From our final destination in The Philippines it took 36 hours, a motorbike, a boat, a min-van, 2 buses, a plane and a taxi before we arrived in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo.
Our time on the 3rd largest island in the World was frustrating at times. Small budgets and a tight timescale forced us to bypass 'must do' Bornean activities like climb Mount Kinabalu - South East Asia's highest peak, and dive the protected marine life in Sipidan which is hailed as one of the Worlds dive spot spectaculars.
Nevertheless, using Kota Kinabalu (KK) as our base we spent just over a week exploring the Northern state of Sabah - finding day trips, cultural markets and a rough and ready brush with nature expected from a pace like Borneo. First task was securing a mode of transport. Buses on Borneo are slow, hot, not that cheap and very spontaneous to their drivers mood. We hired, for £15 a day, a vehicle that certainly would not be legal for the British roads but had an abundance of Malaysian character.
A six hour journey East of KK is Sepilok. Put on the map due to its successful rehabilitation centre for orphaned orangutans, visiting one of man's closest relative is a highlight of Borneo and could not be missed. We stayed in a basic, eco friendly lodge 5km from Sipalay, set in the midst of thick jungle, buzzing with the sounds of wildlife, it was just the kind of place I had pictured in my head before arriving on Borneo.
Seeing monkeys on riverbanks, socialising in trees or getting in the way of the roads is common place in a lot of South East Asia but seeing an animal with such human like features (Orangutans share over 95% of our DNA) is spine tingling. I smelt an expanse of dried bananas, foisty leaves and matted hair as a 90kg male slouched by on the beams of the feeding area. Tens of people gawped open mouthed and I'm sure I was no different. The Orangutan was less than three feet away but you would not dare to make contact - he was huge and very much in charge! It was a wonderful experience to see such intriguing animals up close and great to know that places like Sepilok are making a heavily positive impact on their futures.
The island of Mamutic is only 15 minutes by boat from KK's Western shore and after our experience with the Orangutans it helped to keep our love for nature burning brightly. Creating one of my lasting memories of any travelling I have done to date, we spent a night in our best accommodation yet. The tent cost £2 and the spot of sand we pitched it on was complimentary. With only the moon, stars and our expertly made camp fire for light we sipped rum from the bottle and traded stories with a Malaysian tour guide named Arthur. We concluded that he had a pretty enviable job.
From Sabah we used two boats to reach Bander Seri Bagawan, Brunei. In search of our inner sultan the countries capitol was a good host. Home to the outrageously wealthy and lavish Royal family that rule there the people of Brunei adore their Sultans and are proud of their reputation for luxury and expense. Although we weren't in the market for either, Brunei is an obvious stop off between the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
From bustling street markets to elegant and regal looking Mosques, South East Asia's largest water village, an abandoned theme park and, a staggeringly ludicrous $1.2 Billion hotel, we were never bored and often in awe of the Bruneian culture - the rich and the poor.
Sarawak was the location of our biggest and best physical adventures, oozing the characteristics of Borneo we craved. First came the exploration of Niah Caves - some of the biggest open to mankind. Staggeringly vast in both size and an eary, extraterrestrial feel it is not hard to let your imagination run wild, especially in the wake of 40,000 year old paintings that mark so many of the inner walls.
In our last few days, our final image of Borneo was mustered up of thick jungle. Four hours of sweating, stumbling and at some points climbing through dense vegetation was hard work but justly rewarding. Our efforts no doubt amplified the beauty of the beach we designated the half-way point. Either way it felt like real Borneo and was a fitting way to reflect on our experiences in this part of the World. We had made the most of it and been surprised a number of times with what you can do on a budget.
Indonesia was upon us. 30 days to cover 2000km, dive into a new culture, grasp a bit more local lingo, endure a few bone crunching bus journeys and see what the World's fourth most populated country has to offer.
Our first 10 days were spent scattered between Bali and The Gili Island's. Bali appears to be to Australians what Ibiza is to young European's. Its loud, fast, busy....and fun. Gili is less of a party scene but still offers up ample opportunity to let your hair down and not remember much in the morning. Being fresh out of University and craving a social fling after Borneo, we did what students do best and sampled the local brews.
Besides from recharging on beaches and fending off hordes of tit-tat sellers (I couldn't resist a rather authentic looking blow pipe!), Bali is much more than a party island. Ubud is the epicentre of everything Balinese. Slow paced, the smell of burning incense caresess your nostrils and the rigor of daily life is constant all around. Here, as well as monkeys using us as climbing frames, touring coffee plantations and wandering through impossibly green rice terraces, we were guests at a traditional Balinese dance performance. The passion, skill and beauty displayed was inspiring and seeing the pride in their faces at the obvious levels of enjoyment the crowd possessed was a pleasure.
The final note in this episode of my travels comes from Java - a region West of Bali and Indonesia's most populated. It is in Eastern Java that Mount Bromo is found - a steaming crater found in the desolate 'sea of sands' that brings locals and travellers alike to stare in awe at its beauty. We rose at 4am in time for sunrise and the pilgrimage to the top of a viewing platform in the dark and waited. When 5.32am came around all expectations were blown out of the water. It is difficult to imagine many views of such stunning and powerful natural beauty rivaling what we saw. The crater's of both Bromo and Semeru belched out clouds of sulphurous smoke into the air and the Jurassic looking scene held the attention of everyone watching until, seemingly unnoticed, night had become day.
As we move further into Java our experiences of 'real' Indonesia appear to be intensifying. Currently in Solo, this evening we dinned on satay snake, drinking the blood and all - they say it makes you strong! I don't think it will be making the menu at The Fauconberg anytime soon but they cook up a mean dish out here.