Category Archives: 2010 Borneo

Day 30 – Kota Kinabalu

 

Friday, 11 June 2010

It’s the last full day of the holiday.  We were going to treat ourselves to a bit of a sleep-in, but the sun was shining straight through the window so we got up earlier than expected.  We went for our last coffees and buns at our favourite little kopitiam; the waitress (we nicknamed “Happy” because she never smiles) has got to know us and asks us if we just want our usual coffees and tells us the baked buns (Tracy’s favourite) wouldn’t be ready until 09:30.  We had our coffee and at 09:25 the buns were delivered from the kitchen at the back of the shop to the servery at the front of the shop; the first bun off the tray was delivered straight to Tracy.  The pineapple filling was piping hot, so fresh.

After breakfast we wandered to the other end of town to go shopping at Espirit.  The shop didn’t open until 10:00 so we did a couple of laps of the shopping complex, watching the people getting ready for the day and the other kopitiams serve their clientele.  Right on time, the shop opened and Tracy bought several t-shirts (with Scott hovering in the background), they even honoured her membership card which she left in Australia and received her discounts.  On the way back to the hotel, we wandered back through the city, stopping at a few little shops to look for sarongs and some other local-wares.  We dropped the shopping at the room then went back to the restaurant where we had a good lunch the previous day, to test it out again and we had another good lunch, we even picked our own food out under the watchful gaze of our helpful waitress who explained what the vegetarian options were.

Tracy had a cunning plan to walk to the City Mosque which we had seen from the free shuttle bus taking us the hypermarket a few weeks ago.  The LP said it should have been just over 3km from town; it was still hot (and I mean hot and very sweaty) and looked as if it might rain later, so we scurried off straight after lunch.  We walked along the harbourside wall cum makeshift footpath.  The road verge was clean and all the litter collected, but walking along the wall we could see the huge quantities of rubbish in between the rocks which is not visible from the roadway; it is such a pity as there is a concerted (but superficial) effort to keep KK clean (out of sight – out of mind).  There is a small beach with bbq area that there had been a small effort to clean, except it still looked like a tipsite, however, the bbq areas were well used and some of the efforts in picnic lunches put us to shame, it seemed as if people had everything including the kitchen sink.  The walk seemed a lot further than 3km and by the time we reached the Masjid, we were pretty well soaked through.  In the carpark were a couple of tourist buses and we saw from a distance, the tourists entering the mosque through a side door.

By the time we arrived at that door, there was a sign saying tourists were not allowed through this door and we had to enter through the front doors.  From a distance the mosque is an impressive looking building, but up close it is just another concrete building; well constructed and architecturally interesting, but still just painted concrete.  We had totally lucked it in, the mosque is only open to infidels from 2-3pm and it was just after 2 – woohoo.  At the front door, we removed our shoes and stepped inside, to be intercepted by a little man who handed us some gowns which must be worn.  Did I mention we were soaked through already?  Donning our neck to ankle synthetic robes didn’t improve the situation; Tracy’s problems got worse when the man handed her a synthetic head scarf too!  We slowly wandered and sweated our way around inside the mosque (probably leaving a dripping trail), relishing the peace and quiet, taking notice of the simple yet interesting designs, all the time being followed by our little man.  It wasn’t any cooler inside than outside, there a thousand or more ceiling fans and free standing fans in the mosque, all of them were turned off.  At the end of the lap of the mosque, we de-robed and handed the now sweaty robes back to our “shadow”, signed the guest book and left the mosque.  We are presumed they wouldn’t bother trying to clean the robes after, probably taking them out somewhere for burning?  I know we would have.

Back outside, it was still hot, so we bought some water from the little stall at the front of the mosque entrance (being run by the wife of the little man) and headed back onto the roadway to walk back to the hotel.  We passed back from the bbq site near the beach, declining offers to eat food, my theory being if I stopped I might dissolve into a puddle of sweat.
We made it back, completely soaked through and hot.  Back in the room, we checked on Google Earth and discovered our walk was a crack over 10km, in the heat and the humidity, this was no simple feat.

After a rest and a shower, we started looking at the packing issue, sorting out what was going to be going and what was going to be ditched here in KK.  The initial pack went rather smoothly and it seemed that we would be able to fit everything in.  (How many times at the end of a trip have you not been able to fit everything back into the bags?)

It was just after sunset and we were hungry.  We walked back through town down to the waterfront and went back to the Indian restaurant (Kohinoor).  We ordered a couple of drinks (it is the end of holiday after all and our first drinks since leaving Kota Kinabalu) and some lovely Indian dishes, even splurging and having a dessert, we watched the last of the colour fade from the sky.  Sufficiently full, we strolled for the last time through the main part of town and back to the hostel.

Day 29 – Labuan -> Kota Kinabalu

Thursday, 10 June 2010

For whatever reason we had a restless night’s sleep and awoke less than refreshed to make the ferry crossing back to KK.  We packed our stuff, checked out of the hotel and headed down to the ferry terminal to get our tickets.  The ticketing office was closed when we arrived, the sign on the door read the office opens at 07:15 and at precisely that time, it did.  We got our tickets then went across the road for a coffee.  There were a few others in the kopitiam, some rig-workers in their overalls making ready to head out to the offshore platforms for the day.  The rain subsided overnight, but things were still a little damp with small puddles left over, so we watched as the cars sloshed down the main street (not exactly peak hour, but it wasn’t too quiet either).

Back across at the ferry terminal, we waited outside the departure gate with a throng of people waiting to get their ferries to wherever.  The sign on the door read the departure gate would open at 07:45 and promptly at the time, the door opened and some smaller ferry’s passengers were called to board; then it was our turn just a few minutes later.  We boarded and found our “business class” seats (there wasn’t much difference from what we could see between our seats and “economy”)  The ferry departed spot on time and headed out past all the oil/gas rig tenders at anchor in the harbour and shaped a course for KK.  The trip was calm and uneventful; the movie was awful (“2012”).

We arrived on time in KK and walked off Jesselton Wharf and made our way to Kinabalu Backpackers Lodge where we had stayed at the start of this trip almost one month ago.  We dumped our bags and headed off to the Step Inn to retrieve the bag we left there a couple of weeks ago, stopping off for some lunch at a hole-in-the-wall on the way.  Tracy was sure the bag would not be there, so was surprised when it was exactly where we had left it.  We walked back through town heading towards KBL, stopping in a couple of shops en route out to check out some souvenir prices without actually buying anything.

We dumped the diving gear bag at KBL and went out to do a spot of shopping.  As luck would have it, Tracy didn’t bring the umbrella, so of course, it pissed down rain.  We went back to one of the dive shops we had seen on a previous visit and bought a few small items which are significantly cheaper here than back home, then went down to Philippine Markets to buy a couple of t-shirts.  It was still pouring when we left the markets, we were soaked through but still stopped at our favourite little kopi kedai for a fresh bun and coffee.

Back at KBL we got out of our wet things and hung them up in the room; we don’t realistically expect them to dry, but maybe they will be less wet when it comes time to pack to head back to Australia?

Just after sunset, we showered and headed out for dinner.  The rain had eased off, but it was still drizzling and there were deep puddles everywhere.  We had no idea what we wanted for dinner, so wandered aimlessly until we arrived at the Night Market.  The stalls were all covered with multi-coloured layers of plastic, electric cables ran across the pathways and through the puddles, the strings holding down the tarpaulins were at neck height for Scott; an OHS nightmare and many accidents waiting to happen!  We went back to a food wallah we had tried before and ordered mee goreng.  The food is plain and we are getting very tired of the limited choices, but with only two nights left on the trip there is not much to do. After our main course, we went over to one of the many stalls selling desserts and bought some triangular shaped pancakes; we had seen these being made before and knew they contained a filling of peanuts, but weren’t aware the batter contains bananas.  The result is a not-overly sweet waffle-like pancake flavoured with banana and a filling with a nutty crunch.  They were hot from the stall so we carried them back the KBL where they were devoured.

Day 28 – Miri -> Labuan

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Up and packed for a moving day.  It is sad to leave the diving of Miri, but we need to get to Kota Kinabalu for our flight home.  The weather looked similar to the last few days, so the diving would be good – damn.

We had morning coffees at our usual brekkie spot before saying goodbye to the Somerset Hotel and heading to the Miri Airport.  The Airport is the usual efficient setup and we checked our bags through and headed up to the departure lounge, having a coffee at Coffee Bean.  The airport seems to be setup for the oil rig workers as there is a lot of people heading to Miri Helibase etc and the workers on Labuan are also oil rig workers.  Once our flight was called there was no faffing around and we were straight on the MASWings flight and took straight off.  It was a strange flight as it was really fast (you only got a drink of Milo) and we seemed to spend most of the flight avoiding pockets of clouds etc.  We landed at Labuan and jumped straight into a taxi to  Ambassador Hotel.  Well after not booking anything for the last 4 weeks, we found the hotel was full, bugger, but ventured to another one across the road who had two free rooms, so we selected what we hope is the quietest one.  We popped across the road to Abdullah’s and had a fantastic Roti Telur with dahl.  I have to say we have found the food in Sabah to be much more towards our liking than in Sarawak which seemed to be predominantly Chinese and extremely bland after a while.

First off was a trip to the Peace Park/Surrender Memorial in Layang Layangan.  So we headed to the local Bas Mini depot and found Bus 4 which took us straight there, although we don’t think that is their usual route, but they did a circuit of the park and after much discussion between the lady driver and one of the other occupants about the location of the entrance they dropped us straight out the front – perfect.  This is the memorial for the Japanese and commemorates the Japanese surrender.  It is in the process of being tidied up as indicated by the plethora of gardeners. 

Entrance to Surrender Point
Entrance to Surrender Point

There is also a plaque to remember the spot where the Japanese surrendered to the Australian’s and where the tribunals for war crimes against allied forces occurred, particularly the Japanese officers responsible for the Sandakan war crimes. 

The end of the war in the pacific
The end of the war in the pacific

I of course wonder if the Japanese ever come to places like these and feel remorse for what happened, but I wonder the same about the European countries as well.  Anyway it was a quiet place and we wandered along the paths etc in contemplation of what it was like for those here in 1945.  There is some interesting statistics on the number of Japanese killed during the conflict, the majority occurred towards the end of the Japanese occupation and done by the locals who probably had had enough by then.

We then headed back to the main road and caught another Bas Mini back into the town centre.  We wandered to the ferry terminal to see what are the departure times for Kota Kinabalu tomorrow.  Labuan is also famous for being a duty free island so we priced up some alcohol (which seems to be significantly cheaper than home) and then caught a taxi to our next destination.  The Labuan War Memorial.

This is the war memorial for all the commonwealth servicemen that were killed in the Borneo conflicts and also holds the graves of those that died in the Sandakan death marches.  This is a beautifully maintained memorial and it is so sad to see the rows upon rows of names, in addition to the rows that are for the unknown soldiers. 

Heartbreaking to see so many headstones
Heartbreaking to see so many headstones

There is also a really lovely memorial for the Indian soldiers that were also killed in the conflict.  I suppose you forget how many countries were involved.  It was strange that directly above the cemetery is the flight path for the military planes, but keeps you focused and kind of puts things into perspective.

Strange combination of military plane, war memorial and cemetary
Strange combination of military plane, war memorial and cemetary

We caught a taxi back into Labuan and Scott looked up some prices of duty free online and then went shopping for some Scotch.  Now to make sure he doesn’t drink it before we leave.

As the sun began to set, the clouds rolled in and then came the lightning, thunder and heavy rain.  It didn’t actually look too bad from the vantage point of our hotel room, but when we stepped outside to go get some dinner, we were met with a deluge and deafening thunder-claps.  We ducked in and out of sheltering sidewalks and made it to Choice Restaurant.  As usual, not all of the food on the menu was available, so we settled for our second preferences.  The mango lassi was good, the plain lassi wasn’t plain (but neither was it sweet, or salty!); the dosai was really good.  It wasn’t raining as hard when we left the restaurant, so instead of ducking rain we only had to dodge deep puddles.

Back in the hotel room, the internet connection is down, but the cable tv is still working (pity there isn’t anything good on) so we watched out the window as the lightning silhouettes the nearby buildings.  Tracy is hoping the storm blows over quickly as she isn’t looking forward to a rough ferry crossing back to KK.

Day 27 – Miri

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The storms did abate relatively early during the night, but the in the morning the skies were scattered with thick clouds and the winds were still fresh, but blowing offshore.  We had coffee in the room then went to the lobby to find our driver already there and waiting for us.  At the end of the short trip to the marina we noticed the boat we had been using for the previous two days had been replaced by a smaller single-engine monohull. 

Our new dive boat
Our new dive boat

Robert was running just a few minutes late and was profusely apologetic, but he had our lunch, snacks and more drinks than we could handle.  We got underway and as we exited the marina we saw the seas were very calm despite the overnight wind.  This was fantastic and even though the first day had been rough, Tracy found the boat diving to be great fun, mainly because you get on and off the boats with minimal fuss and as they know I suffer from seasickness there is a speedy exit from the boat and we go straight down to get out of any swell.  Unlike the boat dives in Perth where there is so much hanging around it gets nauseating.

The further south and offshore we got, the lighter the wind became until eventually at the first dive site there was no wind at all.  The sea wasn’t as blue as on the first day of diving, but it was certainly bluer than the previous day (when it had a considerable green tint).

Dive 7 – Batu Belais.  “The underwater jungle of Sarawak.”  What a magnificent way to start the day.  The water was warm (30+C), the visibility was excellent (30-40m) the bottom at 22m was easily visible from the boat.  This place abounds with gorgonian fans and their inhabitants, micro life is abundant (finding nudibranchs is not hard, they’re everywhere here, and in some instances in massive heaving balls), there were more bumphead parrotfish, lion fish, stone fish, big fish, small fish, hard corals, soft corals, awesome stuff!  There was hardly any current whilst deep, but an appreciable surface current became apparent at 5m and stronger again at 3m.

Dive 8 – Sunday Rock Garden.  Another brilliant dive down to about 18m in a coral garden that had no end in sight (even though visibility was still 30+m).  This was the dive where, if you hadn’t seen it before, it was here.  The fans and ferns, the fish and the corals.  There was sooo much to see you began to get overwhelmed.  You could spend a lifetime underwater here and still not find everything.  Lobsters hidden in their tiny holes with only their antennae poking out, the zillion different varieties of fish, bubble anemones, corals… it was very impressive.

Dive 9 – Eve Garden (West Point).  This is the western extremity of the reef where we have already done a couple of dives.  After the luncheon surface interval, the wind had picked up a bit and the surface current had also strengthened.  As we were going to be diving in 7m we were preparing ourselves for a swim against the current; we were right.  We spent most of the dive heading into the current, but thankfully near the bottom it was significantly less than at the surface.  It was shallow enough for us to take the housing-less camera for a last roll of the dice, it survived and we managed to get a few decent photos. 

Nudi's everywhere
Nudi

 

More nudis
More nudis

Waxing poetic, none of Picasso, Michelangelo nor any of the masters could paint this picture; they simply don’t have enough colours to truly represent this scenery.  Scott got annoyed at one point as there was so much to photograph it was hard to keep up and there was so much to see.  As we swam along the bottom, large schools of squid watched us from above, the wary and shy bumpheads again kept us under surveillance, a blue-spotted ray hidden deep in the coral kept a wary eye out. 

I am a fan of these beautiful starfish
I am a fan of these beautiful starfish

 

At the turn around point, we simply stopped swimming and let the current effortlessly race us back to the ascent line and the boat.

A summary of the 9 dives.  The tourism literature compares Miri with Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai, but they are actually completely different types of diving.  If you want to go deep and hang alongside a dark, bottomless wall, then head to Sipadan.  If you like muck diving on the house reefs at Kapalai and Mabul, then you would love Miri just as we have loved diving here; there are more sharks and turtles in Sabah, but the fans and corals here are much more abundant and therefore they host more micro-life.  We loved diving in Miri.

When we arrived back at the marina, our driver was there waiting as usual and took us to the Tropical Dives office for us to pay our bills, then took us back to the hotel; shower then siesta, you know the routine.

Just after sunset we headed out for dinner, trying somewhere different for our last night in Miri.  We went to Mings, a western-styled sidewalk bar cum restaurant for an ok meal, but a good lassi.  After dinner we took a lap around the block, then back to the hotel.

Day 26 – Miri

Monday, 7 June 2010

Well the weather doesn’t want to play the game for us – there was thunderstorms most of the night and some prolonged heavy rain, not that Scott woke up to see/hear it.  The morning sky was jet black and the winds were still up, but luckily blowing offshore.

We went for our coffee and then back to the hotel for our on-time driver to take us down to the marina.  The boat was there and ready for us, as was our dive partner for the day, Dr John (who is a serious photographer).  Robert (DM) and Steven (Boat Master) were confident conditions would be OK for diving, although suspect the visibility might be reduced.  John had a fully setup for his glasses – some special modifications to his mask.

John's mask
John's mask

We sailed out into South China Sea again, the offshore winds were abating and the sea was actually quite smooth, considering.  We had a 30 minute transit to the first dive site; one of the first things we noticed the water was greener today rather than the deep blue from yesterday. 

Dive 4 – Kenyalang Wreck.  This artificial reef in just over 20m of water is industrial; there is a large triangular-frame structure which was part of a gas vent/riser from a rig.  Thousands and thousands of fish and soft corals have colonised here and cover the entire structure.  The visibility at the surface was ok, maybe 10m or so, just below the surface things improved, but in the structure itself, visibility was markedly reduced to no more than 5metres, partly due to the silting from the storms but also due to the excretions from the millions of fish!  Tracy found a scorpion fish in amongst the growth and as soon as we had our eyes calibrated for these, we found many more of these dangerous, ugly masters of camouflage.

Dive 5 – Nemo City.  As you might expect from the name, this dive is all about sea anemone and clown fish; thousands of colonies are still not enough for Tracy. 

I could spend all day watching Clown fish
I could spend all day watching Clown fish

There was more to see though on the 11 metre reef, including bumphead parrot fish, turtles and first the time we’d see it, bunches of nudibranchs (at one point Scott saw four in a  space no larger than a hand-span).  

Although our camera is only rated to 10m (and had previously failed at 7m), we took it anyway and got some ok shots which do no justice to this magnificent area.  (The camera survived too!) 

These fish inhabit the anenome with the clown fish
These fish inhabit the anenome with the clown fish

The visibility was better than earlier this morning, but still not as good as yesterday; it was commensurate with the bad visibility we saw at Mabul (about 10-20m).

Dive 6 – Nemo City to Adam’s Garden.  We didn’t reposition after the second dive as Robert recommended a different dive to finish the day, to descend into Nemo City then ride the gentle current through to Adam’s Garden (gentle current, compared to Sipidan).  With a maximum depth of only 7 metres, we stayed down for over an hour and were again blown away by this spectacular muck diving. 

Lion Fish
Lion Fish

The luncheon surface interval had allowed the visibility to improve to 20-30m.

Giant Clam
Giant Clam
No idea what, but very pretty
No idea what, but very pretty
I think these must be some type of water filter
I think these must be some type of water filter

After the final dive, we sped back to Miri (where it had been raining quite hard) and took our transport back to the hotel where had a quick shower then wandered to a nearby travel agent to arrange flights to Labuan on Wednesday.  Of course this gives us another day of diving tomorrow!  We both think it is going to be quite a while until we get to experience diving like this again, so are going to make the most of this opportunity.

We went back to the hotel and took siesta.  When we woke up to head out for dinner, we noticed it was pouring rain.  Tracy bought a small umbrella in Kapit and it since has proved useful at keeping one of us dry.  We dodged traffic, puddles and more rain to make it to the Indonesian restaurant where we had dinner the other night.  A quick dinner, then back into the rain to dash back to the hotel.  Hopefully, this will blow over early for our diving tomorrow.

Day 25 – Miri

Sunday, 6 June 2010

We headed out for a morning coffee and the weather had improved overnight and our driver was spot on time again.  At the marina, the boat was ready for us, but today we would be diving in the company of four guys working with Shell in Brunei. 

Woohoo off we go diving
Woohoo off we go diving

The boat departed the marina and headed out into the South China Sea; the low swell and remnants of yesterday’s chop made the waters very sloppy and a quite uncomfortable 30 minute ride to the first dive site.  Of course usually any boat ride spells doom for Tracy and her seasickness, however, dosed up on drugs from the doctor, we set off optimistically.

Dive 1 – Santak Point.  The rough ride was forgotten as soon as we entered the water.  40+ metres of visibility; water so clean and clear it might not have even been there. 

The visibility is awesome
The visibility is awesome

The flat coral bottom at 20+ metres made the gigantic fans standing proud look even bigger. 

The colour is surreal
The colour is surreal

In the mucking, there were a plethora of nudibranchs, moray eels, small fishes in the hard and soft coral gardens.  There might not have been as much obvious life as around Mabul, but the visibility and the flat bottom made the experience beyond description. 

We are huge fans of flat bottom diving now
We are huge fans of flat bottom diving now

There was quite a strong surface current which dramatically as we neared the bottom, but nothing compared to the impossible currents around Mabul.  The gigantic fan corals were larger than 6 feet and the dive was just otherworldly as the visibility and colour of the sea were just extraordinary. 

Too much colour
Too much colour

One of the other divers was sick at the end of his dive which led to the domino effect and two of the other divers also decided to feed the fishes.  However, much to Tracy (and Scott) amazement this didn’t make Tracy join in. 

Dive 2 – Anemone Garden.  After an hour surface interval to reposition, we entered the water for the second dive; immediately noting the visibility was reduced, but was still in excess of 30 metres.  This was a shallow dive on another flat bottom reef.  The mucking was very much like before, but the micro-environment was well balanced with the presence of massive schools of jacks and other larger fishes, and a dozing 7 foot giant of a barracuda.  Our diving group was joined by two massive bat fish who stayed in close proximity for just about the entire dive.  As the name suggests there were hundreds of amazingly coloured anemones including some fire-engine orange, deep crimsons and bright reds, many home to clownfish, giant clams and Nudibranchs.  Also new for us was the bubble corals which are beautiful. 

Dive 3 – Eve Garden.  After another surface interval to reposition and take lunch (provided for us), we arrived at the final site for the day.  This site is another flat bottom coral garden with depths 2 to 7 metres. 

New years resolution - learn the names of underwater things
New years resolution - learn the names of underwater things

Due to a limitation with the camera we have, we chose not to go the edge where the reef drops sharply to over 12 metres.  The visibility was still in excess of 30 meters. 

See I do have my picture taken sometimes.
See I do have my picture taken sometimes.

Just because the water was shallow didn’t mean there was less to look at; there was abundant soft corals as well as bumphead parrotfish, clownfish (including the most brilliant red anemones), yellow tail fusiliers and angelfishes etc.

These were just brilliant red, the photo doesn't really do it justice.
These were just brilliant red, the photo doesn't do it justice
I never get sick of watching these
I never get sick of watching these

We arrived back at the jetty after a short boat trip from our last dive, to find our driver waiting for us and we waved goodbye to our fellow divers as they would not be heading out with us tomorrow.  We made it back to the hotel at about 3:30 leaving plenty of time to relax before heading out to dinner at Khan’s Indian Restaurant.

Day 24 – Miri

Saturday, 5 June 2010

We woke up this morning and looked out the hotel window to see grey skies, ominous looking clouds, rain on the horizon and trees swaying in breeze – not good signs for diving.  We prepared ourselves anyway, then popped into a local eatery for our morning coffee, then back to the hotel to wait for our driver to take us to the dive operator.

Our driver arrived spot on time and drove us to the marina.  It was raining en route so things still weren’t looking too flash for our diving.  At the marina we met Robert, our Dive Master, who duly informed us of the weather report; needless to say we didn’t go diving.  We were pretty impressed with what we saw of the dive operation; the boat was well laid out and they appeared to have all the gear.  When it was obvious the conditions were not going to be great, they happily recommended that we not go diving instead of trying to still make a dollar.  We got back in our transport and were delivered back to the hotel. Hopefully this afternoon we will get a phone call with a better report for tomorrow.

As we now had a day to spend in Miri, we went for a walk to see what was around.  The first thing we noticed was how quiet it was.  We walked through the rain to the Tourist Information Centre and gathered some details on buses to BSB and further (just in case).  We found a brochure for another dive company, who it turned out happened to have their office in a sports club just near the Tourist Information Centre.  We left the TIC and quickly found the sports club.  The sign on the door said members only, but we went in anyway to ask the Receptionist where the dive shop was; he explained it was on the premises, but guess what?  It was (yet another) public holiday and the shop wouldn’t open until Monday, maybe!

The Lonely Planet says this time of year is a great time to be travelling in Sarawak, but we whole-heartedly disagree; this time of year is very difficult for travellers.  Since the end of May, it seems everything has been directly or indirectly shut/unavailable because of some celebration or another.  Shall we remember the recent fiasco with the Belaga Longhouse where everyone was too pissed to receive us?

We resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to be doing too much today, so headed down towards where the river is supposed to be (you cannot actually see it from town) and found the Chinese Temple.  It wasn’t as colourful as previous temples we have visited, but it was still interesting.  We watched as an old lady lit up a massive bunch of incense sticks; remarking to ourselves how this Chinese religion seems to be based on setting things on fire!  Incense, pretend money, prayer notes etc.

Pyromaniac on training -  go Grandma
Pyromaniac on training - go Grandma

Just next door to the temple was the fish market; not too big and not too busy.  Outside on the roadway were some smaller stalls selling veges and chillies to accompany the fish purchased inside; a one-stop-shopping experience? 

Can't get much fresher
Can't get much fresher

As there wasn’t too much going on in the traditional end of town, we walked up to the other end of town to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf cafe in the Bintang Plaza shopping complex; there wasn’t anything happening up here either, but we did have a large coffee each (paying more than 10 times what a coffee costs in a kopitiam).  From the CBTL we walked around the corner to the City Fan, an intricate array of gardens which, according to Lonely Planet, is popular with families and joggers.  When we arrived in the park, we were the only people there (other than a toilet attendant and a bored looking security guard).  Eventually, we saw a small group who came to the park for a photography session with a model, and a couple of mini-buses with Brunei advertising and a plethora of tourists.  The main public swimming pool was of course closed for the public holiday, but it looked well maintained, with Olympic sized pool, diving boards and a separate smaller (water polo?) pool.

A clean peaceful park - the holy grail
A clean peaceful park - the holy grail

We had read in Lonely Planet that a weekend market was a must-see event in Miri.  As it’s Saturday, we thought we should see the market but had to find a taxi to take us there.  There was not a taxi to be seen near the park, so we walked back to the Bintang Centre and found a taxi driver, who  explained the market wasn’t open during the day, but was in fact a night market and would probably be open tonight?

With nothing much else to do, we headed back to the hotel, stopping at a “local” arts and crafts (for sale) centre.  Some of the souvenirs on sale were hand-made by locals (there was a man carving bamboo and a lady working with beads) but a lot of mass-produced cheap junk too.

We headed out to dinner at a local restaurant that was busy and even had pictures of what they offered for meals.  The meal was exactly what I ordered apart from the fact the sauce was so hot it nearly blew my head off, talk about sweating when we left.

Day 23 – Belaga -> Miri

Friday, 4 June 2010

After our insect disturbed night’s sleep we were all up early and headed off for coffee to fuel our upcoming journey to the Miri/Buntulu junction.  We had hired a driver the night before, as there doesn’t appear to be any public transport from Belaga to anywhere, other than by ferry and we didn’t want to backtrack, so forward was the only option.  We went in a convoy of two 4WDs as there are 7 of us leaving and soon realised why there is so many offroad vehicles around.  This is not Perth where 99% of 4WDs probably never go off the bitumen, this is not a road, but a continuous grouping of potholes.  It appears that when a road was meant to be built only the equipment came up here but was then left to rot on the side of the road.  We were all hanging on as the potholes got bigger and the going got tougher.  However, on a good note the jungle was amazingly close and there were some beautiful roadside orchids.  On the bad side it was bumpy, very bumpy.  One of the funny moments was when a sort of grading bulldozer was in front of us dragging what looked like as a house on a sled – not sure if they were using that to smooth the road or if they were really just moving house. 

This went on for hours, until we did a quick toilet break (in one of the world’s most gross toilets, remember, we have been to Tibet) and then the road widened and evened out and the palm oil plantations and forest clearing were the norm from there on.  Eventually after about 4 hours we made it to the junction and were dropped off to wait for a bus to Miri.  The first bus was full and wouldn’t let us on, but another bus stopped and we piled on, even accepting there weren’t enough seats and so Scott and the French family had to stand. 

We do stand out don't we :-)
We do stand out don't we

It was too hot to continue standing on the side of the road without melting.  We finally stopped for a short break at the Niamh cave turnoff where the French family decamped to the caves and the rest of us continued on to Miri.  I managed to get some sleep but Scott was sitting below the dodgy speaker so was too busy having his hearing damaged. 

We got off the bus in Miri and headed to the Somerset Hotel.  Checked in and the room isn’t too bad (wish places here would have tiles instead of carpet) and Scott made a phone call to a dive company and has arranged for us to dive tomorrow and Sunday.  We then headed out for a late snack where we ordered a laksa and roti which were delivered from a different restaurant across the road – very strange set-up here.  Back at the hotel we sorted out our ever expanding washing pile which is now most of our bag as we haven’t been anywhere for more than one night and in this humid weather that isn’t long enough to get anything dry.  We did some chores and headed out to an Indian Cafe (Khans) for a curry as a bit over noodles, the dahl and aloo gobi were a very welcome change and wolfed down with some naan and rice.  There are loads of food stalls here in Miri, although most of them tend towards seafood, not that we have seen much of the ocean/river, except for a very smelly part. 

We then headed off to find an ATM that is working.  We haven’t had much luck in the last couple of towns, but alas again nothing, so hopefully tomorrow can try and find one that will work, otherwise I will be selling Scott J 

Got home and finally decided to vent my dissatisfaction at not spending a night in a traditional longhouse by updating the blog, but travelling is an adventure and the best laid plans and all, should be making me laugh and it is kind off, typical.  The hotel also has wifi, so checked email and found out that our friends Jacqui and James are expecting their first baby – woohoo well done guys, we are very envious and can’t wait to catch up with Jacqui on 23 June for a celebratory soda water.  So our day has ended on a good note.


Day 22 – Kapit -> Belaga

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Well this morning did not start well.  Huge thunderstorms all night that continued as we left the hotel and grabbed a morning teeth rotting coffee.   We headed to the boat ferry terminal to buy a ticket for the Belaga ferry and were directed to the other boat ferry terminal where there was no ticket man in sight, this ferry terminal seems to be the poor cousin of the other one and there isn’t even a seat.  We waited and waited and eventually a ticket man came but not for the Belaga ferry which is heading upriver and as 9:00am came and went, it was obviously late.   There were another couple of westerners also waiting for the ferry and we stood there getting wet and now standing in piles of now wet rubbish (yes the rubbish from yesterday hadn’t washed anywhere just sort of clumped together in large manky piles).  Finally a ferry came and we jumped on board, paying once on board – I can’t work out how they know how many people they have.  We took off at a fast pace, but the windows were soon covered in the muddy river water, so I couldn’t see out.  After sleeping on the ferry yesterday, decided not to take travel sickness pills today so I wouldn’t miss out on the sights.  Scott went outside and took some photos, but the rain came on and off.  So instead I watched a fantastically crap film called Damage, not once, but twice.  The ferry made random stops to some very remote areas where there didn’t even appear to be a ferry stop with people just jumping on and off from the slopes against the river. 

How you even know what stop this is is puzzling.
How you even know what stop this is is puzzling.

 

There, however, is limited logging or palm oil plantations this far upriver and the jungle is extremely dense with just small communities who all live in longhouses.  You kind of feel you are now getting away from civilisation, except the fact you are in a speedboat ferry, but if you try and ignore the loud droning of the engines you can sort of imagine you are entering the darkness of the jungle.

The Lonely Planet suggested the trip would take approx 4 ½ hours, but 6 boring and butt numbing hours later we arrived at Belaga.  We got off the ferry to be greeted by an emissary of Daniel (who we rang the previous day) and as we made it further up the steps, Daniel himself appeared and gathered all the tourists up and whisked us off to his guesthouse.  And from here it all comes unstuck.

Scott, Tracy, Daniel (Canadian (not tour guide)), Cecilia, Marie and Jaques (French) decided to stay in the old fashioned local longhouse that night after a visit to a crystal clear swimming hole.  Sounds perfect doesn’t it?   We quickly went into the small town shopping street and grabbed a coffee and a gift for our longhouse hosts before we all piled into a ute and headed to the water hole to find it a muddy fast flowing river.  It was however very cool, but also very busy with locals, so we wandered a bit upstream for somewhere quiet which involved walking on slippery rockets trying to hold onto the odd twig etc along the riverbank.  Again we wore our Havaianas which have not developed offroad techniques since last time.   I of course slipped and fell into the water and am now sporting a lovely bruise on my shin.  We could only stay a short-time as we had to go back to the guesthouse and get ready for our night away. 

We headed back down to the jetty where we were faced with the world’s narrowest little boat.  Everyone that knows me will understand I hate boats and the smaller they are the more I hate them.  So I already had a foreboding that things weren’t going to go well, maybe I am psychic. 

Happy aren't it!
Happy aren't I

 

Anyway we headed off with Daniel (tour guide) steering and a local man rowing at the front.  We made it about 20 metres before there are engine problems and we randomly float back down to the jetty where Daniels ducks off to get a new sparkplug leaving us sitting in the boat.  Meantime being laughed at by some stupid children who thought it was funny to try and put fish bait on the back of the local man’s shirt.

Stupid kids
Stupid kids

 

As you can imagine my mood was seriously starting to disintegrate, I was hungry, paranoid about tipping in as people were moving around and the boat was moving, the river was moving and there were speedboats whizzing by – not happy. 

Now seriously unhappy
Now seriously unhappy

 

Daniel couldn’t find a replacement sparkplug but someone else comes alongside and bangs and taps away with the motor and off we set again, this time with the local man emptying the boat of the extra water we seem to be taking on.  We made it a bit further upriver this time, but the engine keeps cutting out, so we call it quits and head back to the guesthouse and get ready to go to a closer longhouse that can be accessed by car.  There is quite a lot of sporting activity here though – tennis, badminton, soccer etc. 

Hi ho hi ho, back to the guesthouse we go
Hi ho hi ho, back to the guesthouse we go

 

We all jump into a ute and head off again.  We arrived at the longhouse which appears to be similar to a council housing estate/squat with drunk people everywhere.  It is the end of the Gawai festival and in the Lonely Planet they state this is the best time to visit Longhouses – not if you want to see something other than drunk locals it isn’t. 

Not my romanticised ideal of a longhouse
Not my romanticised ideal of a longhouse

 

 

 

Alternatively a prison camp
Alternatively a prison camp

Anyway everyone was too drunk to meet us, cook or clean etc, so we all gave up and went back to Daniel’s Guesthouse.  Now I have to say that my psychic abilities had definitely been in overdrive as I had a premonition this would happen.  We headed straight out after Daniel refunded out money and had something to eat as Scott and I hadn’t eaten since the night before and luckily found somewhere that was open and did some quick food. 

Belaga is very small and there isn’t very much to see, so we did a couple of laps and headed back to the guesthouse and chatted before having an early night.  I was very disappointed as all I wanted to do was stay in a traditional longhouse for the night – even better if it hadn’t involved a boat.  There was another couple staying (Italians) and they went out drinking the local Tuak (wine) with the Canadian.  We didn’t have a very good sleep due to bugs etc (window was open).   C’est la vie.

Day 21 – Sibu -> Kapit

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

We were able to have a lie in this morning as there are boats every half hour to Kapit, so we wandered to the Fortunate Cafe for a Kopi Susu and then headed to the boat terminal.  We were given the choice of 1st class, business class or economy for our boat and we decided to splurge out and buy 1st class tickets.  Let me just mention I had all sorts of ideas going through my head of what 1st class would be like and yes I was disappointed as usual.  There are 12 seats in 1st class and when we got on board there was just us and another couple from Sibu. 

Not exactly Qantas 1st Class, but probably as close as I will ever get
Not exactly Qantas 1st Class, but probably as close as I will ever get

 

 

 

Our luxury speedboat.
Our luxury speedboat.

However, just before departure a gaggle of Chinese arrived on boat with screaming kids and loud old people, it was deafening and we only had one window to look out, so I started to watch the onboard DVD which was awful (Arachnid) which stopped working so they put on an even worse Chinese movie, so I gave up and went to sleep.  The group which joined us in the forward cabin included Chinese Grandma and Grandpa taking the grand-kiddies up the river.  Grandma must have had some sort of problem, she could just not shut up; even when Grandpa and the kids nodded off to sleep, she kept talking (talking under wet cement would not have been a problem for this lady).  To make matters worse, she had one of those voices which could penetrate a few feet of lead, and spoke at volume just a shade louder than a jumbo jet at take-off.  

Scott stayed alert and took some pictures etc of the countryside as we sped past it for the 3 hour boat trip.  There is still a huge amount of logging going on.  In the Lonely Planet they suggest that by the year 2022 98% of jungle will have disappeared, my opinion is that it will probably be heaps sooner.  You get the distinct impression that what you can’t see just behind the jungle framing the riverbanks is nothing. 

The disappearing jungle
The disappearing jungle

The river is still huge and obviously gets some massive tides as highlighted in the stilted structures along the riverbank.  There are lots of modern longhouses, some of them looking very new. 

Modernisation
Modernisation

I suppose the fact that logging and palm oil makes the indigenous population wealthy has a lot to do with the modernisation. 

Eventually we arrived at Kapit.  Well we guessed that by the sudden flurry of activity and packing up and everyone trying to disembark at once.  We had to push our way off the boat and climbed the steps up to the terminal.

Kapit
Kapit to Belaga ferry terminal

Once there we asked and there are boats heading up to Belaga so that is where we head tomorrow.  We checked into the New Rejang Inn which is clean and cheap and in the centre of town.  Not that it is difficult as the town is tiny.  We had a quick walk around and settled on a place to eat, which turned out to not do any food, so we had a kopi susu and an awful muffin that was so dry it was inedible.  We decamped to the “restaurant” next door (we’re using the term very loosely) and got a plate of sub-standard mee goreng, not boding well on the food stakes here. 

After the bad lunch we walked to Fort Sylvia which is meant to be an indigenous artist centre, but as today is a public holiday (isn’t every day so far been a public holiday?) it was closed, although there is a line marking how high the tide got in the floods of 1934 which were so huge it must have been devastating to the area.  Anyway this town was an outpost for the Raja Brooke (of Kuching fame), but there isn’t much left, now it is yet another Chinese town, not even any local handicrafts to be seen of the Iban.  We did a wander up towards the Chinese cemetery and past the Chinese temple which seems to be surrounded by some sort of lame ass sideshow alley (Scott thought it was like a Simpsons episode), so we did a bit more wandering, but things are closing down for the afternoon siesta, so we will join in (rude not too) and come out again later and see if things liven up, although we aren’t holding our breath.  At the Besar Pasar (MainMarket) the chicken vendors were transferring some scrawny chickens from their day coop into their transport crates; as we were passing we watched as the man picked the last chicken from the coop, it was dead so he just unceremoniously threw it into a nearby dumpster.  Tracy made comment, the dead chicken is probably in a better place than the other chickens which have more of their (unfortunate) lives ahead.

Scott rang a guy in Belaga to arrange for us to go out and visit some longhouses tomorrow, so now we aren’t sure if we are or aren’t going anywhere.  There doesn’t seem a lot of Bahasa spoken here, mainly Hokkien and that is one language we know nothing about.  So tomorrow will be a surprise.

As the afternoon drew on we noticed more and more business places were closing.  We were starting to get worried if there were going to be any places open at dinner time.  At sunset we headed down to the ferry terminal to try and get some photos over the river; the sunset was very ordinary tonight and lucky for us for as Scott was taking his only photo, the man was locking up the terminal and closing the shutters with us still on the inside.  We did a quick scramble cum limbo under the closing roller shutter and back onto the street in search of dinner. 

The now shut ferry terminal
The now shut ferry terminal

 

 

Sunset
Sunset

We had read about a night market in the LP but when we walked past the place earlier in the afternoon it was deserted.  Reasoning it’s called a “night market” we went back and found a few of the stalls had set out tables and were cooking food.  We ordered dinner from a couple of stalls; Tracy had a couple of roti and Scott had some satay and a laksa (it was very spicy hot, he is not looking forward to the morning).   We did see five other westerners at the night market, the largest contingent of “foreigners” we have seen for a while.

Scott eating - again
Scott eating - again

After dinner we did another couple of laps around town (it only takes about 10 minutes per lap) and watched as whatever shops that were open, close for the night; even the bank cash-point was asleep.  There aren’t even any bars or any other form of nightlife.

It might be because of the public holiday, or, it might be like this all the time (we don’t know), the centre of this town is filthy.  Just about every other place we have visited in Malaysia has been quite clean of litter and rubbish; just about all day and night it has been possible to observe people sweeping the streets and picking up the rubbish, leaves etc. But not here in Kapit.  The town square is a popular place to meet up with friends and sit in amongst the discarded cans, bottles, food scraps etc.  We would like to give the benefit of the doubt to the celebratory period and hope that tomorrow the street sweepers will be back at work, but as a lot of the rubbish looks like it has been there for a long time, we aren’t holding our collective breaths.

Day 20 – Kuching -> Sibu

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Got up and packed – yet again, luckily it doesn’t take long these days.  We headed down to find everything shut but luckily a very nice taxi driver to take up to the express boat terminal to Sibu. 

Our boat to Sibu
Our boat to Sibu

Even the scooters are loaded by hand
Even the scooters are loaded by hand

The boat trip should take approx 4 ½ hours, so we bought some water and got our seats on the upper deck.  Figured if the boat sinks we have a better chance of surviving than being trapped inside.   Downside after about an hour I couldn’t feel my ass anymore it was totally numb, wooden planks aren’t the most comfortable for long trips.  Anyway we progressed from Kuching up the Betang Rejang which is a huge river with many tributaries.  There isn’t a lot to see – let’s face it, it seems that the river is just one big logging operation and what is left are palms, so the countryside is still green, just the wrong kind. 

This was our view on both sides of the river
This was our view on both sides of the river

We are hoping as we go further upriver this changes.  After sitting and standing for about 3 hours the ferry stopped at a small jetty to disgorge a pile of people and their luggage, scooters and chickens (I am sure they aren’t going to a nice backyard like ours).  This however did now leave us with a bit of room to stretch out our legs, although wooden planks for sitting on were still uncomfortable.  The highlight of the trip were the fellow passengers, some of whom were very interesting, from the local who was very into his music as we had put up with his finger snapping and foot stomping.  There was also a massive variety of people who seemed to be chain smokers.

After 5 hours we finally reached Sibu, the first stepping stone in our trip up Batang Rejang.  We disembarked in a frenzy with everyone else and headed to our hotel which wasn’t hard to miss, it was exactly where the map said – near the swan statue.  Yes a giant statue of a Swan. 

Strange!
Strange!

We arrived and they realised that my Bahasa is crap and their English isn’t too flash and rearranged us from a triple room to a double room on the top floor with views of the river and city which ended up costing us rg10 less than they quoted, so we totally lucked in.  Li Hua Hotel is clean(ish) and the staff helpful. 

As we had no brekkie, we dropped our bags and then wandered across the road to the Victorious Cafe for a plate of Mee Goreng before having a cup of Kopi Susu.  We then set off to see the town, which we did in a manner of minutes, it isn’t very big.  We headed toward to Tua Pek Kong Temple which we saw from the riverside.  It is an interesting Chinese Temple with a seven-storey pagoda attached. 

Another beautiful pagoda
Another beautiful pagoda

 

 

Intricately carved pagoda
Intricately carved pagoda

This had the worlds biggest incense sticks burning, no joke they were as big as me.  It is also very very very hot here, and being next to the river isn’t helping cool things down at all.  We wandered through the market area but not much happening, although it is fairly interesting with a strong chinese history to the town.  Then again every town we have been through so far has been very chinese with little look of anything indigenous left.

Day 19 – Kuching

Monday, 31 May 2010

 

Tracy isn’t feeling well today; she has succumbed to a head cold.  We went for a short stroll through Chinatown to find something for breakfast and a coffee. 

A very quiet Chintatown
A very quiet Chintatown

 

We stopped in a food-market and ordered our drinks.  Looking around for something to eat, we noticed a lady selling a pancake filled with “stuff” which looked ok, so we ordered one each.  Sure enough it was a pancake, but the filling was mysterious; it definitely had crushed nuts, some sort of vegetable (sort of like rojak without being rojak), a hint of chilli and a few other spices and a lettuce leaf.  Scott thought they were quite tasty (a taste acquired after a few mouthfuls) but Tracy wasn’t of the same opinion.

After brekky, we took a slow walk back through Chinatown, stopping to take a few photos and to poke our noses into the Chinese temples along the route back to the hotel. 

Another Chinese temple
Another Chinese temple

 

We were welcomed in each temple and a lady in each pointed out a feature; in the first temple the lady pointed to some of the carvings in the ceiling and said, “Roof.”  In the second temple a lady pointed into a bath-like fixture and said, “Tortoise,” and surely enough there were live tortoises in the bathtub (some sort of good-luck-charm cum wishing well?)

We stopped at a travel agent near the hotel and booked a boat to Sibu for tomorrow.  With Tracy not being well, we decided that today will be a “no-day” and we shouldn’t spend another day here to make up for this one.  This of course means that we will not get out to Bako National Park to see the probiscus monkeys (luckily we saw these at Labuk Bay earlier) but will also miss out on the mangroves.  Cest la vie.  If we ever came back to Kuching we would definitely stay for longer; two days for the city itself, two days for Bako and another day to get out to the Semenggoh orang-utan sanctuary , and maybe an extra day or two to do some of the cooking schools.

Tracy went back to bed, so Scott went on a longer walking tour around town.  The waterfront was still quiet, leading him to the conclusion that Kuching might just be a quiet city.  The river was occupied by a few boatmen operating as ferries across the river.  Some of the boatmen have allowed their boats to be plastered in advertising, so seeing “University of Technology” emblazoned all over a simple wooden oar-driven boat is quite amusing.

Scott found more evidence that Kuching allegedly means “cat” in Bahasa, as he discovered more statues and carvings of felines along his way.  At the far end of town there is allegedly a large roundabout with a massive statue of a cat, but Scott didn’t make it that far downtown this morning, so maybe some time later?

Some statues are tasteful.....
Some statues are tasteful.....
and some are just weird
and some are just weird

It was lunchtime, so Scott went back to the hotel room to get Tracy for lunch.  She was feeling a little better, so we went to the little restaurant directly across the road from the hotel.  Scott ordered kueh teow goreng (fried flat noodles) and Tracy roti canai (plain roti) and asked for an egg filling (roti telur was not listed on the menu) and was very surprised to receive a western-style fried egg sandwich!  Maybe something got lost in translation?  Lunch was washed down with ribena soda, which not surprisingly was Ribena and Sprite.

After lunch we had a short stroll around town to see if anything was happening.  It wasn’t.  It was also hotter than the morning, which is not doing Tracy any good so we went back to the hotel for an early siesta.

After siesta we wandered around the town which seems in total shutdown with very few things opened due to the long weekend and Iban new year festival.  We had dinner down at the waterfront as it is actually nice and cool down there, thank god as I am sick of sweating to death every minute you are outside. 

State Capital Building at night
State Capital Building at night

We had thought that Chinatown would be open and that some of the pagodas etc would be lit up, but we were wrong, so after a couple of hours we gave up and headed back to the hotel for our sweet and sour cake dessert and vegged out reading. 

The cunning plan (for now):

We leave for Sibu tomorrow morning (4 ½ hours by boat), we’ll stay overnight there and then take another boat on Wednesday further upriver to Kapit (3 hours) for one night.  If the water level is high enough, on Thursday we will take a boat further upriver again to Belaga (4 ½ hours); if the river is not high enough then we will travel overland to Bintulu on the coast, in any case we will end up there even if we visit Belaga first.  Once back on the coast, we will travel north to Miri where we will spend a few days and hopefully will get the opportunity to check out the almost undiscovered scuba diving opportunities which are just starting to open up there.  From Miri, it’s just “short” bus ride into Brunei where we’ll spend a couple of days, then take the ferry back into Malaysia, landing at Pulau Labuan to visit the Australian War Cemetery and museums before finally taking another ferry to KK in preparation for going home.    The end of the trip is nigh. 🙁

Day 18 – Kota Kinabalu -> Kuching

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Our last day in KK in a while began with another restless night in our dorm-like room.  The outside noise just seemed to go all night – and when it wasn’t the local making a ruckus outside on the street, it was the other hotel guests coming in from their night’s out or just generally seeing how many times they could slam doors on the way to the bathroom and back.  Eventually Tracy’s wake-up alarm sounded and we did our final pack.  We headed downstairs to checkout and eat breakfast at the hotel – typically, the day we wanted to eat at the hotel was the day they weren’t serving roti, so we settled on toast and a few bananas washed down with ok coffee.  We made an arrangement to leave one bag at the hotel, containing all the diving gear and some other miscellany that we probably won’t need in the next two weeks, so our packs are much lighter for the moment.

Our taxi driver was waiting for us when we stepped outside the hotel and he delivered us at the new terminal at KKIA.  We discovered our flight was not an internal flight, but was going to Kuching en route Singapore, so it was an international flight.  We arrived just an hour before departure, so were asked by the check-in clerk to proceed directly to the gate, which we did.  Our MAS flight departed on time, and again, we were offered meals and drinks on the flight – we must remember that MAS serve food so must arrange a vegetarian meal on our next flight.

We landed in Kuching and took a pre-paid cab to our lodging, Madarin Hotel.  It doesn’t look like much from the front, but the room is clean and has a private bathroom; the air is a little musty, probably caused by the humidity and the old-style in-the-wall air-conditioner.  We dumped our bags in the room and headed out onto the street to find our bearings.

We are just a short stroll from Chinatown and the waterfront.  The waterfront promenade is reminiscent of Singapore with paved paths and parklands next to the river.  The Southern bank of the river is dominated by the new State Assembly Building. 

State Assembly Building
State Assembly Building

Things are a little quiet today, given that it is Sunday on a long weekend which is also just a few days before the local new-year (celebrated on 1 and 2 June, when a lot more things around here will be closed).  We went along the river as far as we wanted, there was a little green energy set-up with wind turbines and solar panels – which made Tracy become all psoitive for a short while.

Green energy in action
Green energy in action

We then turned away from the river to head into some of the backstreets and found ourselves in a mall (might have been the Indian Mall according to our not-so-good tourist map?)  There was an eclectic mix of stuff, food to junk, ugly fake trees to even uglier polyester curtains.  At the end of the mall was a small restaurant, Little Lebanon, where we had a cold drink, hummus, felafel and Turkish coffee for just RM14.  There were a few Westerners there too, and each table had a hookah as the centrepiece however it was too early and certainly too hot to be partaking.

We were sort of just wandering around when we walked near the courthouse and spied a sign for a tourist information office and thought we might see if it was open, to our surprise, it was.  We had a short wait (we didn’t mind because the office was very pleasantly air-conditioned – did we mention it’s hot here?).  We had a chat with the very helpful lady there and she suggested some things to do and a new possibility for us to do all the things we want to do in Sarawak whilst heading up the West coast into Brunei and Labuan and eventually back into KK, without doing a lot of backtracking.  The Lonely Planet didn’t mention a lot of the information she had, proving the worth of visiting these centres when you have the chance and not solely relying on the (quickly out of date) guide-books.

Armed with a load of possible new itineraries, we strolled back to the hotel, stopping in a few trinket shops on the way to check out what was on offer.  There were a plethora of small sidewalk stalls selling multilayered cakes; we sampled some at one stall and decided to buy a piece of sweet-and-sour cake; it’s really hard to describe the flavours, but it is very nice.

Back at the hotel, our normal routine resumed with siesta.  Scott woke up first and spent a long while just gazing out the window, watching the world pass by and the thunderstorm close in on the city.  At about 16:30 it started bucketing down, so thankfully, it is a lot cooler.

After a couple of hours the rain eased off so we headed down to the waterfront to try to find somewhere to eat.  It might be because it’s Sunday or it might have something to do with public holidays et. al. But it was really quiet.  Many of the food stalls weren’t open and there were only a few small groups meandering along the pathways, looking just as bemused as we were at quiet it was.  We eventually selected a small stand at which to have dinner.  We shared a plate of noodles and a plate of tofu, washed it down with juice, then headed back into the early evening to take some photos of what we had seen by day.

Sunset in Kuching
Sunset in Kuching

We both have sore throats (for Scott, again) probably due to the exposure to and reliance on air conditioning at the places we have stayed.  Anyway, we had an early night in the hope to stave off any colds, or worse.

Day 17 – Kota Kinabalu

Saturday, 29 May 2010

We had to change rooms at the hotel today as we initially only booked for two nights, but due to flight availability will end up staying in KK for three nights, and our room is required by someone else.  We packed our stuff, then headed out for breakfast; even though breakfast is offered at the hotel, Tracy decided she need some mee soup for brekky, so we walked back to our favourite kopitiam.  We had coffees, Tracy had soup and Scott had a steamed bun.

The other day when walking near the waterfront, we spotted a free shuttle service to 1Borneo, the “largest lifestyle hypermarket” in Malaysia.  We went back to the shuttle stop and tried to obtain a ticket, but the man at the counter said, in between songs on his mobile phone and the SMS messages, the next shuttle was full and we would have to wait an hour.  Tracy decided she would have to bite the global-multinational bullet some time and we went to Starbucks for a very average coffee and some free Wi-Fi (complete with annoying multimedia popup advertising – Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf didn’t resort to these tricks).

It was nearly time for the next free shuttle so we left Starbucks and went to wait at the bus stand.  For the 10:30 bus, you had to have a ticket, but for the 11:30 shuttle the man was not issuing tickets.  When the bus arrived, everyone piled onboard; we got a seat, but one couple who had also been waiting just as long as us did not get a seat and therefore could not ride the bus.  Had the man issued tickets, the entire situation could have been avoided, but that sort of organisation does not happen too much around here.

The shopping complex is about 7km out of this part of KK.  On the way there, we passed several new multistorey housing developments, a beautiful masjid and the local university, which looked very impressive with a uniform building style and manicured gardens.  

Masjid on the way to the hypermarket
Masjid on the way to the hypermarket

The shopping mall was a typical western-styled fiasco with thousands of shops; missing were of the “big” names noticed Tracy (referring to Prada, Gucci etc) but there were Esprit, French Connection, Adidas, Nike etc.  We found a branch of the outdoor shop we were looking for last night and was very disappointed at their range; they advertise that they supply diving equipment but had only one Mares BCD in stock, one shorty wetsuit and one long wetsuit – that was it for diving gear!  There wasn’t much else to look at and all the prices here were comparable to back home, so we waited a while and took the next shuttle back to our part of KK.

We went back to the hotel and checked into our new room.  It is a dorm style room with two sets of bunk beds and a single, but we will be the only people staying in here tonight (allegedly).   Regardless of the room, we took our siesta, showered and headed out just after sunset for dinner.

We went to the night market again, promising ourselves not to make the same expensive mistake from the previous night.  We chose a 5-legs and sat at a table and waited for our dinners; Tracy had mee goreng vegetable, Scott had mee goreng ayam.  After a little confusion with her drink order Tracy also got a soda; the whole lot for just under RM10.  During our dinner we spotted the first beggar since we have been in country; a short time later another two came passed, but these guys were organised – the guy missing an arm was singing into a radio microphone, the other guy with the gammy leg was pushing around a sound system on a trolley (read iPod plugged into an amp and speaker)  The music sounded particularly Chinese and there seemed to be a lot of people handing over money so we guessed the music and singing sounded OK to the locals too, we normally don’t give to beggars, but we convinced ourselves these guys were buskers instead of beggars.

waiting for dinner at the night market
waiting for dinner at the night market

After dinner we headed over to the dessert section of the night market to try the KK version of the dessert we became fond of in Sandakan.  Here, the dough is a little sweeter (if that were possible) but the filling was not nearly as sweet as the jam filling in Sandakan; the risk of instantaneous stoke, heart attack or diabetes from this version was slightly reduced!

Heart attacks -- two for 1RM
Heart attacks -- two for 1RM

It’s a long weekend here, so we decided to check out what was happening along the waterfront bars.  Last night we were musing over whether to “push the boat out” and go to the cigar lounge, but tonight decided a beer on the waterfront would suffice.  We walked up and back, eventually settling at “The Loft” where they were celebrating the Harvest Festival long weekend by giving away free beer, and cocktails/rice wine  for those who don’t drink beer.  Tracy declined the alcohol, convinced there had to be a catch to the offer.  Scott had two free beers.  The catch came when the bill arrived for the soda-lime which Tracy ordered, RM9 for a glass of bubbly water!  Anyway, Scott’s tiger beer was cold and wet, so the costs balanced nicely.  We were very surprised at the lack of others not taking up the offer either – if this was in Australia, the doors would have been bursting, but the waitresses seemed to be struggling to give away the free drinks!  Although we could have stayed longer, we have to fly tomorrow, so headed back to the hotel for an early-ish night.

There is no better beer than free beer!
There is no beer better than free beer!

Day 16 – Kota Kinabalu

Friday, 28 May 2010

We woke up after a restless sleep, the night didn’t quieten down much after the local shops closed – there were young children playing in the streets well after midnight.  The breakfast offered was tea and coffee, roti canai with curry, and some fruit.  We had our coffee over a chat with a young British couple; he had been diving for some time, she had completed her Open Water qualification h ere in Borneo earlier during their trip.

We intended going out to one of islands just off the coast of KK, so headed down to Jesselton Wharf (aka “the jetty”) to make arrangements.  You pay to get a seat on a boat to take you to whatever island(s) you desire and arrange the pickup time; you then have to join another queue to pay the jetty fees.  Why you cannot complete the entire transaction in one payment is beyond me; I think it is done like this to confuse tourists and amuse the locals.  Armed with our tickets and the crappiest rental fins you have ever seen, we waited for our boat.  For the amount of people going to the islands each day, the entire system seemed completely disorganised and haphazard.  We were escorted onto one boat, only to be taken off that boat and escorted onto a different boat.  Eventually, some Swedish travellers joined us and we departed the jetty for Mamutik Island.

The short boat ride was uneventful, so we sat and watched the Swedes taking it in turn to solve a small Rubik’s cube.  Each of the three girls could do it in just a few minutes, the two guys travelling with them spent most of their time comparing sunglasses!   When we arrived at the island, it was already swarming with several large groups and many, many  smaller groups; they had set up their marquees and staff were making arrangements for buffets and barbeques.  On arrival at the island, we had to pay (yet again) and then followed the notes in the Lonely Planet to get off the main beach and find a more secluded spot.  We walked up a relatively steep track and then down the other side, Havaianas are NOT designed for this sort of work. 
We found the spot mentioned in LP and headed down to the water’s edge to go snorkelling, when, there in the middle of the narrow track was a large-ish monitor lizard.  One bite from these things can spell bad news, so there was a brief Mexican standoff as it didn’t want to move out our way, so Scott pitched a small rock near it and it eventually got the hint and slowly moved off back into the jungle.

The killer lizard
The killer lizard

It was nice to get back into the water, but unfortunately even the best coral gardens in KK are pale (literally) in comparison to the spectacular underwater scenes at Mabul, Kapalai and Sipadan.  The corals all seemed quite beige in their appearance and even the colour in the parrotfish seemed to be quite subdued.  Still, we had a nice time snorkelling around by ourselves for over an hour, spotted a few clown fish, some neons(?) and very-baby squid, but these were really the only highlights.  Point Peron can be more interesting than here.

I think I have now seen a lifetime supply of clown fish
I think I have now seen a lifetime supply of clown fish

 

Baby Squid out for a swim
Baby Squid out for a swim

We exited the water and walked back up the track to the main beach and the crowds.   The main beach was keeping a lot of people amused so we decided to go and see what everyone was looking at.  What we saw was disgusting; just about all of the corals in the main area were smashed, there was litter everywhere, the fish were so used to being fed that if you weren’t feeding them they would nibble your fingers and arms as you swam.  The monies paid on arrival at the island were supposed to be for conservation and regeneration, but we could not see where any of those funds were being spent.

I wouldn't call this swimming!!!
I wouldn't call this swimming!

 

The majority of the sea life on this part of the island - aren't they cute?
The majority of the sea life on this part of the island - aren't they cute?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our boat arrived on time to take us back to the jetty, but only after stopping to pick up a group from another island.  One of the other passengers on the boat engaged Tracy in conversation; she turned out to be from KL and was taking a short holiday in KK because it is quite a cheap holiday for them (it also is a long weekend in Malaysia this weekend?)

Kota Kinabalu from the ocean
Kota Kinabalu from the ocean

We arrived back at the jetty and thankfully were not asked to pay any more taxes or fees.  We stopped off at a local hole-in-the-wall for some lunch on the way back to the hotel for the now obligatory siesta.
As I am writing this (16:30) the sky has gone dark(er) and there are loud rumbles of thunder, but no rain, yet.  From our window we can see some of the shopkeepers across the road moving some of their wares off the sidewalk, so maybe they know something more about the impending weather?

(Ten minutes later – it’s raining!)

(Thirty minutes later still – it’s stopped raining and now is just humid!)

As there is no free Wi-Fi in the hotel and getting on the one internet machine in the lobby can be a bit of a challenge we decided to take the laptop down to the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf cafe for some of their free Wi-Fi.  Other than us, there was only one other customer there, and I don’t think he was there for the coffee either?  The connection was pretty fast, the chai latte was OK too.

Dinner tonight was taken at the night market.  Tracy had some corn and mixed veges, including some weird seaweed that had a strange texture to it and even stranger taste; Scott chose the barbequed squid.  Tracy’s dinner arrived in quick time, but the surprise came when Scott’s squid arrived many minutes later; it was some goliath monster from the deep!  It was huge!  It was overcooked and tough, but the sauce was tasty.  Did we mention how big it was?!  Scott couldn’t finish all of it, which was no surprise, but what was a surprise was the bill at the end of the meal, RM49.  The night markets in Sandakan were considerably cheaper, so we felt full, but a little ripped off.

Yet another photo of Scott eating!
Yet another photo of Scott eating!

We went for a wander through of the shops adjacent the waterfront precinct in an effort to find a particular outdoors shop.  The shop was listed in Block A of a particular shopping centre; when we entered we found ourselves in Block B, so of course we had to pass through Block C to get to Block A??   Anyway, the store had moved to Jessleton jetty so we continued meandering through the out-of-sequence shopping blocks.  We stumbled across a cigar lounge with a massive array of Australian red wines ($$$) and some fine cigars (and some not so fine cigars).  We might have to pop in tomorrow night for a nightcap?

Day 15 – Sandakan -> Kota Kinabalu

Thursday, 27 May 2010

We woke relatively early (Tracy didn’t have a good night’s sleep anyway – probably still too full from the previous night’s dinner?) and packed our bags.  We went for a coffee at what-has-become our regular kopitiam, then went back to the hotel to await our taxi to the airport.  The driver arrived (duly arranged by Mr Lum from the hotel), he was spot on time.  On arriving at the airport we spotted Craig and Dean waiting for their flight to KL then on to Australia.  We checked our bags and went to the Air Asia office to arrange some onwards travel from KK; we waited and waited, then eventually we were served and they didn’t have any useful flights for us to get to Kuching in the next couple of days.  We went to the Malaysia Airlines desk, and although the sign on the counter said that we could not make booking for future flights, the attendant was only too happy to help us and made bookings for us to fly KK to Kuching on Sunday.

Whilst waiting in the departure lounge, we said our last farewells to Dean and Craig then boarded our flight.  We left pretty much on time; we were offered snacks and drinks on the 45 minute flight to KK.  Air travel in Malaysia, a summary: MAS is cheaper than Air Asia, their flights leave on time (touch wood), you are offered food and drink — so much for the discount airline?

We touched down in KK and grabbed our bags and made for the pre-paid taxi stand.  Our room at the Step Inn wasn’t ready so we dumped our bags and headed out in search of some lunch.  We wandered back up to where we had lunch a few weeks ago, the place that did the great steamed and baked buns.  Obviously, we had some more of their buns and Scott was feeling a bit peckish so also had a bowl of soup with pork(??)  After grabbing another takeaway bun each we headed to the Tourism Office to gather some more information.  It’s very hot and humid in KK today, so we both had quite a sweat on.  Our shirts were soaked through, but they instantly froze into solid blocks when we entered the Tourism Office!  Pushing aside the penguins and polar bears to get to the computers we did a little bit of browsing for some activities whilst in KK for the next two days.  We didn’t find much so will probably just “wing it” and head off to the islands tomorrow for some snorkelling?

Stepping out onto the streets again, our shirts instantly melted and our sunglasses fogged up.  Nice to be out of the cold!  On the way to our accommodation we stopped to buy a small tripod to replace the one which broke a couple of days ago.  We went into a proper camera shop which only supplied proper camera equipment – we only need something cheap and nasty, so we headed across the road to the cheap and nasty shopping centre.  It still beats us how some of these shops survive, especially the multitude of mobile phone stores.  At one point in just a small corridor within the bowels of the centre there were about ten phone shops out of the 12 or so shops there.  We found our cheap tripod and made our way passed another several dozen phone shops back onto the street, and eventually to our accommodation.

The Step Inn is a couple of streets from the waterfront and quite centrally located.  From the shared bathroom, you have a view of the harbour; our window (which has a bullet hole in it!)

Scott takes me to all the fancy places
Scott takes me to all the fancy places

looks over a busy street corner.  The hotel is clean and our room is quite large, but is a bit noisy at times.  They provide free tea, coffee, drinking water and breakfast.

We went up to the room and started sorting some of our stuff.  We still have quite a lot of diving-related stuff with us, which is going to be of limited use when we head South and into the jungle, so we are trying to decide on what to take and what can be left behind in storage here at the hotel.  This was busy work so naturally, we needed a bit of an afternoon nanna-nap in the cool breeze of the air-conditioner.

We got up and ready for dinner.  Even before we had left the hotel that we decided to revisit the waterfront Indian restaurant from a few weeks ago.  We headed towards the water and was surprised to find a sprawling night-market; this market had all the same foods as the Sandakan market, and more!  It is a true market where people were selling fresh fruits, veges, fish and chicken.  There were food stalls selling cooked foods; the seafood looked very interesting with huge prawns and some very small lobster (obviously no size limits around here!)  We stuck to our guns and left the market to find the Indian restaurant, but have promised ourselves to eat the market tomorrow night.

The Indian restaurant was just as good this time as last.  We sat at a table on the boardwalk on the waterfront and ordered our dishes.  As we were waiting for our meals to be delivered the first spots of rain started falling.  Within moments, waiters at all of the establishments along the promenade sprang into action, erecting/unfurling umbrellas etc in time before the initial drizzle became light (but continuous) rain.  We finished our dinner, paid and wandered into the night mist.

On the way home we poked our noses into the Times Bookshop.  There was a vast array of book categories, nearly all titles were in English, but the books were no cheaper than at home.  As Tracy has already got five or so books to read, and the fact we spent the day lightening the loads in our backpacks, we decided not to buy anything.  (I think this is the first time in a looong time that Tracy has walked out of a bookshop without purchasing anything!) See http://www.ourbookclub.net.au for proof.

We went to hotel and Scott started chatting with some of the other guests to try and gather some more information from their travels.  Unfortunately the three (Swiss?) guys had been drinking just a little too much for anything really useful and they had only been in the country a few days anyway.  One lady (UK) had been here a while and was on a scuba diving mission, but could only afford her experiences about places we have already been i.e. Mabul and Sipadan.  She is leaving tomorrow(?) to go muck diving at Kapalai (been there!)

Day 14 – Sandakan

Wednesday, 26 May 2010
 
We treated ourselves to a bit of lay-in this morning as it is the first morning in a while when we haven’t got some early morning activity scheduled.  We made a leisurely saunter to a kotai kopi for a cup of coffee and tried to decide on some sort of plan for the day – we decided to wander around town.

Our walking tour started at Malaysia Fountain which has been undergoing some renovations since we have been here.  Yesterday we saw workers cleaning the fountain, but we have yet to see the fountain in action.  Later on in the morning we came passed here again the fountain was actually working, so we will have to pop back tonight to try to get some night photos.  We walked around the Town Oval and found the adjacent Chinese Temple which is the oldest building in Sandakan.  We were allowed inside; actually no one even gave us a second glance when we found our way inside as they were too busy on the phone or smoking.  Inside was decorated with all things Confucian / Bhuddist / Chinese.  Large incense spirals hung from the ceilings, offerings were arranged on several altars with images of Confucius, Buddha and others.  There were piles of boxes and other assortments scattered around the place, making the temple look as if it doubled as some sort of distribution enterprise for some local Chinese businessmen, but it was (relatively) peaceful.

Chinese Template
Chinese Template

From the temple we eventually found our way to St Michaels and All Angels church at the top of a nearby hill.  We had to go passed a high school so were an immediate target for the kids to practice their English.  On arriving at the church we noticed the door above the welcome mat was locked, as were all the doors.  Tracy went and found a custodian who let us in.  Inside was pretty much like most Anglican churches, with stained-glass windows and the occasional plaques on the walls, the main exception being this church was where some of the WWII POWs spent their last night before being interned in the camps, so has a special place in Australian history. 

St Andrews Church
St Andrews Church

The significance is evidenced by the plaques of the military units sponsoring or friends of the church and the stained glass windows were installed as part of a “Remembrance Window” project, facts disappointingly overlooked by Lonely Planet.

Beautiful memorial window
Beautiful memorial window

After leaving the church we found the 100 steps, leading us up another hill at the back Sandakan.  The weather today, like always is hot and humid and we were both soaked with sweat by the time we reached the top.  We found the Rotary Observatory which would have had magnificent views over Sandakan when it was built, when the trees were a lot smaller.  In order to get a better vantage we had to go higher, and the only place higher was the Agnes Keith Tea House.  This place just doesn’t seem to fit in here; it’s a little bit of England a long way from home and somehow left in the 1920’s-1940’s period.  There is a croquet field and wicker furniture in the lawn gazebos, an old brass Harbour Master’s telescope, a beautiful old gramophone etc.  We ordered a cold drink each and before they had arrived we were offered refreshingly ice-cold towels to aid our cooling off.  The uniformed waitresses delivered our drinks and as we sat we could have imagined what it must have been like in its glory days before the Japanese invasion.

Tables for cocktails on the lawn, next to the croquet lawn.
Tables for cocktails on the lawn, next to the croquet lawn.

We walked back down the hill and into the centre of town to find the Central Markets.  Like many other markets, there was an abundance of smells, sights and movement; the ground floor was predominately fresh fruits and veges with some meats and fish, the first floor was a food court and clothes, bags and cosmetics, the top floor was exclusively another (underutilised by day) food court.  After poking our noses around for a while we settled on a place on the first floor for some lunch. 

Central Markets - you name it, as long as it is fish and dried.
Central Markets - you name it, as long as it is fish and dried.

The food was cheap(ish) and after a few mouthfuls, we found out why!  We won’t be hurrying back there, although Tracy did manage to get an almost decent serving of tempeh on her second try.

We left the market and slowly made our way back to the hotel for the (now) obligatory siesta.

On our last night in Sandakan, you might think we would try somewhere different for dinner than the night market?  You’d be wrong though.  We just had to have one last meal there before we left.  Scott had a huge piece of fish (bat fish?) with a watery, vinegary, chilli sauce; Tracy had gado-gado (fried salad with satay sauce).  Sadly, our little roti seller was taking a night off so we didn’t get to have one last try of his fabulous wares.  After our main meal, of course, we couldn’t resist another artery-hardening dessert!

We enjoyed the Sandakan Night Market, no idea why we are always the only tourists!
We enjoyed the Sandakan Night Market, no idea why we are always the only tourists!

As we wheel-barrowed our full bellies back from the night market to the hotel, we swung passed the Malaysia Fountain, which was still working and took a couple of night shots.  Unfortunately the plethora of traffic and other lights makes it a bit hard to get really decent photos, but I did my best.  We went back to the hotel for our last sleep in Sandakan.

Malaysia Fountain
Malaysia Fountain

 

 

Day 13 – Sandakan (Sepilok, Labuk Bay and Sandakan War Memorial)

Silvery Gibbons
Silvery Gibbons

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

 

 

Woke up early and excited for our day.  Headed off to the local Kopi Kedai for roti teduk and kopi susu to fortify us ready for the “tourism” experience of the region.  We met the lady at the tourist office who introduced us to our taxi driver for the day who was punctual at 8:30.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilition Center.  We made the decision to see what we could when we could in case we can’t make it all the way down to Kalimantan in the time we have.  It takes about 45 minutes from Sandakan due to the traffic and the road is the same as yesterday – so another view of the palm oil plantations.  We arrived at Sepilok at about 9:15 and paid our park entrance (rm 30 each plus rm 10 for the camera) and went and had a look at the stories of how the park works and it’s aims etc.  Fairly depressing in one way, but at least somebody is trying to help.  We then wandered with the masses (and I mean masses of people) into the park and to the viewing area near the platforms. 

  

 

Scott venturing into the jungle (ahead of the crowds behind us)
Scott venturing into the jungle (ahead of the crowds behind us)

 

 

 

At the prompt time of 10:00 several park staff came out and placed food and milk on one of the platforms and were soon joined by 4 young Orangutans who obviously love the milk and then helped themselves to some bananas or what looked like sweet potatoes.  After ensuring that they got a fair share the park staff left and the Orangutans made a display of hanging and eating their food.  They are lovely to watch, but the gaggle of people and the noise of people talking (ignoring the silence signs) made it a surreal experience. 

  

 

Heading in for a feed
Heading in for a feed

 

I know people want to see animals up close, but pay attention, don’t sit there rabbiting on about nothing.  The good point was that you could not touch any of the animals or were meant to go close to the, unfortunately a young Orangutan didn’t read that sign and decided to walk along the boardwalk as a quicker means of getting to his food.  This was a place for the serious cameras as well, you are in the sun and the Orangutans are in the shade, so photos are hard to capture on a standard point-and-shoot.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary:  Now this I was really looking forward to.  We arrived (finally) and paid the entrance fee (rm 60 each plus rm 10 for the camera).  As soon as we walked into the main part of the sanctuary we were greeted by Silvery Gibbons playing and who were happy to pose for photos.  Soon the Oriental Pied Hornbills came down from the large trees for a treat of bananas and they are just beautiful (made the trip worthwhile).  Next up were three large groups of Proboscis Monkeys all coming in from the surrounding forest (mangrove swamps) and who were very social, probably watching us as much as us watching them.  They hung around for ages before getting bored and meandering back into the trees.

Probiscus Monkeys, with prominent noses and ...
Probiscus Monkeys, with prominent noses and ...

Oriental Pied Hornbill eating bananas
Oriental Pied Hornbill eating bananas

 

Sandakan War Memorial:  This was on Scott’s top 10 list and has an horrific history.  In 1944 approximately 3 groups of Australian and British POW’s (2400) were marched from Sandakan to Ranau by the Japanese at the end of the war, only 6 survived and that was through managing to escape.  This is the memorial to those killed by the Japanese to ensure that nobody could tell of the atrocities in the camps.  A memorial has been built and it is actually really nice and tells the story of how, what and how it all happened with comments by some of the survivors.  We had only just entered the park when we bumped into Dean and Craig (fellow Perth Scubaites from Mabul) who were also visiting the memorial.  It was heartbreaking that this could happen, although more heartbreaking in that the Government knew what was happening but didn’t find time to go and attack it until it was too late oh and then they let the people who were charged with war crimes go a couple of years later.  Very weird.  Anyway it is a sad and sobering memorial set in a lovely park with some relics and a map of the layout.  It was not a luxury resort that is for sure.

Lest We Forget.
Lest We Forget.

We had our driver drop us back in Sandakan after that and headed down to the Waterfront for a small snack (which turned out to be a huge plate for prawns for Scott and tofu for Tracy).  Back to the hotel for a nanna nap and desweat before heading back into the fray.

Day 12 – Semporna -> Sandakan

Monday, 24 May 2010

We got up and headed to the cafe we had lunch yesterday to find that the Idly had again finished, I am under the impression it never started as we were there at 7:00am.  So we had a great dosai and Kopi and then headed to the bus station where magically our bus is there and it is swish, never been on anything this good.  We are seriously thinking this just can’t be, but yep, we boarded and left the bus station on time. 

Our us to Sandakan
Our us to Sandakan

Of course only to go around the corner and spend 20 minutes filling the bus up at the petrol station.  Anyway before we knew it we were on the main road where we sat for the next 5 ½ hours watching palm oil plantations on both sides of the roads whizz by. 

cleared jungle on the left ready to repeat the palm plantation on the right
cleared jungle on the left ready to repeat the palm plantation on the right

There is absolutely no jungle left.  Even Scott said it was just totally depressing.  There appears to be no locals left in the area, as all the areas have been bought by big companies and it would appear to be managed etc by company staff.  All in all just tragic to have come to this – everyone should make a stand and demand palm oil free products.  The roads were in good condition except that the constant use of the heavy palm oil trucks were causing the sides to collapse and the traffic was held up with the stream of trucks moving the fruit and oil.  Why can’t people think of the consequences of their actions, it is so frustrating that people don’t see what actually happens to the environment.

Anyway, back off my soapbox, we arrived at the long distance bus terminal and got straight into a taxi (very cheap and very plentiful here – unlike Perth) who took us straight to our hotel (May Fair Hotel) who actually had our booking.  This travelling around in Borneo seems to be so easy it is scary.  Our hotel is clean and the room is big – it also has the world’s largest tv and dvd player.  The hotel owner has a massive collection of dvd’s.  We dropped off our bags and headed to the tourist information office for a map etc (these people seem to be perpetually happy to help).  We ended up booking a taxi to take us to Sepilok and Labuk Bay and the Sandakan Memorial for tomorrow, as it seemed easier than trying to work out the variety of buses etc.  We left there and had a walk around the town, well it is really a city, it is huge.  We have decided to fly back to Kota Kinabalu in a few days as another 8 hours of palm plantations just may cause me to go postal, so we went to Air Asia and got a price and then made the huge mistake of going to Malaysian Airlines where we did a booking online to have it not process the payment, so we had to wait in the queue for over an hour just to pay (funny considering the flight is only 45 minutes).  Oh well, lesson learnt.  We then walked back to the main waterfront area and had a snack before heading back to the hotel and finally having a nice hot shower and some clean clothes (yippee).  We are off to the night market for dinner so can’t wait.

The walk to find the night market lead us along the waterfront where young couples were beginning to meet.  The night market was easily found and was bustling with vendors and families.  We took a couple of laps to see what was on offer before Tracy started with a freshly boiled corn cob, Scott had a couple of chicken satay sticks.  We found a table near one vendor and order our main courses, mee sop (soup, with bif (beef) for Scott)  The lady working the wok magiced our order in just moments, and she wasn’t even sweating!  After our soups, we did another lap to find a dessert and found a row of stalls selling (something) which was a deep-fried batter roll, sliced open, spread with butter and a sweet jam-like substance (akin to maybe dolce de leche) then sandwiched together with a little more jam over the top; very sweet, but very morish.  A three course meal for 9 MYR (just over A$3).  Full and happy, we wandered back through the night to the hotel to rest up before a big day tomorrow.

Day 11 – Mabul -> Semporna

Sunday, 23 May 2010

We decided not to stay at Mabul any longer, wanting to get out and stretch our legs, so are off to Semporna to spend a night and organise a bus to Sandakan.  Waiting for the boat trip back to the mainland you realised how lovely the water looked and so inviting, if only everything hadn’t just dried out.  On the boat trip back, the heavens opened and a tropical storm ensued which meant we arrived in Semporna in the rain and stuck our packs on and struck out for a backpackers in the waterfront side of the town.  Waving goodbye to everyone on their bus back to Tawau airport, this is the first time we haven’t been surrounded by a team of scuba divers – yeah, hopefully no more  bugs.

The backpackers (Semporna Inn) is clean, small room, but quiet and central.  We dropped our bags off and headed out for a walk around to get our bearings.  Last time in Semporna we arrived in the dark.  We headed to the bus station and very easily (too easily) booked a bus for tomorrow to Sandakan (luxurious according to the sign) and then wandered back through town.  It is absolutely stinking hot now the rain has finished so we found a small cafe and had a veggie roti and Mee Goreng.  Scott was keen to try the Idly but it had finished (along with the Dosai) so we will try and come back tomorrow, starting to crave Indian food.  We went back to the hotel for a short lie down and organise some accommodation etc for the next few days.  Scott is also starting to feel a tad more human and is slowly on the mend, thank goodness, if not we would have been on a flight home.

We headed out to an Indian cafe I saw on my sojourn after lunch and had another roti and watched the world go by for a while before walking back through town to see what was happening etc – not much, except lots of rats near the food and fish markets.    It seems fairly quiet, a few western bars but as we aren’t drinking etc, called it an early night.  I am trying to finish a book to review for a great website (www.ourbookclub.net.au).

Day 10 – Mabul

Saturday, 22 May 2010

 

The last “official” day of diving and Scott’s head cold is not any better, despite taking the free-world supply of cold-and-flu, Sudafed, Zirtec, etc .  Yesterday we swapped our Sipadan seats for today, but Scott cannot dive in his current condition, so we’re not going to get the opportunity for a last dive at Sipadan. (Allegedly, the visibility has improved since the last rains were a little over a week ago now, so we are missing out on some of the extreme conditions that were hoping for).  Everyone has different opinions.  Tracy dived and the visibility wasn’t any better or worse than the week, so really depends on what you are expecting. 

All-in-all, a depressing end to a rather lacklustre diving holiday for Scott.  However, good things are to come with some trekking on land and then down to KK for some more diving etc.  One of the benefits of not having an itinerary.  Tracy did take advantage of the crystal clear and smooth waters for the mornings boat dives:-

Dive 1:  Coral Garden/Ray Reef:  visibility wasn’t very clear, however, there was little current so it was a nice drift dive with limited effort involved.  I buddied with Brenda, whose husband is also down for the count and she can spot anything from a million miles away so we stuck our noses in loads of places. 

 

 

baby Lion Fish
baby Lion Fish

 

 

Dive 2:  Kapalai:  We did the reef instead of the house structures.  There were quite a few different things i.e. a huge cuttlefish and some lovely black and white spotted fish. 

My black and white spotted fish
My black and white spotted fish

 

Again it was an easy dive, but I think the photos when Scott was there first were much clearer.

Spent the afternoon with Scott trundling around and working out what to do from tomorrow.  We did however go and get some sunset photos from the jetty and also caught up with some fellow divers at the Sunset Bar before heading to the final group BBQ which was a big outdoor buffet followed different games and dancing etc.  Scott and I came third in a dance competition where you had to keep a tomato between our heads – much more difficult thantfirst thought.

The Sunset Bar
The Sunset Bar

Day 9 – Mabul

Friday, 21 May 2010

Scott still has a head cold and cannot equalize his ears, even out of the water, so no diving for him again today.  We were supposed to be going for our final dives at Sipadan today, but have managed to swap our places and will hopefully go tomorrow if Scott is well enough to dive.

We spent an hour or so snorkelling around the house reef, looking at the abundance of corals and reef-life right on our doorstep.  Although it is hard to snorkel when so used to scuba diving (you simply cannot breathe whenever you want to when snorkelling!) we did manage to while away some time.  So much time Tracy got sunburnt – remember in future when snorkelling put sunscreen on backs of legs.

Borneo Divers jetty
Borneo Divers jetty

Tracy then convinced the man in charge of the jetty to let her go diving as long as she stayed in the house reef and Scott and him were able to see her at all times – very strange going diving by yourself.  I managed to be able to spend a lot of time at around 6 metres and even found a turtle and loads of clown fish and as I was the only diver, was able to stay and focus and get some different photos. 

The House Reef turtle
The House Reef turtle

Still didn’t push the limits and came up to meet the watchful gaze of Scott and the boss who seemed very relieved.

 

Me with no buddy :-(
Me with no buddy 🙁

Tracy went for a boat dive in the afternoon with another group and headed to Kapalai.  The visibility wasn’t very good and it was strange diving with an unfamiliar group and DM’s.  Not that enjoyable, saw some macro stuff, but nothing we hadn’t already photographed.  However, the other boat she thought of going on actually saw a whale shark so she is very annoyed.  The group she dived with were the serious photographers and no point in trying to take a photo as you couldn’t get near anything vaguely interesting, so the camera got turned off.  However, she spent the time wondering on whether to do a uni assignment on harassment of fish – is it okay in the name of a good photo.

Tracy also went for a sunset dive, but again the big cameras blocked the view for Tracy, so she came back early and packed up.  Although on the way up to the jetty ladder she had to swim through a big school of fish who seemed unwilling to move.

Strange feeling swimming through a school of fish
Strange feeling swimming through a school of fish

Dinner was it’s unspectacular normal, but afterwards the Tour Leaders (Lee, Joey and Gary) held status in a Kangaroo Court in order to “prosecute” crimes and issue fines (all going to the tips for the Dive Masters and Staff at Borneo Divers).  Some awards were handed out for the most number of dives, the most number of camera stuff-ups etc.  The atmosphere was quite jolly and fines were issued and taken in good humour.  Except Tracy who Scott nominated and ended up with a 60 ringgit fine – there goes out spending money J

Day 8 – Mabul

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Another sunny and hot day, can’t really complain though as the water is also like glass, not a ripple and I am not even going to take a sea sickness tablet today. 

Dive 1:  Lobster Wall, Mabul:  Scott’s second dive on this site, but Tracy’s first due to equipment failure earlier in the trip, so she was looking forward to finally getting there.  This time the current is much stronger than last time so this is much more of a drift dive.  There were strong thermoclines too, making visibility “wavy” or at least a little blurry 🙂  One the wall were the usual gammut of nudibranchs (I am getting better at spotting these and have started playing with some of the macro settings on the camera to see if I can get some better shots), octopus, crocodile fish etc. 

Nudibrachs
Nudibrachs

 

I found one lobster (rather small compared to the Western Rock Lobster, but larger than a big prawn) who wasn’t very keen on having its photo taken.  I assume once there more of these which is how the wall got its name?

Spotthe Pygmi Seahorse
Spot the Pygmi Seahorse

Dive 2:  Sea Venture, Mabul:  Scott’s second dive on this site (Tracy gave it a miss and went for a walk and a swim), although this time the current is much weaker than before, almost non-existent.  The visibility was about the same at around 10m.  Allegedly this spot gets some awesome vis, but we are yet to see it!  Tracy was having a break so I dived with Leslie, who isn’t part of the Perth SCUBA Crew but is just staying at the resort (her husband has succumbed to the gastro bug).  We descended away from where we had been previously, and found more “rubbish” collection disguised as artificial reef structures.  Again, I know I am repeating myself, but there has to be some demarcation between dumping rubbish and creating habitat. 

Rubbish or Artificial Reef?
Rubbish or Artificial Reef?

 

Becoming a Nudi fan
Becoming a Nudi fan

We saw a very large cuttlefish out in the open, much to its chagrin as it was photographed from all sides before eventually having enough and meandering away.  I spotted some more nudibranchs, some were also out in the open so were easier to spot, but some were tucked away and I still managed to find them (sheer luck of course). 

 

Underneath the rig were the usual host of crocodile fish and scorpion fish, so had to be very careful as you touched the bottom not to encounter any of these sorts of nasties. 
Each of the divers was happy doing their own thing under the watchful eyes of our DMs, when something odd happened — our boat driver had jumped over the side and swum on a single breath down to the bottom (at 15m), snuck up on DM Ben and tried to surreptitiously turn of his air, as a joke of course!  Ben felt something tugging at his cylinder, so the attempt was unsuccessful, but it was quite strange to see in amongst all the scuba divers someone with no mask, fins, or cylinder, nothing except a pair of shorts swimming around amongst us! 
Nearing the end of the dive we ascended for the required safety stop of 3 minutes at 5 metres.  I don’t know if someone was having troubles, went into decompression or what, but we hung there for ages?? (In fact it was only eight minutes, but it seems like forever when you’re just floating in mid water)  (There was a rope at the stop, but too many people were pulling and tugging on it to be comfortable so I just hovered away from the line.)  Oh well, better to be safe than sorry.  All in all, an enjoyable dive.

Can't get used to the colours
Can't get used to the colours

 

Dive 3:  Kapalai:  Scott had already done this dive, but I hadn’t so was looking forward to it as it got rave reviews from him last time.  The resort is an over-water resort located on a sand bank island.  We descended with another boat of divers (this can be annoying as it is hard to see who is who).  I didn’t think the visibility was very good, but there is a plethora of clown fish down here so they are great fun to watch.  We followed the reef for a little while before moving over to the wrecks when two almighty huge bangs were heard underwater, not sure what they were but certainly got the heart racing and the DMs regrouped everyone to make sure we were okay, as it turned out later it was the Indonesians doing some dynamite fishing nearby.  I did however manage to also see a tiny seahorse which is rare. 

I promise it isn't a twig
I promise it is no a twig

I spent most of the time at the top of the wrecks looking as the corals and other little creatures that were up there as below it was a bit silty.  There was a bit of current which made swimming against it hard and I used up a fair bit of air quickly, but wasn’t unhappy to finish the dive as the photography was hard with all the disturbance in the water and Scott is having problems equalising as he has a cold, so we surfaced and boarded the boat before heading in.

 

 

 

Clown Fish heaven
Clown Fish heaven

After the diving we went for a walk to the nearest resort and bought a t-shirt.  We are feeling very bereft of dive t-shirts compared to everyone else, although we have also to be aware anything we buy here we have to lug around the island, so won’t be buying a pile of them that’s for sure. 

Day 7 – Sipadan Island (for Scott), R&R for Tracy

 

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Due to the stomach bug going around Scott managed to get one of the prized spare spots on another dive to Sipadan which is great news, so he was up bright and early and every excited to be heading over there.  My option was to go to Seamel which is a 40 minute boat ride for 3 dives and a bbq on an island, which I decided to give a miss and walked around the island with some of the other people who didn’t go.  The island is basically several resorts and then villages that provide the local labor etc for the resorts. 

Some of these villages are just spotless, even the sand under the houses has been swept.  I then had a leisurely swim. 

The resort pool
The resort pool

 

Dive 1:  Mid Reef, Sipadan:  Dived with Toby as Tracy was having a day off diving with a cracking headache.  The trip over to Sipadan was uneventful, but all the divers talked up their previous experiences here.  I only did one dive the other day here because I was ill, so I have my hopes set high for today.  The dive crew today were not as good as the ones I have been privileged to whilst at Borneo Divers (Leanah and Ben). 

Before going for lunch which was followed by a 90 minute all over pummelling (body massage).  For me it was a great relaxing day and my headache also cleared which is probably because I am not used to the amount of diving we are doing.   

The DMs just sort of hung around and let us discover all of our own interesting tid-bits instead of pointing them out for us; needless to say that I didn’t see many small things on the wall, but did manage to see some larger marine-life, turtles, white-tip sharks, massive fan corals etc. 

Beatiful lace coral fans
Beatiful lace coral fans

 

Dive 2:  Drop Off, Sipadan:  After a surface interval on the island, we headed a few hundred metres offshore to the “Drop Off”, another wall dive where the reef plateau drops straight down to over 600m. 

We started the dive going deep, but there wasn’t a lot down there, so Toby and I came shallow and spent the majority of the dive in the light of the shallows.  At times we felt like we were swimming in someone’s tropical aquarium, and like always, my photography skills do not do the site any justice.  But was the site all that it was hyped to be?  Probably not.  The lack of leadership from the DMs, the reduced visibility and being limited to 50 minutes bottom time all detracted from what should have been a more enjoyable dive.

We entered the water and descended directly into the entrance to Turtle Cave.  We poked our noses in to read the sign posted there — that you will probably die if you proceed further into the cave. 

Enter at your own risk
Enter at your own risk

We turned around and ascended again, there is not a lot to look at, at depth on these walls, or at least not that I could see, and without the DMs pointing out items of interest, we were basically left to our own devices again.

 

I love these corals
I love these corals

At the shallower depths we saw the usual suspects of Sipadan; turtles, sharks and massive arrays of small and large colourful fishes.  At the very end of the dive, a swarm of Skipjack Trevally tornadoed right overhead.  Even in the shallows, I was able to get underneath the swirling mass and get some piccies, the fish were hardly concerned with me being there just a few centimeters away. 

 

As we were surfacing, my dive buddy very nearly had a collision with a snorkeller overhead; not that he would have minded! 🙂

 

Dive 3:  Barracuda Point:  Over the surface interval lunch break on the island, everyone continued to talk this dive site up.  Tracy dived here a few days ago and said it was “OK” but wasn’t as thrilled with it as a site as some of the people today.  Anyway, we’ll see how it turns out.  After lunch, we headed out to the dive site and went through the usual routines to actually get into the water.  We descended into the current and drifted deep along the wall until we approached the “point” at which time we started flying across the shallower parts of the reef.  The current was very strong, however later, some of the divers who were here previously said the current was stronger then, and my dog is blacker!  It was very hard to do much in the current other than fly along with it.  You couldn’t take too many photos because as soon as you saw something of interest, you were already down stream of it and had to swim hard to get back to the spot.  If you managed to get back, then you had to hang on hard with just one or two fingers on the coral to stay in position, then you had to somehow hold the camera steady with the other hand.  I just gave up trying to photograph and enjoyed watching the coral reef just a few feet below as we flew over the top.  After a while we reached the spot where the barracuda were supposed to be, and they were there, for just a few moments and then they took off into the current, probably to get away from us!  Again, with all the pre-dive hype, I was a bit disappointed, but still thoroughly enjoyed the drifting!

Dive 4:  West Reef, Sipadan:  Last dive of the day!  And thank goodness for that too as I think I can feel the start of a cold coming on; I have a touch of blocked nose and I was to find out later this would lead me to troubles with clearing my ears.  Another dive where staying shallower paid dividends.  On the changing (outgoing) tide the turtles were coming into the wall to rest in the ledges, caves and shelves. 

Turtles - magnificent
Turtles - magnificent

 

A few sharks decided they would also move so basically there was movement everywhere you looked. 

 

Too many fish
Too many fish

 

Big fish, small fish, corals, fans, turtles, sharks… it just goes on.  My dive buddy (Toby) and I just pottered along at our pace again and were “supervised” by the DM who just hung in the water in the vicinity of us and seemed to be asleep for the majority of the dive.  The only real interaction we had was when our dive time limit of 50 minutes was up and he signalled for us to surface. 

 

The fish are so colourful
The fish are so colourful
So what did I think of Sipadan?  Well, it certainly wasn’t up to the standards that so many had spruiked, but it is an awesome region and I would love to come here again with a good crew who can point out so many more points of interest that just get lost in the colour and movement.  Luckily, that will be in just a couple of days time; I hope I don’t get sick and miss another opportunity.

 

 

 

Day 6 – Mabul Island

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Scott is feeling much better today and is doing the dives.  However, Tracy has a splitting headache so is going to sit out the first dive and hope it gets better.  The rain seems to have gone and it was very hot and sunny and we are back to the usual humidity.

Dive 1:  Kapalai is a dive resort with over-water bungalows.  Typical, I have always wanted to go somewhere like that and I missed it.  The dive was under the bungalow structures and along a sandy reef with very good visibility.  Scott’s buddy for the dive was Gavin, we descended straight over the top of a large stinging anemone, home to a family of clown fish (Nemos as Tracy calls them). 

This was the first of many of these strange but beautiful homes for small fish.  Along the sandy bottom away from the sloped reef, there were a number of structures; these were home to lion-fish, large cods and masses of tiny fish. 

The macro-camera divers saw plenty of very-small things but unfortunately Scott’s eyesight cannot find many of the things the DiveMasters point out!  Allegedly there were flamboyant cuttlefish, some very small nudibranchs etc.  At the safety stop at 5m Scott tripped over a huge Moray Eel, the largest he’s seen (Unfortunately his photo skills don’t do this eel justice).

Dive 2:  The camera battery died as we got into the water, so we didn’t get any photos.  However, there was not great visibility anyway, which was lucky.  This dive was a wall with a large drop off and we were in search of the pygmy seahorse.  There was one – but we could not for the life of us see it, apparently it was exactly like the coral it was sitting on.   As we were drifting along the wall, waiting for the macro-camera divers, Scott happened to stop at a small ledge where a large sea-turtle was resting.  (S)He was happy with Scott lurking very close, but when the rest of the group caught-up, the turtle decided its siesta was over and it lifted-off from the ledge and “flew” away.

Dive 3:  Sea Venture.  The Sea Venture is an ex-oil rig platform that has now been turned into a dive resort and we went underneath.  There is a lot of old rubble and things dumped there, but some sealife has moved in and we saw eels etc.  The current was very strong and I started to feel a bit tired and sick, so surfaced a little bit ahead of everyone else. 

The descent
The descent

Although the creation of artificial reefs is to be encouraged, the layout and composition of the area around the rig leaves something to be desired; the difference between purpose-built reef and dumping ground is fine, but it does exist.  An interesting dive, but we won’t be rushing back.

Day 5 – Sipadan Island

Monday, 17 May 2010
 
Well this is the day we have been waiting for – 4 dives on Sipadan island.  We were up and ready, although Scott has been hit by a stomach bug which is spreading like wildfire through the divers, but nothing is going to stop him getting to Sipadan.  The weather was grey and stormy, but at least it is warm.  We headed off on the 45 minute boat ride to Sipadan Island.   The plan for the day is to do a dive, followed by the surface interval on the beach at Sipadan, then another dive etc.
 
Welcome to Sipidan
Welcome to Sipidan
You must register to visit Sipidan
You must register to visit Sipidan
 
First Dive:  South Point.  This was a great intro to Sipadan and I got to see the thing I came for – clown fish in anemone (Scott photographed and videos), so I was one very happy diver.  The dive was down to approx 25 metres, but I tend to stay a bit shallower than the others to conserve my air longer, which is a great perspective, just looking down into the deep blue ocean and seeing everyone below me.  The visibility wasn’t too bad, but I was slightly disappointed as I thought you would just be able to see for miles with no particles etc.  It was interesting though to see that the area is regenerating after all the tour/dive operators were forced to move from the island and you can only day trip there now, and no more than 120 divers can be in the area on each day, however, there are   issues even with that number.
 
Clown (fish) college
Clown (fish) college
I just can't get enough of these Clown Fish
I just can't get enough of all the Clown fish

Second Dive:  White Tip Avenue.  My first dive without Scott on the trip as he took the boat back to Mabul and I stayed on.  So I buddied up with Leanah our Dive Master – more like I stuck to her like glue, no way I was going missing.  This was a lovely dive, lots to see again more corals and fish that you can imagine ever seeing in one place, of course I am now in charge of the camera, so undoubtedly the battery goes flat as I forgot to check it, however, managed to get a few shots in first though. 
 
Huge coral fans abound...
Huge coral fans abound...
Colourful corals and fish
Colourful corals and fish
Third Dive:  Barracuda Point.  This was drift diving to the extreme, the current was going so fast it was hard to even take photos as you need to try and hold onto something before being whisked away. 
These are beautiful
These are beautiful
So many fish - photos just don't do it any justice
So many fish - photos just don't do it justice
We did see a huge Barracuda school and also sharks again.  Still not seeing the fascination with them, but they didn’t seem to bother about us. 
This is as close as I want to be
This is as close as I want to be
There wasn’t as much colourful corals, but it was a major experience just doing the dive.
 
Fourth Dive:  Hanging Garden.  This has to be the highlight of the day.  It was a shallow dive (15 metres), but I hung around the 10m mark as there were so many things to see.  
Schooling fish
Schooling fish

 

This is a drop off of about 600 metres, so you have a wall of corals etc and then beautiful blue nothingness. 

Loads of turtles and sharks were just two of the highlights then a million different types of corals and fish. 

It was obviously that good I filled up a 2gb memory card and there is no way they can do it justice. 

This dive was worth the whole trip.  A couple on the dive boat said it was way better than anything that can be seen in the Dead Sea.

Back at Mabul, Scott is at least not feeling worse, so that is a good sign.  Although a few people have had a tummy bug, so may just be a change in something.  Typical, staying in a western resort is always our undoing, maybe we should move into the local village next door – definitely no luxuries there.
Nemo Found

Nemo Found

Day 4 – Mabul

Sunday 16 May 2010

We had breakfast, again it is buffet style before heading down to the jetty to get on our boat with the same crew and divers as yesterday.

Dive 1:  Lobster Wall:  I didn’t get to see much as my low pressure inflator hose decided to only work intermittently,  so I went back in as I was worried it would not work when I really needed it later in the dive and better to be safe than sorry.  Scott went back in with one of the dive masters and caught up with the group, but it was a short dive for him and he didn’t bother with the camera etc.  We headed back to the Borneo Divers jetty for our surface interval and were faced with cakes and coffees.  I can see we aren’t going to lose much weight on this trip.

Dive 2:  Old House Reef:  Which was again close to where we were and so full of fish it was great.  No corals, just loads and loads of fish.  There were loads of old boats and obviously the houses that used to be there and it was slowly being taken over by the sealife.  This was a dive of approximately 20m and again the water temperature was a lovely 29 degrees, we have begun to realise it is going to be hard to dive in Perth again. 

Just to prove we are both ghere and scuba diving :-)
Just to prove we are both ghere and scuba diving 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We had another surface interval for lunch where you head back into the main dining hall of the resort for a large buffet lunch.

Dive Three:  Eel Garden:   this dive is approximately 22 metres and was once the site for dynamite fishing, which has since been banned, but the damaging effects are still visible on the corals.  You see coral and then straight away there is a large gaping hole of nothing.  This was another fantastic drift dive but again so much to see.  There were eels, fish, corals, anemone’s, turtles, pipes etc.  Although you can see the damage, it is slowly regenerating, but not within our lifetime.

Back at the jetty was the manic wash everything down including ourselves after a day in salt water.  We had a couple of hours to kill before dinner, so did the usual housekeeping of frantically charging batteries ready for diving tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

Day 3 – Semporna -> Mabul

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Headed down to brekkie to be faced by a sea of Perth Scuba divers in their club t-shirts.  It looks like a package holiday now.  We had a boring Western/Asian brekkie and then after the ton of luggage was loaded we boarded our boat transfer to Borneo Divers in Mabul.  There was actually a separate boat for all the luggage – I think Scott and I are the only ones who did not bring a full complement of dive gear, let’s hope that wasn’t a mistake.  We then boarded one of the three boats taking out the divers – this is it, what we have come for and what we have been waiting for. 

Mabul - our island destionation
Mabul - our island destionation

We checked into the hotel and had a briefing of what to do and all the logistics.  Our room is a cabin that is divided into two, so we have a bedroom and bathroom with a deck and the same is duplicated on the other side (we are on the Left).  The room is airconditions and has a ceiling fan and lots of windows, so I am hoping it will be cool.  The only weird thing is that the room does not have any window screens, so good job we brought the Rid.  Our neighbours in our chalet are Nat and Gabe.

Home sweet home
Home sweet home

We then unpacked our gear and headed straight to the dive shop on the jetty to organise our hire gear which was already packed in a crate, so we kitted up (minus cameras) and boarded our boat with our fellow dive crew and dive masters for our orientation dive.  This dive is to ensure that we have the correct weights and haven’t forgotten anything.  We headed to Ray Reef and dropped down into the warm (32 degrees) water for a maximum dive of 22.3m.  Strange thing to realise is that the outside air temperature and the water temperature are the same.  This dive as a drift dive, so along with the backward roll off the boat, we are in new territory.  You swim a little bit into the current, then let it drag you through the hanging walls etc not exactly strenuous but there is just so much to see you feel like your head is on a swivel stick.  There were turtles, fish, more fish, corals, more fish, urchins, wished I know what the real names of the fish were.  I was seriously underweighted which didn’t seem like too much of a problem, until I started using up my air, so I got lighter and lighter, I did get a good look around at the deeper depths, but as soon as I started to head up for my safety stop, Scott had to hang onto me to ensure I didn’t go rocketing to the surface – not a very professional look on my first dive. 

We headed back to the jetty for our surface interval and then back out for a dive off the jetty itself (11 metres, 32 degrees) and trust me there is more than enough to see there, you certainly don’t have to go far.   Again there were turtles, so many different types of fish, corals etc. 

Scott having a ball
Scott having a ball

After we finished we got back, had a quick rest and headed to dinner which was a large buffet style set-up with quite a few choices (mainly meat with some salad and a hot veggie dish).  After dinner there was a talk on photography, but mainly aimed at those with the big SLR set-ups ($15k benchmark), hard to put into practice when you have a little point and shoot, but we are using this whole trip as a learning experience and to see what our next step will be in the world of underwater photography.  Of course it had been a long day so we didn’t party on and had an early night.  It was raining, so all the clothes we had washed were now rewashed by the elements.

 

Day 2 – Kota Kinabalu -> Tawau -> Semporna

Friday, 14 May 2010

There was a power cut during the night, so woke up bathed in a tropical sweat, hmm nice. Our plane to Tawau isn’t leaving until late afternoon, so we headed off to find a local breakfast at a Kopai Kedi. We found one that was typically heaving with people and ordered noodle soup which was delicious and watched all the comings and goings in the small eatery. On the way out we had one of their steamed/baked buns that were extremely popular with the local clientele and they were scrumptious.

Steamed Buns the local way
Steamed Buns the local way

We walked around the backstreets and found the Jessleton Ferry Terminal and got some information on times and prices for ferries out to the islands which we want to do when we get back here.

Jesselton Ferry Terminal
Jesselton Ferry Terminal

We then wandered some more, including a side trip through the local fish markets and the dock where the fish come in, definitely not as awful as the fish markets in Mumbai, but there is certainly no wastage of anything here. We headed back to the hotel and after having another cold shower and a change into fresh clothes. We then went in search of lunch. Heading to the Waterfront for a beer (Scott) and soft drink (Tracy) just sitting and watching the world go by and all the boats.

We finally decided on a local lunch place and have rice and veggies which was great and then headed back to the backpackers and picked up our bag and set off for the airport. On getting to the airport, our plane wasn’t listed on the departure information screens, but we were assured it would be. We went and had the worst coffee going at the airport cafeteria and then saw our plane was up, but had been delayed by nearly 2 hours. Not a good start. Eventually the time passed and we made it through the check in area only to wait another hour and a bit before we finally got on board. Yeah – we might be late but we will be in Semporna tonight. We arrived in Tawau to be met by Borneo Divers, so we didn’t have to go through the hassle of getting a taxi. We made it to Semporna by 10:30, had a quick bite to eat before hitting the sack after a long day of doing nothing.

Day 0 – Perth->Singapore->Kota Kinabalu

Wednesday 12 May 2010

After a mad dash to make it to the finish line of packing and cleaning up the house, then finding some dinner at the local Chinese restaurant, Craig and Heather dropped us at Perth International Airport, allowing us to start another journey.  We checked in without any fuss and went through procedures to depart Australia.  As usual, we found ourselves sitting in the Qantas lounge with some nibbles and drinks, passing the time for our flight scheduled for 00:05.

Thursday 13 May 2010

The flight to Singapore was uneventful.  We managed to catch a couple of snoozes but Scott must have had the most uncomfortable seat known to man.  12 hours after the flight, his bum is still square with the ridges and grooves of the Jetstar seat imprinted on his behind! In Singapore, we tried to get into the Qantas lounge to spend the five hours until our next flight, to Kota Kinabalu.  We were told by the Receptionist that we weren’t on a Jetstar international flight and therfore could not use the lounge facilities.  If you get on a plane in Singapore, then you are flying international!  Needless to say, this had us confused and dismayed at the ever-declining standards offered by Qantas.

We sat and wandered, wandered and sat in the Changi International Airport (note for Qantas, the word “international”) and passed the time watchng other travellers passing the time watching other travellers.  We had seen a lass in Perth and again in Singapore whose luggage bore an Allways Dive tag, and saw her again in the departure lounge.  Scott approached and discovered she is Michelle (sp?) and is one of the Perth Scuba (Manta Club) divers in our group.  She was making independent travel to Semporna. Finally our time came and we boarded our flight for Kota Kinabalu; another uneventful flight but this time we managed a slightly improved snooze.

Clearing Customs and Immigration at KK was simple in their new airport (almost completed, but very impressive), grabbed some cash and a pre-paid cab to the Kinabalu Backpackers Lodge.  Our booking through HostelWorld.com worked and we were shown to our room.  It’s a large space, clean, with a/c and double bed, communal facilities and is quite good for the price.  It is not geographically “central” but KK is not that big and ten minutes after leaving the Lodge we were walking along the waterfront looking for something to eat.  We chose a harbourside cafe-esque place, as soon as we sat down at our alfresco table, it started raining.  Our table’s umbrella was mostly up to the job, but when the food and drinks arrived moments later we stopped caring about the rain.  Eventually the rain stopped so we paid our bill and wandered back through the city to the Lodge for a nanna-nap.

Refreshed, we headed out through some of the night markets and the Harvest Festival activities to dine at an Indian restaurant we noticed earlier in the day.  We ate far too much (the food was excellent) and meandered back through the night time to the Lodge.  After completing some domestics, we turned in for the night; looking forward to continuing the journey towards Mabul tomorrow.