I always enjoy the view from airplane. The coast of Borneo is covered by dense forests with winding rivers run between. Roads, houses and farmland are rather scarce until we flew further north. It is a largely undeveloped wilderness.
My first destination is Mountain Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia. At 4100-meter, it is the highest peak in South-East Asia. However, according to Lonely Planet, it is one of the easiest mountains in the world to climb.
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Right at the airport, I have met two Singaporean girls also heading to Mountain Kinabalu. We took a bus from the city to the park. The uphill ride took us from sweaty tropical heat to cool mountain air. We arrived after a three hours ride. Perhaps a little disappointingly, I found the mountain we have come to see was completely hidden in clouds. I have learned this is usually the case. Except for a short period at dawn, the mountain is almost always covered in clouds.
I stayed in the hostel for the night. The place is clean and tranquil. All eight beds in the dormitory room were occupied. I met two young British there and joined them for tomorrow's climb.
We started early next morning. Another British and a Malaysian joined us. We started as a group of five plus a local guide. The trails are quite steep. I can barely kept up with the rest. Good that I have trained myself by climbing stairs in the weeks before. Foggy and cold, it was a different environment up there. The trees are short and the branches are curly like big, natural bonsai. There were occasional light misty rains. Parts of the trail have water sipping down in like a little stream. Now I know what a cloud forest is.
We reached the mountain lodges before noon, where we will remain for the night. Next morning we will scale the last 800 meters for sunrise at the peak. Besides the two lodges and an expensive restaurant nothing else is there. It was cold and the view was blocked. Many people simply went to bed after lunch. It was so quiet. The only sound I could hear was some birds' song in a great distance. Despite the cold and my shivering hand, I tried to stay outside to write some postcards. Suddenly the clouds were cleared and revealed the great scenery below. I hurried inside to ask my friends to help me to take pictures. Somehow this has also drawn people from the entire lodge out. The moment of my mountain solitude was dispersed with the cloud.
Next morning we started before 3 am. I lagged behind and soon split with my team. Nevertheless I was not alone since there were many other people climbing. We soon passed the forest and emerged on a barren slope. Under the full moon we appeared as little dots scaling a vast rock face. I paused frequently to catch my breath. The final leg was the steepest. I reached the summit half an hour before dawn. I found my teammates and other 20 or so climbers there. The wind was very strong. We took shelter in the gaps between the rocks until the sunrise.
Honestly the sunrise was not so dramatic. Clouds have partly obscured it. Nevertheless the view to the terrain below is truly breath taking. Later we went down on the same trail and got back to the headquarter at about 12. By then I feel completely numb, both in my muscles as well as my mind.
From Kinabalu was a 4 hour bus ride to Uncle Tan's lodge. But first I spent an afternoon wandering in the nearby city of Sandakan. There was really not much to see. They most interesting sight was finding baby sharks and stingrays slaughtered for sale in the wet market.
Uncle Tan greeted me in Cantonese from his house (my language is actually quite commonly spoken in Sandakan). He ran this guesthouse as well as some huts in the remote areas in Sabah. His natural tours attract backpackers all over the world. I was served late lunch in front of his house. It included curry chicken, curry cabbages, fresh pineapple, banana cake, etc. Indeed he would feed us all meals in the next few days, which is some of the best I ever had.
Uncle Tan's place was more basic than I expected. The bathroom was just a tin hut with a water tap and a large bucket of water inside. When I was taking bath, it started to rain. The rain turned into downpour and then followed by thunders and then the power went out. I waited in complete darkness for 10 minutes. Finally someone came with a flashlight and an umbrella to rescue me.
Turtle Islands is a national park comprise of 3 small islands off the shore of Sandakan. Sea turtles come to the islands to lay eggs throughout the year. Today we were boated to our first stop in the Pulau Liberan Island, where uncle Tan has some guest huts in a small fishing village. We spent an afternoon on the beach. The water there is not so great however.
The real event happened on the Turtle Islands in the evening. The park is very organized. Unsupervised visitors are not allowed on the beach. Instead we waited in a restaurant for the ranger to call us. Luckily it happened early that evening. A turtle has landed earlier. The ranger brought us to see the it lay eggs.
The greenback turtle was a large one but not so gigantic. It was laying eggs in a hole on the beach. They looked like a pile of wet ping pong balls in a sand hole. It stopped after about 100 eggs. Then it uses its rear flippers to shove sands to fill the hole. The eggs do not stay there because the ranger removed them to the hatchery. The turtle would rest for a few more hours before returning to the sea. We were allowed to touch it during its resting. Despite the spotlight and the tourists around it, the turtle looked tranquil.
Next the rangers brought us to the hatchery. The eggs were buried in a controlled environment for better hatching rate and to avoid predators. The rangers brought the highlight of the night, a bucket of newly hatched turtles. We all had a chance to hold these babies. They kept crawling tirelessly in our hand. We released them on the beach and saw them crawled toward the sea. Life in the nature is hard. A few did not make it to the water, despite our assistance. Some will be feasted by predators. The more lucky ones will grow up as adult and return some years later to the same beach to breed their next generation.
In our return trip we almost have a boat accident. Our boat was running at high speed in the darkness of the sea. Suddenly a big dark fishing boat emerged in front of us in our path. The boatmen dodged in the last moment.
Kinabatangan Jungle camp
Returning from the Turtle Islands, I stopped by at the Uncle Tan's and then headed to the jungle camp by the River Kinabatangan. It took an hour by bus followed by another hour of boat ride in the river. They do not always have new visitor everyday. That day I happened to be the only one. We loaded the boat with supplies, which also known as great food, some gasoline and then off we went.
The boat first ran on the main river, then turned into small tributaries, then thru lakes and ponds, and then finally landed by a swamp. Here is the camp! A dozen huts dotted around a main shelter in the forest. Our huts are elevated wooden boxes enclosed on three sides with a thatched roof. Inside it has 2 thin and moldy mattresses, which we would cover with the clean bed sheet we brought in, plus the indispensable mosquito net.
Every morning I woke up to an enchanting bird song. The tunes I will still recall years later. It was only six in the morning but I never felt forced out of bed. Instead it was a jungle rhythm I naturally followed. We would row a boat to explore the surroundings. Proboscis monkeys were all around doing gymnastics or jumping from trees to trees. We even had the luck to spot a wild orang utan (an ape) chewing nuts on a tree. The hot afternoons are best spent swinging in hammocks or taking naps.
Fresh fruits and great meals were served throughout the day in the main shelter. People gathered around and shared stories. There I have learned everyone has already traveled for months if not over a year. Before that I have never imagined one can sustained a trip for such an extended period of time. This has changed my perception on traveling. I ran into my British teammate from Mountain Kinabalu earlier. He liked the relaxing atmosphere so much that he called it a vacation from vacation.
P.S. From Uncle Tan's website I have learned that he has since passed away. I was deeply saddened because he was one of the friendliest people in the world. Uncle Tan, thank you for your hospitality! (2006.12.27)
2006.12.28 comments -