The Pinnacles of Probiscus…Borneo to Brunei! (Nov. 6th – 14th)

Flying back to Bali gave me time to fulfill a request from my mother. Apparently, she wanted some photos and books on Balinese architecture. Upon return to the charismatic isle, we ventured back to our familiar hotel room via taxi, taking tons of pictures along the way of the local buildings. After talking to a tiny tourist office, we bought onward plane tickets for tomorrow, but departing didn’t quite work out as expected.

We slept in!!! We rushed to the airport only to arrive there about 1 hour too late. Oh well, can’t win ’em all I guess. We asked/begged the several different airline companies if they fly to Jakarta that morning, so we could make our connecting flight in time to Kalimantan, Borneo, but everything was either really expensive or already booked full. We decided on paying a rebooking fee (I think it came out to 25 dollars or something), allowing us to fly the same flights tomorrow instead. A stupid error, but what can you do. Days are becoming really valuable from here on out!

We returned back to our hotel and rested for a bit. We caught a movie later that afternoon and from a bookstore I bought a book on Balinese architecture for the mamasita. We made sure to hit the hay a little earlier this evening…we didn’t want to miss the plane twice in a row!

Finally (not that I dislike Bali, in fact, it’s been one of my favorite places), we boarded our jet and went on our way. About three hours later…after a brief stop back in Jakarta, we anxiously touched Borneon ground!! Wow….Borneo. Both Michelle and I were ecstatic…even though we knew very little about this enigmatic land. This is what we did know….Borneo is the third largest island in the world….Papua from which we just came being the second! Also, Borneo has three countries all sharing borders…Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. The Indonesian part of the island is known as Kalimantan, while the Malaysian section is divided into two states, Sabah and Sarawak. Our plane from Jakarta landed in Pontianiak, a large port city in Kalimantan, smack dab on the equator. To verify this ourselves, we taxied to an enormous monument about 20 minutes away from downtown to physically stand on this imaginary line. Standing on the equator was just about as exciting as it sounds…I highly recommend it! (Oh, I’m being sarcastic if you didn’t pick up on it!)

With an enormous island to discover, but with days ticking away before the completion of my yearly odyssey (about 10), we decided to focus our attention on Malaysian Borneo and Brunei. We found and boarded an overnight bus that was departing that night from Pontianiak all the way to Kuching…the capital city of the Sarawak state of Malaysia. It departed at around nine o’clock, with an ETA of approximately 11am the next day. Michelle and I slept just about all of the journey….conserving our energy for some expected adventures we foresaw in our future.

Nearly on the dot at 11 o’clock, we traded the bus for a taxi and had the driver deliver us directly to the airport. We were of course traveling with the enormous souvenir box…which (corrupt) officials tried taxing at the Malaysian border crossing…but we snuck back on the bus with the box and no tarrif! Smooth! At the airport we checked out departure times to Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah, and found a flight leaving about three hours from then. After hitting around ATM’s, we got the flight booked and chilled in a KFC where we had free internet at our disposal. The board game battleship also helped us pass the time (Just some advice…don’t ever try me in that game)!

Eventually we hopped on the plane and took off to Sabah. The plan was to make some hostel in Kota Kinabalu our base camp…a place to leave the giant souvineer box behind, allowing us to freely hit up some neat sites in Borneo. Plus, it is out of Kota Kinabalu that we will fly back home (through Manila) when the (dreaded) time comes. Now in KK (Kota Kinabalu), we hired a taxi and went to the downtown strip where backpacker hostels were everywhere. After checking out a couple of the establishments, we chose Summer Inn. The hostel had everything we needed….a storage room for our excess baggage, internet access for us to book flights and plan itineraries, and air-con in the rooms. What more could two adventurers want?

That night we ran out and grabbed a bite to eat. Afterwards we bought tickets through a small airline ’Wings’, a subsidiary company to Malaysian Airlines, flying directly to Gunung Mulu National Park. Fortunately the flight runs only twice a week and it just so happened to work out perfectly. The next morning….with a moderate amount of materials packed for some adventure trekking, we headed to the airport giddy with excitement.

The plane was miniature. A tiny little propeller aircraft that definitely looked the roll for crashing into unknown expanses of Borneon jungle. We loaded up and went airborne. The scenery was gorgeous. Where the logging roads and clear cutting stopped…nothing but trees and rivers emerged. I was anxious to explore the remoteness of our destination…Gunung Mulu (which is back in the state of Sarawak). Finally, our plane landed and we hopped into a little van which drove us to park headquarters. There at HQ, Michelle and I planned for the next few days. Sadly, much of our options were expensive. Beautiful limestone formations (known as pinnacles) at the top of a mountain, something I longed to see, was going to cost a lot of money. There were mandatory guide fees as well as the cost for a three hour boat trip to the trail taking you to camp 5 (a base camp where you spend the night before ascending the next morning). We also wanted to exit the park to the North, which required an additional guided trek adding to the total. One more thing, while at the HQ, they also tried to get us to rent a room for that night. Because we brought our own gear however, they gave us a little of a discount to set up our hammocks in the trees. Oh, and for today we booked an afternoon hike to the largest bat cave in the world (Once again mandatory to have a guide, but we felt it would be worth it).

While setting up our hammocks I noticed a four foot colubrid snake doing something interesting. It was eating a lizard! The snake was beautiful….speckled in appearance with bright green/blue/and red blotches. I waited a few minutes for it to get the lizard all the way down its stomach before jumping in and taking a closer look. It looked like some sort of speckled racer…similar to what they have in Central America, but regardless of what the species, it was a beautiful creature. We released it, then went for a ‘restricted’ walk, just us two.

We found some unique looking pitcher plants and got some nice pictures. Also some lizards about a foot in length were constantly seen sunning on branches. We returned back just in time to start our little, guided hike to the caves.

Our guide was local, but not exactly the most outgoing person from what I gathered. He definitely had the ‘I’m doing it for the money’ type attitude. Nonetheless, I didn’t care. We saw a couple pygmy squirrels scurry up huge trees (the squirrels were the size of mice). I never knew squirrels got so tiny. We passed some beautiful waterfalls and some interesting rock formations. Finally, we made it to a clearing where we walked up a little hill. There was a system of two cave mouths here, one of them very elaborate with lots of stalactites and stalagmites, while on the other extreme, one was so enormous it could have fit the Buckingham Palace inside. In the big cave, the ceiling to which the bats clung was so high, the accumulation of so many animals made the brown rock look like it was covered with a black mold. We explored both caves, and although interesting, I was hoping to find a certain snake searching the caverns to feed on dead bats and swallows.

After checking out a river that flowed right through the enormous expanse of this gigantic hole, we emerged back into dimming daylight only to witness a spectacular daily spectacle. Literally millions of bats…all in an endless stream….swarm out into the open sky. Flying in flocks…like fish in schools, the bats all exited together to minimize their chance of getting picked off by predators like hawks and eagles. I was amazed for how long the exodus lasted. Probably for about an hour and a half, dozens and dozens flew out in unison. After taking tons of pictures, including a little video, we returned back to Head Quarters in the dark, along with some other people (and their guides) that explored the caves as well.

There was a tiny restaurant on site, so Michelle and I decided to hit up some of the cuisine…saving our packed food for the real jungle. We ate up fast, cause both her and I were anxious to go out by ourselves on a night hike. That’s just what we did! A boardwalk shot out over swampy rainforest floor and with flashlights in hand, we headed out eager to uncover nocturnal creepy crawlies. The insect life was just as wild as expected. The stick bug type creatures came in all shapes and sizes…the biggest stretching about seven inches in length! All sorts of crickets and katydids, a crazy, foot long mudskipper type fish in a tiny puddle, interesting spiders and colorful geckos. We were tired and wanted to save up our energy for tomorrow’s hike, but the consistent surprises kept us entertained for about three hours. Borneo is definitely the home to the bizarre. We returned back to the campsite and after finding a nozzle to clean off our feet, we leaped into our hammocks and drifted away.

Next morning bright and early, we went over to the river to meet our boat and captain. A family consisting of the mom, dad, and son were there to port us up river. The son, the only one of the three that could remotely speak English seemed to be a nice guy and asked us if we wanted to stop at some caves about halfway down the stretch. I had heard earlier that there was a snake cave…(which I was reluctant to believe, but made me extremely inquisitive) and I conveyed my desire through excited hand signals to find the serpent’s lair. Of course, I wasn’t expecting to necessarily find a snake, but hey, if you look there is at least a chance right?

The guide that mentioned the cave to us not only warned, but restricted us entrance inside….but hey, do you think that will stop us? We jumped out of the boat and entered a little crack in the rock that opened up into the trickiest cave I had ever seen. The son came with us, even though he had never been within. He was definitely hesitant with the idea of confronting snakes. This cave was tricky! The last thing I wanted to do was get lost, and let me tell you, that thought popped into my mind. Inside this cave was nothing but sheer blackness. You would enter through another crack in the rocks, then another, all opening up into bigger rooms. One of the rooms seemed to have no way out, till we noticed about five feet up a wall there was a hole continuing on. The ground was a little moist, so we could see our footprints, but if it wasn’t for that we might still be in the cave living off the water droplets and blind whip scorpions. Anyway, Guess what? Around this one corner, there was a snake!!! Can you believe it. Searching deep inside the craziest cave in the most reclusive corners of Borneo, there it was…the snake we were searching for. It was almost too good to be true. It was a weird snake too….it had a beautiful iridescent blue-gray hue with black blotching on the top half, then solid black lines down the rest of the tail. In total it was about five feet, with a girth of a half dollar at it’s thickest part. What was more unique about this snake however was its demeanor. I don’t think this reptile had ever seen a person, ever. Or a predator for that matter. Or maybe even light. First, I touched it’s tail, and it didn’t try and get away nor did it try to turn and bite. It kind of moved it’s head and neck back and forth as if contemplating what it should be doing. We took several pictures of the gorgeous fellow, then let him be, back in his dark, silent world. I still can’t get over it. Searching for a snake in a cave…and then actually finding one. Woohoo! We retraced our steps out of there…even though it was a little tricky at times, but soon we saw some light coming from the entrance/exit. We returned to the boat and continued up river.

The boat ride wasn’t as peaceful as you might think when conjuring up images of cruising down the steamy jungle. The river was much shallower then I imagined, and the rocky bottom made for frequent jolts upon impact. At times it definitely felt like we were white water rafting….since we had the white water…yet we lacked the raft! Nonetheless, our captain new the river well, and we avoided ’most’ of the obstacles. The scenery was breathtaking, but unlike the Amazon or even Costa Rica, the forest really seemed to lack the color and calls of the birds, monkeys, and butterflies. We finally pulled up to a narrow seem in the jungle’s forest floor, and left our boat friends for a unguided walk to camp five…about 11K away.

The trek yielded a couple neat things. Probably our favorite was this cute ’Rolly-Polly’ type creature (Pill Bug) that was a good inch and a half long….which is huge compared to the ones we have in Florida. Making it even more special was the fire-colored orange triangles it had going down it’s sides. It was a unique looking guy that definitely made us smile, especially when it got scared and coiled up into a ball. In addition we found several more stick bugs, traversed a crazy rope bridge, and caught an interesting lizard with huge dorsal spines for it’s size. An easy three hours later, the jungle eventually gave way to a lodge type structure situated along a river side, surrounded by a manicured lawn bordered by forest. On the other side of the water, an enormous rocky cliff towered into the sky as if the location needed to be even more beautiful. We met a couple of the living staff, all locals, and they showed us to the sleeping quarters.

There was a kitchen, a dinning room, then three bed rooms, each I’d say having about 20 beds a piece. There was no one there, since the current group was out on a hike for the day. Michelle and I dropped off our packs, then walked down a tiny trail along the river to find a place to wash up. The water was ice cold (WHY???, I mean we are in the tropics!!!), but we forced our way into it in order to get clean….Michelle more than myself. I felt like mountain gorillas surrounded by nothing but jungle, bathing in the crispness of a mountain river. Despite the pain (I‘m a baby), it was beautiful.

We returned back to camp five where we decided to take a little nap. We knew we were going to be briefed of tomorrow’s activities (the Pinnacle trek) at seven o‘clock, but that was four hours from now so we figured we had time to sleep. Well, when we woke up it was pitch black and the briefing was already finished. We ended up talking to tomorrow’s guide directly, with the only crucial piece of knowledge being we had to be ready by 6am. The other group that was going to do the hike had arrived to the base camp while we were dreaming as well. It was a group of multi-raced people all working together in Singapore. There was an English guy, an Estonian woman, a guy and girl Indian, a guy and girl Romanian, and one Chinese woman. All of them were probably our same age.

That night, after Michelle and I made our delicious Ramen Noodle and Tuna Fish meal, we went for a night hike down the same trail that brought us to Camp 5. Surprisingly, we didn’t see much except a couple of the same lizards sleeping on thin branches. That all changed with one turn of the flashlight. There, right next to me at about head height was this long, brown snake draping over an orchid. The snake had even darker brown blotches down it’s back, and was skinny…I’d say its fattest girth was no wider than a silver dollar….but this guy was long, long, long! Definitely well over 12 feet. We took several photos of him, but to get a closer look I went in for the catch. When I had him by the neck, the never ending snake opened it’s mouth to reveal a couple huge fangs!! Deciding that Borneo probably wasn’t the most equipped place to receive speedy medical treatment, I tossed the snake to the side where he instantly returned up to his domain…the trees. Being long definitely helped him reach from branch to branch, and before we knew it he retreated to the canopy probably a hundred and fifty feet up. It definitely was a treat to find this guy, and unexpected after not uncovering too many creatures. Being late, we returned back to the camp for tomorrow was going to come extra early. Before we fell asleep however, we sat upon a rope bridge overhanging the rushing river below. The stars were mind blowing; something about the pureness of the air combined with the un-interruption of earthly light. Fireflies darting around the openness of the riverbed did their best to distract us from their celestial counterparts. It was a gorgeous night that I’ll remember forever, just us two sitting above a mighty river in the isolation that Borneo provides.

At about 5:45am we woke up to the commotion of all the other people stirring around and getting ready for the climb. ’The Pinnacles’!!! I had scene these on TV before and was excited to see them with my own two eyes. We geared up and headed out. I stayed in the rear with one of the guides, the Indian guy, and the Chinese girl. Literally, about fifteen minutes after we started, the Chinese girl began having problems. She would stop, gasp to catch her breathe with breaks taking over five minute. She began having to do this every 50 meters when we had over 2.5k of vertical traversing to go! Eventually, the guide in the back with us made a suggestion to turn back, and she gladly excepted. While departing, he warned the Indian guy and I that if we didn’t make it to the ’ladder’ section by 11am, we must also cut short or we wouldn’t return to camp by dark. Off we scurried.

Michelle was in the front with two other girls and our main guide for the entire climb. I eventually caught up to them, passing the rest of the group. The entire trail was marked every 100K so we were able to monitor our slow and steady progress. At marker 2000K we began a series of climbs by ropes and ladders. Without their assistance the mountain would have taken a couple more days to ascend. It was a pretty rough climb, much more difficult than I had envisioned. Vertical means vertical. Some even said it was tougher than climbing Mount Kinabalu…something I hoped I could decide for myself within the next few days. Several times, you would walk over thin, slippery aluminum ladders stretching across a gorge that fell over 50 feet onto rock. It was definitely an interesting experience but Michelle and I managed no problem.

We passed two different species of pitcher plants that of course had me excited as could be. I fired away pictures to capture them in all their glory. Finally, with one final ascent, we made it to the summit!!! Wow….incredible!! More picturesque then I had envisioned. Within meters of us were hundreds of razor thin limestone outcroppings just filing out of the jungle’s foliage one after another. The sharpness of the stone was only amplified by the sharpness in contrast between the greens of the leaves and the grays of the rock. It was absolutely spectacular, and worth all the sweat it took to make it to the top. We were even greeted by a squirrel (looking way different than its North American cousins) that was constantly running around trying to eat dropped scraps from our picnic lunch we trekked up with.

While admiring the beauty of this natural phenomenon that to this day I still don’t really know how it formed, the rest of the group slowly and tiredly showed up. When we had to share the summit with the rest of the gang that was vocally excited to be there, Michelle and I knew it was time to descend. Even trickier than the way up, back down was much more dangerous. Although we were the first to head back…not wanting to rush, Michelle and I hid for a good thirty minutes off the trail, waiting for everyone to pass us by. Unsuspectedly, we began the climb down all by ourselves from the back of the group. Eventually however, we began passing everyone one by one, which left them with bewildered looks. No matter what people tell you though, I definitely like going down more than going up. Sure, you’re more likely to get injured on the way down, or to have your knees and joints start hurting….but it’s much less strenuous than a vertical climb…you can take that to the bank!

We emerged from the jungle and prepared some dinner while the sun was setting. If you’re curious…it was the same old Ramen and tuna! Yum Yum. A beautiful rainbow glistened in the sky over the colossal cliff protecting the lodge. Everything was going as planned, except for the fact the guide and the Indian girl were yet to return from the forest. We noticed her friends move from worried to panicked, and a search party was sent out in order to retrieve the bodies (hopefully still alive). As soon as they departed however, they returned…for the two people were coming down the trail. Apparently her legs had locked up and the guide had to help her the whole way down the mountain.

That night, Michelle and I decided on another night hike. It was slightly stormy…and we were hoping the rain would persuade some exotic nocturnal creatures out and about. This time we followed a trail shadowing the river, but the creatures were few and far between. We saw the typical lizards and geckos, but only a couple interesting insects…one in particular, not so pleasant. This one bug had about fifty legs and looked deadly. It was like a centipede on roids…and to intimidate me even more it was eating a cricket with these nasty mandibles that appeared to be casting me an evil smile. Even more painful however, were the ants that stung Michelle and I. First, a bite here and there…then they seemed to be all over us. The torrential rain must have not only washed them out, but infuriated them to the point of no remorse. The sting from each of their bites would send sharp excruciating pain throughout every nerve cell in our bodies. We retreated in haste back to camp, where we washed up and went to sleep.

The next morning we awoke to another beautiful, sunny day in Borneo. Today, the plan was to traverse an ancient trail once frequented by feared head hunters, hence the name…’Head Hunter‘s Trail‘. Once again a guide was mandatory, and the 15k hike really didn’t take us too long to permeate through…only about three and a half hours. You would think an early morning jaunt through Borneon rainforest would reveal numerous creatures, but really all we saw was one troop of monkeys high in the trees and a pair of hornbills up in the sky. Sad if you ask me, but the scenery made up for the emptiness.

The trail ended at a river, and from there a boat was waiting. We loaded inside and began downstream. The captain of this ‘dug out canoe’ style longboat asked us if we wanted to stop at his village’s long house, something Michelle and I became anxious to check out. See, in this area of Borneo where we found ourselves, the indigenous people have a unique style of architecture where everyone in the village lives under one enormous roof. Of course, we weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to hang out with some locals!!

We stopped and were excitedly greeted by some children running around with tattered clothing. We met a few of the older people who were also just as thrilled to see us. One guy, about our age probably, offered to teach us how to shoot the blow dart gun. They had a little bulls eye thing set up, so Michelle and I accepted the challenge. While the elders sat on the ground, the men fixing their fishing nets and the women weaving their bamboo sleeping mats, Michelle and I shot at the target with pin point accuracy. Actually, we weren’t that bad because the blow dart gun was surprisingly accurate and powerful with even the littlest breath. It was a neat experience to shoot along side a Borneon brother.

A storm looked to be approaching, so we returned back to the boat to try and get down the river to a little town before the sky dropped. With forty minutes more to go, we knew it would be a race against the clouds…..or should I say cloud. This one black cloud in the sky, smack dab in the direction we were heading, definitely had an intimidating appeal. It made for a beautiful landscape photo, but even the captain of the boat was weary. Nonetheless, we continued down and just about half way (with 20 more minutes to go), we got hammered with what felt like hail (really enormous rain drops). I started whimpering which made Michelle and the captain laugh, but really I think everyone shared a similar pain. With no choice but to move on, that’s what we did!

We finally made it to the town where not only our cloths were soaked, but everything we owned. Luckily, our cameras were safe in a dry bag, and we hauled all our soggy gear up a dock and chucked it into a mini van we rented to taxi us to the Brunei border. After spending less than five minutes at the town, we were on our way…changing cloths inside the vehicle as we went. It felt like we were in the amazing race or something, with how fast we transitioned from jungle trek, to boat, to van. An hour and a half later, there we were….at customs in order to enter our last and final country. Can you believe it! All 11 South East Asian Nations in one journey. Truly a trip of a lifetime! We easily cleared border patrol and walked to a bus stop. We had no Brunei dollars on us (interestingly, they use Singapore dollars here as well (But we had none of those either)), however this kind woman waiting for the bus as well let us have two dollars for the ride. People here were definitely a financial step up from Malaysians…which aren’t doing that bad when compared to the Indonesians. On the bus we went…now heading for Bandar Seri Begawan….Brunei’s capital city.

How strange was this. We hike all morning through dense jungle, then river boat up to a town, only to then take a van, then bus to a first world city. We woke up in a very remote corner of rain forest and now we find ourselves looking at the most elaborate mosques and palaces. We asked the driver’s assistant about a good hotel, and we exited the bus where they recommended. We ended up finding a wonderful place similar to a Holiday Inn type thing (something very luxurious for our standards), and we booked a room with vengeance. We took the elevator up to the 7th floor, and unlocked our door and entered paradise! Haha, it was beautiful! It had air con, a little fridge, a huge bathroom, a TV, and an expansive view of the city…what more could one want? We took out all our wet gear from our bags and laid them out in order to dry. We were even allowed to use the washer and drier, so we did some laundry!

It was getting late in the evening, so we decided to just stick around the hotel area. We walked around and found a nice place to order some food To Go. We even found a little super market and purchased some ice cream! Eventually we had it all upstairs in our room and to a movie we ate the delicious Indian food with our highly anticipated desert. I liked this country already and we had hardly even seen it!

The next morning we checked out of our hotel and had the security van drive us downtown. Over 90% of the population was Muslim, but unlike other Islamic areas we had visited, everyone seemed to be happy. We ended up talking to a tour agency and they recommended we go on a proboscis monkey tour. With our time being extremely limited, we booked the adventure so we could be back in time to catch a ferry to Malaysia. I worked on getting our gear to the monkey boat while Michelle focused on grabbing some lunch to eat while monkey hunting. Everything worked out great and by 11 o’clock it was just her and I, our captain, and a guide on another dug out canoe type thing chugging up the mangroves with eyes peeled. We passed an enormous floating village and got to see daily life play out for the Bruneians. Several of the Mosques’ gold domes radiated above the mangrove forests in the distance and we were never too far from infrastructure on the entire tour. Nonetheless, wildlife was around. Within minutes from the start, we saw a pack of otters swimming/running along the shore. I never knew otters were denizens of South East Asia but now I know. We took some turns that led us up even narrower cuts in the mangrove forest and we caught a few quick glimpses of the proboscis primate! Finally, around one corner, a whole troop was out in the sunlight playing and eating. When we approached, they retreated to the trees and we never got the great photos we desired, but we got to see them right…that’s all that matters (I keep telling myself that)! At a different troop, I actually climbed up in the mangroves to try and get a closer look, but they were fast little guys (actually big guys cause the proboscis monkey is the world’s largest!). Despite our guides approval…I even ran through peoples yards in this one section…barefoot over spiky lawn weeds or something, and still didn’t get a good picture. I did manage to spook this one huge water monitor that retreated to the river, evading me just like his monkey buddies. The people here coexist with the primate since it solely feeds on the mangroves and doesn’t bother humans. We did get one picture where you can see an adult male and his huge proboscis (nose), but it’s a little blurry so you might mistake it as a big foot sighting if you weren’t told otherwise!

We returned back to Bandar Seri Begawan and found the bus station to take us to the Ferry. We bought tickets and once again found ourselves on another boat, this time in order to country swap. Brunei…what an interesting little place. It had several similarities to Singapore, but at the same time, extremely different. It seemed equally as wealthy, with the entire country basically one city, however to contrast, everyone was Muslim making the architecture and customs different from all angles. It was a great little retreat that Michelle and I welcomed with open arms, but I was ready to get back to some wild adventures in the bush. Time was running out and much of Borneo was still left to experience. The plan…do some diving, then tackle South East Asia’s tallest mountain! We were ready…so off we went! ‘We’re Doin’ It!’

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