Sunday, October 23, 2011

A bit of Brunei, Bye to Borneo… and back to the start

Langkawi Island to the east side of Borneo Island, following the Malaysian coastline, and back.

4338 nautical miles in 163 days (excluding a month in the UK).

You can play with the numbers and find that, at an average speed of 5nm per hour (very generous!), we were on the move for 867 hours, which would be 108 days on the move, assuming about 8 hours every day. More than 3 months of days just ‘getting there’. Somewhere. The next place. Half the time of BEING there was spent on the move trying to find …. Well, the next place to stop.

And those stopping places are what it is all about. They are somewhere to find food and boat necessities, sure, and they themselves are usually not a tourist attraction, but they offer the attraction of being different from what we know and full of people and shops and vehicles and food and plants and animals that are just so interesting.


We left Sabah State (Malaysia) and sailed south into Brunei, a tiny country squeezed between Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island and about which we knew nothing, except for the certainty of oil riches, no booze … and that we wanted to buy cheap fuel here! With an easy river entrance (except if you don’t follow the local advice about the non-visible breakwater, and lose your rudders and props here: no, not us!) you anchor off the Royal Brunei Yacht Club and soon find that they have an excellent kitchen, inexpensive food and sell beer: the only place in the country where you can drink, so a place well-frequented by yachties and ex-pats working in the oil industry.

Brunei’s great oil wealth is legendary, but local Brunei people are hardly better off for it, as 85% of this income is in the hands of the Sultan and his family. One understands the need for this money when regarding the 33 palaces (and another under construction) and the royal collection of 4000 fancy cars (Porsche, Lamborghini, Mercedes, Ferrari, Rolls Royce, etc.).
However, the 300 000 citizens receive free health and education (albeit highly supportive of the status quo) and highly subsidised housing: this presumably compensates for the fact that their salaries are very low, thus preventing independence and personal wealth? They do have more cars per family than many other countries and the citizens appear content … perhaps because uprisings are met with alacrity and force, and we believe martial law is still in place since the 1960s. Interestingly, there are 3000 British Ghurkhas in Brunei: the Sultan’s private force, as he appears to not trust his own army or his own police.
The Sultan’s mosque, able to seat more than 3000, is awe-inspiring in its grandeur (notwithstanding the escalator for the Sultan’s personal use), with magnificent tiles, prayer-mats and voluminous spaces, while the Regalia Museum (a pictorial history of the Sultan’s life and collection of garments, carrying-sedans and gifts for his investiture) must be one of the few state museums in the world focussed on one man alone!

Mosques and palaces are always interesting, particularly when contrasted to stilted fishing villages in the river.
We happily got our jerry-cans filled with fuel (it is sold illegally to foreign yachties, and sometimes plans all fall through due to police road-blocks and checks on suppliers; the purchasing and procurement process can be a trifle fraught if you are unlucky…. hence the “happily” comment) and left the main anchorage for one in a small river further south. The river is stained dark with tannin, evidently the result of extensive logging upriver, and the yacht is still carrying these stains on its white gelcoat.
Yes, once-extensive tropical rain forests and jungles are mostly gone here too. Brunei’s oil stocks are due to be depleted by 2020 hence the focus on an alternative money-spinner: on our port side we were flanked by miles of palm plantations (for palm oil), while on our starboard side we watched construction work continue through the night and great activity from the ships that service the oil rigs.

Final Borneo visit

Heading south again, Brunei gave way to Sarawak state (Malaysian Borneo) and we headed for familiar Miri Marina to berth the boat as we flew to see some raw jungle and caves. It became quite clear why some areas of Borneo are only accessible by boat.
Gunung Mulu National Park is a fantastic 544 sq km wonder of nature: limestone cliffs form sharp huge pinnacles and needles 1200m above ground and the limestone base underground gives form to some of the world’s most spectacular caves…. In fact, 259 miles of them, including the world’s largest natural chamber (could accommodate 40 Boeing 747 planes) and longest underground cave passage (Planet Earth documentaries feature many of the Mulu caves’ splendours).
But the stats and accolades don’t matter - except to get visitors there, and tourism is well controlled to preserve the park’s resources, but excellently provided for. What matters is that we, who are not particularly “cave” people, enjoyed every minute (and mile…!) of our visit here.

We appreciated the size of the caves, the beauty of the cave formations and the fact that they were not permanently lit up and there was no piped background music... just the quiet sounds of millions of bats and swiftlets that take turns, day and night, in making the caves their sleeping quarters.
One of the spectacular sights in Mulu is that of millions of bats exiting the caves (black hole below) en masse at dusk …. and being swooped down upon by predator birds who await the moment.
Well, we can’t have it all: this whole area is covered by magnificent rainforest, and the awesome growth has to be supported by metres of rain annually. So, it rained that dusk and the bats stayed asleep in their warm caves, leaving us to enjoy the feel of walking back to the cottage in the dark in the close, warm rain and interpret the night sounds and sights (and watch the bat exodus on Planet Earth...)
Not having been in tropical rainforest of such density before, we loved the whole experience and the beauty of the place and the incredible way that the lives of thousands of species of plants (ferns, mosses, fungi, orchids, pitchers) are interwoven with massive wonderful trees and giant lianas and provide homes for a large variety of mammals, birds, insects, fish, frogs, reptiles…
The local ethnic community, the originally-nomadic (a few hundred are still nomadic) Penan tribe, live on the river, work for the park and produce their craft (basket-, bead-and woodwork) for both tourists and themselves: many of the Park staff favour their basket backpacks over modern canvas ones for work in the rainforest.
So we walked the paths, joined the tours, enjoyed the canopy walkway and tree-top tower, and were happy and exhausted and hungry all the time!
Just… WOW. What a great trip to have as our last experience of Borneo.

And by the way, you know where to get the best carrot cake in the world? At Gunung Mulu National Park restaurant, Borneo!

Bye to Borneo

So it turns out Borneo takes the cake for nature visits: we have wonderful memories of mountain parks, rivers and jungles, rainforests; incredible under-sea vistas and marine life, interesting birds and primates endemic to Borneo.

It is also hard to beat for fascinating history and a multitude of interesting ethnic communities, some of whom still lead “primitive” lives in areas only accessible by river; it holds awesome music festivals in its forests to celebrate and perpetuate the music of international minority communities; there are towns and cities that have stimulating old streets of shops and cafes and some that have surprisingly western and modern infrastructure too: no wonder many westerners are making Borneo their home!

The best is the warmth and welcome that the local people of all communities extend to visitors. Borneo is about an intriguing past, fascinating present, and awesome natural world: it is a must-visit, and a place that, all our land-lubber lives, we had not even contemplated visiting. But we did not get to see it all! We will have to go back…

Heading to Langkawi again: with guest / passenger / crew…?

Finally leaving Borneo, we did the Miri-Singapore trip (a somewhat exhausting passage that we blurted about in the last blog), then John joined us in Singapore; the Immigration formalities proceeded without a hitch…
And we were on our way, setting off into the shipping traffic with a third hand for the 450 mile passage up the Malacca Straits to Langkawi Island at the northern end of peninsular Malaysia (border with Thailand).
Happily most of the ships immediately in the area of our boat icon in the photo above were anchored, but nonetheless they can frighten you… Irene took Ketoro right in front of an anchored behemoth, passing right under its bows (20m clearance… very stupid, really) and the crew on the bridge decided to have fun at our expense: they ‘hooted’ at us. Four massive, deep, ponderous blasts of the horn that had the effect on us of…., well, never mind, you can probably imagine the absolute fright!

So with extra hands on overnight sails we had 8 hours off between watches (not the 4 hours that we usually have, with only two on board) and we knew that we could sleep while John negotiated the traffic… at one stage there were over 100 ships with AIS signals within 3.7nm of us.
And so trusted crew-man John negotiated his way through night watches…

It really made a difference to have more hands on board: there was no debate whether John was guest or passenger or crew, he simply mucked in and worked, extending even to a bit of needlework. (For the sake of his manliness, we must sail that was SAILwork!)

We were lucky in having very calm weather: in fact, a bit short of wind and too much diesel… yachties are never happy with the wind as it is either too weak or too strong or from the wrong direction! This was a good thing the night the mainsail fell down, as it did not damage itself or any other structures as it released its purchase 19m above the deck and collapsed into its bag… somewhat astonishing Rolf, on watch!
So this necessitated a stop at anchor off Pangkor Island: very pretty, but that day not to be enjoyed as more than 3 hours were spent in fixing the problem. Rolf, spending 2 hours at the top of the mast in blazing sun in the bosuns’ chair (not designed ergonomically: it took 3 days for the old hips to re-align themselves) while the crew played their roles on deck below, did not appreciate the beauty of the island particularly as day-tripper boats created a wake fit to unnerve and unsettle, if not unseat, one.
However, melted chocolate bars and beer helped to raise spirits again, even before the harness was removed!
We checked into Malaysia again in Penang, always a fun place to see and spent two nights at rest… well, striding the streets enjoying the Colonial, Indian, Chinese and Malay heritage of Georgetown.
It seems there is nothing better (for boatie boys) than retail therapy in hardware areas like this.
We know that you think it is nothing but calm seas and sunsets and drinks on deck, so we enjoyed our last night at anchor in this beautiful “Fjord” area… (never mind that we were up and down several times worrying about our anchorage in the strong currents as the winds wailed past us..)
… and did drinks on deck just once on this trip!
We are now back in Langkawi, from where we initially set off on our trip in Malaysian waters.

It is surreal to look back at the last 6 months and 4338nm and remember the places and faces and emotions and experiences that went into that, which currently make up a kaleidoscope in our heads. Amazing. And of course, at times awful, but that all served to heighten the senses and enabled us to make the most of the good, which was ultimately fantastic!!

Now we are off to SA, to see family and friends…. Fantastic too!