The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure by Carl Hoffman
With work beckoning Thad to Kota Kinabalu for the short week of the Columbus Day, we decided to make a trip of it, going early to enjoy the long weekend, before he had to hit the ground running with site visits and American Citizen Services for those living on the Malaysian island. We were last here in the summer of 2009, when we stayed in a hostel just a few blocks from the hotel that provides our lodging this time around. While the accommodations are different, the city is much the same. (Originally, I wrote “drastically different,” but then I realized that it isn’t necessarily *that* different. The hostel we stayed at a few years ago had private rooms with small private bathrooms. The hotel we are at this time around gave us a huge room, but it is mostly unused space. I could easily host a Zumba class with the vast expanses of open area available. But, while the bathroom is larger, the shower leaks, creating a lovely ode to Lake Superior each time we bathe, just going to prove the old adage, “bigger isn’t always better.” To be fair, I didn’t have to schlep a backpack up several flights of stairs on Sunday evening, instead my luggage was delivered to my room by a bellhop and the view is much nicer this time around. It turns out, our current digs might not be “drastically” better, but they are definitely several rungs up the accommodation ladder- maybe even a few coveted stars.)
Thanks to Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas, we had an extra day to play before Thad’s calendar was overwhelmed with a variety of appointments, so we decided to get out of the city for the day and see what Mt. Kinabalu had to offer. Last week, Borneo was lashed with a massive amount of rain, making the windy road up the mountain a bit slower of a route due to several landslides that had recently been cleared, but other than a few bumps and jolts, the ride was enjoyable. We stopped at the base of the mountain for pictures and were regaled with our tour guide’s stories of how there is a race up the mountain each year, the fastest climber having done both the ascent and decent in a mere two hours. (Two hours wouldn’t even be enough for me to get a few kilometers from the trailhead!) As a part of our day-long tour (on which we were the only participants- yay!), we also stopped at a small botanical garden where Bibo (the tour guide) enumerated the various orchids found in the park, which ferns were safe to eat and the story of why he had renamed one tree in the park as “the sexy tree.” (I had a hard time following the whole story, but something to do with the fact it didn’t have bark or had peeling bark, so it looked naked. Needless to say, even without full comprehension, it was an awkward moment in the tour!) After an overwhelming number of flora-related facts, all starting with “For your information…” it was off to the pinnacle of the day’s events- the hot springs.
When we signed up for the tour on Sunday evening, I saw a vague reference to a “canopy walk,” but it was hidden in the fine print of the brochure, not really registering with me as a part of the day’s events. It may be wise, in the future, to pay a bit more attention to those tiny details scribbled at the bottom of schedules. As it turns out, before we could have a go at the hot springs, we had the “opportunity” to enjoy a canopy walk through the treetops of the Borneo rainforest. Even as I type this, it sounds beautiful and relaxing and a pleasurable way to spend a bit of time. How have I forgotten the torture so soon? (It’s the traveler’s version of childbirth. Combinations of strange chemicals override your memory, lessening the horrors of the event so that you will sign up to do it again and again! One propagates the species while the other seems to keep this blog alive!)
To the canopy walk we went.
To get to the tiny walkways in the treetops, we first had to trek our way up the mountainside, which in a rainforest means a rather humid and sticky climb. From here on out, I’d like to blame the sweaty palms, shaky legs and general irritable mood on this ascent, rather than them being symptoms of my irrationally strong dislike of all things high.
The problem with this canopy walk, and I would imagine many such ventures worldwide, is that once you make the initial choice to start through the maze, you are stuck a gazillion meters above the ground with no recourse other than to continue forward. There is no way to step off the course, wave to your friends and promise to meet them at the other end. Start and you must finish.
So, with sweaty palms, shaky legs and a generally irritable demeanor, forward I went. Foot in front of foot, eyes locked on the next platform (slightly more stable, but not exceedingly) and party to a continual running dialog with myself. (This ongoing self-talk was not the uplifting and encouraging pep talk one might imagine, but rather included a slew of words my mother doesn’t know I know and self-chastisement for having gotten myself in a 40-meter-above-the-forest-floor predicament.)
One would think the reward of some time relaxing in the hot springs would be incentive enough to get across those high wire-esque paths, but, again when you travel, you never know what you are going to get. Rather than the highly heated hot spring pools of Idaho (both Givens outside of Marsing and Zimm’s in New Meadows were childhood favorites), these “springs” were a series of small, deep tubs that the bathers filled themselves from slow-release spigots. After about fifteen minutes and enough lukewarm water to cover our shins, we decided we had experienced this strange version of relaxation to our hearts’ content and headed back to the van; I figure I’d just take a hot soak in the tub back at the hotel and get the same experience, but with the bonus of reading material!
Kota Kinabalu (lovingly referred to as KK to Kuala Lumpur’s KL) is a fantastic town on the ocean with a much more chill vibe than KL offers, even on its quietest day . If State ever decides to open a consulate here, I’ll be pushing for a bid in a heartbeat. It has enough western “stuff” going on to feel less alien than many places we’ve traveled, but still retains more of its core personality than does KL, where foreign influence is seen on every corner, both because of historical occupations and the current fervor for all things western.
Even after tricking me into a death-defying walk through the jungle treetops, Kota Kinabalu still earns a top spot in my ever-burgeoning “Things to do in Malaysia” list and will definitely be a destination for future visiting friends.