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East to West Malaysia

Kota Kinabalu (Borneo) to Penang (West Malaysia)

Ships and sailing, plus scalpels, stitches, spectacles and more….

6th December 2019 to 16th January 2020

Nice bits first.

Leaving Labuan and the fleet of oil/gasfield support vessels

By early December the N.E. Monsoon winds had arrived over Borneo. Sailing from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital near the top of Borneo, to Singapore area about 800 miles away, was wonderful after so much motoring a few months earlier:- fast sailing, mostly reaching, all the way, just one stop at the island of Labuan (a bit of sightseeing missed last time and duty free drink – of course).

Coastline North Borneo

Not much sleep though. The sea in these parts is pretty busy with oil and gas rigs, tugs, coastal and long-distance shipping, and fishing boats in many shapes and sizes.

Tug pulling gas rig – very slowly

 

Shipping lanes off Singapore

On Christmas Day, six days later, I anchored off the little Indonesian island of Tolop. It’s a convenient spot before crossing the frantically busy shipping lanes around Singapore, and with adverse spring tides and getting dark with drizzle, I’d decided to pause. Alas, although I’d anchored here before with no trouble, this time the Indonesian navy who have a little base on the island decided to visit. First visiting sailors were friendly, no problems. 

Second visiting sailors were friendly and courteous, but firm upholders of Indonesian security; big problems. I haven’t cleared in. I’m illegally stopped in Indonesia. I should not be here. I should not have anchored. I must leave immediately. They mean it. But I plead fatigue (After six days I am indeed knackered), cannot face ships in the dark, the tide is against me, and to cap it all, I’m a hopeless old  Englishman etc. And it is Christmas Day (albeit in a predominantly Muslim country). My papers (lots of them) and passport are scrutinised, every page turned, and photographed. Long pauses. I smile nervously. There’s talk of fines. I anticipate Christmas in handcuffs. They phone the commanding officer. We wait for response. I offer tins of beer. It gets dark. At last. Phew! It’s OK as long as I leave before dawn. I promise I will. I mean it. 

But as they leave me in peace with a tin of beer, I think of how illegal arrivals might be treated were they to arrive and stop unannounced off the shores of England (or America or Australia for that matter) and feel slightly ashamed. I leave well before dawn and am in amongst the ships as the day breaks. It’s Boxing Day. But global shipping recognises no holidays, and it’s very busy.

Efficient, zealous, polished, multitudinous Singapore patrol boats police their waters. The boat that approaches me probably hasn’t told anyone what to do for an hour or two, so they politely say ‘hello’ and order me to go back in the shipping lane. I comply.

Just for the record, I had not strayed into Singaporean waters. But it’s best not to argue. I dodge ships and they dodge me.

 

Needing exercise, I walked up Penang Hill; and down again – funicular train not working...

Since then, I’ve sailed up the Malacca Straits to Penang. I was here less than a year ago. I.e. After sailing over 7,000 miles in the year I’m back more-or-less where I started. Which goes to prove, if you were not yet convinced, that life is about the journey not the destination.

2019 sailing

Part time crew – she’s not very energetic, just nice

And it’s about the people you encounter on the journey. It has been a privilege and a joy to meet and get to know so many fascinating, kind, friendly, resourceful, generous and adventurous folk. Most cruising sailors and most local Malaysians, Indonesians and others seem to be content with what they do have, not fretting too much about what they don’t.

The not so nice bits of the month? Well, it’s in poor taste to dwell on health stuff.

I’ll just say that after nose job, eyes fixed, teeth in hand, a few other bits fixed, I’m as good as new. Malaysian medical staff and services are fantastic. Professional, helpful, quick. And you don’t need to rob a bank to get it done.

The Henrietta maintenance list is a bit longer than my own.

Chinese New Year is coming up soon. It will be the Year of the Rat (the white metal rat).  Local radio tells me that this signifies Good Luck and some Bad Choices, which if you think about it must cover most things.

Philippines

The Philippines

Lovely people, lousy food and loads of churches

3rd November to 5th December

With Jenny as crew we left Halmahera (a big Indonesian island) for a four day sail to north Mindanao (yet another big island, this one in the Philippines).

IMG_E2593Then followed a busy month that took us through about twenty different anchorages on a dozen of Philippines’ 7,000 odd islands. Just a taster of a giant country. (But then most of this voyage has been a series of tasters – a mere glimpse at a scattering of the world’s lesser travelled outposts.)

I knew nothing of the Philippines, and right now still know next to nothing, so take anything I say with heaps of salt. I did know that Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to visit. He was killed here too.

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Village named after Magellan
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Limasawa, site of the first Christian service in the islands, Easter 1521

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That was in 1521. The islands were named by a Spaniard a few years later in honour of King Philip II of Spain. Spain then retained it as part of its Empire for over 300 years, before selling it to America who kept it, apart from the troubled invasion of Japanese in WWII, till 1946.

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This is Wendell, a pastor from Winnipeg, Canada (which I gather has a large Filippino community) visiting his home island, Limasawa. He seemed to think the Pope might come here to celebrate the 500th Anniverary of Chritianity’s arrival! You heard it first here….

There are now over 100 million Filipinos in the country, with some 19 accepted languages and ten ethnic groups, and at least 10 million more who live and work overseas (and provide a huge chunk of foreign earnings for the nation). IMG_2570

I found people to be universally delightful; laid-back yet quietly industrious, and compared to others in SE Asia, reserved, even shy – though not shy enough to cease some painfully discordant karaoke singing!

The selfie culture that’s become a plague elsewhere, seems absent in the Philippines. (Though keep in mind that I only saw a part of the country.)

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Inquisitive young folk often want to visit Henrietta

Most of the islands seem unvisited by tourists. Tourists appeared, predominantly Korean and Chinese en masse on the little island of Boracay, where around 2 million visitors go each year, dwarfing the local population of 30,000; and there are also many foreigners who go to the big island of Palawan. Everywhere else seemed very traditional with small communities making a living with fishing, copra and small scale agriculture.IMG_2537IMG_2554

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Almost every beach is crowded with these fishing bangka, elegant colourful ‘spider’ boats 

Boracay is a gem of an island (white sand, clear seas, hills), but was deemed so polluted in 2018, that the President had it closed for six months! Sewage systems were improved and plastic cleared up, and I’m happy to say it seemed spotless, safe and a delight – though anchorage decidedly exciting, rolly and deafening as tripper boats and sailing prahas and bangka roared and growled past.P1020855

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Boracay. Fine white sandy beaches and fleets of prahas

If like me you are vegetarian or veggie-inclined the food is a disaster. Apart from a few pleasing exceptions in tourist places, it appears that pig, chicken, fish and cow plus lashings of oil and dollops of sugar are key ingredients of most dishes.

 

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One consequence is a plethora of health clinics (diabetes a common ailment), beauty parlours, fitness and massage dives. P1020824

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Wide choice of rice, market on Cebu
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An appreciation of flowers in homes and gardens and for sale here in the market
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The ubiquitous ‘tricycle’, the taxi for everyone everywhere

I could  go further and say, at risk of hurting American feelings, that the Philippines displays the worst of American culture (poor food, soulless shopping malls, donuts and fast food, rubbish telly, polluted city streets) without the privileges of American choice and wealth. 

And another thing that it shares with America: loads of churches, chapels, cathedrals, Adventist, Evangelist, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, plus some whacky ones….I don’t know what it all means but you can walk down a little street in Limasawa (a small island where the first Philippine Christian service was held nearly 500 years ago) and see at least half a dozen different places to pray, in less than a mile. The singing sounded beautiful – much better than any karaoke.

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Grand cathedral (Puerto Princesa) looks down on the impoverished. ’twas ever thus.

My sailing plan had been straightforward. I like things simple. I’d go north from Indonesia to the Philippines with last of the SE Monsoon, then south back back down to Borneo with the start of the NE Monsoon. That’s more-or-less what happened. It’s just that weather doesn’t follow a precise calendar, and round these parts there are typhoons that whistle in from the Pacific so you keep an eye on where they are. (A typhoon is the local name for hurricane and cyclone)

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We watch the approach of tyhoons (two crossed to the north in the month). They disturb the weather over a much wider area.

But overall, it has been good to have sails set most of the way…..and enough heavy rain showers to keep water tanks topped up.P1020819

Jenny joined another boat in the Philippines (thank you Jenny for sharing all those watches and some memorably delicious cooking). I sailed on single-handed again and arrived back in Kota Kinabalu, North Borneo, a couple of days ago (Last here in July). 

About 1,500 miles in the month and I’m weary as I work through that interminable list of boaty chores, and catch up with personal stuff. Christmas is never far away. (Nor another UK election – but I shan’t offer an opinion!)

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It’s big and extraordinary. Puerto Princesa, Palawan

Indonesia, Raja Ampat

Halmahera to Raja Ampat, West Papua

1st October to 2nd November

Magical islands and wondrous underwater life, Eastern Indonesia, ….

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Red line shows our ‘bit for October’

“There is no greater cruising ground than Indonesia….18,000 isles cover some two million square miles of pristine tropical waters and a rich and vibrant local culture…..300 different tribal communities, 735 local languages…” I quote from the introduction to the Cruising Guide to Indonesia, a marvellous book yet one that scarcely scratches the surface of an amazing country.

Though I spent a few years working here when very much younger, I saw little of the outlying islands. The seven months over the past 18 months that I’ve spent here with Henrietta have opened my eyes to a country and society that I love. Nowhere on earth will you find such colourfully diverse, warm-hearted, happy, forgiving and beautiful people. Superlatives fail to do justice to such wonders and such a large and fascinating place.

The past month took us across a mere two hundred miles of Eastern Indonesia, from Halmahera to Raja Ampat. You may not have heard of either of these places unless you have been here or, in the case of Raja Ampat, you are a keen diver and underwater enthusiast. Look at the map.

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Most of month passed quickly – back and forth in Raja Ampat

 

For now while there’s an internet connection I’ll just show a few photos. (Lots of things to do before sailing off tomorrow)

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Friendly efficient immigration officer extends my visa (in the places I’ve been, long gone are the days of troublesome oficialdom)
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Local fisherman gives me six coconuts for an English lesson – and shows me how to open it without machete!

 

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Waterfront, from Tobelo anchorage, with steaming, smoking volcano behind

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…describing this gulf, studded with mushroom islets, one of the most singular and picturesque landscapes I have ever seen…
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Almost everyone climbs the short steep hill, Mt Pinditu, and takes this photo in magical Pulau Wayag…I did it twice!….more pictures below

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Crossing equator with new crew, Jenny (valid reason for a beer!)
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Visitors are usually close at hand….

The pond ‘marina’, Tanpa Garam, Sorong and nearby vast deserted swimming pool (a bit murky)

And of course, we snorkel everywhere, water usually crystal clear, and a huge range of corals and fishes…photos with thanks to Jenny..

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And now it’s time to move on..Henrietta and I look forward to the Philippines – probably….Sad to be leaving Indonesia, yes, but if we delay much longer, the winds turn against us…P1020701

Indonesia, North Sulawesi

Borneo to Sulawesi to Halmahera 

30th August to 30th September

Bye-bye Malaysia, hello again Indonesia, sailing eastwards along the northern islands of Indonesia, warm welcomes, happy people, gorgeous scenery, white sandy beaches, clear waters P1020561

The last few days and nights in Malaysia include happy hugs and fond farewells as the Malaysia rally ends and differing plans have many of us parting ways. There’s a final ‘steamboat’ dinner with rough-humoured Aussie wit and banter, the need of Indonesian visas, Malaysian exit paperwork, stocking depleted food stores and diesel tanks, and a foul foul anchorage (where rafts of plastic rubbish stream almost constantly by, and given windy nights, many boats including Henrietta drag anchors, in my case the anchor always retrieved and festooned with clumps of plastic, old ropes and stinky slimy mud), and thankfully a repaired mainsail (sent overnight on a local bus to Kota Kinabalu, an 11 hour trip, returned three days later with seams restitched – but a new sail is needed!)…..enough of this, I was to tell you of the next country.

Indonesia once more……But before we leave Malaysia here is a link to video made by one of the Rally boats.

 

And so after leaving Malaysia the past month has taken us some 800 miles east, from our final port, Tawau the stinky rubbish one, in Sabah, to Kalimantan and over the top of Sulawesi to where I write this, Morotai, an island to the north of Halmahera.IMG_E2338

Most of the month was spent traversing the top of Central and North Sulawesi and when I look back at all the places we saw, people met, reefs snorkelled and dived, meals shared, hills climbed and events attended, I realise this summary would soon get out of hand. So, I’ll just cover three things: a bit about Sulawesi, a bit about time with my young guides in Toli Toli, and a quick mention of other happenings.

Sulawesi, like so many islands in Indonesia, is huge, fascinating, distinctive, diverse. (We’d touched islands off Southest Sulawesi last year). Sulawesi was once upon a time called Celebes. The sea we crossed is the Celebes Sea. It’s the world’s 11th biggest island, slightly smaller than Britain (ie. England, Scotland, Wales, which is 9th), and has about 20 million inhabitants. The biggest city, Makassar, is in the south. I went there a long time ago, when it was called Ujung Pandang and had less than half its current population of 1.3 million.

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Sunset and local fishing craft, Toli Toli

Much more interesting is Sulawesi’s amazing range of flora and wild life, dozens of species being endemic to Sulawesi alone. It’s part of Wallacea and hence is home to species of both Australasia and Indomalaya: cute tarsiers, macaques, strange pigs (one called the ‘warty pig’!), colourful lorikeets, and many more. There are lots of nature reserves (I visit two), and three marine protected areas, one of which we visit.

But as so often, deforestation threatens the future of much of this diversity. Thinking about the gross consumerism and wastefulness of modern mankind makes me feel sad and urge you please to think very seriously before you go on yet another needless shopping spree. But I’m not here to preach…

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Some of Toli Toli’s fishing fleet

 Although southern parts of Sulawesi, particularly Tanah Torajah are popular tourist destinations, very few foreigners ever visit the inaccessible towns in the northwest; just an annual flock of migrating sailing boats, perhaps 20 boats in all that pop in. The generous warm welcome of Indonesians is both extraordinary and humbling, and I’m often bothered at the thought of how we in the West too often treat too many of our visitors and immigrants.

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A part of the vast crowd that seems to want to see what we look like

Here we are treated like royalty. Hands are shaken and photos called for, many hundreds of times. A village welcomes us with over 1,000 people neatly dressed and apparently happy just to have a glimpse of mainly aging foreigners with hidung panjang (long noses)!  Food is offered, welcoming dances are performed, speeches and greetings given. (You soon come to sympathise with the plight of popular monarchs for whom this sort of thing is central to their lives)

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A traditional dance – with very sharp knives

First port in Sulawesi is Toli Toli, which I reach after a typically sleep-deprived two nights from Nunekan, Kalimantan (which is Indonesian Borneo). It’s been a delight to be sailing again after so many weeks with very very little wind, and I rejoice at not hearing the almost constant steady throb of diesel engine. (From here I’m more resolved to let the wind and weather determine where and when I go, no longer bound by the timetable of a Rally fleet or need to maintain high speeds in windless conditions.) 

On kayaking ashore in Toli Toli, I’m met by a smiling gathering of young men and women, and children too. They are mostly graduates from the local University who’d been taught by Hendra, the charming and helpful tourism official who’s overseeing this annual visitation of a dozen or so sailing boats.

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The town of Toli Toli. Our boats in the hazy distance.

Two of the young, Ma’ruf and Lisa, are allocated to me, and soon become friends and guides for the next few days. They each have a motorcycle and I take turns riding pillion with one then the other; both careful drivers – but her’s the more comfortable bike.

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Ma’ruf and Lisa visit Henrietta

Ma’ruf is local and very familiar with the town and area. He’s touchingly helpful and always willing to take me anywhere, arrange anything and introduce me to his many friends. A graduate of the local university, he’s another of the thousands of bright young Indonesians who cannot find work that will use his talents. He works in a local motorcycle dealership doing I’m not really sure what.

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Another market shopping trip

Lisa, with a warm wide-eyed slightly flirtatious smile, is clearly clever. Though I sensed from a humble family, she’d won a scholarship and studied applied statistics at Makassar University; now writes letters in search of gainful employment. She’s spirited beneath the Muslim decorum and willingly tries a session with snorkel – not a usual Indonesian practice.

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Kirsten teaches Lisa to snorkel (full Islamic dress adds to difficulties!)

And so, as a happy trio and later with others, we visit market, mountain walk, special tea trip, traditional house, dance, snorkeling, dinner with the mayor, Saturday night out, and more….

Photos to summarise: –

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Joyful swimming in cool fresh pool

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Vaguely art deco architecture in Toli Toli
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I think we’re used to help market strange local tree-leaf tea (eternal health youth and beauty etc.)
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Dinner  and group photo with the Mayor of Toli Toli (centre with grey beard and clenched fist – he’s very popular)

P1020522After the fabulous welcome and entertainment laid on during our week in Toli Toli it would have been too easy to be disappointed with the next stops in North Sulawesi. 

But it was OK, at the next stop Buol, we meet the King and Queen. I think I’ve never met a king or queen before – anywhere. P1020536He’s charming, faultlessly polite and gently smiling and dressed in informal regal gear; but, as we sit around amiably sipping plastic cups of water, asking innocuous questions, and declining yucky-looking little cakes in gaudy colours, I can’t help feeling the king would really rather be out fishing in his own simple little traditional fishing boat. He likes fishing.

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Posing with the King and Queen of Buol

And then, we visit Buol schools, we swim in tiny pools and plant some rice (expecting photos from headteacher in a few months to show us what I’m sure will be an utterly pathetic harvest – Westerners haven’t a clue.)

Next stop, Kwandang, would normally have been more rewarding but unusual wind direction means island anchorage untenable; only five of us boats lingering for long overland drive to regional capital, Gorontalo, and an offshore island to snorkel. But we’ve bought some beer and morale remains high.

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Several schools to visit

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…and then, I’m rambling on…several more anchorages en route to final Sulawesi port-of-call, the City of Bitung. More trips, a bit of shopping, walking and talking and looking and thinking – the sort of thing any retired Englishman might do; except here it is an adventure, every hour full of surprises, little mysteries, peculiar foods, smiling faces. (To keep my head out of the clouds and spirits subdued, I do follow the Brexit saga. Proxy vote ready for the showdown/s that must inevitably come.)

…and finally I bid farewell to many friends who now head south towards Australia, my heart heavy at the knowledge that most, I shall not see again, but warm with thoughts of experiences shared over the past five or six months….Henrietta carries on eastwards.IMG_2240

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Dancing and crowds and flags and banners and warm welcome at Bunobogu

 

 

Sabah, North Borneo

Labuan to Tawau

15th to 30th August

Musings on the Rally, meandering along the coast of Sabah,  around the top of Borneo, wildlife, walks around Mount Kinabalu, Kinabatangan river, clearer waters and so on…

State flag of Sabah

Just as a week sharing space on a sailing boat very quickly shows you most of a fellow sailor’s fine qualities, skills, personality and blemishes, so a few weeks with a sailing rally soon uncovers the truths of our fellow boaties: the very good, the sometimes bad and, alas, occasionally the teeny bit ugly; national stereotypes confirmed, dismissed or, more usually, just a bit modified.

But I tread carefully; the British have more blemishes than many. And above all, sailors, all those on the sea, help one another, share a wonderful life and always learn from one another.

Rally fleet at anchor, Pulau Bohaydulong

 

We join local people for beach clean-up near Sandakan

I loosely joined the rally from Langkawi, West Malaysia to East Malaysia (i.e. Sarawak and Sabah, North Borneo), nearly 2,000 miles, mainly because of the security offered whilst sailing the final few miles close to troublesome islands in the Southern Philippines.

Little wind at dawn as we motor off together
Watching local dance at the top of Borneo
…and trying to follow the rhythm and steps…

In this smallish area extremists have kidnapped unfortunate souls for ransom, and occasional execution – though not, I think, yachts from Malaysian waters – thanks I suspect to Malaysian security forces, acronym ESSCOM, who have escorted us for the past two or three weeks. The escorted bit around northeast tip of Borneo meant decisions about when to leave, where to anchor, where to stop, where to go etc. were out of our hands; we sailed within a grouped flotilla never more than four miles by two miles, maintaining a speed close to 5.5 knots almost all the time, with accompanying ESSCOM vessels and shore stations watching over us.

The reality for the whole rally, covering over four months since April, has been a lot of fun, many new friends and a wealth of experiences.

But, were it not for the security offered for the final three weeks, I’d choose not to join such a rally. Rallies run contrary to the nature of the independent free spirited souls who form the bulk of long distance sailors.

Laundrette – always an early stop in new towns – this one Lahad Datu

 

Over the past  months happiest times have been when away from the fleet of up to 29 yachts, pottering alone upriver in Sarawak, anchoring in secluded bays, snorkelling with one or two others, meeting local people, making our own decisions and choosing our own timetable. Above all I’ve loved land travel with Armelle (who’s been with Henrietta for most of the past two months in Borneo – but alas will not become a global sailor).

We visit and are entranced by proboscis monkeys and, here, silver-backed monkeys (their babies start out ginger and change to silver grey after 6 months)

The above simply summarises my view of the Sail Malaysia Rally to the East. It’s not meant to sway you towards or away from taking part should you be heading this way. But another time, I’d go alone.

Dinghy docks and anchorages sometimes get busy when on a Rally.

From here this post is just a hasty summary of a full month sailing and exploring Sabah, the Malaysian state that covers the northernmost patch of Borneo.

The best way to do such a summary, given I’ve run out of time with internet, is with a series of photos….

 

From Sarawak, Henrietta pottered northwards overnight to the island of Labuan, a busy stretch of sea cluttered with oil and gas rigs and boats zipping hither and thither at all hours. No chance of sleep.

I bypassed Brunei, a proposed rally stopping place, unwilling to visit a country run by a strange dictatorial zealot, however benevolent.

Labuan, like much of North Borneo has historical interest, local colour and a marvelous mix of helpful and friendly indegenous people. Labuan also has duty-free status; yachts sit a little lower, burdened under the weight of beer.

Approaching Labuan at dawn

 

Mount Kinabalu (Borneo’s highest peak) and, below, world’s largest flower, and we do find one…

On next to Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, and from there land travel to spend a couple of days in Gunung Kinabalu National Park.

Some eye catching sculpture adorn the roundabouts

here it is

A moving memorial to those killed by Japanese cruelty and neglect on the Sandakan death marches

 

After Kudat, we’re disciplined into following the instructions of ESSCOM, though still with some freedom to do-our-own-thing when moored in the larger towns of Sandakan and Lahad Datu.

Pictures from Sandakan and around…..

 

Scones and cream cannot compete with Devon’s but setting is beautiful – near Agnes Keith house

 

Ashore wiith an ESSCOM officer

And from Lahad Datu and around….

Borneo’s biggest gong. Not allowed to bong it as someone had just died in the gong-making village
We spent a night in this ‘homestay’ with a few fellow cruisers, as guests of local and ASEAN Homestay director, Kobra (on the right)

 

Plus there’s a pleasant few days pottering up the River Kinabatangan, and a day’s speedboat trip to the Marine Park island of Sipadan for diving and snorkelling before the final week heading on to Tawau, last port-of-call in Malaysia, and close to the border with Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan).

…a little tributary of river Kinabatangan…in search of monkeys and birds

Images from Kinabatangan River

Martin joins me while Armelle goes to meet her daughter….…  and at the end of the rally, it’s wonderful to have a few days with A and Josephine…… (Here’s a link to Armelle’s version of Sabah )

..who join in heavy rain

Sociable evening, as guests aboard Swiss catamaran Javerne,

         


     

Soon the curtain will close on Tawau and I’ll leave Malaysia – for    a while

Next stop for Henrietta will be Kalimantan, and then I plan to sail further east through more islands of Indonesia….Sulawesi, Raja Ampat and Papua.

Yes, I know it’s going the wrong way for England. But I’ll turn around somewhere and head west again……

 

Sarawak, Borneo

 

Kuching to Miri

Meandering along the coast of Sarawak, Kuching, Borneo’s Longest River, Bako and Mulu National Parks

13th June to 14th JulyIMG_1484

First, a bit about Borneo: it’s the third largest island in the world, more than three times the size of the U.K. The biggest chunk of it, Kalimantan, is within Indonesia. The smallest chunk, but by far the wealthiest per capita, is Brunei. Then there’s East Malaysia, which makes up nearly a third of Borneo, and comprises Sarawak and Sabah. It’s Sarawak and Sabah that I’ll visit in the next two months.

And this chapter of the blog is about Sarawak. It’s the largest Malaysian State by area but has a population of only 2.6 million. It’s wealth comes from timber and oil/gas and palm oil; there’s a lot of all three. The capital is Kuching. I liked Sarawak a lot.P1010296

 

The history of Sarawak is fascinating. A slice of its history from 1839, saw it under the control of colourful eccentric, James Brooke (the white Rajah) and his successors. And after WW II, and the Japanese were defeated, it was a British Colony until independence and Malaysia’s Formation in 1963. P1010334

This blog post is overdue. Lots of excuses…..

On arriving at Kuching Marina (something of a misnomer for the poorly maintained pontoons that protrude into the rubbish-strewn and fast-flowing river a couple of miles from Kuching) from Natuna, Indonesia; after sleepless day/night sail; my solitary solo sailing life came to an abrupt end – at least for a while.

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Kuching Marina (Henrietta top left…before others arrive)

The delights of two strong-minded, lovely women interrupted the reveries of single-handed life. First my sister, Margie, then Armelle, shook me up and set me on the path to righteousness. Margie brought a wondrous load of gifts that surpassed all Christamases for years gone by (spare parts for Henrietta, plus Waitrose muesli and a pair of top quality M&S swimming trunks!)

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Margie and Armelle, Kuching

She’d come for white sandy beaches and coconut palms. But Sarawak’s speciality is crocodiles, murky waters and mangrove, so alas stayed only a few days before leaving to explore the more attractive islands and towns of sun-blessed West Malaysia. There was enough time for her first to explore thoroughly the streets of Kuching and share a trip to Bako National Park.

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We’d had coffee and cake with Lane and Kay (it was raining outside!)

Then Henrietta headed downriver from Kuching (it’s about 12 miles to the sea) along the coast a bit and into the River Rajeng, which is Borneo’s longest river. To an Englishman it seems huge with 10,000 ton ships, express ferry boats and giant barges heading upstream for many miles, collecting timber or gravel or produce or people from Sarawak’s interior.

…photos of vessels on the Rajeng River…

 

It takes two days’ motoring along this wide and delightful river to reach the city of Sibu over 100 km upstream; and Sibu is considered only the starting point for river traffic heading even further inland into the rainforest of Borneo’s interior. You anchor wherever you like near the banks of the river, nights filled with all the glorious sounds of rainforest life, though we also stopped at Sarikei a largely Chinese town where we’re shown a glimpse of Chinese life by Stephen Chang, a generous hospitable local entrepreneur.P1010400P1010376P1010371

As an aside, I add that for some unknown reason Sarawak’s larger towns have chosen items to ‘adopt’ as their local mascots. For Kuching, it’s cats (the Malay word for cat is ‘kucing’, though city has nothing to do with cats!); for Sarikei, it’s pineapples; for Sibu, a swan; Miri, a seahorse etc. Here are photos to give you the gist of it. Just think what you could do with the town of Sandwich in Kent, UK!

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Pineapple in Sarikei
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Swan in Sibu

Were it not too tedious for you to read about, I’d fill volumes with the delights of gentle motoring downriver, meeting local people, fishermen, wise forthright men and women, bright smiling children. Listening and seeing and scenting the fabulous colours of tropical rainforest, rainbows, birds and insects.

But, here are some photos instead….

…images from Sungai Rajeng: IMG_1272

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Traditional Iban Longhouse (on the right)
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Marianne and husband, Nelson, visit us for tea
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Schoolchildren, seven in total , have four teachers from across Malaysia

P1010468It’s a further two days and nights at sea to next stop, Miri. It’s Sarawak’s second city, wealthy with oil money sloshing about, flattened by bombing in the war, then rebuilt but with little local interest. 

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passing offshore gas rigs…there are many such platforms

However, near to Miri are Niah CavesP1010489…and a day later….we take a short flight to Gunung Mulu National Park (flying is the only practical way to get there). IMG_1348Gunung Mulu National Park is cave country, bat caves, world’s largest cavern included, stalactite and stalagmite country, insect country, rainforest, rivers, and mountains; kind clever industrious people. Again, to save the volumes I’d need to write to describe this fabulous area, for now I shall just add a few photos. If you have a chance, you’ll need to go yourself.

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Armelle and I stay on a few days, take a boat upstream and walk to Camp 5. This is the base point for those who’ve booked to climb the Pinnacles. We hadn’t. Instead, the Headhunters’ Trail and unvisited, unspoilt mountain stream provide a wonderful day’s leisure and tranquility. (It had been a sleepless night lying cold and wet in the Camp 5 dormitary, sound effects courtesy of the Malaysian Snorers’ Ensemble).

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Fellow homestay guests, Malay, Polish, French and English

at this point internet becomes too weak to continue.

Here is a link to Armelle’s version of Sarawak in French and English

After a full month in Sarawak it was time to head north for the next Borneo State of Malaysia, Sabah.

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Anambas and Natuna, Indonesia

Some more little islands of Indonesia, snorkels, selfies and dancing

Anambas and Natuna Islands

16th May to 12th June

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Two small Archipelagos (over 500 islands) in the South China Sea

We’d better start with a quick bit of geography. The average participant in a UK pub quiz would not have heard of these islands, let alone be able to locate them. (A year ago I’d not heard of them either.)

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Tarempa, the capital of Anambas

The Anambas and Natuna islands are about half way between Singapore and Borneo, or between West and East Malaysia (Sarawak), in the South China Sea. They are a part of Indonesia, but as they include sizeable reserves of natural gas, others, especially the Chinese, dispute this. (A massive Indonesian military camp is now taking shape here on the largest of the Natuna Islands.)

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A semi-arid ‘waterfall’ with a view and fine for a freshwater dip

The Anambas Islands, there are about 250 of them, offer some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world.  They are tricky to get to (unless you have time or money or a yacht) and the islands are largely untouched.

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‘Pencil dot island’ (it’s that small on a chart) and nice to snorkel-circumnavigate

The Natuna Islands, about 270 of these, seem to have less clear water and more fishing, but as I’ve only been to four of them I must not judge. Villages are tidy and seem relatively afluent – with well-amplified mosques calling us to prayer.

Homes on Tanjung Kumbrik, Natuna

First impressions? Wonderful.

Final impressions (I must leave soon)? Wonderful, exquisitely beautiful, delightful welcoming warm-hearted people, largely unspoilt, isolated and very little visited. I could go on but a poet would do more justice than  prose could ever achieve. I’ll brighten your day with a few more photos.

On first reaching these Indonesian islands from Malaysia (after blissful brisk overnight sail from Tioman, with bright full moon to light the way), we anchor on patch of sand in a classical jungle-fringed tropical bay with crystal clear water, pristine coral all around and a tiny village a half mile away.P1010183

There are some little fishing boats; I’d already forgotten that the small one- or two-man fishing boats in Indonesian islands do not have silencers and their engines have a distinctive loud resonant throaty chugging sound – not offensive, just noisy.  (Size isn’t everything when it comes to volume!).

But they wave and smile as we eye up one another. (Fisherfolk and local people seem to view foreign sailing boats rather as we might join whale/dolphin spotting trips to view our swimming mammals. Certainly the boat-watching visitors like to take photos – to excess.)IMG_1167

Sailing alone I visit nearly one island per day, usually snorkel, clamber up a hill or explore a beach, trying to remember enough Indonesian to talk to inquisitive local people. (I was in the country about 40 years ago).

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Then…1979
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…and now, a mere 40 years later…(widespread headscarves a relatively new idea…)
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…and yesterday

Solo sailing means life swings wildly between days of gentle solitude or Indonesian visitors, when I may see no boat and no Westerner, read a book, absorb a podcast or clean my ‘home’, achieving quite a lot (or so it seems); and then frenetic sociability with Indonesian culture and speeches and food, or generous boaty sundowner hospitality (Australians – and most boats are Australian- are especially hospitable and keen not to miss a sunset drink.)

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Visitors from Pulau Midai, Natuna
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Share a coconut with man and his granddaughter
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Mobile phone…. She’s two years old! Should children be dressed like this?
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Happily dancing children, Anambas
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Anambas girls get ready to dance
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Sundown aboard friendly Australian (+Canadian) boat ‘Pegasus X’

 

As a final titbit of Anambas interest, I’ll just mention Roman Devivo. He’s a nutritionist, originally French but longtime American resident (before heading to Indonesia), and he’s taken his commitment to the paleo diet idea to an extreme. (‘Paleo’ seems to be one of the many fashionable mildly wacky diets that has legions of enthusiastic converts)

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Roman Devivo in front of his Balinese-style home

I’d kayaked over to Roman’s islet of Pulau Sama, Anambas, to the north of what sailors have christened Moonrock Bay. He’s lived there for the past year with his wife and two daughters (8 and 11), and is busy developing, “…with an Indonesian company…”, a resort (one Balinese style hut/house on each of several nearby beaches).

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Panorama from ‘Moonrock’, Anambas Islands

His family seem to exist happily and healthily on a raw food paleo diet which entails eating zero processed food (not even bread) and without ever cooking anything (this isn’t merely a hunter-gatherer diet, it’s pre-cooking too – everything went wrong, he says, when we started to cook). You can sun-dry your meat or eat it raw, but not barbeque it, let alone use a stove!

One day before too long, you’ll be able to visit, stay a while (minimum ideally three weeks – for your gut to adjust!) and live an even more extreme form of self-denial than the most austere of monks – and I guess it might cost a lot too. (When I find my notebook I’ll post the website address). Crackpot or well-informed activist and doer? I found him fascinating and utterly sane, and it’s good to find folk who follow their convictions (as long as peaceful), however outlandish.  But it’ll never be a diet or life-style for me. Goodness no!

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Next stop Sarawak, East Malaysia – hopefully leave in a day or two…