Monday was our final day in KK and having recovered from our illnesses, we thought we really ought to explore some of the city. Since arriving in Gili T the kids had started to develop an awareness of the Islamic faith hearing the calls to prayer there, seeing numerous mosques in Lombok and noticing more and more women dressed in the hijab. There was an enormous mosque around the corner from us in Likas Bay, designed by an architect to appear to be floating on water, so we decided to continue our religious education with a visit here. After another lazy morning playing Carcassonne, we were well into the heat of the day by the time we set off and it felt like a very long, slow walk even though it was less than 2km. We walked along the water’s edge and saw (and smelled) local fishermen in their rickety wooden boats, one of whom was now standing by the side of the road trying to sell his catch. There was a wide cycling path with exercise equipment at various points along it, that nobody was using. It was clear that not many people walk here if they can avoid it! Eventually we made it to the mosque, and hired some clothes to cover our hair and shorts before entering. I have never actually been inside a mosque before so I have nothing to compare it to, but it was a very simple but large space with a few men inside praying on mats. I was struck by how ridiculous all the arguments about church pews in the Anglican church are, when all that is needed here is a small square of floor space. It was astonishing to hear that up to 12,000 people worship in this mosque at once- I would have thought that we would fit a maximum of 1000 if this same space was being used as an Anglican church! It was nice to see that normal life was going on inside here as well, with one side being used as a school building, but slightly disappointing to see souvenir stalls in the outer courtyard. We followed up our visit with some research on the main religions we have encountered so far- Christian, Hindu and Islam, and the kids taught each other what they had learnt over the next couple of days. It has been nice to see a recent post on Facebook quoting Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”, and I certainly hope that our children will return home from this trip with respect and tolerance for all the many different cultures, beliefs, and ways of living that we encounter.
My own faith was also strongly on my mind at this time, as Ben’s stepmother Meg had deteriorated quickly since he arrived in Cornwall on Saturday. I am so grateful that he had some time with her before she weakened, and that he was able to be with and support his family at this time. On the Monday night Ben called to tell me that Meg was in her final hours, and I was able to prepare myself whilst the children slept, to spend time thinking about how she had welcomed me in to the family and always been so easy to talk to, how she always made such an effort with her lovely house, immaculate appearance and fabulous cooking, how the kids always felt so loved because of the way she spoilt them with her sweet treats, and how I will miss her greatly. I was very glad to have Rosie with me, who gave me some lovely cuddles that evening, and my heart went out to Ben who was missing out on my physical support at this time. In the midst of all this, I couldn’t help but reflect somewhat selfishly on how perfectly the timings had all come together, with Ben’s return home and Rosie’s trip out planned a month earlier whilst Meg was still relatively stable, but resulting in him being with his family at exactly the right time and me not being left alone with the kids. Ever since we had decided to go travelling, the thought that Ben might not be able to get home at the right time had prayed heavily on our minds and we have certainly had periods of 3 or 4 days at a time where we’ve been ‘off-grid’ and in remote places over the past few months. I could not help but feel that everything came together too perfectly to just be coincidental. Having lost my faith in God a couple of years ago, I am now finding it very difficult to keep denying his existence any more.
It felt good to be on the move again on Tuesday morning, after nearly 5 days in KK, and we headed off early to the Klias river, midway between KK and Kinabalu National park, for a morning of white water rafting. It was a fantastic sunny day and I needn’t have been nervous about whether or not Piran would manage to cling on to the raft because the river was mostly as flat as a pancake! It was classed as grade I-II rapids, which was a great start for Piran and I who hadn’t done it before, and I would definitely have the confidence to take him on something a bit more challenging next time. Despite the lack of adrenaline, it was a really nice river cruise with plenty of rainforest to look at, swallows darting over the water and water-buffalos with their friendly egrets lounging on the banks, as well as a few monitor lizards. We had fun splashing about during a water fight with another raft, and a relaxing time ‘body rafting’ at times, being carried along in the current, floating on our life jackets. Getting back in to the raft wasn’t something I managed to do gracefully, but with the help of both our guides I eventually managed to clamber back on board! We all enjoyed ourselves and the large buffet lunch at the finish point was an unexpected treat.
We carried on from here to the national park at the foot of the awesome Mount Kinabalu for the night. It was a scenic drive as we climbed higher and higher on bendy mountain roads, ascending into the cloud and cooler weather. We could see hills covered in rainforest for miles on end, a beautiful sight. We arrived at our lodge which had basic accommodation- just a couple of mattresses on the floor- but with access to cooking facilities, a shared lounge, and a nice veranda where we could see the clouds racing by and where we were treated to a glorious sunset later that evening. Ben had texted whilst we had been rafting to let me know that Meg had passed away in the early hours of the morning, so we had a tearful afternoon grieving and remembering her, and eating biscuits in her honour as she always liked to bake for us. Piran in particular has found it very difficult thinking about and talking about Meg dying, and being separated from Ben has made this harder for him. I remember Jago spending hours crying when he first learnt about my father dying several years ago and for him back then, as for Piran at this current time, it triggered anxious thoughts about whether Ben and I will die soon, and how we will all find each other in heaven. Cara, whilst still upset, seems more accepting of things and she helped me to distract Piran as we cooked dinner together, managing to clear away the tears for a short while at least. These are such big concepts for young minds to process, but we keep talking about Meg, keeping her memory alive, and I am hopeful that there will come a day soon when Piran will be able to do so without tears forming.
On Wednesday morning we ventured in to the National park for our first leech walk since we had got lost in the Indonesian jungle. Rosie had brought out some leech socks with her and there were lots of complaints about how they wouldn’t stay up and how uncomfortable they were, but at least nobody got bitten whilst wearing them! It was our first trek for a long while and we were all out of practice at walking up hill in the heat, but we managed to complete our trail and we didn’t get lost which was a bonus. We didn’t manage to see any of the wildlife that Borneo is so famous for but with trips to Sepilok, the Kinabatangan river, and Danum Valley planned for later in the trip I wasn’t too disappointed. Still, I can’t quite believe that we didn’t even see a monkey! We stopped for lunch just outside the park where we learnt never to ask for a ‘half boiled egg’ (ie soft rather than hard boiled) again, as after 2 attempts Cara’s lunch was still raw. We then headed on to Poring hot springs, which is still in the National park but on the East side of Mount Kinabalu rather than the South. The hot springs were not at all what we had been expecting after all our experiences in New Zealand of big, clean pools and hot flowing streams. They had been built by the Japanese and comprised a series of individual baths with taps containing the hot sulphurous water that comes up from beneath the ground. It didn’t feel terribly clean, but after draining and rinsing a couple of baths, we were willing to give it a try and the water was certainly very hot even if the environment wasn’t terribly relaxing. There was a large cold swimming pool near the baths which made for a refreshing dip, and the locals nearly had a heart attack when the kids jumped in at the deep end, shouting at me that it was ‘deep, deep’! They seemed astonished when I informed them that my children could swim, and one of them even asked me to teach him. The kids realised (probably fleetingly) that they were lucky to have been taught this skill! Returning to the hot bath after the cold swim was lovely, and when it started to pour with torrential rain I found it quite refreshing to stand in the downpour to cool down, and then jump back in to the hot water again. We whiled away a few happy hours here, and were glad we had time to return again the following day.
After our short walk on Wednesday, we were ready for a 7km hike in the National park to visit a waterfall on Thursday, and we set off with plenty of water and a few snacks at 10am. All the literature said it would take 2-3 hours, but of course we hadn’t anticipated the stops along the way, the leeches, the mud and the time to cross 2 streams on precarious stepping stones. This will forever go down in Piran’s memory as ‘the day we didn’t have lunch’! The first 1.5km was pretty much uphill the whole way and very hard work, at times feeling like it would never end. We had our first experience of tiger leeches which, unlike the brown leeches which are on the forest floor and attach to your shoes, hang about on leaves and jump on at waist/arm height depending on how tall you are. Although he didn’t get bitten, Piran got a couple on his hand which was quite an unexpected surprise! Jago, who had decided that he didn’t like wearing the leech socks, managed to get bites on his feet and his tummy before revisiting his decision and putting them on after all. The path was quite slippery at times and Rosie slid over several times much to the kids’ amusement. Despite all this, it was a great walk! There was a bat cave on the way up where we stopped for a while to see the bats swooping about and hanging from the ceiling, and we could appreciate the strong smell. We managed to avoid falling in the streams despite the slippery stones and we had some wonderful views out over the hills and saw some cool insects. We had a real sense of achievement when we finally made it to the waterfall, although it was a bit too cold and powerful to swim in. Needless to say, the way back which was downhill all the way was very much quicker. The kids did amazingly well given that we didn’t arrive back until 4.00! They had missed out on lunch, and also missed out on the slide pool back at the hot springs which they had wanted to play in, which closed just as we got there. Despite the disappointment, we all jumped in to the hot baths with no hesitation today, ready to ease our weary feet, and we had a relaxing finish to our day. After dinner in a local cafe, we managed to get a lift back to our accommodation in the back of a pick-up truck much to the kids’ delight. We are certainly getting about in lots of ways that they wouldn’t be allowed to back in the UK!
Friday marked the start of our wildlife watching adventure in Borneo as we made our way to Sepilok, home to Orangutan, Proboscis monkey and Sun-bear sanctuaries and the gateway to the Upper Kinabatangan river. This was the thing I had most been looking forward to out of all of our planned travels, and I was super excited. First we had the challenge of making the 5 hour journey there on public transport! We had planned to catch a bus towards Sandakan and ask to be dropped at Sepilok, but there was a bus to another nearby place ready to leave just as we reached Ranau, so we quickly jumped on board rather than risk a long wait for the better option. The bus was clean and air-conditioned, with a toilet on board, but I hadn’t anticipated all the bendy roads as we travelled through the hills and mountains and before long all of us except for Cara felt incredibly travel sick. I am not sure how we all managed to get through the first two hours without one of us being ill, but I was incredibly relieved when we stopped at a roadside cafe for lunch. After some fresh air and food, the travel-sickness medication that we had taken about an hour into our journey had started to kick in, and luckily we all coped better the rest of the way. We are now erring on the side of caution with any travel around hills and taking pre-emptive medication just in case! I had been told that much of the Borneo rainforest had been destroyed in order to establish palm oil plantations, resulting in loss of habitat for the fabulous animals we had come to see. This couldn’t have been brought home any stronger than this 4 hour drive with nothing to see except miles and miles of palm trees extending in every possible direction. Heartbreaking. We were dropped off at the junction to Sepilok where we managed to negotiate a taxi the rest of the way and finally made it to our accommodation, pleased to have successfully made our way here. We were rewarded with a wonderful chorus of insects and birds morning and night, and beautiful rainforest surroundings.
Our first stop on Saturday morning was the Rainforest Discovery centre with a long canopy walkway where we hoped to see plenty of birds. It was lovely being so high up in the trees, although the children had forgotten the need to be quiet and patient for wildlife spotting and they became bored pretty quickly, preferring to play with Cara’s new camera instead. We saw a few beautiful small bright red birds and a couple of hornbills, as well as a great sighting of a giant tree squirrel which we followed for a long way despite its fast movement along the tree branches. I could happily have spent all day there by myself, but we wanted to visit the Proboscis monkey sanctuary at feeding time, so we moved on after a couple of hours. As we approached the sanctuary there were lots of grey macaques by the side of the road which was encouraging after seeing so little wildlife for the past few days, as well as a lovely view of a hornbill. On arrival, the Proboscis monkeys were already hanging around the feeding station in anticipation of food, and we had a fabulous half an hour watching them playing, carrying and grooming their babies, running about and jumping. One monkey sat up on the viewing deck, and it seemed clear that he was watching us with as much curiosity as we were watching him. Some of the monkeys ran standing upright on their back legs, and I couldn’t believe how human-like they were in this pose. We enjoyed hearing their funny grunting noises, and lovely dangling noses and pot bellies, as well as the big hornbills who flew in to be admired, clearly jealous of all the attention the monkeys were getting. After feeding time, the monkeys all scattered back to the forest and we all felt very glad that this small bit of land was protected for them. By the time we had eaten lunch and made it back to Sepilok, we didn’t have time for any further visits that day so we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon playing darts and cards and watching Doctor Who before having our ‘treat night’ a day early whilst still in civilisation.
We headed to the Orangutan sanctuary first thing on Sunday morning in the hope of seeing our first orangutan of the trip. The orangutans here are mostly rescued as babies, and raised here until they are able to fend for themselves in the wild. They have a ‘jungle gym’ where they learn to swing on vines, climb trees and forage for fruit. Once they are older they live wild in the local rainforest but food is put out for them a couple of times a day, in case they are unable to find enough without help. This food is always the same, in the hope that they will eventually get bored and gather their own; once they are independent they get released back into the larger areas of primary rainforest further southeast in Sabah. When we visited, only one orangutan came in for the bananas that were being offered, but it was so wonderful to see him. He swung so effortlessly along the rope to the feeding platform; it is quite amazing to think what their strength must be like when I can’t even do 2 rungs on the monkey bars! He chose to hang on to a rope by his feet, and peel his banana with his hands, slowly and deliberately, staring out at all the people watching him. I find it impossible not to be moved by how like us these creatures are, and find it so hard to imagine why people would deliberately harm them. When he had left, we found another orangutan around the corner which built a nest in front of us, snapping off branches of the tree it was in and laying them flat until it was ready for him to sit in. Once he was tucked up inside, we could no longer see him and he could have slept there unnoticed for hours. Very clever. We finished our trip with a visit to the nursery where we saw 3 super cute babies swinging in for lunch, and some naughty black squirrels stealing their food. When it was time to go in, the babies held hands with their human trainers and walked out of the viewing area looking just like young children being taken home for a lunchtime nap. We all loved it, but Cara was particularly smitten, and she left here having decided to spend her birthday money on adopting an orangutan when we get back to the UK. I love her!
We finished our time in Sepilok with a trip to the Sunbear sanctuary where we all fell in love with these cute little bears that had been rescued from captivity. They are good climbers and we managed to see one climb up to the top of a tree effortlessly. In fact one of the bears had escaped a couple of days earlier by scaling a very tall tree and managing to climb across to another tree outside the sanctuary boundary. The staff were worried about it, as locals still kill the bears either because they are frightened of them or because they are worth a lot of money, particularly for their gall bladders which are used in Chinese medicine. When she is found, I hope they will take this as a sign that she is ready to be released back in to the wild!
With all these easy sightings of some of the fantastic animals to be found in Borneo, Sepilok had whet our appetites for seeing animals in the wild, and so we were very ready to finish the week by heading to Uncle Tan’s wildlife camp on the Upper Kinabatangan river. It had been a very emotional week but I think it was made easier at our end by having so much to see and do, and so much to look forward to. Borneo is a beautiful place.