Singapore! World’s End! You can get here all the way across the mega-continent of Eurasia from John O’Groats to Raffles via the Channel Tunnel, the Urals and the causeway without ever stepping foot on a plane or a boat. But this is the end of the line I’m afraid. From now on it’s going to be ship-this ship-that and ship’s-your-uncle. Ticking a magnificent 179 countries off my list: a daunting and unsettling task lay ahead: the final 21 countries are all islands, parts of islands or full-on archipelagos and (as if I haven’t been at pains to point this out already) I’M NOT ALLOWED TO FLY.
Nature’s borders prove much more troublesome to me than man’s invisible lines.
I am more than happy to pay lip-service to Singapore, with it’s miles and miles of docks and smug (and lucrative) placement right in the middle of things: you know, where Liverpool was 100 years ago. I’ve always found it a bit too clean, a bit too sterile, a bit too Demolition Man (an under-rated film if ever there was one). Considering it’s the death penalty for drug smuggling and Blueberry Hubba Bubba Bubblegum is against the law, it’s the kind of place Britain could be if everyone who writes into the letters page of the Daily Mail were in charge.
And wouldn’t THAT be fun!
Although, I must point out that there is a lovely underground (possibly run by a Chinese Dennis Leary) vibe going on in Singapore, IF you know where to look, but unfortunately I don’t. Bah!
But Singapore’s purpose (not porpoise) today is to serve as LAUNCHPAD OCEANIA: and I’m including all of the final 21 nations in that ‘Oceania’ tag (even though some are in the Indian Ocean) cos I have to take a boat to get there. The first boat of the day leaves for the island of Pulau Batam at 7.50am. Pulau Batam is just a few miles off the coast of Singapore, but it’s one of the forty THOUSAND (count ’em!) islands that make up Nation 180, INDONESIA.
I got to the Harbour Front straight off the bus, at around 5am. It was still dark, but the shopping complex (that including the ferry terminal) was open – well, bits of it were – the ferry terminal didn’t open till seven. According to the Yellow Bible, the first ferry to Pulau Batam leaves Singapore at 6am, but as you will find if you ever come to South East Asia, the Yellow Bible (like the real Bible) is paved with good intentions but there are many glaring inaccuracies, omissions, half-truths and downright lies told; and the older the copy the more inaccurate things become. Mine was from 2008 so it was filled with more bloopers than an Ed Wood movie. Then again, look at the real Bible – it’s from, what, the bronze age? Good luck with that!
The first boat left at 7.50am. This more than scuppered my plans for the day, it kinda torpedoed them. It meant that the ferry got in at 7.40am Indonesian Time (I’m nothing if not a Timelord) and – get this – the THREE FERRIES to the big Indonesian island of Sumatra ALL LEAVE at 7.30am Indonesian Time. Yes, it would take a lobotomised aphid with learning difficulties to come up with a more IDIOTIC system, but there you go, it looked a lot like I’d be spending the night in this, lets be fair, shithole called Pulau Batam.
But IN YOUR FACE KENOBI, in my experience there IS such thing as luck: the daddy ship direct to Jakarta that leaves once a week was leaving today(!) at 3pm. No poncing about fighting the Sumatran road system down to the island of Java: I was going straight to the Big Smoke.
Oh… something I should point out at this point while you’re flapping your map of the world about and screaming that Jakarta is 100% in the wrong direction if I want to head to Brunei and The Philippines next, I KNOW. But for some unfathomable reason there is no domestic ferry link between Peninsular Malaysia (that bit what attaches to Thailand and Singapore) and Malaysian Borneo (that bit what attaches to Indonesian Borneo and, more importantly, has Brunei sitting in the middle of it). So my only option is to take a ship to Jakarta, then another to Pontianak in Indonesian Borneo and then fight my way overland from there.
Which is what I plan to do.
So, completely fortuitously, by 2.45pm I was in a taxi heading for the domestic ferry port – oh yeah, when they said the ship was leaving at 3pm, they MEANT IT. Crikey – I raced through an empty terminal, threw my bags through the X-ray scanner, headed out onto the quayside and hurled myself up the gangplank (as it was rising). Sweating and out of breath, I was welcomed on board by a young Indonesian guy called Rangga.
“You’re that guy off National Geographic aren’t you? Are you STILL going?!”
Sweating and panting like Michael Moore running the London Marathon, I dropped my bags on the deck, nod and shook the guy’s hand. By 3.09pm we were under sail. Result!
On board the ship I met up with Chiefy – a top Aussie guy who I had met earlier that day on Pulau Batam who was trying to travel the world without flying, but not for any kind of time record – he was happy to spend the next ten years doing it. In a wonderful bit of synergy I also met a bunch of Brits who were making their way down to Australia on a kinda-Oz bus affair and so we got to share our overland adventure stories. Most – like John and Matt – were a little older than me, but some, including a scouser from Aigburth called Claire, were around the same age (we scousers either have scouse-dar or we’re just the friendliest people in the whole of the UK… I have a suspicion it’s the latter, AND BILL BRYSON AGREES WITH ME).
It would appear that I’m not the only one who regards flying as cheating. The weird thing was that while we were enjoying the fresh air and camaraderie out on deck, their comrades on this monumental trek across Eurasia hid in the bowels of the ship, content to miss the cracking sunset and the late night Karaoke (and secret whisky stash on an otherwise dry voyage – thanks Rangga!) which – of course – us scousers found and took advantage of. Anti-social buggers. But then, after hearing some of the stuff that had been going on since they started their adventures five months ago, I was glad to be travelling alone: would YOU want to be travelling with your ex-girlfriend who had now got with somebody else from the same expedition? Thought not…!
It was a BIG ship – over 1000 passengers. But by midnight Claire and I had the run of the place, everyone else being a bunch of sissies going to bed early. I was looking out for the Southern Cross – I haven’t seen it since Rwanda last December, but cloud cover dashed that hope. The sleeping situation was a set of large cabins, each containing over 100 beds in rows separated by wooden dividers. I slept between a nursing mother and a girl in her early twenties.
Indonesia: Muslim it may be, Saudi Arabia it is not.
Thursday took a while to get going. While my fellow travellers (in another cabin and arguably less full of Johnnie Walker) were rudely awoken at the crack of dawn by the call to prayer (which – don’t tell Osama – the vast majority ignored) I happily slept right through it – I also slept through the screaming babies, the over-amped cellphone jingles and the locals chatting at a volume that can only be described as ‘11’.
Hooray for whisky.
Incidentally, if I made an independently intelligent robot butler out of paperclips and Bovril I would not require him to worship me at 4am for two reasons. One is that it would wake me up. The other is that I’M NOT A TOTAL WEIRDO.
Anyway, a day mostly spent at sea. There were some games of le tete merde and maybe I did some card tricks (but alas, no beer was available to win) and some good old fashioned banter and self-righteous putting the world to rights. It was a bit of a surprise that given our very timely departure that by late afternoon we still weren’t in port in Jakarta. It came as more of a surprise at 8pm when Rangga texted me from his vantage point somewhere on board and told me that the port was full(!) and the anchor had gone down.
Luckily, we didn’t have to stay a second night on the ferry and before too long Chiefy and I were heading through Jakarta in a taxi on our way to Jaksa Road – the backpacker hub. Chiefy was happy to stay in the usual cheapo hostel, and usually I would have been too, but I decided after this delightfully successful week of Odysseying I deserved a hot shower and a colour TV, so I checked into the more expensive place next door. I think it cost about a tenner – really pushing the boat out, eh?
I did find out some exciting news, though: in the Lonely Planet it tells of a Pelni ship heading over to Borneo one a week (or even a fortnight). Bad timing could have me stuck in Jakarta until the end of the month. But wonderfully enough there was now a ferry run by another company that went to Pontianak in Borneo FIVE TIMES a week, and the odds were good that there would be one leaving tomorrow.
First things first, I called the ferry company and found out when the next ship to Borneo was departing – not today but tomorrow, but that’s better than a slap in the face with a wet kipper.
After ‘moving out’ of my hotel to the fleapit next door (come on – it had an en suite shower – it was totally out of my league!) I set out with John from the UK-Oz overland expedition to do two things: 1. buy a ferry ticket to Pontianak – which would get me to the island of Borneo and 2. find out what date the next Pelni ship left Bali for West Timor (East Timor will be country number 183).
After we walked for a good half an hour we eventually found where the office for the ferry company used to be, back in 2008 when my Lonely Planet was written.
Jakarta is a truly unfortunate city: dirty, grimy, polluted, dull, filled with monumentally ugly buildings, gridlocked, over-populated – it’s a very difficult place to love. It took John and I a good hour just to get to the new ferry ticket office near the port. I got my ticket for tomorrow’s ferry then we headed over to the port proper to find out about the ship from Bali to Timor (same horse, different jockey), but to our despair the port seemed to be closed. Grumbling, we took a taxi to the other side of the city (a good hour and a half) to the main Pelni offices. Which had closed at 3pm. By now it was 4pm. All we wanted were the damn sailing dates.
We had tried to get them from the numerous Pelni agents scattered around the city, but they would only tell us the date of the next ship from Jakarta to Timor. It was a bit like going into a travel agent in London and trying to book a flight out of Manchester and have them say ‘sorry, we can only book flights that depart from London’. And the Pelni website? Not updated since 2006. Gr-r-r-r-reat!
(I’ve since found the ‘real’ Pelni website – the next ship leaves Bali on November 5th – thanks Alex Z.)
So after that hot, sweaty, dispiriting trek around glumtown we were none the wiser and I was ready to kill, kill and kill again. Luckily for the surrounding population and innocent bystanders, I tempered my murderous desire with mankind’s second greatest invention, beer.
Chiefy was out on the razz and in high spirits and before long I fell into conversation with a wonderfully mad girl from Sweden called Lisa and a top British bloke from Leicester called Shane. As closing time wheeled around (as it invariably does), Lisa, Shane and I decided to break onto the roof of a nearby hotel to use the swimming pool, which (sadly) didn’t exist. Then it all becomes a bit of a blur. You know I mentioned the other day that if I’m going to be recognised by my backpacking peers I should possibly not drink so much? Well yeah, what can I say?
Whiter Shade of Pale.
Bad David Bowie impression.
As the day broke, Lisa and I (we had mislaid Shane somewhere) were still drinking, talking nonsense with a big scary guy from Cameroon, a crazy woman from Malaysia and making fun of the local guy fast asleep on the chair next to us.
The most irritating thing in the world – aside from Russell Brand – is when your infernal debit card gets declined at a foreign ATM because the bank assumes it’s been stolen. Still waiting for my HSBC card to arrive c/o the delectable Anna (whom we shall be meeting in Bali), I had no choice but to call Barclays and ask them why the hell do they pull this kind of nonsense when a simple phone call to my dad (the joint account holder) could have informed them that yes I was on holiday in Jakarta and yes money would be nice THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
After leaving me on hold for TEN MINUTES (yeah, calling from abroad is yer? Well, just hang on at one pound a minute) it took a further twenty to jump through all the mental hooperage designed to weed out the fraudsters intent on stealing my wonga. Anything else I can help you with sir? Yes – DON’T DO IT AGAIN. And I hang up.
Surveying the current situation, things did not look good. For some unfathomable reason I hadn’t crawled out of bed until well after 1pm and after walking for OVER AN HOUR to find a goddamn money changer to convert my emergency US dollarage into Indonesian Rupiah, and after wasting half an hour Skyping the sausage knotters at Barclays Fraud Department, it was now 3.30pm.
The ship was due to sail at 5pm. It didn’t give me a lot of time, but it gave me enough. I clambered into a taxi and barked instructions for the driver to take me port-wards. Then I took out my ticket and double checked the time.
And the ship was due to leave at 4pm. I looked at my watch. 3.35pm.
Usually, this would not be a bother, ships rarely (if ever) run to schedule, but after the boat from Pulau Batam left just a few minutes after it was meant to, I was beginning to worry. With no air-con in the cab and sweat literally dripping from under my hat, my driver plodded along like it was a Sunday promenade in the park.
Why is it that when I’m in a hurry I get some idiotic slowpoke driving me and when I’m not in any particular rush I get Ayrton Senna?
Anyway, this guy seemed to take some kind of sick delight in watching me squirm. It was bad enough that he joined the longest queue whenever there was a choice, it was bad enough that he kept stopping on yellow lights, but when he drove IN A CIRCLE FOR TWENTY MINUTES I completely lost my rag, which, as anybody who has been to South-East Asia will tell you, is 100% counter-productive.
We reached the port at 4.55pm. It would have been quicker to walk.
Then he couldn’t even find the goddamn terminal building. He – I swear I’m not making this up – asked FOUR DIFFERENT PORT WORKERS where to go and STILL couldn’t find it. In the end I demanded he stop the car, flung the fare in his general direction and stormed out of the cab so highly agitated I felt an overwhelming urge to throw my hat on the floor and jump up and down on it a la Yosemite Sam.
I quickly located the terminal building (by asking someone) and ran as fast as I could in the sweltering heat with a backpack and a couple of bags dangling from my shoulders on a 500m dash from hell. Maybe the boarding was delayed, maybe… By now the sweat streaming from my forehead was stinging my eyes and making it hard to see. Flustered, out of breath and cursing the world, I waved my ticket at the first uniformed person I saw.
In the end, the damn thing didn’t leave until 9pm.
ROLL UP! ROLL UP! For one day only: the magnificent, the hilarious, the intrinsically fascinating BLOKE WHO’S NOT FROM AROUND HERE!
Yes, I get stared at a lot. Usually because I’m walking down the street babbling inanely to my camera, but mostly because I’m as whiter than a late-era Michael Jackson and I have the most unusual mutation on my 16th chromosome that makes my hair a most ridiculous shade of red.
I guess there’s a point (usually when you reach India) when you stop seeing it as rude, but you know like, sometimes, you just really want to – you know – scratch your arse? Or maybe adjust yourself after a night’s kip? What if doing so resulted in gales of laughter from the stalls? I better explain.
Yesterday, after fighting Jakarta and losing miserably (and then winning by default) I was in no mood for caring nor indeed sharing. The first on board the ship, I monopolised an entire cushioned pew designed for four to myself. Knowing there were no beds on board and also knowing I was going to spent the next two nights sweating like Shergar on this floating cockroach farm there was no way on God’s Green Earth I was going to be scrunched up in a ball and then spending the following day attempting to get the crick out of my neck. So I spread myself and my bags out across the bench, stuck my earphones into my lugholes and proceeded to ignore anybody and everybody who may or may not have some kind of objection to my selfish behaviour.
For its excellent position by the window and the telly, I had picked the bench on the very front row of the ship, which was great for keeping an eye on my stuff, not so good if I was hoping not to be gawked at by the 100+ other passengers for the subsequent 36 hours. Yup, I was the only Johnny Foreigner onboard and boy did they let me know it. I sat up, everybody laughed. I laid down, everybody laughed. I got up to go to the toilet, everybody laughed. I reckon I could have told a couple of mother-in-law jokes in Yiddish and everyone would have laughed.
I took this all in good humour, I guess it’s all part of the experience, but there is a difference between people laughing with you and people laughing at you, is there not?
I should possibly tell you something about the ferry itself. Man I thought I had been transported back to Africa. No air-con (just an open window to keep things cool), plastic on the benches which was marvellously attuned to stick to sweaty human skin like superglue, people sleeping on the floor on bits of cardboard (I could have been back on the Sissiwani) and the aforementioned cockroach infestation. BIG ONES. Like, really big.
I managed to kill about 17 of the little feckers (much to the delight of my captive audience) but did wake up a few times in the night and have to pick one off my face or out of my hair.
But unlike the Sissiwani (almost exactly one year ago, pop-pickers!) at least there was a telly on board, which meant I got to watch half of The Gods Must Be Crazy and nearly all of The Frighteners. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch the Merseyside Derby and see Everton well and truly trounce – going down! – Liverpool 2-0.
But you can’t have everything. I just enjoyed the fact despite everything that the red half of the city had a much worse day than me.
Borneo. The second biggest island in the world, home of the mighty orang-utan and some of the last virgin rainforest left on Earth. It’s divided between three countries – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and I was here for two reasons – Brunei (country 181) and The Philippines (country 182). There’s a ferry service that leaves Sandakan in the (Malaysian) north-east of the island for the troubled Filipino island of Mindanao, Hobson’s choice I’m afraid – there’s no other sensible way of getting there without flying.
When I left school, because I had only been taught completely useless things in geography like about the formation of ox-bow lakes, I thought Borneo was in South America, because I had heard word of there being a rainforest and the only rainforest I knew was in South America. I also thought Brunei was in the Middle East, because I had heard of the Sultan of Brunei and naturally assumed that Sultans were a Middle-Easty thing.
Ho-ho-how wrong I was!
I hope on my jaunt around the world I’ve taught you I little more about where places are, who is next door to who etc. I’ve got to the point now where I could feasibly draw a map of the world and correctly label each and every country from memory – in your face, Mr Schofield!! And here’s me without so much as a GCSE in geography. You see, we were given the ‘choice’ of history OR geography – we couldn’t do both. So I could possibly tell you what happened, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where it happened.
Ah yes, The Battle of Trafalgar! And, so, er… where exactly is Trafalgar? Waterloo? Marathon? El Alamein? Midway?
Buggered if I knew. Modern schooling – not exactly holistic if you know what I mean.
It was early afternoon before we pulled into port in Pontianak in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan. It was too late for the morning buses to Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak to the north, and since the border closed at night, it was a more sensible idea to take an overnight bus, saving on accommodation etc, and cross the border first thing in the morning; although after that boat ride I could have really done with a shower.
Pontianak is just as fugly as any other Indonesian city. I know I’m a little obsessed with the aesthetical quality of towns and cities, but goddamnit I hate concrete in a clear and quantifiable inverse proportion to the love and affection shown it by all the lazy talentless hack architects and town planners out there. The fact that it was teeming down with rain didn’t help the gloomy ambiance. I decided to spend my time there wisely by heading over to the equator monument – oh yes, did I mention I that on the boat down to Jakarta I crossed the equator? Yup, for I little while there I was in the sparse old Southern Hemisphere again.
Cracks me up whenever I see Australia or New Zealand try and snag a superlative by claiming to have the highest/longest/fastest/deepest/oldest/weirdest whatever “in the Southern Hemisphere.” Yeah – it’s a bit of a cheat when you’re competing with Malawi, Tonga and Paraguay innit? As opposed to India, China, Russia, the USA, Canada, every country in Europe…
The North Pole being a rather arbitrary designation (in terms of being the top of the world as opposed to the bottom, not in terms of its undoubted location), it seems strange that all the great landmasses of our planet had a tendency to tectonically meander ‘up’, but then for the lifetime of civilisation all of our compass needles have pointed North and I guess it makes sense for us to position our maps with a little arrow pointing up rather than down. But as an aficionado of all things map-like, I do get rather excited when I’m in Australia and I see an upside-down map of the world, or even better an upside down globe. I mean, why not eh? It really makes you appreciate just how much of the Southern Hemisphere is given over to the ocean and just a handful of countries, the majority of them small islands.
But this trip into the lower half of the globe was just a blip: if there had been a ferry service from Peninsular Malaysia to Malaysian Borneo I wouldn’t have cross that line yet – Brunei and The Philippines are in the North. But I will need to cross it next week when I return this way: the next fifteen countries I need to reach after Brunei and The Phils are all in the great SH.
The monument was (as expected) rendered in quite revolting concrete, but it was nice to know I was at 0 degrees, 0 minutes and 0 seconds Latitude – I last crossed the equator without much (if any) fanfare when I was in Kenya. Heading back to town I encountered a guy selling magic tricks outside a department store – I took the opportunity to purchase a brand new pack of Bicycles (which are decidedly NOT going to used for playing cards – just for playing with people’s minds) and the guy showed me a couple more tricks to add to my (albeit limited) repertoire.
After quickly stuffing my face with food and attempting (and failing) to answer all my emails (I humbly apologise for all you who have been kept waiting – I’ll get to you as soon as I can!) I headed over to the bus shop (not a typo) and clambered onboard the 9pm to Kuching in Malaysian Borneo – man o man I’m MOVING!!
Before dawn could shift her crack off my face we were at the border that separates Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) from Malaysian Borneo (in this case, Sarawak).
Malaysian Borneo made up of two states: Sarawak (the old kingdom of a potty Englishman who called himself Rajah Brookes – read ‘Lord Jim’ by Joseph Conrad for more details) and the north-eastern state of Sabah. The road between these two states are broken (twice!) by the two bits of the Kingdom of Brunei that bite their way down in the middle of the north coast.
After blurrily getting myself stamped out of Indonesia and into Malaysia I returned to sleep, waking upon our arrival in the remarkably pleasant town of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak state. Sadly, there was no time on this trip to chill out eating street food down by the river as the bus to my next destination – Miri, a town on the border with Brunei, was living within the hour and I had to sort out getting my visa for getting back into Indonesia sorted. When I did this trip in reverse eight years ago, I could get a visa for Indonesia on the border, but according to the Yellow Bible, those days are long gone and now you have to get a visa in advance.
Yup, ignore that bit of disinformation boys and girls. I called the consulate in Kuching and asked – you can definitely get a visa on that border, no prior meffing about required. And HOORAY for that. So then I just needed to get on the bus. Irritatingly there was no ATM anywhere near the bus station, but luckily I found a bus company that took my Visa Debit card. Unluckily, the bus company had obviously not taught its drivers not to drive like wild animals. Yeah, I know we’re in the jungle an’ all, but ple-ease: you’ve got precious cargo on board matey: namely ME.
I asked the driver to slow down. Then I told him to slow down. Then I screamed at him to slow down: we’re in a bloody big bus, not a rally car. It didn’t really do much good, but it made me feel better. I sat on the back row bracing for the impact that thankfully didn’t (but will someday) come.
As I got off the bus in Miri I gave the driver the filthiest look. What a dick. I looked at my watch – it was 1am. Guessing the border with Brunei would be closed for the night, I checked into the Miri Backpackers and treated myself to a much-needed western toilet and shower.
It was 2am before I silently crawled into my dorm bed. I had set my alarm for seven.
Although when seven o’clock wheeled around with alarming speed I thought sod it and hit the snooze button. Today I needed to fight my way through Brunei to the other half of Malaysian Borneo and a place known as Kota Kinabalu or KK. I already knew what a frustrating and expensive experience this would be, but the 8am bus to the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), would be just as good as the 9am bus and damn I was tired.
By 8.20am I was at the bus station, bright and eager to get the next bus to BSB.
Which wasn’t until 4pm.
Two buses a day. One at 8am and one at 4pm.
For. Heaven’s. Sake.
Taxi it is then. Miri is just a few km from the border, but the taxi driver managed to rip me off to the tune of FIFTY US dollars. This is in a state in which oil is cheaper than water, the rotten bastard. Arriving at the border twenty minutes later my plan was to cross over, hitch a lift to the first city along the coast and take the local bus from there to BSB.
And that’s exactly what happened: I hadn’t even stuck my thumb out when a car stopped and a the guy inside offered me a lift. Brunei, the 181st country of The Odyssey Expedition, is like that. He was Malaysian Chinese guy called Johnny and he worked for a satellite company fixing the transmitters in the jungle here. Sometimes it would take him 12 hours just to get to ‘work’! Now THAT’S a commute.
By the time I got to the capital it was around twelve noon. I headed over to Muara port on a local ‘express’ bus which took half an hour to get there and then pushed everyone out a couple of Ks from the actual port. Annoyingly. Brunei is just NOT set up for independent travel, as anyone who has struggled through this part of the world will happily testify. I waited a good half hour for the ‘connecting’ bus, and then when it arrived the driver walked to the back of the bus and promptly fell asleep. I rubbed my eyes – what the hell was going on? The driver told me that the bus would leave in half-an-hour now would I mind buggering off while he got some shut eye.
Only in Brunei would a ‘connecting’ bus leave an hour after the first one. In fact, only in Brunei would you be dropped five minutes drive from the port on a bit of wasteland in the middle of nowhere. But then again only in Brunei would I have to stick my thumb out for 30 seconds in order to get a lift off someone. The someone turned out to be a local guy called Vic, who agreed that the public transport in this country was a joke.
So, Brunei: good for hitch-hiking, awful for public transport. I arrived at the port just in time for the 1pm ferry to Pulau Labuan in the Malaysian state of Sabah (“Pulau” means island, by the way) only to find there was no 1pm ferry – the next would not be until 3.30pm, effectively stranding me in Pulau Labuan for the night.
Why did I need to get a boat in the first place? Good question! The answer is that Brunei is split into two sections which both form irregular ‘bites’ down from the coast. The interior of this area is dense impenetrable rainforest, but there is one road that runs from Sarawak state in Malaysia, through the BSB region of Brunei, into the Limbang area of Sarawak, through the Temburong District of Brunei and then finally into Sabah. There is no public transport along this way and you have to get stamped in or out of the respective countries a ridiculous EIGHT times. Needless to say, taking the one hour ferry ride to Pulau Labuan makes infinitely more sense.
But that’s not to say I wanted to stay there for the night, ’cos I didn’t.
Arriving at 4.30pm, my only hope was that the speedboat to Menumbok was still running, since I knew the last boat to Kota Kinabalu would have long gone. There is a SERIOUS lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to Brunei and I was glad to be shut of the place. That and the fact it is remarkably dull. Yup, it’s up there with Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Andorra as the kind of place where the most interesting thing to happen is that some dull businessmen might indulge in a dull round of golf. No rock n’ roll, no poetry, no spine-tinglingly good films, no amazing books, no mesmerising art, no world-changing inventions, no scientific breakthroughs, no alarms and no surprises, please. Yawn.
In a stroke of luck, the little speedboat to Menumbok (halfway to Kota Kinabalu) was still running – I may well make it to KK yet!! Me and a couple of girls (one from Penn state and the other from Orkney) who also didn’t want to be stuck here for the night bought our tickets and waited the thing to fill up. Soon we were thundering out of the port towards the mainland, as the sun set over Pulau Labuan far behind. I stood out on the deck loving every second of it: the wind in my hair, the little boat skipping over the sea (which was a calm as a lake, by the way) and the last rays from the sun scattering golden upon the water.
At Menumbok we were back in the world of joined-up thinking and there was a shared taxi waiting to whisk us away to Kota Kinabalu. I checked into the Step-In Lodge backpackers and went out for a celebratory drink with the girls. Take THAT! Brunei, I’ve defeated you again. Woohahaha!!
I tried to put out of my mind the fact that this time next week I’ve got to come back the same way…
Up at 8am and onto the bus to Sandakan – the port town where the boat leaves for country 182: The Philippines. Happily, the bus left on time, but unhappily the onboard film was the most turgid, rotten waste of photons I’ve seen since Dreaming of Joseph Lees. It was like the worst bits of Star Wars Episode I (i.e. all of it) mixed with the soggy turd that was The Matrix Revolutions sprinkled from the leftover crud from the backstreet abortion that was The Golden Compass.
The only funny thing about the film is that it was about -finarr finarr- BENDERS. Christ WHY DID NOBODY TELL THEM?? I was seriously perplexed. Was there not a single person from the UK on the crew who could tap M. Night Shallaballadingdong on the shoulder and say “M, we need to talk…”. Did nobody suggest that since there were these people with magic eastern powers, maybe their power could utilise an eastern sounding word, like ‘xi’ (pronounced ‘chi’ – and mentioned in the film), ‘tan’ or ‘jedi’. Rather than –woop woop guffaw!- ‘BENDER’. So you’d have something like the water-xi’tan, the earth-xi’tan, the fire-xi’tan and the air-xi’tan. The Last Air-Xi’tan. There you go, sounds better already.
The script was so so bad it made my toes curl – many of the lines seemingly ripped straight out of Star Wars Episode I (and delivered with the same po-faced green-screen emotion). And the acting, and the pacing and the… oh god everything really. I can’t WAIT until RedLetterMedia tears this one a new a-hole. Luckily for me, also onboard was a delightfully chatty Aussie couple, Riki and her boyfriend Liam; nattering always makes the journey go quicker, and before 4pm I had forgotten all about the BENDERS -snoot snoot!- was in town checking into the Sandakan Backpackers.
No time to waste, I jumped a taxi to the ticket agents for tomorrow’s ferry to Zamboanga in Mindanao.
WHAT? MINDANAO? Are you CRAZY??! I hear you scream. Well, those of you that have heard of Mindanao are screaming that I’m sure.
Mindanao is not the happiest of Filipino islands – yes more religious fundamentalism and yes you can probably guess that the gruesome and disturbed hooligans running around murdering innocent woman and children are not Jains or Buddhists or Zoroastrians. They happen to be the same religion of ‘peace’ that you might be familiar with: over the past turbulent decade of world history, its rather over-passionate clientele have been known to run about murdering innocent bystanders in Indonesia, Thailand, China, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, the UK, Sudan, Algeria, Mauritania, Nigeria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen, Chad, Niger, Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, Tajikistan and the USA, so there’s a good chance you may have heard of them. Of course by ‘peace’ I mean ‘all out war’ but then I’m guessing you understood the comedic tone of my apostrophes.
The only funny thing about this horror show that’s been rumbling on in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago for decades is that one of the main terrorist groups is called ’MILF’. Seriously! Maybe I’m just having one of those days. Reminds me of Rimmer’s Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society…
I think the Filipino government should fight back with an elite army commando brigade called ‘Cougar Force’. MILFs versus Cougars! Who wouldn’t pay to watch that?!
So anyway, getting back to the point, Mindanao is a heap big dangerous place of whose midday sun only mad dogs and Englishmen would venture out into. In fact, it’s probably going to be the most dangerous place I’ve been to this entire journey: Colombia is safe enough as long as you stay away from the rebel-held areas, the DRC is cool as long as you don’t venture too far towards the borders with Uganda and Rwanda, Somalia is laughing as long as you stay in Somaliland, Iraq is not just safe but also a wholelottafun as long as you stay in the Kurdish north and Afghanistan is only really a danger if you venture down to Helmand or travel at night.
Actually, Mindanao itself would present little to raise the blood pressure if I was going to be kicking around the north and east of the island, but I’m not. There is only ONE international ferry service to The Phils and, unfortunately for me it only goes to Zamboanga in western Mindanao: right into the eye of the storm.
So it’s going to be a case of keeping my big ginger bounce down and cowering in my hotel room until the ferry returns to Sandakan two days later.
But after all that, the shipping offices were closed for the day. I was told to come back the next morning at 8am and the ship would be leaving later that day. So returning to the backpackers I updated the website and then ventured out into the night for some din-dins. I was invited to come and sit with the nice couple that were sharing my room, a bloke called Adam and his girlfriend. As the night went on our discussion turned into a kick-ass debate, the kind I love to have (yes the world would be a boring place if we all agreed on everything) about environmentalism, cultural relativism and scientific fundamentalism. Like I say, it was a kick-ass debate.
Adam accused me of being a scientific fundamentalist, and as nobody likes being called a fundamentalist I tried to make out that I wasn’t – I just really, really love science in the same way I love the works of Rembrandt, Verdi, Wren, Hemmingway, Hitchcock and Johnny Rotten and think that YOU SHOULD TOO!! But, upon reflection (and the here’s-what-I-should-have-said thing that hits you the next day) in the grand tradition of the Socratic method I’ve had my brain expanded by debate and I’m proud to say that yes, yes I AM a scientific fundamentalist and you know what? I strongly believe that you are too.
It would help if I explained what I mean by fundamentalist: someone with absolute blind faith in what they believe. Fair enough? When this blind faith is in a unproveable but ultimately silly bronze age creation myth invented by some illiterate goat herders in the Middle East back when us silly humans thought the world was flat, the stars wheeled around it for our delight and epilepsy was caused by demonic possession, my heart sinks and I may well invite you into my kitchen for a cup of tea and a dose of reality.
But it comes down to this: blind faith = I don’t know how it works, but I’m willing to stake my life on the fact it will.
Now the funny thing is that many people infected with the mind-virus of religion like to talk the talk, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the only ones who walk the walk are the fundamentalists who 100% honestly believe that if they accidentally fell off a cliff that their chosen god would reach down with his big invisible hand and save them – you know, the exceptionally rare ‘oh goodie gumdrops, I’ve got cancer’ people. Or, in the case of the 9/11 hijackers, they believe that whatever they do, no matter how disgusting, depraved, sick and twisted (murdering 3,000 people is all these things and more) if they do it in the name of God, Allah, Zeus, Gandalf, Santa Claus whatever, then it’ll all work out in the wash, because it’s what THE EASTER BUNNY would have wanted.
No evidence required!
However, science is all about the evidence and the evidence is all around us because we can see it works – chemotherapy, television, the internet, X-rays, digital photos, video games, 100% accurate predictions of future events such as eclipses or cicada plagues. The mad thing is that very very few of us knows how it works: and therein lies the fundamentalist part – the part that requires faith. Which is why I just accused you of being a scientific fundamentalist.
The first reason is that you owe your life to science. You are reading this, which means you are alive and (presumably) you have reached adulthood (it also infers that you are highly intelligent, good looking, are dynamite in bed and have great taste in fashion, music and art, but that’s not important right now). The only way you could have made it this far is because of modern western science. There are no two ways about this – Queen Anne had what? Eighteen pregnancies? And how many of them made it out alive? Five. How many of them made it to adulthood? NONE.
And she was the goddamn QUEEN OF ENGLAND. She had the wealth, the riches, the access to all the best medicines of the day… But you’re talking about the days before germ theory, sterilisation techniques, ultrasound, incubators, saline drips, safe caesarean procedures etc.
Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, James Watt, Joseph Bazelgette, Edward Jenner, Alexander Fleming, Watson and Crick, Marie Curie, Christiaan Barnard… there is a good chance that you owe these one or all of these scientists your life.
And if you want to come at me with evidence that you were born without any medical assistance, that you were never inoculated or vaccinated, never used antibiotics, you’ve never had a broken bone, a major operation or a life threatening disease, you have no allergies, you don’t have asthma and you don’t wear glasses, I have just one word for you: Nitrates.
You know, grim old Malthus was almost right: by the end of the nineteenth century the world was beginning to contain too many people to feed itself. Having to leave a field fallow every few years to regenerate was not a very economic way of farming, plus over the years the quality of the soil would diminish to such a point that you might as well rake gravel over it and give it to the pikeys. But why was this so? What was the magic ingredient in cow dung that brought a dead field back to life? By the turn of the last century, scientists had cracked it: Nitrates. Now you could buy nitrates in the form of liquid fertiliser, spread it all over your fields, never have to let them go fallow and (weather permitting) enjoy a bountiful harvest every single year: year in, year out.
Before the discovery of nitrates, the world could barely cope with one billion people. Now there are six and a half billion people, five and a half billion of which I would argue owe their very existence to science: and chances are you’re one of them.
In short, the entire human race was heading towards an abyss and science swooped in at the last minute to save us all (as I sadly believe most people think it will do over the rather pressing issue of climate change – save us lazy bastards from having to do anything about it ourselves eh?).
The second reason is that you have undoubted blind faith in science. I know this for a few reasons, the main one being that you’ve all probably been on a plane at least once in your life. Now if doing something as unnatural as being shot through the sky at 700mph doesn’t scare the willies out of you, there’s a good chance you either a) have drank to many JD miniatures to care or b) you have 100% blind faith in the principles of aerodynamics, jet engines, electrical circuitry, radio communication, radar, air pressurisation etc.: ie. a bunch of stuff you (or I) know little or nothing about. I say blind faith because even if you’re an aeronautical engineer it’s doubtful that you know how every little bit of an aeroplane works: some things you’re just taking as red that they will work, work, work and work again: because if one of those things fail (as they occasionally do), you’re going to be a whole new shade of dead. Every time you get on a plane, you are staking your life on a whole bunch of science – science you don’t even understand.
Sadly, even the most mental of religious fundamentalists who really believe that what their invisible sky wizard wanted more than anything was for them to fly a plane into a building would use a plane engineered by science, rather than the one engineered via magic, prayer, superstition or dumb luck. Although the latter option obviously would be better for the unfortunates in the building.
I would also wager that you are absolutely and inseparably hooked into the world of Information Technology. You probably own a mobile phone and you obviously have access to the internet or you wouldn’t be reading this. Now I’m sure you could go for a while without these wondrous things that science has bestowed upon us at a reasonable price, but for how long? In fact, without science, how would you last the day? Unless you’re a religious studies teacher, how would you do you job without a constant and steady flow of new information? How would you get to your job? Could you seriously live without your creature comforts: your car, the train, central heating, air conditioning, television, radio, iPods, DVDs, telephones, the internet…?
It’s the same argument that says nobody in the right mind would call out for a homeopath after being hit by a car: no matter how hippy-dippy and ‘sceptical’ about science we pretend to be, we begrudgingly owe our very existence to science and we use the fruits of scientific wisdom every single day of our lives. We are all, in a very real sense and although it’s uncomfortable to say it, scientific fundamentalists. But don’t worry: science asks nothing of you: it doesn’t want your prayers, your thanks or even your appreciation (it would be nice, I guess, but I don’t think the Royal Society is waiting on a thank-you card from us spoilt, ungrateful post-modernist brats), and more importantly, your faith in science will never compel you to strap a bomb to yourself. Because that would be SILLY.
I’m no scientist, I don’t shave with Occam’s razor nor eat Fermat’s Last Theorem for breakfast. But I know my protactinium from my protractor, my polyethylene from my buckminsterfullerene, my DNA from my RNA, my quasars from my pulsars and my neutrons from my neutrinos: all from the comfort of my armchair. Since when did you have to be a musician to enjoy music, a filmmaker to enjoy movies or a sportsman to enjoy the footy?
I don’t just love science for the sake of knowledge, beauty or entertainment (although I’m convinced it delivers all three), I love science because I understand how much I owe it, and how much I’m going to rely on it day-in and day-out until my time on this great little (slightly) pear-shaped planet comes to an end. Yes, I admit it – as unfashionable, culturally insensitive and as disrespectful as it sounds, I’m a scientific fundamentalist through and through. I’ve won Pascal’s wager and the bastard owes me a fiver.
A final thought: you know those western chicks sitting cross-legged going ommmmm with the multi-coloured beads in their dreads in an ashram in India; their heads full of magic pink unicorns dancing in the moonlight on a distant crystal planet vibrating with pure positive lifeforce energy?
You can bet your bottom dollar that they flew there 😉
Another late night followed by another early morning: I ejected myself from by bunk at 7am and was already at the seaport for 8am, not that it made any difference, the very same woman who told me to come back this morning told me that they don’t sell tickets for the ferry to The Philippines: I had to go an agency halfway back to town. Which I grumpily did, and eventually I got my ticket. Damnit: I could have had a lie in; the boat wouldn’t be leaving until 7pm. Bah!
Well there was nothing for it but to return to the backpackers, eat some breakie and head out to the nearby Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre. I arrived about 11.30am only to discover that the park shut down between 12 and 2, but a ticket was good all day, so I bought one and headed out into the jungle for a quick recce before I was kicked out for lunch.
A wooden decked path ran in a circular route from the gatehouse and back again. There were some monkeys hanging around (literally) near the Orang-Utan feeding platform out in the jungle, but no Great Apes. After waiting a few minutes I resigned myself to just seeing my close cousins at afternoon feeding time and started back for the gatehouse.
On the way back I was ambling along, squinting up at the tall trees all around just in case a ranga leapt into my line of vision. Just then I happened upon a juvenile ranga happily sitting on the wooden fence to the left of the walkway – literally yards away. He looked at me, I looked at him: jingo, a close encounter! There was nobody else around, just me and my little man of the forest.
He ambled over to me, and I stood there like a lemon holding my video camera thinking whatdoIdo? whatdoIdo? when suddenly he reached for my jacket pocket, seemingly to steal my iPod.
Oi! I shouted (hilariously enough) and pushed his hand away. Naughty little tyke. I then realised he’d been attracted by the yellow pen sticking out the top of my pocket. Boris (I as decided to christen him) then casually turned away and started to walk on all fours back towards the gatehouse. I needed to go that way anyway, so I followed him. We walked together for ten minutes before we reached the fork in the walkway. Another couple were walking back the other way and I motioned them over to us.
There Boris, possibly loving the attention he was getting, lounged about like Hugh Hefner, posing for photographs until the park warden came out of the gatehouse. Quick as a flash, Boris was back on his feet and making a beeline back to the jungle – he obviously didn’t want to get into trouble. There was definitely a special connection between us, one that transcends yellow pens and ginger beards: Boris and I walked down the exact same evolutionary path for over a billion years before our distant ancestors branched out and took our chimpanzee cousins with us. And you only need to look into the eyes of one of these magnificent creatures to realise that maybe, for all our achievements, it would have been better for us – and the planet – had we stayed in the forests were we belonged.
After lunch I returned for feeding time, and got some nice shots, but it was nothing to compare with my one-to-one with Boris. Riki and Liam off yesterday’s bus turned up and we ended up returning to Sandakan town together for din-dins and beers. By 6.30pm I sensed it was time to exit stage left (stage right, even), and very soon I was down at the docks, clutching my bags and climbing up the gangplank of the ship that would be taking me to the one hundred and eighty second country of The Odyssey Expedition: The Philippines.