Sunday, 29 June 2014

Climbing the Pinnacles

The Pinnacles Climb was one of the most stupid ideas I've had in a long time. It was a three day, two night excursion and the middle day was spent climbing 1200m to view the 40m high limestone pointy spears situated on top of a mountain. 

On day 1 we departed from Gunung Mulu HQ at 9am and caught a very narrow boat upstream for 30 minutes. We stopped to explore, with a guide, some massive limestone caves called Cave of the Winds and Clearwater Cave.

Five of us had signed up for the Pinnacles and together we carried on upstream in the canoe-like boat, which occasionally got stuck on rapids and the boy at the front with the paddle had to get out and push us off. The 9km walk to the camp was a pretty route through rainforest crossing two larger rivers by jittery rope bridges and many smaller gullies, which at a leisurely pace took about 3 hours. We arrived at camp and were shown our allocated sleeping mat and the kitchen. The camp was infested with bees, harmless we were told, and then one immediately stung poor Chris! 

Our guide, Christian, met us and gave a briefing saying that the climb was a 'very physically challenging, high risk, adventure activity'. If we were not fit enough he made it clear that we would have to turn back as the route was too treacherous to undertake in the dark. 

After a self catered dinner and breakfast of noodles we left our base camp at 6:30am with our guide. Already the bees were out in full force. The route up was basically scrambling straight up sharp, hard, fine grained limestone which was interwoven with slippery thick tree routes. The trial was only 2.4km long but it was 1.2km upward. The group got on really well and there was good banter - when we had caught our breath! The last 300m involved clambering up 16 fixed vertical ladders and along a number metal rail planks over shear drops. We pulled ourselves up slabs of more rock and across sharp baby pinnacles to get to the viewpoint. We summited at about eleven and admired the view. Unfortunately it was cloudy at first, but that cleared and the majestic peaks stood before us, weathered into sharp peaks by millions of years of acidic rain. 

After half an hour at the top (during which I ate more almonds than I thought physically possible) we started the descent. The trip down was much harder impact on the knees and thighs. It had rained and the tree roots were now very slippery. Most of the group had a slip or fall. I went down once and got a bruised bottom! Everyone in the group was very kind and adopted my slower speed. Chris was very supportive and kept encouraging me to keep up a good pace.

A grueling six or so hours later we stumbled into our base camp, oblivious to the bees which were going crazy for our sweat and went fully clothed for a dip in the fast flowing river - milky coloured, straight from the limestone mountain. It was 14C and after six weeks scuba diving at 30plus it was a welcome chill to rest our weary legs.

On day 3 we did the return walk back leaving about 8am and caught the boat back downstream at 10.40am. My legs appreciated the stretch but when I tried to get out of the boat at the HQ they had turned very stiff! 

Heading upstream on an adventure

A quick stop off at the clear water caves en route to the pinnacles

A beautiful 3 hour walk through the jungles to base camp 

Day 2 up at dawn and straight up, hot, humid and getting higher!

0.4km to go and most of it upwards!

 The start of the ladders with the dream team

Don't look down!

Lunch with a view - made it!

Formed over millions of years by photosynthesising bacteria producing acidic by-products which dissolve away sections of limestone leaving sharp pinnacles up to 50m high

Fantastic views through the cloud over the jungles and into Brunei

Leaving the bees behind at base camp we trek back to civilisation on Day 3

The beautiful bird-wing butterflies are everywhere you look

Monday, 23 June 2014

Gunung Mulu National Park

We flew over the Brunei virgin dense rainforest into Sarawak, the north-east section of Borneo. Mulu is a World Heritage Park famed for it's beautiful limestone cave formations, and the millions of bats and swiftlets which live in them. Mulu also provides lowland and mountain forests which are home for a high biodiversity of plants, ferns, mosses, fungi, birds, fish, amphibians, mammals and insects. Unfortunately most of the animals know that humans walking through a thick jungle are coming long before we get to see them.

During a couple of night walks (one with a guide, and one on our own) we spotted many different types of stick insect - some almost like branches rather than sticks - large geckos, millipedes- including a particularly pretty hairy one, a moon rat, and some sleeping birds including a maroon kingfisher and a fluffy green spider catcher.

Looking for more of a physical challenge we went adventure caving for 4 hours, a mixture of hiking, abseiling and climbing in a pitch black cave called Racer, named after the species of snake which lives there! We saw two Racer snakes and were told how they have learnt to catch a meals of bats or birds as they fly by in the total darkness. Also just as happy living in the cave were numerous large spiders, scorpions, bats, swiftlets and lots of crickets. If you don't like spiders don't scroll down to the end! 

The view from the park entrance road up into the limestone hills forming the unique geography that supports an incredible biodiversity at Mulu National Park

The typical creator of the rustle in the dead leaves that sets your mind racing thinking "snake?!"

Stick insects a plenty at night - some over 12 inches long

Heading up river for some adventure caving - the life jackets are a tad OTT as the river is only about a foot deep!

Some easy bits!

…and some trickier bits! No longer scared of heights though!

The squeeze

The cascade

The dream team

Lots of crickets eating swiftlet and bat guano

Lots of scorpions eating crickets

Lots of spiders eating crickets and scorpions

And Racer Snakes eating everything it can, including plucking birds and bats from the air and any careless cavers!


Thursday, 19 June 2014

Boring Brunei

After a rather extensive three month stay in Malaysia our visa was due to expire so we had to do a visa run. We chose to head to Brunei for a few days before heading into Sarawak to continue our Malaysian tour.

We took the ferry from Kota Kinabalu to Labaun and caught a connecting ferry to Serasa port in Brunei. All went well until we reached Brunei immigration and the dozens of immigration officials (with nothing better to do) started to question Chris' passport which had a torn inside front page (due the carelessness of guest house owner back in February in Myanmar). After much deliberation amongst themselves they turned back to us and politely told Chris he couldn't enter Brunei because of his damaged passport. After 15 minutes of questioning, pleading and remonstrating we got nowhere and asked to speak to the British Embassy, or High Commission as it's called here. So we went with the immigration officers to their staff room and watched them stuff their faces with biscuits and cakes (I always wondered why they were so fat) whilst we called the embassy. The consulate staff were very helpful and spoke to the Head of Immigration persuading them to let Chris through on condition that he got an emergency passport from the consulate the next day! What a palaver!!

So after a short few hours we eventually entered Brunei and headed to our hotel. The country is immaculate, no litter anywhere, new cars, no bangers churning out black fumes, everybody looks smart, has a job, a house. Such a difference from the three Asian countries we have visited so far. Crime is almost zero due to very harsh penalties for even the most minor offences. They have also retained the majority of their primary rainforest, thanks to their offshore oil wealth there is little or no deforestation. However these forests are expensive to visit and you can't go there on your own. Scientists are queuing up to get permission to explore the more remote areas of Brunei's jungles.

There are no bars, alcohol is illegal but as a foreigner you can bring in one bottle. There are secret bars, some hotels even have them in hidden basement rooms. Our hotel unfortunately did not, but we didn't care, we were just happy to have a big bed, a hot shower and air conditioning for the first time in over 6 weeks! We were both still full of infections and cuts from our volunteering and on antibiotics, so revelled in the relative luxury of a hotel.

We didn't think much of Brunei, it's an expensive, dull place, even the locals stream out of the country every weekend to Kota Kinabalu or Miri to relax and to party. We did visit the Royal Regalia museum containing an archive of gifts the Sultanate had received over the years from visiting dignitaries. There were a large range of gifts on display. Our favourite was the mother of all crystal beer tankards from Queen Elizabeth II with her ER motif etched on the side - how ironic!

After a morning of hanging around the British High Commission, who were so friendly and helpful (thank you Linda) followed by an afternoon sitting and queuing around immigration (again) to get a visa stamp on my new passport, we'd had enough of Brunei and were desperate to exit, so we headed into Sarawak for some more jungle adventures.

The wooden stilted village within Brunei's capital Bandar Seri Begawan

The mall containing the British High Commission with the Grand Mosque in the background

The Grand Mosque

The Borneo Express

The North Borneo Railway was a jolly experience. After roughing it in a tent for five weeks it was quite surreal to be escorted onto a steam train by conductors in British Colonial uniforms - pith hat included!

We had a good inspection of the engine before the off. It was truly a piece of art as well as good old british engineering. I cheekily asked the engine driver if I could blow the whistle and yelped with delight at the sound - TUUUUUUUUUU-TUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!

We learnt that it was the last British Vulcan steam locomotive to be built at Newton-le-Willows, England in 1954 before diesel took over. It is also one of only a few working wood-fired steam locomotives left in the world.

 Departing near Kota Kinabula we chugged through the suburbs and into countryside. The theme of the ride was very much reliving a bygone era and the sentimental brochure talked of escorting you back in time. Having now been in Malaysia for three months nothing we saw from the window looked particularly special or unusual but the views were interesting and it was good to watch the world go by after such a busy past few weeks. Many people waved at us passing by and the smell of the wood smoke was rich and delicious.

We stopped at Kinarut, saw some pre-war shop fronts and checked out the local wet market. It was saddening to see sharks and Giant Clams for sale - the very species we were surveying with TRACC.

38km south of Kota Kinabula we alighted at Papur and watched the train turning. Then on the return journey there was time for a tiffin box tea of smoked fish, satay chicken, soup, salad and fresh fruit - no Pimms though!