Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Bako National Park

Our next excursion out of Kuching was to Bako national park. Bako, is proudly Borneo's smallest national park but it is still pretty big, with some walks taking two days to complete. It is home to some of the rarest species including the proboscis monkey (funny looking monkey with a big nose, which it makes honking noises through) and the monitor lizard (big massive thing not much smaller than an alligator) and countless other monkeys, pigs, spiders, snakes and bugs.

The park is entirely inaccessible by any route other than official boats, which carry up to 6 people at a time and leave from an official registration point. The boat takes 20 minutes or so, and then lands at the park centre which is a small compound with a camp site, various accommodation huts and lodges, a canteen and a further registration centre and souvenir shop. From here there are about a dozen walks which take from an hour to a couple of days to complete. Most walks take about a day to complete, including time to take in the area and maybe have a little swim too. The lodges and dorms provide enough accommodation for maybe about 50 people to stay at the park at any one time, either having a room to themselves or sharing with others. The rooms are basic, and so is the canteen food, but that's not really why anyone goes to Bako national park.

We booked one night before we left Kuching and ended up extending it to three nights in the end. No sooner were we off the boat than we were introduced to one of Bako's less popular residents, the macaque. Your typical grey, badly behaved cheeky monkey. The compound has attracted loads of these who now enjoy a life of stealing food, whether it's off your plate, out of the canteen, out of a bin or out of your carrier bags. They are not passive scavengers either, as we discovered when one came running at us, all claws and fangs and hissing, and leapt for our carrier bag, requiring vociferous shaking and beating to save our pot-noodles. Having met the 'naughty macaques' (as the warning signs call them), we went for a wander before dark to see if we could find any other wildlife. Just as we reached the point where the jungle walks began we spotted a family of proboscis who had found a patch of trees particularly to their fancy. Because of the number of well meaning people who come to Bako, a lot of the wildlife has lost any fear of man and this allowed to us to watch them for about 20 minutes, without them so much as blinking at us. It was great, you could hear them munching away on the branches as they chewed through the canopy. Then it was time to enjoy the sunset before pot-noodles and cards with our neighbours.

Next morning, it's breakfast on the porch, with the muesli we brought with us and another wrestle for the food as once again we're mugged for our provisions. This time the monkey only fled when I picked up a chair and chased it off the porch waving it about and shouting. They are incredibly audacious and fearless. I thought that clapping my hands hard, right in front of its face would have scared it off, but it just hissed at me with its fangs and claws ready if i tried that particular trick a second time. Following that incident, I made sure that I wore my hiking boots everywhere I went in the compound, resolved, that if they tried anything else, I'd simply run at them and if they didn't move, they probably would the second time after a good boot. As it turned out, my charging and stomping was sufficient and no monkey made contact with my feet. The canteen's staff carry a catapult and this also seemed quite a good deterrent.

After breakfast, we set off on our walk and very early into the trip we saw a long black tail ending in a thin point slinking off into the trees. At the time we thought this might have been a monitor lizard but a few days later we would be introduced to a cobra someone had caught and it's tail looked remarkably similar. Three hours or so later, we are now deep inside the jungle, having passed all kinds of bugs and insects that make such a racket it seems louder than a city centre. The most curious was the insect that makes the noise like a tiny grand-prix car racing up through the gears. And then we reached the spot where every shampoo advert tries to recreate. In a semi clearing, is a waterfall, which then fills a rocky pool which then flows over into another pool, this time smooth and that then feeds another pool. Hanging over the water is all assortments of palm leaves and vines and the air around is warm while the water is cool and deep. We promptly got changed into our swimming gear and spent about half an hour floating about wondering how we ended up in such a place. We had the place to ourselves too for about ten minutes or so before a few other people passed by but no-one else jumped in so we had the water all to ourselves.

After that we carried on our way and found a massive beach with fabulous sand and cliffs running around the perimeter with all kinds of tropical palms and trees hanging over the precipice, and the odd giant boulder on the beach with its own little jungle atop. We wandered along the beach taking a few photos and then decided we'd pop round a little rocky peninsular to see the beach on the other side. As the tide was starting to come in, and we were about 5 minutes away from it, we thought we best pick up pace but on arrival, the water was already a foot deep or so. We decided we must have just seen it wrong and that the tide must have already been in that far, but in the time we stood looking at this, and were then distracted by a photo opportunity, the tide had further risen to the point we were suddenly on a sand bar and we had to take our shoes off and paddle back across to the beach. All in the space of less than 5 minutes. So we got two swims that day.

Day 2 in Bako and it's up and out on another walk. This time the ultimate destination is another beach facing in a different direction and it's about twice the walk of yesterday, which we decided was a warm up. It's much harder going and takes about 5 hours to get there though only about 2 to get back as we came back a more direct route. The terrain changes wildly throughout the park. Some of it is like a forest walk back home, while other parts are most definitely jungle, then at other times you step out onto plateau and it's very open with low lying and thin vegetation and very smooth but stony ground, and beating sun. Then other parts involve a lot of scrambling as you have steep ascents and descents, clinging to roots and vines and squeezing between boulders. But through all of it, the path is very clearly marked with markers and the vegetation is very respectful of pathways so no machetes required. There are also little boardwalks and steps at odd intervals where it can get a bit boggy if it rains. When we reached the beach, we couldn't believe our luck, again it was plucked straight out of a movie set and again we had this little bit of paradise all to ourselves. This time the beach was quite a bit smaller and was much more of an alcove, again with cliffs and jungle clinging to it's perimeter. The beach faced out into the China sea, and the water was ridiculously warm. You would honestly be satisfied if your poured a bath and it was this temperature. While swimming about in it though, you would occasional find a cold current which would suddenly sweep passed you and that was of great relief. The water, was very sandy, not blue and it was quite disconcerting not being able to see your self in the water much below 6 inches. After swimming about a bit, I tried to climb a tree trunk which had fallen over and was making a bridge up to the top of a boulder, again just like a film set, I made it about half way until pushing through a bit of shrubbery I noticed a colony of fire ants, unimpressed at my presence and got chased back off.

That night we got rudely awoken when a storm passed over the jungle and our compound. It was great. At it's most intense the sky seemed to be lit up for longer periods than it was dark and the sound was so loud that our hut was shaking. I lay in bed, in the dry, deciding points were matched with the macaque.

The following morning we got the boat back to Kuching, and stayed for a day before we flew back to Kuala Lumpur to continue the trip through Malaysia.

Borneo was such a special experience. Never have either of us found anything that comes close, in the search for the ever-sought-after 'paradise'. It has an abundance of what so many resorts attempt to recreate, only it's all real and entirely accessible, and the forestry commission who govern it are doing a fantastic job of looking after it and making it accessible. There was so much more that we didn't get to see including some of the most spectacular cave systems in the world and other larger national parks who's jungles include the likes of Rhinos. If ever anyone was looking for a fortnight in paradise with beaches and a bit of adventure, I can't thing of anywhere better to recommend.

Borneo's King of the Swingers, the Jungle VIP.

When we were in New Zealand, we went to Phil's birthday on his boat and met a couple who had done a similar trip to us in the opposite direction. "Go to Borneo" they said. "The flights are cheap and you'll love it". We decided to take their advice, and they were right; the flights were cheap, so we booked our Air Asia flights shortly after and then got on with New Zealand. A couple of months later and it was now time to take that flight.

Borneo is a massive Island off the east of Malaysia. The northern third, or so, is Malaysian territory and the bottom two thirds belong to Indonesia. We were going to spend a week in Sarawak, the western province and landed in Kuching the capital. Kuching has a lot of remnants of British rule, most noticeably in it's municipal buildings which are typical of the colonial style. It is a riverside town with an esplanade that runs a length of the river, with little traders selling food along the waterfront while boat taxi's shuttle people back and forth across the water. Apparently swimming wouldn't be an option as the water plays home to crocodiles, although as the river is none too clean at this point, there could be a hundred reasons why you might not make it to the other side.

Chinese run Hotel number 2, 'The Fata' become home for us for the next couple of days as we make our way around the town. The people in Kuching are particularly friendly it was quite odd at first to have so many people say "hello, welcome to Kuching", but not try to sell you something. The school children would take great delight in saying hello too and then burst into a fit of embarrassed giggles when you replied.

Our first excursion out of town was to Semenggoh Nature Reserve to see orangutans who have been saved from captivity and are being rehabilitated into the wild. The nature reserve is a fairly large forest where the orangutans live free, but with an eye being kept on them by the wardens and vets. The animals are encouraged to look after themselves, with the ambition of returning them to the truly wild jungles on Borneo when they are ready. Until that day comes though, the apes can enjoy a fresh serving of breakfast and dinner every day, if they want it, and we had come in the morning to coincide with the breakfast serving. It was explained to us that, because it was summer at the moment, and the trees full of fruit, the orangutans might not come down for breakfast but we might be lucky and then we, and the forty or fifty other people (who we were not impressed at) were led along a path for a short way into the forest. There, one of the rangers was busying himself by making screaming noises into the trees. Either he had forgotten his medication that day or it was intended to tell the apes that grub was up, either way it worked and from high in the tree tops we could see branches and leaves swaying until a flash of red fur revealed the big bloke ape meandering down for a spot of breakie. He reached the clearing, still in the tree tops and then slid down a rope before landing himself on the platform across from us and tucking in. It was great to see. It was just like watching an Attenborough programme only in the clearest pictures ever, and then you keep realising you're seeing it for real. After he was done he meandered off along the ground and about ten minutes later a mother and child who had earlier skirted past up high came back. They were much more timid and spent a lot more time slowly climbing down the tree trunks and then picking at the left-overs, always with a hand or a foot holding on to a vine ready to whisk themselves back up to safety if the big boss man came back for seconds. Having had a few bits of melon and other fruit that looked good enough to eat ourselves, they grabbed a coconut and climbed up the trees again, resting directly above us where they then broke into the coconut, showering everyone below with coconut milk and rusk as they tossed away their unwanted bits.

We left late morning, having felt like we really saw something special. It's one thing seeing these animals at safari-parks or zoos but when you see them acting entirely by their own will, in genuine environment, just hanging out and popping by for a moment is something else. They were totally relaxed and at ease, and by the time we left, we felt we had taken some of that with us. And then we stood in the sweltering heat waiting for a bus that never came, got a taxi and felt just as fried as ever again.


Back street in China Town
We arrived in Singapore next and had about 5 days to take in the city. We got off the plane and took the train into the Indian Quarter of town, called Little India in the search of affordable accommodation. After some walking around we found a Chinese run hotel which was quite suitable and settled in just as the heavens opened above us. Singapore does good rain!
And then, it happened. Our first bout of illness. A little bit of Indonesia must have been sorry to see us leave and gave Nic a souvenir to take with her. At first, she was good for nothing and we watched with interest as Indonesia was reporting an outbreak of dengue fever. We did very little until as the week progressed Nic regained strength and we could wander further afield than our immediate neighbourhood.
By the end of our time, we had explored almost every corner of the city, including China town and the Arab Quarter and had made a full inventory of the shopping malls. I am pleased to report that we were able to resist the lure of the neon lights and the flashing gizmos and successfully left the city without any new hi-tech toys in our bags or 64-in-1 games for our Nintendos as Singapore has cleaned up it's act in terms of finding alternatively sourced, more economically friendly versions of games.
The malls offered us much sought refuge from the heat during the days. It is possible to enter a shopping mall (or plaza as their called here) and the pop out one end in a hotel foyer, connect to an air conditioned underpass, then pop out in another mall and make your way half way across the city like that.
By the end of our time in Singapore we were back to full health and caught a sleeper train that would take us to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia where we would connect with a flight to Borneo.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Indonesia Part 2

After Jogjakarta, we got a train to Surabaya which is really just a hub point, mid-transit for most tourists but as we arrived late at night and had to wait till morning for our next train which was taking us on towards Mount Bromo, we decided to find a hotel. Perhaps not exercising our best fore planning, we decided we would just walk in a direction till we found a nice'ish hotel. Surabaya is not a tourist town - the hotel was a long walk and the roads we were wandering along are simply the most dangerous I have ever seen in my life. Mercifully they tend to be one way but that's only a little comfort when they are still 4 (tending to mean 6) lanes wide and the traffic is fast and mean here. Pedestrian crossings don't mean anything either, crossing is a nightmare and truly death defying. We eventually came across a hotel and asking the price of the room was really just a pleasantry as with the weight of our bags on our backs and the journey on our spirits, and the still unbearable heat at 10 o'clock at night, there was no way we would be moving on to find another hotel.

In the end it turned out to be a really nice place, and good value. It would probably have happily sat beside any 4 star hotel back home in the 70's but while time has moved on, the decor in our hotel has not, though it remains in remarkably top condition and the service was good too. It was almost like a little retro theme park hotel. We were also a short walk from what is possibly the biggest Mall I have ever seen in my life, though I write this blog just now in Singapore, and this city ain't going down without a fight. Liking Surabaya, we spent a couple of days there in the end before we left for the train to Probolingo, which would be our connection to Bromo.

The train was a no-goer in the end as up line, a gas company was being blamed for causing a hole in the side of a volcanoe which has not stopped spewing mud since they cracked it open months ago, destroying the railway and a couple of villages on the way, and is still progressing. It would be time for our first bus.

Buses are funny, at every stop, hordes of people pile on and try to sell you stuff, mostly food or toys for bored children - it can be pandemonium. Then, just as the bus is about to pull out and carry on, this woman gets on board with a little Karaoke machine on casters and promptly installs herself mid carriage in the Aisle and proceeds to wail a handful of apparent hits at us. The singing was bad enough, the old tape chewed up and warbling enough too, but the killer was the flat batteries in her system that kept causing the thing to rumble and fart every time she made any noise. She tortured us for twenty minutes then took a collection, decided we'd earned our freedom and got off the bus, presumably to catch the next one back in the other direction. Either that it was a clever ploy to get a free ride on the bus for she had to pay nothing, though maybe next time she'd find a host of volunteers willing to pay her fare for her to save themselves the ordeal.

At one of these pandemonic stops when we were uncertain if it was time to get off yet or not (because there's nothing to tell you these things and no-one on buses speaks much English) we mentioned our desire to meet a connection for Bromo and were promptly ushered off the bus amid assurances that this was the right place. Standing looking around we can't see any bus station (5 miles further along the road) and seem to be positioned in the middle of nowhere, amidst houses, a newsagent and surprise surprise, a tour guide shop! Ushered in, its too late for us, we've already been suckered and this man is the only person who seems to speak any English. What we know prior to this is that we had to find a minibus (called bemos) which serve as local buses here to get us up the mountain side to the village at the top from where we will launch our assault on Mount Bromo the following morning. Also what we will have to do is find a bemo back down the next day, then get a connection to the ferry terminal at the end of Java (main Indonesian Island) so we can then get the ferry across to Bali (smaller popular holiday Island) and get a bus to Lovina (beach resort). This is going to be quite the mission, but for now we've just been looking at getting to Bromo. Well our new friend, in the tourist office, who'd have guessed it, has the perfect solution for us. He can sell us tickets right here and now that will pay for the Bemo up to Bromo, get us down the next day and then get us on a bus all the way to Lovina, across the ferry during the night so we can wake up there fresh and rested. It's a great price though (about £12 each) and he only needs our deposit so we take a chance and accept the offer.

Well, the bemo arrives, and certain there's no more space left for us, we get pushed in and onto the back seat, our bags being tied to the roof by a boy who might well be part monkey. This minibus, typically designed to carry about 12 people including the driver had 22 of us on board, as it scraped its belly up the hill side. When things got a little too tight, the bus stopped, and the lady who had a tray of a dozen or so chickens had to either get off or let them tie the birds to the roof along with everything else. She relented and we carried on.

Mount Bromo is an active volcanoe with a little village at the top. It's most impressive feature is it's gargantuan crater at the top (6 mile diameter). There's a sheer drop into the crater all the way around but then it as flat and barren as a desert in the middle, its called the sea of sand. Then across in the middle of the crater, are a couple more volcanoes, which are just little peaks that have formed when the mountain has spat another bit out, but look as big as small mountains in their own right when you stand at the foot of them. One of them is still big and smoking and you can climb to the top of this one and look down into it. There's no lava sadly but lots of smoke and steam billowing out and you can walk the circumference of this crater rim, with care. This is a bit of a pilgrimage that every tourist is required to do at sunrise, so not wanting to be exceptions, we got up at four o'clock too and wandered down into and across the main crater, only in the pitch black, despite our torches and preparation we got a bit lost for a while. We stumbled about in the volcanic land of once lava rivers that have solidified into some of the most haunting shapes you don't want to be lost amongst and pondered why at intervals the ground beneath our feet seemed like a thin crisp with nothing underneath. As the sun began to rise though, so did the light and we were soon on our way to the top again.

After Bromo, it was back down on another bemo to meet our friend to put us on a bus to Lovina. It was a foul night and a raging storm was the reason we were given for still standing at his shop when we should have been two hours underway. Eventually, we're put on a Bechak (bicycle rickshaw thing) and shuttled across town to be put on another bus. At this stage we think it's still the right bus, and after a long conversation between the tour company and the bus driver, two seats are found for us on the back row beside the toilet, nice! Any fears of being trapped should there be an accident were quickly quashed though as the bungee rope holding the emergency exit closed, crossed the aisle in front of us and was wrapped around the seat opposite, so we knew we could chew through that if required. In the end this proved quite entertaining, as half the people who made use of the toilet would trip over the rope, though mercifully not during the period the door flung open. It turned out this bus wasn't headed for Lovina at all and about 45 minutes off the ferry, now around 4 am we get kicked off the bus at a junction, down the other road of which lies Lovina. Sitting there is a bemo who is delighted to see us, despite not speaking English and of course, being an independent bus man, knowing nothing about our magic ticket, which is still in the pocket of the last driver heading to Denpasser.

We have two hours to sit and wait in the dark before he starts up and heads towards Lovina. We're not happy because we had to pay more money for this part of the trip, and he's not happy because after much arguing he took a substantial drop in price. But the good thing about Indonesia is that if you get conned, it's never by a lot of money. Once in Lovina, we find a very nice hotel with lovely gardens and a couple of pools. Everyone uses the main pool with the bar at the side of it leaving the smaller one, right outside our door exclusive to us. We spent several days here recovering from the last couple of days.

Following on from Lovina it was time for some good bus experiences, and we hire a shuttle bus down to Kuta which is the Australian's Ibiza place. Normally this bus would be full of tourists going to various destinations and would drop them off one by one, in a very roundabout manner but as we had the bus to ourselves for the whole trip we had a very comfortable and pleasant trip direct there through some lovely scenery. We saw our first road accident too. I still can't believe it took this long but finally it happened. A motorbike cutting a corner while it's driver carried a bin bag of clothes and his passenger carried a tree, narrowly avoided a collision with an oncoming motorbike. In the end, the unsuspecting rider, on the right side of the road, just got a smack in the face by the tree but the offenders lost half the tree, a flip flop (Jandal for our NZ readers) and bag of clean clothes across the intersection.

It should be mentioned, that this has not been the most ridiculous item in carriage we have witnessed on the road, though the two top prizes go to pedal cyclists. We saw one fellow successfully cycling along with a three-seater bamboo couch tied to his back, with another armchair tied to the top of that again, and thinking that would win first prize, we had to look twice to confirm we saw right when two double beds went peddling past us too (on one bike). Men arn't the only culprits though, the woman carry all kinds of crazy things on their heads too. In Jogjakarta we Saw a lady walking down the pavement selling hot food, which she was cooking on the barbecue on a tray balanced on her head, and on our bus Trip to Kuta, a lady who must have been doing a little bit of home improvement, who had 4 breeze blocks on top of her napper as she returned home, nattering away to a friend as she went.

A fine time was had in Kuta without any great incident worthy of report, and then it was a flight back to Jakarta for a night in possibly our worst accommodation yet and then our morning flight out to Singapore.