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Travelling the world, hopefully with a cuppa in hand

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Part two: jungle living

Showering jungle-style

From Mount Kinabalu, we and our sore legs headed towards Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures at their rainforest camp by the side of the Kinabatangan river. The camp is built for open-air living, it fits seamlessly into the jungle and only two trees had to be removed to make way for the huts and connecting boardwalk. Consequently, we were living right in the jungle, hearing the calls of the passing macaque monkeys, surrounding birdlife and the splash of something big in the swamp. We shared a hut on stilts over the swamp with two other couples, Gaby and Albert and Stephanie and Mike, sleeping on double mattresses on the floor draped by mosquito nets. The arrangements were basic but adequate and everyone seemed to adapt well. At first we were unsure about the riverwater ‘showers’ (a barrel and a bucket) but we got so hot and sticky that any cool water was a relief. We even had a rainwater shower on our first night during a huge thunderstorm that meant our first safari trip out on the river was cancelled.



Malaysian blue fly catcher

Our safari schedule included early morning, late afternoon and night boat safaris combined with day and night treks in the jungle. The wake-up call for the morning boat safari was a bleary 5.30am with just time for a change of clothes and a quick brush of the teeth before we were called to the jetty. The morning river trips were very peaceful and it was wonderful to see the sun rise and hear the jungle waking up. We usually spotted more birds in the morning and we also saw one of our two orang utans during one of the morning boat rides. We saw our first wild orang utan during an afternoon boat safari and had to get out of the boat and trek through deep riverbank mud and through vegetation to get a good view. He was an older male with a long orange goatee and didn’t seem too happy to see us, stripping twigs and branches off his tree before disappearing deeper into the trees to hide. During our boat rides we also saw Borneo gibbons, proboscis monkeys, silvered leaf moneys, plenty of macaque monkeys, common palm civets, monitor lizards, different types of kingfishers and hornbills, eagles and flying foxes. We were amazed by the talents of the guides who could spot even the most camouflaged and hidden animals, even during the night safari with just a spotlight to help them.

Nature's swing

We were in the jungle for a total of four nights/five days by which time it felt like home. The camp is headed by a wonderful team of staff, coordinated by the unique Lan, and from our arrival to our departure we were welcomed warmly and treated as friends. We were impressed by the work hard, play hard attitude of the staff and the sheer amount of fun they had. After breakfast the staff played enthusiastic games of football with anyone who wanted to join in (although I got the impression it was strictly men only) and after lunch it was time to play badminton while spectators watched in hammocks from the sidelines. In the evening, the staff showed their other talents by picking up guitars and tambourines and leading a sing-a-long and general good old time.

The jungle weather seemed to be quite predictable, it gradually warmed up after sunrise, becoming baking hot after lunch and then there was usually the sound of distant thunder which gradually rolled closer for a huge downpour between 6-8pm. During our first night the rain was particularly heavy and in the hut close to ours, the occupants spotted a snake sliding under the roof to try to keep dry! The camp staff were quickly called to help and with much excitement and shrieks, the snake was scared back into a tree by banging on the roof to displace it and encourage it to seek shelter elsewhere. It was identified as a mangrove snake (only mildly venomous) but after than incident we always did a snake check whenever we returned to our hut.

During the quieter times in the schedule, we enjoyed sitting on the boardwalk around the most remote huts and waiting to see which kinds of wildlife we could see. During one of Jon’s birdwatching sessions, he was scanning through the jungle when he saw a familiar item through the binoculars: his North Face trekking shirt hung high in a tree deep in the swamp.  We’d left it outside our hut to dry and while we were out, the macaque monkeys must have got hold of it and had some fun. First jumping on Jon at the orang utan sanctuary and then stealing his shirt in the jungle – it looks like the monkeys have got it in for him!

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Part one: Mount Kinabalu and a whole lot of pain

We made it!

Our time in Borneo has been so amazing that we’ve been too busy doing and there hasn’t been enough time for blogging!  To bring you up to speed we’re going to post a few installments over the next couple of days while we’re away snorkelling around Mabul and Sipadan islands. Borneo really does have everything; night markets for cheap food and interesting sights, challenging treks, jungle wildlife and exotic sealife. Each stage of our trip has alone been enough to justify our decision to come here and to show why, we need to go back nine days to our Mount Kinabalu climb.

Mount Kinabalu stands at 4095m high and is Southeast Asia’s biggest mountain. To climb it, it’s necessary to book through an agent to secure a permit and also a bed in the Laban Rata lodge at the end of the first day’s climb. It’s best to arrange the trek in advance but we had managed to arrange it just two days before we wanted to trek at the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges office in Kota Kinabalu. After making the arrangements, we caught a shared taxi the next day to the national park, found some accommodation, checked in for our trek and surveyed the cloud-obscured peaks for clues to what lay ahead.

The morning of the trek we fortified ourselves with chicken noodle soup for breakfast, picked up our packed lunch and had our guide assigned. The trek starts with a gentle walk through the peaceful forest, followed by some steps, then some more steps and after a while we began to realise that it was more or less all steps and one steep climb. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes it as ‘Borneo’s ultimate thighmaster’ which perhaps should have been something of a clue. Nevertheless, on we climbed with just short stops for water and photos. The climb to our accommodation for the night, the Laban Rata lodge, took us about 3 hours by which time we were extremely sweaty and very tired. There are currently electricity supply problems at the lodge so instead of hot showers we had to make do with icy cold ones to revive us! After very quick showers, we devoured our packed lunches and spent the rest of the day enjoying the sun on the lodge’s porch before dinner and an early night to prepare us for the early hours trek to the summit.

Admiring the sunrise

Our alarm call was 2am and after a quick pre-breakfast, we put on our headtorches and started our climb to the top. Unsurprisingly, there were yet more steps but we were feeling good and so managed to get ahead of the crowds and trek at our own pace. Further up towards the summit, there is a fixed white rope to guide trekkers to the top and also to provide assistance when climbing or descending steep sections. We made the summit just before 5am (we were the third and fourth trekkers to make it to the top) and after sitting at the peak for five minutes to admire the distant lightning flashes in the sky, we climbed down a few metres to huddle out of the wind and wait for sunrise. The sun rises quickly here and as it did, we appreciated the views across to the ocean and also the views of what we’d climbed past. The summit landscape is made of sheets of granite, forming a pattern a bit like fish scales, and there are really unusual jaggedy points – all of which we’d missed while climbing past in the dark. After watching the sun rise and taking some photos, it was time to head back down to the lodge and second breakfast. We commented that we’d done more exercise before breakfast than we’d usually have done in a full day but we both knew that more was to come.

After breakfast number two, we began our trek down. The path seemed to have become more wet and slippy overnight so we had to be careful where we stepped and we had a few slides but no accidents. I had the advantage over Jon as about ten minutes into our climb up a kind women had offered me her stout wooden walking stick and luckily, I had accepted. Now we were descending the stick came into it’s own, helping me down the decidedly anti-short-legs steps and helping lessen the impact on my knees. Even with the help of my stick, we were both feeling the effects of the steep downhill steps by about 3km in to our 6km walk down. We struggled on, mentally steeling ourselves before each flights of steps, taking more time to rest and rejoicing as we counted down the trail markers. Finally, after what felt like a very long time, we were at the end of the trek with just a short uphill and a series of stairs to climb before we’d officially finished and we could collapse in the shuttle bus back to the park reception and lunch.

Needless to say, we did very little after that, eating lunch and returning to our accommodation to have a hot shower, change our very smelly trekking clothes and sleep. The pain in our legs slowly morphed into muscle stiffness so for the following four days we found any sort of downwards step and even walking painful. We had been warned but neither of us had ever suffered sore legs like this. Our legs recovered while we were enjoying Borneo Experience Number Two – jungle river safaris which leads us to installment number two coming soon…

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Photos of South America and our UK visit

Our photos are now online

We’ve finally found a bit of time to update the photo albums with photos from the last part of our round the world trip. This includes Peru (Arequipa and Lake Titicaca, not including Machu Picchu and our Lares trek – you’ll have to wait a little more for those), Bolivia and our trek to the glacial lakes and Brazil (Rio and Ilha Grande). We also added photos of our two weeks in the UK, helping Mike and Soraya celebrate their wedding and catching up with our families, and some from our stop-over in Brunei on the way here. We’ll add the missing Peru photos once we get back to the UK so soon there’ll be a full set, promise.

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King of the swingers

I'm the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP

We have an hour before setting off into the jungle so we thought we’d do a quick post to tell you all about our orang utan adventure this morning at the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary and rehabilitation centre. To paint the scene, there’s a big viewing platform for all the tourists and a feeding platform about 20m away connected to surrounding trees by cables for hungry orang utans to swing along to reach the platform. After waiting in an expectant hush, we saw some trees move and then hands moving along one of the far ropes until our first orang utan came swinging into view! Once on the platform, he had his pick of the pile of bananas and other fruit for a while but it wasn’t too long before a second orang utan swung into view, shortly followed by a mum and baby and an adorable youngster. We were really priviledged to see this many as there’s no guarantee that any orang utans will be seen. We were captivated and made good use of a pair of binoculars and a higher zoom lens to watch them more closely and take photos (thanks Mum and Dad Wood!). We don’t have time to add photos now but they’ll certainly feature in our next post.

Mum and baby

After eating most of the food on the platform, the orang utans swung away one by one, only to be replaced on the platform by macaque monkeys who entertained the crowd by scampering about, fighting over bananas and scuffling with each other. They are very bold and even came over to the viewing platform (cue rapid movement of tourists) and sat on the fences of the boardwalk leading the way back to the visitor centre. One monkey in particular became annoyed at the tourists walking past and after some snarling and baring of teeth, he jumped on Jon! Jon wasn’t hurt as the monkey just jumped on his back and off again but it was enough to scare everyone else in the group. A lady warder had to come and rescue everyone but the monkey even chased her. Apparently the trick is not to look them in the eyes but we think this one was just a nasty character.

Monkey adventures aside, we are fine apart from being boiling hot and sweaty all the time – yuck! We had a stressful time yesterday as we spent all afternoon waiting for a bus in the back of beyond, seeing about five go past, with none of them stopping as they said they were all full (indicated by hand signals!). Just as we were preparing our hitching sign, a guy in a 4×4 pick-up truck pulled in and asked us where we were going. It turned out Benn, a keen liverpool supporter, was going all the way and so gave us a lift for free in his nice air-conditioned, liverpool football club themed car! Thank you Benn if you’re reading this. It was very good luck for us as otherwise it would have messed up all our onward jungle plans.

Off to the jungle now and we’ll update you on our Mount Kinabalu climb next time. It’s been two days since we came down but we can still hardly walk without wincing.

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Back to the delights of night markets in KK

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque, Brunei

We finally arrived in Kota Kinabalu (called KK for short) at about 7pm last night. We were slightly delayed in setting off due to heavy rainfall in KK but I’m glad we waited it out rather than fly through it. All our flights were fine, the food was healthier than usual inflight fare, there was a decent selection of films and the stops helped keep us interested and provided an opportunity for us to revive ourselves. The stop-over in Dubai was a good chance to stretch our legs and look at all the goods on offer in the transit lounge. We had about an hour and a half and we were able to browse all the expensive goods on offer in the transit lounge;  nice pens, jewelry, whiskies, electronic goods and rich Dubai men to buy them all.

Not your usual forecourt

We landed in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, at about 9am yesterday morning and headed straight out to explore. The place is called BSB for short and in our spare six hours we visited the riverside food market, had a stroll along the waterfront, took a watertaxi ride past the houses, schools, fire station and even petrol station all on stilts out in the water. Petrol here is only 20p a litre! Everyone gets about by taxi boat which zoom about in all directions. After our boat trip we stopped by the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosque but were only able to peek through the doors as it’s closed to non-muslims during the month of Ramadam. Later on in the afternoon we looked around the Royal Regalia museum with photos, objects used in royal processions and also all the gifts and souvenirs the Sultan gets given by other countries  – quite an array of stuff, not all of it tasteful. We were surprised to learn how closely linked Brunei and Britain were; Brunei only became fully independent from the UK in 1984. The Sultan  actually studied at the Sandhurst military academy and has the honorary rank of general in the British Army. We were starting to droop by the time we’d finished the museum due to tiredness and the heat so we returned to the airport to wait for our final flight.

Fish, fish, glorious fish

In Kota Kinabalu our hotel is right by the night market so after arriving we just dropped our stuff, sprayed ourselves with DEET and then went straight out for some tasty food. We took a look at the fish stalls first – amazing whole fish with spots, stripes, orange ones, blue ones, ugly ones and spiky ones. For food we got a noodle soup dish which turned out to include tripe, liver and kidney but actually didn’t taste that bad, quite nice really once we’d added some lime juice, chili sauce and soy sauce. Then we had some barbecued squid with tasty fried rice (probably containing a health dose of MSG).

It feels great to be back in Asia even if it’s really hot here. When we landed yesterday evening the temperature was 29 degrees C and it must reach the high thirties during the day. Going outside is like stepping into a warm and steamy shower room. I’m afraid that we’ve been extremely lazy today; we got up for breakfast but then had another lie down and ended up sleeping until 2pm! We can blame it on jetlag. We managed to sort out a hiking package for Mount Kinabalu for Friday and Saturday and after that we are going to visit the orang utans in Sepilok and tropical rainforest at Kinabatangan valley. It’s doubtful that there will be any internet connection so it’ll be about a week before we can share our experiences and photos with you. Hopefully they’ll be worth waiting for and we’ll be able to tell you of some amazing times.

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