Conquering Kinabalu with Jungle Jack

After bidding farewell to Richard, Jo and Robert, we left the Kinabatangan river and headed to Sandakan to plan our remaining days in Borneo. Sipadan stood out as a potential highlight, billed as ‘one of the world’s top dive sites’, and despite my lack of ability to dive, we still felt a snorkel trip would be worthwhile. We arrived in Sandakan, wandered into pretty much the first hostel we saw (we’d been getting increasingly blasé about booking in advance!) and checked in. The hostel was offering various tours and trips, including ones to Sipadan, but one poster caught our eye in particular: Climb Mount Kinabalu – 660 Ringgit.

At the risk of digressing yet again, I will quickly recount our ‘climbing Mt Kinabalu’ saga. It’s the highest mountain in South East Asia (apparently – disputed on various forums) standing at 4095m. The guidebook tips it as a great experience but warns to book in advance as climbing places are strictly limited and controlled by a company called ‘Sutera Sanctuary Lodges’. We were on Ko Lanta (in March) when we first looked it up on the Sutera website, but it was not only inordinately expensive (coming in at roughly £280-£300 EACH), it was also full throughout April. We essentially shelved the idea.

We looked again when EQ mentioned it as a post-race possibility but ran into the same road-blocks as before. When we arrived in Kuching, however, we started hearing talk of a guy called ‘Jungle Jack’ – he was the guy to go to for last-minute bookings apparently. So we sent him a speculative message on Facebook citing possible dates but, once again the response came back that April was ‘all full house’. So the plan got ditched for a third time.

At Kota Kinabalu, we were found some places offering trips ranging between 1200 Ringgit and 2000 Ringgit (roughly £240-£400) per-person so yet again we struck it off as being laughably out of our budget.

Back in Sandakan then, and this poster seemed to be taunting us. There’s no way that’s the price! Even if it is the price, there’s no way there would be availability. But then we got chatting to an Irish couple, Eoin and Siobhan… ‘You were on the river trip just these last two days weren’t you?’ asked Eoin. ‘Erm, we were on the river but we weren’t with you guys,’ I replied, thinking that maybe they had got us mixed up with another couple. It turned out however that they hadn’t got us mixed up, they had just spotted us from their boat and recognised us back at the hostel – the beard, it turns out, is quite a memorable feature! We swapped jungle river stories for a while and then they mentioned that they had just, that night, booked the Mt Kinabalu trip for the following day. Having dropped the plan so many times, we figured it was pretty much pointless in trying but then we came to the conclusion that there was no harm in asking, so we did. And we are so pleased we did!

‘Erm, hello,’ I said tentatively to guy at the hostel reception. ‘This Mount Kinabalu trip … I don’t suppose there’s any availability over the next few days is there?’ ‘I’ll have to make a phone call,’ he replied, ‘Let me check and get back to you.’ It all seemed a bit cloak and dagger but we figured there was nothing to lose. He came back to us a bit later and said that we could possibly climb in three days time – the 24th April – but that he would have to confirm in the morning. This would slot in perfectly, giving us time to pop to Sipadan, come back to climb the mountain, and be back in Kota Kinabalu in time for our flight to Manila on the 27th. ‘I’ll know for definite by about 7:15 am,’ he said. ‘Ok, cool. Well, if we pop down at about 8 to check would that be ok?’ ‘Yes, of course.’

At ten to nine the following morning (oops!), we were awoken with a knock on the door. Opening it with just a towel preserving my modesty, I was greeted unflinchingly by the guy from reception. ‘Ok, so, you can’t go on the 24th,’ he said, ‘but you can go today if you like.’ Today? As in right now?! This was stretching our spontaneity just a little bit but after being given 5 minutes to confirm, and realising that we hadn’t booked any bus or accommodation to Sipadan, we decided to just go for it.

So that afternoon, we found ourselves on a bus to Mount Kinabalu with Eoin and Siobhan with an instruction written on a small paper note: ‘Tell the bus driver to drop you at ‘Bundu Tahan Junction’ Then, walk across the road and turn right. You will see a rock stone, ‘Jungle Jack’. Thank you’.  So it turned out we were going to Jack’s after all – Jack is, as we learned over the next couple of days – a very laid back, last minute kind of guy.

Getting off the bus, crossing the road and turning right, there we found the stone, and the man. Jack is a relatively short but well built guy, who smiles out of his eyes, has a wicked grin and exudes charisma. ‘Come in, come in,’ he beckons us, ‘Welcome to Jungle Jack.’ We were ushered into the kitchen where Jack filled up a huge kettle and put it on the gas stove to boil. ‘You can help yourself to whatever you want in here guys, ok? We have bread, cheese, pineapple, mango … Oh, and you have to taste these oranges mate (he says ‘mate’ like an Aussie whilst also managing to sound a bit like a Londoner), they’re good!’ We sat down and quickly made ourselves at home with tea, coffee, fruit and a plethora of cheese sandwiches. (We were a bit awestruck by the novelty of seeing cheddar – it had been a while!)

Jack then sorted out places for us to sleep, which he seems to do off the top of his head rather than as a result of pre-planning. Looking at me he said, ‘I like you! You want the mountain view suite?’ Feeling very excited about the prospect of a ‘suite’ and buoyed up by Jack’s enthusiasm, I happily agreed and so Jack showed us to the room. What I am yet to mention however, dear reader, is that Jungle Jack’s accommodation is entirely constructed out of shipping containers.  The ‘Mountain View Suite’ was simply the last container at the end that happened to point at the mountain! It was a great view though.

The mou
The  Mountain View ‘Suite’…
...and the mountain view!
…and the mountain view!

Jack’s philosophy, you see, is very straightforward. He understands backpackers, as he explained to us over dinner, ‘I’ve been a backpacker for a long time, so I know what you guys need. You want a good bed, lots of food, and cheap beer. Get a hot shower too, and that’s it.’ And, to be honest, he’s right. Jack’s place is no top quality glam-packing hostel, but it doesn’t need to be. You’re welcomed in from the moment you arrive and after that, the place is yours. ‘There are no rules at Jungle Jack,’ he says. ‘Oh, hold on, there is one rule at Jack’s,’ he remembers, and points to a painted sign on the wall above the sink.

Jack's one rule!
Jack’s one rule!

In addition to the four of us, there were Heather and Katrine who were also to be climbing the mountain the following day, and we were waiting for four more to arrive to make our group up to ten. So we chatted, ate, drank tea, showered, got comfortable, put on a load of clothes (because it suddenly felt quite cold up there), and went out for dinner.

When we came back, Jayita and Louise arrived – we were up to eight. ‘If you need to borrow anything, hats, gloves, scarves, jackets, just take it from in here,’ Jack explained, showing us his stock of spare clothes. ‘It’s all clean and washed.’ I was wondering at my clothing situation and was trying to decide whether I’d need gloves or not. ‘Is it cold up there Jack?’ I asked. ‘Shit, man!’ came the response, ‘It’s freezing up there man!’ Ok, so I’ll take gloves!

‘Tomorrow, you get up at seven thirty, ok?’ Jack explained to us. ‘Then you can have some coffee, blah blah blah, eat some breakfast, blah blah, make some lunch for the climb. Make sure you take some sandwich! And water too, take water. We leave at about 9:15 so you can start climbing just before ten.’ ‘Are you coming with us, Jack?’ I asked. This was met with a snort and mild hilarity, ‘Haha, no way mate, I’m not climbing that bloody mountain. Ha!’

The final part of the Jack set up is his dogs – Jack adores his dogs! He had three or four at the time, but our two favourites were Ricewine and Pointer. Pointer had just given birth to a litter of puppies a few days earlier so Helena was in heaven.

Pointer's puppies - awwwwwwww!!
Pointer’s puppies – awwwwwwww!!

She gazed longingly into the small hut, and was rewarded with the occasional chance to cuddle one (although it did pee on her arm!) I loved Ricewine, a light brown dog who ambled around slowly and periodically got chased out of the kitchen by Jack. He explained that he was called ‘Ricewine’ because he has dopey, drunk-looking eyes, ‘Like he’s been drinking too much rice wine!’ he said with a grin.  We were immediately both very comfortable and happy at Jack’s but we weren’t just here to socialise and stroke the puppies, we had a mountain to climb!

Pre-climb photo with the legend that is Jungle Jack!
Pre-climb photo with the legend that is Jungle Jack!

The following morning, we got up, had breakfast and prepared ourselves. We were still only eight people though – where were the other two? Jack explained they they were running late but they would either see us at the start, or some way up the mountain. Armed with our named passes, we took a pre-climb photo and loaded into the minibus.

Edward, Jack’s helper, drove us up into the national park, and when I say ‘up’, I really mean UP! The road was pretty steep in places and we were feeling mixture of relief and guilt at the drive – surely this was making things a bit too easy? We weren’t thinking that way an hour later though, or at any other point on the ensuing climb!

We met our guide, Eddy, who explained that we would be walking up a mountain, and not to take it too fast (which some of us may have partially ignored!) and we got ready to go. At the same time, there were a few locals at the entrance to the path preparing themselves: they were wearing small rubber plimsoles, t-shirts and shorts, and had legs like pistons. They were sorting out various cargo including, to our astonishment, metal bed frames. I looked at these guys and uttered the fatal words, ‘Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if we were beaten up this mountain by a guy carrying a bed on his back….’

Off we went, and the first thing that happens is you go downhill – well, this isn’t so bad, we thought. And then the path levels momentarily before beginning to climb. Since it is such a well trodden path, there’s no way to get lost, so on we went. Enjoying a bit of a workout, I was heading up the front group, with Eoin, Jayita and Louise. The four other girls took a slightly steadier pace with Eddy behind. We paused after about 500 metres and the group got back together, ‘Maybe you’re going a bit too fast,’ said Eddy. ‘Oh, sorry,’ I said, and pledged to take a more relaxed pace … before simply marching off up the mountain again. I suppose there’s a bit of me that just likes a bit of physical exertion. Plus, the guys with the beds were not far behind …

The vegetation and landscape of the mountain gradually changes as you increase in altitude. The start of the path is at 2200 metres, and we were climbing to 3723 metres on the first day (it was to be a two-day climb). The path becomes rockier underfoot, with increasingly large granite sections. The dense jungle at the bottom of the path thins out, offering views across the region, and as far as Kota Kinabalu when the clouds lift. It’s fantastic – but it does sap the legs quite a bit. At about 3km, we paused and said we should wait for the girls (as both Eoin and myself knew better than to disappear up the mountain leaving Siobhan and Helena behind). We rested in a shelter and took on some water, waiting for the group to appear.

After ten minutes or so however, rather than our better halves, a guy rounds the corner shouldering a bed frame. I looked at Eoin, and he at me, ‘I don’t think I can let this guy go up in front of me,’ I said. ‘Me neither,’ he replied, grabbing his bag as we dived back onto the path.image

At 4km, however, the guilt set in so we stopped for lunch. Jayita and Louise just carried straight on up (with tentative thoughts of making the summit that afternoon) and we waited. We watched and wept inside as not one, not two, but numerous piston-legged bed carriers marched on past, barely breaking a sweat. But we were pleased to meet up with the girls again and relax before tackling the next two kilometres.

Through the thinning vegetation, the mountain began to rear up ahead of us as we trekked ever upwards. Bizarrely, from the Mountain View Suite at Jack’s, it kind of doesn’t look that high. Now, however, it was looking plenty high enough and we were all beginning to feel the effort of climbing at this altitude. We grouped up with other climbers along the way here and there and paused for photos, and, after just over four hours, made it to the hostel. There, we pretty quickly, and unaniamously, dived into bed for a well earned nap!

Amidst the snoozing sounds of seven or eight sleepers, the final two members of our party bounded into the hostel injecting an air of charisma and energy to our slumber. Lucky and Zeki introduced themselves and made a welcome addition to the group. ‘We started shortly after you guys and thought we might catch you up, but it seems we’re not quite as fit as we thought,’ said Lucky, as Zeki stood beside him with a slightly dazed look on his face from the exertion of the climb. It had taken them close to five hours as opposed to our four..!

We all enjoyed the early buffet dinner which is included in the price – well, it’s sort of included, but that’s another digression that I’m not going to follow just now – before watching the sun set behind the mountain and getting an early night. Eddy had told us to meet him at 02:40, ready to climb. Yes, that is 02:40 am and no that isn’t a typo – the aim was to reach the summit before sunrise.

All geared up for the climb.
All geared up for the climb.
I got quite attached to my borrowed pair of gloves.
I got quite attached to my borrowed pair of gloves.

The morning came, we put on pretty much all of our clothes, and headed over to early breakfast to grab some coffee and a bite to eat. With our head torches switched on and my ‘pair’ of gloves borrowed from Jack keeping my hands from freezing, we were ready to start the climb. One final briefing from Eddy: ‘Follow the path. The first bit is rocky like before and the last bit is on the rope.’

Erm, rope…? What did he mean about a rope? Nobody had mentioned the rope..! We soon found out…

Now, you would have thought that if you start climbing a mountain at 3am, the path would be pretty much deserted, right? Not so, as, of course, the 200 or so other climbers were starting the trek at exactly the same time as us. We had about two and a half kilometres ahead of us and 800m of altitude to gain to reach the 4095m summit. So although the path was steep and rocky, with a load of wooden steps thrown in, our progress was initially quite slow.

Jayita and I managed to work our way through some of the groups ahead but were losing our own group in the process, so I decided to hang back as much as possible while still making forward progress. Jayita was a woman on a mission though and disappeared off up the mountain followed a few minutes later by Louise – these girls were hardcore!

In reality, it wasn’t long before the climbers thinned out and we were steadily following the path onwards and upwards. And then we found the rope. The reason for the rope is very simple: the top of Mount Kinabalu is a bare granite peak. So there is no path as such, just the rope to guide you and on which you often have to pull to kind of half walk half drag yourself up and across the face of the rock. When we reached the rope, we still had a kilometre and a half of the path to go and about 500 metres more of altitude.

Looking good at the checkpoint!
Looking good at the checkpoint!
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Jayita and Louise are all smiles 🙂

Soon, we reached the summit checkpoint which stands at about 3800m. There, we came across Jayita and Louise taking a short break. Looking down the mountain behind us, we could see the long line of head torches bobbing slowly along the guiding rope path in the darkness. We decided to move on – not far now, the last bit can’t be that tough, surely?

Well, as it happens, something happens at around 3800m – the air gets that bit too thin, your legs feel heavier, your lungs feel emptier, what was a manageable climb before seems to be getting increasingly more difficult. You get a little light-headed, you get confused, you feel a little bit sick. It hits some more than others, and affects people in different ways.

Now, Jayita won’t mind me describing this (at least I hope not) Whereas before, she had been leading the pack up the mountain, now it was Louise heading up the group. I was following Jayita actually, and she seemed a bit unsteady, her feet were taking occasional side steps, or crossing over, rather than going up strongly as she had been before. ‘Are you ok?’ I asked, ‘Yeah, not too bad, just got a bit of a headache and feel sick.’ She ploughed on. The rest of us followed, taking short occasional stops to acclimatise, but each time, Jayita was the first to move on up despite feeling increasingly worse with every step.

Soon it became too much and she was actually throwing up (bit graphic, sorry!). The rest of us were also struggling but Jayita was feeling it the worst and we were really concerned. She took on some water but just had one goal in mind and to that end … pushed on and on despite relatively regular ‘vomit stops’.

The summit was deserted and dark when we arrived!
The summit was deserted and dark when we arrived!

Eventually, we made it to the summit where we found a jovial Louise. ‘There’s hardly anyone here,’ she said. We had, in fact, made it to the top pretty quickly – despite struggling. We felt pretty happy with ourselves and took some photos with the sign before realising two things: 1 – Jack was right, it was bloody freezing up there (and windy which made it worse) and 2 – the sun wouldn’t be coming up for at least an hour. There was only one thing for it – find some shelter in the rock and huddle!

The rest of the group arrived soon though, so our huddling options increased. And then we were rewarded with what we came to see – a magnificent sunrise, shifting through the clouds and bringing the scene to life with silhouettes and stunning views unravelling in every direction. On the peak ahead of us, vast strands of wispy clouds were being teased out gradually by the wind, tumbling over the rocks and disappearing into the valley; dry ice rolling off the world’s stage.

Momentarily, Helena and I sat and gazed on, resisting the urge to view the spectacle through the lens of a camera for long enough to just take it in, immerse ourselves in the moment and record it in our memories rather than in pixels.  The rest of the time was spent mainly taking photos, however – group shots, landscape views, panoramics, silhouettes – but our photography skills once again simply don’t do the experience justice.

After tucking into a hearty breakfast – the last of our included meals – we tumbled happily down the mountain as a group of ten, wishing all of the climbers we passed well and reassuring them that the effort is worth it, most definitely worth it!

All too soon, our merry band was to be disbanded but not before a few friendships were cemented over another meal with Jack, a stroke of the puppies, the painting of an Irish flag on the concrete roadside barrier, and a couple of well-earned beers.

Definitely worth it :-)
Definitely worth it 🙂
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The rope – on the way down though…
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Love this photo 🙂
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Summit!
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Welcome to the Jungle!

Our final night in Kuala Lumpur turned into a bit of a Tiger beer marathon, as EQ frantically tried to avoid being awarded the title of ‘Ultimate Shithead’. Unfortunately for her however, Helena’s dominating form in this particular card game was unrelenting and I managed to hold out for second place, leaving El floundering in a state of despair. She may have had an Ironman 70.3 trophy in her bag, but we all know who the real winners were here!

Tiger, Tiger, Tiger - great fun :-)
Tiger, Tiger, Tiger – great fun 🙂

When Eleanor left for the airport at 5:30 am (either with mild hangover, or more likely probably still drunk from our final night of ‘celebrations’) Helena and I were left contemplating our options… for the first time since we began our travels, we had no set place or time to aim for anymore. It was quite a strange feeling really. It should be liberating, I suppose, but in a way it can also be quite stressful. Now, before you jump on the ‘Oh, poor you, did you have to put down your beer for a second, get up off the beach and actually plan something’ bandwagon … I’m not complaining! Honest! Merely contemplating. Helena and I lead pretty busy lives at home, and we hit the travel at the same sort of pace – or at least that’s how it felt – and now, we could meander a little bit, wander and wonder at our options, change course if we felt like it, stay longer or just move on if something caught our fancy.

And so, after some deliberation, we decided – it was time to venture into the jungle…

Borneo – just the name alone conjures up images of huge areas of dense jungle populated with various species of large primates, and insects like no other; mountains and rivers punctuating the landscape and a frame of tropical marine life completing the mental picture. Add in a couple of medium sized cities along the coastal regions and you’re pretty much there. Borneo is beautiful.

It is not, however, an unspoiled paradise – but more on that later.

Borneo is in fact the world’s third largest island (behind Greenland and Papua New Guinea; Australia doesn’t count as it’s classed as a continental land mass – apparently!) and it is shared across three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and the self-contained sultanate of Brunei Darussalam. Our first destination was Kuching, the ‘cat’ city (although, ironically, there was a distinct lack of cats in direct contrast to pretty much everywhere else in Malaysia) in the south western Malaysian region of Sarawak. The people here are so friendly, and we were often greeted by complete strangers who simply wanted to say hello. Walking past a school in the afternoon, a young girl ran up to the gate and shouted over to us, ‘Welcome to Malaysia!’ I’m still not sure how she spotted we were foreigners so easily…

There are national parks galore in Borneo, and loads to choose from around Kuching. On arrival we had one of many planning sessions, trying to figure out what to do and where to go. We knew we wanted to get into the jungle and see the famous Orangutans and Proboscis Monkeys, but we ended up coming to the conclusion that we may as well take it just a few days at a time – we couldn’t possibly map out two weeks from this standpoint.

So, on our second day in Kuching, we jumped on a local bus and headed off to Semenggoh Nature Reserve, a sanctuary for semi-wild Orangutans. Now, I know the concept of something being ‘semi’ wild is a bit of an odd notion (surely they’re either wild or they’re not?) but Semenggoh is part of a rehabilitation programme that releases previously captive Orangutans back into the wild. They are monitored to ensure their health and safety, but not contained in any way. Their diet is supplemented with fruit during feeding times should they need it, but not all of them arrive each time. To avoid the Orangutans becoming too accustomed to people, the visiting times are strictly limited to the feeding slots: one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon; and it is explained to you during the briefing that there is no guarantee whatsoever that any Orangutans will actually show up. ‘Oh…’, Helena and I shared a look of mild concern.

So, off we went, led on a short walk into the jungle to the feeding platform – a large, flat wooden structure a bit like a table top that had a sizeable pile of bananas on it, and a solitary pineapple. Thick ropes lead down to the platform from high up in the surrounding trees. There were no Orangutans however. Instead, we found one of the reserve staff standing on the platform with the mound of fruit at his feet, looking optimistically up into the trees, waving a banana in his hand and calling out, ‘Haaaaooooooooooo ap!’

Not to worry, we thought, they’ll arrive soon. It was 9am and feeding time finished at 10am whether any Orangutans had shown up or not. And so we waited, anticipated, deliberated. Watched. Held our breath. Shhhhhhhhh….

Ten minutes passed. The keeper was still there, still tree-gazing, still calling although now with more desperation than optimism it seemed, ‘Haaaaooooooooooo ap? Whhhhaop? Hup?’ But nothing happened. There was no sign, no hint, no rustle of leaves, no return of the keeper’s call. Nothing.

On the viewing platform, the doubts were creeping in. People were looking around at each other, wondering if they had made a wasted trip, sitting down defeatedly. I got the occasional sideways glance from other visitors which I interpreted as, ‘Well, we may not have seen Orangutans, but we have see this other big, hairy, ginger guy.’ I’m almost certain a few of them took surreptitious pictures of me just in case.

Time ticked past; nine thirty. The keeper called to us, ‘Don’t worry, they come soon.’ Nine thirty-five; whispers on the viewing platform, ‘I’m not so sure… What a waste of time… Just our luck…’ Even Helena and I, as positive as we try to be about all of our experiences, were beginning to wonder…

Then, in the distance, high high up in the canopy ahead of us, we hear movement. The viewing platform is suddenly electric with silent anticipation. The keeper deserts the feeding platform, and we wait. You can hear them coming through the trees long before you actually see them, and although we’d heard the sound ahead, the first to arrive was actually an adolescent male coming from over our right shoulder.

This guy was the first to sho
This guy was the first to show up and he swiftly nabbed the pineapple … with his foot!

He walked through the canopy, moving with ease using his hands, and hand-like feet, until he reached one of the ropes, whereupon he paused. Seemingly contemplating for a moment, he was still, hanging from the rope by both feet and one hand. Slowly, he slid his left foot to meet his right, and then did an amazing move – a series of upside down cartwheels down the rope all the way to the feeding platform. The agility and strength of the Orangutans is seriously impressive. Once there, he didn’t hang around for long however as the first Orangutan we had heard was now also very close. Shoving four or five bananas in his mouth, grabbing another handful and picking the pineapple up with his foot, he quickly retreated half way back up the rope. There, he ate happily, and observed the other Orangutans as they too collected food.

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Mother and baby contemplating their options…
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…decision made – grab as many bananas as you can carry and get outta there! (Sorry about the blurry pic!)

In addition to the adolescent male, there were two mother and baby pairs who also came to feed – since Orangutans were first introduced to Semenggoh, numerous babies have been born naturally in the reserve. And so, the wait was worth it! We were treated to a view of five Orangutan, close up. Incredible creatures – and a great advert for gingers the world over I might add!

'They only give you an hour son, you've got to stuff in as many as you can!'
‘They only give you an hour son, you’ve got to stuff in as many as you can!’

On our second day, we decided to go trekking in the jungle and so headed off to Kubah National Park where numerous trails awaited us. Helena was also keen to go to Kubah as it has the Matang Wildlife Centre attached to it. Matang is the pre-Semenggoh centre, where animals who require close support and/or treatment are rehabilitated with the eventual aim of release. Some reviews online are a little critical of Matang as the varied animals are kept in zoo-like cages or enclosures, but we felt that the centre was clearly doing a particular job and providing care for animals who would otherwise have been in a worse captive state, or indeed, dead.

The impressive cheeks of the mature male Orangutan - he seems happy enough!
The impressive cheeks of the mature male Orangutan – he seems happy enough!

We had an excellent day, spending six hours on the jungle trails, getting pretty hot and sweaty, but ending it all with a refreshing waterfall shower.

So what next?

Well, a short flight to Kota Kinabalu landed us in Sabah, the north-western region of Malaysian Borneo (we’d decided that the four border crossings involved in travelling overland through Brunei simply weren’t worth the hassle or the passport page space). A message from Caroline Hedges had tipped us off about jungle experiences on the Kinabatangan River, and so, after a little investigation, we booked onto a package that looked good at the Kinabatangan Jungle Camp.

KJC turned out to be a lot quieter than we had anticipated – no bad thing – and we were two of only four guests when we arrived, the other two being Richard and Jo, a retired couple from Essex. They were into their birdwatching and had come to Borneo for four weeks armed with binoculars and a book of Borneo’s native bird species to see what they could find. Although we went on different river cruises to them, we had a lovely time sharing our experiences and sights each day over the excellent dinner. Richard and Jo proved inspirational really – both had been teachers, both are now retired, but they still travel the world in search of new experiences. Through chatting with them we learned a huge amount about ‘birding’, but the most astonishing thing really was that they seemed to have visited almost every part of the globe in their time, and yet they were still hungry for more.

And so onto the river we went … just before dusk and just after dawn were the prime times for animal watching. On our first cruise, five minutes in, our guide Shah pointed out boat at the bank, saying, ‘I see Orangutan.’ How he spotted them, I have no idea, but he was right. There, in the trees, feeding on the figs, were a small number of wild Orangutans, including a mother and baby. They were different from the ones in Semenggoh in that their hair was a much darker reddy brown colour, but their agility, strength and magnificence were the same. They lingered in the trees as we watched on silently, enjoying their true wild nature, before they moved slowly off deeper into the forest.

Leaving the Orangutans, the cruise continued. The small wooden boat skimmed along the chocolate brown river water with ease as we gazed left and right, subconsciously searching for the jungle’s treasures. And we didn’t have to wait for long, quickly spotting a family of long-tailed macaques playing and preening on the riverbank. ‘They call them the ‘crab eating monkey,’ said Shah. ‘They fish for crab by dangling their tails in the water until a crab grabs it. Then they pull them out and eat them.’ Clever monkeys!!

The Long-tailed Macaques love a good preen and cuddle!
The Long-tailed Macaques love a good preen and cuddle!

We were also treated to views of snakes, silver leaf monkeys, crocodiles, many many egrets, stork billed kingfishers, rhinoceros hornbills and Borneo’s other famous jungle primate – the Proboscis Monkeys.

The super rapid Stork-billed Kingfisher.  All you see is a flash of orange and blue as they zip past!
The super rapid Stork-billed Kingfisher. All you see is a flash of orange and blue as they zip past!
A wonderful, and wild, Rhinoceros Hornbill - check out that beak!
A wonderful, and wild, Rhinoceros Hornbill – check out that beak!

It was at the end of our first cruise that Shah said, ‘Ok, now we’ll go and see the proboscis monkeys.’ We wondered how they could be so sure where they were. Despite the obvious answer: experience, it turns out that the proboscis love a good sunset. And that’s where we found them, sat high up in the trees, watching the sun paint the sky orange. Well, who can blame them! The distinctive male Proboscis is a spectacular sight as he sits, brazenly in the top of tree, proudly showing off his bulbous nose, large belly and, with legs spread as wide apart as possible, his bright red, er, well … penis.

Legs akimbo....don't look too closely if you're of a shy disposition!
Legs akimbo….don’t look too closely if you’re of a shy disposition!

Shah explained that there are three groups within the Proboscis pack: the family group – where males and females look after their young; the harem group – where one dominant male rules supreme and has numerous females in attendance; and the bachelor group – the ‘boys club’ – where the remaining adolescent males stalk the harem, waiting for the dominant male to select a partner and graduate to the family group, at which point the boys can fight it out to take his spot.

Back at the camp, the wildlife was never far away, with regular visits from macaques, squirrels, bearded wild boar, a storm stork, the ever-prowling monitor lizards, and ‘Tom’ the civet cat! Add to that a myriad of insects and you get the picture. There were even Pygmy elephant footprints near by. So the Kinabatangan River trip proved to be an excellent few days – thanks for the tip Caroline!

Tom the Civet Cat - he visited every night :-)
Tom the Civet Cat – he visited every night 🙂
This big lad is a Monitor Lizard.
This big lad is a Monitor Lizard.

There is one more thing I must write here however. One of the reasons that the Kinabatangan River is such a prime place to spot wildlife, is that much of the rest of the natural habitat for these creatures no longer exists. Much of the primary and secondary jungle in Sabah has been felled and is presently being used to produce palm oil. It is quite staggering really – and anyone who has taken the bus from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan will back me up – that the view from the road is one of palm trees as far as the eye can see. Acres and acres and acres of palm oil plantations dominate the landscape, and the monotony of the sight is pretty depressing, a far cry from the mental image of Borneo at the start of this blog. And so the animals have had to retreat to the river, where pockets of primary jungle still exist in which they can survive. Good for us, terrible for them.

But what is the story here? Is it a simple case of scandalous ecological disaster? Of governments having no concern for the life of the planet as a whole? Of farmers not caring? Well, I fear the complexities of the situation are far too detailed for this blog, but we did have an interesting conversation, along with Richard and Jo, with Robert – the main guide at KJC. Robert explained a little of the history of the situation:

‘I know what you think,’ he says. ‘You come here and all you see is palm oil, palm oil, palm oil and you condemn it outright because you want to see the jungle. But fifty years ago, the Malaysians had no resources, nothing. What did they have? The jungle. So they cut down trees for logging, and they make a life out of cutting down the jungle. But as time goes on, you have to go deeper and deeper into the jungle to get trees, and the timber doesn’t have as much value anymore, so what do you do? Now, you still have nothing, except land for farming – so the Malaysian government decided they would give away huge portions of land to grow crops. But they had no idea what to plant! Coffee sounded like a good idea, as did cocoa, but when the monsoon came, it killed the plants. In the end, people tried palm, and it worked. And so they planted more and more palm trees, and produced ever more quantities of palm oil. Most of it is being shipped to China, or the U.S.A. So we have an industry that supports the people, the families and the economy. We can finally build schools, roads and hospitals. Now, what do the West do? They criticise it, they ban it, they lobby against it because they say, ‘Palm oil destroys the rainforests.’ But the rainforest was already gone,’ he cries emphatically, ‘years before they planted the first palm tree. So why do they do it? Economics? Maybe. Politics? Probably. Out of concern for the environment? Of course not! It’s all very well for the West to sit there and say, ‘You shouldn’t plant palm, you’re destroying the planet,’ but what help do they give us instead? Nothing.’

He was speaking very passionately, as a man who cares deeply about the life of the jungle and all of its inhabitants, and yet also as someone who has seen the story play out first-hand over decades. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the information, but it certainly was an interesting conversation and raised huge questions about our environmental responsibility. With the UK General Election having just taken place, where the swing of votes was seemingly driven by a set of highly insular issues, you do wonder at your place, our place, in the global community. It’s all very well making sweeping judgements about the way developing countries use the resources available to them; it’s all very well judging and criticising as farmers living in wooden shacks cut down another acre of rainforest so they can plant a crop to support their family; but what do we do? Look on aghast, and cry out ‘How could they?’ What is our standpoint? As talk of closing borders, getting out of Europe, boosting our economy, closing our eyes, looking after ourselves and nobody else seems to reverberate around the chambers of power, you really do begin to wonder at the state of the nation, and of the world. I’m not saying I have the answers, and I know the situations are incomprehensibly complex … and yet it seems so simple at times. No matter how many long haul plane rides and overnight train journeys we take, how many border crossings or visa checks we pass, we still end up on the same earth, under the same sky, breathing the same air.

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Jungle trekking.
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Love this photo – just chillin’
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Sunset over the Kinabatangan River – no wonder the Proboscis Monkeys were captivated.

BRATs reunite in paradise (and do a little racing)

It’s a distinct possibility that Hels and I would have stayed longer on Ko Lanta but we had a date with destiny…and a certain Dr Eleanor Quested!

Back in October 2014, I received an email from Ironman Asia-Pacific. Now, I would usually consign this sort of semi-spam to the junk folder but I looked at it for maybe a nanosecond too long and an idea formed in my mind. ‘Where are we going to be on April 5th?’ I asked Helena tentatively. ‘Somewhere in South East Asia,’ came the reply, ‘Why?’  Then I uttered the fatal words, ‘How do you fancy a half Ironman in Malaysia…’

Now, as most of you probably know, both Helena and myself have been competing in various distances of triathlon for the past few years as part of the awesome BRAT Club (Birmingham Running Athletics and Triathlon). So when my half-joking question was met with one of those semi-playful, semi-excited looks from Hels and a, ‘You want to..?’ I knew this could be a possibility. Fast-forward to April 2015 and we find ourselves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with our BRAT tri-suits, a pair of trainers and a pair of goggles each in our back packs. Now, I know what you’re thinking … we were missing a few bits of crucial kit from our triathlon kit bags, not least a bike each! Enter Steve Lumley: Black Country triathlete, ex-head coach of Birmingham University Triathlon Team, 35-time Ironman finisher including 4 trips to the hallowed lava fields of Kona, Hawaii for the Ironman World Championships, now living and coaching in Kuala Lumpur with his wonderful wife Jane. After a speculative (and very cheeky) few messages from me asking for advice about where we may find bikes and where was good to stay, Steve not only offered to supply us with bikes to race on, he also offered his home up for us to stay in. We were overwhelmed by his kindness but accepted the offer gratefully!

The final character in this little episode of our year travelling is Eleanor Quested. El is also a BRAT but has just moved to Perth in Western Australia on a three year work contract. We’d had some messages about meeting up on the East coast of Oz later in the year but when El heard about the race she was tempted, got herself an entry, and the plan fell neatly into place. The only difference between us and EQ was that she’d been training regularly in Perth with her new club. Well, some call it ‘training’, Helena and I call it ‘cheating’!

The five of us at the expo.
The five of us at the expo.

Our first impressions of Malaysia (as we were still travelling despite being only days away from racing) were mixed. We spent a very pleasant couple of days on Penang, a large island off the north western coast of the Malaysian peninsula, renowned for its food and arty feel. We got a good helping of both, visiting various street-stalls across Georgetown and taking in the famous wall paintings and cast iron sculptures that give Penang a very trendy vibe. Add to that a load of coffee shops and bars and your could easily be in an up and coming suburb of London, or Moseley/Harborne for all you Birmingham based readers. Oh, and the other thing that makes it feel like home is the rain!

This optimistically placed bucket never stood a chance!
This optimistically placed bucket never stood a chance’

Yes, rain! And lots of it! In both Penang and Kuala Lumpur we were in the midst of various frequent and very sudden downpours. We were a bit miffed – we’d seen a bit of drizzle in Hanoi and some overcast misty sort of weather in Varanasi, but apart from that, nothing. Not a drop! We were neither physically not emotionally preparied to deal with this sort of development! But, with nothing better to do during a deluge, we would quite often dive into a coffee shop for coffee and cake – so it’s not all bad!

Kuala Lumpur also took a bit of getting used to – we hadn’t been in a city since Bangkok a month earlier. We opted for a hotel in Chinatown which is the centre of hustle, bustle and street stalls galore. In all honesty, we were a bit hampered by the weather and feeling the loss of our southern Thailand island lifestyle quite keenly, so KL all felt a bit much: busy, noisy, dirtier than we were used to, not so friendly and a bit of an unwieldy beast.

The day before we met El however, we sort of got into the KL groove, wandering around to see some of the sights, Merdeka Square, the National Mosque (although we weren’t allowed in, but that did mean Helena was spared another shawl!), Islamic History Museum and then of course the Petronas Towers and the Kuala Lumpur tower.

Proof that the sky is sometimes blue in KL!
Proof that the sky is sometimes blue in KL!

Despite being an iconic image seen many times, the Petronas Towers are a very impressive structure, especially because of the park at the rear of their base complete with lakes, trees, fountains and a dedicated running loop. Watching the sun go down from the top of the KL tower was also amazing, with the sun dappling light down onto the fading streets as the neon and electric glare of the city took over the landscape. The sky here was also incredible; mixing patches of dimming blue sky with swathes of stormy clouds and an entire palette of greys, yellows, oranges and reds.

I'm no photographer, but sky definitely does it for me in this pic!
I’m no photographer, but sky definitely does it for me in this pic!

After a dash to a shuttle bus, we met Eleanor at KL’s international airport (which is nowhere near KL at all) and stopped over at a hotel that had advertised itself as being ‘close to the airport’. After 45 minutes in our transfer van, we were beginning to wonder at the Malaysian concept of distance!  We didn’t mind though because it gave us an opportunity to catch up with EQ which kind of involved having a conversation about ten different topics simultaneously.

The next part of the adventure began with us picking up a hire car from the airport – super luxury for Helena and me to have access to our own transport – and making our way to Steve’s house. Following his instructions, we made it as far as the security gate of the housing complex that he lives in but then I couldn’t find his actual address and the security guys were looking at me very dubiously indeed, ‘You have come to visit Mr Steve but you don’t know his address? Well I am sorry sir, but there’s nothing we can do. You must understand that there are a lot of residents here. How are we supposed to know all of them?’ I was a bit stumped at this and was (after 25 mins of further discussion) about to go in search of an Internet cafe when one of the guards said, ‘Oh, you mean Mr Steven Lumley! Why, you should have said so..!’ A quick phone call was made and Steve arrived moments later on a bike. I have no idea what the limiting factor was here, but we came to enjoy meeting the security guys on our comings and goings over the next few days, particularly because they would salute as you passed by!

Steve’s house is lovely: spacious, high ceilings, clean lines, wooden/marble floors, next to a park/golf course…it gave Helena and I a sudden glimpse into an expat lifestyle that we could happily live with – no plans on that front as yet though. ‘Do you like cats?’ Steve said as we were welcomed in. ‘Yes, of course,’ we replied. ‘Well, that’s lucky because we have eight…’ This was no exaggeration, and although the four older cats spent most of their time out of the house, the four playful kittens turned out to be great fun, especially when trying to load a car or pack a bag – you would always find one or two of them turning up to ‘help’.

The other feature of Steve’s house is his bike collection. Eleanor had brought her bike from Perth, so she and I set about rebuilding it as Steve got Helena set up on the time trial bike that he’d arranged for her. Now, Helena hadn’t ridden a specific TT bike before, and was a little nervous, although you’d never have known. She took to it immediately and looked all too comfortable – I suspect we’ll be making a purchase soon after our return to the UK!

It’s not only bikes we needed though: ‘Do you have helmets?’ asked Steve. ‘Err, no,’ came my embarrassed reply. ‘Bike shoes…?’ ‘Hmm, nope!’ ‘Water bottles…?’ ‘Oh, hold on I think I may have a … no, no water bottles either. Sorry!’ Unflustered by our total lack of equipment, Steve selected suitable items from his own stock of kit and we soon found ourselves with everything we needed to race. We went for a little test bike, and a short jog around the golf course before having a beautiful dinner cooked by Jane with some particularly awesome home-made pesto and a glass of red wine.

Fully kitted out - thanks Steve!
Fully kitted out – thanks Steve!

The conversation moved onto the race as we were all racing. It was going to be Jane’s first triathlon, and she explained how Steve had bought her the entry as a Christmas present! Steve gave us a load of tips about the conditions and the course – the main factor affecting the entire day being the inevitable heat and humidity. The race was to be held in Putrajaya, a new purpose built city south of Kuala Lumpur which serves the administrative needs of the capital. The swim course would be a pretty simple straight out and back, with no wetsuits allowed as the water would be super warm (good for us as it was one less thing to try and source!) and then both the bike and the run would be fairly flat, so potentially fast, but with no cover anywhere so nowhere to hide from the sun. This would indeed prove to be a stifling and suffocating sufferfest of an experience that only got worse as the race progressed. Steve’s main piece of advice was: ‘You have to be conservative on the first lap of the bike and the run, otherwise you’ll pay for it.’ I did my best to lodge this idea into my mental race plan.

We did all of the pre-race logistics the day before the race, including a practise swim, bike test, racking the bikes, checking and re-checking tyre pressures, registering, checking out the ‘freebies’ and of course the mandatory buying of gels, gas canisters and various Iromman 70.3 merchandise from the expo. Whilst browsing, Eleanor was approached by another athlete from her age category who had somehow identified her (think it had something to do with El’s IM Western Australia t-shirt) and they got chatting. Very soon their conversation turned to each other’s relative experience, targets, pre-race prep and form; very friendly …? Perhaps…! It was pretty clear that it was a matter of scoping out the opposition and then, sure enough, a little mental game of ‘psych out the oppo’ ensued with the usual: ‘Yeah, I think I’m going ok but you never can tell’ and ‘I haven’t really been training that much’ or ‘I’m just not sure about the swim’ ending on the ultimate, ‘Well, good luck!’ (Accompanied, of course, with a big smile)

Race morning arrived, and yes, the air was cool but you could feel the bristling humidity just waiting to unleash. Although I can’t speak for EQ or Hels, for me, the excitement mixed with trepidation and adrenalin was brewing up a heady and potent cocktail in my veins. I’d never been this unprepared for a race, ever. Hels and I had been running throughout the last three months, but hardly swimming and as for riding a bike – forget it! The pre-race atmosphere was great and the announcer did well to get everybody excited. The swim start was to be an unusual ‘rolling start’ making it difficult to know tactically when to enter the water. We opted to just get in as near to the front as possible and before we knew it, we were on the pontoon and away…

Pre-race posing!
Pre-race posing!

For me, the swim went better than expected. I managed to weave in and out of the various speeds of swimmers, catching people and sitting in where I could, holding on as one or two came past, and before I knew it, I was jogging up to T1. Grabbing the bike, I headed out onto the course and was happy to feel that my legs sort of remembered how to ride! I also wasn’t getting overtaken too much, which was pleasing, and on the first short out and back section I spotted El about a minute behind me…but that didn’t last long!

Looking all-too-casual...
Looking all-too-casual…
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EQ on the charge!
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That TT look suits Helena just a little bit too much…!

Within fifteen minutes or so, she’d caught me up, looking very comfortable and very fast. We had a little chat about how we were feeling, what the swim was like and the impending heat before noticing that there was a motorbike marshal right next to us. ‘No blocking!’ he shouted at me. ‘Sorry!’ I called back, and dropped back as quickly as I could, desperate not to be given a penalty. He lingered for an uncomfortably long time however, and I was sure he was thinking about waving his card at me. Eventually he left though and the work began: ticking off the markers that came every 15km, catching as many riders as possible and trying to hang on to the quicker paced guys (and El!). El and I were relatively matched for pace it seemed, but at about 35km, we climbed a short hill and she dropped back. I continued as I was and soon arrived at the end of lap 1. On the repeat of the out and back, I spotted El in almost the exact same place she had been on lap 1, about a minute behind.

So I was feeling pretty happy with myself. This feeling lasted for about two more minutes, and then the wheels started to fall off. It was getting hotter. And hotter. And I realised I’d been going FAR too hard on the first lap (not unusual for me really!). I hadn’t heeded Steve’s warning and I had no training to fall back on. This was going to hurt.

As the aid stations came, I desperately grasped at gels and bottles of water and isotonic drinks to try and stave off the dehydration and exhaustion but it was futile. I was fading, fast. El caught me again, unsurprisingly, but this time, try as I might, I couldn’t hold on to her pace and she disappeared into the distance.

The remainder of the bike course was simply about surviving and mentally trying to prepare myself for the run. Well, I say run, but what I really mean is walk in the park (albeit a pretty painful rather than leisurely one) because that’s about all I could manage in the killer heat. El backed up her strong bike with an even stronger run, finishing with a 1:48 half marathon and first place in her age group with an overall time of 5:21. I finished over an hour later in 6:25 and Helena came across the line in 7:22. Hels had a great race all in all, topped off by beating my run split! Steve and Jane also both raced well, Jane in particular who finished very close to the top of her age group.  Not bad for a first effort you might say!

EQ smashing the run.  So it turns out training 'helps' - who knew?!
EQ smashing the run. So it turns out training ‘helps’ – who knew?!

So we had the pleasure of going to the awards ceremony and cheering as Eleanor received her trophy, standing next to the girl from the expo who had come second..! In addition to winning, however, El also gets to go and race at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships which this year are being held in Austria. The only catch here is that you not only have to decide on the spot if you want to go, you also have to pay your entry fee there and then! If you don’t want to go, or don’t attend, your place ‘rolls down’ to the next fastest competitor. El had been keen to attend the ‘roll-down’ as she knew she was in with a chance of being somewhere near the top and we were so pleased to see her on the top step. No chance roll-down needed!

Post-race is always great fun, even more so on this occasion as none of us were having to chase off anywhere or rush back to work. We headed back to Steve’s and went out for hearty burgers and beers. Well earned I’d say!

The following morning, we waved farewell to Steve and Jane and headed off for the second part of our Malaysian adventure with EQ.

As a side point to all of our race preparations, we’d been having various chats about what to do after the race. The idea of trekking through the Taman Negara National Park had been mooted and met with general approval all round, but as the post-race soreness began to set in, the idea of a jungle workout became less appealing and we ditched it in entirely (in a heartbeat!) when we spotted the beautiful Pulau Tioman off the south-eastern coast of peninsular Malaysia. A few days of beach time, swimming, snorkelling, diving, eating and drinking sounded perfect and that’s exactly what we did.

It took us about a day to get there – not that far but logistically tricky – but it was worth it. We were greeted by a very sleepy and relaxed island, and a noticeable lack of roads and vehicles. It was a quiet slice of paradise and we wondered what on earth we’d been thinking when we planned a jungle trip! We found a beautiful cabin on the beach, located a favourite spot for sunset happy hour beers, and became minor celebrities as everyone asked in awe about the numbers on our arms. The relaxation was punctuated with a dive trip for Hels and El, and we did actually go for a walk through the Tioman jungle on our penultimate day too. Just perfect!

So I know a ‘race report’ isn’t the usual content of a travelling blog, and there were many people back home who said ‘Why on earth would you want to do that?  You’re on holiday!’  But that’s what we BRATs do for fun; and it was fun, a lot of fun.  And we must thank Steve and Jane in particular for their superb hospitality and for making this chapter possible.

Our favourite spot for sunset  happy hour beers.
Our favourite spot for sunset happy hour beers.
'What are you going to do today El?'  'I think I might just hang out in paradise a little longer...'  (The view from our balcony)
‘What are you going to do today El?’ ‘I think I might just hang out in paradise a little longer…’ (The view from our balcony – can you spot EQ?)
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I felt like Gandalf with my massive stick! Also proof we did at least some activity on Pulau Tioman 😉
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Helena and El’s dive ‘class room’. I’ve seen worse looking class rooms it has to be said.
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Messing around on the deserted beach 🙂