Being expensive to leave, the best option out of Brunei seemed to be a lumbering old ferry bound for Kota Kinabalu in Borneo, stopping for a night at Port Labuan. The minute I arrived in Labuan I regretted being there. In daylight it is dirty and cantankerous, but by night it’s sleaze really comes to the surface. Labuan’s duty freeness, and its proximity to the nearby offshore oil rigs and their workers, make it a natural melting pot of garish neon lights, bad karaoke, cheap booze, prostitution and mafia. The volume of shifty, round-bellied middle aged Western men that wouldn’t meet my eye only compounded the effect. I hope I don’t look like one of them.
A night of trying to sleep in a cheap hotel room above a karaoke joint that blasted away with off-key 80’s hits until 4.30am was enough for me. I presented at the jetty at dawn o’clock looking for the first ticket off the island. So, within a few hours I found myself wedged like a sardine in poverty class aboard the morning ferry to KK. I concertina’d myself into the less than generous bench seat and within minutes had an open-mouthed, snoring Malaysian head resting on each shoulder, their bags clinking with bottles of cheap booze and chocolate weighing in on my legs. The entire cargo of people seemed to be coughing and snorting. The air thick with H1N1, I tried to ignore the fact that I was in the centre of an incubus of viral plague by concentrating on the movie that was playing on the screen at the front of the cabin. A task made difficult by the fact that the volume was switched down to zero and the subtitles were a minute delayed behind the action. After three hours of filtering air through my teeth we reached KK, and I was finally able to click myself straight and suck in a few lungfuls of clean air. But my submandibular lymph nodes were swelling before I’d even collected my bags, and I was certain disease was on the way.
KK is the principal city of the state of Sabah and the access point to the mountain which shares it’s name. I had been in two minds about climbing Kinabalu after doing battle with Rinjani. I was wondering about the sense in subjecting my body to that sort of strain just so as to scratch an item off a bucket list. Similar to Rinjani, the sheer bulk of the mountain is an inspiring sight -an enormous grey wedge of granite protruding from the folding green foothills, its summit usually obscured by cloud. Having clapped eyes on it, all of my hesitations were thrown to the wind – the fact that it is there is justification enough for climbing to its top. I spent a busy afternoon in Kota Kinabalu, shopping my way through trekking companies looking for an ‘off the menu’ climbing experience, and someone that might allow me to go up and down in one day. The responses were a resounding ‘no’. Although in the past a select few people per day were allowed a day pass if they could satisfy officials of their fitness and preparedness, these more risky attempts on the summit were outlawed in June 2015 after a landslide killed eighteen trekkers and guides. Therefore, I had no option but to join a slow moving conga-line of tour groups on a two day/one night package deal.
As it turned out, this actually gave me time to enjoy the climb, and given that by the time I was halfway up I was drowning in the rising tide of a headcold, it seemed a more sensible option. Despite being 400m higher than Rinjani, its far superior infrastructure makes Kinabalu a considerably easier climb. In similar fashion to last time, I parted company with my hiking group early on and set off ahead, teaming up with a young Canadian fellow and his guide that were moving along at a fair clip. The three of us reached the summit early – about 5am – which gave us plenty of time to contemplate the frigid conditions, the piercing, icy wind and the fact that there was still an hour to wait before dawn. Even wearing almost the entire contents of my backpack, I was freezing. My fingers stiff and useless on numb ham fists. Standing in the cloud, visibility restricted to metres , our guide told us that the chance of a view at sunrise was slim to none in these conditions. With the predawn air like cold fire in my inflamed airways, I didn’t need any further encouragement to call it a morning. We took a couple of proof of completion photos between coughing fits, grimacing like Wallace in the bitter wind. Then, within five minutes we began our way down, before rigor mortis made the descent even more dangerous on the slippery rocks. Back at the accommodation, after a hot shower and first dibs at the buffet breakfast while everyone else was still teeth-chattering at the summit with no view, we were happy with our decision.
A pencil line through Kinabalu, I quickly moved on to Sandakan. Sandakan is a bustling, grotty provincial town that would win no awards for tidiness or organisation. But, it is a necessary transit point to all of the good things at nearby Sepilok, and further south. I paired up at the airport with a lively little taxi driver called Boing, who was happy to whiz me around to everything that I wanted to see with the AC blasting, protecting my delicate constitution from the scorching Sandakan morning. He parked in the shade at the WWII memorial – my main reason for visiting – and slept in the shade with his mouth open, tempting the flies while I looked around. The memorial itself is a beautiful, and very moving testament to the Australian POW death marches of WWII. At the hands of the occupying Japanese, only 6 Australians survived from the original 2500 stationed at the Sandakan POW camp.It is considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen in the second world war. Little remains of the original camp, a result of the slash-and-burn, leave-no-evidence policy of the retreating Japanese as the momentum of the war shifted. An obelisk marks the location of the so-called ‘big tree’ that was once central to the camp and canopied the makeshift hospital. This was also the starting point of the horrific marches and is now the focal point for ANZAC day ceremonies. The tree is also long gone but the entire memorial park is haunted by the travesties that took place here. Standing on the spot and trying to imagine how things would have been 70 years ago, chills ran up my neck despite the almost 40 degree heat.
Boing dropped me at the chaotic carpark that doubles as the Sandakan bus station. I squeezed myself into the Sepilok bound minibus and incubated in the sun for 25 minutes because the driver refused to leave until it was full. After a relatively short, sweaty ride, Sepilok was a welcome relief – an isolated refuge of rainforest amongst the encroaching cancer of palm oil and rubber tree plantations. Quiet, shady and beautifully presented, it is a welcoming place to visit and difficult place to leave. I spent a riveting morning catching up with some naked family at the orang utan and sunbear rehabilitation centres. The centre’s mission is to rehabilitate orang utans to the wild after their corruption from neglectful zoos, illegal pet trade, poaching, disease and the ubiquitous threat of habitat destruction.
Despite the passion of the workers, international recognition and the quality of the facilities, the efforts of the centres seems to be an exercise in futility. Especially when viewed from the air it becomes obvious that Borneo’s remaining jungles are margined by fresh clearing like an ugly, brown muddy scar. The geometric palm olive plantations hungrily gaining ground. The lucky individuals supported by the centres are certainly better off than the majority, but they do appear to be a token few. After several sweltering day hikes in the jungle and with my laundry bag smelling like a mouldering onion, I reluctantly headed south.
One of the main attractions of Borneo is, of course, the UNESCO world heritage listed Sipadan. The tiny dot of an island off the coast of Semporna was made famous for its incredible diving by the pioneer himself, Jacques Cousteau. Anyone with an interest in what happens beneath the waves talks about Sipadan, and how it is a must-visit location. In an effort to protect its pristine marine environment, diving licenses are limited to 120 visits per day. This means a real need to book ahead or else risk getting stuck in Seporna with its overflowing rubbish bins and chokingly pungent fish markets for days waiting for a vacancy to open up. Not being overly inclined to forward planning, this was a detail I overlooked. After losing one full day trying to get lucky and relocate the mobile phone that I had lost in a dimly lit taxi the night before on the town’s black market, I made my way around the diving centres, trying to schmooze a berth on a boat to Sipadan. Scuba Junkie said no, you must be more prepared, sir. Borneo Outdoor Adventures said would you be interested in a river cruise instead. Sipadan Scuba said we can offer you a day trip in one week. Uncle Chang’s said, boy have we got a deal for you. It just so happened that they had just had a double cancellation for a three-dive day trip the very next day. The permit had been issued to the original applicant, but provided I was prepared for a bit of identity fraud and could find myself a wife in 24hrs, it was all mine at a heavily discounted, dodgy deals rate. To this end, I signed aboard as Derder Sabri, a Zulu national from Swaziland, and my blushing Russian bride was to go by the name of Delarie Julien. We decided that my Irish complexion was as unconvincing as her barbed wired accent. So she opted to stay mute and let me do the talking, while I tried to appear darker by staying in the shade, both in an effort not to give the game away. I tried explaining to my new wife that consummation of an arranged marriage is a Zulu convention, after which she claimed to understand no further English and the relationship became a bit more Siberian. The deception only had to go as far as registration at the Sipadan island’s office, a minor perjury at worst, and by which time an official had a snowball’s chance in hell of keeping me out of the water.
Like so many things in Borneo, the reality of Sipadan far exceeded all of its weighty expectations. The diving was simply spectacular. Schools of sharks, scores of turtles and incredible spiraling swarms of barracuda and trevally, dense enough to blot out the sun. Our second of three dives was at a site called the drop-off. We finned along a flat ocean floor that without warning falls away vertically to a depth of more than 600m. Teetering on the edge of this precipitous submarine cliff, it was hard to control the sense of vertigo despite our buoyancy. The site was just teeming with life and dotted with caves that our diving guide led us a short way into. Hovering in the water in nearly complete blackness, looking back towards the cave mouth at the passage of incredibly varied marine traffic against impossible blue, was just amazing.
Borneo has definitely lived up to it’s reputation as a frontier destination. It is an island with two faces; its generous endowment of natural wonders exaggerated by easy-to-find environmental irresponsibility. After two weeks here, I feel well traveled, but also as though I have barely scratched the surface on what the island has to offer. Although the Philippines are calling, I am reluctant to move on.