Thursday, June 23, 2011

Taking high tea in Sandakan

Proboscis monkey creche, Labuk Bay

Wonders will never cease. The new propeller from Denmark arrived in Sandakan, Borneo in 9 days! We might wait until we get out of these crocodile waters until we fit it, however. 

Sarah finds the Sandakan English Tea Room
Sandakan used to be the capital of Sabah until the WWII bombing razed it to the ground. Then the capital was shifted across the mountain range to Kota Kinabalu. Of course, North Borneo has a long history with its indigenous people and Chinese settlement dating back to the fourteenth century. The British, with their unfortunate habit of deciding that they can run a place better than the locals, turned up in the mid 19th century to give the place a jolly good sorting out. In the war, the Japanese occupied North Borneo for some four years, setting up prisoner of war camps in a number of locations and capturing thousands Australian, Malay and British soldiers. Non-military allied personnel were also imprisoned in these camps. Scott visited the Australian War Memorial today and paid his respects. 

Silver Lipped monkey (photo by Seth)
Those of you who like a bit of sailing action rather than a travelogue will have to wait a few more days, when our next passage comes up - crossing the Celebes Sea to Sulawesi. It should take us a few days. Scott did the usual trek around Customs and Immigration today and checked us out of Malaysia - we'll be entering into Indonesia next week. Before that, though, we're planning to head up the Kinabatangan River tomorrow to search for wildlife. The Kinabatangan is one of the remaining wildernesses in Borneo, where pygmy elephants are apparently hiding. Hopefully we'll find them! 

An hour out of Sandakan we visited a proboscis monkey sanctuary. They are seriously ugly monkeys. The sanctuary is a pocket of forest bordering the mangroves that a kindly oil palm plantation owner saved, having taken pity on the proboscis living there. Not to take the gloss off this gesture, he has probably found the many tourists more profitable that another hundred acres of oil palms!

As those close to me will know, I am always able to sniff out a tea room or coffee shop and in Sandakan I excelled myself, tracking down the English Tea Room. Set high on the hill, where the breeze blows much cooler than in the heat of the town, we found cream teas, starched linen and cakes to die for! The cafe is in the grounds of the house formerly inhabited by the author Agnes Keith, who was stationed with her English husband  here in the late 30's. She fell in love with the country and its people and wrote three books about her life here. When the war came, the writer and her family were imprisoned by the Japanese and spent four years in camps until the war ended. She sounds like a formidable lady, who brushed off the fuss people would make of her 'fortitude' in the camps. She wrote her second book, 'Three Came Home' on tiny scraps of paper that she buried around the camp in old cans. 

Well, that's about it for the history of Borneo for today. We're all excited about the river. It's damned hot. Don't think I've mentioned that for a while. The blog might have slightly bigger gaps between installments from now on, as we're not sure what kind of internet access we'll have over the next two months in Indonesia - and we know that the two months in PNG we'll have absolutely no coverage at all - but rest assured that we'll be saving up all the news. After all these many months of easy phone and internet I'm sure I'll suffer withdrawal for a while.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Over the top of Borneo

Finn at the cake stall, Gaya Street Markets, Kota Kinabalu

Sutera Harbour, Kota Kinabalu

Seth's purple birthday cake

Seth on the helm

Lankayan Island
After leaving our mud bath in Tiga, we headed straight to Kota Kinabalu, where we were booked in to the very flash Sutera Harbour marina. This would be the most expensive marina in Malaysia, but also the last marina that we would see until we got back to Australia. We were looking forward to hanging out by the pool but, as anyone travelling by boat will tell you, it's best not to plan ahead. One of our two folding propellers decided to fall apart on the way in to the harbour so we had to come in under one engine rather than two. Luckily Scott is a damned fine driver and also the wind was not strong. So, rather than sitting next to the pool, Scott spent the next few days trying to locate a replacement propeller. We have a spare one – old and not folding – but that would leave us without a spare. Anyway, Scott always gets to know the industrial areas of every town rather better than he would like, so did his usual trek around, to no avail. In the end, we ordered a brand new prop, rather conveniently and at great expense, from Denmark. Yes, Denmark in Scandinavia. We need it to arrive in our last Borneo stop of Sandakan before we leave there on around 24 June. Hmm.

Anyway, there was a little bit of lying by the pool for me, whilst supervising the boys, of course. The resort was 5 star and had a kids' club, gym (yippee!) and even a bowling alley and cinema. Seth and Finn opted to remain at the resort rather than trek around 'just another town', other then when we dragged them to the Gaya Street markets - local baskets and ceramics, home-made cakes, tools, puppies and flowers. The rest of the time I was scouring supermarkets for items on my re-stocking list – especially bread flour and parmesan, which I bought up big.

Since leaving KK a few days ago we've been on the move every day, heading North to the tip of Western Borneo and over through the islands to the East. We arrived at Lankayan Island on my birthday (too ancient!) and had a fantastic day. Lankayan is a turtle reserve and dive centre, on a tiny jewel of an island surrounded by turquoise water. Seth made me a very lovely cake with purple icing and generally waited on me all day, god love him. Our friends on Red Boomer brought over champagne and a new hat to replace the rather disgusting one that I've been wearing for the past 12 months. From there we all went into the island and ate a delicious dinner (with more cake – thanks to Boomers). We were there until late, singing with the local guys who had an old guitar. Seth loved it; Finn fell asleep and had to be carried home. Sadly, no turtles have hatched whilst we've been here – green and hawksbill turtles come here to lay their nests and the eggs and babies are protected, to try to give them a chance of getting past the waiting birds and other predators.

One more long day and we'll be in Sandakan and then we hope to have a few days exploring the Kinabatangan River. From there, we'll cross over four days to the North East corner of Sulawesi and begin our Indonesian & Papuan adventure. We've been catching plenty of fish – mainly Spanish mackerel. Scott is 'the (mackerel) man' and has been hauling one in most days. The fridge and freezer are both full. Lucky we like fish, any which way....

By the way, you will no doubt be relieved to know that Gary the Gecko (or was it Pete?) has made an appearance! We were rather fearful that he had shrivelled up somewhere but tonight he appeared in the cockpit, healthy and lively and around 6cm long! Finn was so happy.

Don't forget, you can track our progress on the following address:

PS Welcome Ian and Melissa!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Memorials, monkeys and lots of mud

Malaysian Borneo is divided into two main states – Sarawak to the South and Sabah to the North, with the separate country of Brunei sandwiched in between. We have now entered Sabah, having visited the island of Labuan for a few days. Labuan's main attraction for travellers on yachts is that it is duty free, and allows us to stock up luxuries before we head into the wilds. We are now very heavy on the port side of the boat, with six months' worth of beer and wine and I just hope that I can keep the chocolate stash out of Scott's reaches for a few months yet.

Many of you will know that Borneo was significant for the Australian forces during WWII. The Japanese occupied much of Borneo for four years and many Australians, British, New Zealanders as well as native Malays lost their lives here. We visited the Australian War Memorial in Labuan, where some 2,700 Australian soldiers are named and listed. In the cemetery itself, some 3,900 men are buried, with half of them being unidentified. Their bodies were recovered from different sites in Sabah and Sarawak. Many of them were part of the 1945 'death march' from Sandakan into the interior, en route to Rawau. Of the 2,400 that started the march, only 260 were alive at the end and of these, only six men survived the war – because these six escaped and were cared for by locals until the war ended.

From Labuan we took the boat 25 miles up the Klias river in search of proboscis monkeys and fireflies. It's quite a different experience, motoring on a confined waterway, but we had a friend's track to follow (waypoints on the GPS) and also had the current with us. We anchored behind Red Boomer for the night and after dark were not disappointed by the show the fireflies put on. We managed to see only a single proboscis but plenty of macaques. Rather sadly, the forest bordering the river was rather thin and in places we could see that behind the tree-line considerable logging had taken place and the dreaded palm oils were in evidence. Nevertheless, it was fine to sleep with the sounds of the jungle all around us.

(Note: the proboscis photo was taken by our friend Jean-Marie Dorlot, who is a much better photographer than me!)

We have just arrived in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu, having spent a couple of days on pretty Tiga Island. Tiga is famous for having risen out of the sea only 125 years ago and also for its mud volcanoes. As you can imagine, that was something that we had to experience. So we trooped with our friends through the bush, took of most of our clothes and slid into the mud pools. It was a very wierd sensation, as the mud is so dense and slippery (yet strangely gritty) that you float near the surface. The boys loved it and rolled around like seals. We all had to walk the kilometre back to the beach  before we could wash off. The mud got everywhere ... and I mean everywhere. 

Finn has lost two teeth, as you can see. The tooth fairy, it would appear, is Malaysian!

 By the way, we love getting the comments and messages from those of you that have read the blog. Around 25 people a day – our friends and family, plus a few kind strangers – check in to see where we are . Thanks!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Finding the trees in Sarawak

After a fine time in Kuching we travelled North some 280 miles to Miri, an oil town just South of Brunei. Sailing along the coast Linkhere, we have to avoid oil rigs and tankers as well as the usual nets, logs and fish traps. At least the rigs are easy to spot! It's easy to see why Brunei and this part of Malaysia are so wealthy, with oil production on this kind of scale.

We put the boat into the marina and looked into ways of getting inland to see some of the unspoilt interior. There are a few Sarawak National Parks within reach of Miri, so we hired a car and drove to the Niah National Park to see the caves there. The caves are enormous and extensive and we had fun trudging through the bat-poo in the pitch dark, with little boys waving torches anywhere but at the ground. We walked miles in the rain back to the park office and then booked into one of their cabins for the night. The next day we went to the Lambir Hills park, which had waterfalls and many, many hills. Finn did amazingly well, but we had to sing an awful lot of songs to keep him going those last few kilometres.

The National Parks extend further inland, with large parts of Borneo protected in this way and pockets where there are still wild orang utans, proboscis and even the occasional pygmy elephant – more of that later, we hope. What we passed on the way to the parks, however, were mile upon sickening mile of palm oil plantations. On the rivers and near the coast we see huge barges piled with logs from the forests – to sell for timber and to make way for yet more oil palms. The green of these trees is dull and without variation; the plantations cover every hill and valley as far as the eye can see. In the local Iban and other tribes, the people traditionally live in communal longhouses, but those that work for the palm oil companies live in the featureless housing blocks provided by the plantations.

As I write, we're anchored off the Brunei coast for the night before heading to the island of Labuan tomorrow. We decided to do without the rigmarole of entering into Brunei, but might pay a visit from Labuan on the ferry. From here we'll continue to explore the Borneo coast and rivers – we have a month before it's time to check into Indonesia. At each of our last few large towns we'll be stocking up in a major way – once we get into Indonesia and certainly Papua New Guinea there will be few to nil opportunities for buying stores so we have to be fully stocked. We've worked out how many loaves of bread we'll need to bake in four months, how

many bags of sugar, rice, coffee and tea we'll get through. We've started to catch fish at last – the waters everywhere have been totally fished out – so hopefully we'll be able to keep the freezer stocked. Of course, there have also been calculations as to how much beer and wine we'll need, without major rationing – and chocolate.

In Kota Kinabalu, where we plan to be next week, we'll collect the school work for the rest of the year! Seth and Finn don't seem to be all that excited about it, funnily enough.