The Big OE: Borneo

“Diary Entry – 26/12/10

I am sitting in the departure lounge of Penang Airport, our flight to Kota Kinabalu has just been delayed by another hour. The last two days have been eye opening ones, spending the greater part of 2 days in Penang with Yean and her family has been incredible. I cannot however seem to wake up. I feel as though I am following, sleep touring so to speak. The next phase in KK will prove if this is due to Yean’s familiarity to Penang, or if I just need to apply myself more. Remorse for leaving New Zealand is dwindling. I think I will be away for quite some time.”

Arriving in Penang was the first time I’ve ever stepped foot in a tropical country. I instantly realised my mistake of wearing jeans, as my legs suddenly started leaking sweat. We did a two day blitz on Penang Cuisine, with Yean charging ahead with her sister and brother-in-law, and me trailing wide-eyed and madly disorientated.

I’ve always been fairly confident with my ability to navigate, whether it be around cities, suburbs, farmland, or forest. I was thus dismayed at myself that despite the clear landmarks all around, I was constantly at a loss as to where I was. This wasn’t going to be the last time I felt this, as future entries will highlight.

My initial impressions of the first SE Asian country for me to have landed in were… sketchy. The Airport was mayhem, the fact half of it was taken up in construction work didn’t help either. The streets seemed littered with stray dogs, families on scooters, and road side stalls, selling what appeared to be sun roasted food.  The heat was stifling, and the air conditioned car was freezing.  To add to this, I was severely lacking in sleep: I had planned to spend most of the 10 hours we were in the air sleeping, but I hadn’t factored in the general excitement I always experience when flying.

It was with weary gratitude that we reached our accommodation, and I crashed out while Yean went out for family photos. That night we headed out to Gurney Drive, for some local Penang cuisine. I’ve always been a reasonably conservative eater (in selection, not quantity), however upon arriving at the Gurney Drive hawker markets, I realized how much learning I had in store for me over the coming months. Fortunately, Yean and her sister must have seen my wide eyed expression, and went soft. They introduced me to the Ramly Burger, a Malaysian icon, involving a rich beef patty, skillfully split and seasoned with pepper and what appeared to be Worcestershire Sauce. It was then wrapped in a thinly spread fried egg, all prepared straight on the hot plate.

We returned to our accommodation in the early hours, with full bellies and tired feet, and my head still reeling with the sights and sounds of a foreign city at night. I still felt, through all this, that I was trailing behind, not really registering where I was or what we were doing, as if in a daydream.

Thus by the time it came to get back to the airport for our flight to Kota Kinabalu (in Eastern Malaysia) I was hoping that a fresh city would kick start my tourist mode, to get active, to WAKE UP.

Penang from the Air

Penang Airport Sign

Ramly Burger being prepared

Sunrise over Penang

“Diary Entry – 29/12/10

It has been four days in the tropics. Yesterday I had my first encounter with stomach upset while being abroad. It was one of the most miserable days in my living memory. In hindsight, it wasn’t too severe, however it was bad enough to make me question what I am doing here.

I believe the upset was caused by a heavy meal of seafood, consisting of an unknown fish, prawns, crab, and a most unusual shelled crab, with a spiral shell and a single claw. When the demonstration of how to eat it involved the instructions ‘Cut off the s*!t and eat the rest’, I decided a tributary taste would be all that was required. I will have to watch my seafood intake, especially of shellfish. It is starting to dawn on me that I may be intolerant of them, as I recall a similar upset feeling after eating mussels in Auckland at regular Mussel Mania nights.”

We were in KK for almost a week, in order to attend a friend’s wedding. As it was only my second SE Asian city, things were still very novel on the most part. Even the little things, like crowding onto a rusting, creaking bus next to the Beach house Backpackers where we were staying were miniature cultural jumps that I delighted in taking. It was here that the general uselessness of carrying a large DSLR whilst traveling in general dawned on me – as soon as you raise it to your eye, everyone suddenly changes. A wave of seriousness comes over anyone within the lens, and the conversation dies as people realise they are about to probably end up on a magazine cover somewhere, as why else would someone care to lug around such a serious looking camera? I made a resolution there that when I was next into surplus cash, I would invest in a good quality point and shoot, so that candid photos could be made discretely.

After our friend’s wedding, we hired a motorbike, from GoGo Sabah. My first ever motorcycle I brought in New Zealand was a KLX 250. It became a special friend, one that I shared many good memories with, and it left such a positive impression on me that when I saw that they had KLX150’s available for rent, it was a done deal. What I didn’t realise at the time was that the KLX 150 is pretty much exactly the same proportions as a 250, except scaled down a whole heap. So, it was with a fair amount of surprise and much laughing that we picked up the bike and saw the miniscule size. Jumping from a Ducati to what is technically a child’s pit bike is amusing at least!

“Diary Entry – 1/1/11

I am sitting in a treehut, in Usukan Cove, just north of Kota Kinabalu. The sun is about to set, and the rain is coming in across the bay. We have had a good stay at Usukan, not one that I would highly recommend (especially for anyone who has spent much time diving and swimming in New Zealand), but it has been good. On the whole, Eastern Malaysia has been amazing for me. My confidence with the culture and ways has dramatically risen, and I feel a lot more independant than when in Penang. My run in with stomach upset on the 28th has left a dent in my adventurous eating, however it seems to have strengthened my resolve to see this through.

We have hired a small KLX 150 for the next week, as we do a short tour of the north western area of borneo, prior to heading to Sandakan for Uncle Tan’s. I am hoping for a few really good days on the road to stretch my legs again. My optimisim for the next few days on the road is high, but it does not compete with my optimism and excitement for the job prospecting in Singapore.”

We spent the next week touring around Borneo, traveling up north initially to join the crowd from the wedding for New Years celebrations at Usukan Cove. About an hour or two’s drive from Kota Kinabalu, Usukan Cove is a reasonably large bay, with a few islands outside of it to create a very calm interior. Our first dive lasted about 2 minutes until a jellyfish saw fit to give me a couple of stings on the arm. While it was nothing serious, it did have an immediate impact on how we saw Usukan Cove for the rest of the stay. On the 2nd of January, we headed out again, heading north for the Tip of Borneo, which seemed like a good landmark to aim for. On the way, we spent a night at a traditional Long House. While the hospitality was warm, the facilities beautifully spartan, and the food delicious, I couldn’t help but feel sad, as the only people there maintaining the house were elderly folk, clearly passionate about their culture, but with all the youth migrating to the city centers in search of a modern, hip life, there was no chance they could pass it on. That night we were treated with a traditional dance, and a recital from a nose flutist.

Early the next morning (around 4.30am), we were on the road again, determined to get to the Tip of Borneo for Sunrise. It was an experience I’ll never forget, zooming (as much as you can on a 150cc motorcycle) along the ‘highway’, dodging large potholes that would appear out of the darkness, bracing as we’d hit the unavoidable ones. Occasionally we’d hit gravel, sometimes clay. It was around then that I thanked my excitement of the dirt capable KLX, preferring to take that through sheer affection of the brand than the larger, sporty ER650 that was available. While sunrise was ok, my main memories of that excursion are of going through villages in the dim light just before sunrise, startling dogs sleeping on the road, seeing ramshackle huts in the palm grooves, and then bursting out onto a beach, surf pounding, and thinking I’d somehow managed to end up at Muriwai, New Zealand.

From the tip, we turned around and traveled south again, taking a bit of an ‘accidental’ detour that involved a decent stretch of clay roads, much to my delight, and much to Yean’s horror. Passing through the back country of Sabah, we finally found the highway pass over the central highlands, crossing the saddle just next to the highest mountain in South East Asia, Mt Kinabalu. Of course, while riding around the low lands, where the temperatures were hovering around 30 degrees constantly, we were in jeans (for safety) and t shirts. It did not occur to us while we were making the somewhat slow ascent (150cc of power doesn’t take to pulling two people and luggage up a long climb terribly well) the temperature was steadily dropping. It wasn’t until we reached the other side, in a sizable town called Ranau, that we realised that our bodies hadn’t taken the temperature change too well. We both fell sick that afternoon, calling for a impromptu stop for two days.

“Diary Entry – 3/1/11

We have been on the road for 3 days. I am lying in bed at Gold View Inn, in the town of Ranau, near the center of Sabah. It was a long ride today, totaling about 190kms, not long compared to my NZ rides, but with a small bike, and the ‘relaxed’ driving style of the local population, it has taken it’s toll on us both.

Last night’s performance at the longhouse is still processing in my mind, mainly how sad it seems that tese old timers are still the only custodians of the old traditions and culture of the indigenous Borneo population. I compare it to NZ, where the Maori traditions and culture are revered and observed by all, and the Maori youth are by and large eager to learn it and pass it on. Perhaps the disaster that is associated with the treaty of Waitangi isn’t such a disaster after all, if it has helped facilitate such a supportive mood across the population, both indigenous and more recent immigrants.

Tomorrow is a rest day, while we recover from our saddle sores and wait for the weather to improve. While I can’t wait to get back to the convenience of Penang, I am warming to the relaxed atmosphere of Sabah.”

While we were recovering, we took the opportunity to do a couple of side trips, including morning tea at the Sabah Tea Garden, a Fish Massage in a river, and a rather disappointing outing to the nearby hot pools. In retrospect – I’d highly recommend the Fish Massage. Not the hot pools. Again, anyone who has spent time in New Zealand has been spoiled in regards to geothermal swimming.

After our two days of recovering, we took the long route back to Kota Kinabalu, circling around a ridge line to the south east, and encountering a most impressive decent from the ridge line to the city. With a new found respect for a small capacity motorcycle, we returned the bike, and returned to the backpackers for a stretch and a sleep, to recover in time for an 8 hour bus ride to Sandakan the next day.

“Diary Entry – 7/1/11

I am lying in a hammock at Uncle Tan’s Camp, near the Kinabatangan river. The last couple of days have been remarkable, with a bus trip across Sabah, a routine police stop, and a frustrating episode at Uncle Tan’s HQ, where they turned out had no Credit Card facility, requiring a taxi ride to the closest ATM. We have been for two river cruises, and a hike so far at Uncle Tan’s. This morning’s cruise was especially notable as it involved the rescue of an owl that had become hooked on a line, dangling from a tree. The most precious and lingering memory of the event was while we were finding the other boat, which had a vet on board, I was holding the bird and petting it. Instead of snapping and clawing at me, which is what I was expecting, it just lay there and looked at me with large, yellow, and strangely  intelligent eyes.

The monkeys are clambering through the treetops, yelling at the tops of their lungs at each other. I’m in a Borneo Rainforest, and my outlook on life is currently extremely high.”

We spent 3 days on the Kinabatangan river at Uncle Tan’s wildlife camp, located in a large pocket of Borneo rainforest. Coming from New Zealand, I’ve spent a fair bit of time immersed in the wild. I wasn’t, however, prepared for the sheer amount of wildlife that we encountered. We went on morning and evening cruises along the river, and daily walks through the jungle. Everywhere we went, we’d come across such an abundance of animals that by the end of the trip, the only way I recalled an animal we’d encountered was by the prompting of the photos on my camera.

Kingabatangen River

Trapped Owl

Owl Rescue

River after the rain

Fruit Bat

Uncle Tan Staff


The staff of Uncle Tan’s were extremely energetic and knowledgeable. My hat goes off to them for making the most of a difficult job, both in the environment they work and live in, and the fussy clientele that I can imagine would come through the basic camp. Fortunately, the group of people that were there for our stay had no Stella actors, and within a day everyone was chatting and hanging out like old friends. A few of us afterwards went on to the city of Sandakan, on the far eastern coast of Sabah. Here we went to the Orangutan Sanctuary, an amazing preservation reserve to save the extremely endangered Borneo Orangutan from certain extinction through habitat lost. A very special experience indeed.



“Diary Entry 10/1/11

I am sitting in a leather arm chair in Yean’s family apartment in Penang, waiting to head out to dinner. Tomorrow we depart for Singapore. At long last, we will see what we are up against in terms of finding work in a foreign country.”


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