Sunday, July 12, 2009

Greasing the Palms

Mon 04/05
We’re not the first people to attempt loading two big bikes onto the bow of an oversized speedboat. However its our first time and its terrifying.

The brief few hours we spend in Nunukan are a crazy rush around the docks to arrange transport for us and the bikes to Tawau (Sabah, Malaysia). We’re short of money, the cost is a ripoff (a one hour trip to Tawau is 2/3 the cost of the 32hr ferry from Sulawesi), customs and immigration procedures are a joke and totally confusing. Even extracting the bikes from the ferry at low tide means negotiating a steep, slippery steel ramp with zero ground clearance at the top. We argue repeatedly with the owner of the speedboat that this is all too rushed and dangerous, but he uses selective hearing and selective English to completely ignore us. Its only 8.30am. We’re under the impression that the boat goes at 2pm. What’s the rush?

In hindsight, the rushing made things so much easier. If we’d had time to stop and think about what we were doing, the whole experience would have been far worse.

Ann, who later admits she couldn’t bear to watch the whole process, looks on while Lucas rides the first bike down the Wooden Plank Of Death. This is a plank of wood which is gradually lowered off the edge of the jetty down to the deck of the speedboat. Maybe 10-15 ft. Maybe a 50 or 60 degree slope. Maybe a few years off his life. There’s a rope looped through the back wheel, but he doesn’t know this. He just feels like he’s sitting on top of, potentially, a very expensive roller-coaster. The bike sways in mid-air. There’s a shout and a tap on his right hand, but somehow the signal from his brain gets lost halfway. Releasing that brake lever will be like prising away someone’s dead hand. More shouting. Slowly the bike inches downwards. One of the crew tells him later that his left leg is shaking uncontrollably. Inch by agonising inch until the bike is on the deck. Everyone is shouting and laughing and patting each other on the back. Lucas is slumped over the tank bag, quietly having a heart attack.

Repeat steps above.

Meanwhile Ann is hurriedly sorting out the carnets. What’s the rush?

Eventually we’re hustled on board and realise that we’ve been completely oblivious to the fact that everyone else has already boarded and the boat is ready to go. There’s a shout from the jetty as the boat starts to pull away. Its an immigration official who has realised, amidst all the chaos, that our passports still haven’t been stamped. Crazy...

The adrenaline has started to wear off as we reach Tawau and when we realise getting the bikes off the boat is going to be a completely mental see-saw affair, put our foot down and refuse to budge until someone sorts out something a little more intelligent. After pointing out that the jetty next door is exactly the same height as the prow of the speedboat and that we could almost ride the bikes straight up the slanting deck onto the dock, the captain agrees and manoeuvres the boat around. It still takes 6 guys to manhandle the bikes onto the dock and Ann sheds a tear of relief when they’re finally on dry land.

We finally escape customs sometime in the afternoon and after riding around Tawau in futility looking for a hotel with parking, stop by the side of the road hot, tired and fed up. It seems to be the crowning glory in nearly 3 days of gruelling travel. Every hotel in Indonesia has parking. What’s going on here? Everyone is driving cars, not scooters. Where do they park them?

A man approaches us and asks if we need help. After two months in Indonesia we’re naturally wary. Does this guy want our money? Is he looking for a commission from some fancy hotel? He suggests we should park the bikes at the polis station and says he’ll take us and our luggage to a hotel nearby. Huh? The polis? He wants to drive us across town in his car? Is this guy pulling our leg?

Ann must see something in this guy that makes her trust him, so eventually convinces a reluctant Lucas to go along with the plan.

Anthony turns out to be some sort of guardian angel, sorting us out with the polis and the hotel and even taking us on a guided tour of Tawau. We even find out a few days later that he’s called the polis each day to make sure the bikes are ok.

Welcome to Malaysia.

Tue 05/05
Tawau has real supermarkets.

In hindsight we’re not sure what we were expecting, but we must have looked pretty silly wandering along the shelves going “Ooh! They have dairy products here. Wow! That looks like real bread.”

Customs have screwed up the carnet, so we head down there to sort things out before getting a taxi out to the Indonesian consulate to get a new visa. This will literally take the rest of the day. As anyone who has experienced an Indo consulate will attest, their system is incredibly inefficient and so we sit around all afternoon with about 200 others staring at the walls. Each time someone is called to the front counter its like they’ve just won lotto. When we finally get our passports back at around 5 o’clock, there are still over a hundred people left sitting around. Guess we’re a couple of the lucky ones...

06/05 – 07/05
Ann has come down with a cold so we decide to spend a couple more lazy days in Tawau. The place is easy to take and in some ways reminds us of Oz. People are friendly, but respect our personal space and don’t stare at us. The only Hello Misters we get are from Indos selling cigarettes by the side of the road. It gives us a good chuckle now.

Strangely the place is infested with rats. Its like nothing we’ve ever seen, so one afternoon decide to sit by the waterfront and watch them.

Its also kind of strange seeing such well fed people everywhere, and KFC seems to be the evil western fast food of choice, so one night we sit upstairs in air-conditioned comfort and make use of their free WiFi. What luxury.

Fri 08/05
The ride to Sandakan is an eye-opener. We’re expecting to see some palm oil plantations, but are unprepared for the scale of the operations here. From Tawau to Sandakan its palm palm palm as far as the eye can see. 50 years ago this was all rich virgin rainforest. Now, notwithstanding the fact that Sabah is promoted as some sort of eco wonderland, the forests are a shadow of their former selves. After awhile we tune out to the monotony of the landscape and the ride becomes another exercise in A to B. We have no photos to show for any of this. What’s the point? In case you’re curious, here’s one someone else took.

Otherwise there are plenty more here.

Being wise to the polis trick, we sort out parking for the bikes and then head to the centre of town to find a hotel. As we’re preparing to drag our luggage up to the backpackers’, Lucas is literally tapped on the shoulder and some guy asks if we’ve been interviewed yet. “Um, well no, actually we haven’t.” he says jokingly, before realising he’s actually talking to a journalist from the Sabah Times.

Later that night we do an interview with James and have a long chat with him, learning all kinds of interesting things about Sandakan and Sabah in the process. You can read the article here.

Sat 09/05
Its Wesak Day today. We find this out after trudging up to the Buddhist temple on top of the hill.

Sandakan is eerily dead at night, but has a sort of run-down charm and we’re feeling relaxed so decide to stay another day.

Sun 10/05
We have a feeling someone told us the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary was a waste of time and to see the one in Sarawak instead. But we can’t remember for sure, so rush off to see the morning feeding.

There are about 200 other camera-toting tourists there, and in the zoo-like atmosphere the orangutans, which are a long way from the viewing platform, disinterestedly pick at their bananas. Ironically the light makes it impossible to get decent photos. This must be “the waste of time” one then... Still, we decide to make the most of it and do a hike through the jungle, picking off leeches as we go.

Later that day when James drops by to give us the paper and show us the article, we’re stunned to see our photo on the front page. Its obviously a slow news day in Sabah.

Mon 11/05
We decide to spend another day in Sandakan. After all, we’re local celebrities right?

After wandering around town for a while like we own the place, we visit the cemetery (Sandakan is where the infamous death marches occurred during WWII), afterwards deciding to treat ourselves to a movie (more decadence). Unfortunately Star Trek is interrupted after 15 minutes by another of Sandakan's regular power cuts. Its just as well really. The sound in the theatre is the worst we’ve heard and at times we could swear Spok is speaking in Bahasa.

Tue 12/05
We keep hearing about a “new” road to Kudat, but can’t find it on any maps, so turn to Google Earth for the coordinates which we plug into the GPS.

The road itself is more palm, with occasional glimpses of 200ft trees fringing the edges of pockets of rainforest. These pockets are like little self-contained flat-earth worlds which end abruptly in clear fell. The orangutans have been the highest profile casualties in this systematic destruction, but thousands of species of plants, animals and nomadic humans have all fallen over the edge.

The new road deteriorates badly near its end, a victim to poor construction methods. It seems Malaysia shares more with Indonesia than just a border. We keep hearing of the corruption that’s rife here and the road, which in theory probably had an adequate budget for construction, was instead built using the money left over after various people pocketed “their share”.

Wed 13/05
We’re a bit disillusioned with Borneo, so the tip, which is a beautifully paved car park complete with huge bronze monument seems kind of “So what?” to us.

However, we’ve been told the beaches are pretty special, so wander off down various dirt roads looking for some.

Thu 14/05
The quest for the perfect beach continues. Not easy when most of the good ones are hidden down steep gravel roads. We manage to find one, spectacular in isolation, spoiled a little by rubbish, but still beautiful. The sandflies eventually chase us away, and after two days accumulating some really wicked bites, decide that tomorrow we’ll head to Kota Kinabalu...

No comments:

Post a Comment