It’s been awhile since I last wrote a blog post and its is an age since we were actually in Borneo. A combination of lots of travelling, hectic days and friends distracting us in Guatemala has meant it’s been difficult to find the time to sit down and get something written.
Anyway, after we left the Philippines it was somewhat of a come down once we arrived in Borneo, the island shared between Malaysia and Indonesia. From five of us gallivanting around, it was back down to the two of us but luckily we had the perfect adventure to take our minds off the friends we missed with a 3 day river safari as well as the chance to dive at Sipadan, one of the best dive spots in the world.
We didn’t know much about Borneo before we got there apart from it is the home to the majority of the world’s wild Orangutans, countless other species and the diving is supposed to be pretty sweet but beyond that, not a lot.
Palm Oil. Everywhere.
Upon arrival what struck us the most was the amount of Palm Oil plantations there are. Miles upon miles of palm trees. It really is quite tragic and as you leave the airport in Sandakan expecting to be greeted by tropical jungle you are disappointed to find a blanket of uniformity. Palm after Palm has taken over the once tropical paradise.
And it is widespread across Borneo with only the Nature Reserves free from the impact. Fortunately this was exactly where we were heading having met our guide for the next few days, Loy (Instagram @loythejungleman) who spoke with a little embarrassment and justification when he told us that it is Palm Oil that has allowed Borneo to establish a strong economy following the end of British rule and unification with Malaysia. In the past, Loy told us, before tourism in Borneo was actually considered a thing, there was no other way to generate wealth. So they sold land, built plantations and destroyed the natural environment.
Borneo has now arrived at a crossroads where Palm Oil plantations have achieved critical mass and seriously threaten the island’s modern alternative source of income; tourism. Tourists come here to see the wildlife that makes it so famous. Wildlife that most definitely does not like Palm Oil. And, with sustainability the goal, tourism to many, is seen as a far better route for long term economic security.
So we sat there and listened with optimism as Loy told us of environmental programs designed to limit Palm Oil production, protect and increase land set aside where wildlife can blossom. We were in the car, on our way to Sepilok Orangutan rehabilitation centre, set up by a British woman some 52 years ago and now firmly established as the largest of its kind in the world.
The centre has 43 square kilometres of untouched natural forest where both rehabilitated and wild orangutans can mix. On its edge is the centre where injured and orphaned Orangutans are cared for with the goal of reintroduction into the wild. Unfortunately it isn’t possible for all and some spend the rest of their lives at the centre. From what we saw though, it’s a happy existence.
Next door to the centre is another rehabilitation centre, this time for Sun Bears. We’d never seen a Sun Bear before, they are named after the yellow patch of fur prominently positioned on their chests. Although their numbers are currently strong, they are prime targets for the Chinese medicine industry as the bile from their gall bladder is highly prized and supposedly good treatment for fever, liver disease, diabetes and heart disease. Clinical trials have actually shown there is some truth behind this, but in no way is the substance obtained from the bears any better than synthetic alternatives already in use within mainstream medicine. They are often caught and then ‘milked’ for their bile in what sounds like a totally cruel and torturous affair. They are pretty amazing bears, the smallest in Asia and hilarious to watch whilst they were fed coconuts.
Having finished our visit to the sanctuaries we headed off to our river lodge where we would spend the next two nights. During our time here we would take a boat and explore the Kinabatangan River and all its estuaries, taking walks amongst the jungle trying to spot as much wildlife as we could find.
And I can honestly say, it was amazing. Our guides were superb at spotting the things we would have missed and telling us about the landscape, the species and their behaviours. Over the four trips we went on we managed to see one wild orangutan (from very far away and a bit disappointing if I’m honest), a crocodile, hundreds of monkeys, birds, snakes and all sorts beyond.
A Shit Cave.
The final stop on our safari was a visit to the Gomantong cave which is home to over 275,000 bats and many more swallows. The swallows nest here and the Malaysian government farms their saliva-built nests to satisfy the demand within the lucrative market for Bird’s Nest soup in Asia. They do this by taking the nests away from the birds when the fly out to get food. They only do this at a particular time of year and when the bird returns to find no nest, they have to start again. And start they do, so the production of nests go on and on. Throughout we were assured the birds come into no harm and the coexistence is a happy one. The soup? Well we gave that a massive swerve but it is essentially a boiled bird’s nest and is quite the delicacy apparently. I’ll stick to my spicy mushroom miso thanks.
With the amount of inhabitants so high you can only imagine what the waste looks like in the cave. And yes your are right, it leads to mountains and mountains of shit which is crawling with cockroaches all over the floor. Unsurprisingly, Julie couldn’t think of anywhere she rather see less and so I entered the cave alone.
The stench of ammonia is pretty overpowering and you have to wear a mask as you go in. Amazingly, the government guards whose job it is to protect the nests (and as such the birds) from thieves actually live in the caves 365 days a year on a platform that sits just a few metres above the mountain of shit.
Despite this, however the cave is spectacular and well worth the visit. Our visit that got even better when we left the cave to pick Julie up from the bench outside. We heard a rustling in the bushes just behind us and could tell something was there. We went to take a closer look and found a female Orangutan and her baby had descended from the tree line to come and see what we were up to. Amazing.
We had come to the end of our safari and headed to the coast to catch a boat out to our dive centre on Mabul, an island about 30 miles from Borneo.
We had to spend a night in a small town, Semporna, before we caught the boat in the morning. Now I am not going to dress this up. The place was a proper shit-hole. Probably the worst we have come across whilst travelling. Which is weird, as Malaysia is probably the richest Asian country we’ve visited and thousands of tourists come through here every year. Despite this however, it’s like nobody cares. It’s run down, there are hardly any shops or restaurants and most notably the poverty is shocking. Dozens of homeless kids roam the streets rummaging through bins to find food and things to sell. Its really sad.
We got through our night there and were happy to leave, although we did so with heavy hearts. We arrived at our new home on the island of Mabul where over the next 5 days we would do our PADI Advanced Diver course making 15 dives in total. The course was great and helped us to improve our diving considerably which is lucky as up until now I have been a bit of an air-guzzler sucking up everything I have whilst Julie dives like a pro and moderates her consumption. This has meant that I basically run out of air before everyone else and have to surface like a muppet. Not any longer though as the training on the course has helped me improve.
The diving was amazing and we saw a lot of weird and wonderful creatures. From a deadly blue ringed octopus, eels, cuttlefish and nudibranch to massive reef sharks and dozens of turtles. It was pretty spectacular and we even got the chance to complete a night dive which is a pretty strange experience.
The island of Sipadan was why we came here though and we only got to dive here on one of the 5 days. This is because you need a permit as the government restricts access to the island to 100 divers a day. This helps keep it pristine and ensures the abundant wildlife isn’t impacted by the thousands of tourists that want to visit. The army even have a base on the island to protect it (and to warn off sea pirates following an attack a few years ago).
We dived there on our last day with a plan to do four dives. The first two were amazing but unfortunately as we tried to get back on the island after our second dive things went amiss. The sea was quite rough and as the boat tried to dock next to the jetty the situation was very unsafe. Our instructor almost fell in the water and the boat was smashing against the pier. The boat captain decided to abort the jetty landing but only half of us on board had gotten off the boat. Julie was one of them. The boat moved back slightly and they then told us to jump over the side and wade to the shore ourselves. Unfortunately the captain picked the worst spot on the beach and as we got off the boat we found ourselves in chest high water, amongst loads of knee high rocks. The waves were crashing into us as we tried to get on shore. Something had to give and one wave smashed me into the rocks and I instantly felt the pain shoot up through my leg. I managed to make it to shore and hobbling on the beach Julie came running over. My leg was cut right open, with two deep gashes and cartilage clearly visible. Blood was pouring out.
Another dive school saw what happened and came running over to help. They had a first aid kit and helped clean the wound but that was me done diving for that day. We’d waited all that time and it was over after only two dives. As it was only 11am and the day wasn’t due to finish until 4pm we asked if we could be transferred back to the hotel so we could go to hospital as the leg was pretty bad. Our dive school refused to send a boat to pick us up so we had to wait on a bench for 5 hours whilst the leg continued to bleed.
Finally we got off the island and back to the hotel to pick up our bags before we could go to the hospital on the mainland. We were told the manager was going to meet us when we got our bags but when we arrived it seemed like they couldn’t be bothered.
We eventually made it to the mainland and got to the hospital around 7:30 pm, eight and a half hours after it happened. We complained to the dive school that they should not have told us get out where they did as it wasn’t safe. Unfortunately lacking any moral fibre whatsoever they denied this was the case and tried to imply that not only was the situation safe but that I slipped (for the benefit of Magico that is ‘slipped’ rather than ‘slept’. I know they sound the same to you mate). Massive bastards.
The hospital was pretty funny actually, with a guy manning the reception desk (which was actually a hole-in-the-wall like an old school tuckshop). As we hobbled up towards him (me hobbling, Julie being my crutch. Proper wife she is) he told us that we would have to pay him $20 if we wanted to see the doctor. So we coughed up the $20, he got up and beckoned us inside. He shows us into the Doctor’s room and tells us to sit down. At this point naively we thought he would go and get the doctor but no, he sits himself down and starts to ask us what’s wrong. Turns out this is the joker we were paying $20 to see! His English was limited to ‘David Beckham’ a point to my knee and a thumbs up. Not to be deterred by the language barrier he cracked on though and was just about to get his needle out when he turned to Julie and asked her (pointing and miming a sowing action) what he should do. Enough was enough now and we thought we would actually ask him if he was a doctor or just the receptionist chancing it. Turns out he was the receptionist chancing it. This fella had never even seen a medical school. At this point we thought we were probably best off out of there and should wait until we got to Singapore before getting it treated. We said “David Beckham” and gave him the thumbs up. He knew what we meant.
We left the next day and were delighted to arrive in Singapore. I couldn’t walk as one of the gashes was on the bend of the knee so Julie (bless her. Proper wife.) had to push me in a wheelchair through 3 airports which had its ups and downs (solid pun). On a positive note we got to push in front of every queue and hang out with the grandmas in the ‘Special Assistance’ area but I’ve got to say getting wheeled over to the disabled loo is something I’d rather forget. It was like fast-forwarding 50 years when when Julie will have to look after me in our eighties.
So that was it, a bit of a shit end to a trip that had so many highlights. This was our last stop in Asia and we were ready for something new. From here we we off to Australia and New Zealand.