“There was not one amongst us whom looked forward to being born. We disliked the rigours of existence, the unfulfilled longings, the enshrined injustices of the world, the labyrinths of love, the ignorance of parents, the fact of dying, and the amazing indifference of the Living in the midst of the simple beauties of the universe. We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see.”
Ben Okri - The Famished Road
For about the last ten years (if not longer) I’ve been meaning to read The Famished Road. The winner of the 1991 Booker Prize, it was one of those books that was always on my wish list; on the list of things to read, the self same list of things that never got done. Last week I found a copy of it in the middle of Borneo of all places. It was sitting unloved on a dusty shelf in a guest house looking well thumbed and creased from spine to cover. Set in Nigeria the story centres on the fairly common African theme of a spirit child, that is, a child who is born for a short time and then returns to the spirit world, continually dying at a young age and haunting parents by returning to earth only to depart prematurely again. Their ephemeral lives are cyclical, a curse to their parents at the indulgence of the spirit that would rather dwell in the world beyond: “to be joyful on the eternal dew of the spirit.” The story is beautifully and hauntingly written, rich in surreal imagery and lyrical prose. I find myself reading and re-reading sentences, paragraphs, pages. The extract above seems to ring true for me, for throughout our travels we are constantly confronted with the “simple beauties of the universe,” and in many ways this journey of ours has made me see this world we inhabit in a much clearer and cleaner light. We have both been asking ourselves what we have achieved, if anything, by bunking off work for a year, the ultimate indulgence of wandering the earth at leisure. And in some ways I think the answer for me is that we are learning to see again, breaking away from the routines that made my daily life in London so familiar and predictable. There are many times that we have felt humbled by our experiences and what we have seen, and the enrichment that our lives have gained is beyond measure.
Few places that we have been to so far have been quite as beautiful as Borneo. We spent just over three weeks in the Malaysian state of Sabah and for this period of time we decided to hire a car and make our way around at our own pace. It has to be said that the car we ended up with was more like a motorbike with four wheels, a gutless contraption that we decided not to drive over 80 km per hour lest the wheels came off, literally. Going uphill, of which there were many, we were continually fighting between second and third gears, whilst the down hills were taken with one foot constantly hovering above the brake. The tyres, mostly bald, were cause for grave concern whilst the engine went through half a pint of oil every two days. Having said this though, it was great to drive again and our death trap car did us proud. We travelled to the Tip of Borneo in the North, to Sandakan in the East and then down south as far the town of Semporna. We drove through the Kinabalu National Park, home to South East Asia’s highest mountain. We watched with horror as our punctured tyre was mended by enlarging the rupture and then ramming a pliant piece of rubber into the sundered tyre. “Is that safe?” I asked. Though in truth I did not want an answer. It was a true adventure, and a real highlight of our journey thus far.
Our journey started in Kota Kinabalu, the sprawling state capital of Sabah. KK as it is commonly referred to is a good place to stop for a few days. Whilst is not crammed with immediately obvious things to do, it has a friendly vibe to it and the abundant local restaurants serve cheap and delicious food. There is a second hand clothes market that has all the frenetic energy of Harare’s Mbare, and if we were not backpacking I would have been in there like a shot. “Look at this eh! One careful owner you say? Done!” Next to this is a fruit market which joins onto a craft village, and then, the jewel in the crown: the Filipino food market that opens up a six each evening. Here, for far less than a fiver, you can dine on a combination of massive prawns, spicy chicken wings, barbequed tuna steaks. The air is thick with charcoal smoke and redolent of grilled seafood. If it was Europe, Health and Safety would have a word to say. It is not though, and the smoke and the swirling smells combine to create an enigmatic setting. Set on about an acre of land the market is crammed with vendors, each with fresh fish from the harbour and slabs of chicken coated in chilli and lime. Reflecting on it I feel like Pavlov’s dog, the saliva forming at the corner my mouth.
We hired our car from an execrable lady who was overtly intent on trying to get us to hire a car that was way beyond the budget we had agreed. It was a battle of the wills to get what we discussed on the phone with her, and we witnessed the same shameless routine a couple of weeks later between some other travellers and herself. Once we were on our way our first stop took us right up to the Northern most point of Borneo. We travelled through the cloud penetrating Crocker National Park mountain range, through verdant rice fields and finally into plantations of palms that stretched back as far as the eye could see, cultivated for the production of palm oil. After about a five hour drive we reached the town of Kudat and checked into a hotel with no running water which was a bit of a surprise. We ate in a roadside restaurant that was showing European football on one TV and a British B grade horror movie on the other. No one spoke English but the crowd were glued to the gratuitous movie in which a blond strumpet is hunted down mercilessly by a group of hooded up Essex style chavs intent on ruining her day. We drove on to the Tip of Borneo, forty five minutes north, for the sunset. The drive takes you past deserted beaches with turquoise seas and along deeply rutted dirt roads, thick with mud from the equatorial rains and lined with palm trees. The Tip of Borneo is magnificent and being there for sunset, more or less alone, is just one of the reasons why it was so worthwhile having a car for this trip.
Perched on a furthest extremity of Borneo you can see both the sunset and sunrise from the same point, though sadly we missed dawn owing to heavy rain and indolence the next day. Instead we explored Kudat, with it’s broad promenade and clock tower with four clocks, each of them stopped at different, incorrect times. The town is mostly dependent on fishing and the boats were in with the morning catch, the men weighing their catch before it was put into boxes of ice and loaded into trucks.
Back in the car we headed through to Kinabalu National Park, along roads that were lined with the road kill of countless dogs. One, standing over the fresh cadaver of it’s friend, ran straight at our car, rabid and crazed and frightening in it’s aggression. We narrowly missed it, but I got the feeling it’s days were numbered. Mt Kinabalu (4095 metres) is the highest mountain in South East Asia and the journey was marked by a fairly steep and consistent incline. As we got closer to the mountain we became enveloped in cloud and the car engine faltered between second and third, inexorably climbing slowly uphill to the high pitched scream of an engine that is enormously unhappy. Alarmingly there were no road signs indicating that we were on the right route so it was some relief when we pulled up in the National Park. We found accommodation half a kilometre away and explored the immediate area around the mountain. The ascent is open to any that wish to climb the mountain. Typically it takes roughly two days. In our case we came, we saw, we said “no way.” There are many who take this climb very seriously however. Each year Mt. Kinabalu is hosts an international Climbathon, the current record being 2 hours and 45 minutes to ascend and descend the mountain. It has to be said that these athletes’ are made of far sterner stuff than your humble narrator. That evening our neighbours were boisterous and noisy. At about two in the morning I ventured out onto our balcony to have a word. A thin layer of cloud lay below us obscuring the land below, whilst above the sky was clear and bright with stars. It was beautiful, and our neighbours had gone to bed anyway so the tranquillity was complete. The next morning we did a walk of the botanical gardens and one of the numerous trails in which an abundance of orchids and pitcher plants flourish. We met a couple who were about to climb the mountain, laughed at their expense (though no doubt the climb is an unforgettable experience) and then we were on our way again. Our journey that day was an easy one, a mere hour and a half to Ranau. We stopped at the War Memorial which commemorates the Sandakan Death Marches of World War II, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandakan_Death_Marches for further information. The Death March, which saw the deaths of about 1800 Australian and 600 British Prisoners of War, is sometimes referred to as Australia’s Holocaust. It is a fair point, the cruelty and loss of life was immense. But Australia’s Holocaust? That does kind of overlook the estimated 10 000 aborigines murdered in Queensland alone between 1860 and 1930 by colonial settlers. The War Memorial is beautiful though and has been loving reconstructed from the disrepair to which had fallen by a Thai living in Sabah. In the entrance area he displays the somewhat poignant legend “The Difficult Takes Time, The Impossible a Little Longer.” Under the impression that my mother had lost a brother in a Japanese POW camp we went to a few War Memorial sites in Borneo and searched for his surname amongst the plaques. It turns out that after all it was her uncle and I had his name wrong anyway, so needless to say that bit of family history went undiscovered.
From Ranau we continued our drive through the lush countryside of Sabah, across wide muddy rivers and hills lines with palms. In places one side of the road would have completely disappeared, having subsided and crumbled away. We passed through the dingy town of Telupid, contemplated lunch there and out of respect for our stomachs carried on driving. After a few more hours we reached Sepilok, the sanctuary which cares for orphaned and psychologically fragile orang utans. We watched these beautiful primates feeding for a couple of hours and then continued onto the town of Sandakan. Sandakan is a fishing village which is known to be quite beautiful, though as we drove into the town it was impossible not to notice the shanty town on the outskirts. The next morning I went down to the docks at about five o’clock and marvelled at the abundance of sea food that was being hauled in from the boats. Every type of fish I could think of was on display, including (rather sadly) some large rays. They look a lot more graceful in the ocean.
We set off once more, went to another War Memorial where we continued looking for the wrong person, and then drove through to Semporna. A new feature to the drive were the supernumerary fruit stalls that lined the road in places. For about 20p we bought enough bananas to keep us going for three days. We finally got into Semporna that evening and then set about trying to arrange a dive for the following day. Our confident approach of “We’d like to dive at Sipidan Island tomorrow” had us laughed out of town. As one of the world’s premier dive sites you need to book a couple of months in advance. We did however manage to arrange three dives at nearby Mabul, which were fantastic. The highlight for me was an artificial reef where enormous schools of jacks and barracuda swam amongst the constructed structures beneath the waves. The dives were really good and the variety of fish and coral was fantastic. Next dive site, Apo Island, the Philippines! Having spent a bit of time in Semporna it was time to start heading back to Kinabalu. This entailed largely retracing our steps as many of the roads in the South of Sabah are in very poor condition owing to logging vehicles and heavy rains. Along the way we stopped at Madai caves, famous for it’s harvesting of birds nests which are then used to make birds nest soup. Predictably the caves stunk of bird excrement and we stepped in many dark and dank puddles that I am happy to forget about. We had planned to stop at the coastal town of Lahud Datu, which received a favourable appraisal in the Lonely Planet. After an hour in the town however it became apparent that the place had the charm of medieval dentistry. We got going immediately after eating and drove straight through to smelly Telupid. By this stage night had descended and the driving became a bit unpleasant. For long, sinuous stages of road we would get stuck behind long trucks carry palm oil, upon overtaking we would be reminded that our car had the acceleration of nonagenarian and then suddenly the road the would turn to rough gravel or a long backlog of traffic would indicate a section of road where only one lane was usable. There was the usual problem of people not dipping their lights and the sight of Telupid was greeted like an old friend. The friendship was brief however and we set off early the next morning and made our way back into Kota Kinabalu in torrential rain. Our trip around Sabah was at an end, but it was such a memorable expedition. That night we dined at Pizza Hut, which is even worse in Kota Kinabalu than it is in the UK. After a few more days in KK we were back on the plane and flying to our next-to-last destination: The Philippines.