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Malaysian Borneo

 

 (1 794 km - 57days - 10 July - 4 September 2013)

 

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10 July 2013 - Cape Town, South Africa

After a difficult decision to leave Ernest and the Americas, I returned to South Africa for various personal reasons. After a long wait, the bank cards finally arrived, and I was delighted to pack up and continue my journey. Erika, my sister, kindly gave me a ride to the airport. It became a long day, as she picked me up at eleven o'clock for my one-thirty flight. Although it seemed a long time, there was just enough time to have my bags wrapped and pay the R2000 overweight charge. Yes, R2000 for only five kilograms and I was, understandably, miffed about it.

 

Airport staff informed that the luggage could only be booked through to Kuala Lumpur, as a different airline operated between Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Kuching, Borneo. Although one could understand where they came from, it still felt like a rip-off.

 

Finally, all boarded the plane, and we were off to Dubai. Surprisingly, I spotted Mark and Marieda on the same flight on their way to Phuket. I thought we'd meet again at Dubai airport, but the Dubai airport is such a large and busy airport, I never even caught a glimpse of them. I headed in the direction of Terminal 2, at the opposite end of the airport. So far was it, one needed the airport train. Soon enough, though, we were Kuala Lumpur bound.

 

11 July - Kuala Lumpur – Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

Once in Kuala Lumpur, I dutifully went to the baggage claim area as told, but there was no sign of the luggage. The lost luggage staff confirmed the baggage was sent on to Kuching. What a bummer as, by then, I'd missed the flight to Kuching and had no option but to buy a new ticket. What an expensive trip it turned out in the end. It was a relief to arrive in Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo.

 

Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the largest in Asia and, in my mind, was the furthest place on the planet from where I was born - not so much in distance as in culture, scenery and weather, and it held a huge fascination for me.

 

Politically, the island was shared among three countries: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, with approximately 30% of the island being Malaysian territory. The island straddles the equator, with most of the Malaysian side being in the Northern Hemisphere.

 

A taxi ride into town made it easy to find a room, and although dead-tired, it was impossible to fall asleep as my days and nights were all wrong.

 

12 July - Kuching

Beds Guesthouse, situated in China Town, was conveniently located and close to a bike shop that could reassemble the bicycle. They kindly offered to collect it from the guesthouse as it was tricky carrying a bike in a box. I further located a cup water-heater (for making a quick cup of coffee) and a pair of sandals. In most places, it was required to remove shoes, and flip-flops or sandals by far the most effortless footwear. I subsequently discovered my laptop charger was left behind, but that had to wait 'till the following day.

 

Kuching turned out fascinating, and China Town a convenient place to stay and only a short walk from the waterfront with its boardwalk and food stalls.

 

It was the first day of the annual food fair. Smoke hung heavily over the area as over two hundred stall owners fried, grilled and steamed their particular delicacies. Choices were endless, from strange fried balls, things on sticks, dumplings and items wrapped in leaves; whatever it was, all were delicious. From Chinese to Malay to Indian – there was something for everyone. And, if you really couldn't make up your mind, there was a wide array of international delicacies – even hamburgers.

 

13 July - Kuching

My lack of sleep finally caught up with me and I only woke at 11h00. A quick shower and it was time to hit the narrow alleys of China Town. My walk took me past rows and rows of Chinese shophouses, mostly built in the 1920s and '30s. It led me through the Indian quarters, with streets lined with textiles, jewellery and food. How can one not mention the cats of Kuching? There were at least four roundabouts with cat statues and even a cat museum.

 

In my walkabouts, I located a charger for my laptop and a USB modem as well as a SIM card, for times the internet wasn't available. By evening, it was back to the food fair to sample more nibbles.

 

14 June - Kuching

The plan was on leaving, but there was still much to see and do. A bus ran to Bako National Park, and what a pleasure it turned out. Once at the park, a boat ferried visitors to the actual park headquarters. I teamed up with another couple as the price for the ride was per boat, and not per person, and much cheaper to share, and it's always nice to have company.

 

The boat took us past the legendary Cobra, a rock sticking out in the ocean resembling a cobra, after which the boat dropped us at an idyllic beach. From the beach, it was possible to walk back to the park entrance. Not only was the scenery fantastic, but we encountered interesting-looking monkeys and even a bush pig or two. The boat picked us up at 16h00; all in all, a fantastic day. Starving, I arrived back, and it was easiest to return to the food fair for supper.

 

15 June - Kuching

It was time to get going but realised one needed a visa for Brunei and, therefore, had to pop into the Brunei Consulate. The consulate informed that a visa took three days but that it was possible to obtain a transit visa at the border. Armed with that information, it was on a bus to Semenggoh Nature Reserve, about a forty-five-minute bus ride out of town.

 

The park was home to Orang-utans. Twenty years ago, eleven Orang-utans were rescued after being orphaned or held in captivity. The programme was hugely successful, and the surrounding forest now has a thriving population of healthy adolescent and young adults, breeding in the wild. It was quite exciting seeing these very human-like creatures, and one could watch them for hours.

 

Back at the hotel, it was normal hostel life - people were watching TV, some were making food, and others lazed about. I chatted with the other travellers before retreating to my rather small room. (At least the aircon was icy cold).

 

16 July - Kuching to Serian Ranchan pools - 70km

It was finally time to see what the rest of Borneo held. The weather was (as can be expected) sweltering, just the type of hothouse effect one could expect of one of the last wildernesses in the world, as I cycled past numerous small rural settlements. In Malaysian Borneo there was only one paved coastal road to Saba, but most places of interest were located inland along waterways.

 

In Borneo, vehicles drove on the left-hand side of the road, and I stopped at a motorcycle repair shop to change the mirror to the right-hand side of the bike. People were incredibly friendly, and the guy at the shop eager to help.

 

My second stop was at a small store for a drink. The lady (who spoke English) was very interested in my travels. On leaving, she came running out of the shop with a packet of biscuits - how sweet of her. Just past the village of Serian was a lovely recreational area with a fantastic swimming hole. No camping was available, but they had charming bungalows. Just what I needed.

 

At around 20h00, I took a walk to the restaurant and sat chatting to the owners. It was still 28°C and perfect for sitting outside (albeit with a few nasty flying insects). Supper was nasi goreng (spicy fried rice) and tea.

 

Soon, thunder and lightning started, and rain came pouring down. Fortunately, the restaurant had Wi-Fi, and I sat surfing the internet, waiting for the rain to stop before walking back to my chalet.

 

17 July - Serian Ranchan pools – Selepong - 100km

Breakfast was coffee and cereal, mixed with Milo due to a lack of milk. By the time the bike was loaded, it was already after 9h30. It was another boiling hot day, with the sun beating down mercilessly. The route came with a few steep hills, and I even had to push the bike up one (shows how unfit I had become). Every little shop along the way was visited to top up with water, and soon it was nearly five o'clock.

 

Afraid it wouldn't be possible to reach Sri Aman before sunset, I quitted on spotting a school with significant grounds. After pitching the tent, I discovered I didn't have any food, except for the biscuits the friendly lady gave me the previous day. There was no shop nearby, and the cookies had to do for supper.

 

Fortunately, there was still some drinking water left in my bottle, as there was no water in the taps and, all stinky and sweaty, I crawled in. It soon started bucketing down, and the rain continued throughout the night; at least the tent was waterproof.

 

18 July - Selepong – Sri Aman - 30km

Waking up was rather early - as soon as cars started arriving, dropping kids off. Packing up the still wet tent was in view of the usual spectators, to whom I waved good-bye and cycled the short distance to Sri Aman. There was no reason to go to Sri Aman, except it made an excellent place to have a shower, and plate after plate of mee goreng (fried noodles).

 

Sri Aman was located on the Batang Upar River and was famous for the benak, or tidal bore. The tidal bore came in from the river mouth and filled up the river rapidly in the course of about ten minutes. It's said the wave crest at Sri Aman could get up to two or three meters high and local surfers usually waited along the banks for the opportunity to catch a wave.

 

At around six o'clock, the heavens opened up again, and I was happy to have a room from where to watch the rain through the window. After the storm subsided, it was back across the road to the riverfront where they served nasi goreng kampung (village-style fried rice). It was huge and came topped with an egg, a piece of chicken and small dried fishes (only about five centimetres long and less than a centimetre wide), as well as a small bowl of soup.

 

 

19 July - Sri Aman – Betong - 81km

It was an early start, and although there were two more mountains, the road was much more level than the previous days. Add to that the luxury of a cloud cover, and the going much easier, making for a relaxed cycle. At first, the plan wasn't on turning down to Betong, but ten kilometres after the turn-off another signboard pointed to Betong, which made me change my mind.

 

Surprisingly, it was larger than expected, with at least three hotels, various shops, and a large and modern sports field. After locating a room, it was time to go exploring. Of course, I was being stared at to no end and was sure no foreigners ever visited Betong.

 

It appeared there were more Muslim residents than Chinese if one could judge by the food available. Seeing it was the month of Ramadan, most of the small restaurants were closed during the day. Later that evening, the food market opened, selling all kinds of lovely sweet stuff and mostly curry chicken and curry fish – very Malay.

 

20 July - Betong – Serikei - 128km

Early morning, it was back on the road, together with trucks carting loads to the palm oil mills. The forest was slowly making way for more palm oil plantations. While cycling, one could hear monkeys in the dense forest, but they seldom showed themselves.

 

Again, it was sweltering and Borneo not for anyone afraid of heat or humidity. The road became hillier as the day progressed. There was an option to turn down to Saratok, which would have made it a short day. The map, however, indicated a small nature park a bit further on, which looked more appealing. The Sebangkoi Nature Park and Resort turned out disappointing and neglected, and I filled my water bottle and continued.

 

The heat made for exhausting riding, and I was dead tired on reaching Sarikei and was happy to find a room, have a shower, and eat a plate of food.

 

Even by Malaysian standards, Sarawak has an extraordinary mix of people: the largest ethnic group was neither Chinese (26%) nor Malay (21%), but the Iban (29%), known as the fiercest head-hunters in Borneo. The food was, therefore, equally varied - in most towns, one could find Malay, Chinese and Indian food, as well as a wide selection of local ethnic dishes. Sarikei seemed more Chinese, as most of the food stalls sold Chinese food; supper was, therefore, a large plate of Chinese noodles and a bowl of soup, just what the doctor ordered.

 

21 June - Sarikei

I felt tired and stayed in Sarikei as I could do with a day of lazing around. There wasn't much to do in Sarikei, but it was still an interesting and typical Sarawakian town, with many old Chinese shophouses from the 1930s. Sarikei was known for the growing of pineapples and pepper, with the result there was a massive statue of a pineapple in town.

 

Located on the Rajang River, near where the river emptied into the South China Sea, one could get a boat from Sarikei to either Kuching or Sibu. The riverfront was the breeziest place at sunset and the place where everyone gathered for a chat and a snack. I followed suit and grabbed a bite to eat while watching the sunset. The ships moving upstream were surprisingly large as I didn't think the river that deep.

 

22 July - Sarikei – Sibu - 70km

A second look at the map revealed a shortcut to Sibu. Instead of hundred-odd kilometres, it only turned out about sixty-five or seventy kilometres. The road was surprisingly flat and made for an early arrival in Sibu. It was a remarkably modern city along the mighty Rajang River.

 

From Sibu, the Rajang River ran about 560 kilometres into the heart of Sarawak. It was a busy river, with loads of cargo ships loading and offloading containers at the harbour. At the passenger terminal, passenger boats lay three deep, waiting to ferry passengers upriver.

 

Sibu also housed the impressive Tua Pek Kong Chinese temple. The dragon-adorned temple consisted of a seven-story pagoda, with murals depicting the signs of the Chinese zodiac. A large, golden bowl was filled with incense sticks, and outside smoke of huge joss-sticks filled the air. Devotees lit candles and incense sticks and placed offerings of fruits and flowers - it had a pleasant air of peace and calm.

 

Later in the evening, the night market provided roti and curry sauce, and I spent the remainder of the evening watching TV.

 

23 June - Sibu

The plan was to take a trip upriver to Kapit, a three-hour boat ride away and the day, therefore, spent in Sibi to make arrangements. The bank was, however, off-line and the day came and went with me going no-where.

 

There was, however, plenty of interest in town, and time was spent wandering through the large covered market, where just about anything was on sale. All kinds of fish, from catfish to shrimps, were displayed in orderly piles, and in-between flowers and spices, strange-looking shellfish and crabs could be bought by the kilo. Live chickens were neatly wrapped in newspapers (the poor things). Slaughtered ducks lay ungracefully right next to the eatery, and I forgot about the snack and continued walking.

 

From there, the narrow lanes of Chinatown zig-zagged past many a hardware and motorcycle store but no bicycle shop. Now and again, a sidewalk cafι provided for a cup of green tea, out of the sun. I hadn't seen any Westerners since leaving Kuching and stuck out like a sore thumb, being much taller, lighter of skin, and with curly hair on top of that, there was no hiding. People stared openly and never seemed to take their eyes off me. I'm sure they knew my every move.

 

Strolling down the backstreets on my way to the night market, shop owners curiously peeped out their doors to see what stranger was in their midst, and from time to time, one could hear, "Hello, how are you?" followed by endless giggles.

 

24 July - Sibu to Selangau - 80km

Early morning, the river was already a hive of activity; barges headed downstream with massive logs, and longboats were ferrying people to and from their villages. I, however, followed the road and headed past colourful Chinese temples and many indigenous settlements, where people still lived in longhouses.

 

Initially, most of these were built from timber but, nowadays, they use wood as well as bricks. Common to most of these longhouses were that they were built raised off the ground on stilts and divided into more or less a public area in front (like a veranda) and a row of private, single-room, living quarters lined along the other side. Each room with a single door for each family. The cooking area was often away from the main building. These villages made convenient places for filling water bottles or to have a glass of the very popular iced Milo.

 

All in all, it was a relatively short day to Selangau. Selangau was a small town on the Pan Borneo Highway. It is said the original village was located near the estuary of Sungai Selangau. I was told that on completion of the road in the 1960s, people moved and set up a new settlement along the highway. It was a tiny village with only a few shops, a gas station and a small market.

 

Once again, it felt like I was the circus that had come to town, but people were incredibly friendly and helpful, quickly pointing me to the local inn. After a bite to eat, the afternoon was spent in the comfort of my air-conditioned room.

 

At sunset, villagers congregated at the river; kids swam, grown-ups fished. Then there was me taking pictures and, in the process, met the English teacher - we had a chat, and he informed me there was a similar type of village, about eighty kilometres away. That was great information as the next town, Bintulu, looked one hundred and forty-five kilometres from Selangau, a wee bit far for one day.

 

That evening, the meal consisted of rice and sour pork at one of the sidewalk eateries, washed down with sweet tea. Then it was back to the room at the City Inn, which turned out a kind of a brothel, complete with side effects and all.

 

25 July - Selangau – Tatau - 85km

It was yet another fantastic day on the road. Thanks to a thin cloud cover, there was some relief from the fierce rays of the sun. Past large logging farms and small villages, where people went about their daily business in a slow and relaxed way. Even the village dogs were too lethargic to give chase.

 

Sadly, there was a fair amount of air pollution. Oil palm companies and logging farms have long used fire to clear the forest and other lands ahead of cultivation. Most of these fires are said to be from oil palm plantations. That year's fires were thought particularly bad because of the very dry conditions. Although it was illegal for companies to start forest or land fires, several companies still appeared to use this method.

 

I kind of dragged my heels a bit, as it wasn't far to Tatau, and when the rain came, a bus stop made a convenient shelter. The rain didn't last long, and soon it was on to Tatau, which at first appeared to be only a few houses on stilts but, fortunately, there was more to the village a bit further on. As one moved further away from the cities, the less English was spoken. As the main spoken language in the villages was Iban, it was somewhat tricky locating food and accommodation.

 

26 July - Tatau - Bintulu - 60km

After a slow start, breakfast was at the restaurant downstairs, and it was a strange breakfast which consisted of eggs and toast but wasn't your ordinary eggs and toast as the bread was green and came with jam. The coffee was sweet as the tendency was to put condensed milk in the tea and coffee. No complaints as on the bike one could always do with a bit of extra energy.

 

The road continued to be hilly, with loads of trucks hauling logs to the harbour in Bintulu. I even spotted a man in a loincloth, not something one sees anymore. Once in Bintulu, it took looking around to find suitable accommodation. The price seemed a bit higher in Bintulu than elsewhere but, eventually, a room at the Queen's Inn came at a reasonable price. Not only was it close to the night market, but also right on the riverfront. After carrying the bike and bags up the steep stairs, one could settle in. The heat made me feel nauseous, and it was best to stay indoors until sunset.

 

Not feeling hungry, it was late before taking a stroll to the night market. It was a pleasure to sit at the promenade, watching the ships and barges carrying logs downriver. Logging was big business, and it wasn't until seeing the millions of logs stacked by the side of the river, ready for collection and shipping somewhere else, that you truly realised the scale of it all.

 

27 July - Bintulu

While having a cup of coffee (kopi as they called it) and watching life go by, I got comfortable and decided to stay an extra day. The day was spent doing the usual laundry, and visiting the local market, looking for a few things needed. The market sold all kinds of interesting things, including a small pot one could plug into a wall plug for cooking small amounts of food. At RM13 it was cheap and also very light. It looked somewhat flimsy, and I wasn't sure it would last very long but was keen to try it out. Again, there was a colourful display of exotic tropical produce and interesting tribal clothing.

 

What a fascinating world it was - Sarawak was home to approximately forty ethnicities, each with its own language and customs. The markets were, therefore, interesting, with a wide variety of produce, including Malay, Chinese, Indian and local ethnic specialities. I wasn't sure if I could, however, eat sago worms (the larvae of the giant Capricorn beetle). It was said to be high in protein and considered a delicacy in that part of the world.

 

The traditional costume of the Iban women was especially impressive. The traditional clothes of the Iban are called "ngepan Iban". It included colourfully decorated, silver headgear, vibrant collars - made of beads and threads - woven skirts, silver belts, silver corsets, silver bangles/bracelets known as "tumpa", pronounced as tumpo (of which a whole set was purchased), anklets and silver purses.

 

As the mullah called the people to prayer, the heathen set off in the direction of the night market in search of something to eat. My route took me through the residential area with the familiar chanting of the kids, "What's your name, what's your name?" coming from the dimly lit entrances of their homes. Cheating a bit, I replied with any easy name that came to mind and could hear them repeating it amongst themselves. So sweet.

 

28 July - Bintulu - Similajau National Park - 30km

It turned out another interesting day. Instead of following the main road, a smaller route led to a coastal road. What is it with men, exposing themselves to absolute strangers? This, by the way, only happens when cycling on my own; not once yet has it happened when cycling with someone, be it man or woman.

 

Later, a sign pointed to the Similajau National Park. It was only ten kilometres away, and not too far in case there was nothing. In the process, I nearly cycled over a snake, sunning itself on the tarmac. It, however, spotted me first and quickly slithered into the roadside bushes, and I missed it with centimetres to spare.

 

The park was surprisingly nice with chalets and two hostel buildings at reasonable prices. There weren't many people, and I had a whole four-bed dorm to myself. Then it was off for a quick swim in the lukewarm waters of the South China Sea and a walk along the trail leading through the forest. It was a stunning walk without a soul in sight, only the occasional chirping of a bird or something stirring in the dense undergrowth. There are few things more enjoyable than a walk in a forest. On a thick bed of leaves and with the smell of the soil in my nose I continued, until hunger pangs made me turn back. The canteen served delicious noodle soup, and boy was it good.

 

Back at the hostel, I teamed up with three other ladies and rented a boat to take us upriver, searching for crocodiles. We didn't find any, but it was a magical time on the river, dead quiet and pitch dark with only the fireflies for light. Amazing.

 

29 July - Similajau National Park Niah National Park - 130km

I was a umming and ahhing whether to stay in the park another day or not, but on waking to a half-overcast sky, the decision was made for me. The map indicated Niah quite a distance away, with no kampungs (villages) in-between for water. It was, therefore, best to load up with as much water as needed for the day. Breakfast was at the canteen with the other ladies, with the result it was 09h30 before getting underway.

 

There was, as indicated, not much happening along the way but vast areas of oil palm plantations. About halfway were a few food stalls and not much further another set of stalls, making for convenient filling of water bottles. The kilometre boards miraculously disappeared, and without an odometer, it was hard to guess the remaining distance. I refrained from asking anyone, as they usually had little idea of kilometres and only knew the distance measured in time, by moto or bus.

 

I, again, nearly went over a snake and only spotted it when it raised its head in anger for coming between it and its destination. With legs lifted as high as I could go, I let out a loud shriek, at which the snake made a U-turn and headed in the opposite direction. I further encountered a monitor lizard, feasting on roadkill. It, unfortunately, got run over by a truck. So interested was he in the easy meal he never saw the truck coming and, too late, ran in the wrong direction. Poor thing.

 

Towards the end of the day, the road dragged on a bit, and I was happy to reach Niah, only to discover the park wasn't there, as indicated on the map, but another fifteen kilometres further. Nothing to do but put your head down and get it over and done with. The park looked lovely, but it was too late to look around and, after a quick shower, I headed for the canteen for a well-earned meal of, wait for it, …fried rice.

 

30 July - Niah National Park

The previous day's distance was still in my legs, and it was a slow start to the morning. After breakfast, it was off across the river where a path led to the Niah cave. The cave was at the end of a beautiful four-kilometre walk through the forest. The Cave Complex was an enormous and beautiful set of caves. It was at these caves the 'Deep Skull' was discovered, a human skull dating back approximately 42,000 years ago, making it the oldest modern human outside of Africa.

 

First up was Traders Cave, the cave where nest-collectors gathered to sell their harvest. Today, the caves are still used by nest collectors (for bird's nest soup). Thin poles snaked up from the cave floor to the ceiling. Unfortunately, they weren't collecting at the time of my visit.

 

Next was the aptly named Great Cave. This cave measured two hundred and fifty metres across at the mouth and sixty metres at its greatest height. The trail disappeared down into the bottom of the cave in pitch darkness. When the sun hid certain overhead vents in the cave, dramatic light beams could be seen. For many thousands of years, the caves were used as burial grounds. Interestingly enough, bodies were buried in boat-shaped coffins.

 

Strategically positioned bamboo poles, and ladders made from ironwood, were evidence of bird's nest collectors. Local people have been practising this dangerous occupation for generations. The half-a-million swiftlets that live in the cave make their nests purely from their own salivary secretions, and when the nests are cleaned and cooked, they produce the famous bird's nest soup, which is as highly regarded in Chinese cuisine as caviar is in the West.

 

Collecting the nests from the cave ceiling is a dangerous job, and fatalities not uncommon, but the price of raw bird's nests are so high (over US$1000 per kilo for the best quality, I believed) the risks seem worthwhile. Such a valuable commodity is a magnet for poachers, and over-harvesting a constant worry. Therefore, the caves are monitored continuously by park management to deter illegal collectors.

 

31 July - Naih Nas Park

First thing in the morning, it was laundry time and, while doing so, the camp lost power, resulting in no water. Fortunately, there was an outside tap still spewing out water. I rinsed the clothes and then set off on the Bukit Kasut Trail.

 

At first, the going was easy, as the trail stuck quite close to the river and passed through a peat swamp forest, making things soggy but easy-going. There were plenty of wild orchids and bizarre mushrooms along the way. On reaching the foot of Bukit Kasur, a long wooden staircase led up the mountain, which wasn't a problem, but then came a steep scramble to the top.

 

It started bucketing down, and it took swinging like a monkey, from branch to branch in the slippery and wet conditions, trying my very best not to go tumbling down the mountain. In the process of trying to find a secure handhold to pull myself up and over the slippery rocks, I, not once, but twice, got bitten by a spider. (At least they weren't poisonous, as you can tell by this report.) Close to the top were more ladders which made the going slightly easier and the last stretch to the top came with a rope to which one could cling. Once at the top, there was supposed to be a beautiful view, but as it was raining, one couldn't see a thing and I quickly, but carefully, climbed back down the slippery path (mostly on my ass).

 

1 August - Niah National Park to Miri - 85km

 

With most activities in the park done and dusted, it was back on the road towards Miri. The way was flat(ish) and, again, the heat relentless. A slight tailwind assisted me in the last section of the route which ran flush along the coast.

 

On reaching the oil-rich city of Miri, I was surprised, and even a bit taken aback, by how modern the city was. The large mansions and modern high-rise buildings were in stark contrast to the rest of Sarawak. I headed straight to the old part, where it felt more authentic.

 

2 August - Miri

The following day was spent wandering the streets of Miri, keeping an eye out for a bicycle computer and a lightweight tripod or gorilla pod. At the end of the day, I came home with all sorts of things, except for the necessary items. Again, I was umming and ahhing about whether to go to Mulu or not. The boat that ran upriver seemed far more expensive than a flight.

 

That evening, I bumped into Monica and Silvia again (not difficult, as we stood out head and shoulders above the rest). They invited me to supper at one of the local seafood restaurants, where we continued to consume more beer than food. It was a great evening, spent in the company of two wonderfully eccentric ladies.

 

3 August - Miri

My indecision whether to go to Mulu or not made for staying another day. Eventually, I bought a bicycle computer, had my bag sewn up at the market, and checked the internet for flights to Mulu. It seemed fate had decided for me, as the first available flight was in a week, and I wasn't going to hang around Miri that long.

 

Again, it was back to the streets, looking for a gorilla pod as, by then, I had convinced myself it would be the best for my purpose. There were excellent, light-weight tripods, but my biggest concern wasn't the weight, but whether I would take the trouble to take it out, unfold it, mount the camera and eventually take the shot.

 

That evening, while sitting at one of the pavement cafes, enjoying a beer and food, it was peaceful listening to the mosque calling people to prayer. It was reaching the end of Ramadan and people were shopping like crazy. After sunset, firecrackers were shot at random and restaurants filled to the brim.

 

I, once again, experienced someone asking me about my trip. After explaining, roughly, the where, when and how, they turned around and said: "I don't believe you." To be quite frank, I couldn't care whether they believe me or not. It wasn't the first time it happened – weird.

 

4 August - Miri to the border and back - 60km

I left Miri at 08h00, which was early for me, but didn't know whether it was going to be a long day or not. It was an easy thirty kilometres to the Brunei border, passing large and busy rivers. People in conical hats worked the fields, and soon the border post was reached.

 

Officials informed me they couldn't issue transit visas, and one had to return to Kuching and obtain a visa at the consulate. This was not the information received from the embassy, but there was no arguing with immigration officials. Tail between my legs, it was back to Miri to locate a room to leave my bike and panniers and to take a night bus to Kuching.

 

It was a long fourteen-hour bus ride and not the most comfortable of rides. Although the seats were comfy, the road was so bumpy, from time to time I thought I was going to bounce right out of the seat.

 

5 August - Kuching

 

The bus arrived in Kuching at 09h00, and it was straight in a taxi to the Brunei Consulate, where I filled in the forms, paid the RM45 and was told to collect the visa in two days. At least that part seemed to have gone smoothly.

 

Beds Guesthouse was just around the corner, and it made a comfortable home for the next two nights. The evening was spent enjoying a sunset boat ride on the Sarawak river, which turned out rather pleasant. On the way back to my abode, food was from one of the many Chinese restaurants and, as expected, it was excellent.

 

 

6 August - Kuching

By then, I had done and seen almost everything of interest in Kuching. The only thing left to do was to pay a visit to the cultural village, about a forty-five-minute drive by shuttle. These villages were usually fake, but this one came as quite a surprise, and I enjoyed the dance show. It also had a few show longhouses with not much happening, except inside it was surprisingly cool.

 

On returning to town, the markets were hectic as the following day was a public holiday, marking the end of Ramadan, with the result the bazaars were busy with people shopping for food, clothes and gifts. Many stalls were selling the very popular "lemang" (glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk in bamboo over an open fire); a favourite at that time of year.

 

7 August - Kuching

 

The following day, I picked up my passport from the Brunei Consulate and took the night bus back to Miri.

 

It was Hari Raya Aidilfitri, the day that marked the end of Ramadan and considered one of the two most important celebrations for Muslims. Many Muslims (and even non-Muslims) return to their family homes (balik kampong) for a couple of days during that time of year, and the bus was, therefore, packed. We shook, rattled and rolled through the night and only arrived in Miri at 09h30 the following morning.

 


Brunei


8 August - Miri

It was straight back to the inn where the bike was stowed, and it was a relief to see everything was still in place. Another night was spent at the inn, as it was already late. Outside it was boiling again, and an air-con room was the best place to hide. At the end of the day, a walk along the backstreets revealed an open eatery with the locals, always an interesting experience.

 

9 August - Miri, Sarawak – Tutong, Brunei 121km

Venturing further east soon brought me to the border and into tiny Brunei, and I mean TINY, as it was no more than one hundred and fifty kilometres from the border to where one could get the ferry to Sabah.

 

Brunei was quite interesting. Firstly, it was a Sultanate and a very conservative one as well. It was a wealthy country and home to one of the richest men in the world, the Sultan of Brunei, worth a cool US$22 billion, all thanks to the discovery of oil. Education and Healthcare were free, houses, cars and even pilgrimages to Mecca were subsidised, and taxation on personal income unheard of. I wanted to move there.

 

That all meant there were plenty of fancy and fast cars on the road. The problem was not all owners of fast cars were good drivers. Add alcohol to the equation, and it could be really dangerous on the road. Brunei was a dry country but, judging by the number of empty beer cans next to the road, they didn't all adhere to that rule.

 

All day a threatening storm loomed ahead, but besides a few drops now and again, nothing came of it. I pulled into Seria (the first town along the way), drew a few Brunei dollars, which I thought were artificially low to the US dollar, and headed off, reaching Tulong at around 16h00 and thought it a good place to overnight. The only hotel in town was hellishly expensive, but there was no other way.

 

It was the second day of Hari Raya Aidilfitri and all businesses firmly shut, except for one small supermarket. I, therefore, had to dig into my emergency supplies for food. They do come in handy from time to time.

 

10 August - Tutong – Bandar Seri Begawan - 55km

As said before, it wasn't a big country, and the road soon reached Bandar Seri Begawan (or just Bandar), the capital of Brunei. Along the way, I stopped to buy a cold drink, and on wanting to pay, the owner informed me it was already paid for. Another customer paid for it. It isn't every day a stranger pays for your purchase, and it's something that only happens in Muslim countries. Bless them!

 

On arrival in Bandar, it was straight on a water taxi to Kampong Ayer, situated across the river from the city. These boats, known as coffins due to their shape and speed, operate to and from the city. Not long ago, Kampong Ayer was all there was to Bandar. The entire village consisted of houses on stilts and stretched about eight kilometres along the Brunei River. It was said to be the largest of its kind in the world, with approximately 30,000 residents. Self-contained, the village was equipped with schools, police stations, clinics, a fire brigade and mosques. Houses were connected by a complex web of walkways and bridges; needless to say, it was fun walking around.

 

Once back on the mainland, a short walk brought me to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. The Mosque was built in 1958, and featured a golden dome, I understood, and an interior of Italian marble walls, carpeting and an elevator. It, apparently, had tunnels, which were used by the Sultan on journeys through the town. The forty-four-metre minaret made it the tallest building in the city, and it was better not to try to outdo it. Apparently, the Islamic Bank of Brunei's building initially exceeded this height, and consequently had to have its top storey removed, by order of the Sultan.

 

Later that evening, it was back on one of the coffins to get a view of the Sultan's residence. I thought one could maybe get a pic, but the view wasn't such that it was possible. It was, however, quite a building with one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight rooms, and bigger than either Buckingham Palace or the Vatican. The Sultan, apparently, owns two Boeings and five thousand cars. (It's not a typing error - it was really five thousand cars.)

 

11 August - Bandar – Muara, Brunei – ferry to Pulau Labuan – Kuala Penyu, Sabah - 75km

A short cycle led to Muara, from where I expected ferries to run to Lawas. Once there, it was, however, discovered ferries only ran to one destination, being Pulau Labuan, but understood that from Pulau Labuan ferries or motorboats ran to various other locations.

 

As the ferry was at 13h00, it wasn't too long a wait. Once inside the ferry, it reminded me a bit of a submarine, and as soon as we were underway I hoped it could provide the same functions, as the seas were rough, and the boat rolled violently from side to side. The ferry was a bit claustrophobic as it was a tubular, cigar-shaped contraption which was fully enclosed. It must have been a fast ferry, as an hour or so later we docked at Pulau Labuan.

 

From Labuan, one could see the mainland, and a decision was made to take a motorboat to the tiny village of Menumbok. With the bike strapped to the roof, we sped across the open seas at breakneck speed. Clawing on for dear life, I hoped I wouldn't see the bicycle floating in the ocean.

 

The boat arrived in Menumbok with, surprisingly, me and bike still intact. From there it was only forty-odd kilometres to the next village of Kuala Penyu. This was a great choice as it was such a remote part of the country. I was sure few ever went that way. There wasn't any reason for anyone to venture there, as it was kind of a dead-end. So remote was it, I stumbled upon the place where the first Survivor series was made.  


Sabah


12 August - Kuala Penyu

I woke to pouring rain, and nothing much came of my plans to visit Tiger Island or the wetland reserve. Instead, it became another laundry day and a day of hanging around the small village of Kuala Penyu.

 

A walk to the river revealed a few restaurants serving noodle soup and sweet tea to the locals. My presence nearly caused a riot as people crowded to have a look at the foreign woman in their midst. I kid you not! Needless to say, it felt uncomfortable, eating my noodle soup with, what felt like, the entire town watching.

 

 

13 August - Kuala Penyu – Beaufort – 40 kilometres

Shortly after leaving, the road reached the small town of Beaufort. With such an English sounding name and a need for an ATM, I pulled in, but there wasn't much to see in Beaufort. It was a typical jungle town, except for the fact it had a railway station. The city still had several rows of blue, two-storey, wooden shop houses, which gave it a rustic feel. Notorious for its annual flooding, the town was further known for its stilted shops and homes.

 

It was easy to find a room and I lazed around for the rest of the day. Plans of going to the wetland reserve proved a bit problematic, and nothing came of it. The railway line intrigued me, and it would have been nice to have taken the train to the end of the line and back, if only to see what it was like, but there was no train at the time.

 

 

14 August - Beaufort – Kota Kinabalu – 98 kilometres

None of my plans came to anything, and on making inquiries, one got a different answer every time. I therefore left and it was an easy day on the road - the most significant problem being that it was busy and narrow.

 

Halfway to Kota Kinabalu, a high mountain range loomed ahead and, once again, I realised never to become too blasι. Fortunately, nothing came of the mountains as the road followed a kind of a valley, a beautiful ride past a lush green countryside, interesting people, and small villages and riverside settlements. I got into a sort of rhythm: the wheels spun smoothly, making a soft, whirring sound on the tarmac and the kilometres flew by. I pedalled past women carrying baskets strapped to their backs, past roadside Durian stalls and scrawny-looking dogs, too timid to give chase.

 

Most interestingly, the route led past custom-built concrete bird's nest factories. I read somewhere "edible bird's nests are among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans." The nests are used in Chinese cooking, mostly for bird's nest soup. Made of interwoven strands of saliva they are high in calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium.

 

Finally, I reached the big and modern city of Kota Kinabalu, or just KK as it was known to the locals.

 

15 August - Kota Kinabalu

It was a slow start to the morning as it was a windowless room (one of my pet hates), but then one couldn't argue with the price. There were no plans for the day, but to walk around and see what Kota Kinabalu was all about. There wasn't much of interest in town except for the interesting waterfront with its fishing boats, markets and food stalls. It was blazing hot again, and there wasn't much in the way of walking around. Still, the bank didn't want to dispense any money due to my bank being off-line, arrrggghhh!

 

That night, I didn't go down to the local night market, as was my habit, but instead sought out the tourist lane where they played Western music, had a large screen TV, and sold beer and pizzas. Strangely enough, most of the patrons were locals. How ironic: the tourists were down at the local night market, and the locals were at the tourist spot. I got my share of ear-splitting music, pricy beers and lousy food, and headed back to my room, having had my fill of Western culture, for the time being.

 

16-17 August - Kota Kinabalu

Early morning, it was on a boat to the nearby islands. Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park consisted of five islands just off the coast of downtown Kota Kinabalu. The day was only long enough for visiting three of the islands, and what a blast. I snorkelled until my fingers and toes were wrinkled - what a pleasure. The water was lukewarm and crystal clear, the fish colourful and plentiful. What more could I ask for? There are times I genuinely think I'm happiest when in the water. Too soon it was time to head back, and if I knew there was camping on the islands, I sure would have brought my tent along.

 

Another day was spent in Kota Kinabalu. There wasn't much to see in town as World War II bombs destroyed most of KK and, except for the waterfront markets, there were only a few parks of any interest.

 

18 August - Kota Kinabalu – Kota Belud – 75 kilometres

I picked up my laundry, had a Chinese bun and coffee, and headed out of town. Outside Tuaran was an upside-down house which made for a fun stop to look at this bizarre building. Inside everything was upside down: tables, chairs, beds, everything was hanging from the ceiling. The designer didn't forget about the outside, and even the car was hanging from the carport roof.

 

From Tuaran, the road became extremely mountainous. It was intensely hot and drenched in sweat I moved at a snail's pace up the mountain. The sight of a stall selling ice-cold sugarcane juice brightened up my day, especially after travelling under the blazing sun for a good few hours. On getting closer, the stall owner frantically waved me down, and I found a drink waiting for me on the counter. An anonymous traveller bought me sugarcane juice and the stall owner told to wave me down. How awesome is that? I gulped it down and was set and ready to tackle a few more hills.

 

19 August - Kota Belud – Poropok View – 45 kilometres

Overnight there was a change of plans and I instead decided to cycle over the mountains past Mt. Kinabalu National Park. As, by then, already past the main turn off to Mt Kinabalu, the secondary route came with a few nasty hills, to such an extent the bike needed pushing from time to time. It wasn't that the hill was so high but rather due to the steep gradient. The uphill went on and on and on, kilometre after kilometre.

 

Eventually, a kind man stopped, offered me water and informed me it was another seven kilometres to the top. Soon afterwards, another good Samaritan stopped to offer a ride. I seriously considered his offer but, in the end, continued up the mountain, huffing and puffing.

 

"To the top of the hill" only meant to the junction of the main road from KK. From there, it was much easier going and, although still uphill and slow going, it was much more doable. Soon after joining the main road, and just as I thought I could go no further, a small settlement selling handicrafts and snacks came into view. My request for camping didn't seem to surprise them, and they quickly pointed me to a covered area which had electricity, a tap and toilets close by. I was happy for the cover, as it rained all night. I further understood I wasn't the first one to camp at that spot and that three other cyclists had camped there on previous occasions.

 

 

20-21 August - Poropok View – Mt. Kinabalu Nas Park – 16 kilometres

Local knowledge told me it was another seven kilometres uphill and then the road levelled out to the park. How wrong they were. I nearly had a sense of humour failure, as the road kept going up and up.

 

On reaching the park, it was found accommodation in the park had been handed over to a resort company, and prices had increased dramatically. It was much better to stay outside the park gate at one of the homestays. A room for RM35 right outside the entrance was perfect for me, and I was happy the hills were done for the day. I rinsed my sweaty clothes and had a bite to eat at the next-door restaurant. The weather took a turn for the worse, and I was happy to be in a room and not busy walking up the mountain.

 

The storm dissipated during the night, and I woke to clear skies and with a view of Mt. Kinabalu, dominating the skyline, rising 4,101m AMSL. After my usual noodle soup for breakfast, it was off into the park on one of the many trails. I soon met up with Lucia (from Spain but living in Mozambique), and the two of us continued the walk together. It was a pleasant route with a few unusual plants. There was just enough time for lunch before Lucia had to catch the bus back to KK.

 

22 August - Mt. Kinabalu Nas Park – Telupid – 115 kilometres

I flew the twenty kilometres downhill to Ranau. All I needed was a red suit and I could've been Superwoman. I swept past small settlements, clinging precariously to the mountainside; each house with its own piece of land, forming an interesting patchwork of lines and colours. The jagged peaks of Mt. Kinabalu slowly disappeared in the distance. And that was the end of the downhill.

 

Soon, the road started snaking up yet another mountain, and it continued in that vein for the rest of the day. There wasn't much one could do but put your head down and get it over and done with. The heat was intense and water the biggest problem - I stopped at each and every conceivable watering hole to fill my bottles and rehydrate myself.

 

In the meantime, and for no apparent reason, I had my eye set on Telupid, about one hundred and twenty kilometres from Mt. Kinabalu. Determined, I tackled hill after hill, and the kilometres to Telupid became less and less. When the signboard announced the last four kilometres to Telupid, my mood lifted. I was nearly there. At the same time, a considerable climb came into view, bloody hell! Fortunately, so did a sign for the Golden Star Hotel. There and then I decided to tackle the mountain in the morning.

 

It was an interesting find, as the hotel looked relatively new and nearly everything worked. The air-con was icy cold, the shower nice and warm, and the bed firm. Heaven. The downstairs restaurant appeared popular for a place in the middle of nowhere.

 

That evening, I sat on the veranda, had a beer and a massive plate of fried rice while watching the large trucks battle up the hill in the rain. I had a distinct feeling the staff had to draw straws to see who was going to serve the foreigner. There was a lot of giggling and then one shyly appeared, asking what I would like to eat by pointing her fingers to her mouth. I crawled into bed listening to the rain pouring down as it rained as it can only rain in the tropics.

 

 

23 August - Telupid - JC resort – 80 kilometres

I couldn't say I was refreshed and well-rested as I climbed the first hill of the day. I felt lethargic and my legs tired. No sooner was I out the mountains and I was into the hills. Up and down the hills I went, past oil palm plantation after oil palm plantation, all in the scorching heat of the day. It was an exhausting day - not only was it hilly but I had to keep my eyes glued to my rear-view mirror for trucks coming up behind me. Often, I had to shoot off the road as there wasn't enough space for me and two trucks. The kilometres past especially slowly and somehow, every time I passed a signboard, the phrase "another one down, another one down" popped into my head. It drove me bonkers: no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get rid of it. "Another one down, another one down."

 

Then came the biggest surprise of the day. Into view came a line of traffic disappearing over the hill and into the distance, and they weren't moving at all. At first, I thought it was due to the road works (of which there were plenty). I tried my best to weave through the traffic, but there was very little space. Trenches were dug along the side of the road, and the bit of road left was hardly wide enough for two cars, let alone two trucks and me.

 

I pulled off at a roadside stall and was informed of an accident further ahead, and of rooms and a restaurant five hundred metres further on. How lucky can one be? "Another one down, another one down."

 

24-25 August - JC Resort – Sepilok Orang-Utan Centre - 30km

The traffic was no better than the previous day, and the road was physically and mentally tiring - I was off the road more than on it. Trucks kept flying by in both directions, making cycling tricky. Thirty kilometres further I got to the Sepilok Orang-Utan Centre turn-off and was relieved to get off the main road.

 

Down the road were various types of accommodation, one being the popular Uncle Tan's. I needed no second invitation and off-loaded my bike, and soon I was swinging in a hammock under the trees - I was exhausted. The room was quite expensive, but the price included three meals; a good thing, as there were no shops close by.

 

The following day, I went to visit the Orang-Utan Centre and lazed around, doing as little as possible. Uncle Tan's was a wonderful place to do that - it had a beautiful setting in the jungle, and there was plenty of open space to walk or just to swing in a hammock.

 

 

26-28 August - The Kinabatangan River Trip

A boat trip up the Kinabatangan River was a novel way to see what was left of the famous rainforest. The Kinabatangan River was the longest in Sabah, starting high in the Crocker Range and flowing five hundred and sixty kilometres down to the Sulu Sea, on the east coast of Sabah. First, it was a mini-bus ride to the river, and then an hour or so by boat to the jungle camp.

 

By late afternoon, a boat ride downriver took us in search of wildlife and we saw plenty of monkeys as they settled down on treetops for the night. Crocodiles and monitor lizards were plentiful. The area was teeming with birdlife, including eagles, owls, hornbills, kingfishers, and many others I didn't know the names of.

 

The jungle camp was interesting and consisted of half-open structures with mattresses on the floor and much-needed mosquito nets. The night was noisy with monkeys, frogs and loads of other sounds I couldn't identify. Toilets were miles away and not a place I wanted to go to in the dark.

 

Early morning, we were at it again, in search of the elusive Orang-Utans. We didn't find any but again saw loads of birds, a few crocodiles and plenty monkeys. After returning, breakfast was waiting after which we were taken on a walk in the jungle. Again, fascinating, we found tiny insects and interesting plants. By evening we went back in search of wildlife, and although there wasn't much along the riverbanks, it was a pleasant trip. After supper, all donned wellies and set off into the swampy wetlands and found many fascinating insects and birds (the birds were mostly fast asleep).

 

Our final morning came with another boat ride and this time we located the Orang-Utan, calmly going about their business while we stared in awe. After breakfast, it was time to head back to civilisation, and I was glad I went.

 

I stayed one more night at Uncle Tan's, as it was the most convenient place to hang about.

 

 

29 August - 2 September - Uncle Tan's – Sandakan - 35km

It was time to continue, and I followed the busy road into Sandakan. The way led past the water village of Kampung Buli Sim-Sim, the water village around which Sandakan expanded in the nineteenth century. It was a fascinating world, and villagers found me as interesting as I found them. "Farang, farang," the little ones shouted and ran for their lives. (Farang being the Thai word for someone of European ancestry, no matter where they may come from.)

 

Once in Sandakan, I asked around for information about the ferry to Zamboanga City, Mindanao, the most southern island in the Philippines, but no one could tell for sure when and where it left from.

 

The lack of knowledge, I suspected stemmed from rumours that Mindanao was one of the most dangerous islands of the Philippines and, therefore, seldom visited. It had a reputation for kidnappings as several foreigners had been captured in Zamboanga City. It was one part of the world where you didn't want to be mistaken for a journalist. The reason being that through the years, the island Muslims (Moros) have launched repeated attempts to establish autonomy on the island. Since the Maguindanao massacre in 2009, when fifty-seven civilians were killed, amongst them four journalists, Mindanao ranked only second to Iraq in being the deadliest country for journalists. In fact, while there, an attack took place that left many dead, and that resulted in a tense hostage crisis. More about that in the next book.

 

In the end, I cycled to the ferry port, and once there learned the ferry only sailed on Tuesdays. I so wished it would be the following day, but there wasn't much one could do but wait the five days. Back in the city, I found a room at Sandakan Backpackers and had no idea how one would pass the time.

 

"Merdeka, Merdeka, Merdeka." The following day was Hari Kemerdekaan, a national holiday, commemorating the independence of Malaysia from British colonial rule in 1957. It was a busy and colourful day; food stalls, balloons, jumping castles and parades were all over town. People were out enjoying the festivities, and it was hardly possible to walk in the streets. The waterfront area was packed with people, sipping noodle soup and drinking tea. It didn't feel so uncomfortable taking photos of people, as a thousand pictures must have been taken of me.

 

The following day the Independence Day celebrations were still in full swing. Having had enough of the crowds, I headed off to Kampung Buli Sim-Sim. The water village was well organised, and it was fun walking around on the wooden walkways between the houses. Kids came running up, wanting their picture taken, and now and again I could hear: "Welcome to Sim-Sim," coming from inside the wooden houses. I quite liked it and felt at home, despite being obviously foreign. The Sunday market was, once again, an interesting place, selling anything from clothing to food and pets.

 

The next day, I bought the ferry ticket and had to buy a return ticket as the Philippines required an onward ticket, may it be by boat or plane. It turned out a pricey affair, but there wasn't much one could do about it.

 

3 September - Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia - Zamboanga City, Mindanao, Philippines - By ferry

At last, the 3rd arrived, and although the ticket stated the departure time at 16h00, we were told to be at the port at 18h00. Shortly before leaving Sandakan Backpackers, which felt like home by that time, it started bucketing down, the last thing in the world I felt like was cycling the short eight kilometres to the ferry in the rain. Fortunately, as rain goes in the tropics, it came down hard and quick and, on leaving, it was all over.

 

Once at the port, it was a madhouse of people, trucks, busses and minivans, picking passengers up or dropping them off for the next trip. Once my bike and I were on the ferry, it was time to explore, and I found double bunk beds on the deck (better than sleeping on the floor). My spot was no. 317, and that was only on Deck 1. People kept pouring onto the ferry, and it wasn't unusual for two or more people to have the same bunk number.

 

It was after 22h00 before finally departing. The tiny canteen was jam-packed, trying to serve all the passengers; it was hardly worth the wait to buy something. The bunks were rather close to one another, and it was a noisy night under blazing, fluorescent lights. Eventually, I fell asleep to the snoring, phlegm-coughing, burping and farting of other passengers.

 

 

4 September - Zamboanga City, Mindanao, Philippines

I woke early to more chattering, coughing, farting, burping and radio's playing - each to their own tune. Our vessel was moving at a snail's pace, and it was understood from other passengers it was due to engine problems. Being the only foreigner aboard, I had my fair share of attention. It seemed there was no shame in people coming to have a look, and they gathered at the end of my bunk, staring openly (there was no picking one's nose discretely). At the same time, it was social, and the ladies on both sides took it upon themselves to take care of me and told onlookers when it was time to go. This was perfect, as there was always someone to watch your stuff while not there.

 

The hours came and went and, in the end, the sun started sinking below the horizon, and still, there was no land in sight. I sat on the deck, watching Muslims perform their evening prayers to the soothing sounds of the (impromptu?) mullah. It was calming and peaceful against the vibrant colours of the setting sun.

 

We reached the port of Zamboanga City at around 9.00 p.m., but it wasn’t until 11.00 p.m. we got off the ferry. The going was particularly slow, as everyone wanted to get off first, and one had to wait for transportation to the immigration office. While waiting to get off, one had to be particularly alert as small kids hopped on-board, scavenging for whatever was going - might it be unattended luggage or leftover food. They were like monkeys, scaling up and down the side of the ferry; and astonishing to watch them operate - they were as quick as lightning, and on-board security had no chance of catching them. They were under and over the sleeping bunks without the guards seeing them.

 

Eventually, all were off the boat and at immigration, where the queue snaked from one end of the building to the other. People were pushing and shoving (not sure where they wanted to go, as no pushing or shoving was going to get them to the front any sooner). It was stuffy and hot inside the building, and sweat ran down our faces; people were fanning themselves with their passports (not that it helped, at all).

 

By the time all was done, it was relatively late to go in search of a hotel and, in the dark, I cycled off. In the light of my headlamp, I followed the deserted streets, with only a few homeless people for company. The first two hotels were full, and the third too expensive. The fourth was more my style, and it was 1h30 a.m. by the time accommodation was located.

 

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