Monday, December 14, 2009



I have always liked the name of the place, associating it with adventure and danger, with Tintin and mysterious happenings in the jungle. Right up there with Zanzibar, Madagascar, Peru and Tazmania in the adventurous naming competition.

It comprises territories from Brunei, Indonesia and Borneo, and is wedged into the water between peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. As is often the case in Asia, my geography is a little off-centre, and the northern tip of Borneo is actually further north than that of the mainland (in more news to me, Wikipedia says it is the third-largest island in the world). Since I had a pile of Air Miles to get ride of before the end of the year, I decided to fly business-class to the capital of Sabah - Kota Kinabalu - taking a night in Kuala Lumpur on the return leg.

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Beyond the impeccable branding, I was also drawn by the news that I could bag another peak, in the form of Mount Kinabalu. It bills itself as the highest peak in South-East Asia at 4095m, and a fantastic addition to Yushan, which I climbed just recently (3952m). I was therefore a little miffed to discover, right after I booked flight tickets, several mountains in Indonesia significantly higher. Onwards and upwards, as they say.

The other major pull to the island was Sipadan; reputedly location for some of the best Scuba diving in the world. When I learnt to dive in 2003, my Swiss instructor eulogised about the place, and I have since heard it mentioned in hushed tones by those in the know. Add jungles, food (and hell, free flights) and it was a pretty easy decision to pack my bags and go.

Kota Kinabalu

First leg on my little adventure was Kota Kinabalu - capital of Sabah. A pleasant, if sleepy, little town, it was a good base from which to strike out into the jungle and mountains. Bombed by the Japanese in WWII, it was far from architecturally charming, but it more than made up for it with its vibrant markets and fresh seafood.

Holy mackerel, Batman.

These chaps look way better under water.

Taking a rest.

Red hot chilli peppers

Flying south for the winter.

Loved the market building.

Rows of tailors with immaculate sewing machines.

Charming chaps.

Fascinating to see the obviously incredibly rapid shift to cell phones. Rows of pay phones, and yet only one stool left. How long til they paint over the wear marks on the wall?

Bright colours abound. I am positive Taiwan has invested a similar amount in the actual buildings, and yet just a splash of paint and a bit of care makes such a difference.

I want to buy this car and cruise around in it, causing trouble.

... and onto the next location (this time with Air Asia; such fall from grace!)

Mt. Kinabalu

View from the road, prior to the climb.

So what, it's not the highest peak in SE Asia: but after my interest was piqued by climbing Yushan in Taiwan, I felt the urge to climb me some more rocks. The overall set-up is not dissimilar to climbing Yushan; you start hiking at about 1800m, hike for 3-4 hours up to the hostel at Laban Rata (3273m), and again get up extremely early to take in the sunrise at the peak at 4095m - about 100m more than the Taiwanese peak.

Especially after climbing Yushan with associated altitude sickness issues, I was a little more prepared, packing Diamox and Aspirin tablets. The grading was a little steeper than Yushan, with more rocks and roots to clamber up, but in some ways I found this easier than spreading the ascent over a longer incline. Combined with slightly warmer temperatures, and the fact that the hostel provided all food, water and bedding, I reached the lodge in tip-top shape and enjoyed a chilled afternoon watching the clouds float by, fed and watered with provisions that the constant stream of sherpas were bringing up.

Watching the clouds roll on by.

Awaking in a shroud of cloud, the ascent was still lit brightly enough by the full-moon that we barely needed head-torches. The most technical sections were laced-up with climbing ropes, but in actuality they were neither as exposed nor as technical as the ones on Yushan; the massif of granite was far more stable than the shale in Taiwan.

Drugged-up on Diamox (note for future reference: it's a diuretic) we maintained a pretty good pace. Such a good pace, in fact, that we arrived at the summit with forty minutes to spare until sunrise. Clouds and rain met us at the top, and we spent the remainder of the time shivering in the cold, willing the sun to rise over the horizon and return some warmth to our bones. Rise it did, burning away the cloud cover and affording us fantastic views up the South China Sea and over to the forested interior of the island. Warmed up by the flurry of photographic activity, we lingered a while on the peak, but eventually gave in to the nagging from our obligatory guides to head down.

5:10am. Cold. Wet. Tired.

Waiting an eternity for the light to break through.

The clouds on the horizon seemed to rise at the same rate as the sun!

Skywalker - admiring the fabulous view.

4095.2m = Low's Peak

Contour lines.

The scale of the place was amazing - those specks on the edge of the granite shelf are people, and a sign pointing towards the top.

The granite plateau transition made for some amazing live cloud formations - imagine these rolling by as if over an airplane wing; I could have stayed here for hours.

Sun blind


Ships in the night.

Life perseveres.

My Canadian descent-buddies.

Clouds descend, giving an ominous sign for the return leg.

We returned to the lodge and all tucked into a hearty breakfast (infinitely better than more pot noodles on Yushan), and began the descent. Sadly, the weather did not quite hold, and we were met with rain for the entire duration, drenches and bedraggled by the time we reached the gates of the park, a long few hours later.

Next stop ... Mount Fuji?

Garama Wetlands

Hold your horses, son! After all that exertion, I thought a more relaxing day should be on the cards, so I signed myself up for a trip down to the estuary region of Garama, to meet some of the primates native to the island. What could be nicer?

Clearly, large groups of elderly Asian ladies feel the same way. It was therefore with a faint sinking sensation that I boarded the bus, and was joined by permed hair from Hong Kong, Korea and Australia. Sat at the front with my iPod blaring, I had a particularly satisfying hour or two of adolescent seat kicking before we arrived and were gently inserted into position on the boats, ready to penetrate the jungle. I was really, honestly, trying my best to hate the whole experience, but they were just so amusing to watch that I could not fail to break into smile.

After a few minutes of cruising, we came across groups of 'Big-Nose Monkeys' (AKA Proboscis Monkeys) that were shy but fascinating to look at, and found only in Borneo; Silver Leaf Monkeys, who are smart enough to wash their hands before they eat; and some other sort of primate that I only remember being called 'David Beckham Monkey', because of its fetching Mohawk haircut.

Top it off with some synchronised fireflies (the smallest in the world, apparently), and my day shuffling along with the geriatric jet-set was far from dull.

Silver Leaf Monkey awaits dinner.

Abandoned river houses.

The Proboscis Monkeys were very shy, and essentially impossible to photograph ... on the other hand, groups of boats filled with Chinese people taking photos of shy monkeys is much more fun.


We seemed to be in a very great rush to get back ... but nothing phased my ladies!

In the event of an emergency...

Sipadan & Mabul

Sipadan is one of the finest dive-spots in the world. Ostensibly to protect the fragile marine environment, the Malaysian government has seen fit to limit access to only 110 people per day, meaning an end to the possibility of staying on this jewel (although the kidnapping of a dozen tourists in 2000 by Filipino pirates surely played a role in this decision). Instead, most visitors stay at one of a number of locations in the vicinity. I opted to stay on Mabul - only slightly less perfect, sporting a much larger bar, and itself one of the best 'muck diving' sites in the world.

Turtles, normally a special treat on any dive, virtually littered the water. We would see three coming up for air, just suiting-up, in fact, on our night dive, one almost collided with me, and made a bolt for it between my legs. Nudibranchs, sharks, shape-shifting octopi ... it had the lot.

World-class diving was for once matched with world-class company (uninterested or detached dive buddies can ruin a perfectly good dive!), hailing from The States, Spain, The Netherlands and Australia. I was also very excited to be staying next door to Les Stroud and the National Geographic film crew, who were filming a documentary on sea gypsies, who still live in the area. We amused ourselves greatly with this entry in his website;

"Stroud continues to forge new pathways as a prolific, creative force. He single-handedly created, produced, wrote, filmed, hosted, edited and composed the theme music for the first two original, one-hour pilots for what would eventually become the hit Survivorman TV series."

But all eyes were on Sipadan. My 'package' included a single-day pass into the park, and I had to keep reminding myself just how lucky I was, just to get in; imagine all the people coming from all over the world, turned away by bad weather at the last moment. It was all worth it. Diving into the mouth of turtle cavern was one of the very best diving experiences of my life. As if from the set of a particularly camp pirate movie, there is a network of caves under the island, and carcasses of lost turtles pay testament to their final journey. I have never seen such clear, still water, and looking back out of the cavern was a spell-binding moment.

Not my video, but you get the idea:

Stayin' alive.

Sipadan perfection.


Just off the coast of Mabul - a converted oil rig that operates as a dive resort. Fun for about a day, I would imagine.

Structures ... seems to preserve valuable agricultural land, in Borneo the workers live on stilts above the water.

Local industries.

Devil in the details.

Charismatic local kids.

Messing around.

Grins all around.

The sun sets on some great days on Mabul and Sipadan.

With any luck, I should be getting my hands on some actual pics of me diving soon, which I am looking forward to seeing a great deal!

Kuala Lumpur

The trip concluded with a rather hedonistic evening in Kuala Lumpur with photographer friend Fiona. Since it was my first trip, trotting off to check out the twin Petronas Towers was a must; and I found it more complete, both in concept and in execution, than Taipei 101. Drinks at Zouk, some good times at an impromptu 'rave', late-night snacks in China Town and staff rates at a suite in The Berjaya ... and it looks like I'll need to head back at some point!

Petronas Towers (Canon Ixus 100)

Petronas Towers (iPhone + Tiltshiftgen app) ... as a result of this augmentation, my iPhone is now a more interesting creative tool than a 'real' camera.

Out on the town.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Singapore & Malaysia pics

I put the last of the photos online from Singapore and Malaysia - plus a few others from other things in April. Check them out!

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Saturday, April 16, 2005

Singapore Sling (again)

Well, I made it back to Singapore! 2 weeks of buses, boats and dodgy car rides and I am back in the 21st century. Malaysia impressed me, even when the bus system seemed to have been set up by Ken Dodd.

And I finally found the night market in Khota Bahru (spelling different again) - a local lad showed me the way, took me to the back of the market and I had simply one of the most delicious chicken dishes of my life, eaten straight out of a banana leaf with my (right) hand.

So. One day in Singapore and then winging it back to Taipei!

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Friday, April 15, 2005

Jonny Jalankaki

I am now back in Kota Bahru after 6 days on the island of Pulau Kecil. I had a set of fabulous dives, met some great people and prepared myself for returning to Taiwan.

Although it looks like a tourist catalogue, I did not actually retouch this image at all. It really is this ridiculously blue.

The days were typically spent diving in the morning and reading in the afternoon. Food would be squeezed into this busy schedule, possibly some ice cream, and hanging out with my dive buddy, Thomas.

Highlights of the diving included seeing Hawksbill Turtles surfing the underwater currents, several coral reefs, rock pinnacles with exciting swim-throughs and caves, and a wreck of a sunk Japanese cargo boat. It was great to get back in the saddle / goggles after an 18 month break - not quite the magic of the original dive team of John, Serge, Beto, Ron and Lise in Guatemala, but some great people none the less. I realise now how important the people diving with are for the experience, and of course safety.

Maz, my primary dive master was very good. A local guy, he and his friends Christened me 'Jonny Jalankaki' which is Malay for 'Jonny Walker' - I rather like it! Thomas, whom I met on the boat and shared a double bed with for the first night (!) joined me on the wreck dive and that was great fun.

My final dive was to a location called 'Secret Reef' - and it was. Each time the dive shop places a buoy line the line is cut and the buoy floats off - mysterious, eh. We headed to the site, a 30m deep dive, and descended through the depths. Sadly, due to a navigational error, we headed in the wrong direction and missed the reef. Most people were disappointed, but I really felt like I learnt something new. I had never been to the open sea bed before, seen so many jelly fish and plankton, swam in such low visibility (down to 2m in some places) or used an emergency locator at the end of the dive. I really learnt a lot. And Nadine and Jaap (co-buddy and buddy) were hilarious fun as the effects of deep diving took effect - we were all laughing our heads off at fish swimming by or someone swearing. I really came up with a smile on my face.

So, in Khota Bahru again (pretty sure my spelling changes each time I try it) on a Friday. Again, it is the quiet market day so I am missing out a bit, but it is nice to relax, clear up some souvenir shopping and have plenty of time for my 8pm bus to Johor Barhu, near the Singapore border.

My two weeks here could not have been of higher contrast. World cities, jungle missions, heroic long distances and then sitting staring at clouds! Malaysia has left a very positive after glow.

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