October 22, 2008

Reborn in Borneo

Borneo, where the hell is that? Unfortunately, geography taught in North American schools usually doesn't cover Borneo, or Southeast Asia for that matter. For some, the only recognition of Borneo comes from a season of the reality show Survivor, that used one of the outer islands as its location. Pretty sad isn't it? But to be honest, I wasn't too sure of where Borneo was located before getting to this side of the world. But I am really glad that I made the decision to visit.

The island of Borneo is shared between both Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysian Borneo is divided into the two states of Sarawak and Sabah. I decided to give myself two weeks to visit Sabah, the easternmost point in Borneo, and that was the perfect amount of time to explore the cities, mountains, and jungle.

I spent a couple days in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, and then took a cheap and easy flight on Air Asia to the city of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. KK as it's known, isn't a destination in itself. It's a working city, the largest in Sabah, and a main point of entry for tourists visiting Borneo. I had only planned on staying a night, but due to a health scare, I spent an additional two days in the hospital. I was actually at the base camp of Mt. Kinabalu, celebrating one year on the road, when I decided to travel two hours back to KK to see a doctor. The first day was spent in the Queen Elizabeth public hospital, which was a sight in itself. The place was old, and cramped for space. I'd be a little scared to have surgery here. Later that same night I checked myself into the Sabah Medical Center (SMC), which was a private facility. Talk about night and day. The SMC reminded me of any western hospital back home. But the prices were about ten times the amount. To give you an example, I paid roughly $15 for an emergency room visit with a doctor at Queen Elizabeth. At the SMC, I paid $150. Still, it's much cheaper than back home, but it reminded me that health care is a business, and the wealthy can afford much better treatment. It's unfortunate.

After one night in the hospital, a clean bill of health, some antibiotics, and a ton of pain killers, I decided to go back to Kinabalu National Park and climb the 13,435 foot (4,095 m) peak of Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest peaks this side of the Himalayas. The climb was fantastic, and I did it in two days and one night, which is pretty standard. It's a challenging hike, but not technical.

Here is a rough timeline:
Day 1
  • Leave base camp at around 10:00 am

  • Hike straight up for 6 kilometers. The hike takes about 6 hours, and the last two kilometers are like climbing stairs, but a little harder.

  • Sleep at summit lodge of Laban Rata. It's actually a pretty nice place with dorm beds, hot showers, and great food. So you're not really roughing it.
Day 2
  • Wake up at 2 am

  • Hike straight up for 2.5 kilometers using ropes at times for balance.

  • Get to summit around 5:30 am, for sunrise at 5:50 am. Try to stay warm. Temperature is roughly 3 degrees Celsius. Damn cold for Borneo.

  • Leave summit at 6:00 am to hike down. Can't feel fingers.

  • Get to summit lodge around 7:00 am. Pack and eat second breakfast of morning.

  • Leave at 9:00 am to hike back down to base camp. The return hike takes about 3 hours, and is all down hill. First two kilometers are brutal. After this you slowly can't feel your knees and legs.

  • Get to base camp around noon, and collapse.
But the climb is completely worth it. It's been different and hard at times traveling on my own this past month, but being out in nature, and seeing the spectacular views from the summit put a huge smile on my face. I could see the city of KK on the coast, and beyond to the surrounding islands. There were some older couples climbing at the same time and we discussed that these types of activities are priceless and worth the short term pain for the long term memories. So many times on the trek I kept thinking to myself, wow, I'm climbing a mountain in Borneo! This is living. I should also mention that I met a great group of Malaysians, an Aussie, and two Belgians who welcomed me into their group at the base camp, and were great hiking partners up the mountain.

Another must in Borneo is a visit to the jungle. From Kinabalu National Park, I traveled to the coastal city of Sandakan to unwind after the hike, and to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC). I think orangutans are my new favorite primate. They are so cool, and hairy. The center has two feeding times per day (10:00 am and 4:00 pm), and in the morning I saw about 6 orangutans swing in from the thick jungle to a platform about thirty feet away. There were also some long tailed monkeys, but they weren't as fun to watch. After a couple hours of walking along the center's trails, hoping to see more orangutans, I headed to Uncle Tan's jungle camp.

Uncle Tan's had come highly recommend by another traveler I met, and by Lonely Planet. They offer a three day/two night jungle safari, and although it wasn't as hard core as my previous trip to Ecuador's Cuyabeno reserve, It was a fantastic trip with tons of wildlife. The camp itself is basic but unpretentious. We slept in cabins that were raised off the ground, with mattresses on the floor, and mosquito nets to keep out the critters. Some common animals that were frequently seen running around the property were wild pigs, big monitor lizards, and mischievous monkeys who got into everything, and we even had to lock our cabins since the monkeys would steal anything they could get their little hands on. I now truly understand the expression "cheeky monkey."

The first day was mostly spent traveling to the camp. A two hour drive led to the river, where we traveled downstream for another hour, frequently stopping to see the rare proboscis monkeys with long noses, pig tailed monkeys, and more long tailed monkeys. We also saw tons of birds, and several salt water crocodiles, some up to two and a half meters long. Unlike Australia, there were no warning signs, but swimming was out of the question. That night we did a boat cruise in the dark and saw a python, more monkeys, and birds.

We woke early on the second day at camp. It was the perfect time for a morning boat cruise to see the active animals before the heat kicked in. I should mention that from about noon until 5:00 pm, you can't do much because of the humidity. We just laid in hammocks and slept. Tough life, right? Although there were no showers, so by day three I was the guy you didn't want to sit next to on the bus. We did two jungle treks, one mid morning, and the second at night. The highlight for me was seeing imperial scorpions, the largest of their kind in Southeast Asia, and a massive yellow ringed snake on the night walk.

It seems that most people who visit Sabah in Borneo, tend to have the same itinerary. You climb Mount Kinabalu, visit the orangutans, do a jungle trip, and head to Sipadan for some world class diving. I can't decide if it's good or bad, but it is nice to see the same people along the way. I met some great people on the mountain and in the jungle camp. Especially Scott from Australia and Lim from Malaysia (who lives in Singapore). I also ran into familiar faces diving at Sipadan, it seemed the whole crew from Mt. Kinabalu was there.

Sipadan is a divers dream, and that will take up a whole other post. In the meantime, here are my photos from Malaysian Borneo.

1 comment:

hostel barcelona said...

wow! That's a good hike!!
I wish I could join you...
Keep on travelling!