Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world. In the north part of the island, the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak make up about 26% of the total land area. The tiny State of Brunei is wedged between Sarawak and Sabah on the South China Sea. This northern territory of Borneo borders on the Philippine Islands and is rife with pirates, people smugglers and illegal immigrants. But more on that in our next post.
Our first stop in Sarawak was at Miri. We tied up at the Marina, which was very protected and close to town, and despite the big warning signs of wild crocodiles, the only ones we saw were in the crocodile sanctuary. None of us were game, however to go swimming. For the past 6 weeks as we have been exploring some of this amazing country.
Miri was Malaysia’s first “oil town”, thanks to the off shore oil that is still a huge industry today. History shows us that this abundance of oil was the reason for the Japanese to attack here during the second world war. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945 they handed the control back to the local people, and the city has since been rebuilt with modern malls and hotels. There is a fantastic novel (but very much based on factual events that took place in Miri) that I highly recommend. It is called “A Leopard Sings in Sarawak”, by Paul Leslie Smith.
Leaving Mai Tai in the Miri Marina, Lane and I flew to Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak. From the plane, it seemed that all we could see was palm oil plantations, with roads cut through them for harvesting, and long muddy rivers wending their way out to the sea via low-lying mangrove swamps. Perfect crocodile territory.
Kuching lies on the edge of one of these rivers and became a centre of trade and fishing for many years. Fortunately, it escaped much of the Japanese bombing, so many landmarks are still there to visit. The story that I found really interesting was that of the White Rajahs, 3 generations of the British Brooke family who founded and ruled the kingdom of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946. Books, movies and even a musical are available to learn of this fascinating period. A visit to the Orangutan Sanctuary, and local cultural village topped off our city visit.
Beyond the coastal mangroves there are mountains, limestone rock pinnacles with huge cliffs and gorges. We spent 4 days visiting the Gunung Mulu National park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a protected rain forest and has a series of huge caves, one of them claiming to be the largest natural cave chamber in the world. Over 290 kms of cave have been found so far, and they are still exploring further. The numbers in the park are controlled, the guided tours very professional, so it was a real shock when we learnt that a few days after our visit, a flash flood inside one of the caves took a party of tourists by surprise, washing them from the walkway into the raging river below. The guide was able to save all but one, and he lost his life in attempting to rescue him. So sad and a stark reminder of the wild weather in this region of the world.
Wandering along the forest floor on the way to the caves, we saw many species of flora and fauna, many more of which became even more visible on our guided night walk. The canopy walkway showed us a whole different perspective.
We also visited other cave systems closer to Miri, where swiftlets come to make their nests using saliva. Twice a year after the chicks have hatched the local people come to remove these nests from high up in the cave roofs, using precarious poles to reach the top, such is the commercial value of these nests for the famous Birds Nest Soup. In China it is also used for cosmetic purposes, the secret to keeping young. The Guana from the millions of bats, is also collected and sold as fertiliser. The caves, as you can imagine, stink of bat poo!! However, human remains dating back 40,000 years along with cave paintings, pottery and old canoes have been found indicating the area was home to an ancient civilisation.
Our next sailing destination was the island of Labuan, a small duty-free island 120 miles to the north and just 30 miles off the coast of Brunei. We sailed overnight with very little sleep wending our way through the dozens of off-shore oil rigs, LPG Tankers and fishing boats. We arrived in the morning and docked in a very run-down and dirty marina where several other rally boats were already tied up. A lot of money had been invested in this town during a boom in the 90s, but after the crash in 2008, companies went bankrupt and the town is rather forlorn, huge hotels and office buildings fallen into disrepair. We stayed a few days, to visit the small interesting museums, saw the site of the Japanese surrender, a Commonwealth War Cemetery and visited a bird sanctuary.
KK is a very modern city with a beautiful well-equipped marina. Several boats were needing repairs and spare parts so this was the perfect place to take care of all of that before we head around to much more remote areas on the northeast coast of Borneo. Cooking classes had been arranged for us, or a visit to a local boatyard if you preferred, and of course rally dinners.
This has been an important stop for all the crews of the 31 rally boats about to head around the top of Borneo and down the eastern side. We are all required to attend a security briefing from ESSCOM (Eastern Sabah Security Command) who will be escorting our fleet through an area well known for pirate attacks. We will only be sailing by day in a tight convoy with radio scheds and position checks with our AIS systems. At night we will take turns standing watch in rotating night watches while at anchor. Our military escorts will be with us day and night 24/7 for the 3 weeks it takes to transit this risky zone in the Sulu Sea.
More about that adventure in our next blog.