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Where did those three weeks go? Here I am again at the airport, waiting to fly back to Kota Kinabalu, then Hong Kong, and finally England – nearly a year after leaving.

The fabric of the last 10 months in China is fading in the stronger light of Borneo – but maybe I’ve woven a different cloth: the one made of tourism that I have avoided up until now.

Initially there is an urgent thirst to head off into the National Parks and jungle to paint exotic plants. But as I read more about the land I realise that there is more here that could nourish me than this one drive.

It takes several days – and Becky’s gentle persuasion – before I relax enough to enjoy this new approach. And the camera is always at hand. Although a bit of a purist only wanting to draw from nature, I do realise that it’s quite possible to use photographs as a source…

First we did a day trip to Manukan island, a short boat ride from KK. After having been “land locked” in China for so long, I was desperate for some sea…

The far end of Manukan Island

Not much to do...

Except reflect...

Wonder at the strange fruits...

And have a drink with Becky back at KK

But the real adventure starts at Samporna with the 18th Annual Lepa Boat Festival and snorkelling in some of the world’s finest coral reefs.

We stay at Dragon Inn, right on the water, and watched the flotilla from the cafe. The traditional boats are festooned with flags and all lit up at night. It’s a big event with many local dignitaries attending the judging – particularly of the beauty contest.

Dragon Inn by day

And night

Watching the boats pass by

Getting up close

Awaiting judgement

The score is all hand-written

All lit up

A bevy of beauties

Now that's a unique hand-basin!

Meanwhile, behind the scenes...

The next day we head off for the tiny reef island of Sibuan which lies about 30-minutes north of Samporna and is habited by Filipino sea-gypsies: a straggle of around 20 coconut-palm huts with a swarm of nut-brown children.

No health-care, no education. The boat pulls right up to the sandy beach and a small child makes a very half-hearted attempt to sell us a shell.

The outpost

As we walk around this little spit of land, we are startled to find a small military outpost with a bored soldier nursing a rather large gun. This island, along with all the others in this cluster, has a police and army presence (3-weeks on, 3-weeks off) following the hostage-taking of 20 people, including a number of foreign tourists, by Filipino gunmen on Sipadan island back in 2000.

In-between dips

We spit in our masks, pull on our flippers and within a few short strokes are above the coral and oh! What a sight.

In a state of stunned astonishment, we glide in the slow, warm current, seemingly just feet above this wonder-land along the edge of the island reef. There are pink-tipped coral, blue-tipped coral, crinkly green coral and huge brown brain-coral; blue “bean-bag” starfish and pink fat star-fish with black spots; clown fish, parrot fish, exquisite angle fish with yellow strips and thin, pointy noses, a puffer fish, box fish and a small fast-moving stingray – and a myriad others whose names I will never know. Oh, and an exciting glimpse of a turtle drifting away into the darker, deeper water. And a thick black, yellow and white striped sea-snake which we keep well away from. There’s also a scattering of small jellyfish with four green spots (resident algae I assume), most of which I manage to evade. The stings smart a bit but don’t last long.

Despite having severely burned the back of my legs (1 out of 2: remembered sun cream on the shoulders…) the next day I’m out again to Mabul island, some 45-minutes away. The burning sun has gone and it’s cooler with heavy rain. It’s also much deeper out here, the reef-fish larger and the current stronger – a wholly different experience.

Approaching the island

The island is much larger with a Scuba Junkie (!) resort. Apparently an English guy started up the operation quite some years ago and it’s grown and grown, providing PADI courses in all shapes and sizes, and covering all tourism bases with a bar, restaurant and budget accommodation – which is less than ‘budget’ on the island…

Looking out to the pier

The local island village

Tourist chalets...

The boat takes us to three different snorkelling locations around the island, and we’re accompanied by divers – we skirt the reef and they plunge down into seeming darkness, their location marked by streams of silver bubbles wobbling rapidly up towards the surface. As soon as I’m in the water I see another turtle and this one hangs around for a while longer before gliding out of sight.

One of the best locations is, surprisingly, the artificial reef abutting the stilt-chalets and wooden pier: shoals of silver large-eyed jack fish; a shimmer of “glass-fish” that confuse and distort until I pick out the individual, thin blue slivers, that move as one – I’m reminded somewhat of the watery features in James Cameron’s ‘Abyss’. Scorpion, or lion fish float surprisingly close and I back away from their fragile feathery fins wondering if they are indeed as poisonous as they look. (Later – apparently they are!)

Then floating mesmerised above some coral, listening to the Parrot fish scrape away at the surface with their sharp beak-like teeth.

Sadly I have no under-water photographs – I could have rented a camera for £20 but first it didn’t occur to me, and second I think it would have diminished the experience.

Back on terra firm we head off to the Sepilok Jungle Lodge for the night – where I’m finally able to photograph familiar territory!

Next morning we visit the Orang-utan centre, a vital rehabilitation project where orphans are trained to fend for themselves – which can take anywhere from five to 10 years.

Just hanging around...

Once competent to cope alone (they are mostly solitary creatures) these wonderful, semi-wild primates have the security of knowing they can return to the feeding station at the centre if forest fruits are scarce. Some return regularly, some never return. And there’s no guarantee that on any given day, any will turn up. Although it’s pretty much guaranteed that the aggressive Macaques will.

Adults at the feeding station

Mum and young 'un

Sepilok Orang-utan Centre

Becky heads back to KK (she’s already spent two weeks doing a whole host of jungle-trips) and I pick up a river-cruise to see Proboscis monkeys, Macaques and Silver-leaf monkeys in the wild, and a whole array of birds including Kingfishers and various Hornbills – the symbol of Borneo Malaysia – a wild cat (well, the eyes of one shining in the dark), a snake, various small brown frogs and more kinds of insects than I care to mention, or name. There are some flowers too…

Osmoxylum lineare

The canopy walkway and bird tower

The evening walk around the Tropical Gardens takes me up onto the canopy walkway, where we wait until dusk – and are rewarded with large red flying squirrels gliding silently across from one tall tree to another – and a torch-lit one much closer, munching away on some leaves. We also see a Slow loris but it’s too far away to take a photo.

Flying squirrel - torchlit

On another, rather less-successful, night walk in mud and rain – and leeches – I see sleeping birds roosting on thin branches. In retrospect, would rather have settled down with a beer, but didn’t want to miss anything…

The boat to our chalet

Chalet accommodation

The chalets were fine, but there was a power cut, so no air con. And no fan either! It was hot and humid and pitch, pitch black with lots of strange jungle noises during the night…

Stork-billed Kingfisher

Macaque monkey

Proboscis monkeys

Returning to chalet

Um - frog...

Then back to KK and the noise and thrust of the city – and Labour Day weekend. After having “missed” various European Bank Holidays in China, it is a shock to realise that Malaysia actually celebrates these. The place is teeming with local tourists and most of the accommodation full.

I had plans to walk trails in Kinabalu National Park to see Pitcher plants and the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower but with all the beds taken, I’m rather stuck with nothing to do.

Frustrated, I go on line and book the next flight out to Kuching, in the southern “state” of Sarawak.

Oh and what a difference! A park-filled city stretching languidly along the wide riverside: a casual city with an unhurried tourist pace. High rise hotels – The Pullman, Riverside Majestic, Harbour View – stretching along the water-front with walkways, small stalls selling local foods and an active bazaar street chock full of tacky tourist stuff and some rather nice finds.

The Sunday Market

Edible flowers from the forest

Wide - rather wet - shopping street

The old...

...the new

Boats on the river

Then there are avenues of Frangipani with their heady scent; colonial museums with Victorian display cases of stuffed birds and mammals preserved as exhibits themselves – “the last example of traditional Natural History displays in East Asia”.

Night time reflections

And a sunset - I kid you not!

And so many other sights I have no time to explore…

Another Orang-utan sanctuary –

– where we witness a fascinating activity unfold, as a large male casually bends to sniff a female and gently, but firmly, pulls her down towards him.

whatever comes naturally

His slow thrusting brings giggles from the watching crowd which grow in volume and amusement as he moves her around the feeding deck into various other positions. And all the while they both nonchalantly munch on bananas and other fruits plucked from the decking.

Eventually the Ranger admonished the crowd: ”Why are you laughing? This is a most natural event…” Shamefaced, they shuffle off, and a few of us continue to watch in wonder and silence. Eventually he asks us all to leave – if these semi-wild Orang-utans can procreate successfully, they have a better chance to survive.

Their native habitat in this part of Sabah is now seriously depleted into a squeezed strip along the riverside – giving one a dubiously “better” chance of seeing them in the wild simply because they have no-where else to go.

The squeeze is due to palm-oil plantations which, seen from the air, spread like a sterile ‘lawn’ across vast swathes of land. On the 9-hour bus ride to Samporna (not to be repeated: back-of-the-bus, next to the toilet, whipping around mountain bends in stifling heat…) I was shocked to watch hour after hour pass through this unchanging scene. Apparently the land was bought up by Chinese entrepreneurs who promptly cleared it of all native vegetation and set up this most profitable business.

Palm oil plantations from a moving vehicle...

How long ago this was, and whether the government was aware of their intentions is not clear to me, as I later learned from a taxi-driver that in Sarawak even second-generation Chinese cannot buy farming land. They can only lease it for a 7-year period, when it returns to the owner. I had wondered why the Chinese, who make up around 30% of the population in Borneo Malaysia, are all clustered around cities.

And then the Rafflesia, a parasitic plant which produces flower-buds with a 9-month gestation period, and a 5 to 7-day blooming. The plants are dioecious, being either male or female, and it needs some training to tell the flowers apart. According to the local guide at the Guning Gading National Park the buds have a very high failure rate, with only around 18% reaching maturity. Whether these large flowers then set seed – or spore? – is unclear, and it seems a great deal more research is needed to understand them fully.

Not the greatest beauty...

The one I saw, Rafflesia tuan-mudae, is on its fifth day of flowering and has had quite a battering. Over 170 people visited it on the Bank Holiday Monday and, positioned between two large rocks, it is vulnerable to damage. To view it more clearly, one had to clamber past it into a small chasm where it hangs 4-feet above the ground. How it lost one of its large petals is not clear. It’s a serious offence to damage or take any of the plant material – but the missing piece cannot be fond on the ground… The buds are (or possibly were?) used in traditional medicine so it’s possible this petal has some value other than trophy-hunting.

Even past its best, and less than intact, it is wonderful to see. Although there are around 50 plants in the park, and they flower year-round, the Rangers never really know when or where they will bloom. Catching one on spec, with just a few days’ holiday, is a very hit-and-miss affair.

Bako National Park, pitcher plants and more Proboscis monkeys.

The journey to the Park involves a bus to a ferry landing on an estuary further up the coast, than a boat trip around the headland.

Fish traps along the coast

Around the headland

Disembark on the beach

Erosion

The rocks on the beach contain iron and form some amazing shapes and patterns:

I had been planning on over-nighting at the park but fatigue – and stories of a dismal dorm and bad food – draws me back to my familiar bed in the Singgahsana hostel.

And resting on the beach...

In retrospect I wish I had caught the 7am bus to the park instead of an hour later: by the time I get there large groups of, er, large Europeans are crashing through the jungle paths scattering everything in sight.

Waiting them out down a quite side-path, I hear foliage dropping around me and look up.

Proboscis monkey feeding

 

There, right above me, is a large, very male Proboscis monkey casually plucking leaves from the tree – and keeping a watchful eye on me.

Apparently its the dominant males that have the big noses, and other things prominently on display…

Great folds of flesh

Then I head up through the rocky chasms, bridges and:

the tangle of roots

wooden steps

deep dark trails

ant highways

and mushrooms

to the…

limestone? plateau

where I’ve heard there are quite a number of pitcher plants – I’m not disappointed.

Resting

 

 

There are tiny green ones creeping across the ground, and large red and green blotched ones with flanges, full of last night’s rainwater, resting heavily at the base of trees.

 

There are vines tangle down in a great mass from the trees, the dried vessels rattling together in the slight breeze.

 

 

 

 

Suspended

Entwined

 

Clustered together

I snap away, trying to shade the bright light with my umbrella, and quietly wish that I had time – and the resources – to paint them.

There’s other spectacular plants and wildlife around, such as the Silver leaf monkey, with their conspicuous offspring.

Blends in with autumn leaves?

But the boat is waiting to take me back around the headland to the Park entrance and bus station, and then on back to Kuching to drop in my camera for repair. How the small hair got into the body of the camera I have no idea, but there it is, marring my photos: it’s not noticeable on busy jungle shots, but is a distinct annoyance others.

The Village House

The Singgahsana Lodge guest house in Kuching has another place about half-an-hour away which is advertised as “A Total Escape Destination”. Not cheap, but I feel the need for a bit of pampering on my last day in Borneo. It is worth it. A 14m swimming pool with cascading sides, hammocks, comfy loungers, elegant outdoor dining area, art-works strategically placed and wonderful linen sheets and crisp white towels; exquisite food, ice-cold beer and an extensive library. And I’m the only one there. Bliss.

One night is definitely not long enough. Me-thinks I might return…

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