CURRENT LOCATION: Sepilok, Malaysia
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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...
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.
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!
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.
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
(Original post date: 24th May 2015)