Monday, 23 February 2009


The waitress stared at me in a mixture of shock and surprise, mingled with a little fear. This is common in Asia when people don't understand a question, or don't expect it. There's an obvious moment of panic, a widening of the eyes, a parting of the lips and the escape of an indistinct "Whaaa?" sort of sound, usually followed by the policeman (or whoever) explaining that, actually, the train station is behind you (and you're a damn, time-wasting fool for missing it). She recovered herself quickly.

"Could you repeat that, sir?"

"Sure thing. A hamburger please."

"Ah, sir, I am so sorry, we do not have a ham burger."

"Oh, never mind, I thought it was on the menu."

"No sir, I'm afraid not. Would you care for a beef burger instead?"

That's the great thing about Borneo. Places may aim to have a Western style, tours may try and match up to what they think Westerners want, but everything's just so charmingly unpolished (not to mention cheap). Of course, one thing you shouldn't do in a place like this is wear white trousers, as Alex found to his cost. For the past ten days he's been extolling the virtues of white linen - cool, bug resistant and they make you look like a Russian tourist. We were on our way to go white water rafting, and took a local train that goes into a rainforest and up a mountain. Seats were scarce, with plenty of places already taken up by enormous egg containers and a fortnights worth of food, carried up from the town into the recesses of the jungle. Still we fought our way on and found somewhere to sit down. After a few minutes, we suddenly realised there was a small girl, no more than five or six, sitting next to us, staring us with thunderous broody eyes. Suddenly, without warning, she struck out a leg and started kicking Alex, smearing mud all over his legs.

If Alex was having a bad time with his clothes, I was beginning to feel a bit unsettled. It's not so long since I read Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and as we began our ascent into the rainforest the sky started to become heavy and brooding. As the child lashed out again a crack of thunder sounded, and an almighty downpour began, rain coming in through the open windows and beating heavily off the leaves and the tin roof of the train. The girl collapsed into a crying ball beside her mother, who gave us a kind look, and I looked away, catching the eye of another child, a young boy who had spilled his juice all over the floor. I gave him a sympathetic smile and he too burst into tears. More than a bit bewildered, I turned to look out of the window, just as we passed a wooden sign that read "Death Risk" in large red letters, and the train carried us deeper into the heart of darkness.

Fortunately there wasn't too much time to brood on these odd portents, because soon enough we were on the river, heading back down the mountain and about to meet our first rapid. Our guide, who called himself Mr. Tapioca (which would have thrown me if I wasn't already more than a bit thrown), was telling us about the rapids.

"There are several grades, and we'll deal with them in turn. Our first rapid is called 'Mickey Mouse' rapid. It's very easy, that is grade 1. It is just a warm up. Grade 2 is harder, we'll do one called the 'Scooby Doo' rapid, but it's not too much of a bother. We'll then hit a grade 4, where the waves are very high, around six foot, 'The Headhunter' it's called. Then a grade 3, but a dangerous one with lots of rocks, called the 'Washing Machine,' because it likes to spin you round and round under the water."

Naturally, before we were even in sight of a rapid, mickey mouse or otherwise, I'd already fallen off the boat, thrown off balance by a minor upsurge of water. Mr. Tapioca pulled me out of the water laughing. "This rapid, it does not have a grade or a name, but perhaps we will call it for you". This little misadenture did have an upside, it made the other beginners feel a lot better about falling in because, as one of the others put it, "Now I won't feel like a twat."

The rafting itself was terrifying on the approach, terrifying and messy in the middle and exhilarating in the periods of calm afterwards. You're bustled and thrown by the waves, splashed in the eyes so you can't see and on all sides large rocks jut out of the water threatening to catch you if you fall out. The threat, though, is more perceived than real, and even if you fell in a rapid you'd be unlucky to come to much harm. Our guides proved it to us by - without warning - engineering a flip that sent the boat over with us. Scary it may sound, but you come up quickly on your life jacket, and being carried gently down a river - without needing to swim or work to stay afloat - is a peculiarly calming experience.

Our next stop was Selingan, one of the Turtle Islands, a tiny (8 hectare) outcrop where Malaysia and the Phillipines are running a conservation project. Infancy is extremely hazardous for turtles, and even with conservation the mortality rate is about 99%, but worldwide turtle populations are dwindling to an alarming level - largely because of human-created problems. On the island we waited till night fell to watch a mother lay nearly a hundred eggs in a pit she'd dug on the beach, before the eggs were transported to a safer location by the rangers. Later on we saw a newly hatched brood released into the wild, flailing around on the shore till they were washed away - most of them to certain death - by the tide.

Finally we visited an Orangutan sanctuary, where another conservation project is taking place, and saw a feeding. Alex took off with the tour into the jungle, and I came back to Singapore to wait patiently for a new passport and catch up on my sleep.

Other things I've learnt recently:


Borneo is the world's third largest island, divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.


Turtles are sea based, and have flippers; Tortoises are land based and have feet.


Means 'Man of the Forest' in Malay. Orangutans are 96 point something percent human and a fully grown, dominant male can rip a grown man in two, but his face looks like a rubber satellite dish.


Is a scientific term. It rains in the rainforest. A lot.


I have no idea what the word jungle means.

1 comment:

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