Thursday, February 21, 2008

Borneo by Bike

After Mt. Kinabalu I was ready to begin biking. Yet after two days of rest I still had a hard time walking down, or up, any set of stairs, or curb, without the helpful assistance of a handrail. In the cases where no handrail presented itself I had too improvise by attempting to walk like a decrepit, elderly athlete that had had nine too many knee operations. This worked well. Yet in comparison to Tintin I was hopping around like spry young tot. I took joy in this, also in nudging him over the edge of six-inch high sidewalk curbs, which seemed to cause him a large amount of pain and discomfort.

Regardless of our pain, on the January 3rd we were on our way, biking through Borneo. I was excited for this stretch of the trip. It was the least “biked” of our route, we could find little information on the route, helping to give it the feeling of true adventure; added by the fact it was our first bit of biking outside the Philippines. I had envisioned biking through long costal stretches and zigzagging along rivers and passing deep into rain forests.

Nothing of the sort occurred.

Malaysian Borneo, at least the coast, is barren. With the, now obvious and glaring, exception of mile after mile of palm tree plantations for the profitable industry of cooking oil. It must be profitable; we saw little else in the 1000 kilometres we biked in Borneo. Neatly planted rows of palm trees going on forever, on what used to be the lush rainforest I had envisioned myself biking through. While we were in Borneo there were rations put on the use and purchase of cooking oil. Apparently demand is very high and supply is not. I guess this means goodbye to the remaining low land rainforest. One Malaysian paper had pictures of the police raiding a Chinese grocer who was smuggling cooking oil. The article’s wording and pictures gave the impression that 300 boxes of pure cocaine had been seized, but instead it was cooking oil. Much more serious.

So the scenery wasn’t the best, but as with all else, we made the best of it. We did see some great scenes, however short, along the road. The best was the hundreds of monkeys we saw on a daily basis on the few stretches of road that had regular vegetation (non palm tree). Some would jump and play, others just meander along the road, some would yell, growl, and show their teeth, and yet more would be on random, man made gyms, such as electrical poles and lines. We saw a pair of large, endangered, Hornbill birds. While biking you see lots of Mother Nature’s roadside causalities, things that many US Southerners could probably make into a tasty stew. Tintin, while biking by what he assumed was yet another snake killed while sunning itself on the road, was quite surprised to have it pop up and flair its hood out before making a run for the grass. It was a cobra.

Besides Mt. Kinabalu national park we also stayed at two more for a few days each. One, Niah National Park, contains some of the world’s biggest caves. The oldest, to date, human skull found in Southeast Asia was found in one; it was carbon dated to be at least 40,000 years old. We spent my 27th birthday exploring these caves and they were truly aw-inspiring. It is hard to estimate, but I figure that in two of the caverns you could fit at least 3 to 4 football fields in each. They were massive, and cross-ventilated, providing natural housing for what could be thousands. I got lost in my own daydreams thinking of what these walls had seen; possibly the first forms of civilization for modern man. The third, and last, National Park we stayed in was Kubah. We went there after arriving in our final Borneo destination, Kuching. It was located about 50 kilometres from Kuching and was home to Matang Wildlife Center. A fantastic volun-tourist orientated and funded program working on rehabilitating orangatangs, sun bears, gibbons, and other native Borneo species. We received a very warm welcome and personal tour by the very interesting and informative managers. We also managed to find time to take a hike to one of the park’s three waterfalls.

On the biking side of things, all went fairly well. Most days found us up early, around six or seven, to avoid the heat and rains. We would bike anywhere from a minimum of 50 kilometres, to a maximum of 163 kilometres (101 miles). We stopped every hour or two for food and/or drinks, which worked out to every 20-40 kilometres. When we got to our destination of the day we would find a place to sleep, mostly in small guesthouses or Chinese hotels. Some were fantastic, others quite shady. We would shower, find food, wander around town a bit and go to bed fairly early, normally before nine at night. Its not a crazy lifestyle but it is very rewarding. We see life go by in places that you wouldn’t normally find yourself on vacation or while backpacking. This is what I like most.

Malaysian Borneo was not at all what I had envisioned it to be. I didn’t get to make it far inland to the well-known and fabled long houses, nor did I get a chance to dive one of the world’s top dive spots, Sipidan. While on a bike, and with a budget (both for time and money), you can’t do everything. However we did spend 25 days there, and even if it wasn’t what I expected I enjoyed it tremendously. I would be lying if I didn’t admit my excitement for the remainder of our trip. Mainland Southeast Asia will prove to be very different, especially once leaving Malaysia. It’s nice to have 2,000 biked kilometres done. I was concerned I may bore of it, but I am not, and with what is to come I don’t foresee that I ever will. I’m more excited now for the remaining 4,000ish kilometres than I ever was before!

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