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Tropic Travels- Week 1: Sabah's Many Faces

All tall people will empathise as to how hard it bloody hard is to sleep on a plane in economy class. You have to try and stretch out, find a place to put your legs so you don’t trip anyone over whose walking past in the aisle (assuming you’ve got an isle seat, that is). And then there is whole problem of having the seat leant back so as not to disturb the other people behind you (and also to make sure that you don’t be one of those people who leans back and doesn’t give a shit if they cramp up the people behind you, cause those people are arseholes…), as well as the worry of waking up with a cramp neck—

Okay, I’ll stop now. Aside from the lack of sleep, I actually had a really great flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpar, and then from Kuala Lumpar to Kota Kinabalu, the capital and largest city of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo’s most northern province.

While waiting for the transit domestic flight, I got talking to a lady called Theresa, a former resident of Malaysian Borneo who has now been living in Brisbane for the last thirty-five years, who along with two of her sisters was on her way to Kota Kinabalu for a family reunion (with her ten siblings). We got on so well that she got her brother to give me a lift to the backpacking place that I was meeting Jessie at.

This is probably one of the first things to know about Malaysians: they are extremely friendly. Seriously friendly. People literally stop to say hello to you in the street, particularly if you are a foreigner. And even though language may be a barrier, they still will stop for you.

So after arriving at what Masada Backpackers Hostel (honestly one of the best backpacking places I’ve stayed at), I was finally reunited with Jessie, who herself had travelled over a week before to get away for a bit longer. She had already met many tourists who had come and gone through the hostel, the most recent of which was Jannis, a 23 year old former chef from Stuttgart who was travelling across South-East Asia.

They had together already checked out many of the night markets and all western-oriented restaurants that could be found, so we headed out into the city to find more. As far as Asian cities go, Kota Kinabalu (or KK, as it is known), is a very modern place, despite the rundown look of many of the buildings due to the tropical climate. We ended up at a schnitzel house, the Mad Ben Café, where I payed for a schnitzel each with chips and a drink, which cost us about 20 Malaysian ringet. To put that in perspective that amounts to around $7 Australian Dollars… there’s another thing about Malaysia: everything is really cheap.

After lunch and finishing moving back and forth from the hostel, Jannis, Jessie and I made our way to the harbour side to check out the sunset and the night markets. They stretch like a labyrinth along the entire harbour side, selling literally anything from dried fish and fruit to tourist items and musical instruments. Additionally, many people ply trades here, most notably the StreetSide sowers, who can sew up your clothes for you with an old fashioned sowing machine, while you wait. After Jessie got her drink bottle taken by some of the local kids and we tried some local Thai, we made our way to the nigh district of KK, and discovered an Australian themed bar, where we casually downed a tower of beer. Jessie recounted of how cheap alcohol is here; a few nights ago she had a big one in a club called BED (that apparently stands for Best Entertainment District) and ended up dancing on the bar. Good to see the Aussies representing.

The following morning we rose at 5:30am to hop on a flight to Sandakan. Jannis, after a lot of coaxing by Jessie and I, decided to join us, whilst we also ran into an awesome German couple on their honeymoon, Amir and Olga, who also came with us. Now, with three Germans in tow, we made our way from Sandakan to the Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary.

Now this was something else. We had always been told how endangered orang-utans are in the wild, but when we saw this orang-utan climb up the ladder to eat bananas after waiting for over half an hour, it was totally worth it. This animal is something special. I know that’s a bit of a ‘no-duh’ statement, but when you actually see one, how it moves, its mannerisms and behaviour, and its interactions with others around it, then you see that they really are like us, even though we are separated by millions of years of evolution.

These orang-utans are allowed to come and go as they please, and there is no restrictions stopping them from going out into the jungle, but often they would come back for food and safety. We went to a larger viewing platform, which had three female orang-utans and one male. Amir managed to get some amazing shots on his camera, and we topped it off with a great walk back. While Jessie went off on her own to go on a trail Amir, Olga and I made our way to check out the Borneo Sun Bears. And Jannis? He was hungry, and no one stops a hungry German.

Now, for those who may not know, I absolutely love bears… I grew up with four teddy bears, I support the Chicago Bears… I could go on. So for me running into the world’s smallest bear as it lumbered around doing bear things that make it be a bear was just awesome. The sun bear has a beautiful orange crescent on its chest which gives it its name, and it’s native to Borneo. It almost holds the record for being the world’s most arboreal bear, being able to climb over forty metres high in the trees. Sun Bears can do it all. Seriously google them, they’re such an awesome animal.

We returned to the sanctuary to discover Jessie had barely escaped from being attacked by a horde of Proboscis Monkeys (the ones with the really massive noses). Seriously, she should’ve come seen the bears. A bus was waiting for us to take us to the Kinabatangan River (probs haven’t spelt that right), where our final destination for the day was.

By this stage we were all buggered beyond belief, particularly Jannis, who had already eaten his way through half the menu at the sanctuary’s small café. Most of us slept on the way to the river, but on the way there we quickly saw why the Orang-utan and Sun Bear were such endangered species.

All across Sabah province, as well as all Borneo, there are thousands upon thousands of palm oil plantations. I’ve had to study this, both in school and within many subjects of university, and having that background knowledge only made seeing this worse. 90% of the world’s palm oil production comes from Borneo, and is used in foods, cooking oils and other products. There is a very high chance that at some point, we have all used a product that has contained palm oil that has come from here.

And this was why there were so many species that were endangered. I know I’m going to sound preachy, but on this trip I really saw how we ourselves as a species are so dangerous. When we had come into land at the airport, we actually had seen barely any jungle… it was just plantations. It’s easy to assume that the jungle covers all of Borneo. It couldn’t be further from the truth, because all we were seeing, for our entire two hour trip, stretching out to the horizon and almost certainly beyond it, here in the heart of Borneo, were these plantations.

It made me stop and think. Whenever we do a research paper or any kind of assessment within the confines of the happy, air conditioned space of the Macquarie University library, all these things that we look at and study seem so abstract; so far away. I suppose it’s because at the time we only think about finishing whatever assessment we’re doing; and that this injustice that is happening somewhere else is another thing that we have to study. It doesn’t often go beyond the confines of thinking like that.

But then you go there and you see it. Physically in front of you. Seeing all the company names next to every plantation that goes by, hundreds and hundreds of them, and the eroding barren landscape from all the clearing of old plantations through ‘slash and burn’ (where basically all the trees and burned and cleared away, leaving the bleak landscape to be replanted). It’s hard to even imagine that the jungle was once here because these plantations just go on and on. It makes all that theoretical stuff go beyond the classroom and see that this is real, and this is happening. It made me sick, because this is how dangerous we are. We didn’t speak much that trip.

Fortunately, our spirits were quickly perked up when we arrived at the river, and taken across it by boat to a beautifully secluded retreat. After checking in, we were all packed onto a ‘cruise’ (better known as a tinny) and sent up the river. Seeing the jungle from the river was absolutely transporting, even though the magic was occasionally offset by the infrequent bottle or bin that was floating in the river from towns upstream. On this trip we got to see many amazing birds, including Kingfishers and Hornbills, as well as Proboscis monkeys and long-tailed maraques. Seeing them play and jump from tree to tree was amazing… and to think, we get to travel here for study?! We even saw remnants of where Asian elephants had been, but we didn’t get to see any.

After a really peaceful evening drinking beer, listening to the appropriately tranquil sounds of the local mosque’s call to evening prayers and being indulged by amazing food from our hosts, we got an early night and were woken up at 5:30am for a morning tinny trip before breakfast and a day hike at 9am. Walking through the jungle to an ox-brow lake (named for that because of its shape), we had to dodge leeches (Jessie’s best friends), the dense jungle, as well as deal with the humidity. it look us over an hour to make it to the lake, during which time we saw many creatures, including a jungle brown owl (yes, they have owls here too!).

When we got there, we were welcomed by hundreds of tiny fish that would eat the dead skin flakes off our feet and hands in the lake. I’d never done this before, and I had to confess it was incredibly ticklish, and I’m not sure to forget that any time soon. Following this we came back, and following a third tinny trip up the river (where we saw even more monkeys up close, two crocodiles and a young juvenile python), we went for an evening walk. We got to see many creatures up close in the dark that never came out, including woodpeckers, Kingfishers, a Western Tarsier (which was unbelievably cute), and a Slow Loris. The Slow Loris is the sloth of Borneo, it has huge eyes that reflect light, it moves unbelievably slow in the higher parts of the tree canopy. It is also extremely rare; Aljir, our guide, said that he usually only sees these creatures twice a year.

Unfortunately, the following day (5th September), was our last. We couldn’t believe how much we packed into such a short time. As we left and headed back through the plantations, I saw a proboscis monkey by the side of the road. For me, it summed up Borneo. It is a place of many faces, where there is never a dull moment. It’s hot, wild, sometimes confronting, often jaw-dropping, and incredibly unique. But change is happening, and it is something that may not be for the better. If there is a god that exists, I think he (or she) was trying to send a not-so-subtle message.

Following our departure from the river and our arrival back in Sandakan, Jessie and I bid farewell to Jannis, Amir and Olga, who were all going their separate ways. In addition to them, we’d also met even more people on our trip, so to Jane, Khando and Aouatif, you guys were awesome!

By the time we had arrived back in KK, my second phone had died as well. Jessie additionally wanted to see if the Aussie bar telecasted an AFL game (very big Swans fan, our Jessie is). When we got to the bar, we discovered the only game being broadcast was West Coast vs St. Kilda, so we immediately left (Not a fan of the Eagles, Fremantle all the way), and we ended up wandering the markets aimlessly for the evening. I got a new phone, being a NOKIA brick phone (complete with Snake, you guys know what I’m talking about), and Jessie bought some brand new Nike shoes for 96 reget (about $35 Australian Dollars). See what I mean?! Cheap!

It had been a wild week. But tomorrow (6th September), we begin our work that we came here for, to work with indigenous communities and with PACOS, the organisation that Macquarie University is affiliated with. Christina (the third and last of us) will be arriving. We will be meeting our coordinators and team leaders, go through introductions, and so much more. I’m so excited, its going to be a wild ride.

Any regrets? That we didn’t get to see any elephants… hopefully the next few weeks may change with that.

Nick :)

P.S. To that bastard bus driver who rummaged through Jannis’s bag and made off with his camera… Poor form mate, poor form.

Oh and Meg, miss you cutie :)

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