Sunday, May 27, 2012

Putrajaya, Pants, And Other Ponderings

So, getting from East Malaysia to West Malaysia by boat didn't work out either. My German couple were ready to take me with them, and even wanted to go to Singapore. But it just didn't seem like it was meant to be as they discovered their boat had a leak and were forced to leave it in Borneo themselves. I'm sure Charley Boorman didn't have these problems when he was filming By Any Means, but then again he has his own BBC film crew and lackeys to organise his itinerary. Kuching was getting boring and 16 days really were enough. I had seen all I wanted to, and had begun to get itchy feet. With a heavy heart I headed down to the airport as soon as I got the bad news and bought myself a ticket to Kuala Lumpur (although, as an aside, I did get to do something that I had dreamt of doing for some time, namely turning up at an airport and just buying my ticket on the spot).

The famous Petronas Towers which I revisited 7 years after my first trip here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Travel Frustrations

I have now been in Kuching for over two weeks, the longest I've been in any one place on this trip (apart from Tehran). And it's not because it's a terribly exciting place; quite the opposite in fact. No, the reason for my extended stay is my stubborn desire to do this journey overland. I had already broken the no-flying pledge I had given myself by hopping from Taiwan to the Philippines, but I was damned if I was going to do it within the same country. Despite Malaysia being split neatly into two halves separated by some 500km of sea, the sole means of transport for ordinary civilians trying to get from one to the other is by plane. The last passenger ferry sailed its last over 20 years ago. That air travel is the default option is totally understandable: its faster, more comfortable and (thanks to the lack of tax on aviation fuel) is cheaper. But that it's the only option seems to me ridiculous. What of people who, for whatever reason, cannot fly; or if flying became impossible - not such a far-fetched idea for those who remember the chaos caused around Europe a couple of years ago when an Icelandic volcano started rumbling (and Java, with its collection of active volcanoes, isn't that far away)? I refused to to believe that there was no way to get by sea from East to West Malaysia so, when I arrived, I set about procuring myself passage to the mainland. Little did I anticipate how hard it would be.

Kuching is known as the "Cat City" - this is one of several such statues dotted around town.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Man Of The (Disappearing) Forest

For most people there is one overwhelming reason to come to Borneo: wildlife. The world's third-largest island is home to large tracts of virgin, untouched rainforest bursting with biodiversity and harbouring more than a fair few endemic animals. For the budding David Attenborough* there are few places that can offer such a range of things both bright and beautiful as well as short and squat. The biggest draw is, undoubtedly, our distant cousin, the orangutan (a word derived from the Malay, meaning "man of the forest"). There are only two populations of orangutan left in the world: one here in Borneo and the other in Sumatra. Sightings in the wild occur next to never and so the next best option is to go to one of the rehabilitation centres where orphaned and abandoned orangutans are cared for before, hopefully, being released back into the wild. One such centre is located just outside Kuching and I made it the first thing I visited when I arrived.

Orangutan faces are full of expressivity, betraying how closely related they are to humans.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

East Is East

Six days in Brunei was enough and so I set off for Sarawak. One of the reasons I stayed so long was that I wanted to do a trek to Gunung Mulu national park, just outside the Bruneian border and accessible from BSB. It is famous for housing one of the largest caves in the world which is home to a population of several million bats as well as some magnificent primary rainforest and karst terrain. To be able to afford the tour though I had to find other people with whom to split the costs of transport, guides and porters, but unfortunately I had no luck. Such is the way when travelling solo: sometimes it is not possible to do certain activities because you need a group of people and they just aren't available. Instead I had to make do with the caves at Batu Niah, also in Sarawak, but only a dozen kilometres from the main highway instead of requiring several days' hike (or a trip by plane). The main cave there is also staggeringly huge and is home to several species of bats and swiftlets, whose droppings, like in caves throughout the region, carpet the floor and give it a characteristic, overpowering odour. What perhaps makes the caves at Niah special are that they have been home to humans for some 40,000 years, with some of the oldest archaeological finds in all of southeast Asia. And they have been continually used for that entire time up to the present day, where local tribes collect swiftlet nests. Although it's not the season for collection the bamboo scaffolds used by the collectors are still up and extend vertiginously 50m or more up to the roof of the cave, seemingly held aloft by a single, narrow pole, somehow defying the laws of gravity.

Looking back at the entrance to the main cave at Niah. You can see that plants manage to grow for a little distance into the cave, but then lack of sunlight allows only a few hardy mosses to grow and then nothing.