Jason’s Trot: Nusa Penida
Bali is, for all intents and purposes, a major tourist destination, filled with, well, tourists. There is no denying that at all. However, if you want a little escape away from the main island for a little peace and quiet, and rugged adventure, then Nusa Penida is a very good alternative.
One little interesting tid-bit I learned about Nusa Penida: this island was once the penal colony, a sort of place for exile, for the Balinese of old. Now, it feels like a refuge colony, for those seeking all-terrain explorations or excellent dive sites. You get fantastic views of Bali from the north shore, and you can see why this was the perfect place to be if you (or the Balinese community of old) want to be in exile.
A short 40 minute speedboat ride away from the main landing point on Sanur, Nusa Penida is close enough to Bali that it has become a sort of day-trip destination from Bali, an alternative to the somewhat party isle of Nusa Lembongan. I will be honest: do not expect much, Nusa Penida is very, very rustic.
But this rustic-ness is the charm of Nusa Penida. While you may get a slight shock when you get off the boat when you arrive, this raw beauty in the form of rickety country roads, rugged terrain and a dearth of built-up space makes for a refreshing experience.
Dirt Trails Galore
The roads in Nusa Penida are, to be honest, questionable. With the exception of a few sections that have been maintained, on the whole, roads away from the main north and west shores are almost gravel-like. Great for an off-road moto-session.
On arrival at the pier, there are options for renting motorbikes, which is a fun way to explore the island, but unless you are a capable rider, you can either get a motorbike with a driver and ride pillion, or get a car. Riding in Nusa Penida is not the same as riding in Bali, and some stretches can get very, very (very) challenging, especially towards the south-east.
Beaches, Cliffs and Holy Springs
The beauty of Nusa Penida is best experienced on her beaches, cliff-side walks and rugged drops. There is a certain charm about this island, despite it being somewhat dry, without as much dense vegetation compared to Bali. However, this does transport your mind to somewhere else, a wind-swept island, a perfect retreat.
There are quite a number of stunning beaches, mostly concentrated on the western and south-western end of the island. As with most destinations that have appeared on the radar, expect crowds, particularly day-trippers from Nusa Lembongan and Bali. If you time your visits right, you can either catch the tail-end of them, or leave just as they come in.
If you are a bit more adventurous and want a good workout, then the holy spring by the Peguyangan Waterfall, a temple perched at the bottom of a cliff, where a natural spring meets the sea below, provides for a stunning experience, both for a meditative but challenging walk down, and the views of sheer falls from the cliffs above.
If there was one iconic picture of adventure, travel and wanderlust, it would be one taken when looking down towards Kelingking Beach from the top of the Kelingking Peninsula. This spot has been made famous thanks to Instagram, and it is not hard to see why: the spot is stunningly photogenic. It can get crowded around lunchtime, so come by around lunch, have something to eat and wait for the crowds to thin out before heading down.
However, the beach at the bottom of the steep descent down is well worth the effort, but not suggested if you are on a tight day-trip from the main island. Once you are at the bottom, enjoy the crystal clear waters, white powdery sand and the knowledge that you just scaled down a collection of rickety bamboo ladders held by, well, let’s not go there.
Angel’s Billabong and Broken Beach are also iconic spots in Nusa Penida. Both are next to each other, with both getting very packed during day-trip and tour sessions around 10/11 am. Very ingenious local residents have identified the best places for selfies or photo opportunity spots, and these are clearly marked, and are there for a reason: the angle is just right.
Angel’s Billabong is very nice, but beware of the steep, slippery stone ledges and waves, that are not as calm as they seem: like the angels of the bible, they look divine but they can smite with a vengeance.
Broken Beach, just a short 5 minute walk away from Angel’s Billabong, is a sink-hole with a stone arch, and clear water down below. This spot is arguably a very close contender to the ‘iconic Nusa Penida shot,’ and the rugged beauty of the terrain makes it easy to see why. Come by just before lunch, when the tour groups leave for Kelingking Beach, if you want the place quieter.
After seeing Kelingking Beach, Angel’s Billabong and Broken Beach, Crystal Bay may suddenly feel not as stunning. Crystal Bay is a pretty bay, a secluded harbour with a good spot to see the sunset, but to be honest, it just makes me appreciate Kelingking Beach that much more.
While you can squeeze in all the main highlights of Nusa Penida’s West Coast in a day-trip, you will not get to experience the whole island in her rugged beauty. The ride down to the cliff temple brings you through rolling hills and quaint villages. The ride along the north shore brings you past some of the best views of Mt Agung. The thought of spending a few hours on Kelingking Beach does not sound out of the question when there is no boat to catch.
However, as this is pretty much the sticks, facilities, street lighting and infrastructure are limited. Wifi may be spotty and mobile reception is focused on the north and west sides of the island. Perfect if you want to unplug, chill and do basically nothing. Plus, the sunset views get that much better when there are no big crowds blocking your view as the main chunk of the crowds leave at 4pm.
To the island - There are quite a number of operators that go to Nusa Penida from Sanur. Most provide one-way transport to the ferry point if you book in advance. I used Maruti Express Boat, with a return fare of IDR 550,000
On the island – 3 options, either a) rent your own bike for around IDR 60,000/day, b) rent a bike with a driver for around IDR 200,000/day or c) rent a car with a driver for IDR 700,000/day
Stay?: Accommodation is limited on Nusa Penida, with most properties under 20 rooms, and concentrated on the northern and eastern sides of the island. Book in advance of your trip!
I am embarrassed to admit that I knew of Milford Sound through Civilization VI. To that computer game’s credit, they used the Maori name instead of the English one: Piopiotahi. Regardless of the name, the breathless introduction to that wonder was sufficient: “this great?!” Words simply cannot describe this beauty.
Road Well(ish) Travelled
Milford Sound can be reached easily from Queenstown, via the picturesque town of Te Anau. Roughly 6 hours from Queenstown including stopovers, the journey by road is well worth it, despite the temptation of taking the flight straight in.
While driving is fun, the coach down from Queenstown is very relaxing, with commentary and well-appointed stops by the driver. Departing early from the Real Adventures shop in central Queenstown, as in 0700 (complete with pick-up), the ride down is leisurely. The thought of taking a nap will quickly disappear when the sights along Lake Wakatipu onwards start to come to perspective.
Te Anau is a quaint little town on the road to Milford Sound and is a frequent mid-way point on the journey. The town is pretty and the lake is stunning, and the pie shop near the Real Journeys stopover point is well worth it.
The journey from Te Anau onwards to Milford Sound is filled with stunning scenery, from Lake Te Anau, to the site of Eglington Valley which honestly looks like a battle field from Lord of the Rings, and depending on your timing, can either be relatively full or relatively quiet.
The next stop on the itinerary, after passing through what looks like a dense forested area, is the Mirror Lakes. Again, depending on the time of day, wind conditions and if fortune favours you, the lakes will be sufficiently still to enable a mirror-like appearance on the lake, well-framed by the glacial peaks and forested groves.
From here on, the journey becomes even more rugged, from the Cascade Creek with water so pure from the glacial peaks, I filled 2 water bottles worth of water, to raw, jagged peaks that just reek of adventure, to gorges and rivers that look as though Frodo had just passed through an hour ago on his way to Mordor.
Truly, the road to Milford Sound is stunning, but this good? I can see what Darroch Donald meant now after being on this road for a few hours. The last ‘obstacle’ is the Homer Tunnel, a storied site and a single-lane tunnel, which then descends to Milford Sound. From here, it is not hard to fathom how Sir Edmund Hillary found the drive to scale Mr Everest when Mt Christina peaks from the tree-line on the road down.
[Donald’s quote is as follows: But as I headed into the heart of New Zealand's fiordland that same child-like feeling, long lost, of pure unadulterated awe came rushing back. I knew the road to Milford Sound was good - but this good?”
A Quaint Harbour
The final approach towards Milford Sound is, in a word, stunning. Steep, hairpin turns at times, endless rugged vistas a constant, lush vegetation by your side herald an approach to a spot which without a doubt, speechless.
Once you are at the harbour, you might notice that despite its popularity, Piopiotahi is not overcrowded. With the right pricing and policies in place, this World Heritage Site does not feel like the other, well-known sites. Timing, again is everything, with cruises usually lasting 2 hours. I highly suggest taking the nature cruise, which goes out a bit further, and brings you back to harbour later than the other boats, and extra time enjoying the stunning sound.
Barely 5 minutes out of harbour, Piopiotahi delivers on the site, with the stunning Lady Bown Falls waterfall immediately on your right, and with the right weather conditions, an unobstructed view of the perfectly pyramidical Mitre Peak framed by the fiords.
My suggestion: beat the crowds on your cruise and head straight to the bow viewing deck. The on-board naturalist is on hand to provide commentary and insights, but half the time, you might get sucked in by the sight of the fiord and enjoying the noise of stillness.
Keep a look-out though: this is still a raw, natural place, with very limited human habitation and impact. I spotted a number of dolphins and seals on the cruise, and while there was a chance of catching a whale as we headed out towards the Tasman Sea, the strong waves and currents did limit out progress.
Other better, more skilled writers and poets have tried to capture the beauty and majesty of Piopiotahi in words and they admit they could not do it justice. I could barely come up with adjectives beyond ‘stunning’ and ‘majestic’ and ‘awe-inspiring.’
My fancy compact camera could barely capture the scale and beauty of the Sound, and professional photographers before me and on the cruise admitted they could barely capture an iota of what inspired them to look up and around and be mesmerized by the sheer scale of nature’s chisel which dwarfs any attempt in to a somewhat feeble exercise.
Capturing the waterfalls caught amazing shots but without context. Taking a video captured the surrounds but failed to capture the majesty. While it may be a cliché to say that ‘seeing is believing,’ this work of nature’s art is one which truly can only be appreciated in its full majesty in person.
I can now admit that whenever I play Civilization VI now, I try at all costs to get Piopiotahi within my civilization’s influence and ‘National Park.’ It is one way of ‘capturing’ it, as ridiculous as it sounds.
Drive or Coach?: You can drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound, with a journey that takes roughly 4 hours, with stopovers at Te Anau. However, I highly suggest taking a coach, either from Queenstown or Te Anau, if not for the brief sight-seeing stops by the driver, then for the relaxing ride through the country.
Journey Options: I took Real Journeys on my trip to Milford Sound. They provide options for a Cruise or a Nature Cruise. Splurge a bit and go for the Nature Cruise.
You can either take a: a) return coach trip, which leaves at 0700 and returns around 1900, b) coach-fly, which leaves at 0700 and arrives around 1600, where you take a small plane from Milford Sound back to Queenstown, while flying low above the snow-capped peaks or c) fly in and out. The flying option is subject to weather conditions.
Feeling adventurous? Take the Milford Track, a hiking route over four days from Te Anau, through the mountains, to Milford Sound. Seasonal from October to April, and best during summer to avoid treacherous conditions.
Think New Zealand, and it evokes image of The Lord of the Rings, endless sheep on rolling hills and a population intent on testing every single humanly possible activity to wring out as much adrenaline as the human body could possibly handle. Hard to argue when on approach, you see rugged coastlines, jagged snow-capped peaks and a wilderness so tempting to explore, you can see what encourages so many thrill seekers to this natural playground.
Jagged Little Town
Located roughly in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island, Queenstown at first glance may seem like an unassuming little town. However, on approach, as you catch glimpses of the majestic Lake Wakatipu or the unreal blue of the Kawarau River or the peaks of The Remarkables range from the tarmac of Queenstown International Airport, you would rather it that way: let the natural surrounding do the talking.
The centre of Queenstown, focused on Rees St/Shotover Street, houses endless gear shops, tour operators specializing in every adrenaline sport imaginable, interesting bars and a host of accommodation. A walk around town and this little spot seems more cosmopolitan than you can imagine, with people from all over the world congregating in search of the next thrill.
Hemmed in by rolling hills, mountain ranges and a stunning lake, it is hard to not always want to stay outside in Queenstown, even in winter: the collegial atmosphere and natural beauty captures you, and all you can think of is enjoying a nice little drink on a floating bar. Yes, I spent a lot of time on Perky’s Floating Bar: it marries my love of wine, boats, water and natural landscapes wonderfully.
Pack a good, sturdy pair of hiking boots, a day-bag, extra camera batteries and a big SD card: there are a lot of good hikes within 15 minutes walk of the town centre, from simple walks up hills to more technical, steep ascents, but all are rewarded with amazing views of Queenstown, the mountains and Lake Wakatipu.
Queenstown Hill is a fun, easy hike, roughly 30 minutes from start to summit. Hike in the morning, as the cool air provides makes the summit magical with low clouds and mist. Stay a bit longer as the sun warms up the clouds, meditating on the lake views and artwork that dots the first peak.
Skyline Queenstown is a bit of a ‘cheat’ if you want to hike: there is the option of a very rewarding 1 hour hike up Bob’s Peak or a 15 minute gondola ride. Or of course, there is the option of a hike up and gondola down, or gondola up and mountain bike down. Waiting for the gondola and watching as mountain bikes are attached to the gondola up may give you even more suggestions.
Up at Skyline, there is a bar, a few restaurants, a Maori cultural exhibition, luge and of course more hiking trails. From the easy Skyline Loop that loops around the summit of Bob’s Peak or onwards towards Ben Lomond, pack lunch, stay hydrated and explore. You may even bump in to fellow ‘hikers’: of all things, I bumped in to a small herd of wild mountain goats on my way up Ben Lomond.
Apart from beautiful hiking territory, stunning cycling routes and adrenaline-pumping mountain bike trails, Queenstown has a range of activities on hand, from skiing in winter to, of course, the ‘Shotover Jet,’ the home of the very fast jet boat that whizzes up and down the Shotover River and Gorge.
While I did not opt for the Shotover Jet (or paragliding/bungee jumping/zorbing/base jumping), there are the tamer options of a day out at Walter Peak. A 30 minute cruise on the steamship TSS Earnslaw brings you to Walter Peak High Country Farm, a working farm and base for more genteel options. From an agricultural show of farm dogs herding sheep to cycling trips around the country, to just enjoying the view of Lake Wakatipu, Walter Peak is a quaint escape from the contagious adrenaline in Queenstown.
Walter Peak also has a very good horse riding trek around the lake and surrounds, and what better way to fan your Lord of the Rings dream than riding a horse in Middle Earth, as the jagged mountains recall Rohan and Gondor. Horses are well-mannered, the views rivalled by few and the peace serene.
Further beyond, the iconic image of New Zealand’s natural treasures beckon: Piopiotahi, or Milford Sound. While it was a bit sad I knew of Piopiotahi through Civilization VI, the trip from Queenstown was worth the entire day. From bus excursions, to bus-and-fly options to a full on multi-day trek on the Milford Sound, the scenery and experience of this journey to one of the natural wonders of the world is best experienced instead of described.
Yet after a day of adventures, Queenstown delivers on gastronomic and vino-related adventures. From the Perky’s Floating Bar to the world famous Fergburger which deserves its ranking as one of the top burgers in the world, to the genteel surrounds of The Lodge Bar, this adventure capital will serve you well.
One thing is for sure though: keep options open in Queenstown: this beautiful, unassuming town in the middle of rural New Zealand may capture you with her wonders. Sure, Queenstown is basically a tourist town, with tourism a major backbone of the economy, but it certainly does not feel like your standard issue tourist centre, what with the adrenaline adventurers, expedition explorers and bravado bikers around.
Taxis are a bit hard to come by: rent a car or get a ‘GoCard’ for easy bus rides. The ‘GoCard’ can be purchased at Queenstown Airport, at a travel counter on the left before the exit. Your purchase of the GoCard from the airport can easily cover the return fare from the airport to town.
Queenstown is an easy, walkable city. Sites further afield may require a private car. Most excursions come with transport provided from your accommodation.
The Mekong River is one of those unique destinations, which personally can only be appreciated when traversing it from source to flush. The closest I have ever done to this grand exploration was exploring 3 of the 4 countries. A cruise and kayak along the Laotian side, a run along the Cambodian embankments and now, a paddle down the Vietnamese delta end.
Escape from Saigon
The start of a Mekong Delta Expedition is My Tho, a roughly 2 hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. Once you get out from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, along the major expressway which then narrows down to smaller highways and by-ways, the sights that just scream ‘Indo-China’ pop out.
Passing green rice fields, going through small towns and settlements, navigating the traffic challenge that is Vietnamese driving and braving the roads, you will be happy you got in a nice, comfortable, well-airconditioned transport.
After the 2 hour drive, you would expect to see wide open spaces, rural idyll and of course, a lack of density. Well, we are in one of the densest parts of Southeast Asia, so expect to see people living cheek-to-jowl even in this ‘far flung’ end of one of the largest cities in Asia. The quay at My Tho hammers this home, when you observe the sheer congestion and mass of boats moored by the banks of the Mekong. Such fun!
Cruising the Delta
There are a myriad of operators conducting tours on the Mekong Delta, but they have one thing in common: their boats are relatively narrow. These small-ish boats are perfect for skimming the wide delta and navigating the channels.
Out in the Delta, the contradictions of Southeast Asia becomes apparent: massive highways and impressive bridges juxtaposed against small sampans and narrow village roads. Yet it is this contradiction which gives this Delta character.
After passing a few islands in the Delta, we moored by the banks of Thoi Son island. From here, we were greeted by a song-and-dance and refreshments before starting a short walk in to the island’s interior and on to shallow boats for a unique experience.
Paddling through palms
One of the images you see of Vietnam, apart from those tunnels and WWII sites, is one of serene paddling through dense foliage, as you explore the backwaters of the Mekong Delta. Lush greenery, against the silt-laden channels and a local paddling a flat-bottomed boat.
Yes, we had that. That, on top of something I thought I would never see: boat-related congestion in a village on a narrow irrigation canal. Truly a unique experience, and while not the ‘ideal,’ it was different. Old ladies deftly navigating their boats, avoiding collisions despite the sheer congestion.
From here came the ‘tourist traps.’ A honey bee farm and a ‘picture session’ with a blind python. While I personally am not a fan of these, it did come in with the tour and I did know what I was getting myself in to. Might as well make the best of it.
Sweet Delta Images
While I am not a big fan of the hard-sell, make me curious enough and I may just bite at what you have to offer. This was what they did after another session of cruising down the Mekong.
From the congestion of the irrigation canals and the buzzing of sting-less bees, after a nice lunch with a sumptuous spread (tours are not all bad: they feed you well if done properly) at a riverside restaurant with a nice view of the Delta, we were brought on a ride.
After a pony-drawn carriage ride through back-roads, we ended up in a truly random place in the middle of the jungle. The smell of sweets though was unmistakable. I was told we were going to a coconut candy factory. I was not expecting a cottage-industry outfit, and this was something different.
In between playing with the resident cat, listening to our guide tell us how coconut candy is made, and get a bit confused by the tall blond Russian trying to sell coconut candy and related products, I have come to realize one thing: travelling in a tour group will occasionally throw a curve ball.
On the boat ride back, the life of the Mekong came in to perspective. Tourists and travellers come and go, and the residents continue as normal. Congestion on the canals and delta channels does not faze them. Tourists take pictures of them packing candy and they continue on their rhythm, headphones in their ears. Tour busses clog their streets during ‘peak hours’ but they still ride their motorcycles in complete serenity, ignoring ‘proper’ traffic routines.
Tour groups: there are a myriad of tour options to the Delta, from private transfers to large bus groups. The options at the Saigon Post Office are a good bed. Be warned: you get what you pay for. A little extra can be the difference between a basic boiled dish to an imperial spread.
Tips: Bring small change, as the boatmen and paddlers do not get much despite what you pay the operator. It is not easy paddling a flat bottom boat all day.
In 2016/17, I was involved in a fairly large World Bank project involving Indonesia, and it was during this particular sojourn where I discovered the beauty of Komodo. While I have heard of the islands and its reptilian residents, it was only after this project when I suddenly got the call. In the grand scheme of ‘calling’ and my actual ‘action,’ this was definitely one of the fastest I have ever ‘implemented.’
The Spice Islands
Komodo is the main island within the Komodo National Park area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its world renown, it is still relatively untouched, all for the better. To get to the site, there is the usual ‘cruise from Lombok’ option, or for those with a rush, the ‘fly to Flores’ option, which personally, introduces you to the Spice Islands and the Pacific Ring of Fire first hand.
The most realistic option getting to Flores, named so because the Portuguese were spellbound by its beauty, is from Jakarta, where regular direct and connecting flights are available. Arrival in Komodo Airport is an experience in itself, as you pass volcanoes in the middle of the sea, or stunning landmasses amidst the deepest blue.
On arrival in Flores, and specifically Labuan Bajo, the sense of ‘island-life’ and ‘rustic idyll’ permeates, as there is no true ‘town centre,’ especially considering that this location is essentially a fishing village which relies on the tourism and fishing industry. You would want it that way, as what better way to relax than having a nice drink overlooking the bay, with good fresh seafood from the fishermen and vendors who give you a fair price?
The primary reason most travellers come by to this relatively remote part of Southeast Asia, are for the komodo dragons, islands and diving. While regrettably I did not have enough time for diving (as I need a refresher after 3 years of not diving), I did make sure I had enough time for dragons, islands and beaches.
There are a number of operators that do island safaris from Labuan Bajo, some on speedboats, some on dive boats, some on liveaboards, some on cruisers and some on fantastic yachts. I opted for a liveaboard. While not as fast as some of the dive boats or speedboats, I did have the whole boat to myself, with the only noise being the waves crashing against the bow. The speedboats on the other hand sounded like 10 Harley Davidsons with loudspeakers.
Most operators conducting day trips would suggest Komodo Island or Rinca Island as part of the itinerary, with a stop at Padar Island. While on maps, the islands look relatively close by, the straits that separate these islands are at the confluence of the Java Sea and Indian Ocean, and currents can be strong, especially between Rinca and Padar Islands.
I went with Komodo Transportation and Travel, a local outfit with a fantastic guide, who made my private tour really something. My boat, the aptly named ‘Traveller,’ was the perfect vessel, being a liveaboard, and having the capacity for 14 people. Yes, a boat for 14 guests and I was the only one.
As smaller, faster boats passed us, I lazed on the sundeck, with drink in hand, book by my side, sunscreen on the ready. We passed small fishing communities and wildlife on the islands as we cruised towards Padar Island, that large island between Rinca and Komodo, and where those stunning travel photos are usually taken.
The cruise, like all seabourne journeys, is subject to the currents, and while the first 2 hours from Labuan Bajo to the tip of Rinca were smooth sailing, the crossing between Rinca to Padar did get rough at times. If you are ever contemplating squeezing in Komodo’s Pink Beach, Padar Island, Rinca Island and Kelor Island, that would be almost impossible. It is either Komodo or Rinca, one cannot do both in a day cruise.
Green Hills & Gaping Thrills
Padar Island is worth the stop, if only for the summit climb. The beauty of being on my larger but slower boat, as that by the time we berthed at harbour, the larger tour groups were descending, meaning I had the summit walks mostly to myself. The mostly barren, steep island with sheltered beaches and coves makes it a magical site, with unobstructed views of Komodo and Rinca islands.
Rinca Island is one of two sites within the Komodo National Park where you can view the fabled komodo dragons safely. While Komodo Island is a spot where you are assured of sightings due to the dragons being used to humans, Rinca Island is a good spot to see the dragons in their natural habitat.
After a short walk from berth to park headquarters, pass low-lying flat lands and mangroves and the occasional buffalo, you will be mesmerized by the rolling hills of Rinca, resembling pastoral New Zealand than tropical Indonesia.
The 1.5 hour walk, with our park ranger, resulted me in counting at least 16 dragons. Yes. 16 dragons, from 2 baby dragons, to countless larger dragons underneath the kitchen giving a Japanese TV crew quite the fright, to a dragon guarding her nest to my favourite: dragon lazing on top of the hill, under a gazebo, monarch of all he surveys.
From Rinca, we made our way to Kelor Island, the final stopover before Labuan Bajo, and a frequent spot for snorkelling, kayaking, SUP-ing or a climb to the summit for a fantastic view.
Due to time constraints, I had to pass on the evening bat exodus, but time flies when you are having fun on a cruise.
View from Paradise
Despite the rural idyll, Labuan Bajo is a tourist town, but not in the veins of San Sebastian, Ubud or Queenstown. Prices are reasonable and the locals, on a whole, do not attempt to make a quick buck from travellers. The bars are good, the restaurants serve fresh fish and everything is mostly walking distance.
One of these spots, a bit off-centre, is Paradise Bar, which lives up to its name at sunset. Cool beach-house beats play, with a wide terrace overlooking Labuan Bajo, the bays, islands and sea beyond. Drinks are reasonably priced, and for the sunset views, worth the steep hike up.
La Pirate, a sister property of La Pirate in Bali, has a lovely rooftop terrace and bar, with an infinity pool overlooking the harbour. The drinks are pretty good too, and it’s a nice spot for a late lunch.
The stalls of the night markets along the seashore, where the fishermen dock and unload their catch, is an excellent site for good, cheap seafood in the evenings, frequented by locals and tourists alike. No overpriced fish for tourists and reasonable prices for locals here: it is very egalitarian.
For something posh, Atlantis on the Rocks at the Plataran Komodo, is without a doubt, a good escape from the world. Taking a car (or in my case, a motorcycle) along narrow roads, looking down at steep cliffs, rolling mountains, crystal clear seas to my left and right while riding on the saddle of a mountain, makes the journey (and the drink) worthwhile.
Komodo Travel & Transportation
I used Komodo Travel & Transportation, and Ali is a fantastic guide. His boat, the ‘Traveller’, is apt for those who want to rekindle that romance of travel. www.komodotraveller.com
Komodo National Park Fees
Weekdays: IDR 295,000 (trekking) IDR 310,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
and on Sundays/Public Holidays: IDR 370,000 (trekking) IDR 385,000 (trekking + snorkelling)
Times to visit:
Peak – April to October, as the monsoon is less prominent, and particularly busy during the dry months of July to September, when komodo dragons are out and about and the sea is more agreeable.
Off-Peak – October to December is a decent time to visit: weather is not as hot, the sites are not crowded and the komodo dragons are still around, as they tend to hide when the storms roll in from December onwards.
Tucked away in a nice little corner of the Malay Peninsula, just off the major international shipping routes but along the leisure sailing routes, lies a collection of islands that provide a nice little alternative to Bali, Phuket or Samui. It also happens to be a favourite haunt. This is Langkawi.
Duty is Free
Langkawi, like a number of islands off Malaysia, has the special status of being a duty-free island (The others include Labuan, off Borneo, and Tioman, off the east coast of Malaysia). While the prospects of duty-free alcohol and chocolates (and kitchen ware. Do not ask why) seem to appeal to some, it can just be a happy secondary perk for others.
Expect to see price of alcoholic beverages to be significantly lower than on the mainland, or depending on the venue, on par with the mainland. Hunting for the ‘best’ duty-free value can also be a sport for those who come up from the mainland, and the selection of whiskeys, vodkas and scotch here is, at times, worth the effort.
With 99 islands to choose from (and significantly more during low tide), the options for you to get your own private beach retreat is endless, provided you do not mind taking the effort. Boats and yachts are available for rent or charter to explore the islands at a leisurely pace, or long tail speedboats that ferry excursions for island hopping.
For something a bit more human-powered, most beaches have kayaks, jet-skis and boards available for rents. Kayaking excursions include mangrove exploring or paddles to nearby islands, while jet-skis range from jet-ski tours to messing around along the shore.
Personally, I take a kayak out from Cenang Beach to Rebak Kechil Island, a good 20 minute paddle, depending on the currents. A good, private beach with a nice sandbar, with excellent views of the airport, arriving and departing planes, and that long stretch of commercialized beach.
For something more private, Datai Bay is more genteel in their watersport options, with excellent kayaking or stand-up paddle conditions in a protected bay. However, this option is restricted to in-house guests at the Datai Langkawi or Andaman Langkawi. Worth the premium.
Rugged Coastline Drive
The coastal road hugging the coast along the western coastline of Langkawi, from the airport towards Telaga Harbour, and onwards towards the Datai or Tanjung Rhu are some of the nicest drives in the country. Stunning shoreline, the sea peeking behind the trees, with sheer cliffs on your left and right as you do hair-pin turns on some bends.
Renting a car in Langkawi is a good option, especially if you intend to explore the island. Car rentals are relatively cheap, with good quality, new cars available from vendors. The only drawback would be finding parking if you happen to frequent Cenang Beach, though paid parking behind the mall is well situated in the middle of the strip.
Exploring the island on a bicycle is growing in popularity, heat notwithstanding. With Langkawi being the venue of the Le Tour de Langkawi and Langkawi Ironman, the closer it is to season, the number of cyclists getting used to the terrain might just inspire you to get on a bike.
Green Hills & Suspended Thrills
On approach to Langkawi, be it by air or sea, you would notice the beautiful green hills and peaks that dot the landscape. This being a UNESCO Geopark, options about to explore the natural beauty of the island.
While the mangrove tours along Tanjung Rhu would bring you around the wetlands, karst formations and eagles that give Langkawi her name (Lang being a Malay word for eagle, Kawi being a word for limestone), if you are short on time but do not mind splurging for a quick nature experience, opt for the Langkawi Cable Car that goes up Mount Matchinchang.
Langkawi Cable Car has three options, namely standard cable car, express cable car and express cable car + skywalk. While the cable car is an experience bringing you high above the jungle with vistas including the Seven Wells Waterfall, the skywalk is worth the extra premium, as you trek along the peaks with a guide who brief you on the nature in the area. The suspended skybridge is not for the faint of heart, as some sections of the Langkawi Sky Bride has glass panels for you to look down to the ravine below.
Water falls from sky to sea
Personally, one of the spectacular sights in Langkawi would be her waterfalls. In an island filled with fairy tales and legends, this particular waterfall resonates with a lot of myths and legends in Asia: located along Mount Matchinchang, up the road from Oriental Village and the start of the Langkawi Cable Car, is the Seven Wells, or Telaga Tujuh.
This is a collection of stunning waterfalls and pools that emerge from the springs close to the summit of Mount Matchinchang. While most would be at the base of the waterfall, looking at the stunning, immensely tall waterfall as it crashes down below and onwards to the sea, a stunning viewpoint can be had at the pools at the top of the waterfall.
Cool water, natural slides, rockpools and gently cascading water provides a great counterpoint to the sheer aggressiveness of the water as it goes off the ledge. This would be a good metaphor for Langkawi: peaceful yet hyperactive, commercialized yet rustically idyll.
Rent a car:
there are a number of car rentals available at arrivals of Langkawi International Airport. Taxis can be expensive, and hard to come by if you explore further afield.
Langkawi Cable Car:
-Normal prices start from RM30, but the wait can be painful, especially during weekends and holiday season
-Express: starts from RM90. Worth it.
-Express + Skytrail: RM120. Also worth it.
Jason’s Essay: Adventures in Review
The past year has been a very interesting year for travel, personally. Scaled up challenging peaks for one of the most spectacular views, sought shelter in an old lava tube amidst near freezing temperatures and played the explorer while on an island safari. While travel teaches us much, it is also a very good mirror held up to ourselves.
Target missed, experienced gained
If I were to pick one lesson as a highlight, then the climb up Mt Merapi in February 2017 would be a master class. I did not really plan for the climb until about 4 weeks before my trip. When I did finally book it, I had 3 weeks to prepare. Preparation is not the lesson here, but making the best of unforeseen circumstances.
Whenever I post on Instagram or here, or even on Facebook, I seem to project the image that everything goes according to plan. No hiccups, all targets achieved. This ascent up Mt Merapi would be a class to remind myself that not everything is within our control.
For 3 weeks I ran hill-sprints and focused my training regime on building my legs. At the eve of my trip, I felt as ready as I could ever be with such short training. The competitor within channelled my inner mountain athlete as on the day itself, I held my own with the front of the pack, keeping good pace and navigating the rocky terrain.
I had my own mission: to reach the top in a very respectable, preferably top percentile range. The mountain, on the other hand, had a lesson in store for me. Winds howled, sleet rain splattered on my face, cloud covered the last 1km of the summit. The benign weather in the day time turned in to a tempest by nightfall.
We never reached the summit, only the last checkpoint before we were told we could not proceed any further. The pain of being stuck in an old lava tube, cold, wet and shivering, trying to find a way to stay warm, as fellow hikers who were used to sub-arctic temperatures complained about the cold, suddenly felt like a further blow.
Yet, it was the experience, the possibility for me to relay this story of defeat instead of the usual tales of conquest, which brought a smile to my face as we descended. While 2 other hikers realized this lesson too, a few others did not take heart, and trodded down with disappointment.
Yes, we travelled far, we brought fancy kit, we trained as much as we can, but it is from the unexpected, the defeats, the targets missed, which remind us of why we travel: we make the best of it.
From uncertainty, jubilation
It was the lesson from the mountain that kept me going, hoping against hope, but to revel in what is to come, regardless of the outcome, as the weather turned for the worse as I was on an expedition to the Mulu Pinnacles in June 2017.
Heavy downpour the night before my hike to Camp 5 made me question if it was possible. The clear weather on the hike brought hope, but the weather the evening before the morning climb, brought a literal dampener.
We were informed that even the slightest hint of rain in the morning would mean that our climb would have to be cancelled. All our expectations, our hopes, our desire to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site hinged on the weather. Come what may, I had a fun hike and boat ride, enjoying drinks by the crystal-clear stream.
Come morning, the weather was absolutely perfect. Clear skies, hardly a cloud in sight, with Venus lighting the way. The realization that I could ascend up the peaks to view the Pinnacles, brought a cautious optimism.
My annoying competitive side within saw me once again be right behind my guide, who happened to be lead guide. A few slippery stones made me cautious, the slightly wet ladders and ropes heightened my awareness. Then, once at the top, passing a crevice, with cuts and bruises on my shins and knees, I heard my guide call out: last ladder and you’re done.
And indeed, at the top, I had the whole view to myself. I was mentally prepared to be disappointed, but having achieved this, the climb and view of the Pinnacles, I was in jubilation. The mini bottle of champagne waiting at Camp 5 was worth it. The realization of uncertainty of a trip, once achieved, makes the experience even more jubilant.
Experiences to talk about
The fine balance of uncertain possibilities to see the sights against the anticipation of expectation is something you will experience as you travel, and is something that shapes your outlook on your journey. Cautiously optimistic is personally better than the expectation of perfect sights.
It was this lesson that closed my 2017 adventures. I went to Komodo National Park, hoping to see dragons in December 2017. First, the eruption of Mt Agung on Bali island brought a standstill to my flight plans. Then, a tropical cyclone in the Indian Ocean brought about uncertain weather, yet I still wanted to go. The islands called me.
I made my booking, I liaised with my expedition team, and they advised that yes, my private boat can be arranged, and yes, my desired stops can be placed in the itinerary, but no, I cannot be guaranteed all the stops I wanted. Ocean currents and weather were both to play a role in affecting my trip.
Yet on the day itself, the weather was perfect, the ocean currents agreeable, clouds made the heat somewhat bearable and the dragons came out to play. I cruised the islands on my little island safari, seeing stunning islands, rugged hills and wildlife in their natural habitat, all while playing an explorer who finally visited Jurassic Park.
This expedition to end the 2017 season was apt: I prepared as much as I could, being cautiously optimistic and reminded myself that not everything will go according to plan. I left my travel fate to the gods, but I did as much as I could to improve the likelihood of the situation.
When the sights was seen, and the experienced surpassed expectations, the feeling was surreal. Do not set your expectations on too low a bar: just remember that life always finds a way…finds a way to both amuse you and annoy you, to impress on you. And of course, make the best of any experience!
Happy travels in 2018! Here’s to more adventures!
Kuching is one of those really random destinations, where there is quite a lot to do if you really dig around, and a lot in sheer proximity to the city centre. From challenging mountain climbs and hikes looking for proboscis monkeys, to chic watering holes in the old city and a quaint late afternoon river cruise in this confluence of Borneo.
Former Royal City
The city has been, more often than not, been overshadowed by her more well-promoted counterpart at the north-eastern end of Borneo. This capital of Sarawak has seen a bit of a renaissance, with accoutrements linked to her illustrious past as the capital of the Brooke Dynasty’s Kingdom of Sarawak being both overshadowed, outdone or restored to royal splendour.
Within the square mile, reminders of her interesting past remain. Once an oddity in international law, with a line of kings both sovereigns of their private kingdom, yet subjects to Her Imperial Britannic Majesty, Kuching was, for a moment, described as a slice of Somerset in the east. From the Corinthian colonnades of the General Post Office to the wide verandas of the Old Court House, the Tudor detailing of the Bishop’s House and Norman inspiration of Fort Margherita, the constructions during the reigns of the 3 White Rajahs created a unique atmosphere to the city.
While one can only admire the Bishop’s House and Astana, the former royal palace and current governor’s official residence (both working residences), from their grounds, the General Post Office, Old Court House and Fort Margherita are open to the public.
The General Post Office still retains its function as a post office, though the Old Court House is now a hip dining destination with a unique array of cafes and restaurants around the elegant courtyard, while the Fort Margherita is now the Brooke Gallery, a monument housing the regalia and paraphernalia of the former Kingdom of Sarawak. Both have a special place in my family, being offices of generations before me.
Old City Jaunts
There are three ways to appreciate this quaint river-side city: one is walking along the Kuching Waterfront, a landscaped walkway that stretches 1.5km from the Old City and Main Bazaar towards the more modern commercial heart and towers of modern Kuching. Bronze plaques line every 100ms, recalling the history of Kuching and modern Sarawak.
The second option would be along the Main Bazaar, done in a circuit along the Main Bazaar frontage, where you will encounter shops selling priceless antiques and traditional Borneoan art to stalls selling Sarawak Layer Cake; and then through the parallel Carpenter Street, where active carpenters work their trade next door to hip bars and cafes.
For a more unique way of seeing the city, get on the tambangs, small water taxis that ply routes along the Sarawak River. Use your best negotiating skills, and you can rent the boat for an hour, seeing the city through a different lens. That, or get on any of the other tourist boats or evening cruises for dinner and a show.
Tired of culture, architecture and urban comforts? Well, as short as 30 minutes away from the city centre, the city’s natural playground is yours to enjoy. Want to go caving or rock climbing? Neighbouring Bau, almost a suburb of the city, as three caves for you to choose from.
Or maybe hiking is more your thing. Santubong, about 40 minutes away, is both a beach destination and a seaside nature retreat, where you can hike up the challenging Mount Santubong, or just enjoy the 2 waterfalls by her foothills.
Or if nature watching is more your thing, then Semenggoh Orang Utan Sanctuary or Bako National Park might interest you, both easily accessible from the city centre. Semenggoh Orang Utan Sanctuary, unlike the more popular Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, is purely a sanctuary, where the orang utans come out only during 2 feeding times: one in the morning and another in the afternoon.
Bako National Park has one of the more dramatic entrances to a national park, with access via boat only. You will be assured of visits by proboscis monkeys, macaques and bearded wild boar.
Wining and Dining
Kuching is known for a wide array of food, and is particularly noted for both Sarawak Laksa and Kolo Mee, both easily obtainable in the city centre. Most places sell pretty good dishes, and if you are along Carpenter Street, options of food are very pork-heavy. The Open Air Market, now a hawker centre in the middle of the old city, has a unique array of vendors selling all kinds of local dishes, from noodles to pork dumplings to a particular Kuching speciality: gula apong ice cream.
If something a bit more classy is what you’re after, then the dining establishments in the Old Court House would satiate your appetite. Common is a favourite, located in the former Council Chambers of the Old Court House, with nice café fare in cozy environments. For something more interesting, try Zinc’s Sarawak Laksa Pizza, which is really, really heavy and should be shared. The Junk has a list of comfort food if you suddenly have a need for lamb shanks.
Or maybe you are on a liquid diet. Drunk Monkey, located along Carpenter Street, is idealy suited by Bishopsgate, with a hard to beat perfectly framed view of the State Legislative Assembly and good happy hours. For something a bit more lively and dressed down, then Monkee Bar, located in the (relatively) newer part of Padungan, has cheap beer, a lively band and a riotous atmosphere.
A neat secret?
As a destination that brands itself as the ‘gateway to adventure,’ Kuching has both the creature comforts of a travelling urbanite that wants both cosmopolitan comforts with rugged nature within easy access.
While the city has limited international flights, with international connections through Singapore and Shenzen, or via Kuala Lumpur, this destination is still relatively untouched by mass-tourism and large tour busses. At least for now. Might as well enjoy it before the secret leaks out.
The Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita
Entrance fees: RM 10 locals, RM 20 non-locals, RM 5 concession (free for children under &)
Opening hours: 0900 – 1645 daily
Flights: international connections via Kuala Lumpur, with many flights by Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia and Malindo Air; via Singapore with Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia and Scoot, via Shenzen with Air Asia. The city is well connected to other Malaysian destinations and hubs.
Out and About: Rent a car, or download the Grab App to hail rides. While Uber is present, Grab is more convenient. Taxis and buses are not as readily available for a city of this size for some unknown reason.
Stay: I like the Kuching Hilton. Strategically located, and ask for the river view rooms. They are worth the premium.
Best time: all the time, and since this is a tropical city, it will rain regardless. However, Christmas, Chinese New Year and June are times when the city gets most festive, and the Rainforest World Music Festival in July and the Sarawak Regatta in November sets the stage for the city in a hyper light.
One of the more accessible yet logistically interesting of the national parks in Asia, the Bako National Park is a perfect distance away from the hustle and bustle of urban life, yet lies smack firmly within the city limits of Kuching City. A good escape for nature and wildlife, Bako National Park is also a hiker’s paradise, with numerous hikes through a variety of terrain.
A boat-ride away
Despite being in the city limits, Bako National Park, the oldest national park in Borneo, was gazetted in such a way that the only entrance is via a boat. Not only does this uncommon method of entry reduces large-scale visitor impact, it also provides for an interesting approach to the park.
Getting the boat from the Bako Jetty in Bako Village, about 50 minutes from Kuching City Centre, is pretty easy, as schedules are pretty flexible, with frequent connections provided by the local boatmen. Get your national park entrance tickets and boat tickets at the booth, and you’ll be on your way.
Watch the world go by as you whizz past the Bako fishing village and out in to the Bako Estuary, catching sights of the bamboo stilt fishing points, mangrove fringes and crocodiles. Yes, there will be crocodiles. Do not worry, the crocodiles are too lazy basking on the mudbanks to bother.
Depending on the tides, you would either disembark on the pier at one end of the Park HQ compound, or out in the shallows close to very interesting cliff-rock formations. Trust your boatman when he says it’s safe to get out: it looks deep but it’s pretty shallow, at most knee-deep.
After cleaning your feet of sand at the Park HQ, register at the counter and let loose with the options for hikes. Don’t forget to register where you are going, even if it’s multiple hikes!
Also, look out for the wildlife at the HQ’s main building: you may spot a bearded wild boar by the toilets, or close to the cafeteria. Monkeys and macaques are, well, ubiquitous.
A Diverse Ecosystem
The beauty of hiking the numerous trekking routes in Bako National Park is the variety of fauna you will encounter on your routes. The site is both a photographer’s and biologist’s wet dream: you start off with mangroves or marshes filled with nipah or sago palms, before encountering a steep rock formation. This is just where it gets started.
While the site may look like it is on a river flatlands, the area is mostly on a plateau, and for most hikes, you will be ascending up the central Bako plateau. Here, you will see everything from typical tropical evergreens to kerangas shrubland to lowland montane trees (It has been years since I did biology. I may have butchered a few of these).
Regardless of your fitness levels, the hikes here are always pleasant. Apart from the ascent up to the plateau, which can occasionally get both steep and rocky, the views and the sights from the main plateau are worthwhile.
Hidden Beaches Galore
At the end of most of the hikes in Bako National Park, you will end up in a beach or two, a good reward after an hour or so of hard hiking and climbing. The approach to the beaches are always dramatic, with my favourite, the Telok Pandan trail, bringing you past kerangas and tropical health, before stopping briefly at a cliff and iron-eroded rock formations, and proceeding all the way down to the beach.
The beaches, located in hidden coves, are somewhat secluded, though on occasion, you will encounter, as you do, other hikers. The beach is wide enough for you to enjoy a quiet spot yet not feel too isolated.
Another good plus in Bako National Parks and her numerous coves: you will always encounter a few boatmen moored in the bay. You have some hikers who hike to the beach, or others who just take the boat direct from Park HQ. These boatmen are ready to take you back to the Park HQ for RM15, but subject to their availability. Ask nicely and they may even do a panoramic tour of the rock formations along the bay.
Rock Formations, Everywhere
Bako National Park is renowned for her rock formations: you can spot everything from a cow to a turtle’s mouth to a cobra in strike pose to a dolphin ready to leap out of the water. One of these rock formations is the item you will spot when going from Telok Pandan cove to the Park HQ.
My ever friendly boatman, as we were talking about the best angles to shoot videos and take pictures of the rock formation, proved his point, when, as we circumambulated the rock formation in the sea beyond the cliffs. At various points as we circled on the boat, I saw either a dolphin, a cobra or my cat’s tail.
One of the highlights, or might I say ‘selling points’ of the Bako National Park is its abundance and high probability of observing wildlife. This I do not doubt. One which I eagerly, desperately wanted to see, was of a proboscis monkey.
I took 2 different treks, where apparently I could spot them in the wild amidst the mangroves. While the 2 treks were really interesting, with me observing everything from various types of vegetation to hikers doing an impromptu trail run, I did not spot those famed monkeys.
That was until I was back at the Park HQ: there, in the grounds of the Park HQ’s main building, amidst the trees next to the cafeteria and on the beach, an entire troop of them, lounging in the trees, teasing us, the intrepid travellers, with, initially a tail, then an orange scruff, and then a full-on view. They, for that moment, became the models of this jungle runway, with cameras snapping away at every opportunity, as the late afternoon sun provided the perfect lighting.
These cheeky little critters knew how to tease guests before these same guests took the 3pm boat back to the city. Next time, I’ll get you in the mangrove walkways, next time!
Transport?: Either rent a car and drive to the Bako National Park Jetty at Bako. The road is very straightforward from Kuching City: follow the signs to Bako town. You can also get transport from the numerous travel agencies in the Main Bazaar.
Once at the Bako National Park Jetty, hop on the numerous Park-authorized boats to get there. The last ‘official’ boat leaves from Bako National Park at 3pm, but the local boatmen cooperatives can arrange for alternative transport if you miss the last ‘official’ ride.
If you are doing Malaysia as independently as possible, I recommend getting the Grab app, as Uber is not as popular as Grab in Kuching.
Bring?: Water. It can get hot. Good hiking shoes and a towel. You may be tempted to go for a dip.
Cost?: National Park Fee is RM 20 for foreigners/RM 10 for Malaysians, round trip Boat Fee is RM40 for foreigners/RM20 for Malaysians
I have bad habits. One of them includes combining creature comforts and five star luxury stays with rugged expeditions and extreme activities. Somehow, this Mulu trip would create a perfect marriage of the two.
The evening before my expedition, I had a chat with the General Manager and bartender at the Mulu Marriott. Having known of my mad expeditions before, and my previous drenched Mulu trip, they thought this entire expedition should be fairly easy for me. This went contrary to the tales of jagged rocks and steep chasms I was told prior, which led me to back-to-back leg days and hill runs. When I informed them of what I was told, they rubbished it and got me another carafe of merlot.
The next morning started easily enough. As this was a bespoke, personalized trip, my guide and boat came over to the Mulu Marriott to pick me up. Ben, the GM, true to his word, personally saw me off, wishing me a good trip and was looking forward to getting me another carafe of wine in 36 hours. As I waved at the staff of the Mulu Marriott in my boat, I started to wonder if my self-imposed one-night-challenge was a good idea.
This being a private trip, I had the liberty of deciding my time of departure, my stops and my pace. The day was absolutely perfect for a ride down the river bend. The storm the night before gave way to blue skies and water levels ideal for rafting. Having passed the National Park HQ and Clearwater Cave turn, we reached what was supposed to be the ‘rapids.’
At a certain bend at the Melinau River, the water levels became shallow to the point where passengers had to get off and push the boat to go further upstream. Thankfully, the gods were kind, and all my boat crew had to do was manouver the boat slightly with the help of a pole. For a brief moment, we were punting on a flat-bottomed boat, in Sarawak.
Within 30 minutes, we were at Kuala Litut, the furthest the boat could go. From here, it was, apparently, an 8km hike to Base Camp, also known as Camp 5. My guide Ipoi told me it was 9km. I was somewhat curious at this 1km difference, so I decided to track it on my Garmin.
We estimated 2 hours to 2 hours 15 minutes to reach Camp 5. After trekking through dense jungle, along a clear path, and meeting the Penans, a semi-nomadic tribe that call this place home, we reached the first of 2 bridges. I asked Ipoi about the Penans, and what they did.
“They go to the jungle, stay there for 1 night, maybe 2, to hunt and gather. They still have their homes at Bung Bunan, but they still call the deep jungle home.”
That they did. The 3 Penans I saw had nice t-shirts and shorts, but walked barefoot. They, apparently, find footwear obstructive to their trekking.
At the second bridge, at the 2/3 mark, Ipoi informed me that on clear days, you can see the Pinnacles along Mount Api. Sadly, the summit was shrouded in cloud, and I was still left with my childhood image.
True to form, and at our good pace, we arrived at Camp 5 in 2 hours and 15 minutes, including 2 breaks. I was not sure what to expect on arrival in terms of sleeping arrangements. I found myself in barracks, the only form of accommodation at Camp 5, in a wide, open room, with a few sleeping mats. I had, in a matter of hours, moved from a suite in a 5 star resort to, well, something not as fancy.
As Ipoi got lunch ready, he told me of 2 spots to chill by Camp 5: one was the jetty immediately outside the barracks, another was a small rockpool a short walk along the Melinau Gorge Trail. As this was a perfect day, and I had to clean some clothes, I went to the jetty, placed a bottle of Scotch in the river to chill and cleaned up.
Lunch was a simple affair, as I requested for simple noodles. After lunch, the park ranger, Ipoi and the Camp 5 staff retired for naps in their quarters, as I read a book in the dining area. As it was flowering season, flowers were blooming everywhere, and I was treated to a fantastic display of Rajah Brooke Birdwing Butterfly everywhere. I also had a lot of bees attracted to me for some unknown reason. I moved to the rock pool, where none thankfully followed.
Within a few hours, a group of hikers came in. They were a diverse group: some were hashers from Penang, another trail runners from Penang and Taiwan, 1 elderly French couple from Normandy and 2 Americans from Southern California who were on my flight the day before.
For reasons unknown, the bees were only attracted to me and the 2 American boys. The bees got on my nerves, so I left for the rock pool, telling the 2 Americans that the bees did not bother me there. Soon enough, they were by the rock pool along the river, as another guide came by, chatted with us, and freshened up by the pool.
All of a sudden, the guide told us to look up, in the general direction of the limestone mountains.
“Hornbills,” he said, with that look of pride only a naturalist could give out when he see his favourite creature.
There, 2 large hornbills flew, wings spread out, high above us. Within a few minutes, 3 more appeared, soaring like the elegant avian creations there are. Naturally, I left my camera in my bag, but the image in my head is what matters…says me in this world of ‘pictures, or it didn’t happen.’
Now, I am not superstitious, but apparently the sighting of hornbills before a grand engagement is a good omen. I prayed that was the case. And then it started to drizzle. I started to wonder if the local deity Singalang Burong might change his mind about the trip, or if he was clearing the path free of debris and obstruction.
Dinner was, interesting enough, almost like class warfare here. The French couple and I went on private tours, while the others were on a generic tour. The French couple had a 3 dish display of fresh greens, chicken and steamed fish while I had the largest serving of spaghetti Bolognese, enough to feed at least 5 people. As our guides were related, the French couple and I were sat together and we shared our selections, as the larger group looked on with envy as they had their generic fried noodles. I shared some of my Bolognese with the Americans, as there was no way that I could finish it, and I could not let it go to waste.
As we retired for the evening, the weather started to turn. It rained. It poured. The heavens gushed open, as the Melinau River changed from a gentle stream to a raging torrent within moments. Our guides solemnly informed us that if it continued to rain, the trek would be cancelled. Safety first and all that.
I started to pray that the 5 hornbill omen would come true. I did not bring my bottle of Laurent-Perrier champagne for nothing.
* * *
I was up at 0500, with the clear intention to get my morning toilet done before everyone else is up and the rush begins. The rain stopped, and the weather looked clear. I was starting to wonder if Singalang Burong and his 5 hornbill omens came through.
As everyone was out and getting ready, I had breakfast. While everyone else had the standard generic fried rice, I had bacon and eggs, paired with wholegrain bread and 2 options for peanut butter. Now, when Dorothy the proprietor of Borneo Trekking asked what I wanted for meals, I came out with ridiculous requests. Never ask a man what he wants to eat during an expedition when he just sat in an airline lounge and is waiting for his champagne to be poured. She already passed the spaghetti Bolognese test. Now she aced breakfast, as everyone else stared at my food while looking at their breakfast. I did pay a premium, and now I was flaunting it.
With my hydration pack filled, I walked out to the jetty to look at the sky. The weather was absolutely clear, with the morning star Venus and the moon framed by the Melinau Gorge. The air was as crisp as a Scottish morning, with the soft sounds of flowing water from the Melinau River providing the perfect soundtrack.
By 0645, we were on our trek up. My guide Ipoi was the lead guide, thanks to his seniority and the arrangements by the Park Ranger the evening before due to the composition of our combined groups. As such, I had to be first trekker. It sounds really nice to have that honour, but it also came with the responsibility to keep up with the lead guide and not hold everyone back.
The Park Ranger was very specific with his instructions and his placement of guides. No rushing, no peer pressure, no overexerting yourself, no ‘compassionate pass’ if you do not make the designated stops.
Yes, there were designated stops. While the entire trek would take up 2.5km, distance can be deceiving. The first stop was the ‘mini Pinnacles’ around the 700m mark. To get there, you had a steep hike up. There was no gradual warm-up: it was for all intents and purposes, a climb.
We reached the first stop within 30 minutes. After a 10 minute rest, we continued on. Now, I did do some training before hand, mostly squats and other leg-based weight exercises. What I should have done were hill sprints or trail runs, which I have not done as often as I used to. I after all, was First Violin to our Conductor Ipoi, my personal guide.
It was only later that I truly knew who my guide Ipoi was in the grand scheme of things. He has been in the business since at least the 90s, and has led or been part of many a Royal Geographic Expedition in to the Mulu Cave Systems. His experience aside, and his record of 2 hours to the summit of the Pinnacles when most average 3 hours, and sense of adventure and love for his home has resulted in, among other things, a cave named after him. Yes, there is an actual ‘Ipoi’s Cave’ in Mulu: one he discovered during his numerous expeditions.
Yet looking at Ipoi, you would least suspect it. A small guy, who occasionally smokes but never drinks on the job, he does not look like your standard issue explorer, yet he could easily best them. The least I could do was keep up.
At the second check-point, Ipoi asked me to lead the group. A great honour, and I was slightly perplexed. He explained that he wanted to wait for the rest of the lead group, and that I just had to lead the front end a few hundred meters to the front, at the plateau which was a lot more comfortable, before continuing on to the third check-point.
If the first 3/4 of the hike was not tough or vertical enough, the last 500m would truly challenge us. At the stage, it was essentially vertical. We had ropes and ladders, with steep falls either side, yet coupled with fantastic views of the jungle beyond.
The Park Ranger’ guides instruction were repeating in my head: one person per rope, no crowding on ladders. The slightly wet conditions of the aluminium ladders made me extra cautious.
As we climbed up, I looked on towards Ipoi and the trail runner behind me. I had a good 50ms lead from the trail runner from Penang, yet Ipoi was essentially a mountain goat, ascending without any effort whatsoever. I tried to rein in my competitive side: I was essentially the lead trekker and I should not push my luck. Instead, I enjoyed the view, the sheer drop, the adrenaline running through my veins as I balanced against wet aluminium while high above razor sharp edges.
After counting 10 of the 14 ladders to get to the Pinnacles, I suddenly lost Ipoi, as I was adjusting my Garmin. Since I was all alone, at least for 100m either side, I enjoyed the view, the solitude and the sudden introspection that comes with being in such an isolated spot. Why was I here? What was I trying to achieve? Is a Facebook and Instagram picture worth all this? Why do I feel a cut on my right knee?
Truth be told, I lost count by the stage. All I could do was concentrate on going up. Soon enough, I spotted Ipoi, who was on the ladder ahead of me.
“Do you see anything?” I called out.
“Yes,” he replied, in the most non-expressive voice ever heard.
I climbed up the ladder and through a passageway of 2 boulders.
“There it is” I heard Ipoi say.
I was not too sure what it was until I saw it for myself.
Suddenly, framed against a boulder and some shrubbery, were blades of limestone, poking up behind foliage. I walked up ahead, balancing against stone and ledge, completely ignoring the steep fall or sudden gap next to me. I have finally reached what I saw from a plane, that image of my childhood that has only fuelled my genetic urge to explore.
I heard Ipoi’s voice calling, drawing me ever closer, as the sneak peek of the white shards drew me in like a siren. I looked at my Garmin. 2 hours 05 minutes. If I removed rest time, we made it to the summit, to the Pinnacles view point in just under 2 hours.
“You’re here. We’re at the top” I heard him say. It felt like a distant whisper as I stood, hopping over bounders, to the viewing boulder.
For some obscene reason, the first I thought of was ‘picture.’ Very unbecoming of an explorer, but Ipoi, surely used to this, obliged as he took a few photos of me, as the rest of the group reached the top.
Now, a few of them were hungry, while a few of us could not be bothered with food. Having thought of a lunch at the top, I requested for a tuna sandwich, which was prepared and in my pack. A light meal, easily portable in my hydration pack as opposed to the containers of rice and sambal of nasi lemak which the rest got.
As some of the group enjoyed their breakfast with nasi lemak, I opted against lunch and took a swig from my champagne glass. Yes the same champagne flute that followed me up to Mt Merapi just months before.
I looked at my watch. The climb was steep, but our timing was good. If the descent was similar to the ascent, I could reach base camp in time for lunch, a proper time to have my sandwich. At 0900, we made our way down.
If the ascent was tough, the descent was tougher. With your thighs already on fire, you had to work them even more, doing the entire trek in reverse. At times, I stopped to take pictures or soak in the chasm that awaited me if I took a wrong step.
The trail runners went down ahead of me, and I followed after them, the image of my Laurent-Perrier chilled by fresh chilled mountain water firmly in my mind. For large sections, I was alone, hiking down the well-worn, well-marked track. It was the perfect spot to reflect on what I have done, and the pain I could suffer post muscle fatigue 24 hours later.
At the mini Pinnacles, I spotted the Park Ranger, leading a group that could not make the second check point. We chatted, and he asked me how long it took to reach the view point. I told him my stats, and he without pausing, told me I would reach Base Camp by 1230.
His estimation came true. I tried, truly tried, to beat it, but by the time I reached the base of the ascent, it was 1225, and by the time I reached Base Camp, it was 1230. Experience, years of them, as well as hikers of all shapes and sizes, must have given him a nose for speed, ability and skill.
By the time I reached Base Camp, I chucked my gear aside, got my champagne and chilled it in the river. Trusting the Park Ranger, I did some stretching and cooled down, walking around and relaxing around the facilities, as I had my lunch.
An hour later, I sat down in the rock pool, with my champagne flute and baby bottle of Laurent-Perrier. While my bottle of champagne did not reach the top due to the 2 litre requirement of water, the lack of space in my 1.5l hydration pack + 500ml bottle of water, my champagne flute did make it.
I relaxed in the river, scars on my knee but with a perfectly fine yet sweaty pair of Orlebar Browns, with my glass of champagne, chilling, cooling down and slowly wondering to myself:
“What would I not do for a bottle of champagne if dangled in front of me?”
I could actually make it for another carafe of Merlot at the Mulu Marriott by evening at this rate.
Agency: I used Borneo Rainforest Trekking. If they can manage my Victorian ‘explorer’ requests of pasta, fresh salads, decent sandwiches and breakfast with 2 options for peanut butter, I am pretty sure they could do something for you in the middle of the jungle.
Bring: This is the middle of the jungle. Camp 5 has limited stocks of goods. If you are on a super basic tour, I would suggest some instant noodles. If you are on a full-board with food, bring at the very least a blanket. I used my rolled-up shirts as a pillow. Bring mosquito nets if you don’t like bugs. Drinking water is provided.
Preparation: You Need To Train. I cannot stress this enough. This is not a walk in the park and you need to be of a certain fitness level to get to the check-points and return before it gets dark. The hills are super steep. BRING DRY-FIT CLOTHES. It will get humid and hot as the day proceeds.
Get in: Standard Mulu trip in. Fly in with MASWings via Miri, Kuching or Kota Kinabalu. I flew in via Kuching, taking the 0720 Kuala Lumpur – Kuching flight and the 1140 Kuching – Mulu flight. Just nice.
Minimum time: 2 days 1 night, but only if you get to Base Camp by 1300 from the Pinnacles after your hike. 1st day hike to Camp 5, Overnight, 2nd day hike to Pinnacles, return by 1300 and hike back to Kuala Litut for boat back to National Park HQ. Follow your guide’s advice.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.