Sunday 25 February 2018

Borneo - Winter 2018

Fried Bananas and Cheese
Wednesday, 14 February

Borneo has always been that exotic place where you only hear about it on TV.  Whether it was a documentary on its magnificent ecosystem or a reality "who can survive in the jungle" show it was never a place that I imagined I would ever have the opportunity to visit myself.  Low and behold I am a lucky, lucky man and have a week SCUBA Diving in the lush blue waters around Sipadan followed by a week in the green, green jungle searching for the Borneo Big Five.  Oh how wonderful life is!  Now lets not get Dengue...

We arrived in Semporna in the evening and checked into the Cube Bed Station and headed straight out the back door onto the board walk for dinner.  Overlooking the sea our first Malaysian meal was a delicious seafood feast where we picked our fish and prawns from tanks and told the cooks how we wanted them.  This was followed by street cart fried bananas topped with brown sugar and grated cheese.  It doesn't sound great but it really was scrumptious - a word I only ever use when it really does fit.  A plate of sweet, sticky banana with salty, stringy cheese and chewy yet crunchy batter.  Your mouth is watering right?

We start our trip on Mabul Island, an island off an island, where we have an all inclusive stay booked in with Scuba Junkies.  6 days and 5 nights with 9 none Sipadan dives and 4 Sipadan dives.  Sipadan is why most people are here; a world renowned island off an island off an island in which there are limited permits for tourists to visit each year.  Our booking with Scuba Junkies guaranteed us one days permit which was on the last day of our stay.  Having been instructed to wear our bathers to our 8:00am pick up in Semporna we were in wetsuits and full SCUBA gear within 20 minutes of arriving on Mabul island.  Instructors, both local and foreign, were incredibly helpful and you instantly felt happy to rest your life in their hands.  We did our refresher dive straight off the jetty where we recalled all the methods of how not to drown whilst an abundant of fish watched us.  Just off the jetty the waters are thriving with all kinds of colourful creatures.  Instantly we knew that we were in for a real treat with Scuba Junkies.

The next few days played out largely the same.  Early mornings for a filling buffet breakfast; onto a boat for two morning dives; back to the resort for lunch and a rest; back on to a boat for an evening dive; pass out in a hammock; buffet dinner; drinks and cards in the bar.  Diving 3 times a day is hard work!  I looked into it and we were burning around 1000 calories a day just in our underwater expeditions.  It is by far the best form of exercise that I could ever think of.   Mabul is really just the holding ground for Sipadan but the diving still offered a great variety of dive sites.  Enormous man made underwater structures in North Kapalai (A resort situated on an "island" 10 minutes from Mabul - we almost stayed there but glad we didn't) housed giant tree trunk thick Moray Eels and enormous Green Sea Turtles.  The Dive Rig (another resort we almost stayed at - a converted oil rig which we could see from our resort.  Again glad we didn't!  It was nice to have a beach to chill on, a village to explore and locals to interact with.) was home to other monsters like the Giant Grouper.  But it is the tiny things that are popular around Mabul, things that our dive instructor had to point at several times before we could see them.  Like the ornate ghost pipefish and the teeny tiny decorator crabs.  Lots of things that look like coral but aren't.  I only took my camera on the first dive and my pictures really do not do justice to how beautiful the dive sites were.

Plastic waste is a hot topic right now and our diving around Mabul really highlighted its devastating effects.  I collected a number of plastic bags on a dive around Mabul island and saw all sorts of packaging that could quite easily be several years old.  I avoided the nappies.  A lot of reviews online seem to complain about this and mark down the surrounding resorts because of it.  What they don't realise is that it is these resorts (though I can only speak about Scuba Junkies for sure!) that actively seek out a solution to clean the seas.  It was a massive eye opener and I have already started to refuse the straw and carry a water bottle around with me.

Mabul island is small but has a thriving local community largely made up of settled Bajua Laut people known as the sea nomads.  These were made famous through various documentaries showing their fascinating life based entirely out on the sea (I learnt about them from the BBC's Human Planet documentary).  Now settled on the island most families have still chosen to build their house on stilts out on the water.  It was fascinating to walk around among these super friendly people and absorb such a alien culture.  At first glance it would seem like the island is only inhabited by children as they are everywhere running around, sword fighting with sticks, flying homemade kites and capsizing makeshift boats.  Kids free to roam wherever and do whatever.  Where the only strangers on the island are tourists and their playground is the sea; no adult supervision required.  I explored the island twice.  Once to explore the village life and then once again to seek out some local food.

The Scuba Junkies food was always perfect for post diving bellies and genuinely really good food (though no seafood for sea-friendly reasons... I was happy to support this!).  But there was very little to actually blog about.  If I were to experience some real local food I had to go seek it out myself away from the resort and so on a free afternoon I conducted my own walking food tour of Mabul.

The Mabul Food Tour

With a wad of ten 1 ringgit notes in my pocket I just walked around the island taking any random paths I found and bought from every food stall along the way.  Most things I bought I had no idea what they were.  I found 3 different vendors selling fried bananas and so my first ringgit was spent on that.  After my bag of fried bananas I was pretty full (I didn't think this through...) and so I ended up just sampling from each stall and then giving the rest of the bag to the next group of ecstatic kids I came across.  This was particularly useful when it was the bag of greasy, slightly off fish smelling strips of fried dough(?).  Raw guava fruit soaked in a diluted soy sauce (I think?) was a little strange but palatable and a bag of soy sauce noodles were relatively bland.  4 items and 4 ringgit later I struck gold twice with a curry puff vendor followed by a little restaurant selling the first of my National Dishes: Roti Canai! Curry puffs were being folded in front of me and fried to order at 4 ringgit per portion.  A very basic potato curry encased in a light, flaky pastry it was surprisingly good.  It was the Roti Canai that made my friends jealous though.  I told them that they should have come with me!  A fluffy, layered flat bread rolled and "flicked" out using a technique that I would never be able to replicate was served with a curry sauce.  Fish head curry sauce is by far my favourite with a roti which I had back in Singapore but this much simpler curry sauce still did the trick.  Besides, it is the roti that is the star of the show - I could quite happily dip it in Bisto!  I bought another bag of curry puffs to take back to the others but having newly become known as "the guy that gives out free food to kids (not in a weird way... hopefully.)" a group of bouncy boys ran over to me and sheepishly asked for them.  I couldn't say no.  Mainly because I don't know how to say it in Malay.  Anyway, even if I had found Roti Canai and nothing else I would have called this walking food tour a success!  Right... back to the resort.  Just in time for dinner... :-/

Sipadan - Into the Blue
Thursday, 16 February

Today was one of those once in a life time days.  An experience that you will remember in great detail and recall when anyone mentions anything remotely connected to diving.  "Anyone fancy fish and chips for dinner?"... "Talking of fish I went to a place called Sipadan 10 years ago...".  Sipadan is well and truly incredible!

A tiny island famous for its 600m sudden drop off just a few meters out from the beach.  From the surface you can see this with a very clear line separating a light aqua from a deep, dark, somewhat scary blue.  This means stunning coral reefs and their colourful inhabitants next door to wide open blue emptiness where the sea giants like to hang out.  After a not so brief briefing about the island and the many rules that we must abide by during our stay we were out on the boat ready for our first dive.  The boat ride was less than 60 seconds and before we knew it we were in the dark blue part of the sea.  Our guide told us that we will swim 30 of the 600 meters down and then swim out into the blue until we could no longer see the land.  Oh and to be careful of the down current that pulls you even further down if you swim into it... Never in my life have I experienced such nothingness.  Where every direction looked the same and where even up and down could get muddled up.  Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of this experience but I have managed to recreate it on Microsoft Paint (left).  We sat, floating in the vast, empty blue for something big to swim by but alas, this time, it remained empty and silent.  

After a rest on the island our second dive was the popular Barracuda Point which regularly finds itself in the list of top dive sites in the world.  The second I back rolled into the water I found myself completely swallowed up by an enormous school of Big Eye Trevally.  There were literally thousands of them and they did not seem to care one bit about our presence.  We got the signal to "go and play" and so I swam into the mass of silver until I disappeared.  From the last dive where in all directions was blue this time it was a busy swarm of fish in which every single one felt like it was looking at you curiously.  Sad to leave the Trevally behind we carried on with the rest of the dive where we were treated to turtle after turtle after turtle followed by White Tip Reef Shark after Grey Reef Shark after White Tip Reef Shark.  Sharks and turtles easily hit double figures in just the one dive and we all surfaced absolutely exhilarated.  Bobbing at the surface and sticking your face in the water to see circling sharks feels mental.  Swimming along side them down at 20 meters doesn't seem so bad!  Why is that!?

Lunch on the island was well needed before completing our final two dives.  We were given a choice to go back into the blue and hope for some big stuff or to redo the best dive I have ever done in my life at Barracuda Point.  We chose the latter though in hindsight maybe we should have risked it all to catch a glimpse of something big.  Whale sharks, Giant Manta and Hammerheads are all commonly seen in the deep and we left Sipadan seeing none of them.  Having said that we left Sipadan feeling 100% thoroughly content.  Only a video could even come close to help share the experience with you and so using the rented underwater camera from Scuba Junkies I managed to put one together.

My Nose Is Bigger Than Yours
Tuesday, 20 February

With a single transition day we went from the stunning clear blue seas of Sipadan to the murky brown water of the Kinabatangan River deep in the Borneo Rainforest.  An early boat ride from Mabul to Semporna and then a 4 hour, 450rm (£80) taxi got us to Sandakan, the city where our next all inclusive experience begins. Now I know that it has to be all inclusive, there are no restaurants in the rainforest; but, it is making it really difficult to seek out the best food Borneo has to offer.  With our last stop also an all inclusive chill-out stop on Gaya Island these transition days have become extremely important.  From this perspective, our one and only night in Sandakan was an outright disaster.  We found a nice outdoor restaurant where we could tick off some nice local dishes.  After waiting for an hour and a half it turned out that everything we had ordered went to the Chinese family next to us and they chose to just eat it all.  At about 10pm we found ourselves in a McDonalds.  First evening on Borneo that wasn't a buffet dinner and we ended up in McDonalds!  I made up for it in the morning by having two full breakfasts.  First one was a sambal fish with rice which didn't seem like a breakfast item to me but it was what everyone in that restaurant was eating.  This was shortly followed by a Roti Canai at a "Curry House" next to our hotel which just about made up for the complete and utter failure of the night before.
Cute Orangutan
Evil Orangutan

Our bus picked us up from the hotel and drove us to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre where we saw our first wild but not so wild orangutan.  Wild because they are not enclosed in the vast rain forest but not so wild in that they know this is where they get looked after and fed.  They are free to leave whenever they want.  But why would they? It is where I took the above photo - my favourite photo of my trip so far.  It is also where we had to actually run away from an orangutan (left) that just last week put a security guard in hospital.  Even our guide looked scared.  It was pretty much scary orangutan, 5 meters of boardwalk, us and then a thousand Chinese tourists that were in no rush to move whatsoever.  Luckily for us his trainer was around and literally just held his hand and took him away.  It was like a rampaging child at school when its mother turns up.  It was very much a situation of just needing to be able to run faster than the person next to me!  After a visit to the Sun Bear Centre next door we got on a boat and travelled for a good hour up the Kinabatangan River right into the heart of the Borneon Rainforest.

Borneo's big 5 are Orangutan, Pygmy Elephant, Crocodile, Proboscis Monkey and the Rhinoceros Hornbill.  On our boat ride to Sakau Rainforest Lodge we saw the pygmy elephant - the rarest of them all.  Our guide on the boat, Jumanji, was the same guide for the most part of our stay at the lodge and he was excited that after seeing the elephant he was confident that he could get us the remaining four.  Our lodge is simply divine; it is where Sir David Attenborough stayed! Every detail has been thought about and makes a stay in the rainforest comfortable for even the least adventurous.  Now that's not to say you won't have the odd leaf insect fly into your hair or that a juicy spider won't walk across your dinner table but it is the rainforest after all!  It has it's own boardwalk allowing you to venture out into the forest without actually stepping on the forest floor so avoiding the horrible leeches and anything else that can crawl up trouser legs.  The restaurant overhangs the river so you can bird watch whilst you drink your morning coffee and it even has a swimming pool so you can cool down after a days river safari.  A small part of me feels like I am cheating my way out of the real rainforest experience, the rest of me is sitting in a cool swimming pool struggling to care.

The boats are stored under the restaurant deck and we are taken on a morning and a late afternoon boat safari with the option to pay for an extra night safari.  Our first evening safari found us none of the big 5 but it was a perfect time for our guide to tell us all about the rainforest and the affects palm oil is having on the area.  Plastics in the sea and palm oil in the forests, Borneo is certainly feeling the brunt of human beings.  It's great being out on the water and seeing something colourful move in every direction.  We may not have seen any of the big five but playful macaques and an abundance of beautiful birds were all over the place.  I could have easily sat for an hour watching the family of macaques playing on felled tree in the water.

Going to sleep and waking up in the rainforest is exactly like those meditation tapes you get.  The gentle chirps and rustles almost sound fake from a movie but the insects, birds, wind and trees all come together to sing gently.  The insects are incredible here.  They are the reason you scream and slap your head every 5 minutes the second you feel something tickle but 9 and 10 times it is all in your mind. The remaining 1 could be anything from spiders and beetles to leeches and bats.  Yes blood sucking leeches drop from the trees here!  On the boardwalk they have a big white sheet lit up at night to attract the bugs and I visited it every evening to find something different.  Yes it is annoying constantly feeling like something might be on you but hey, it's not Australia; none of it can kill you!  Well not right away anyway.

We saw the famous penis noses Proboscis Monkeys (not their scientific name) on our second day.  These comical looking monkeys can only be found here and they really do look bizarre.  The bigger the nose the better the male... I think this has evolved because their actual penis is quite small.  Not only is it shamefully small but it is bright red and erect for 90% of the day.  Not to mention that their mouths look like they are painted on with a black marker pen and they all have massive gas filled bellies which means they must fart a lot.  The least evolution could have done is give these primates something else to brag about.  Our first wild Orangutan was on our third boat safari where we found a shy but curious lone adult.  I love the human emotions that you can find in Orangutans; this guy would peek at us through a little hole in the canopy as if he was secretly spying on us.  He was beyond cute.  Cute until our last wild Orangutan encounter of a mother very evidently teaching its baby how to get around using her own body to bridge the gaps in the trees that were to wide.  Seeing Orangutan in the wild warms the heart and makes you cry a little inside.  They were beautiful and I will never forget my first experience of the little guy peeking at me through the trees.
For our third day in the forest we had a little trip to Gomantong caves booked made popular for its impressive mass exit of over 250,000 bats in the evenings.  The problem is that there are two exits of which only one is accessible to people and the bats will only ever use one or the other.  Or in our case... neither!  Our guide helpfully informed us that on occasion the bats decide not to leave at all and so we did not get to experience this once in a life time spectacle.  Walking around inside the actual cave was still worth the visit though!  It didn't quite smell as bad as people made out but it definitely isn't for the squeamish.  It is absolutely heaving with cockroaches... as in every step you take in the dark is an audible crunch under the foot.  If that wasn't enough the walls are filled with webbed holes housing stripey tarantulas and these horrific looking giant centipedes (right) that have a paralysing poisonous bite.  It is inside this cave where the worst job in the world lies - armed security guards sleep in this cave!  To most people this cave is famous for its bats but to many it is known as the place to find the stupidly expensive birds nests used for birds nest soup in China.  So expensive that they need to be protected from nest thieves 24 hours a day.

On our last safari we just had the Rhinoceros Hornbill left to find and so we made that our focus with Jumanji.  First, however, we found an owl trapped on a fishing line just standing there in the mud.  It's big yellow eyes looked up at us like a puppy and so we had to try and save it.  This wasn't made easy with its powerful claws and sharp beak but with a cloth thrown over it we managed to keep a safe hold on it and get the hook out of its wing.  It hopped off into the bushes probably to get nabbed by a croc but we felt good about it.  Jumanji heard the call of the Rhinoceros Hornbill but we couldn't see it.  This made him reveal his incredible talent in bird calling as he let out a perfect mimic!  Low and behold the Hornbill responded and we cruised in the direction of the call.  Another squawk from Jumanji made the stunning bird fly into site and call back.  What a skill! 

It's not goodbye it's see you later
Friday, 23 April
I really do hope that the Orangutan are still around the next opportunity I get to go see them.  There is a very real chance that they won't be and that would be unbelievably sad.  Transitioning to here from the Sabah rainforest was a full day of travel but it did allow for some successful National Dish hunting! We flew to Kota Kinabalu on Tuesday and headed straight to a busy part near our hotel by the harbour.  We ordered four steaming bowls of Laksa and my National Dish withdrawal symptoms subsided.  Washed down with a cool iced milky tea called Teh Tarik, it was a perfect combo.  The following morning brought me much more fortune as just on the harbour where we needed to get our boat over to Gaya island were several stalls selling breakfast to the locals.  The last dish to tick of was Nasi Lemak and here it was wrapped in a banana leaf for about 30p.  Steamed coconut rice served with nuts, fried fish and the all important hot sambal chili paste.  They put belacan in their sambal here which is a fermented shrimp paste giving it a much richer flavour.  The best meal of the 2 week trip cost me just 30p... 

I am currently sitting on a little cushion island (an island on an island off an island off an island) in the middle of a swimming pool writing my finishing points for this blog.  We're on Gaya Island Resort for the final few days of our trip for some chill time.  Another all you can eat buffet kind of deal gives me little to write about but the snorkeling just off the resort is incredible and after a morning yoga class I do feel utterly relaxed.  There really isn't much to write about my time here on Gaya Island; yesterday I ate, drank and slept.  Today has pretty much followed suit with the exception of a nice long snorkel.  Tomorrow will be no different.  Food and animals are quite possibly my two favourite things in this world and Borneo delivered on both fronts.  I will be back in Malaysia soon I am sure and will have to have a much more food focused itinerary.  For now, my buffet all you can eat dinner is waiting for me and I have to fight my way through the million Chinese tourists to get there.  Wish me luck!