Kayak, water bus, longboat, motor boat – we were on the water a lot in Borneo, where the tropical seas teem with marine life, and the rivers are lined with water villages. On land, ranger-led hikes took us into the equatorial jungle in search of wildlife and waterfalls. Bali’s rice terraces and temples were next, followed by a guided trek in search of Komodo dragons. Bali and Komodo had boats, too.
Kota Kinabalu (KK), Malaysia
Magic Coral Island, a mound of dead coral, was the first stop on our kayak-in-KK day. It’s called Magic because the island’s location shifts from week to week depending on wind and current. We pulled our kayaks onto the island and proceeded into the water for a short snorkelling session. The water here is clear, shockingly blue, and bathtub-warm.
Another hour of paddling brought us to Mamutik, one of five islands that make up Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. Mamutik was busy. Large numbers of Asian tourists arrive at the island by water taxi and spend the day snorkelling, paragliding, riding behind banana boats, and eating at the beach-front barbecue stalls. The beach had a relaxed feel in spite of the crowds. Living coral beds lie close to shore, so we didn’t have to swim far to find ourselves inside a cloud of technicolour fish of all shapes and sizes. After lunch we paddled back to our starting point, Tanjung Aru Beach, and the whitecaps were going our way. An active, perfect day.
We were well looked-after on our private Full-Day Sea Kayaking tour, arranged through Sticky Rice Travel. Edar (English name Spiderman) was our lead – and very professional – guide. Andre and Tong were our escort-paddlers (they called themselves gangsters because they were wearing face scarves), and Richard drove us from and to the cruise ship terminal. Tourism is the second biggest industry in Sabah, the Malaysian state of which KK is the capital. Most people come to Sabah to climb Mount Kinabalu or to trek the jungle in search of orang-utans; sea kayaking is a relatively new tourist activity. Good luck with this paddling endeavour, Sticky Rice!
We have visited – and lived in – tropical jungles, but never one this wealthy. Brunei is one of the world’s smallest and richest countries, thanks to the discovery of vast amounts of offshore oil. The country’s wealth is apparent: the sultan’s palace has 1,778 rooms and 257 toilets, and the domes on the mosques are 24-carat gold.
Getting to Brunei’s wild Temburong District is fun. The journey begins with a water taxi ride from Brunei’s capital city to Bangar, the district capital.
The water taxi speeds and weaves along the Brunei River, passing water villages and islands forested with mangroves. We switch to a five-passenger shallow-draft longboat for the ride up the Temburong River, lined by virgin rainforest. Our skipper is only seventeen years old, but he’s clearly experienced; he shoots rapids, dodges boulders and hanging vines, and takes the outboard motor out of the water at just the right moment.
The boat skippers take a break while we do a jungle walk up a stream to a waterfall. Below the waterfall is a foot spa, where little fish nibble any dead skin on your feet. After the downstream river run, we visit a longhouse used by the Iban people, who were once fierce headhunters. A longhouse is basically a whole village under one roof. They may contain dozens of family units, with a door opening into a common area for socializing. Longhouses today have modern amenities, but some still have a few head-hunted skulls on display.
Poke a crocodile in the eyes if it’s attacking you, never look an orang-utan in the eye, and never disrespect the jungle. These are three of our guide Joseph’s tips for a safe and enjoyable walk in the jungle.
“The jungle was my childhood playground,” was Joseph’s opening remark as we boarded the tour bus headed to Bako National Park. Joseph grew up in a small Sarawak village, and he was keen to share his jungle knowledge, as well as his respect for the jungle’s creatures and its spirit.
In the fishing village of Bako we boarded a six-passenger longboat and cruised up the Bako River and along the South China Sea to the National Park’s headquarters. Because it was low tide, a wet landing was required; whew, no crocodiles appeared.
Bako, Sarawak’s oldest national park, has lovely pocket beaches, wind-sculpted cliffs, mangrove swamps, and seventeen hiking trails through the rainforest.
Long-tailed macaques entertained us near the jetty. A pit viper, a monitor lizard, squirrels, caterpillars, and several types of crabs and butterflies were the wildlife spotted during our three-hour trek with Joseph. We failed to sight a proboscis monkey, found only in Borneo, or a bearded pig, but that’s okay. For serious wildlife watching, one needs to stay overnight here, as jungle creatures are easiest to spot near sunrise and sunset.
Note to our children: Borneo looks and feels very much like nearby Papua New Guinea, where we all lived for two years in the 1980s. Hot and sticky-drippy-humid – how did you play tennis in the noonday sun?
Just when we thought we had seen our last temple, along comes Bali with more than one million of them. It’s true: this small Indonesian island has more temples than houses.
Most temples are Hindu (90 per cent of the population), but all religions seem to be welcome. We visited one street with five temples in a row: Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Protestant, Roman Catholic.
Entrance gates and statues are everywhere. Some statues look like monsters or giants (to keep evil spirits away), and many are dressed in black-and-white clothing to balance the forces of good and bad.
In addition to temples, Bali is packed with attractions: beautiful rice terraces, volcanic mountains, busy beachside resorts, arts and crafts centres, and yoga retreats.
Tourism is big business. Our guide Astadi tells us there are three requirements to enter the tourist business: speak English, have computer skills, and know someone. Astadi speaks English well, as does our taxi driver I Wayan Sutama, with a few cute expressions of their own, e.g., “I am smileful to get to know you,” “stand by camera – very good view coming.”
It looks like a four-legged spider, but it’s actually a traditional Balinese fishing boat called a jukung. A double-outrigger canoe that uses the crab-claw sail traditional throughout Polynesia, jukungs are small but sea-worthy. In the late 1980s there was a Great Jukung Race of over 1,000 miles by nine crews, who travelled from Bali to Darwin across the Timor Sea.
Cute and cuddly they are not. Komodo dragons, the largest lizards on earth, are vicious-looking, and they have a bad reputation. Wild pigs and Timor deer are their preferred food, but they have been known to attack and eat full-grown water buffalo and even, on rare occasions, humans. If the dragon’s shark-like teeth don’t kill you, you’ll probably succumb to the deadly bacteria in the dragon’s mouth.
Komodo National Park was established to protect the habitat of the rare Komodo dragon, first discovered over one hundred years ago. The dragon is an endangered species, with only three to five thousand left in the wild. The National Park also protects tourists, by requiring that the island can only be explored on foot and in the company of a licensed guide. Our guide, Franco, led us carefully down the footpaths, providing commentary and pointing out a wild pig, several Timor deer, a bee’s nest, and several piles of scat. The main event: four Komodo dragons at a waterhole. Three were adult males, and one was a baby, maybe three years old.
“Money, please.” “We need food.” Local children, hoping for a hand-out, shouted from a group of battered outrigger canoes that paddled around our anchored ship all day. This was the sad part of our day at Komodo Island. The scenery was a happy surprise. We expected a desolate lump of rock. On the contrary, Komodo and its neighbouring islands have gorgeous craggy mountains, savannas, and monsoon rainforests. Like Borneo and Bali, Komodo looks like a great destination for paddling and snorkelling; maybe next time.
Kiss the Fish
Kiss a big ugly fish, crack an egg on your head, then stand at attention while King Neptune pours green goo all over you. On May 1 all the Pollywogs (those who had not crossed the Equator at sea before) reported for the initiation ceremony that transformed them into Shellbacks. No green goo for us; we were already members of the Society of Shellbacks.
Crossing-the-Equator ceremonies are tame these days, although Oceania does it well. Fifty years ago, when Cathy crossed the Equator for the first time, the line-crossing ceremony was brutal and dreaded. Pollywogs were blindfolded, pelted with mushy fruit, beaten with wet fire hoses, forced to eat nasty stuff, then thrown – still blindfolded – into the swimming pool.