To Sutera Harbour, Christmas and 2018

Our first stop after leaving the Klias River was the island of Tiga. We planned to spend two or three nights here, having heard that it’s great for snorkelling and kayaking. Tiga was the setting for the first of the ‘castaway’ desert island reality TV programmes. ‘Survivor’ aired in Britain in 2001 and I remember watching it avidly. We had also been told about the rejuvenating properties of the island’s natural volcanic mud bath. I had no intention of sitting in a pit of mud, however – no matter how anti-ageing it might be. I was looking forward to the prospect of seeing more monkeys and the snakes that are purported to be found there. We began our journey at 7am on Monday December 18th. It was a murky, drizzly morning with a fairly strong wind as opposed to a gentle breeze. Knowing that it was likely to get rocky on the 5 or 6 hour passage, I stowed things away and made coffee while it was relatively calm. We had the mainsail and headsail up for a little while. With Paul still having no luck bagging a fish, I kept watch for a couple of hours so that he could doze and perhaps dream of catching one 😉 . By lunchtime, the sea had got rougher, visibility was poor and it stayed that way until we reached Tiga at half past two. Paul wasn’t sure if we’d be able to anchor in such choppy conditions but it was better nearer to the island and we dropped anchor hoping we wouldn’t be in for a rocky night. Looking across at Tiga in the drizzly rain, my spirits sank a little at the thought of three nights anchored here with coffee running low, poor internet and inclement weather. I had presents to order and check up on via Amazon and was getting a bit anxious about the dates. I busied myself with preparing some bread dough while the boat was rocking and began to feel slightly nauseous and not a little sorry for myself. You can imagine my elation when I heard Paul phoning the resort in Kota Kinabalu to see if it would be possible to arrive a couple of days earlier than we had booked for. They said it would be no problem to arrive the following day. Typically, conditions improved after that and the sun came out.

Tiga Island in the rain
Tiga Island

The rough weather returned by nightfall, and the forecast for the next few days gave cloudy conditions with more rain to come. Our visit to Tiga would have to wait: at 9 30 on Tuesday morning we set sail for Kota Kinabalu. With 10 knots of wind we made good speed (average 5 knots) with no engine. The swell was quite strong by midday and we had all the sails out. I was alarmed to hear Paul calling me at one point but I couldn’t see him anywhere…until I looked up and spotted him halfway up the mast sorting out a halyard while the boat was swaying from side to side! KK began to emerge in the distance and as the resort grew closer I could see we would be entering an opulent, upmarket place. We had the luxury of three marina staff to guide us into our berth.

Entering Sutera Harbour
From our berth

The marina clubhouse and restaurant (and a bird of paradise)

The day got better when we checked in at the office and I discovered that two parcels of Christmas presents had arrived for me; one from England and one from Italy. First impressions of our new ‘home’ were favourable. Everyone we met was friendly, the clubhouse seemed spotlessly clean and tastefully furnished, adorned with festive decorations, twinkling lights and an enormous Christmas tree in the lobby.

What’s more there was a nice-looking bar in the clubhouse opposite the marina. We had a light meal there in the evening, with a view of the boats and the ocean beyond. We didn’t have long for relaxing however. We needed provisions, so took a walk to the nearest mall. It was too dark by then to take in much of the area. Sutera Resort is a large, sprawling complex with two large hotels as well as the marina and country club. We passed the golf club on the way and got a sense of how vast the resort is. The fifteen minute walk to the mall was along a shared pedestrian/cycle path with a river on one side and the wide main road on the other. The mall was fairly new and festooned with Christmas lights and trees both inside and out. It was predictably busy with Christmas shoppers but we only needed a few basic things from the supermarket so didn’t linger long.

To the mall
We’ve seen monitor lizards and rats as well as herons

Another place, another checking in process to be undertaken. The buildings we needed to visit were too far away to cycle to so we called a Grab taxi to take us on the 20 mile journey to the harbour master. During the ride we became more aware of just how big KK is. Sabah’s capital is a popular destination due to its proximity to beautiful islands and rainforests as well as the challenge of climbing Mount Kinabalu. According to Wikitravel its recent growth is due to its being a major transportation and manufacturing hub and a growing port, the increase in package tourism and it’s a major gateway into Sabah and East Malaysia. Little wonder then that land has had to be reclaimed from the sea, and adjacent districts have been urbanised to accommodate such growth.  Apparently most of the town was destroyed by bombing during World War 2, so it wasn’t surprising that many of the buildings are modern and that the construction of plush resorts, malls and hotels is ongoing.

When we arrived at the out of the way harbour master’s location we thought we may as well ask the driver to wait so that he could then take us back into town to immigration. Considering there was no one else being processed, it all took a lot longer than I expected and I kept popping out to assure the driver that we wouldn’t be much longer. He didn’t seem to mind because he’d made a friend of the security guy in the meantime, who was helpfully giving him directions to the immigration building. Unfortunately there was a difference of opinion regarding its location when Paul came out and there followed much discussion about routes, a lot of poring over maps, and GPS addresses, none of which was helped by the language barrier.

Outside the Harbour Master’s Office

We had an extended drive around the city centre with several wrong turnings – the driver insisting his way was correct and Paul saying it wasn’t. We finally got him to agree to drop us where Paul wanted and gave him extra for the time it all took. Of the three of us, I’m not sure who was more relieved the journey was over! Need I say that Paul was right! We were dealt with quickly and were then free to have a walk along the waterfront. The boardwalk is lined with cafes and food stalls and is a vibrant, busy promenade. Several fishing boats were anchored in the water, along with a couple of cruising yachts. We intended getting a shuttle bus back to the resort but there was a bit of a wait until it was due and it was very hot so we sat in one of the cafes to have a drink. Despite an extensive drinks menu, which included ‘mocktails’ and a variety of fresh fruit juices, everything we asked for was met with the response ‘no have any’ until in the end we settled for two cokes (they didn’t have diet cokes).

Our first cycle ride was hair-raising (for me anyway). There is a lot more traffic than in Miri or Labuan, and due to all the building going on some lanes were closed off, thus funnelling traffic into one narrow one. I kept as close to Paul as I could and hoped the speeding cars would avoid us. We left the main road to take a closer look at the waterfront on the way to the market. Here, we had to push our bikes along the boardwalk because it was so crowded. We were stared at and greeted a lot by adults and children alike, and I’ve come to think that it’s not so much the bikes that attract attention, it’s simply that they like seeing foreigners in the area. What’s nice is that so many shout out ‘welcome to Borneo/Sabah/KK’, while the children are keen to practise their English phrases.  The market was a lively and – it has to be said – smelly place. The smell of Durian, barbecued meat from the food vendors, and ripe pineapples and coconuts mingle with the overpowering odour of tiny dried silvery fish. Outdoor markets, supermarkets and convenience stores all display them in large uncovered tubs. I think they are used as a base for stock for flavouring all kinds of dishes and it’s a smell I’ve come to abhor. I actually prefer the smell in the fresh fish market and that is strong enough! KK’s central market is huge, and it’s impossible not to be fascinated by the range of stuff on offer. The stall owners on the road side of the market were very keen for Paul to buy some ‘genuine’ Rayban sunglasses, cartons of cigarettes or leather belts. That these belts were the real deal was proved to him by the action of lighting it with a cigarette lighter to show that it doesn’t catch fire!

Central Market, KK

On into the hub of KK again and we now had more time to browse the malls, which wasn’t as boring as it sounds because the Christmas displays and decorations were really worth seeing. Virtually every shop was ‘trimmed up’ to some degree, and some of the staff were sporting Christmas hats and flashing badges. It all combined to inspire us to buy a little blue tree for the boat.

KK Centre
On the waterfront (trees made out of beer bottles)

The next few days were spent getting ready for Christmas. Our Christmas dinner would be a more toned down affair than the usual huge feast at home because we had booked a table at the marina club’s Christmas Eve buffet dinner. Old habits die hard, however and I couldn’t resist buying a few traditional festive foods and even made some mince pies using readymade puff pastry and the most expensive jar of mincemeat I’ve ever bought.

The buffet was worth the money. The food was well-presented and delicious, and there was plenty of it! We could eat as much as we liked and with so much to try, even for vegans 🙂  We made the most of it. Both of us went up for more…several times. Carol singers appeared and lined the staircase to perform a range of seasonal songs while we ate. The evening was topped with the wonderful spectacle of a waving Santa and his dancing elves arriving on a boat cruising down the centre of the marina, to the accompaniment of Bruce Springsteen singing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. The children loved it, naturally and were treated to a goodie bag and a personal chat with Santa. The little festive gang then went round all the tables to pose for a picture with the diners. How could we refuse Santa!

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Carol singers on the stairs

The dessert display

Just some of the food on offer
Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve before the feast

 

Christmas Day

I did two things I’ve never done before on Christmas Day. The first was to go for a morning swim in one of the open air pools, and the second was to go for an evening bike ride. I have to confess it felt nothing like Christmas during any part of the day (apart from opening our presents in the morning) but that was fine.  The waterfront, where we ended up on the bikes just as the sun was setting, was cool after the humidity of the day. The town was busy and most of the shops and cafes were open but there was less traffic and we cycled around to work up an appetite before returning to the marina. We had nut roast (Paul also had some ham) with most of the trimmings apart from parsnips, sprouts and stuffing. I had remembered to bring gravy with me because that’s tricky to find here, too. I’ve since seen parsnips and sprouts on sale but not stuffing. Most of the supermarkets had turkeys in the freezer departments, but there were no Christmas puddings either, even in the imported goods sections. We finished the day in the marina bar where I’d hoped to get a gin and tonic as it was Christmas. Alas, the request was met with a ‘no have any’, but the wine was nice.

Nice for a Christmas day swim!
The promenade, KK
Christmas evening on the waterfront

Boxing Day was spent having a good long walk around the resort’s hotels and facilities (pics below). The idea behind this was to check out the spa in the Magellan Hotel. My Christmas present from Paul was a massage of my choice and we set off to see what they had to offer, looking at the cafes, pools and shops on the way. All the treatments on the spa’s menu were tempting but I chose the one that combined the best of all of them and booked it for the next day. Needless to say it was wonderful. It lasted an hour and 20 minutes and I would happily have one every day if I could.

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The days in Sutera Harbour post-Christmas have been wonderfully relaxing. We’ve done pretty much exactly what we want in beautiful surroundings and have met some nice people. Our neighbours, John and Kay invited us to join them and their friends for New Year’s Eve for some food and drinks on their boat and we all went to the end of the pontoon to watch the firework display from the beach bar party at midnight. As I type this, it’s almost time for me to return to the UK for six weeks to catch up with friends and family. When I return at the end of February, we will be preparing for the passage to The Philippines and then journeying on to Japan for the rally there. The Pacific crossing to North America follows that and it will be Christmas 2018 before we go home again. The pictures below show some of the places and things we’ve enjoyed in the weeks after Christmas.

Pacific Sutera Hotel

Images from Tanjung Aru Beach below

At the resort beach bar

Lovely Indian meal on the waterfront
Huge range of vegetarian products to choose from, KK

Sabah Museum

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Tribal dancing in Imogi Mall
Cultural performance in a foodcourt
Busy Chinese food court

 

 

 

 

Brunei Revisited, and Messing About on the River

Our bikes were stowed, all other departure prep was complete, and I steered us out of Labuan Marina early on a rainy mid-December morning. We were on our way to Brunei again. Muara, means ‘estuary’ in Malay and is located in Brunei’s northernmost district.  This visit would enable us to get another 3 month Malaysian visa once we had checked in and out. After anchoring opposite the ferry terminal, our first task was to gather up all the relevant papers and documents ready for presenting to the authorities. It was just after midday by then and in a lull from the rain, it was inevitably hot and humid. The place was eerily quiet and I hadn’t seen anyone moving around on the nondescript coastline during our approach. I had read more about Brunei’s customs and culture during the journey as there was a possibility we might stay long enough to explore the town. Reading from another very out of date travel guide (Lonely Planet Guide, 2001), acquired from the ‘book swap’ facility in Labuan Marina I learned that:

  • it is not customary to shake hands with people of the opposite sex (the action requires you to lightly touch the other hand and then bring your hands closely to your chest)
  • casual touching in public is frowned upon
  • pointing must be done with the thumb, not the forefinger
  • special officers prowl the streets after dark looking for unmarried couples standing or sitting too close to each other
  • and, of course there is a requirement to dress respectably.

The risk of committing one or more of those social faux pas made me slightly nervous, although the concluding sentence provided some reassurance: ‘Bruneians are generally reserved in public and are polite and hospitable, and not all are as zealous as the government’.  I’m not sure if all of that still applies, but it’s still a fact that Brunei’s citizens enjoy enviable patronage. There are pensions for all, free medical care, free schooling, free sport and leisure centres, cheap loans, subsidies for costly purchases, short working weeks, no taxes and a high minimum wage. The sale of alcohol is still banned, however.

Sister Midnight at anchor just behind the jetty, Brunei

Suitably attired, we got in the dinghy and set off towards officialdom. We tied up at the bottom of a flight of steps, watched by a couple of uniformed guys on the jetty above. We entered a cool, quiet and seemingly empty building, with a sign welcoming visitors to Brunei, along with one displaying the penalties for drug smuggling – death being one of them. There was a man sitting in a tiny office behind a glassed-off partition and Paul had to bend down in order to talk to him.

He told us that we would need to get cleared by the Health Officer first. No one was in that office when we knocked on the door, so we walked on and found the immigration office. The smell of food hit us when the door was opened in response to our knock and we could see a group of women sitting around a table tucking into what looked like a substantial feast. We were told that we would have to wait for the Health Officer to return before we could do anything else, and helpfully suggested we could fill in our immigration forms to pass the time. This filled ten minutes of the ensuing two-hour wait in the building, during which I read several chapters of my book, befriended the cat that was wandering around, went outside to see if anything was happening out there, then back inside to see if anyone had turned up, and played several moves on ‘words with friends’.

He was keen to welcome us 🙂

The place only sprang to life when the ferry was due and we realised we should have timed our arrival with that. The Health Officer appeared and dealt with us promptly (although she seemed to think we should have brought our own carbon paper to get duplicates of the paperwork – how remiss of us). At customs, we were asked by a rather dour man if we had alcohol on board and Paul told him we had two litres of wine. This caused a flash of irritation followed by a stern command to fill in a form to declare it. My heart was in my mouth at the thought that he might come over to inspect us! I was glad to exit that building, and once back on the boat we weighed anchor and motored on under the bridge – currently still under construction – with me steering I’m proud to declare.  We anchored opposite the Yacht Club, which we’d been told served good food but neither of us felt inclined to go ashore. My impression of Brunei had got off to a less than positive start, and the town itself didn’t look very appealing. It didn’t take us long to come to a decision to check out the following day and head towards the Klias River.

Another bridge that looks to low forus to fit underneath

It rained all through the night and was still pelting down at 8am when we made ready to return to the ferry terminal for more paper pushing. It had all but stopped by the time we anchored in the same spot as the previous day. The checking out process was the usual chaotic confusion involving conflicting instructions, being passed from one place to another, being told that we should have done this or that first and confused looks from staff examining the stamped paperwork we had obtained the previous day. At one point we sat on some seats in a huge empty room while waiting for the immigration lady to appear, and a lady washing the spotlessly clean floor asked if we’d mind moving somewhere else because she needed access to the part we were occupying!  The Harbour Master, behind the Perspex in the tiny office proved to be the most helpful, advising Paul what to do and say, and he smiled a lot too. Finally, once we were cleared and back on Sister Midnight, Paul called Port Control to inform them we were leaving and was reprimanded for being anchored in the way of the ferry’s route. It was definitely time to go. I took us out of the bay and into a sea heavy with swell. Rocking from side to side, it was tricky to keep the course. The autohelm did a grand job of staying on the track, though and took us most of the way to Klias. The water got shallower as we neared the entrance around 4 o’clock. We anchored in 6 metres of water, with a long, stilted coastal village on one side of us and mangroves on the other.

Stilted Village

The cruising notes Paul used to get us here stated that we would quite likely get bitten by mosquitoes, and that we should expect nightly visits from flying ants. We lit an anti-mosquito coil in the cockpit to deter them. These round devices give off a pungent, incense-like smell and they seem to work well, although the ants weren’t too bothered by it. As it grew dark we could hear the mullah from the stilted village preaching earnestly over the mosque’s loudspeakers but apart from him it was blissfully quiet: a state I would come to appreciate more and more during our days on the beautiful Klias River.

Entering the river

The River Klias

Gentle rocking ensured a restful night’s sleep and since we were in no great hurry to leave, we had a leisurely morning making the most of the internet in case reception was poor further on upriver. It wasn’t until 11 that I steered us around the island so that we were pointing in the right direction for the river trip. Initially, the water was alarmingly (for me) shallow but thankfully it didn’t go below 2.9 metres. The water was very still and brown in colour and I saw a few fish jumping (none of them were tempted by the lures Paul put out). It was humid on this overcast afternoon – hot when the sun broke through the clouds beaming straight into the cockpit at 2pm, forcing us to put cream on our feet and legs. We meandered along the bends of the river through largely unchanging scenery, while I kept my eyes peeled for proboscis monkeys.

Klias National Park is one of only 16 protected areas in Borneo where this endangered species can be seen. Logging, palm oil plantations and hunting pose ongoing threats to their survival but in Malaysia they are protected by a number of conservation laws. The river became gradually narrower and the vegetation on the right hand side of its banks grew taller and thicker. The chirrup of cicadas and bird calls could be heard above the noise of the engine, which was on low revs for our slow journey so as not to disturb the monkeys. Several eagles soared above the treetops and it was while watching them that I caught movement in the trees to my right and was thrilled to spot two monkeys in the branches of a tree on the river’s edge. Their gingery brown colour and distinctive large nose confirmed they were proboscis. Notoriously shy, they weren’t in view for long unfortunately but we hardly took our eyes away from the banks after that. Later, we saw a tree full of them but they were further back and moved far too quickly to capture on film.

Monkeys hiding in the trees 😉

The further on we went, the murky water became more still and as afternoon began to turn into evening, it looked and felt terrifically atmospheric and tranquil to be in the heart of such natural surroundings. I couldn’t help but contrast it with the scenes likely to be taking place in Liverpool One in the frenetic build up to Christmas. We crossed paths with a couple of Klias River Tour boats – passengers and crew waving enthusiastically at the sight of at us. It wasn’t long before we reached the place they had clearly come from: a viewing platform with information boards on proboscis monkeys and other wildlife to look out for.  A long, wooden platform had been constructed for people to stand quietly and attempt to spot them in their habitat. We began to see macaque monkeys as dusk fell. These are the more extrovert type and we’ve seen many on our travels. Unlike their more wary cousins, they appear to take pleasure in being seen, and will often approach people if they think they have food on them.

Rain clouds gathering above the viewing platform, Klias River
The light green floating islands of foliage on the river

Darkness was fast approaching, rain was beginning to fall and we hadn’t chosen a place to anchor by 5pm. Paul was all for turning back to the viewing platform area but I was worried it would be too dark by the time we reached it. We ploughed on a little further in the fine drizzly rain until we found a suitable spot and dropped anchor in 12 metres of water that was so still there was no need for reversing to dig it in the river bed. Paul took a line ashore in the dinghy, tying it to the trunk of a tree for extra security.

With the engine off and the water so still, the noises of the jungle were clearer than ever. Unfortunately, so was the sound of the traffic from the nearby dual carriageway from the village of Klias. It was hard to tell we were near a village apart from that because we were surrounded by thick mangrove forest. The only other clues were the ‘sunset view’ restaurants and boat jetties set up for the river tours, and these had all closed for the night. Mosquitoes would be rife here, and Paul reminded me that this environment might pose more of a risk of dengue fever… I went below and sought out more insect repellent. After dinner, Paul went above to check on our position and returned with the words ‘we seem to have backed into a tree!’ Branches were indeed touching the stern, poking eerily into the dimly-lit cockpit. Another line needed to be attached, among other tasks to sort it all out, so it was back into the dinghy with a torch for Paul, while I kept a lookout for crocs 😉 Back on board we enjoyed the night-time spectacle of the fireflies, which were like a multitude of little floating stars in the darkness.

I woke up once during the night, alarmed by a noise that was like someone banging on the side of the bow. It turned out to be the anchor, which had accrued a fair bit of the river’s floating debris and was being bashed against the side as the current pulled on it. I didn’t know until later that Paul had got up all through the night to attend to the lines on the river bank, experiencing some challenging moments at times – as described in his blog entry.  The pic below shows him making ready to hack away at the debris around our anchor chain in the morning.

Both of us were up early enough to fully appreciate the beauty of the jungle at sunrise. For a couple of hours we sat drinking coffee and watched and listened as nature came to life around us. The monkeys were still too far away to see properly but we could see them jumping from branch to branch, while the birds communicated to each other in a stereo-like fashion. Now and again a fish jumped in the water. It was wonderful: I felt as far removed from the chaos of Christmas as it was possible to be.

Sunrise on The River Klias

Preparing to leave in the early morning

We were ready to leave at 8. Paul undid all the lines, cleared more leaves from them and I stood at the helm, ready to prevent us drifting backwards into the trees. All I needed to do in the event, however was to execute the three-point-turn we’d been practising to manoeuvre us back in the right direction. Soon we were slowly edging our way back down river, watched by a few curious long-tailed macaques. By 9 it was hot, and we hardly needed any power to move along. We let the current take us slowly, with the gear in neutral, ever on the lookout for photo opportunities.

One of the ‘dinner at sunset’ restaurants near our anchorage just after sunrise
Klias River Tour boat getting ready for the day
Heading downriver

The beautiful and peaceful Klias

At the observation point we dropped the anchor to have a late breakfast, and to take a closer look at the viewing platform. It was reassuring to read the information boards (pictured below). We didn’t see any of the creatures listed but it was great to stand there in the silence and take some pictures.

Our next anchorage was in a much wider part of the river. As we were now further away from the tourist area, there were fewer boats and it was even more peaceful. The flying ants we’d been warned about came in droves at dusk. They were everywhere! Tiny and harmless, but disconcerting nonetheless to see so many flying, jumping and crawling around us.

Saturday December 16th

Paul got up early to have a morning row in the kayak and when I got up to have a look I could see why he’d felt drawn to do so. It was glorious! Cool, sunny, a clear blue sky, calm water and the only sounds, the jungle chorus emanating from the riverbank’s trees and mangroves – just waiting to be explored.  I stood in the cockpit for a while watching Paul drift in the current on the edge of the mangroves. No wildlife spotted but a real balm to the senses.

He enthused about the detail in the roots and branches of the mangroves and it was good practice in the kayak (something I’ve yet to attempt). We cruised on down the river, stopping at one point to let the current carry us in silence. Monkeys were definitely further back in the forest and we hoped they might venture out if it was quiet. They weren’t to be fooled, however. They simply climbed higher up into the leafy branches of the trees, visible intermittently in the gaps or when they jumped from one tree to another. At 1pm we anchored for the final stop before heading back to the river’s mouth. Paul went for another kayak to check the area and when he returned we both went out in the dinghy so that I could see the mangroves up close. They were well worth seeing. The pics below show better than I can describe what we saw when we took the dinghy along a tributary. The tranquillity and ambience you’ll have to take my word for.

Lots of large, buzzing insects were around and were keen to explore the boat. It was hard to tell if they might sting but I dodged out of their way just in case. It led us to carry out a task that had been on the list for a while: to fix the wire mesh in the windows and hatches. They are virtually insect-proof now.

It looked like it had the ability to sting!

Our final night on the river was a rainy one but caused a welcome cooler temperature. Our soft drink supply was running low due to the amount of cold cans we got through in the heat of the day. We were up by 7 30 and on our way an hour later. I effected another three-point-turn out of the tight spot while the rain pelted down.  The wet weather continued for the whole passage to the mouth of the river where we anchored just out of the swell. The wind picked up, and combined with the rain it made us feel cold at times – which is a novelty here. We would be heading to Tiga the next day, an island recommended to us by John and Carol in Miri. After that, it would be time for our Christmas in the Tropics in Kota Kinabalu. I had loved the sojourn on the Klias River and even though it was a shame I didn’t manage to get clear picture of the proboscis monkeys I’m glad I saw them, albeit from a distance. Here is what they look like, courtesy of the internet library.

 

 

December in the Rain. From Miri to Brunei to Labuan

After almost two months in the marina at Miri, it was time to move on.  We made some good friends there and it’s highly likely we’ll meet up with several of them again. Like us, most of the people we’ve met are long-term travellers so our paths will hopefully cross at some future anchorage or marina. We had heard conflicting views about Labuan from our Miri neighbours. We could expect the marina to be a bit run down said some, while according to others the town doesn’t have much to offer.  One couple had nothing but praise for its good cycling routes, nice fish restaurants and great shopping (they did admit the marina was a bit run down though). I was just eager to get back on the water, with the prospect of new surroundings to look forward to, even if they were likely to be less than salubrious. I felt that we had ‘done’ Miri. Time for a change.

The day before leaving, we checked out of Malaysia via the usual sequence of immigration, customs and harbour master (not ever necessarily or consistently in that order) which thankfully went smoothly and promptly. With just a few more fresh provisions to get and some stowing to do, we were all set for an early departure on the first day of December. I was a bit nervous that everyone would be on the pontoon to wave us off; a situation always guaranteed to make me get flustered and make mistakes. As it turned out, just Ian and Marilyn from the catamaran next door were there to let our lines go because we had said our goodbyes to people the previous evening. We motored out into the bay at 9am with no hassle and were soon experiencing the familiar side-to-side rocking from the swell as we progressed further out.

Leaving Miri

My sea legs always tend to desert me after a long period on land and I began to feel slightly nauseous when I went below.  It was humid in the cockpit, however so I just sat still up there and zoned in to my latest book-related delight (Audible) while the autohelm took on steering duties.  There were oil rigs and a few industrial boats, but not a lot else to look out for as Miri faded into the distance and the coast of Brunei grew closer. As we neared the river entrance the swell lessened and I began to feel better. The water was murky brown, and even though the depth was as low as 3 metres at times, it wasn’t possible to see the bottom.  We ended up anchoring in 2.5 metres off the coast of Brunei in a place called Belait. Maybe because the word Brunei always makes me think ‘money’, I had the impression that the buildings lining the shore looked opulent, such as you’d see on wealthy parts of coastal Europe. It was a very peaceful spot until the speedboats arrived! These were what Paul described as rich boys’ toys. For most of the late afternoon they raced past and around us at lightning speeds, probably using our boat as a marker, and the noise was like being at a Grand Prix. I knew they wouldn’t be continuing in the dark, though so it wasn’t as irritating as it could have been.

Leaving the anchorage at Belait

Jerudong was to be our next stop. We planned the route after dinner and discovered it would be an 8 or 9 hour passage. The chart had alarming warnings at various points on the route, such as ‘firing practice area’, ‘reefs’, ‘submerged rocks and pipelines’ but Paul just skirted around them with the cursor and said all would be fine. Anyway we would need to start early so we were on our way before 7am. It was a gorgeous morning, with a lovely cool breeze, and the sun had not long risen as we left the river in 5 metres of calm water.

Sunrise at Belait

Further out, it looked a bit choppy so I made coffee before it became too rocky. With mugs of hot coffee, and bananas for breakfast we sat in the cockpit enjoying the breeze. Paul put the main sail up at 8, quickly followed by the headsail, and then a fishing line was put out at the stern. Unfortunately, a ‘huge’ fish grabbed it and he had to watch it all unravel and disappear into the water, complete with the lure. The mission to catch a fish goes on  😉

Fishing line visible on left of picture

Jerudong was a strange place. The place we anchored was once destined to be a luxury marina until one of the Brunei princes spent all the country’s money. Work had stopped abruptly and it had an abandoned feel to it – eerie almost. We were the only boat there but would have had to leave if any of the royal family were using the nearby beach. It was gone 3 by then so there was little chance of them turning up. We did have mosquitoes for company later on, though and we both had bites in the morning.

Jerudong beach

Another early star for the next leg to Keraman. Paul had to fix the deckwash before we left so that he could blast all the mud off the chain with it. It was a shame the wind only allowed us to have the sails up for an hour or so without the engine on. Not only is it more peaceful and economical like that, it also means we don’t get the smell of diesel wafting into the cockpit. By 12 30 we were anchored fairly near to Labuan and were back in Malaysian territory. Due to the sea state we had to move twice before we finally settled. The first time was due to excessive rolling and the second time because Paul discovered the falling tide would cause us to go aground eventually. After that it was ‘as you were’; relaxing in the cockpit, watching the sunset; glass of wine; a good book; ‘words with friends’ games…lovely 🙂

We were in no great rush to leave  in the morning as Labuan is only an hour away from Keraman. However, our sleep patterns seem to have reverted to an ‘early to bed, early to rise’ pattern and we were both up early anyway. This pattern is more suited to the tropical climate and lifestyle, and it’s wonderful to sit in the cockpit in the early morning sun. The approach to the marina at Labuan was very busy with container ships, fishing vessels and passenger ferries vying for position. Once we located the entrance we motored slowly in just before midday.

View from our berth in Labuan with a handy bar underneath the white building

The sun was scorching hot; I could feel my skin burning despite the liberal amount of protection oil on it.  The heat was the thing that caused me most stress on our first afternoon there. I simply could not get cool even with the canopy up and all the fans on. Paul told me the temperature was in the 40s! I resorted to frequent cold showers but the effect wore off fairly quickly and I was counting the hours until sundown.  We had given away our air conditioning system to John and Carol in Miri because I found it too cold and restrictive. I didn’t like the fact that all the hatches and windows need to be closed when it’s on. Just this once, though I found myself longing for it! The marina itself is ‘ok’, the descriptions of its being a bit run down are accurate but it’s adequate for our needs. We have water and electricity…and duty free shops to explore.

Labuan Marina (rubbish out of shot)

Paul had a chat with Geoff not long after we got there, a friend he’d got to know via email and had finally met in Miri, so he gave us some useful local information.  At 4 o’clock Paul suggested we walk over to the shopping mall to take advantage of its air conditioning. The walk there revealed more of just how run down the marina is. Some of the fingers had broken away from the pontoons and the water is crammed with floating rubbish of all kinds – obviously the ubiquitous plastic bottles and carrier bags, but also several sandals, paint tins and other domestic waste, as Paul showed in his pictures. We passed a nice-looking bar which is part of the luxury hotel next to the marina. Beyond the marina entrance was a park, a busy main road and the huge mall, lined with duty free outlets offering cheap alcohol, chocolate, perfumes etc. We had a quick look but were in no hurry to get anything, just to get cool was enough for me. The mall wasn’t as icy cool as we expected, however because the air conditioning had broken, but it was more bearable than the inside of the boat.  We found the supermarket in the usual location of the basement and picked up a few essentials, then had a walk around to check out the cafes and restaurants but none of them appealed to us. We decided to have a walk into town later. At 7pm it was still hot and humid. The walk took about 30 minutes and it was dark by then so it was hard to get a proper impression of the town but the centre seemed lively with plenty of shops and restaurants. Paul had done some research and found us an Indian restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious curry and (for me) a glass of cold beer.

The following morning it was time to check in to Labuan. Even though it’s part of Malaysia, Sabah is an independent state, so immigration and customs need to be visited. As we’d be staying a week or so, we unpacked the bikes which had been folded and stowed in bags in the quarter berth for the passage to Labuan. It was good to know they can be put away and retrieved with very little hassle. We left early to avoid the heat, knowing that it’s never possible to tell how long the process will take. The morning temperature at 8am was bearable but held the promise of intensifying as the day went on. We passed the big hotel that it was too dark to see properly the previous evening, and cycled down the wide, tree-lined boulevard. It felt great to be back on the bikes. Once again, we were greeted and waved at by several of the people we passed. We didn’t see many other cyclists so maybe bike riding is a bit of a novelty here. Checking in done, we explored the town further and came upon a huge fruit and veg market near the waterfront.

Outside the market, Labuan

We spent a pleasant hour there selecting fresh produce and looking at the wide range of stuff for sale. The picture shows how massive the place is, and there was more on the floor above, although this was just typical market fare: plastic containers galore, materials, cheap clothes, make up and household goods. Paul found a shop devoted to fishing gear and spent some time inside, debating which products would help get him a fish 😉 On the way back we bought some wine. From the £10 – £12 it cost in Miri, it was a welcome sight to see it with price tags of £5 for the cheapest. Only red wine is available in boxes though, so it would take a few trips to stock up and stash the bottles in our bike baskets.

Just a small section of the market
Lots to choose from!

Later in the evening we cycled to Ramsey Point, a beach and promenade area further along the coast. Here, in 1846, the Sultan of Brunei handed over control of Labuan to the British. Almost a hundred years later, on 10 June 1945 the beach was used to land Allied forces liberating Labuan from the Japanese occupation.  We had a walk around and had a look at the restaurant at the end of the pier where you cook your own food at the table after selecting ingredients from a buffet. People were having great fun on the zip wire attraction that had been set up from the balcony of a high tower, down to the edge of the pier. Shame that it closed before we had a chance to have a go.

Ramsey Point
Zip-wire fun
Restaurant at the end of the pier
View from the pier

Before returning to the boat we stopped at the hotel bar opposite the marina. We had to go through the reception of the plush hotel to get to it and were kindly escorted by one of their smartly-clad staff. Only red wine was available by the glass so I opted for a beer. The lady who took the order urged me to take advantage of the two for one offer that was in operation for that hour. I said I couldn’t manage two but Paul pointed out that we could take the second can back with us.  The pint glass, when it arrived looked more than I could manage so there was no way I would be taking advantage of another one for free. This was another of the bars that could have been anywhere in Europe and I knew that one visit would be enough for us.

Early in the morning we went aground! Or rather, the keel was bouncing on the bottom due to a very low tide at 7am. I knew something was amiss because it felt like were being jerked, as if someone was pulling on our mooring ropes, a most unnerving feeling. It didn’t last long though before the tide began to rise again. In the afternoon we visited Labuan’s botanical gardens. The cycle ride there was lovely, probably one which had led keen cyclists, John and Carol to praise the place. There were one or two steep hills, unlike Miri but it was good exercise and going down them was exhilarating. Pics below of the gardens, which were lush and pretty and provided much needed shade from the sun. I wish there had been a bit more information about the location of the official residence of Labuan’s British Governors. It had been built in 1852 but was destroyed in 1945 during WW2. There were photographs of it but it was hard to determine where it had stood exactly. Apparently, only a tiny fragment of it remains and the grounds were landscaped and converted into a public park in 2001.

Some gruesome information there!
IMG_5559

Enjoying the shade

Our next cycle ride took us into the town centre early one evening to an Indian ‘café’ we’d looked up online. There had been a heavy, sultry heat all day and I had stayed in the cabin reading and feeling lethargic so I welcomed the prospect of a bike ride. We arrived at the restaurant sweating and thirsty and enjoyed an Indian feast accompanied by icy cold fresh fruit juices in an air conditioned (rather brightly lit) restaurant. As we began to cycle back, the rain started. It got heavier and heavier but we decided to just ride through it and it turned out to be a great experience. That was another enjoyable first for me – cycling in a torrential downpour, splashing through deep puddles while people laughed and waved at us.

For the next few days we continued to add to the wine collection, and also stocked up on cans of soda water and soft drinks. It began to rain more frequently and we got used to jumping up at the first sound of it to close all the hatches and windows. One afternoon, we could hear it pounding on the roof during a visit to the local museum. It had been an interesting hour in there reading about Labuan’s experiences in World War 2 under Japanese occupation. We emerged at about 5pm to witness a spectacular downpour. It was hard to see very far ahead and the sound it made was amazing. This was the NE monsoon making its presence felt. We stood for about 30 minutes watching it, along with a young couple and their little girl as we took shelter under the museum’s covered forecourt. We were amused when as soon as it began to lessen in force, the man walked over to their car, (using the protection of an umbrella) which was parked about 10 steps away from the shelter! Is there something they’re not telling us about the rain here! Anyway, we left at the same time to have another wet ride back to the boat. There was loud thunder all evening and the rain continued throughout the night.

The museum visit had reignited my interest in the Second World War period in this area. There had been photographs and information of The Peace Park, the ‘Surrender Point’ plaque where the Japanese had signed the surrender in 1945, and the field where the war graves are located. When Paul suggested a trip to see these I was all for it. Our original plan had been to hire a car and visit a nearby spa but the rainy weather had put paid to that and I liked the thought of this excursion a lot better anyway.  More steep hills to negotiate but it was a cool day with not much traffic around. The war cemetery was very moving. It’s extremely well kept by The Commonwealth Graves Commission. We spent a long time looking at the messages on the graves’ metal plaques – each one with a different and personal tribute.

From there we went to a hypermarket in our ongoing search for ground coffee and non-dairy spread (so Guardian are we). Paul had a map that informed him where he could get ‘good cheese’ of all things but it didn’t mention coffee and didn’t live up to its promise regarding the cheese. The cheese here is imported obviously and therefore expensive but there was nothing different about it, and we couldn’t find any spread or coffee either. Cycling back in the heat, I thought of the reports of snow, frost, ice and cold winds we’ve been hearing about in Britain and found it hard to imagine after so long away. I still miss the contrast in seasons but at least I’m getting more of a sense of the monsoon season this year because we weren’t in Asia last December.

Monsoon rain at the market

On Monday December 11th we set off early to go through the checking out process in readiness for the next day’s departure. The rain held off for a little while but it was soon pouring down heavily – too heavy to risk a drenching cycle back. We took shelter in the bakery/coffee shop where we buy our bread and I had my first cup of Malaysian ‘kopi’. I requested black, no sugar but the concept of anything without sugar amazes people here. I got it sugarless but the lady brought it over and pointed to the bowl of sugar on the table if I changed my mind. It looked like coffee and it was hot but the resemblance ended there. I don’t think I’ll order another one. We sat there and played ‘words with friends’ and waited and waited but the rain fell relentlessly. It was lunchtime by then and the aromas coming from  the food made us hungry. It seems to be a popular place with office workers who were loading their plates with noodles and rice and fried eggs and tofu and veg and chicken from the hot buffet. We caved in, got ourselves a plate and chose a selection of the dishes which you could heap on a plate for as little as £1.50, and it was gorgeous. One more trip to buy wine and chocolate from the duty free mall and we were ready to leave Labuan in the morning. Our next destination would be Muara and then a much-anticipated trip up the Klias River to see the rare Proboscis monkeys.

Kathy

 

 

 

 

November, and The Caves at Niah

November began pretty much as October ended here in Miri. I can’t say that I missed the sound of the bangs, whistles and explosions of fireworks that people were complaining about on social media during the build up to the 5th. Our peaceful time is our own here, and we often find ourselves asking what day it is. There is a sense that Christmas is coming in some of the shops and supermarkets but nothing like the scale back home. It feels very strange, having entered a cool mall from the blazing heat and humidity outside, to be pushing a trolley in a Malaysian supermarket to the strains of ‘let it snow, let it snow, let it snow’. Paul has made great progress ticking off the list of boat jobs. He began this by cycling to town one morning to buy the necessary tools, paints, brushes and an electric drill and has been getting up early to work on painting the hull and varnishing the cap rail.

Christmas trees in the food court on the top floor of Boulevard shopping mall, Miri

We decided we would eat out twice a week because restaurant and cafe prices are so reasonable here. On board we mainly eat salads (which aren’t generally available to order in restaurants), soups, or pasta and noodle dishes. In tropical temperatures, it’s far too hot to have the oven on and for this reason I’ve temporarily stopped baking bread. We found a couple of bakers that produce decent wholemeal loaves with no added sugar, so it makes sense to buy those instead. In the marina park complex we spotted a Tandoori Restaurant that hadn’t long opened for business so we stopped there on impulse one evening on our way back from a shopping trip and the food didn’t disappoint: Tandoori Chicken for Paul and Vegetable Jalfrezi for me with Roti and Naan bread and rice, all for less than £6 complete with drinks! We’re regulars now.

We were invited to another social gathering in the communal area a few days after the Halloween party. The invitation came from a German couple who wanted to show how tasty their sausages are with the inhabitants of the marina – no sniggering at the back there, they were Bratwurst sausages 😉 .  Before that, though we had to go and buy an aluminium pole for the awning in the cockpit. The route to the hardware store took us right through the centre of the Kropok Cemeteries. The Malay/Muslim cemetery and the Chinese cemetery are situated next to each other along the banks of Miri River. With space at a premium, the last major road expansion meant that due to limited space, some of the tombs ended up right on the edge of the road. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the road is reputed to be haunted – although the reported supernatural sightings haven’t been verified, according to Borneo’s Resort City Resource on Miri. I was struck by the rural surroundings we cycled through. The fields, narrow tree-lined lanes and farm houses reminded me of the English countryside.

Some of the Chinese graves

The pictures below show how Paul transported the lengthy pole back to the marina. I had serious doubts about the wisdom of this method but should have realised Paul had thought it all through. One customer, watching it being affixed to Paul’s bike with cable ties, was sorry that he hadn’t driven his pick-up truck that day – he would have willingly given us a lift back he said, which was very kind of him. My role was to stay behind Paul on my bike as close as I could. We got some very strange looks, and some smiles and waves from drivers and pedestrians especially when they noticed the ‘warning flags’ in the form of a pink carrier bag at one end and a blue T-shirt at the other, but we got it back with no incidents.

Ready to go

Bratwurst sausages weren’t for me obviously, but a feast had been laid on with plenty of other nibbles by the time we made it up to the party. People we had met before from other marinas were there so it was a good chance to catch up and have a drink with them. This is one of the few marinas I have been in that doesn’t have a bar or café, but the communal area with its roomy table and chairs creates a more informal meeting place and people are encouraged to bring their own food and drink.

Paul getting some travel tips from John

Work, cleaning and repairs are ongoing and Paul has submitted measurements to Steve at Kiwi plastics’ shop for a new boat canopy which is hopefully being constructed as I type. We moved the boat last week; it’s now on the other side of the pontoon and the port side has been painted and varnished to match the starboard side, which is just as well because today (18th November), a bride and groom posed right in front of it, sitting on the pontoon. Word has got around about Paul’s computer expertise and knowledge of technical systems and he has spent a fair bit of time on neighbouring boats helping them to fix various technical problems. Let’s just say that it hasn’t made him any more enamoured of Microsoft systems 😉 (no one has come to him with Apple problems). Nevertheless, Roger and Lucie from catamaran Catamini opposite us were so impressed and grateful when he managed to resolve the issues on their computer-based navigation system, they invited us on board one evening for a drink and cakes and also treated us to dinner at a local Chinese restaurant the night before they left the marina for Thailand. We got to know them quite well and they passed on some very useful tips and information about places and marinas we plan to visit. We hope to meet up with them on our travels in future.

The car we hired was ready for us the evening before our day trip to Niah Caves so we took advantage of it and went to a supermarket to stock up (well, where else 🙂 ). This one was new to us and had a few things we hadn’t managed to get elsewhere. Unfortunately not sage, though. I never thought finding a particular herb (especially the dried variety) would prove to be so elusive. Every other one from A-Z lined the shelves but not sage. I finally managed to find a jar a few days ago but will be bringing some back from the UK. On the way home we stopped at a vegetarian restaurant called The Healthy Vegetarian – you can see the dishes they offer on the pic below. I still cannot bring myself to try veggie ‘mutton’ ‘spare ribs’ or ‘fish’ along with several other dishes I would never have touched as a meat eater 40 years ago. I chose a bean curd dish and Paul had sweet and sour mushrooms. I’ve got used to having soft drinks when we eat out (it’s a case of having to really) and have become very fond of fresh, iced lime juice, although the request for no added sugar is always met with surprise.

‘Vegan-meat Beancurd Rice’ from the menu

Our intrepid trip to the caves of Niah began slightly later than we intended. The journey would take about 90 minutes, so to make the most of our time there we planned to set off at 8am. When we woke up, however, it was raining very heavily so we waited a bit in case things improved, but it just got heavier. This didn’t bode well for a walk through the jungle: millipedes love wet conditions. I mentioned this to Paul and he remarked that he already anticipated a short enough visit for me to shriek a bit and then we’d return home. I resolved to prove him wrong.

Waiting for the rain to stop

The roads were terrible on the way. Water covered the road surfaces and we drove through several huge puddles and floods. The wipers weren’t up to much, and we felt every bump and lump of the many potholes we went over. It made me realise how much I’ve become used to cars with good suspension. Almost there, and we realised we’d forgotten to bring a torch. This would be an essential item in the caves and rather than risk hoping they would have them on sale there, we took a detour to the nearest town to find a shop. The road we took was in a worse condition than the other one, and at times I thought my head would hit the roof of the car! 45 minutes and two shops later we had acquired two torches from a store in a small town called Bekanu, which in some parts, reminded me of scenes typical of the ones portrayed in ‘Disney-style’ American frontier towns.

Courtesy of Google Streetview

The journey back to Niah didn’t do much for the car’s suspension. It sounded so rickety I half expected to see parts of the car fall off with each jolt. Still, at least the rain had stopped by then. With the heavy cloud cover gone our surroundings were lit up by glorious sunshine. We drove through lush forests, swamps, palm oil plantations and flat farmland. Most of the houses we passed were on stilts; some were wooden and flimsy-looking, some had been abandoned altogether and some were plush, newer models made from much sturdier materials. I couldn’t help thinking of the houses in the story of The Three Little Pigs.

We arrived at the park’s headquarters at about 11 and prepared ourselves for the trek. For me, this meant donning socks, trousers with elasticated bottoms, plimsolls, a hat and a shirt. Paul had forgotten his hat, so had to fashion a head covering from my shawl. We both packed insect repellent, water, and a torch each, sprayed ourselves with sun protection, put our sunglasses on and we were ready.  At the ticket office we were given a map of the route and a brief explanation of what to expect. I was so preoccupied with preparing myself for the millipedes and talking myself into being brave, I missed some of what was said, trusting that Paul had it all in hand. We made our way to the river bank where a ferryman would take us the short distance across the muddy water to the beginning of the path. The river looked very atmospheric. I’d just finished Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo and it looked just like scenes he’d described during his travels up the river Rajang in a dugout canoe in the 80s. Our crossing took little more than 30 seconds and cost about 20p each.

Improvised head covering

Nerves kicking in, I followed Paul along the concrete path that soon turned into the wooden plank walk that would take us all the way to the caves. We’d been told not to touch the wooden handrails because the red ants crawling on it can cause nasty irritation if they bite. It turns out that millipedes like to hang out on the handrails too: 10 minutes later I saw my first one, then another, and another…  From then on I walked in the centre of the path with my head down until we worked out that if Paul walked ahead he could ‘flick them on’ without my seeing them. I could then enjoy the sights and sounds of the jungle all around me. The sounds were like the ones you used to pay to hear on relaxation cds in New Age shops. It was great to stand still and just listen to the jungle chorus, with the knowledge we were actually in the Borneo jungle. We encountered less than a dozen people during the whole excursion so no other noises intruded. On either side of us and below the raised planks, lush jungle vegetation abounded: swampy mud, ferns, moss, and trees of all shapes and sizes, displaying amazing roots and creepers. A few lizards scuttled across the planks but the birds we could hear were too shy to show themselves.

The beginning of the walk

Jungle walkway (millipedes out of shot)

The first part of the walk was mainly level and pleasantly easy-going, but the going was about to get a lot tougher! It became necessary to climb – gently at first, up slopes and then steps, and then more (steeper) steps. We reached Traders’ Cave after about an hour and saw the remnants of bamboo scaffolding where birds’ nest traders had once set up a camp (amazing to think they often climb 200ft high on precarious poles and rope ladders). The cavern beyond this was magnificent and I naively thought we must have reached, or be very near to, the journey’s end. Paul pointed out that we were only at the beginning and there was still a very long way to go. This was the part I’d missed hearing at the ticket office – that the trek was four miles long altogether, so it would obviously be four miles back. It was well past midday by then and all I had on me was a cereal bar! It was going to be a long day.

Bamboo scaffolding from an old camp

Preparing for the dark part

‘Oh well’, I thought ‘at least The Great Cave won’t have millipedes’. It turned out to contain something far more dangerous! I knew there would be bats (12 species to be exact); bats don’t scare me, I like bats. I knew their droppings, known as guano, was highly-prized as a rich fertiliser so a musty odour was to be expected, and I covered my nose to block that. I also expected the total darkness and we had torches for that. The torchlight revealed some fabulous images: bats hanging from the roof, bats and swiftlets flying around; stalagmites, stalactites and other eye-catching rock formations; ferns, feathers…and spiders! Spiders don’t scare me either but the one I saw was huge and as they seemed to be all around us I was curious to know what they were. I retrieved my little guide book, pointed my torch at it and located the chapter. It informed me that on this part of the trek we should expect to see giant crickets and scorpions in the caves as well as bats and birds. I read that walkers are protected from these poisonous spiders by the raised plank walk above the rocky floor! Well the creatures we could see were ON the plank walk. I told Paul and we managed to reassure ourselves that what we were seeing were, in fact, the giant crickets (they had long antennae waving around on closer inspection). However, despite the slippery surfaces and steep steps and total darkness, and cobwebs and bats swooping just inches above our heads, we increased our walking and clambering speed quite considerably through this part.

Inside The Great Cave (scorpions below, bats above)

The experience reminded me of passing through the tunnel of an undulating fairground ghost train without the carriage or sound effects. Here, though, there were many steps to climb and it was very humid and smelly but it was still thrilling to look around at the striking views. Ropes leading from the swiftlets’ nests were hanging down, and we spotted torch beams from collectors near the top where they would be scraping nests off the ceiling. Apparently the nests, which are believed to have medicinal properties, can fetch up to $1000 (USD) a kilogram! 30 minutes later, we emerged hot, thirsty and tired onto a plateau where a Malay family were seated round a table with the remnants of a picnic. We joined them to rest our legs and exchanged smiles and empathetic pleasantries via gestures and facial expressions. Considering the strenuous footslog we had all undertaken, words weren’t needed to communicate our feelings.

Resting area with path to The Painted Cave on the left

The Painted Cave was the next and final place on the expedition, which was another 30 minute walk on a (thankfully) level plank walk. We were sheltered from the afternoon sun’s rays by the trees but it was still hot, and we were quite high up by now. The cave was welcomingly cool when we got there and three men were sitting on a rock near the fenced off wall. One of them turned out to be a guide and he helpfully explained the exact location of the paintings when he heard us having difficulty seeing them. They are very faint, and it has to be said, lacking in ‘wow’ factor as images go. It was still incredible to think they were created around 1,200 years ago though and to read about the story of their discovery in 1958 by explorer Tom Harrison who found a human skull along with the paintings. I marvelled at how people had got there before all the staircases and paths. We sat for a while to rest in the cool, looking out at the glorious view and pondered on the kind of life that was lived in these caves by the hunter gatherers of 40,000 years ago.

Just one of the many staircases we climbed up and down
And another!
High up in the jungle – this will be a cafe one day

Exhaustion and aching legs were beginning to kick in for me. The very thought of the long trek back was daunting to say the least, but time was getting on and we had a date with the ferryman at 5 30. Needless to say making our way back down the steps, slopes and rocks we’d climbed was very hard on the legs and of course we had to go back through the bat cave where the scorpions lurked. I kept thinking of the little bottle of wine and a packet of crisps waiting for me in the car. We stopped to rest a lot more on the way back, hoping to see some of the birds that were squawking and singing above us but unfortunately they remained elusive. We also heard something very heavy lumbering through the thick trees, cracking twigs and branches as it stepped on them, and waited in silence for a while to see what would emerge but sadly it didn’t appear.

Paul resting on the way back
Spot the line of ants

I can honestly say the 6 hours of walking and climbing and clambering on that trek was the most strenuous thing I’ve ever done and I ached for days afterwards but I’m glad I did it. I proved that my phobia doesn’t prevent me from seeing sights that are worthwhile. I think I’ll pass on the Mulu Cave expedition though. Ian, from the boat next to us told us that the millipedes there are a writhing mass in some areas and that there are hundreds of them. Here’s a pic of just one of the little blighters!

October Days

While we are just chilling in Miri Marina, the blog will naturally get fewer posts from us. Otherwise it would be akin to social media style hourly updates of things we ate, what time we got up, what we bought in the shops and so on (although there is some of that in this post). I have carried on making notes in diary form, which has proved useful to us when we need to know dates relating to things like car hire, bike buying and when the worst squalls happened but otherwise makes for very mundane reading. This post will condense the few weeks since my last post by narrating the more (hopefully) interesting events and activities of that period.

The days here are largely leisurely and – yes – it is rather wonderful to indulge in such a relaxed way of life. There are no time constraints, no telephones or doorbells ringing, no bills or junk mail, no places to rush to…I could go on. This more flexible manner of living was brought home to me during a recent trip to town when I asked Paul if I had time to browse the bargain books in a department store and he pointed out that I could take all the time I needed since our time was our own.  The bikes have brought about a different kind of freedom. We now tend to shop on a daily or every other day basis. The long, hot walks into town are no more; we simply load our purchases in the baskets Paul fitted on the back of the bikes, or in our rucksacks. I was a bit nervous about cycling to start with. I know the saying ‘it’s like riding a bike’ and that you’re not supposed to lose the ability once learned but it’s been a while since I pedalled any distance and that was on a country cycle track. We collected our bikes from a shop in town and had to ride them back to the marina. After a slightly wobbly start, I gained confidence and found my balance but both of those deserted me once we set out on the main road. The traffic, the noise and my lack of road skills left me feeling vulnerable and I had to get off and push it a couple of times. Away from the busy roads, I found cycling to be pure bliss. The wind as you speed along is cooling, the roads are flat, and people smile and greet you (or maybe they are smirking at our helmets 😉 ). Best of all, there is no risk of coming into direct contact with the centipedes crawling along the pavements. Much as they scare me I do try to avoid squashing them.

On my bike

One of our first excursions was to the Coco Cabana event space on the waterfront, where the iconic seahorse lighthouse is located. I discovered, when looking at its Facebook page that it only opened in April this year, and was created as a ‘seaside ambience’ from which to view ‘the best sunset in Malaysia’. I’m sure other locations in Malaysia have also laid claim to that boast, but nevertheless it is a great place to watch the ocean from. Tables are set out overlooking the coastline and it’s also possible to sit on the boulders next to the water watching the waves crash onto them while sitting with a drink in the cool evening breeze.

Waiting for sundown at Coco Cabana

It’s a popular hangout with families and teenagers, who also flock to the regular artistic and cultural events held in the wooden event hall.  One Friday evening I bought some home-made perfume from one of the vendors during an art event there. It was the best copy of the Chanel fragrance (Coco Mademoiselle) I have ever come across. The lady who made it had several other brand name copies on sale and told us how she created them. At only £10 and cruelty-free, I walked away very happy…and smelling nice.

Paul got a puncture in his back tyre on our second day out cycling. Funnily enough we’d gone out specifically to get more cycle accessories such as locks, lights and puncture kits. I stood by and watched, impressed, while he turned it upside down and fixed it on a busy, dusty street. I tried to remember how I used to cope with this situation in my bike-riding days as a teenager. I remember pumping tyres up but the business of inner tubes, glue and patches must have been delegated to my dad or brothers I think. We also got caught in a torrential downpour while riding along a town centre road, becoming soaked through and chilly within seconds. We had to take shelter under the roof of a shopfront until it stopped. Arriving back at the marina feeling damp and still a bit cold, the boat felt wonderfully warm and dry and it seemed an appropriate evening to make sausages, sweet potato mash, mushrooms, fried onions and gravy for dinner.

Puncture fixing
Sheltering from the downpour with a flat back tyre

During the early hours of the morning of Friday 20th October we had the worst storm I have experienced while berthed in a marina. The wind felt frighteningly strong (60 knots we discovered later) and the sheet of heavy rainfall was a sight to see; the marina was completely obscured behind it! Paul went out in it to check the bikes and to tie anything down that was likely to blow away. One gust was so fierce and noisy during its build up and so strong when it hit the boat, it made me squeal in alarm. We later found out that it was the worst weather anyone local could remember and there was a fair bit of damage around to testify to its severity. The worst of this was, as Paul related in his post, the sentry box complete with sentry inside that blew across the marina forecourt. Apart from being literally shook up, he was thankfully unharmed. There was another powerful storm early the following afternoon, with a wind strong enough to cause some concern that the boat in the berth opposite would break its mooring ropes and hurl into us. Marina staff came and secured it just in case. We sat it out in the cabin for the whole day, preferring to stay onboard even when things settled down later on. The boat was rocking due to the combination of the big waves caused by the previous night’s storm and the powerful gusts. It had caused a fair bit of debris to scatter around the car park: broken glass, roof tiles, tree branches and building materials. Paul pointed out a house that had collapsed just over the water when trees had blown on top of it.  On our way to Miri on the bikes, we cycled through the park by the promenade and saw several trees that had either been uprooted completely or pushed almost horizontal. Meanwhile, the waves looked as if they were reddish brown in colour as they crashed on the beach, possibly due to algae having been whipped up by the storm.

The beach just after the storm
Didn’t want my sandals to get wet – failed 🙂

One of the more beneficial (for us anyway) consequences of the gales was that a kayak belonging to a neighbouring yacht blew away, leaving the couple with only one. Paul heard them deciding to dump or sell the remaining one since they didn’t really use them any more, and as he’s been intending to buy one, he bought it off them for a bargain price. So now we have a kayak to add to our growing lists of accessories. It’s very smart, and Paul enjoyed taking it out for a test ride in the marina. I suspect it’s another activity that looks easier than it actually is for me to do, a fact I discovered when I tried to windsurf once. I’ve been promised a lesson in kayaking anyway so we shall see.

The boat on the left is the one that looked as if it might break free in the storm
Trying out the kayak

I got on with making another batch of bread dough while Paul was kayaking and battled with a different kind of challenge. Using the other bag of flour we’d chosen from Bakery Ingredients, I tipped it on to the tray while I got the other ingredients ready. I made a well in the flour and cursed when I spotted a fly that must have landed on the pile. I went to shoo it off and realised that it wasn’t a fly: it was a weevil, and it wasn’t alone! These pesky things are a fact of life here in The Tropics. There is a choice to be made on discovering them. Throw your hands up in horror and chuck the product away, as we have indeed done before, or deal with them by sieving the flour and using it as normal. I did a bit of research on the net and discovered they are harmless (as we’d already guessed) and that most grain products have them. I mustered up my courage and dealt with them. I can’t say I’m happy about the situation. I’ve found them in biscuits, nuts, breadcrumbs and packet mixes. Depending on the product and the amount I either throw it or use it, but we have discovered that putting the bags in the freezer for a few days and then storing them in the fridge is an effective way of dealing with the problem. Anyway we have had no ill effects, the bread was made and eaten – weevil free and I discovered a core of bravery I didn’t know I had 😉 .

It’s in there somewhere!

One afternoon in Miri we found ourselves near the bar where we’d been told all the ex-pats go to meet and socialise. Called The Ming Café, it’s on the corner of a busy street in the centre where lots of hotels and hostels are located. I was curious to see if they sold wine since it is so popular with foreigners so we parked the bikes near a table by the pavement and sat down in the busy bar. I knew it wouldn’t be Paul’s favourite type of place. It had screens showing sport, signs advertising all-day breakfasts, soccer matches, beer by the bucket and a wide range of imaginatively named cocktails (pictured below). They did serve wine by the glass, however – with soda too, so we had a drink there, but didn’t fancy ordering from a menu offering burgers, sausage sandwiches, potato wedges and mixed grill. I quite liked it in there though – it was lively, the music was good and it’s a great place to sit and people watch.

Charming
Ming Cafe

It was time for a wine run on Monday (23rd). It looked like the glass I’d had in the Ming Cafe would be my last for a while if I didn’t restock.  I didn’t want to have to pay the hiked up prices for a bottle from our regular supermarket, so we returned to Merdeka Mall, where it’s less expensive.  It’s a bit too far to cycle and we found it cheaper and more convenient to use ‘Grab’ taxis for both journeys. The wine worked out at about £12 a bottle – still pricey but better than £17.  With my indulgence catered for, Paul cycled off early to get his the next morning; a fresh fish from the town market in Miri (the type of fish he’d like to catch one day).  Each morning, just as dawn breaks we get visited by several little birds chirping and flying around on deck. I can see them through the hatch above the V berth and there’s often quite a few of them near the mast. Paul was concerned that they might be nesting but it seems they just like paying a morning visit – so much so that when Paul returned from market with his fish, one of them was flying around in the cabin! It beat a hasty retreat soon enough but I don’t know how long it had been inside while I was sleeping.

Other visitors to our pontoon, not quite as regular as the birds are ‘just married’, or about to be married, couples, complete with a photographer and dresser, whose main job appears to be to arrange the bridal dress and veil in ‘natural’ flowing poses by throwing the material up in the air and letting the wind catch it. It looks likely that Sister Midnight will be in the background of many a glossy wedding album, and we have often had to either wait or take a detour while all the snapping is going on. It’s quite interesting to watch all the preparations and Paul is keen for the boat to look its best for its backdrop role. He has been busy painting, varnishing and cleaning the starboard side all week; getting up early to make the most of the coolest part of the day. It’s looking good, especially the varnished wood gleaming in the sunlight. The port side will need doing soon in order to preserve symmetry, which means moving the boat around for access to it. We will literally have a change of scene when that happens ;).

Hard at work
Spot the bride and groom in ‘proposing’ pose

Last night being Halloween we went to the party organised by Brian and Glee further down the pontoon. Our contribution to the victuals was a pumpkin jack o’ lantern carved by Paul and lit using one of our led bike lights because we’d forgotten to get tea lights. We also took some chocolate vermicelli ball cakes and hoped these offerings would make up for our choosing not to dress up in fancy dress (I know…#partypoopers). There was a very impressive array of food set out on the table and all the usual spooky decorations, masks, and lanterns hanging up. Party games and dancing were also successfully avoided by us but we enjoyed ourselves just the same. The atmosphere was great, and I have always preferred watching people dance to doing it myself. Brian passed on some useful tips about Labuan and Kota Kinabulu (popularly known as KK). Both of those places are on the agenda for visits later this month. Before that, though we intend to have a look at the nearby Niah Caves, where we will see the intriguing sight of relics from the cave dwellers of 40,000 years ago. Images below are from the party and from some of our daily bike rides.

Party food

Spot the sleeping man
Miri’s Park

Keep fit exercises in the park
Near the marina
These trees survived the storm
Cycle path on the prom

 

Shopping and Bicycles

After another walk to Marina Square on Monday evening (9th October) we went for a meal in one of the Chinese restaurants we had seen and liked the look of. It turned out to be less of a restaurant and more of a ‘hawker’ style eatery.  These can be confusing, and this one was no exception. In the street, or in a market development it’s more self-explanatory even to a foreigner. You have to order your drink separately from the drinks vendor (who is often the owner/manager of the centre), and you pay for that as soon as it’s brought to you. When you’ve looked and chosen the meal you want from the stalls, you point or gesture to where your table is and the meal is brought to you, and once again you pay on the spot. So there might be two or more people in your group, all ordering from different places, with servers and money and change all coming and going at the same time, but it works and I like it because the food is freshly cooked and inexpensive. This place looked so much like a restaurant that we sat down and were immediately surrounded by four people all proffering different menus. This was disconcerting enough but when we’d taken them and the table was strewn with an assortment of menus, they all stood watching and waiting expectantly. We ordered drinks so that eliminated one of them and Paul asked the rest if we could have a few minutes to choose. We sifted through the selection of menus, made our choice and then (of course) struggled to get anyone to come back to us to take the order! The food was worth the confusion when it arrived. I enjoyed a substantial tofu, vegetable and rice dish with a tasty sauce. Paul opted for the duck with rice but it was a fairly small portion and he wished he’d ordered the same as me. We’ll definitely go back anyway.

At least 6 menus to choose from!

Tuesday 10th October

It was time for a big shop, and for that we needed a car. Paul had booked one the day before and set off at 10 to collect the keys. It was a funny little thing – that’s the phrase that entered my mind as the day went on. The air conditioning didn’t quite get cold enough, and the alarm had a tendency to go off if we didn’t close the doors properly. I went to drop our laundry off and took the car keys with me while Paul went to the marina office in the same block so that I could let myself back in the car. Waiting inside it, I began to feel very hot, so opened the door to get out and the alarm went off, so I had to shut the door quickly and fiddle with the buttons on the keys to shut it up. I was then trapped in the oven-like temperature until Paul came out. The windows only opened when the engine was on and I didn’t want to set the alarm off again. Luckily I had a battery fan to alleviate the heat a bit but I kept thinking of the poor dogs who get left in such temperatures. We caused some amusement at a petrol station, and outside a shopping mall when Paul had to make a few attempts to stop the alarm stopped blaring out when he walked away. The car, a Perouda, also struggled to get up hills and the rear passenger door didn’t close properly.

Our quirky little hire car!

Still, it got us to all the places we needed to be. Namely, a succession of supermarkets. The bigger ones are situated in indoor malls, and the first one we went to, as Paul has described, was quite an eerie experience. It looked totally closed. No cars were in the car park, which is most unusual here. The stairwell leading to the mall looked disused; it was full of litter and smelled stale. The level we walked in to didn’t look promising. Metal shutters were down on the shop units, some of which looked abandoned or incomplete. I wondered if the day was a public holiday we were unaware of, but in the basement we found the supermarket – empty but open. It was a treat to walk the aisles with no one else around, if a little disconcerting. Slowly, however other shoppers began to appear and all soon felt normal.

A mannequin ‘family’ inside one of the malls

Two, or maybe three, supermarkets later and pretty much all the items had been ticked off the list, including some cough mixture, as it seems to be the only medical product we don’t have on board. The previous evening I couldn’t help wryly noting the array of ‘products’ on the table for our various ailments: Lemsip; plasters for blisters & cuts; throat sweets; paracetamol; cream for bites & stings; tweezers to remove a splinter from Paul’s foot; and tissues and antihistamines for my allergy. All we needed was a bag of Werther’s Originals for it to look like the day room in a care home 😉 Paul wanted to have a look at the Piasau Boat Club before heading back to drop off the shopping. It looked a little like a holiday resort, situated as it is in a Nature Reserve Park, with a nearby beach, children’s playground and a sea view from the clubhouse. I was pleased to discover that its Beachcomber bar sold white wine – one of the few places that does here. We sat on the terrace looking out at the view. Not many other people were around that afternoon, but judging from the signs and posters on display, plenty of activities and events take place there.

View from The Beachcomber Bar
Piasau Boat Club

The car had to be returned by 5pm on Wednesday so we set out at 11 30 on our mission to look at bicycles.  Several of the neighbouring yachts have folding bikes; they are handy for getting to the local shops as well as an ideal way to get physical exercise. It was difficult to know which type to buy though. We debated whether to get cheap ones to use while here and then donate them to some local children when we leave, or splashing out on decent foldable ones to keep. We started our search in the Marina Park complex at a shop called Giant. Their folding bikes were great but more expensive than we’d budgeted for. The next place had a reasonably priced second hand folding bike which made us consider getting that and a cheaper temporary one but Paul discovered the frame looked a bit bent on a closer examination. The salesman, keen for us to buy, offered to buy any bikes we chose back off us if we wanted to take them for a short period. He told us he would even include the shopping panniers we needed and fit them for us.  We looked at a couple more shops that day, and another one since then but finally settled on one we looked at yesterday and will be off to collect them soon.

Paul spotting the bent frame
Nice but pricey
We settled on the red and ordered a blue 🙂
Paul testing it

Miri city centre is worth a mention. When we visited in July, I noted that it looked as if it is mainly made up of Chinese shops and businesses, but that the town lacked something that I couldn’t define. I think this was because I was comparing it rather unfairly with lively, atmospheric Kuching. Returning after a two month break, I viewed it more favourably. Miri is an oil boomtown, although its oil rig ceased production in 1970, and new inland oil fields were found in 2011. The birthplace of the Malaysian petroleum industry, Miri urges people to visit The Petroleum Science Museum, located on the site of the first oil rig, which we intend to look at before we move on. Anyway, the city has its share of shopping malls, restaurants and plush hotels and the handicraft centre we went to before we left for the UK is a great place for Sarawakian arts and crafts and handmade and unusual gifts, all made by local producers (they were so friendly, too – we chatted to them for ages). I think it’s fair to say, however that Miri is a gateway to several other inviting nature-based attractions that surround it, such as The Niah Caves, Mulu National Park and the Bario Highlands, all of which I’m also looking forward to seeing.

Miri Centre

Miri Handicraft Centre
Products in the Handicraft Centre

We had a quick look at one of the recommended fruit and vegetable markets before driving home. We didn’t need much, only an elusive courgette, but the markets are so colourful and interesting to amble around.

Durian plants for sale

I’m used to people staring at us now, and I think traders like it that we take the time to look around and ask questions. We bought some apples, a bunch of fresh rosemary and some pumpkin but our request for a courgette was met with either bemusement or amusement. Paul looked up the word for it in Malay on his phone (sejenis labu kecil) and we were directed to a stall selling a white, round vegetable that we were told was like a courgette as it was part of the marrow family. We bought it after another stallholder took the time to explain to us how to cook it. He did state that it was a bit bland in taste and he was quite correct – it proved to be a poor substitute for the courgette 😉

Life goes on in a lovely leisurely way here in Miri. We try to go out for a walk each evening, either to the Marina Park or the waterfront area so that we’re getting daily exercise until we get the bikes. The rainy season is upon us and we’ve seen some spectacular downpours. I’ve got used to springing up to close all the windows as soon as the drops hit the coach roof. The good news is that there are no leaks on the boat! The rain showers are welcome actually because the temperature drops and it really is delightful listening to it pound and patter outside while we are cosy and dry inside. I tried to capture the image of how heavy the rain is in pictures but couldn’t do it justice. I am pleased to report that my second attempt at baking bread turned out successfully so I think the flour from Bakery Ingredients is a hit (see pic below).  The pictures that follow it are of our excursions to the waterfront and the five-hour walk we took into Miri yesterday to choose our bikes.

The long, hot midday walk into Miri
Outside The Coco Cabana
Art Exhibition at The Coco Cabana

 

 

 

MIRI – Marina and Environs

We’ve been back in Eastern Malaysia for just over a week now and we’re just about getting used to the time difference and the contrast in temperature. It doesn’t feel as hot and humid as it was back in July – I know this because I have felt more inclined to do jobs instead of lazing all day ;-). There have been one or two occasions when the breeze felt cool, as opposed to feeling like the blast from a hair dryer, which combined with a few heavy rain showers, made it feel almost autumnal! Having said that, it is still hot…well, we are in the tropics after all. It feels good to be back on Sister Midnight and the ‘liveaboard’ life.

Home 🙂

During the unpacking and stowing on our first day here, I rediscovered things I’d forgotten I had left on board, and hadn’t needed to bring over from the UK, such as reading glasses and various cruelty-free toiletries. We had arrived at night, relieved to find everything dry and creature-free so we only had time for a brief sort out – enough to get the bed made up, the power and water running and to move some of the large deck equipment out of the cabin. Paul was up early the following morning, on a mission to get bread and bottled water, and when I woke a bit later to join him for coffee and toast, I naively assumed we had effectively dodged any jet lag and would now slip smoothly and effortlessly back into normal sleep patterns. We didn’t! For two or three days after that we were both lying in bed with our phones lit up for much of the night, while feeling lethargic and dozing for parts of the day. Our first full day was spent unpacking, sorting and stowing. I was intrigued by a new sign that had been put up on the wall warning people in the marina about the possibility of crocodiles in the water and wondered if there had been an incident that had prompted it. We found out later from one of our neighbours that it’s merely for ‘insurance purposes’ and it’s highly unlikely that one will venture into the marina. It won’t stop me looking though.

We took a walk into Miri centre early that first evening to get a few more provisions from the supermarket. I couldn’t help remembering the wriggly, reddish brown centipedes or millipedes that tend to traverse the paths at that time of the evening. I’m trying to control my urge to squeal when I see one because it’s going to limit where I can go and what I can do, not just here but in other countries too. However, it’s not that easy to eradicate a phobia by employing mere mind over matter. Ask anyone who’s afraid of spiders!  One of the books I’m reading isn’t providing much comfort on the matter. Redmond O’Hanlon describes his journey upriver into the middle of the jungle in his 1983 book Into The Heart of Borneo and the first paragraph on page one lists certain local creatures and diseases to be avoided, along with helpful hints on how to thwart them:

‘…there is no matching the strength of that irrational desire to find a means of keeping your head upon your shoulders; of retaining your frontal appendage in its accustomed place; of barring 1,700 different species of parasitic worm from your bloodstream and Wagler’s pit viper from just about anywhere; of removing small, black, wild-boar ticks from your crutch with minimum discomfort (you do it with Sellotape); of declining to wear a globulating necklace of leeches all day long; of sidestepping amoebic and bacillary dysentery, yellow and blackwater and dengue fevers, malaria, cholera, typhoid, rabies, hepatitis, tuberculosis and the crocodile (thumbs in its eyes, if you have time, they say).’

Into The Heart of Borneo, (p.1), Redmond O’Hanlon

Admittedly, he was venturing deep into jungle territory, but the mere thought of a necklace of leeches is enough to keep me from being near the perimeter of the jungle. Anyway I will keep trying to conquer my fear. The supermarket in Imperial Mall, I remembered, had an impressive variety of vegetarian food in their freezer department so I spent a happy 15 minutes examining it all and reading the ingredients (I know how to have fun 😉 ). I was particularly fascinated by a bag of frozen prawns that looked exactly like real prawns. I called Paul over to see them and he was less than impressed, remarking that they shouldn’t be allowed to use the word ‘prawn’ in the description.

All vegetarian and vegan

Wine is terribly expensive here. We bought one bottle for the princely sum of £17! We have since found somewhere that sells it a bit cheaper but it’s still pricey. After that pleasant amble around the aisles of the supermarket, we went for dinner at Madli’s, a Muslim eatery we’d visited a couple of times in July. Situated (almost literally) on Miri’s long, lively main street where there are several bars, restaurants and clubs, it’s been there since the 90s and has a good range of food, including traditional Sarawakian, Chinese, Malay and Western (they also cook veggie dishes to order) and the staff are lovely.

Madli’s, Miri

On Saturday evening, after a lazy ‘do-nothing’ couple of days, we thought it would be nice to walk to the waterfront area opposite the marina to watch the sun set. I had been trying to shake off a persistent bad cough and hadn’t done much for two days, so welcomed the idea of some exercise. It’s a 40 minute walk to this area, where the seahorse and the CocoCabana complex is located but it’s a pleasant walk along the wide tree-lined pavements.  People were jogging past us in preparation for the charity run that would take place later that evening. The build-up had been quite a noisy affair, with PA systems being tested by playing an assortment of bass-heavy music all day, which was so loud it had made the cabin floor vibrate. Now, an MC was trying to get everyone in the mood by yelling out corny pantomime-style exhortations to cheer and dance and shout out that they were happy and ‘ready to run’. We bought a beautifully refreshing cold drink from one of the refreshment stalls when we got there. I was expecting the lemon juice drink I ordered to be sour because I asked for no added sugar (they tend to put lots of it in drinks here) but it was gorgeous and even eased my cough for a while. The pictures below show how beautiful the sky is at twilight here.

Stalls on the waterfront
View from the waterfront

Woke up to heavy rain late on Sunday morning, and a much cooler temperature. Paul has referred to the bread I baked on this afternoon in his post. It was disappointing because I had tried it at home and it was a huge success with a golden brown crust and fluffy white texture. My granddaughters loved it. I used Jamie Oliver’s basic bread recipe which unlike the one I had been using previously, doesn’t require cooking oil but has more yeast and less kneading. I had been looking forward to trying it out on the boat. It all looked fine until it went in to the oven where it rose and smelled the part but for some reason it remained white in colour, even though it was clearly ready to come out. The bottom was brown so I can only assume I need to tweak the temperature and the shelf it’s placed on. The flour may also have been a factor. Here, unlike the helpfully labelled ‘bread flour’ on the shelves at home, there are several types on offer but we’ve had to ask which one would be best for bread. We’d been told that the high ratio type was ideal and that was what I used. Since then we have been to one of the shops in the complex here and sought further advice. This shop is aptly called ‘Bakery Ingredients’ and is delightful. Inside, it smells like sweet cakes and has a fascinating array of products – the majority of which are sugar-based but there was plenty of flour to choose from. We came out with two bags of ‘top flour’ which we were assured contained more protein and was perfect for baking loaves. I haven’t tried it yet so watch this space. Anyway the anaemic loaf was edible at least and it came into its own when toasted 😉 .

Which type to choose?

We walked to the area known as Marina Square late in the afternoon. This is the huge shopping and dining complex about thirty minutes’ walk away from the marina. I had made notes about the place during our visits to it in July and I have looked at them to see if my initial impression had altered. I had described it as deserted and soulless and it still seemed like that to me. It’s a fairly new structure, built as part of a plan to turn the whole area into an attractive tourist destination. Signs advertising the completion of this, promise it will be in April 2018. For this reason, quite a lot of the units haven’t been sold or opened yet, while those that were had few customers. The bars and restaurants are mostly the type you’d expect to see in major cities, except that they lacked atmosphere. To be fair, this is probably only a temporary state. A couple of the more popular establishments show how it could become a lively and vibrant stomping ground in time.

Marina Square

One of the units in Marina Square. I took this because it looks intriguing…and painful!

Before we left for the UK we had been to a bar called Chillax to have a drink with some of our neighbours in the marina, and it was here we headed for.  I think that in the two months we’ve been away, more units had opened and it seemed there were more people around. Chillax is one of the more favoured bars, but like all the others, (we asked) it doesn’t sell white wine – only red. We guess this is because it’s not as easy to keep if there is little demand for it.  We ordered some chips to share with our drinks but weren’t expecting the huge bucket of them that arrived, so ‘Tiger’ beer and chips turned out to be my somewhat unhealthy dinner that evening.

Inside Chillax

Oh, and it appears that Christmas has arrived here already so never let it be said that the UK is the only place where decorations start to appear far too early 😉

July 2017 Revisited

It’s almost time for us to return to Sister Midnight. She has been in her berth at Miri Marina in North Borneo since we left her at the end of July for our two-month break in the UK. Before we embark on enjoying further excursions and experiences, I am keen to complete the blog posts for the last few weeks in July. Due to intermittent Wifi and lack of time, I was unable to submit any entries or pictures before we left. They follow below and, typing as I am in a very ‘autumnal’ Merseyside, will help prepare me for the heat, sun and humidity that await us in Malaysia, not to mention the wildlife, the food and new destinations: I can hardly wait 🙂

A FAIRY CAVE, A STREET MARKET AND A CROCODILE!

The attraction known as ‘Fairy Cave’ is located about 40km from Kuching and is another ‘must see’ on the list of recommended places in Sarawak.  It’s near a place called Bau, a former gold mining settlement, and is also close to the site of a weekend street market we were keen to visit on the border with Indonesia.  To fit all this in, we were up and out by 9am, the satnav programmed with directions for the 90 minute drive. Like several of the places we’ve visited, it looked deserted and closed when we got there but the kiosk was manned and we were issued with tickets (thankfully without the offer of a ‘senior rate’ this time) and directions. The view at the entrance didn’t convey a very promising impression. Access to the cave is via a four storey concrete staircase, much like those in multi-storey carparks. To the right of it we could see the original, now disused, staircase which was cut into the steep rock face. This one had no barrier and some of the steps were crumbing but a passing guide informed us that it had been used as recently as a few decades ago – without handrails even then!

Stairs to the mountain’s interior
The old staircase

At the top of the stairs we passed through a dim, narrow passage and ascended some steep wooden steps. At the end of the passage we found ourselves inside the mountain itself. The massive cave had a huge opening, which allowed the light to flood in and the scene before us was the stuff of fairy tales…or Harry Potter, Gormenghast, Lord of the Rings, Hall of the Mountain King – take your pick! Anyway, there were plenty of ‘wow’ moments in there, and all of it was natural.  The cave is criss-crossed with concrete footpaths and steps and the slimy walls were covered in plants, ferns, and flowers. Stalactites and stalagmites abounded and some were almost meeting in the middle.

We could hear bats above us near the roof of the cave but I didn’t spot one. The ‘fairy’ that gives its name to the cave was rather understated when we came upon it. It was a tacky-looking statue that seemed to have been randomly plonked on a flat rock surface in the main cavern, as if to justify the name. I haven’t been able to find any definitive story about it anyway. Few other visitors were around and we had a delightful time exploring nooks and crannies and admiring the view of the fields and hills from the openings high up on the cave floor.

The fairy

The weekend street market at Serikin had been recommended to us by a taxi driver who told us that traders from Indonesia cross the border every weekend to sell their wares (particularly Batik cloth) at bargain prices. To reach it we drove through a flat, rural district where the roads were bordered by lush banana or coconut plantations and fish farms. From the car park at Serikin Market, we could see stalls lining both sides of the long, crowded street.

Serikin Street Market

They were displaying an array of handmade bowls, jewellery, musical instruments and authentic wooden souvenirs as well as the ubiquitous rolls of batik cloth. It’s a well-attended market and was thronging with people even in the heat of the midday sun. At the end of the street the stalls were packed with all kinds of exotic fruit and vegetables. Some of them had the produce laid out on the ground in attractive formations.

There were food items on display that we had never seen before and would have had no idea what to do with them, but almost every vendor urged us to buy something until we gave in and bought some strange-looking fruit that resembled chestnuts. Later, after they had been hanging around in the fridge for ages giving off a pungent aroma, we looked them up online and found out they are believed to aid fertility and are ‘an acquired taste’. We never did get round to cooking them!  We also came away with some batik, a walking stick, pictured below with its owner and a few gifts to take home.

Keen to make the most of the car while we had it, we set off to get some of the heavier provision items on Monday morning (July 10th). Mydin Hypermarket is a fairly short drive from the fish farm and was blissfully deserted when we got there, so we were in and out quickly and back at the boatyard by midday. Paul took the car back to its parking place in the lane while I carried the shopping bags to the dinghy. Standing on the bridge while waiting for him to return, I heard the farm dogs barking furiously and when I turned my head to look, I saw the cause of it and could do nothing but gape. Two of the dogs were chasing a large crocodile off the premises, forcing it into the swampy mud at the edge of the water, just below me. It happened so fast and was so thrilling I didn’t even think to get my phone out to capture the scene. The dogs were right behind its long tail, one on either side and they didn’t let up barking until it flopped into the water and swam off. I watched it until it was out of sight and thought of all the times we had crossed the short stretch of water in the dinghy when it could have been perilously close.  I understood the need for signs warning people to beware of them now; we would need to keep a sharper lookout in future. After returning the car later that evening, we spent the next few days on the boat catching up on various tasks. I didn’t see any more crocodiles during our time there – in or out of the water – but I feel privileged to have seen that one.

Crocodile spotted in the area on the left of the picture

THE RAINFOREST FESTIVAL

Sarawak’s 20th Rainforest World Music Festival took place from the 14th-16th July and we had tickets for the opening day. It was to be our final excursion before leaving Santubong and despite not being a fan of world music, I was looking forward to attending the festival in the Cultural Village. I had been up for walking the whole way there – it is possible to do it- but the early afternoon heat was making us flag before we had got very far along the road. Paul was correct in surmising that someone would stop to offer us a lift. Our saviours were a young couple on their way to the festival, who kindly drove us as far as the park and ride spot and even offered us some of their stash of cold cans of beer. From the park and ride site it was only a 30 minute walk to the festival and we chose to do that rather than pay to get on the crowded shuttlebus to the venue. At the entrance, our bags were searched as we expected, but this being Borneo it was without the grim-faced officialdom often found at some events’ security gates. The staff were clearly enjoying the festival atmosphere and wanted everyone to have a good time: the smiles and greetings here were genuine.

Welcome to the festival

The site looked totally different from our previous visit. It wasn’t overcrowded but there were lots more people, while colourful tents, stalls and cafes lined the village pathways. There was a lot going on and it was hard to decide what to do first, so we walked around the perimeter, browsing the stalls and checking out the variety of food for sale. Thankfully, alcohol wasn’t banned as I’d half expected it to be. Beer and wine were available, although typically prices were hiked up, it being a festival. Several workshops were dotted around the site, offering lessons or opportunities to make and play musical instruments and to create jewellery, clothes and woodcarvings from local materials. The bands weren’t due to take the stages until the evening so we spilt up for a couple of hours so that we could have a look around separately. Paul went off to watch some performances in the Chinese theatre while I browsed more of the art and craft stalls.

A performance in The Chinese Farmhouse
Ice Cream 🙂

Dancers in flamboyant costumes, their faces painted with vivid colours, provided lively entertainment on the walkways, accompanied by music from musicians playing traditional instruments. It’s easy to see why the festival’s popularity has grown over the years. The emphasis is on music, culture and dance. There is no bureaucracy, no political speeches and the atmosphere is very relaxed. I couldn’t fault it in any way, although I did have a few moments of concern.

A traditional Iban opening ceremony was performed before the main events commenced. A man in traditional costume entered the main stage and began chanting while holding a placid-looking rooster. Behind him, people were swaying to the beat of the music and it was all beginning to look and sound decidedly sacrificial to my mind.  I thought it best to close my eyes until it was all over – a tactic that has served me well when watching horror films or on vertigo-inducing fairground rides.  Apparently a series of blinding flashes and loud bangs distracted the audience sufficiently to make the rooster’s fate uncertain! I’ll go with Paul’s opinion that it was all just theatre. I found out later that it was the Miring ceremony, and is performed to honour gods, spirits and ancestors and to wish the festival success. Sometimes the ritual involves the slaughter of a pig or a chicken, but while the pig is almost always killed, the chicken is often allowed to live – at the whim of the warrior.

I hope it lived!

After that, it was all about the music. As the sun set behind the jungle stage we watched bands from Sarawak, Finland, Hungary and South Africa. The highlight for me was the Finnish band called Okra Playground who played a cracking ‘folk-rock’ session using traditional Finnish instruments, and judging by the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction I wasn’t alone in my admiration.

Okra Playground

The African music that followed them didn’t do a lot for me, however, and as we had an early start planned in the morning we were ready to leave by then anyway. The festival was a spectacular event and it wouldn’t have taken much persuasion for me to stay for the next two days, but it was time to move on. We had a six day journey ahead of us to reach the marina at Miri where we would be leaving Sister Midnight for two months.

PASSAGE TO MIRI

We left Santubong on Saturday 15th July. With a slight hangover due to a bit too much festival wine, I watched the fish farm fade into the distance behind us as we motored over the shallows of the river and out into the sea. I was sad to leave. The serene tranquility of the anchorage at Santubong would be hard to beat, even with the addition of the crocodile. I will miss the dogs, too. We made our way to Pulau Lakei, and from there to Rajang in two fairly uneventful trips apart from slight seasickness due to the pitching and tossing of the waves. The journey from Rajang to the Paloh River began with the unpleasant task of having to scrub the caked on mud from the anchor chain. When Paul had scrubbed it, I was poised in the anchor locker to flake as usual and the smell of ‘stale’ fish coming from the chain was overpowering and nausea-inducing. This was a short passage, but it took a long time because of the route we had to take in order to avoid sandbanks. For a large part of the journey the depth hardly got above 5.5 metres and the water was very murky.

Debris resembling the top of The Statue of Liberty?

The following day we set off for Patok at 9 am to catch the tide. Soon we were meandering around the curves of the Paloh River. Iban longhouses are located on these lowland riverbanks of Borneo’s rainforest. I had read that it’s possible to make arrangements to visit certain ones and to talk with the families who still live in them. Next time we are in the area we might plan ahead and do that; they have a fascinating history and culture and love to tell people about it. There was no wind but the current helped us make good progress throughout the afternoon. When we anchored, it was so shallow that for the first time, I didn’t have to reverse with the engine to set the anchor. Paul just dropped it in 3.5 metres of water and let the current pull it tight.

Wednesday 19th July was the start of a two-night passage to finish our journey to Miri. The first day was straightforward. Few other boats were around and the sea was flat calm. I took my usual 8pm until midnight watch and used the radar to assess the proximity of nearby fishing boats. We had hoped to save fuel by using the sails on this passage but the lack of wind prevented it unfortunately. The main hazards to avoid were oil rigs, disused oil well heads near the surface, and unlit fishing boats. The radar is a great comfort to me on these occasions.

Flat calm (oil rig in the distance)

On the second evening, we had company in the form of a little bird (a swallow I think). It flew around the stern for ages before settling on the solar panels and there it stayed for a good few hours. I remarked that birds are sometimes associated with myths and omens regarding boats. That very afternoon I’d been rereading the poem The Ancient Mariner. Paul’s dry response went something like…‘it’s just a tired bird having a rest and might even be dead by morning!’ 🙂

‘Look out for a seahorse!’ was the instruction Paul yelled out above the wind as we drew nearer to Miri on July 21st. Over the years, I’ve been asked to look for green, red and yellow lights and marker buoys among other things but never a seahorse. The seahorse sculpture (Miri’s mascot) is situated on a spit of land that forms the breakwater of the harbour and serves as a marker for sailors to aim for. I spotted the unmistakeable shape of its head as it gradually came into view, although it took a while for Paul to recognise it as a seahorse.

Miri’s Seahorse

We intended to anchor outside the marina until the tide was suitable for us to tackle the very shallow entrance into the marina itself. As we got closer, the sea, which had been pretty rough on our early morning approach, got choppier. Huge waves rocked us around like a bucking bronco, just as the sun came up and the area was very busy with marine traffic. Ferries, tugs and industrial vessels were going back and forth frequently from the marina even at that early hour. Anchoring was clearly out of the question in these conditions but we were aware that the sandbar at the entrance could make it very tricky if conditions weren’t right. For an hour or so we circled around dodging ships and big waves while I craved coffee and solid ground. Still undecided about when would be best to enter, Paul called the manager of the marina, a Captain Finn, who told him it would be fine to come in right then. We waited for a gap in the traffic and slowly edged Sister Midnight over the sand bar, watching the depth sounder drop to an alarming (for me anyway) 2 metres. Luckily the marina wasn’t very full and the waves died down once we were inside. Paul guided us in beautifully and I jumped down on to the pontoon and tied us off. We had a lot of sleeping and sorting out to catch up on before setting off on a proper inspection of our new surroundings but from a quick look around, it seemed lovely. It’s peaceful, sheltered and secure, with shower and toilet facilities – although no shops, bars or cafes. Later, we were welcomed by some of the marina’s other residents who were keen to offer tips and directions regarding where to eat and how to get into town etc. They were also able to confirm how secure and peaceful the marina is. In a little over a week we would be leaving our ‘home’ in SE Asia and it was good to know there would be people around to keep an eye on her for us. Some pics below show the parts of Miri we have seen so far.

Miri Marina

Miri Marina viewed from The Seahorse
On the way to the local shops
Sister Midnight in her berth
Miri Marina
Near the harbour
Sunset, Miri Seafront

 

 

 

 

Three Daytrips in Sarawak (4th – 6th July)

Tuesday 4th July – Semenggoh Wildlife Centre

Our guide book recommended two places to see orangutans and having spent a bit of time looking at both on the internet, Semenggoh looked like the best place to visit (funnily enough it was also the one our taxi driver had suggested). Founded in 1975, the orangutans (about 1000 of them) here are cared for in the Semenggoh Nature Reserve with the aim of rehabilitating them so they can be released into the wild. Like the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project in Thailand, a lot of them have been rescued from the illegal pet trade or have been brought in orphaned or injured. Feeding times were at 10am or 3pm so we opted for the afternoon slot, which meant setting out into the hottest part of the day. After the dinghy ride, the walk and the initial oven-like temperature inside the car, the air conditioning (once it kicked in) was glorious. It took about an hour to get there, we arrived at a little after two. We paid the amazingly cheap 20 ringgit admission fee (about £1.80 each) at a ticket booth and then drove quite a long way down to the car park. It would have taken at least 40 minutes to walk to it, yet on the narrow road down we passed signs and entrances for jungle treks, arboretums and rainforest walks – only accessible by walking back to them from the car park. All good value for money but we certainly couldn’t have done all those extras in the heat that day.

A building with a gift shop and information centre was at the entrance to the park. On the walls were pictures of some of the orangutans with their names and backstories. We’d barely started reading them when a ranger appeared to beckon us over to a nearby path where, he excitedly informed us, an orangutan could be seen on the branches of a tree. A few people were already there looking up in hushed admiration, with mobile phones held aloft to capture the image. Another ranger told us we were very lucky to see one this close as they don’t often venture too far away from their area in the rainforest.  We spotted it soon enough high up on the ropes between the trees, with its bright orange back to us, nonchalantly eating bananas and throwing the skins on the ground.

First view of the orangutan

We gave this couple a lift into Kuching

This orangutan entertained us for a good half an hour, swinging on ropes, eating, and occasionally turning round to stare at us staring at him.  The heat eventually forced us into a nearby wooden shelter where we could still see him. More arrived and gathered near to us as the appointed feeding time approached. A ranger appeared bearing more food in a sack, from which he passed coconuts, bananas and hard-boiled eggs up to the orangutan’s eager hands as he shinned down to grab it. At one point he had a bunch of bananas in one hand and a coconut in the other. After making quick work of the bananas, he proceeded to tear the hair off the coconut and then banged it against the trunk of the tree until it cracked open. He tipped the milk into his mouth, spat a large mouthful out, banged it some more and then gnawed at the white flesh, chomping while staring down at the ranger. Spying the eggs, he took some of those and spat out the shell to scoop out the hard boiled insides with his tongue. The eggs were his particular favourite I think judging by the amount he put away 🙂

At 3 o’clock we gathered to listen to a talk from the ranger concerning precautions and regulations regarding the orangutans. The alpha male, Ritchie, we were told, does not like loud noises and has a very bad temper. Orangs have very sharp teeth and are known to be strong: I don’t think we needed to be warned not to antagonise him! We followed the ranger along a narrow path with high jungle on either side of us to the feeding zone.

Don’t mess with Ritchie!

There were about 20 of us in the group altogether, including children – made up of Russians, French, Chinese and Indians of varying ages and I was impressed with the decorum of every one of them. The kids were well behaved, we were all respectful of our surroundings and we were all interested in the whole experience.  When we reached the viewing platform, a couple of orangs were already on the wooden structure tucking into an array of bananas, nuts and fruit. We photographed and filmed them, along with the little forest squirrels who were also making the most of the feast. It was fantastic to notice a female with a baby clinging to her tummy. Later we watched the youngster learning how to peel bananas and being taught how to climb by its mum.

The feeding platform

One young couple who had been keen to linger and watch the activities, had missed the last bus back to Kuching and asked if we’d mind giving them a lift. They were on a travel break from their careers, he was a doctor from The Ivory Coast and she from Bordeaux, France, studying animal psychology and had met during their travels. They were as impressed with our experiences and history as we were with theirs – it’s one of the many pleasures of travel to swap stories and backgrounds with the people you meet. We dropped them off at the waterfront and spent the rest of the evening in Kuching, shopping and walking – walking so much that my out of practise legs and feet protested violently. We ate in a Chinese hawker market. I keep hoping to find a stall like the one I had been to in Penang where the food is freshly cooked in front of you, but dishes from this one were displayed in uncovered bain-maries, school dinner fashion and there was a tendency to make you feel rushed to choose what you want. The food was lukewarm and the rice was cold and rubbery – cheap, but not very appetising.

Waterfront, Kuching

Wednesday 5th July

Today’s excursion was to the Sarawak Cultural Village – a ‘must see’ according to most travel guides and sites on Kuching. This will be the venue for the Rainforest Music Festival weekend on the 14th July so it seemed a good opportunity to check it out as it’s not too far away. The cultural village is comprised of seven authentically replicated houses and huts that were typical of those inhabited by the seven indigenous tribes native to Sarawak. There are daily performances of dances and rituals as well as demonstrations of their traditional chores, games and ceremonies. When we arrived at the ticket office, we were momentarily lost for words when we were offered the reduced price for seniors! Oh well it had to happen one day I guess.

The group in front of us had a great time in the village 😉

Clutching our ‘passports’, a handy little book containing info on the tribes and some of the myths and legends associated with them, we ambled into the park behind a group of loud and animated Chinese visitors.  The first house we visited was the Chinese Farmhouse and one of the men in the group explained to us that he was showing family members how much it resembles his grandparents’ house that he used to visit as a child in the 1960s. The family exclaimed and laughed and shouted loudly to each other as they posed for pictures in every part of it. We had a quick look around that house and then discreetly headed off in the opposite direction for a quieter visit.

Paul inside the Chinese farmhouse

We climbed some precarious staircases during our visit to the longhouses. They are reconstructed from thick logs (a notched log as it’s described in the book) – the steps hewn neatly into the wood to form the footholds but they seemed to be made for tiny feet and it would have been easy to slide down and do yourself a mischief if you weren’t careful, as the pictures below show.

The huge longhouse itself consists of an open veranda which formed the communal, domestic area for the villagers – up to twenty families could live under one roof. From this outer veranda, a smaller inner veranda is the ‘street’ from which doorways lead to the individual family rooms (all set out as they would have been if inhabited). It’s a bit like a commune in a big tree house. Most of the communal areas had people demonstrating various traditional craft-making skills.

We watched items such as swords, baskets and musical instruments being created, and in one house we saw clothing made out of tree bark.  The demonstrators were all keen to chat and to explain the histories of the houses and the customs and rituals of the tribes.

I was particularly fascinated with the headhunting custom practised by the Iban tribe. After a battle, a warrior would take a single head from one of the dead and display the skull in the longhouse communal area in recognition of the warriors’ role in protecting the community. They believed spiritual benefits were derived from the heads if sacrifices in the form of pigs or chickens were made to them, while the souls of the unfortunate decapitated people were said to protect the households they graced. The heads also played an important part in mourning rituals and when headhunting was outlawed in the 19th century and heads became scarcer, a head was often passed around to bereaved villagers. The heads we saw hanging from the rafters on our visit were real (we think).

Spot the heads!

One area had various stalls with some of the handicrafts on sale. The products were beautiful and unusual and it would have been easy to spend a fortune there, but I restricted myself to one item made from a coconut: a mum and baby orangutan money box.   The whole place was very well put together in a lush jungle setting, complete with monkeys on the roofs of the buildings and in the trees.

Spot the monkey!

We ended the visit in a theatre where we watched a vibrant song and dance performance depicting stories associated with the Sarawakian tribes and their daily lives. Leaving the village, we wandered down to the beach and had a drink in a bar there watching a torrential downpour of rain from the balcony. These downpours would continue all night.

View from the bar’s balcony

Thursday 6th July – Two Museums

Heavy rain in the night filled the dinghy which we keep suspended along the starboard rail. Paul had to get up in the night to empty it to prevent it straining the rope it was suspended on. Each time I woke up I could hear the rain thundering on the roof, but by late morning when we got up and got ready to head out again, the sun had chased all the clouds away.  Our excursion for today was to The Cat Museum in Kuching. It’s widely believed that Kuching was named after the Malay word for cat; ‘kucing’. Another theory claims that it comes from the Chinese word for port; ‘cochin’. Whatever the truth about the origins of its name, the city has embraced the association with cats (a wise choice given their global popularity, and ports just don’t have that ‘cute’ factor). There are statues and sculptures of cats all over the city, and shops and cafes have made use of the theme (The Cat Gallery Gift Shop, Meow Meow Cat Café). The local radio station is called ‘Cats FM’, walls bear cat graffiti and T shirts and souvenirs are emblazoned with cats of all descriptions. Hardly surprising, then that there is a museum devoted to them.  Housed on the bottom floor of the City Hall, it’s about 20 minutes’ drive away from the city, is free and is reported to contain over 4,000 artefacts devoted to cats. After checking that it also had wifi and seats, Paul agreed we should pay it a visit 😉

The cat museum, Kuching

The building reminded me of Liverpool’s catholic cathedral in its design and is set in beautiful lush green countryside. Inside, the four galleries are all on one floor with gift shops dotted around. Once Paul had sat himself down with his phone (he said he might join me later), I was the only one wandering around. It’s a quirky place. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not at first: it seemed a bit random with its choice of exhibits. For instance, there was an area entirely devoted to Garfield, the American cartoon cat which seemed a bit incongruous amid all the displays of stories of cats in history, literature, superstitions and legends etc. One wall had pictures of cats fighting, cats eating and cats mating and ended with the question ‘do cats kiss?’. I did enjoy it actually because I spent a long time reading the information on the boards and studying the exhibits.

Entrance to the museum (pic from the web)

Paul, meanwhile had got so engrossed in his work he didn’t have time to look around, much to his disappointment 😉 We moved on to the next museum on the agenda.  The Sarawak Museum is in Kuching centre, and houses local native arts and crafts along with specimens of local mammals and insects collected by the famous naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. We only had an hour before it closed, but it was an interesting hour. The building is a bit of a museum piece in itself, in a charmingly old-fashioned way. It had several dusty glass cabinets with stuffed animals, reptiles and birds in them, and wooden floors and quiet, dimly-lit rooms, like museums used to be in the UK before they became noisy, brightly lit and interactive. We ambled round, reading about the indigenous people of Sarawak and their myths and legends. These would delight any schoolchild with the tales of poison darts, sacrifices and of princesses turned into mountains. The masks they wore for battle were pretty amazing too. We got turfed out in the end because the attendant was ready to close.

Sarawak Museum, built in 1891
James Brooke, the first white Rajah of Sarawak

A walk in the park was next. Kuching’s well-kept park is popular with joggers and one area was full of people doing tai chi or something very like it. From there we returned to the riverfront to get the ferry across to the other side, which took all of two minutes and cost 20p. I was surprised to discover it’s a lot less plush on the other side of the river. Instead of smart bars, hotels and restaurants, this riverside has a few shops and cafes that are clearly more for the locals than aimed at tourists. It’s probably what the more developed side used to look like. Things could change once the bridge that is currently under construction is finished.

Kuching City Park
Memorial stones, Kuching
One of the many cat structures, Kuching

By the time we’d found somewhere to eat (a tapas bar in a smart square on the plush side), it was dark and when we reached the fish farm I was eager to flake out on the boat. Before I could do that though, we had to heave the dinghy out of thick mud where it had gone aground. Somehow, we’d miscalculated the tide times and it took both of us to drag it to the other side of the small pontoon where the water was just deep enough to take our weight and motor across. Paul said the alternative would have been to wade through the mud, pulling the dinghy until we reached the water. There is no way I would have done that. I would have happily sat on the wooden pontoon until morning before putting my legs in that creature-laden mud! I resolved to double check the tide times for the next day’s trip.

Lovely Santubong

Thursday 29th June –To Satang Besar

Weighed anchor on a hot sunny morning just after nine. Sadly, no further turtles were spotted but I don’t intend to stop looking; there’s always a chance of seeing one in these waters. A five hour journey stretched before us.  It was too hot to linger up above and the cabin was stuffy even with the fans on. A slight breeze provided some relief later in the afternoon but on days like these at sea, you long for sunset and the reprieve from heat it brings. At half past two we anchored near an island not too dissimilar to the previous one, put the canopy up and retreated below for cooling showers.

Leaving Telang Basar

Things changed late in the afternoon. Paul had checked the weather and noted that a huge squall was on the way. It turned out to be a massive one. It suddenly went very dark and the wind got stronger and stronger as the the deluge continued. The boat rolled, pitched and tossed for over an hour rendering me helpless to do anything but sit it out below; on hand in case Paul needed help above. The anchor held very well though and post-squall I was able to resume creating the latest piece de resistance in the galley using ‘stuff’ to make a tasty pie: chestnuts, onions, lentils, herbs and veggies in pastry, accompanied by gravy made from scratch because we have no handy granules. I was chuffed with the gravy,  which I made using a thick dark liquid called cooking caramel (found in most Asian shops), onions, vegetable stock and cornflour.

A very fierce squall

Friday 30th June – Santubong

An early start this morning in order to catch the tide for our short passage into the river. We almost didn’t start at all because the anchor was stuck in the mud. Yesterday’s fierce squall meant that Paul had to let more chain out and the anchor was well and truly dug in, not for long though luckily and we were on our way to by 8:30. On the route Paul related various hazards and conditions to be negotiated and avoided on the approach to our anchorage. These included underwater rocks and shipwrecks, the urgency to beat low tide, a sandbar and fishing nets and buoys. He also said the river has crocodiles and it isn’t advisable to snorkel, swim or do boat repairs under water. As he was telling me this, I saw a movement in the water and for a split second thought I was seeing a croc already but it turned out to be a long, thick sea snake.  We traversed each of the hazards slowly and surely, steering slalom-like around the many stationary fishing boats at the entrance to the river and were ready to drop anchor at 10:30 in the shadow of an imposing mountain. We anchored in 13 metres in mud under a scorching hot sun that burned my feet and legs as I stood at the helm. Opposite our spot is a small wooden pontoon with a bridge leading to a yard, which Paul told me is part of a fish farm and we could just make out some buildings beyond that. Half an hour later it was apparent that we were in a pleasingly restful place, and it has good wifi to boot.

The entrance to the river
Majestic Mount Santubong

Paul intended to go ashore as soon as possible to introduce himself and the boat to the manager but the dinghy outboard wouldn’t start and the current was too strong to row across. The engine had to be fixed of course, meaning more sweaty work in the heat of the cockpit. Apparently the problem was down to water leaking into the fuel, but this was sorted out quickly and the outboard was back in action.

First trip ashore

Once ashore Paul arranged a diesel delivery with a guy who was working on the fish farm and booked a taxi for a trip into town to get provisions. By the time we left at 3:30 it was hotter than ever and the tide had gone right out to reveal several lizard-like creatures scurrying around on the mud. They looked like baby crocodiles and were fascinating to watch but I’d hate to walk among them. We were greeted by the pack of dogs Paul had already encountered and told me about. There are about 6 of them and they all barked but wouldn’t come too near us. They’re the sort of dogs who bark loud and furiously while wagging their tails the whole time and they loved it when I spoke to say hello and tell them they were good dogs 🙂

The ‘guard’ dogs of the fish farm 🙂
The fish farm’s lush garden

We waited for the taxi in heat so oppressive I thought I would flake out and it wasn’t a whole lot cooler inside the taxi. The driver was a mine of information about the area. He lives locally and told us about places we should visit and about Santubong in general. Fishing and farming are the main industries here he said, and urged us to try Sarawak Laksa, a spicy chicken noodle and prawn soup: a local speciality. I asked him about the mountain. It’s called Santubong Mountain and is 2,655 feet high, he told us, and it can be climbed – he had climbed part of it but hadn’t managed to reach the summit. You need to be fit and healthy, there is a path to follow and it takes about 6 hours to reach the top. I looked up at it towering above me and felt tempted to conquer it until I thought better of doing something so strenuous in these high temperatures. I bet you see an impressive panorama from up there, though.

Home in Santubong

During the drive, which took about 30 minutes, both of us noticed how much more upmarket the environment here is, compared with Peninsular Malaysia. The roads, verges and houses are well maintained and larger and the cars and scooters are mostly new and much smarter-looking. We were dropped off at a mall where the supermarket ‘Giant’ is located and arranged with the driver to be collected at 6:30.  Discovering that the supermarket didn’t sell alcohol, we decided to ask our well-informed driver to stop somewhere on the way back – he was bound to know where to get some wine or beer, I thought. Meanwhile, it was a luxury to walk the aisles picking up things we hadn’t been able to get for weeks. Heavy rain was falling as we shopped and Paul was concerned about its effect on the anchor, but we had half an hour to kill before the taxi was due so decided to grab a quick bite to eat in one of the mall’s food outlets. We finished just in time to walk out to where we expected to see the taxi waiting. He wasn’t there. He still wasn’t there 40 minutes later! One guy, seeing us alternately pacing and looking up and down the road, kindly offered us a lift to wherever we wanted to go. I was tempted but Paul didn’t want to let the taxi driver down in case he’d been unavoidably delayed, plus we hadn’t paid him his fare yet. When he did turn up 10 minutes after the other guy’s offer, he truthfully (and smilingly) admitted that he’d simply forgotten all about us. Paul, admiring such a frank admission, bit back any admonishment he’d got ready to let rip. It rained heavily all the way back and the driver cheerfully (he really is a happy soul) delivered the news that there would be nowhere on the way home that sold alcohol because the whole of Santubong is dry. Disappointingly, I would have to wait until our Kuching trip on Monday before enjoying my first glass of wine in two weeks.  It was dark and raining heavily when we got back and the dinghy was full of rainwater.  We had to lift it out of the water (no mean feat that) for Paul to pull the plug in order to drain it all out. For once I was glad to enter the hot interior of the boat to warm up (and dry off). Fell asleep listening to the soothing sound of rain pounding on the roof.

There are creatures in that mud!

Weekend July 1st and 2nd

Our tickets home are booked! We leave on the 1st August and return on the 3rd October so two whole months to look forward to, catching up with friends and family. We enjoyed a lazy Saturday on the boat. It’s very tranquil anchored here – only a few fishing or diving trip boats pass by every now and then, and even they’re not noisy. On Sunday morning Paul collected the diesel he’d ordered and I helped to lug the heavy containers on board, after which we both retired below out of the heat. I made more bread and read while Paul worked at programming and at 5 o’clock we went ashore to have a look at the village and take some pictures. Santubong is a tiny and charming place, very rural and pretty with well-kept houses on stilts above the river.

Santubong Village

The warning about crocodiles was confirmed when we came upon this sign near the beach – I almost expected to see them on the sand in front of us.

Santubong Beach

The beach itself was amazing, especially in the fading light. Large boulders littered the sand and I couldn’t help picturing David Attenborough crouching among them while telling us about the feeding habits of salt water crocodiles.  Near the end of the beach we came upon some dogs peeping out from behind the boulders. They seemed to be living there in a pack and took little notice of us. It’s difficult to capture the ethereal beauty in pictures, but I had to try.

Where the dogs hang out
Twilight
Note the patterns made by the sand crabs

Monday 3rd July – A day in Kuching

We turned up at the fish farm entrance at the agreed time of 10:30 to meet our taxi driver from the night before, hoping that he wouldn’t forget us again. It was too hot to be standing around for long periods. He was bang on time thankfully and on the way to Kuching he provided us with lots more useful tips and info about places to visit and even advised Paul on the best type of car to hire, along with an interesting explanation about the petrol pricing system here. It seems prices are announced by the government each Tuesday evening and it goes into effect on Wednesday morning, causing people to rush out to fill up on Tuesday night if the price is due to increase.  My first impression of Kuching as we drew near was that it’s a big city, or bigger than I expected at least. Skyscrapers came into view, there was a lot more traffic and we passed office complexes, large ornate mosques and smart apartment blocks. High rise hotels and signs for museums indicated we’d reached the centre. We were dropped off at the waterfront, where all the souvenir shops are located.  A slow walk along that street was our first mission, as recommended by our guide book, which proclaimed it a ‘shopping mecca’. The shopfronts are old and quite charming.

Bazaar Street, Kuching

Inside them it’s a browser’s paradise and we strolled in and out of several, admiring the handmade gifts, local crafts and unusual carved souvenirs. I was keen to have a glass of wine after that now that we were in the (wet) city, and our taxi driver, naturally, had recommended The James Brooke Bistro as a good place for lunch. It’s the sort of place Paul hates because it’s clearly geared towards Western tourists from its style, its name (after the first white Rajah of Sarawak) right down to its bill of fare: spiced wedges, pizzas and burgers.  It is, however situated on the waterfront, is reasonably priced, and it sold wine.  We sat down. The food was ok, the wine was most welcome and the view was lovely. The restaurant also had some cats, one of them was a tiny black kitten that a member of staff told us she had rescued from the middle of the road earlier in the week. I asked nicely, but Paul wouldn’t let me take it back to the boat.

The first in two weeks! 🙂
So cute

After lunch we carried on walking, making our way to Chinatown where Paul had booked a hire car but they were still waiting for it to be returned from its previous customer. The lady from the car hire company let us leave our bags in the office while we had a walk around Chinatown and did a bit of shopping. By the time we got the car (a nice little white VIVA) it was 3 o’clock and too late, we thought, to fit in customs and immigration but we could squeeze in a drive to Kuching Marina to declare the boat’s arrival into Malaysia. After filling out a form there we were told that we could still get to immigration in time. It wasn’t far away apparently and a lady helpfully provided directions. We tried in vain to follow those directions but maybe they were a bit vague (drive past the building with the green gates and turn right). We drove around for over an hour trying to find the building. When we did we weren’t allowed to take the car through the barrier because we didn’t have a security pass so we had to park it and walk a fair distance to the entrance in cloying humidity. It was another old fashioned building but the guy who processed us was young and charismatic.  A good-looking guy, he lounged casually in his seat with a grin on his face while he asked us questions. In lieu of a boat stamp, the lack of which always causes some consternation, Paul gave him a printed card with all of Sister Midnight’s details on one side and a picture on the other. He was really chuffed with it and immediately looked it up online, smiling all the while. He even googled West Kirby because he was curious to see what it looked like. From entering the building hot, tired and slightly irritable (well I was anyway) we left it smiling and impressed. Customer service at its best. On we went to customs hoping for a similar stress-free experience. No one was there when we arrived so two security guards gave us a number to call and one of them produced a chair for me near the fan. They then lent Paul a mobile to call the number because his battery was flat. I just love Malaysia. A smartly dressed young lady turned up shortly after and unlocked the door to a tiny room straight out of the 50s in décor. There was a bed with a crocheted cover on one side of the room and two wooden desks on the other. There was a computer but internet was slow and it took a long time to enter all the necessary details and sign the paperwork. Because we didn’t have spare copies of certain documents she had to take pictures of them with her phone. Few words were exchanged but we left there legitimate at last and set off to find yet another place recommended by our taxi driver.

The shop was called Ting and Ting and is apparently a good place to find Western products…and affordable wine. I wanted to buy some Marmite and some wine. I found both in there, along with a few other necessities and then we headed back to the boat to do some online research for our next excursion: this one would involve orangutans! 😉

Kuching (Cat City)

The waterfront, Kuching

 

Kathy