we knew this was going to be more pleasant. Instead of 80 people, many of whom looked completely disinterested, there were 20 people, some of whom we recognised from the morning. It was clear that those who were here in their afternoon were here because they wanted to be. We waited patiently, and at 2pm, the keeper turned up. The first thing we noticed was that there were no macaques in the afternoon, perhaps because they know more orangs come for the afternoon feeding, so there's no point. The first one to turn up was an even smaller orang than the morning's one. He grabbed a few bananas and headed up the tree and out into a branch that was really close to the viewing platform. It was pretty clear to us that he was there because he was curious - he wasn't in it for the food, which he barely ate.

 Sepilok, Malaysia
 Sepilok, Malaysia

Over the next hour, another 6 orangs came and went at various times. They'd hang out on the platform for a bit, play in the trees, wander off, come back, and eat some more. It was awesome. A much quieter crowd meant that you could soak in the atmosphere. I would describe the experience as a cross between seeing one in a zoo, and seeing one in the wild. I know they're not totally wild, but they're also not in an enclosure, so they can come and go when they please. Other people we'd spoken to had even come across orangs sitting on the boardwalk when they turned a corner. We were still hoping to see a wild one on our river cruise, but this was still pretty breathtaking.

 Sepilok, Malaysia
 Sepilok, Malaysia

We polished off the day with another swim, and a pretty nice dinner at Sepilok's only fancy restaurant.

The following day saw us shuttling to the proboscis monkey sanctuary, about 10kms from our accommodation. We pulled up and paid an outrageous 240RM to get in - by far the most expensive sanctuary in the area. We had no idea what to expect, so we were a little perplexed while we drove through endless palm plantations. Eventually, we pulled up at 'feeding platform', which was a building with a shop attached. We headed up the stairs, and could immediately see silver leaf langurs hiding under the chairs. As we walked further in, we could see a complex out the back which looked a bit like a zoo enclosure with platforms, walkways and ropes for the monkeys, and viewing platforms for the visitors. That said, there were no fences, so the whole places was swarming with both langurs, and downstairs, proboscis monkeys. You could get up super close with them, which was pretty terrifying because the males in particular are HUGE! Again, the monkeys were free to come no go as they pleased, but there was a feeding at this platform once a day in the morning, so they usually hang around for that.

 Sepilok, Malaysia

Much to my disappointment, the food they were given was bread. While it was really cool to be up close and personal with these beautiful critters, I was left with the impression that, rather than being a true sanctuary, these guys were being used as a cash cow by the plantation owners. There were no signs to tell you anything about the monkeys, or any indication that any of our money was being used to help the animals.

 Sepilok, Malaysia

After about an hour and a half, we were herded back into the van to be taken to the restaurant for an underwhelming lunch. After lunch, we were shown a video about proboscis monkeys. Shot in documentary style, it followed a couple of groups of monkeys over the course of a season, and discussed their social behaviours, mating behaviours, habitat and life cycles. Then the video took a turn - it started showing the mangrove forest that the monkeys live in being chopped down. The monkeys were forced to a narrow strip of land close to the river, and a particularly dry season meant they were running out of food. They started going to the palm plantation which had replaced their home to raid the workers lunch rooms for snacks. Some of the monkeys were shot by the workers before they called in the plantation owners to come up with a solution. At this stage, the owners were introduced to the documentary. Their portrayal couldn't have been any more biased if they'd literally drawn halos over them. They came and saw the monkeys, saw the error in their ways in demolishing the mangrove forest (although it was a bit late for that in my opinion), and committed to creating a sanctuary for he proboscis monkeys, and replanting and regenerating some of the mangrove forest. To give you some idea of how old this documentary was, we were watching it on VHS. And I can assure you that the strip of mangrove forest they were looking at in the video was the same strip of mangrove forest we were visiting. I call bullshit on the replanting of the mangrove forest, and complete bullshit on any kind of efforts to protect the monkeys, except as a way of upping revenue. We regretted going to the sanctuary in the end.

 Sepilok, Malaysia
 Sepilok, Malaysia

We were stuck with our van though, so we headed to the second feeding at the other platform. This time, there was a huge troop of macaques with the proboscis monkeys. Sure enough, just before feeding time, two massive tour buses turned up, filled with really loud tourists. By then, I was already feeling pretty gross about the whole park, so the hoards of shrill people didn't do much to up my enthusiasm. Again, we stayed for about an hour before our van headed off.

 Sepilok, Malaysia

Rather than heading back to Sepilok, we took advantage of the shuttle returning to Sandakan, the nearest city (about a half hour drive away). We stocked up on bug spray, shampoo, batteries and cash in preparation for our river cruise in a couple of days time. Sandakan was a pretty drab city, but we did manage to find time to scoff some waffles before we returned to Sepilok.

Day three saw us ticking off the final item on our Sepilok itinerary, the Rainforest Discovery Centre. It was about a 2km walk from our resort, so we used the time to have a chat and make some plans for the near and not-so-near future. As we walked, people kept pulling over and asking us if we wanted a lift to the centre, but we were enjoying walking and talking, so we politely declined. In fact, we were enjoying it so much, we walked straight past it and ended up walking about a kilometre extra! We eventually found our way back in the blistering heat, paid our entry fee, and started our exploration.

 Sepilok, Malaysia

The centre is in the same stretch of protected forest that contains the orangutan centre and the sun bear centre. When we first entered, we spent a little time wandering in the education centre, reading about the plants and animals in Borneo. Next, we wandered through the gardens, checking our the spice plants, edible items, flowers and cacti. From there, we wandered out through the park proper, where we spent a couple of hours wandering over a canopy walkway and through the wooded pathways, spotting birds and lizards, and one really big tree.

We finished up in mid-afternoon, and spent the rest of the day swimming and organising ourselves for our cruise the following day.

We weren't picked up until lunch time the next day, so we had a nice lazy morning before heading to Uncle Tan's B&B, about 3kms up the road. Here, we had lunch, and a briefing of what the following days were to involve. We met the two other couples who would be part of our group, and hit the road. We drove in a van for 1.5 hours, chatting to the other couples, one French and one English. We then transferred to a boat, and spent an hour cruising down the Kinabatangan River to what would be our home for the next two days. 

At about 5.30pm, we climbed off the boat and up to the jungle camp. We dropped our bags in the main dining area, which was a big wooden room with no sides and containing several long tables with bench seats. We helped ourselves to a drink before heading off for another briefing. Here, we met Lan, who was to be our guide during our stay. He explained the itinerary for the next few days, and explained to us that we couldn't keep any food in our hut, or we'd get rats. They chew through bags if they can smell food, so we were each provided with a plastic bin, into which we could put any food, or anything that smelled like food (eg body wash etc). Yikes... He showed us to our hut. The six of us were sharing a hut which consisted of three double mattresses on the floor, each with a mosquito net. There were no windows or doors, it was all open. It was basic, but awesome, and it really did feel like we were in the jungle. The entire place was connected with raised wooden walkways, and the trees were filled with wildlife - squirrels, woodpeckers, lizards, macaques... You name it.

 Kinabatangan River, Malaysia
 Kinabatangan River, Malaysia

We headed dropped off our bags and sorted out our stuff, then headed back to the main room to play cards with the staff while we waited for dinner. While we were eating, the previous day's group came back from their night walk. There were about 12 of them, and it made me very grateful that we had such a small group.

Not long after dinner, we headed out on our night boat safari. We cruised for about an hour, with Lan driving and another guide using a powerful torch to spot wildlife. We managed to see owls, macaques (sleeping, possibly the only time they're quiet), a kingfisher, a baby crocodile, and an eagle. We were hoping to spot a slow loris, but we were told we were more likely to see one the following night on our night walk - although Lan was quick to point out that he was 21 years old, and hadn't seen a slow loris in 21 years. That didn't fill me with confidence...

 Kingfisher

Kingfisher

We returned to camp and headed to bed, knowing we were getting a 6am wake up call for a morning river cruise. Apparently this is the best time to see animals, as they often come down to the river to drink while it's still cool, hence the early start.

I had a rough night's sleep that night. It was HOT, and there was only electricity at the camp between 5pm and midnight, so there was no fan in the hut. I finally fell asleep around midnight, and was woken at 3am by furious scratching noises. The French girl and I got up with our torches to investigate, thinking it might be a rat trying to chew through our bags, but we never managed to find the source of the noise. Once we'd eliminated any bag sabotage, we went back to bed, but I struggled to fall back asleep. The last time I looked at my clock was 5.15am, so I guess I got another 45 mins of sleep before Lan came to wake us up.

 Kinabatangan River, Malaysia

I dragged my ass out of bed, got dressed, and headed to the main room to fill myself with tea before we left. Sitting there alone, looking out at the river with macaques jumping all over the trees and black squirrels chasing each other around tree trunks soon put me in a better mood. Or it may have been the tea, who's to say.

 Kinabatangan River, Malaysia

We piled into our boat, and set off in the opposite direction from our night cruise, hoping to spot the biggies - gibbons and orangutans. We spotted hornbills, Eagles, three types of macaques (long-, short-, and pig-tailed), and finally, three gibbons! All three were calling to each other - two on one side of the river, and one on the other. It was amazing.

 Gibbon

Gibbon

We headed back to camp for breakfast, and departed on a safari walk. We cruised up the river for about 15 minutes, then hopped out of the boat in an area of protected forest. We spent about 2 hours wandering through a short trail in the forest, with Lan telling us about the various plants and their uses, and as we were now becoming used to, making us eat stuff.

 Cotton bug

Cotton bug

After lunch back at the camp, I decided to attempt a 'shower'. The camp didn't have any showers, just giant barrels filled with rain water, plus buckets and containers for pouring water to use in the toilets or for cleaning yourself. As I walked towards the toilet block to figure out how I was going to do this, I spotted some naughty macaques swimming in said water barrels. So much for a nice clean shower. They'd stolen all the toilet paper out of the toilets and throw it round the place, and had even managed to get the lid off the rubbish bin and rifle through its contents. See?! Asshole. At the very least I needed to get the layers of bug spray off my body, so I went ahead and filled up a bucket. No showers means no privacy, so I took my bucket and headed off past the last cabin (which had no one in it!), and managed a weird, semi-dressed, half-assed bucket shower. If nothing else, I at least finished off cooler than when I had started.

 Not long after lunch, Zev and the English couple headed out fishing, while I took advantage of the down time to catch up on some sleep in a hammock.

Here's fishing reporter Zev:

Fishing in the river was not as exciting, eventful or successful as my last fishing experience in the tip of Borneo (see that blog). However, it was still enjoyable. This trip saw us using actual fishing rods, with reels and all! Our guide Lan made a quick stop on the bank of the river to wade through 2 feet of mud to harvest fresh worms for us to use as bait. The adventure started at 2pm which is possibly the hottest time of day, so we made an effort to fish on the shade. It took a while but we finally caught some fish. Again, they were pretty small fish, even smaller than the ones we had caught in the sea. At the end of the trip we had caught 5 fish, one each except for the English woman who caught two! Just as we were arriving back to camp we got caught in a massive torrential rainstorm. We were absolutely soaked, but we had come home with fish for dinner, so not all was lost...

Sam:

At 5pm we headed off for an afternoon river cruise, which was awesome. We saw (you guessed it) more macaques, a wild pig, loads of birds, and several huge groups of wild proboscis monkeys! Which of course just made me feel worse about going to the stupid sanctuary. We spent about an hour and a half cruising the river, stopping occasionally to watch some wildlife. Eventually, as dark was falling, we pulled up on a river bank and got out for our night walk. We each had a torch, and walked quietly through the dark jungle, looking to see what we could see. We spotted frogs, spiders, and sleeping birds, but I was single minded - I was going to see a slow loris if it killed me. Eventually Lan managed to spotted a banded linsang, which looked a bit like a big cat crossed with a weasel, so we followed that for a bit which was cool. Sadly, we ended the night loris-less. Lan seemed to feel bad about it, but we did our best.

Part of dinner back at the camp included the fish the hunter gatherers had caught earlier. They were unceremoniously plonked on the table, cooked whole and drowned in chilli sauce. Everyone eagerly dug in to try them, and they were... Inedible. They tasted like mud, drowned in chilli sauce. They sat ignored in the centre of the table, and we ended dinner with two very happy and well fed camp cats. We had another early night, as we had another early start in the morning for our final river cruise. I slept much better the second night - we had thunder and lightning storms which significantly dropped the temperature which was nice.

 Kinabatangan River, Malaysia

Lan woke us up again at 6am, and we followed the previous day's routine. We headed down the river, desperately hoping to see some wild orangutans before we left. Sadly we didn't see any, but we did spot some otters, more birds, a gibbon, a huge monitor lizard and a crocodile. We were out there for a while, with Lan doing his best to spot some for us, but he said it had been a couple of weeks since they'd seen any in the area. While we were a little disappointed, we knew that it's not that common to see them.

 Gibbon

Gibbon

We headed back for breakfast and packing, before jumping back in the boat to head back toward Sepilok. The English couple headed off in the other direction in search of diving, while we went back to Uncle Tan's B & B for lunch. From there, we headed out to the main road with the French couple to flag down a bus back to Kota Kinabalu.

6 hours later, we arrived in Kota Kinabalu, waved goodbye to our French friends, and checked into our hotel. We headed up to room 618, unlocked the door and opened it to find two very confused looking men... Oh dear. We headed back down the reception and managed to get a room of our very own! We promptly took advantage of the shower and bath situation, had a room service dinner, and basked in the air conditioning.

We spent most of the next day in KK doing admin. We needed to get back to mainland SE Asia, and tried to find the cheapest flights we could out of Kota Kinabalu. Sadly, the least expensive flights out of Kota Kinabalu were still very expensive. In a flash of brilliance, we decided to book flights from Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei, to Bangkok for Monday. Then we booked ferry tickets from Kota Kinabalu to BSB for Friday. Why not spend a weekend in Brunei? The rest of the day was spent catching up with our families, who hadn't heard from us in some time due to Borneo's terrible internet service. To top off our day our day of luxury, we went to see Mad Max at the movies - it was great! Visually stunning, and somehow really engaging for a 2.5 hour film about a car chase. We also spent a bit of time reliving Zev's youth, playing Daytona at the arcade while we waited for the movie.

Another early start the next day as we headed to catch the 8am ferry. The first leg was a 3.5 hour trip from KK to the island of Labuan, still in Malaysia. There, we hopped off, went and got some lunch, then waited patiently for our 1.30pm onward ferry. At 1pm, it started boarding, so we headed over to check in - nope, apparently there's a sneaky tax we hadn't paid (despite not being told we needed to), so we hurried to pay that before getting on. We settled in for another 1.5 hour ferry from Labuan to Muara, about 30kms outside of Bandar Seri Begawan. A friendly local taxi driver dropped us off at our hotel (budget accommodation is not a thing in Brunei), and I gratefully laid down to recover from the ferry ride.

For those of you only interested in trip updates, you can pat yourself on the back for having survived this far, and go on about your business. The next section is about our upcoming plans, and some general musings.

I mentioned that in Sepilok that we were talking about our plans from here on out, and it was good to figure out what's next. At that stage, our plan only went as far as getting back to KK, so we needed to decide what was happening.

For a number of reasons, we have decided to postpone our visit to India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The earthquakes in Nepal played a large part in this decision, as did the heatwave in India. We had intended to spend three months in South East Asia, meaning that we would have arrived in the region at the beginning of May, with a plan of spending May, June and July there - even that was pushing it, heat-wise. Having now spent four months in South East Asia, and not being done yet, we think we've missed window of doable weather for now. To those friends and family who got us wedding presents in those regions, fear not - we'll be in touch with you individually over the next few weeks to discuss what you'd like us to do. We firmly see this as a postponing of this section of our trip - we will go, and we will do the things we planned, perhaps after Nepal is fit for tourists once again. We would love to go and give them much needed income when the infrastructure is in place to manage it.

We had also toyed with the idea of going directly from South East Asia to the U.S., hoping that we might be able to find some work to supplement our funds. Which of course brings us to the next reason: money. We've had a blast in South East Asia, and we're not done yet. But that does mean we've spent more than we've intended, both in time and money. While we don't regret a single second, it has meant our plans have had to change.

Before we left New Zealand, we thought we probably had the budget to do about 6 months of travel, which should have seen us through South East Asia, and Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. From there, we hoped that some wonderful opportunity might fall into our laps that would extend our trip, but if not, we were content to head home. We had hoped to save enough before we left to do the full year we had planned, but the last year was an (expensive) blast, with a big trip to Italy and a wedding borrowing a little from our budget. Again, we regret nothing - Italy was incredible, and responsible for our engagement, and our wedding was... Well I don't even have words to describe how much we loved it. As it stands, we're looking good for getting through the six months we estimated, but with fewer areas covered than we thought.

We've discovered that we love the go-slow way that we're travelling. Sure, we could have spent two weeks in every country and ticked it off the list, but we've really enjoyed hanging out in the places we've loved, and really feeling like we've got to know a place.

So Sam, stop waffling on, what's the plan?!?! We're currently in Brunei, with a flight booked back to Bangkok on Monday. From there, we'll head up to spend some time in the north of Thailand, before heading to Laos, and then Myanmar. We estimate that will probably take about another 5-6 weeks. From there, we hope to head to Abu Dhabi to visit Will and Grace (guys, if you're reading this, we hope that's okay!), before popping to Dubai to use a wonderful dinner voucher given to us for our wedding by some very special people! Then, it's home time, hopefully via the U.S. for a brief rendezvous with Charles and Tana.

Once we're home, we will begin the (no doubt painful and arduous) process of applying for a visa for me so that we can move to the U.S. As much as a couple of months travelling around appealed to us, a couple of years living and working there, while making an effort to see the country and its neighbours appealed more. The sooner we get the ball rolling, the sooner we can make it happen. We realise we don't have that much time left to be footloose and fancy free (tick, tick, tick), so we want to make the most of it while we can!

Are we disappointed that things haven't panned out exactly as we hoped? Of course. We would love to be made of money, and be able to do whatever we want. But it's so very hard to look back on what we've done so far and feel anything but happiness, pride, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude that we've been able to do what we've done so far. And it ain't over yet! We've still got a decent chunk of time left here, so don't worry, we won't be boring you with a slideshow of all our travel photos for at least another couple of months.

We are talking yesterday about what it will be like going home - I'll admit that at first, I was dreading it (don't take it personally people, it's nothing to do with you!). After a few days to get used to the idea, I'm actually looking forward to it now. Of course, I'm super excited to see everyone (especially Millau!), and it will be nice to have more than two pairs of shoes to choose from. But the one thing we both said was that this trip made us realise that here are just as many opportunities to do amazing things at home as there are anywhere else in the world. Some of the things we've enjoyed most have been trying new food, wandering around cities and towns at night... All things that can be done in Auckland. And we're lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. While we're hoping the visa process won't be too lengthy, in the event that it is, we've decided to make more of an effort to explore our own country as if we were tourists. We hope some of you will join us!

So that's where we're at. 

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 30th May 2015)

Paradise, Lost

CURRENT LOCATION: Sepilok, Malaysia

Sam:

After sorting out our accommodation for the Tip of Borneo, we headed out for dinner. On our way back to the hotel, we saw lights and crowds and heard music, so we decided to check out what was going on. What was it? Miss Kota Kinabalu 2015! Or some kind of beauty pageant anyway. We spent about 15 minutes soaking in the carnival-like atmosphere and enjoying the good old fashioned pageant poses before returning to our chemical laden room...

We had a sleep in the following morning, as we couldn't pick up our laundry until 10am. We were struggling to find information about getting to Kudat, the town closest to the Tip of Borneo. Mostly we could only find online forum posts, which generally said the best way to get there was in a shared taxi (kind of like a minivan situation) for 30RM (~$10NZD), but that the best time to get them was before 10am, as they leave when they're full, and that's when most people want to go. Another option was the bus, for 20RM, but this was mentioned far less frequently, and the details were very vague. Some sources said it only left in the mornings, some said there was one at 1pm, some said 2pm, and no one really said which station it left from. With that in mind, we headed to the shared taxi station at around 11.30am (after collecting our laundry and some breakfast) to see what we could find out.

We found the minivan section for vans heading to Kudat. We asked the man what the deal was, and he said 35RM (because we had bags), and we had to wait for 2 more people to fill the 7 seater minivan. About two minutes after we turned up, two English guys turned up with the same request. Yippee - we could go! Ah ha. No, we couldn't, because they had bags too, and not all of our bags would fit in the car. We'd have to start a new car, and wait for 3 more people - so we were actually worse off than when we started. We started chatting to the guy, asking what would happen if no more people turned up to fill the van. Again, he was pretty vague, but the gist we got was that if no one else turned up, the van wouldn't go. The other option was to hire the whole van, at a cost of 210RM between the four of us, and it would go straight away with just us in it.

We introduced ourselves to the guys, Rob and Ross, who were university roommates from London in their 4th month of travelling. These guys were on a tight budget, so they were pretty keen to catch the bus to save some money. We didn't want to mention that the 15RM (~$5NZD) they would save on the ticket, they would spend on the taxi fare), but figured we might as well stick together - if they left to catch the bus, we were unlikely to be able to fill the van. Then, if we missed the bus, we'd be stuck in Kota Kinabalu having to hire a taxi van by ourselves. We headed off to find a taxi. One stopped, and we asked to head to the bus station. "Sure, 20RM". Rob and Ross both immediately said, "No, we'd like to use the meter". Zev and I are yet to see a taxi with a meter in Malaysia, and 20RM sounded pretty reasonable to me, especially when split 4 ways. The taxi driver refused, so we went in search of another taxi. The next one that stopped gave us the same price, and said his meter was broken. In the interests of not missing the bus, we jumped in, but Rob and Ross were very grumbly about it, muttering something along the lines of, "I'll fix your meter, it's illegal you know". We started to think maybe we'd teamed up with the wrong guys, but hey, we were in it now.

A painfully slow, traffic filled 25 minutes later, we arrived at the bus station. We jumped out, paid, and went to find the ticket office with 15 minutes to spare before the 1pm bus. Only to find that there was no 1pm bus. The only bus left at 9am. With no more options, we tried to organise a cab back to the minivan station. Again, Rob and Ross got into the meter argument. And again, Zev and I know that 1) they don't really use them here, and 2) using the meter usually gets you driven round the block a few times on the way to your destination. Never mind.

This driver finally agreed, and dug the meter out from where it was hidden under a cloth and a pile of paper. Another of the drivers mentioned that the bus to Kudat leaves from the other bus station every hour. Success - to the other bus station we go!

Again, we sat in traffic for 35 minutes, the meter ticking over the whole time. The original quote was 20RM again, but Rob and Ross had insisted, so we were slaves to the ever increasing green display. Finally, we pulled up at the bus station. Except it wasn't the bus station, it was the minivan station we'd come from. Fuck it, this'll do. We paid (23RM I might add). Zev and I spotted a sign saying 'Kudat bus' - maybe our taxi driver wasn't so bad after all. As we walked up, we could see a sign saying 9am and 2pm. Fantastic, we made it! "Two tickets to Kudat at 2pm please!" "Sorry, the bus has broken down and it isn't running. You'll have to take a shared taxi." Ross looked ready to knock someone out. We headed back to our minivan man, tails between our legs, having just spent 10RM in an attempt to save 15RM, which we were now going to have to pay anyway. No one else had turned up in the hour we'd been gone, and it was now 2pm. Kudat was around 2 hours away. We dropped our bags, and asked the boys if they wanted to just split the cab four ways and go. It would cost 15RM (~$5NZD) each more than waiting, but we'd get the van to ourselves and we could leave immediately. They said they'd rather wait and save the money. They wandered off to get some snacks for the journey.

Now these guys seemed really nice, and it was great not to be on our own, but I think they were missing the point. They were wasting time and money trying to save a few dollars. They were also getting really frustrated when things weren't going their way, and were being quite rude to the locals for not agreeing to do things how they'd like them done. They had a go at the first 2 taxi drivers for not using their meters - no one uses them. If you feel that strongly about it, that's fine, but you'll just have to wait for a driver who does use it, you can't yell at the ones who don't. They had a go at the lady at the bus station because there was no 1pm bus. Annoying, yes, but it was our information that was wrong, it's not her fault! And then they had a go at the 2pm bus man, because the bus was broken down. Yelling at him is not going to fix the bus, or get you there any faster. It was a good reminder for us for how we don't want to be. While the boys were off getting food, Zev and I realised that we just wanted to hit the road and get to the beach, and that our time was worth more than the $5 we'd save sitting around. We decided to let them pay the 35RM each, and we'd cover the remainder of the cost to hire the taxi and leave now.

When they returned, they were both stoked with that, so we loaded up and hit the road. Man I'm glad there weren't 7 people in that van! We spent the first 45 minutes or so chatting with Rob (I think Ross was still recovering from the stress), and the rest of the 2 hour trip watching the country roll by out the window. It was one of the most beautiful drives we've taken. Having some space to spread out was certainly part of it, but watching green forest and palm plantations whizz past was pretty incredible.

Rob and Ross were staying at Tampat Do Aman. Zev and I were booked in for 2 nights at the North Borneo Biostation, followed by 2 nights at Tampat Do Aman. The boys organised their transfer service through the owners, so when we pulled up in Kudat, they had a driver waiting. Once we explained we weren't going to the same place as the boys, their driver said he could drop us off on the way. We all piled into the tiniest taxi and hit the road.

And so began our relationship with Mr Peter. As he drove, he told us all about his children (one daughter, 21, studying accounting; one son, 13, still at school; he wanted more, but his wife wasn't.... Interested, so he slept on the couch), his work history (he used to live in Kota Kinabalu but bought a taxi 30 years ago. He used to do the KK to Kudat route, but now only does local work for Howard, the owner of Tampat Do Aman), how much he loves white people, and a LOT about what a wonderful man Howard is. We hadn't yet met the mysterious Howard, but had that to look forward to in a couple of days.

In no time at all we pulled up to the North Borneo Biostation. We explained to Mr Peter that in two days we would be headed to Tampat Do Aman, and he agreed to come back to pick us up. He gave us his number, and told us to call him directly, rather than going through reception, and gave us strict instructions not to tell the owner that we were going to Tampat Do Aman - apparently him and Howard were "enemies". Oooooooohhhhhh.....

We waved goodbye to Rob, Ross and Mr Peter, and headed to reception to check in. We walked in to a big open air restaurant and made our way to the bar. We checked in with a lovely Malaysian lady, then headed off to our chalet. It was amazing. We walked (limped - we were still pretty sore from Kinabalu) up the stairs onto our porch, with a view of the ocean through the trees. We opened the door into a stunning wooden room, with air conditioning, a huge comfortable bed, mini fridge and clothing cabinet. Oh yes, we could recover from our climb just nicely here! Through a door at the back of our single room chalet was the attached private bathroom, with an open roof. Very nice indeed!

 Kudat, Malaysia

We took advantage of the closeness of the beach, and headed down for a swim. The beach was pretty rocky, but we managed to find some channels of sand between the rocks to walk out into the beautifully warm sea. The water was clear, and you could see lots of fish around, as well as the odd jellyfish. We were feeling more refreshed already!

Over dinner that night, the weird owner came and sat down with us. Mr Peter was right - he doesn't like the other hotels in the area! As we told him how beautiful his accommodation was, he launched into a tirade about what was wrong with all the other resorts in the area. Given that there are only about 6 places to choose from, it seemed a little strange, and it was definitely awkward.

 Kudat, Malaysia

We spent another pretty relaxing day at the North Borneo Biostation (which does actually have a research facility available for scientific use, hence the name), including another trip to the beach during which Zev lost the room key in the water, then fell in a rock pool, and the I found the key in the water. It was a busy day, I tell you. That evening was spent in the company of two fine dogs, and a delightful cat, who spent some time in our room making us miss Millau terribly.

We checked out the next morning, awkwardly lying about where we were going to next and declining his suggestion that we stay longer. We managed to convince him to call Mr Peter, although he was resistant - he said it was because he 'doesn't have a passenger licence', but I suspect it's because he knows he works with Howard. 

We enjoyed another taxi 23km ride with Mr Peter, hearing most of the same stories from the first trip for a second time (almost word for word), bringing us even closer to the Tip of Borneo. The drive through more forest and palm plantations was stunning, and eventually we could see a sliver of the coast of the real Tip of Borneo. We had driven past the accommodation, and were now on our way to Howard's Restaurant, 4km past the rooms, and right on the beach.

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

And who are the first people we see as we get out of the car? Ross and Rob! They had decided to stay an extra 2 nights because it was so nice, which sounded promising. We checked out the beach - breathtaking. A 4km ribbon of white sand with crystal clear water. Honestly, it was the most stereotypical postcard beach I've ever seen. Since it was the weekend, it was packed - there were 4 other people on the beach. We jumped in, and the water was like a bath. 

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

Soon enough, Howard turned up. He's about 45, English, and a hell of a nice guy. He drove us back to the rooms, and explained how the whole set up worked. He owns both the restaurant, right on the northernmost beach of Borneo, and the jungle camp, 4kms away. He's owned both for about 4 years, and works to promote the culture of the local Rungus community and conservation efforts. He took us into the longhouse, built in traditional Rungus style. It was very rustic, built with coconut trees and bamboo. We had our own room with a fan and mosquito net. We dropped our bags and continued the tour. At the end of the longhouse was a common room, and past that, the shower block, containing 4 cold showers. Beyond that again, there were four composting toilets. Further still, Howard explained, there was a viewing platform overlooking a rice field. Near the main entrance was a small restaurant (most people eat at the beachside version) and a Rungus Museum containing information about and artefacts from the the local people. Howard said that he was saddened to see that the locals were losing their connection with their culture, so he set up the museum, and built the accommodation using traditional methods in an attempt to encourage the preservation of the Rungus way of life. Across the road, Howard had an eduction centre which he used to educate local school groups and children about conservation and wildlife. It sits in a large patch of land which Howard is keeping as a wildlife sanctuary. 

Next, Howard explained the shuttle system. Every day he runs people up to the restaurant and beach in his Hilux at 8am, 10am, 2pm and 5pm. He runs the shuttle back at 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 8.30pm and 10pm, when the restaurant shuts. Otherwise, you can just walk. With all the information imparted, we headed back to the beach for lunch.

The next few days passed in a blur of relaxing. Zev spent some time fishing and snorkelling. Here is Zev's fishing and snorkelling report:

Zev:

On our first afternoon at Tampat Do Aman we met a nice kiwi fella named Dickie. Dickie is living in Kota Kinabalu working for an NGO. He is also from Auckland but had been living in Sabah for 2 years. Anyways, Dickie really wanted to go on a fishing trip with a local fisherman. However, the guy he was chatting to said it wasn't worth his time to only go out with one passenger. Dickie needed a mate. I heard his call for help and volunteered myself as passenger number two for the fishing adventure!

Before heading out on the seas we met our captain and fishing guide, Mas. Mas was a father of 2, and was very quick to warn us that he was a joker. He was hilarious! At about 5 foot 5 and 80kg, Mas was the Malaysian Danny DeVito. It was really hard to tell when he was being silly or serious. Well as it turns out, he was very rarely serious! Mas showed us to our boat. It was about 12 feet long, painted blue and had a big old modern-looking outboard motor. After filling up the gas canister (a large plastic drum with a garden hose leading to the engine) with petrol out of 2 x 1.5L Pepsi bottles, we were on our way. We cruised pretty much straight offshore for about 700-800m before we dropped anchor in search of fish.

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

Despite not seeing any fishing rods or equipment, I held my tongue. I was sure Mas had things under control. Sure enough, he pulls out 3 hand lines and a fistful of rusty hooks. He spent around 5 minutes knotting and biting and fitting each line with hooks and a weight and we were good as gold. We added our bits of squid, which were, to use Mas' words, "Oh so fresh! Straight from the ice box... Hahaha" - he always laughed at his own jokes. He instructed us to just toss the baited hooks into the water and let them sink to bottom. "How do you know if it's at the bottom?", Dickie asked. "You'll feel it", replied Mas. "How will we know if we have a fish?", I asked. "You'll feel it", replied Mas. OK. So at this point I had resigned this whole experience to a few comedy-filled hours in the crystal blue waters of the northern most tip of Borneo, and probably no fish. Which wasn't too shabby, let me tell you.

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

Boy was I wrong! Within 2 minutes Mas swiftly and violently yanked his hand line across his body! Did he have one? He furiously pulled in all his slack and sure enough there was fish. Now for all you kiwi fishermen, this was definitely not a keeper by NZ standards. It was about 125g and maybe 7 inches long, but a fish nonetheless. Mas removed the hook from its mouth and threw it between my feet. Apparently this was where we were to keep all the fish we caught. This process repeated itself a few more times, but it was always Mas with the fish. Dickie and I were getting a little discouraged. Mas decided that we should move to another spot. We pulled anchor and sailed about 300m away. I wish it was more adventurous, but lo. We began fishing in spot number two and Dickie caught his first fish! Good on ya Dickie! Mas was still catching fish needless to say. After about an hour and 15 minutes we had a decent lot of fish (in a pile by my feet), maybe 8-12 fish. All the same species and all about the same size. Dickie was responsible for maybe two and my count was still a big, fat zero, plus I managed to get my line in a big mess of a knot and spent a good 5-10 minutes untangling it. Never mind though, the conversation was highly entertaining and hearing some of Mas's stories in his broken English were fantastic! 

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

We changed spots again and Mas told me maybe to try pulling my line gently up and down once it had reached the bottom to simulate the movement of a live squid. This worked! I was on fire. I caught my first fish, and then another, and another. It seemed every time I cast my bait, I caught one. In fact, at one point I even caught two fish (each line was rigged with two hooks) in one go! As the sun started to set we decided to finish up. We had done well. Maybe a total of 30 to 35 fish. Dickie and I were responsible for around 10-12 of these. 

When we got back to shore it was getting dark and Mas was trying to get us keep most of the fish! What the hell are we going to do with all these fish? No! You keep them for your family or sell them or something. In the end we convinced him that we would keep 10 and the rest were for him and his family. He was genuinely pleased and thanked us! Upon our return to the restaurant, we found that everyone had already ordered dinner. They had no faith in us! Ah well, it just meant more for Dickie and I. We gave the fish to Howard, who told us that the kitchen staff could make a delicious local soup. In about 20 minutes, Dickie and I were chowing down on our very manly dinner! Fantastic! What we couldn't finish we donated to the kitchen staff to have for their breakfast the following morning. 

That was the fishing adventure.

Snorkelling. I haven't snorkelled many times before so I had very limited expectations of both what I would see and my own abilities. However once I got near the rocks, a whole underwater circus appeared! Corals, fishes, fishes and more fishes, squid, algae, shrimps, sponges, seaweed! It was amazing! I even talked it up so much that the following day I ventured out for snorkelling round two and brought two friends I had made at the hostel. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think I will endeavour to go snorkelling more often when we find ourselves back in NZ.

Sam:

We spent lots of time relaxing in the shade, chatting to fellow guests and travellers, swimming when it got too hot, eating, drinking, and walking back to the longhouse at night in an attempt to spot a slow loris (actual sightings: 2 civet cats (aka crap weasels); 1 million dogs; 1 duck named Lucy; 15 bats; 0 slow lorises).

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

On our first morning at the accommodation, we joined Howard on a jungle trek in the wildlife sanctuary. We spent about 2 hours in the stinking hot jungle, following Howard as he explained what all the plants were, what you could eat and drink, and how to survive in the jungle. The whole time I was having flashbacks of our last jungle trek as a I sweated through my clothes and got attacked by every biting insect known to man. At one point, his two dogs flushed out a mouse deer, which came within inches of running into my legs, jumping over my feet at the last minute.

One night we found a massive spider in our room, probably about the size of my palm, legs included. Zev tried to catch it in a bowl, but it skittered outside before he could get it. I checked my shoes very carefully each day after that...

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

At some point, we decided where to from Kudat. On advice from others at Tampat Do Aman, we booked 4 nights accommodation in Sepilok, followed by a 3 day/2 night cruise on the Kinabatangan River. The easiest way to Sepilok was to fly from Kudat to Sandakan, the nearest big-ish city, and catch a cab from there. After a frustrating 20 minutes of trying to book flights on my phone, I ended up calling the airline to book. After a frustrating 35 minutes, I managed to book tickets over the phone. The combination of her poor English and my.... unusual.... accent was problematic. Two hours later, the tickets still hadn't been emailed. I called back to confirm that they had our names and email address correct - of course they didn't. She corrected them and promised to resend the email. Two hours later, still no tickets. We decided that it wouldn't matter anyway, the plane had 19 seats, so they should be able to figure it out even if our names were misspelt. Since the flights only left on Mondays and Thursdays, we gladly extended our stay with Howard for two more nights.

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia
 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia
 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

On our final day at the Tip of Borneo, we finally worked up the energy to walk to the ACTUAL northernmost tip of Borneo. It took us about 30 minutes to walk, and we headed off to try to catch the sunset. The actual tip was pretty underwhelming, with a monument telling you where you were, but we climbed down onto the rocks at the headland and checked out the rock pools. We mis-timed it a little though, and arrived too early, so we started walking back around the rocks as the sun was setting. As we walked along the beach, we watched two storms roll in from in front and behind us. The one behind us in particular was creeping up on us, and we could see the rain coming towards us. We walked quickly to try to stay ahead of it as thunder and lightning rumbled all around us. We made it to the restaurant just as it finally caught up with us!

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to Howard, our new friends, and Tampat Do Aman. Mr Peter picked us up and drove us to the airport. The airport was a brick building in a field. What followed was the most thorough security screening of our lives. Since there was no screening equipment, we had a serious pat down from some security officers, followed by an intense luggage search. We literally had to take everything out of our bags and explain what it was. Socks. Underwear. iPad. Camera. Film (which took some explaining, since the agent didn't know what it was). And so on until our bags we emptied on the floor. And then began the painful process of putting it all back in.

5 minutes later, with our hastily packed bags bursting at the seams, we headed to check in. We handed over our passports. "I'm sorry, you're not in the system". I explained that our names might be spelt wrong, but the girl assured us there wasn't anything close. We showed her the credit card charge to prove we'd paid, and asked them if they could call the airline for us. They looked at us like we were morons, and told us they couldn't call because we didn't have a booking number. I ended up enjoying a third call to Malaysian Airlines, struggling through another conversation before finding out that they had booked us on the flight in the 25th, not the 21st. Because the flight was closed (it closes 24 hours out), they couldn't change the flight from there, but the counter staff could change it for us. By this stage I was seriously pissed off, and the only thing stopping me from completely losing it was a kitten that lived in the terminal, that let me pat him and play with him as stress relief. We approached the counter staff and explained what we had been told. They told us that they could change the flight, we'd just need to give them the booking number. Which I forgot to get while I was in the phone. This time, Zev agreed to call the airline. Now, the kitten was nearly bald from the number of pats I needed to give him. Two minutes into the call, while Zev was still on hold, the phone cut off. I'd run out of credit. The kitten was in tatters. Luckily, I'd bought a data package, and the last phone agent had finally got our email address right and sent the itinerary, so we got the booking number off there. Three minutes later, the whole situation was resolved, and we were finally booked on the right flight. Our bags were weighed, we were weighed, and we were ready to go.

 Tip of Borneo, Malaysia

We loaded onto the 19 seater, complete with propellers, and enjoyed a 30 minute flight around the coast of Borneo. Another breathtaking journey. We disembarked, hopped in a taxi, and drove to Sepilok, preparing ourselves for another series of adventures!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx 

(Original post date: 24th May 2015)

Climbing Mt Kinabalu

CURRENT LOCATION: Kudat (Tip of Borneo), Malaysia

Zev:

We woke up at the ass crack of dawn to catch a bus to Mount Kinabalu National Park from Kota Kinabalu (the city closest to the mountain). Our lovely host, Lucy, walked the three of us (Sam, myself and a German girl named Annagrette) 4 blocks to the main minibus station and helped us arrange our transport. We were charged an extra 5MR (~$2NZD) for having "large bags", but I'm pretty sure that was just the "white people" tax... But never mind, we were on our way and that's all that really matters. It was an hour and 45 minutes to Jungle Jack's home stay where we were based for our climb. Upon arrival we met the famous Uncle Jack. What a character! He was just the right amount of hospitable, crazy and sarcastic! His operation, running tours up Mt Kinabalu, is a highly successful one and he is very proud of it, and not afraid to tell you so. But good on him.

 Kinabalu, Malaysia


He started this tour package about 2 years ago as a bit of a middle finger to all the other tour providers. They all charge ridiculous sums, making it prohibitively expensive for most backpackers to climb to the summit of the highest mountain in South East Asia. He prides himself on charging only slightly more than what it actually costs to get someone up the mountain. Comparatively, it's cheap. If you were to climb with anyone else it would cost you 3 times as much! Despite his eccentricities and disdain for authority, Uncle Jack runs an outstanding service. He provides you with 3 nights accommodation (including the one night halfway up the mountain), all your food, drinking water, guides on the climb, gear for the climb if you need it, your required personalised passes to enter the National Park, and "the best showers in Kinabalu national park" (confirmed!). You get all this for about $200NZD per person.

 Kinabalu, Malaysia

Anyways, when we arrived at Jungle Jack's there were a few travellers who had completed the trip and were leaving that day. We got the inside scoop on what to expect and they were all just buzzing about their experience. We were already excited, but now we were seriously amped up. The rest of the "tour group", which consists of the 12 people who signed up to the climb though Jack,­ had left an hour or two before we arrived and we were told that we would just catch up with them at the hut. We re­packed our bags with only the gear we would need for the 2 day climb and got ready to set off. We took 4.5L of water, snacks, a packed lunch consisting of sandwiches containing cheese (REAL CHEESE FROM NEW ZEALAND!!!), warm clothes for the final hike to the summit, and some basic toiletries. We were driven 5 minutes to the base of the mountain where we met our guide and set off on our adventure.

 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia

The hike wastes no time at all. Within 2 minutes you're going uphill. Seriously uphill. Stairs. Stairs made of wood. Stairs made of tree roots. Stairs made of rocks. Stairs made of all three. Up and up and up. Now I'm not sure why I (and Sam too, I think) thought it would be any different... We're climbing a freakin' mountain, not going for a stroll in the Waitakere ranges, but it was relentless uphill. We very quickly began to understand why going only 6km was estimated to take 4­-5 hours. However, the trail was in excellent shape. This is a direct result of nearly 100 people treading on it every day, plus a reasonably well managed and resourced national park staff. For example, approximately every 1km up until the hut/restaurant there was a shelter that had water (untreated but considered relatively safe), rubbish bins, and a flush toilet. They were well looked after and the toilets were bearable (though a bit stinky). The trail was busy. Seriously busy. It was very rare for us to be walking without encountering other people, either also on their way up or coming down from their climb. This was not such an issue as a friendly "hello", "good morning", and "good luck" from a fellow trekker was a welcomed distraction from pain of climbing the 1,404 metres in elevation.

 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia

We took advantage of the strategically placed huts to have water and snack breaks. It was on the first of these breaks, 1.5km into the hike that we met Malaysia's ground squirrel. Cute! They were very accustomed to gawking humans and were borderline domestic. They differentiated the sound of opening chip/cookie/cracker packets and would come scurrying over to you. They would even take food directly out of your hand! Needless to say, this was a pretty big draw card for hurrying to the next shelter and definitely played an important role in keeping us motivated to continue up the seemingly never ending climb.

 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia

Along the way we saw many porters going both up and down the trail. These Malaysian men and women were incredible, if not a little insane. They were employed by the restaurant situated at 3,270m in altitude (our destination for day 1) to bring goods up and and down. Most of them carried said goods using an ad hoc backpack made of a plank of wood, some ropes and a half a woven, wicker basket. They positioned the ropes around their shoulders like bag straps and often utilised a length of linen to secure the "bag" on their forehead. Needless to say this looked uncomfortable. Not to mention that these guys and gals were carrying serious loads. One guy had two boxes of water bottles, totalling 36kg of weight, not including the backpack itself! Anyone who has done a multi day tramp with a full pack (average weight 10-­15kgs) will understand how insane this actually is. Other loads included full LPG gas bottles, 25 Gatorade bottles, about 400 chicken eggs, and a few guys that we saw heading down were carrying steel bunk bed frames! It was not uncommon for these porters to pass you heading up the trail and the ones coming back down seemed to be on the verge of out of control. This was impressive and a little demeaning at the same time as we lumbered up the mountain with our puny, modern day packs.

 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia

Eventually, 4 hours and 20 minutes later we made to the Laban Rata Guesthouse and restaurant. This was our final stop for the day and where we would spend the night. It was an impressive complex. There is a HUGE building that served as the kitchen and restaurant, feeding up to 85 climbers, plus their guides, every day. In addition there were about 5 other huts that served as the accomodation for the staff, climbers and guides. Each contained beds, toilets and HOT showers! Our "hut" had 8 sets of bunk beds, 2 flush toilets, 2 hot showers, and even an electric kettle for boiling water. It was nicer than a lot of hostels we've stayed at. The beds each had sheets, a duvet and a big fluffy pillow. It was definitely not roughing it - classy mountain climbing! On top of this we were now over 3km above sea level, literally above the clouds! It was amazing to be so high and have the views previously reserved only for airplane travel. Occasionally a huge cumulus cloud would form in the distance and in a matter of minutes it will have engulfed the whole mountain stealing away your view and reducing the visible distance to a mere 100m. Then, in another moment it will have passed. As the afternoon wore on we were even lucky enough to witness an electrical storm off in the distance. It was a strange and awe inspiring sight to watch a thunderstorm from above. Seeing the lighting fork and light up the sky from a near birds­eye view was a truly unique experience. We shared travel stories with the other members of our group (Jungle Jack Trekkers) in this strange and breathtaking environment until dinner time at about 5.30 pm.

 Kinabalu, Malaysia

The dining hall was huge and full of enthusiastic, weary tourists and guides who had all made the initial climb that day, the same as us. To accommodate so many people, the set up was a buffet style smorgasbord of high energy food! They had rice, noodles, beef stew, roast chicken, warm barley and rice mystery stodge, bread, coffee, tea etc. It was awesome and you could eat as much as you like. We made sure to fill our bellies in anticipation of tomorrow's early climb to the summit. After dinner Sam and I walked around the compound and watched the sunset from a new angle! It was magic. What an awesome sight to see the sunset from a position above the clouds. Everyone, including us, went to bed early. Really early. I was asleep by 6.45pm. This was partly due to the exhausting climb that day, but also to ensure we had enough rest to tackle the ominous day 2.

0100 hours. Someone's alarm goes off. It is quickly and efficiently dealt to by an irritated snooze push. 0115 hours. Snooze over....time to get up. We were to eat a "supper" at 2 am before we climb to the summit in time to see the sunrise. Luckily, the early bedtime coupled with the comfortable bunk beds meant for a decent night's sleep! I'm sure the sheer exhaustion didn't hurt either. Supper was pretty much the same deal as dinner, except people were looking a little worse for wear and some even looked anxious. Except for the 3 Japanese girls who were putting on their make­up...? After forcing down my first ever (sober) 2am breakfast, we began our climb in the dark.... along with about 80 other people!

Everyone had a headlamp to guide them along the ascending track, which only lasted about 400m. At this point the track disappeared and we were walking on naked granite rock. There was a rope, attached to the boulders and ground that was guiding the way, which was essential in some spots in order to haul yourself up the exceptionally steep bits. This was intense. At a couple of points even scary. The possibility of death was a reality, whereby if you simultaneously had lost your grip on the rope and footing you would have easily slipped and literally fallen off the mountain. The number of people crowded on the rope also added a level of difficulty. Often, someone would lose their balance and pull the rope violently towards to ground as they fell. You can hardly blame them for their Kung fu grip on the rope, their life line, however this would in turn pull down any other climber who was holding onto that particular section of rope. Deciding when to utilise the rope and when not to was a constant hurdle

On top of this we were approaching 4000m above sea level. I'm not exactly sure of the numbers, but at this altitude there is approximately 40% less oxygen than at sea level. This is considered a very high altitude and boy can you feel it! It's such a bizarre feeling taking a huge breath and still feeling like you are short of air. The combination of the decreasing oxygen, the building up of lactic acid from constant uphill walking, the possibility of falling to my death and the fact that is was ridiculous o'clock made for a real roller coaster of emotions. My brain and body were in continuous battle with one another. One minute I felt great. I was unstoppable. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. Keep climbing. Almost there. Don't forget to breathe... In, out, in, out. I found my rhythm and I was charging up towards the summit! Then, without any warning the combination of all the harsh conditions would catch up with me. I'm dying. In fact, I think I'm dead. I feel like death itself. I can't get enough air. My legs are on fire. I feel starving and like I'm about to vomit at the same time (This was the weirdest feeling... One I had never experienced before). I have to stop. A short rest, some water, a mentos or two, then back on my feet. Life returns! I'm back on top of the world. This would be the next 2.5 hours. Going back and forth between these extremes. As we approach the final, steep climb to summit, perhaps only 200m away, I experienced for the first time the phenomenon of "hitting the wall". We were now exposed to the wind, which was icy. My legs were starting to shake uncontrollably with exhaustion. The air was seemingly oxygenless. Sam and I were both feeling this way, but we couldn't stop now. We were so close. Every couple of minutes we would hear the victorious cheers and hollers of the other climbers who had made it to the summit. We had to carry on!

 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia

At just before 0500 hours we made it! All of sudden the adrenaline kicked in. We felt great! Nothing could stop us! To make it even more sweet, 1 minute after arriving at the sign post signifying the summit, the first rays of orange/yellow sunrise started to fill the horizon. We had made it just in time to see the sunrise from 4,095.2m above sea level! It was simply remarkable. The sense of pride, accomplishment, wonder, and joy was so intense. This was all made even sweeter by the fact that Sam and I had done this together. I make no apologies when I say, in that moment I felt like the luckiest man in the world.

 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia

We holed up in a nook to escape the chill of the wind and watched the sun rise into and above the clouds before starting our journey back down the mountain. The descent was quicker, but challenging in its own way. The constant pressure on your knees and ankles caused aches in different muscle groups. Our already fatigued legs really felt this strain. Luckily the adrenaline stuck around long enough to get us back to our hut to have a rest before breakfast.
We were the first two to arrive back at our hut. We took advantage of the quiet and had a quick nap. As everyone else returned and followed suit, we enjoyed a big breakfast to refuel after the whirlwind 5km return hike to and from the summit before our remaining 6km down to the bottom. Our descent was broken up by some mandatory water, snack and squirrel feeding stops, but we completed it in a little over 3 hours. When we finished the hike, we were met by our driver who took us back to Jungle Jack's, where had hot showers and some much needed R and R. Once everyone was back at Jack's place, he took all of us out for lunch, then later on, to dinner. It was a great, relaxed atmosphere at Jack's and it was cool to chat to all the travellers and get some tips and suggestions for places to visit while we are in Borneo.

 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia
 Kinabalu, Malaysia

The next day, 4 of us (Sam, myself, Annagrette, and a nice Canadian guy named Brett) hailed a minibus to take us back to Kota Kinabalu. We had booked ourselves into a hotel to get some much needed quality sleep and to organise our next leg of our trip. Unfortunately, when we arrived at our room it had been freshly painted, had no windows and was about 9 square meters. Of course they had no rooms left at the same price but if we really wanted to change we could pay extra and move into a deluxe room... Out of principle we toughed it out on our smelly, noxious room! Feeling sorry for ourselves we had Pizza Hut for lunch. This Pizza Hut was like the NZ Pizza Hut of old. Seating, menus, table service, the works! After gorging ourselves on garlic bread and pizza we found that moving was rather difficult, so we spent the entire afternoon in our stinky room, in bed, researching activities and accommodation options in Sabah, Borneo. We decided to head up to the beaches and jungle of Kudat, in the northernmost part of Borneo. We found some awesome places to stay here, but I'll save that for next time!

Lots of love, 
Zev and Sam xx 

(Original post date: 15th May 2015)

You laka? Melaka!

CURRENT LOCATION: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia

Sam:

After our smooth as silk bus ride, we arrived in Melaka in the mid-afternoon. We checked into our guest house in Chinatown, the heart of the heritage zone, and were pleased to check into an enormous room with an ensuite, fan and air conditioning. Not wanting to waste any time in this picturesque little town, we headed out exploring.

 Melaka, Malaysia

Much like its sister city, Georgetown, Chinatown in Melaka was filled with crumbling shop houses, narrow alley ways and super cool cafes. Its history of occupation by the Portuguese, then Dutch, then English, then Japanese, as well as the influence of the Chinese and Indians as part of trading routes make for a melting pot of architecture and culture. We spent the afternoon exploring the Baba and Nonya Museum (again, sister to the one we visited in Georgetown), the Cheng Hoong Teng Temple, Jonker Street (the Main street in Chinatown), Christ Church, the Queen Elizabeth Fountain, Stadthuys and the riverfront. Not bad for an afternoon stroll! Tired from our walk, we grabbed some dinner and headed back to the accommodation. It was at this point that I met my two new favourite friends. A ginger kitten, that was probably 6 months old, and a little tabby kitten, that was more like 10 weeks old. These two little kitties stole my heart, and took up a fair bit of my time in Melaka. Serious kitty cuddle time was had by all.

 Melaka, Malaysia

We started our day the next day with pancakes at the Daily Fix. They were amazing. Used to an order of pancakes consisting of a single pancake, Zev ordered two orders. When they turned up and there were five, he regretted his decision. Luckily, the waiter hadn't understood him, so only one order turned up. Although I'm sure we could have polished off a second order if need be....

From there, we returned to the Stadthuys, or town hall and governor's residence, now the History and Ethnography Museum. I'm ashamed (not really) to admit that the highlight for me was when one of the animal dioramas started moving, and I realised an actual cat had snuck in. Cue more kitty cuddles. It was a pretty great museum though, with large displays and excellent signage, taking you through the history of Melaka and its people and culture. Melaka was founded in the 14th century by Parameswara, a Hindu prince from Sumatra, became protected by the Chinese in 1405, then dominated by the Portuguese in 1511, then the Dutch in 1641 and then finally ceded to the British in 1795. The intermingling of peoples created the Peranakan people (also called Baba Nonya), who are descended from Chinese settlers; the Chitties, who are of mixed Indian and Malay heritage; and Eurasians born of Malay and Portuguese love affairs.

 Melaka, Malaysia

Next on our museum tour was the People's Museum, with exhibits about body modifications (awesome), meteorites (also awesome), and kites, including a display of a kite from New Zealand, and a poster from the 1990 New Zealand Kite Flying Expo (apparently that was a thing).

And the highlight of our day: The Melaka Stamp Museum. We even saw a display of a replica of the world's first stamp!!!

Exhausted from the excitement of the stamp museum, we decided to have some outside fun at A Famosa Fort, a Portuguese fortress which are among the oldest European remains in South East Asia. There isn't much left, so that took about ten minutes, and then we headed up the hill to St Paul's Church, built in 1521 by a Portuguese sea captain.

On our way onto find an afternoon snack, we stopped in at the Architecture Museum, which did a great job of showing the history of architecture in Malaysia. By now I'm sure you're thrilled with the details of our day in museums, so I'll leave it at that.

 Melaka, Malaysia

We stopped in for a quick snack at the super funky Mod Cafe. Inside was a VW kombi van, which contained the coffee machine and till, with lots of cool stuff dotted around the walls to keep us entertained. Two very delicious drinks later, we headed back to the guest house by way of some chicken nuggets for some down time before heading out to the night market.

 Melaka, Malaysia

The night market took place on Jonker Street, the Main Street in Chinatown. The whole street came alive with stalls selling delicious food and sweets, as well as the usual shit that floods night markets - cell phone covers, tee shirts, cheap plastic kid's toys etc etc. One stall was even selling sugar gliders and hamsters (which I'm not sure is legal), but Zev wouldn't let me buy them all and set them free. We had great fun wandering the stalls and sampling the local delicacies!

 Melaka, Malaysia

The next morning saw us at The Daily Fix for round two of pancakes... I'm pleased to report they're still delicious. After a little admin time, we headed to Bukit China, a 25 hectare cemetary on a hill, containing more than 12,500 graves. While it may sound a little creepy, it was a beautiful spot to wander in the sun, and we very much enjoyed the peace and quiet that came along with it. We also stopped to check out Poh San Teng Temple, and the King's Well.

 Melaka, Malaysia

That night for dinner, we tried Satay Celup. Basically, they put a giant bowl of satay on a burner in the middle of the table, and you go to the fridge and select skewers of your choice (chicken, pork, beef, vegetables etc), and cook them in the satay sauce, fondue style. At the end of the meal, they count the satay sticks, which are colour coded to denote price, and use that to figure out your bill. It was every bit as amazing as it sounds. It's not every day you get to eat bacon that's been deep fried in satay sauce.

 Melaka, Malaysia

The following morning was our last in Melaka, and it was a doozy. We woke to POURING rain, which we headed out in to find breakfast. Sadly, nothing in Melaka opens before lunch time, so we returned, soaked and hungry. Instead, we headed directly to the bus station, bought our tickets back to Kuala Lumpur, and treated ourselves to some McDonalds, eaten quickly at the bus station before the bus left.

A few hours later, we were checking into our hotel in Kuala Lumpur, close to the central train station to make it easier to get to the airport the following day. As we left in search of dinner that night, Zev noticed a lot of suspicious looking men sitting on chairs outside doors with remarkably red lights shining out underneath... And here I was, wondering why our hotel listed their prices by the hour, as well as the night...

Our flight to Borneo the next day didn't leave until 7pm, so the hotel kindly looked after our bags for the day. We decided to spend the day ten pin bowling. For the record, Zev won all three games, but I definitely improved. We headed to the airport in the middle of the afternoon, giving ourselves plenty of time to check in. We caught the train from the main station, which cost 35MR (~$12NZD), and took 35 minutes. Take note Auckland... Naturally, our flight was delayed, but despite leaving 45 minutes late, we only landed in Kota Kinabalu 20 minutes late.

A quick taxi ride dropped us off at Lucy's Homestay, where we were spending the night before heading off to climb Mt Kinabalu. Within seconds of opening the door to our room, a cute little kitty had made himself at home on our pillows. To get to our leaving point in the morning to start our climb on time, we had to be on the 7am bus, so we put ourselves to bed without new furry friend, excited about our upcoming adventure with Jungle Jack!!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 13th May 2015)

Public transport heaven!

CURRENT LOCATION: Melaka, Malaysia

Sam:

Our first night in the hotel was pure bliss. After a hot shower, climbing into clean sheets on a comfortable bed in a room with air conditioning and cable TV was a dream come true. We passed out, and woke late-ish in the morning, feeling at least somewhat recovered from our jungle adventure - certainly recovered enough to say, "Man, remember how much fun hiking in the jungle was?". We started our day with a relaxing hotel rooftop breakfast, where our friendly, if not a little intrusive waiter was incredibly attentive and accommodating. Most importantly, we dropped off our laundry. Knowing we were still pretty wrecked, and definitely still dehydrated, we decided to head to a mall and re-stock some essentials. First off, we'd run out of bug spray half way through our jungle hike, so that was on the list. And Zev definitely needed to replace a couple of stained and holey tee shirts. My sports bras had given up the ghost (one tried to destroy my merino tee shirt on its way out), and I definitely needed some body wash for the sake of everyone in my vicinity. A trip to the mall was just what the doctor ordered.

A short monorail ride later, we arrived at the mall. Which was HUGE. 6 storeys and enormous. It had everything from Zara, Topshop, H&M, and Nike to Coach, Armani, Tiffany & Co, and Cartier. I could see myself spending a lot of time (and money) here... Luckily we escaped with only what we came for, plus a couple of extra tee shirts that I probably didn't need, and definitely can't fit in my bag. We spent the afternoon back at the hotel, frantically trying to clean our packs and shoes, and taking advantage of the air conditioning. We headed out later that evening for a delicious Mexican dinner, followed by Haagen Dazs dessert (salted caramel waffles and a salted caramel latte. Mmmmmm.....).

 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We were up a little earlier the next morning, and jumped on the train heading for Batu Caves. The most famous site is a 43m high murga statue and 272 steps leading up to Temple Cave, a Hindu shrine. I did some research before we left the hotel, and found that they had created a dress code a few years ago, but officials reported that since it was very controversial (many people in the Hindu community disagreed with it as it would discourage visitors), it would not be enforced - they were guidelines, rather than rules. I decided to wear a dress, as the heat was crazy. It was pretty modest though - knee length, not tight. Anyway, we got to the bottom of the 272 stairs, when a lady yelled at me, and told me I couldn't go up a 'short skirt', and would have to buy a sarong/sari. Luckily, she was selling them... According to the clothing guidelines, my knees needed to be covered. My dress touched my knees, even covered the tops of them, but the bottom half of my knees were poking out, determined to offend. Since I had read that the clothing policy wasn't actually being enforced, and I couldn't determine whether this woman was above board or just running a scam, I refused to give her any money (a whopping 5RM, or $1.50NZD) and opted to wait at the bottom of the stairs while Zev went up. I bet the woman is still weeping about her lost earnings. I can't speak much to the cave, but Zev took some photos. He said it was a huge cave with shrines dotted around it.... I don't feel like I missed out on much.

 Melaka, Malaysia

From there we caught the train back KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre), and as we were exiting the train station, we found a Johnny Rockets. As we waited for our burgers, we noticed the same song playing on repeat - not the whole way through, just bits of it, skipping and repeating. We were already finding this pretty funny, when suddenly the music stopped, and a new song started blaring out of the stereo. And then. AND THEN. THE WAITSTAFF STARTED TO DANCE. Zev laughed so hard he snorted a fry out of his nose. It was amazing. And the burgers weren't too shabby either.

Once we recovered from our fits of giggles, we headed outside to check out the Petronas Towers. At 452m tall, they are the tallest twin structures in the world. They're incredibly striking, with their 8 sided star shape and silver colouring. We considered going up them to check out the view, but decided that the view of them was much more interesting than the view from them. We wandered around the area for a bit, admiring the towers and checking out some of the high end shops nearby.

 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We headed back to the hotel, and that night was the night of the deleted blog fiasco. We'll spend no more time on that...

On day 3, we ventured to the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, with the largest free flight walk in aviary in the world. It was a hell of a walk from the train station, and by the time we arrived we were sweaty and disgusting. We arrived just in time for the hornbill feeding. Two free flying hornbills flew over to a keeper who fed one of them bits of meat and fruit, while the other refused to come down from the tree. Zev was particularly excited about this, as he'd been desperate to see a hornbill since we arrived in SE Asia. Once feeding time was over, we continued through to the next part of the aviary. Here, they had a photo booth set up with a bunch of birds, and they took and printed a photo for you, as well as taking some on your own camera (check out Flickr to see those bad boys!). Now Zev had not only seen a hornbill up close and personal, he'd had one on his lap, and given it a pat! It was cheesy, but fun.

Next up was the parrot aviary, where Zev got some milk and honey in a cup to feed to the parrots. They jumped all over him to drink out of the cup, and he had a great time! Nothing else of any note happened in the parrot aviary.

After checking out the flamingos, pelicans and peacocks, we caught the bird show. It was pretty cute, definitely aimed at kids, and mostly featured macaws being pretty damn clever - moving shapes, going down slides and doing various other tricks. We made a brief stop so that I could have a turn at feeding the parrots, then continued on to see the owls and eagles. Then it was time for lunch, and to hit the road.

We wandered back towards the train station, heading through a park to see some deer and mouse deer, and making a quick stop at the observatory. We carried on to Central Market, where I even managed to find some film for my camera - YAY!! 

We made a pit stop at the hotel to cool down before heading out for dinner. Near the mall we went to on the first day was an underground food court that was incredible. Apparently all the restaurant owners used to own street food stalls, but moved into this premises permanently. We had beautifully cooked Chinese BBQ pork dishes for dinner, and may even have snuck in a couple more scoops of salted caramel ice cream.

Today we had the smoothest intercity bus ride of our trip. The easy to use public transport in KL got us to the bus station with no headaches. We joined a queue for a ticket agent, asked for tickets to Melaka, and she told us that the next bus was leaving in 28 minutes from platform 8. That was it, done. The bus even left on time. We slept through the trip, which means it must have been good.

So now, here we are in Melaka, another UNESCO world heritage site, along with Georgetown in Penang. More on that next time!

Lots of love,
S & Z
xxx

(Original post date: 7th May 2015)