Our apartment in Kota Kinabalu is, well, a perfectly unremarkale modern urban condo. Seventh floor, three bedrooms, telly, a/c, pool. Okay, the latter two are not what you’d find in the UK, but we are in KK (as the locals refer to it). Malaysia became it’s own boss back in the 1950s and KK was known as Jessleton until 1968. It’s the capital of Sabah, Eastern Malaysia on the island of Borneo. It was given city status in 2000. You’ve most likely never heard of it.
However, your not knowing is not holding KK back. They’ve still building it – as I’ve noted in prior posts – with apparently exponential ambition. It’s getting a bit of a spread on round the middle too as strip malls, industrial units and housing developments spring up. We note this from the relative comfort of our rental car that we’ve (h)appertained for some exploration. Behold the Perouda VIVA 660! (More on the wheels in the Top Gear post.)
In my Bornean dreams, we’d be hacking through jungle, prising off giant leeches with the tip of a machete. We’d drink water from exotic rain catching jungle plants and ensnare our food in traps. In reality – to give the kids a comfort treat – we nip across the road for a KFC.
From that culinary low, the only way is up. And so it proves as that evening Jojo and I are perusing thousands of fresh fish in the nightly dock market. It’s a produce market cum open air restaurant on a serious scale. We settle upon a grouper and red snapper which are lobbed on a glowing barbecue.
Taking a perch – a sseat, not the fish – next to a nice couple from Western Malaysia we fall in to easy conversation. Our fish arrives and it’s seriously good. Even getting charged tourist rates – a priced menu? You’re kidding right? – £7 seems reasonable with drinks.
Streets here are lined with ‘coffee shops’ – read cafe/buffet/restaurants – which offer local fayre. Ever had savoury noodles for breakfast? Great with a touch of fresh red chilli. Nasi Goreng? Very tasty fried rice. There are also immense Chinese dining halls with a myriad of tiered tanks displaying live seafood dishes of the day. It’s an impressive, yet grizzly aquarium. I don’t usually feel sorry for fish, but this lot are on death row awaiting a smiling punter to order their execution. The scale of it dampens my appetite. How soft this westerner is, the locals can’t get enough!
Beyond the seafood, a lot of it is fast food. With the weather here varying between hot and hotter, always sticky and (binary) wet/dry there’s not much incentive to exercise. I’d wager it’s ncreasingly rare to be a manual labourer in KK (despite the development). A/c chilled cars, malls, restuarants: what else is there to do but eat? So you start to notice the, ahem, larger sizes around. In India I felt like a genetic freak – white and stout – whereas here… I catch myself feeling – very occasionally, fleetingly – cheerfully thin. I’d imagine that the rise of obesity as a health problem is taxing the health system. (A quick Google confirms this.) Progress eh?
KK is named for Mount Kinabalu towering above the clouds to over 4000m (near 13,500′ ranked 20th in the world). We decide to make the 90km trip to the National Park HQ up at 1,500m. This proves to be in the clouds and we spend a couple of hours in the blissful cool wandering the rainforest trails.
The kids have developed a mild obsession with leech bites so trousers are tucked in to socks and waterproofs are tightly fitted. They look ridiculous, but feel suitably armoured. Turns out to be a farily ordinary walk in most regards, despite the incredible biodiversity we are amid. This may be a deserved world heritage site, but it doesn’t impress small Beers. Kids today…tsk. We spot a pitcher plant – carniverous – which causes a blip of minor excitement but otherwise it’s just slightly laboured breathing in the grown ups. Altitude or furring arteries? Hmmm.
Walking around this lush, dense jungle it’s curious to know that you are being towered over by an enormous jagged peak as it utterly invisible. We could see Mt Kinabalu from the Mantanani Islands, over 50km distant, but not from the hill itself. We spy various tours who are about to make the hike to the summit to see it for themselves: best wishes folks.
Then we have a road trip and a half that brings near divorce/nervous breakdown. Whilst we survived unscathed, what hair I have left turned several shades greyer on a 6 and half-hour cross country hack in a car better suited to trundling between urban malls.
Top Tip: Travelling from KK to Sandakan? Got wife & kids along? Fly.
A good night’s sleep helps.
Things get better again in Sandakan as we spend a highly educational afternoon at the enchanting Rainforest Discovery Centre. Guess what? It’s in a forest and it RAINS. The airborne walkway is genius, affording us a canopy level vista through the incredible flora. The emerging layer has some of the tallest trees worldwide: they are truly magnificent in height and foliage. We are cheerfully sweaty in the humidity and the rains are welcome for their cooling. (If you’ve been to the Eden Project and climbed up to their biome viewing platform, you’ll have inkling of an insight, but they don’t have the cloudbursts there.)
There’s a wonderfully bouncy, swaying suspension bridge that we are highly irresponsible with and perouse the richest botanical garden I’ve ever seen. (So good, even children are fascinated.)
Hors d’oeuvres done, the main event follows: the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitationcentre. Forget any notions of discovery or exploration here. This is pure theme park meets marketing meets conservation.
Yet it manages all at once to be neatly packaged, spellbinding and good value. There are only two places in the world where Orangs’ are found: here and Sumatra. They need a well drilled and midful helping hand from conservationists before their habitat is totally wiped out by commercial interests. I’ll let the little Beers blog about the experience. Older viewers may wish to recall Animal Magic and Johnny Morris, I did.
Afterwards we ditch the rental car. (When I say “ditching” the literal thought crossed my mind, but I wanted a refund on time not used.) Because, “where we’re going, we don’t need roads” as Doc Emmett Brown once said. We’re island bound.
Another endangered species? The Green (Sea) Turtle. Again, it’ll be J&M telling the story. I’ll just let you know that we spent a night on a teeny 8hectares – less than 8 rugby pitches for the whole thing – tropical island in awe of these magnificent evolution dodging, living relics. They only return here to lay eggs and we are priviledged to be able to observe it. As parents watching our kids witness – with rapt awe – a huge, rare sea creature giving birth and being given the best possible care, is a wonderful family moment. (If you haven’t kids of your own, I shan’t waste time trying to explain.) It’s the very thing we came to ‘find’ on our travels.
Our last full day in Borneo is spent in the town of Sandakan so the kids can have a day ‘at school’. Ugly, yet loveable Sandakan is the former capital of British North East Borneo and site of some turbulent to infamously downright brutal 20th century history at the hands of the Japanese from 1942. It was then all but obliterated by allied bombing before peace broke out. It’s reward? In 1946 KK got the rosette for capital.
With companies moving out to the ‘burbs the postwar centre started to rot quite some time ago. This climate takes infrastructure to bits quickly. Here in 2012 it’s a cross section of grotty, fascinating Chinatown dwellings/shops, a crumbling huge senses-pummelling indoor market – oooh, dried fish aromas in a cloying tropical climate: nice – and brand new “waterside leisure” a la Cardiff bay/Swansea Marina. A peculiar blend. Our pad is – by local standards – a historical landmark. A 1966 purpose built, family run hotel: the Nak. (I am resisting the obvious gag here about it’s shabbiness.) Our room is big, cheap and alright by us. The rooftop Ba Lin oriental bar is a breezy haven with the only Wi-Fi spot: Beer Blogging with Beer. Ish uu grate combinashunnn.
Until power cuts stop play. Loss of WiFi I can just about cope with, but AC? As the fabric of the building soaks up the tropical sun, we become gradually more soporific. How anyone achieves anything in this heat is beyond me. As the afternoon wanes we realise that this is a serious power outage – maybe a cosmic one – and resort to packing our belongings by torchlight. Very kindly – it seemed – the hotel offer to transfer us to a residence with a backup generator. Ooh yesss, we wail. Only it’ll be way more expensive. Wh-aat? Then we’re asked to settle the bill in cash as the ‘card machine is inoperable. Only I have little cash as we’d agreed to settle by card. Power cut = no ATMs either. A customer service meltdown ensues and seconds before lapel grabbing starts… power! We retreat to our room and pray to the holy grail that is air conditioning.
Our 40 minute flight back to KK is much easier than the marathon road trip a few days back Mrs B helpfully points out. Noted dear. We even fly right past the jagged peaks of Mt Kinabalu. RIGHT past. This gives us a minor jolt of proximity but a lovely view.
Now to finish on a bitter and twisted note….
We arrive in KK AirAsia – think RyanAir without so much class – at KK Terminal 2. We’re outbound from Terminal 1 for our 2nd flight of the day to Singapore (before our 3rd to Brisbane). So, naturally, I look for the free shuttle bus. Only there isn’t one. The taxi monopoly at the airport rips us off royally for a ride around the perimter. (I consider hiking it but a) it’s a humid 30C, b) we’re fully laden and c) the perimeter is a convoluted affair. It’s 800m across the tarmac but about 5km around the roads.) The sums of money are trifiling, I know. But the taxi costs as much as lunch for 4 did at a waterfront cafe the day before. It’s precisiely the kind of event that has me mentally cross destinations off my “ooh, must come back someday” list.
I can feel a Taxi blog coming on… dear reader, tell me: have you a postive taxi story you can share before I demolish the whole bally lot of them in prose?