Day 656: When I Left School


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.

Exciting stuff!

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!!

Day 657: Precious Cargo


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.