Although it is easy enough to get beer in Malaysia, as a muslim country it doesn’t really have its own beers. We did find Jaz, which we think is the only Malaysian beer and therefore goes through to the finals by default.
A staple dish in Malaysia is the simple, delicious “chicken rice”.
I try to order more exotically-named things, but they all turn out to be variations on “chicken rice”.
Nasi Lemak – chicken rice – plus dried fish, peanuts and egg
Nasi Goreng – chicken fried rice – with a fried egg on top
Lelapan ulam-ulaman – chicken and rice – with some veggies and sauce
Pandan chicken – chicken in a leaf and rice
Thankfully they don’t make you eat chicken and rice for breakfast. Breakfast is toast and coconut spread, plus an orange if it’s Chinese New Year.
Our swansong in Borneo before we move on to Hong Kong is to climb Mount Kinabalu.
We get up at 6am to make it to starting point, meet our guide Wilfred and start climbing at 8.30am. The trail is very well marked and maintained – it’s mostly steps the whole way. You feel like you could turn a corner and come across a Starbucks at any moment. We start at around 1,800m altitude and after 5k of trail we are at 3,000m. At the 3,000m point it’s like someone has flicked a switch in my body. Up to that point I was pootling up the mountain fairly happily, but after 3,000m I had to stop every 50m or so to catch my breath and let the nausea subside. I don’t remember ever feeling the effects of the altitude while climbing Mt Fuji, but our hut on Fuji was at 3,000m so I had the chance to acclimatise before going higher.
Eventually we make it to our hut at 3,300m. It’s a nice place – separate bunk beds so there’s going to be no repeat of the 8-in-a-bed scenario from Mt Fuji. Plus the buffet dinner at the nearby restaurant is amazing – there’s more fresh fruit and veg up here than in most sea-level Bornean restaurants. On the way up we were passed by many porters virtually jogging up the mountain with crates strapped to their backs. The effort is worthwhile; there are few things in life better than a good buffet when you know that you are not just allowed, but actually required to consume as much as you can.
We go to bed at 7.30pm for a 2am start the next day. There’s a massive thunder storm and the lightning looks really impressive since we are above the clouds, so we go to sleep hoping that the rain stops before we have to set off in the morning.
We’d met some people in Mulu who had stayed in the same hut as us and they warned us that the breakfast was paltry; two bits of dry toast to sustain you for ten hours hiking. So we’d brought a small jar of nutella up the mountain with us. Dry toast + nutella = breakfast of champions!
Wilfred comes to collect us at 2.45am and we set off. It isn’t raining when we start, but it starts to rain heavily after about half an hour. Wilfred warns us that the route to the summit may be closed if the weather stays bad, but when we reach the final checkpoint it is still open. I am surprised as the weather seems really dangerous to me. The rain is very heavy and is pouring down the granite rock in sheets. We have to walk through many small waterfalls. Waterproof shoes are no good if the water is over ankle depth. Our feet are soaking wet, and so are our hands from holding onto the guide rope. There’s lightning all around us.
With wet feet and hands the cold sets in and we are absolutely miserable. After an initial steep and precarious section, the final 1,500m or so is actually quite a gentle slope, but the cold and wet is making me want to quit. At one point I call to Wilfred and am going to say that I’ve had enough. But before I can, he tells me that we only have another thirty minutes to go. So I decide to knuckle down and push on for the last half an hour. At least the altitude doesn’t seem to be effecting me. Either a night’s acclimatisation at 3,300m has done the trick, or I just have too many other things to worry about to notice the altitude.
The final 200m is a steep climbing section and then we are at the summit. I understand that the summit is usually quite crowded with climbers, but there are only about ten people up here with us. Stopping moving is a very bad idea and I quickly go from simply “cold, wet and miserable” to “shivering uncontrollably and in tears” almost instantly. In fact, everyone at the summit seems to be feeling grim, with a couple of people looking even worse off than me. Everyone, that is, apart from the guides, who seem to be taking it all in their stride and are chatting and smoking as usual. If you work on the mountain, it seems that no amount of cigarettes can make a dent in your lung capacity.
We quickly get our photo taken at the summit sign, for which I try to muster a smile. Then we hunker down in a sheltered spot for a little rest. We blow on our fingers for about ten minutes until they are sufficiently mobile to work a zip and get a couple of chocolate bars out of our bag. Mr Beet eats his, but I feel too sick. We have reached the summit at 5.15am, so we are about 45 minutes early for sunrise. We decide it is better not to wait, but to get moving again as soon as possible. So at about 5.30am we set off back down the mountain. I feel much better now we are moving and soon the sky is light enough for us to see our surroundings and the view, which makes things a bit jollier. We later find out that the checkpoint gate was shut after we went through due to the bad weather and only 25 people made it to the summit that day. The Canadian couple who were sharing our room had to turn back with only 200m to go (an agonisingly close 23m below the summit altitude) because they were too cold and wet.
Mr Beet and I had signed up to do a via ferrata on the way back. We are meant to meet the instructor at the start point at 7.30am, but because we didn’t hang around for sunrise on the summit we are an hour early. We wait for a little while, hoping that he may arrive early, but he doesn’t and we are simply too cold to hang around on the exposed rock. We start to descend and after a while we meet the instructor on the way up. He advises that the course will be very wet and, since we are already cold and wet, he suggests we do the shorter route instead. We are torn, because we really want to do the full version, which is the highest via ferrata in the world. But the clincher is that for the long version, we have to wait on the mountain for an hour, whereas if we do the short version we can wait in a hut, where there will be hot drinks and they may be able to rustle up some dry gloves for us.
A via ferrata is basically a route down the mountain face where you are carabinered on to a fixed metal cable; a safe and easy version of mountain climbing. The shorter route that we take is lots of fun and we get some great views. After a miserable time on the summit climb, this makes our trip worthwhile. It even stops raining.
After a couple of hours on the via ferrata we head back to our hut to change into dry clothes, eat a second breakfast, stretch and exchange horror stories of the summit climb. We then set off back down the mountain, which is 6k and a 1,500m descent. Walking down steps for four hours is no fun, but we entertain ourselves by telling everyone on their way up how horrible the summit climb was.
Pictures of the climb and the via ferrata are on Mr Beet’s flickr page.
After three days on the Kinabatangan River, we decide that the only way for us to avoid the mosquitos is to be underwater. So we head to the coast. Borneo has some of the best places for scuba-diving and snorkeling in the world. Mr Beet doesn’t have a scuba qualification, and I am only licensed to 12m, so we opt for snorkeling.
After one night in the town of Semporna (a dive of a different sort) with a rat tap-dancing on our ceiling, we get a boat to the island of Mabul for the first of three days of snorkeling. As the boat took us to the first dive site, I was pleased that we were snorkeling rather than diving. The divers were still getting all their gear together and having detailed briefings, whereas we just stuck on our masks, snorkels and flippers and jumped in.
The only places I have ever been diving before are:
(1) the swimming pool in Thornton Heath Leisure Centre; and
(2) a muddy gravel pit in Slough.
So when I put my face into the water for the first time, it was a revelation. It really was like Finding Nemo down there. The coral was so beautiful and there were so many fish. The dive instructors tell you special fish to look out for, but even the common fish that nobody gets excited about were new to me and so colourful. Even the grey ones that are not so pretty try to make up for it by swimming round in huge shoals, so you can get caught in a cloud of fish sparkling silver in the sunshine. I suppose that wildlife spotters in Borneo like to see the orang-utans because they are so like us, but they like to see the fish because they are so alien.
The first hour’s snorkel went by in a flash of me pointing out every little thing to Mr Beet and going “…’oook! ‘oook!…ahhhh…’ootiful!“. We had three snorkels in different locations that day. At the end of the day, I was delighted but Mr Beet was a bit disappointed that we hadn’t seen any turtles. So that was something to keep our fingers crossed for the next day.
The next day we saw turtles aplenty, big green ones and smaller hawksbill ones. We saw so many that I’m not entirely sure how we managed to miss them on the first day. We must have been too excited to look around properly. After two dives, and many a turtle spotted, Mr Beet decides that he has fulfilled his snorkelling ambitions and will take the rest of the afternoon off to take advantage of the hammock outside our room and the free wifi. I’m not sure, but his decision might have had something to do with the banded sea snake we saw on his final dive. The guide was telling us all about it: “That’s a sea snake. They stay at the bottom for long periods, but they breathe air so they come up every once in a while. They’re really cool. Their bites are lethal to humans.”
I’m still having an amazing time, so I sign up for more snorkels on the third day (even though this means I have to go straight from the salt water to the airport afterwards). Everyone else in our group seems to lack stamina though, and they start dropping off so that by the final trip of the day I am the only snorkeller. I’m slightly concerned about this, as I’ve seen that film Open Water and I’m worried that if I’m the only one I might get forgotten. As it turns out, my fears are well-founded as the boat does indeed forget me. OK, so I was with a guide and we were within swimming distance of the jetty, but even so!
We saw loads of beautiful fish. My favourites were some of the ones that weren’t unusual, including what I can best describe as the fish played by Willem Dafoe in Finding Nemo. Some of the more interesting things I spotted included turtles, sting rays, moray eels, ribbon eels, sea snakes, lion fish, scorpion fish, crocodile fish, goat fish, unicorn fish, pipe fish, file fish and trumpet fish (thanks to little79bear, dandandanRyan, Tchami, berniedup, TRACC-Borneo, atomicshark, Nemo’s great uncle and Boogies with Fish some flickr members with waterproof cameras, for the photos).
From Sepilok we go to stay for a couple of days in a nature lodge on the Kinabatangan River. It’s a bit like a holiday camp here – they ring a gong every time you need to present yourself for an activity. The first activity is a boat trip at dusk – the best time to spot animals. The first the guide spots is an orang-utan. It’s cool to see one in the wild, even though we just saw loads at the rehabilitation centre, but it’s very far away. Here’s our photo – 100 points if you can spot it!
We also see more proboscis monkeys
A tree-full of silver leaf monkeys
Some hornbills – they are very fun to watch as they have a very distinctive silhouette and a funny way of hopping along a branch.
And two types of macaque – they may be common as muck but they always make for a good photo opportunity!
After dinner Col discovers that he has about 50 mosquito bites on his back already. This is the start of a two-day battle with the most ravenous and persistent mozzies we have come across in seven months in Asia:
Us: Natural insect repellant (lots of)
Us: Unnatural, highly-toxic DEET insect repellant (lots of)
Us: Long trousers tucked into thick socks
Us: Special anti-mozzie long-sleeved shirts
Us: Wearing gore-tex raincoats at all times
Mozzies: Hmmm… CHOMP YOUR LEGS!
After two days, we have between 400 and 500 bites between us. The lodge seems to understand the problem, as they keep ringing the gong for orange-squash-and-biscuits-time, just like you get after donating blood at home. And if our donation to the local mosquito population wasn’t enough, the guides take us on a hike through the jungle to see if the leeches want to have a munch as well. After all Mr Beet’s concerns about leeches these past few months, he is very dismissive when I actually get one “oh that’s just a tiny one – just flick it off”. By the end of the hike (where we see two types of leech but not much else) we have had about half a dozen leeches each and are experts at flicking them off (there’s a technique to it). Thankfully none actually reach our skin. One of the other guests woke up in the middle of the night with one on his neck and he hadn’t even been on the jungle hike.
After our night hike (much the same as the day hike, except this time you couldn’t see the leeches) we get back to our room and head straight to the bathroom to strip off for a thorough leech inspection. Suddenly the leeches weren’t the problem any more as we were sharing the bathroom with a great big rat. He scuttled off and we discovered that he had been nibbling our soap, teabags and water bottles. We left the fan running all night to try to drown out the sounds of them scurrying around in the roof, but we didn’t get much sleep.
We had a couple of dawn boat trips as well and we saw mostly the same animals as previously, but also a water monitor (a baby compared to the one we saw in Penang).
We tried to spot crocodiles and Bornean pygmy elephants as well, but the water level was too high to see crocs and the elephants had moved to another area. But we did get a brilliant view of an orang-utan on our last night to make up for it.
More photos where you can play “spot the wildlife” on Mr Beet’s flickr page.