February 15th 1984

posted in: The way back | 1
Our travel companion

We finally managed to break away from the Burroughs’ hospitality today.  Not that we didn’t appreciate it, + they made it quite clear we were welcome to stay, but we’d just about exhausted the attractions of Brunei, + the coming National Day celebrations were neither near enough nor exciting enough to tempt us.  Just a note while I think of it – I had the chance to weigh myself last night, + discovered I am 9st 9lbs – a bit of a difference from my tubby heyday back in Launceston of 12st 7lbs, + now just a few pounds heavier than Val.

Helga was able to rush us into town in the morning – she’s really been very good to us, + then we had to try to discover the best ie cheapest way of getting to Sabah.  There seemed to be 2 alternatives, + even then it was difficult to decide which was best since there was no-one who could give is an impartial answer.  One way was to take the ferry to Labuan, an island off the coast, + then take another boat from there to the mainland.  This would certainly have been the surest method, but the next Labuan ferry didn’t leave till 1pm, virtually knocking on the head any chance of reaching Kota Kinabalu (Sabah’s capital, known to all as KK) by tonight… our aim if possible.  So we settled for option 2, a riverboat to Lawas, in Sarawak, transferring to a bus to Merapok, Sabah.  This had the advantage of getting g us underway faster, tho’ some of that advantage was eaten up when we climbed onto a very hot + stuffy boat, + then didn’t move for ages.  We were also slightly disturbed when the guy in charge of our trip took our passports – we’re always nervous when parted from them – + stowed them in his executive attache case.  It was only slightly reassuring to see that everyone else on board had done the same.

The journey was uneventful – I’ll confess I was buried in the thriller I’d acquired from G + H – but a pleasant young Chinese lady (overdressed, to my mind, by about 17 degrees) bought us a can of cold drink each, + generally showed us the ropes.  These involved getting off the boat at the Sarawak border, + having our passports stamped.  We were going straight thro’ to Sabah, but still required the stamp – more precious space gone from the rapidly diminishing blank pages in our passports.  And then back on  the boat.

Only a short stretch this time, however, before arriving at what was not much more than a beach on a bend in the river.  Here we were concerned to see the passengers transferring to a line of share-taxis lined up there – we had made no budgetary allowance for such an extravagance.  So it was a relief to be informed that the cost of this ride was already included in the boat-ticket we had bought back in BSB.  Discovering this, we were happy to climb in, + even able to enjoy the ride.  Thi9s took us to Lawas,+ from there we transferred to a bus to take us to the border with Sabah.  Both states of Malaysia, but they have passport restrictions between them.  The bus can’t have made any money on the trip – for  most of the way we were the only passengers.

We were dropped off about 400 yards from the border post, which turned out to be more of an inconvenience than it sounds, for virtually immediately we got off the rain began to pour.  We sheltered for a time, but were caught out by a false lull when we decided to make a run for it.  Consequently, we arrived at the customs post looking, + feeling, like a couple of drowned rats.  No problem with obtaining a visa – we asked for, + got, a month, just in case.  But there seemed to be only one way to get from the border post to the next town, 20 kms away, + that was to charter a taxi for $20.  I wasn’t happy with the situation, but was prepared to bow to the inevitable + pay up – otherwise I reckoned we were just frittering away time – KK was already seeming well beyond us tonight, + I’d have been happy to settle for anywhere… anywhere that wasn’t a govt dept office + liable to close anyway.  But Val has a stubborn streak, + also a kind of blind optimism, a faith that something will turn up.  And on this occasion at least, for VJ just like Mr Micawber, something did.

After about half an hour, 2 guys came in to clear customs, saying they were on their way to KK.  At this our ears pricked up – tho’ anywhere would have done really.  So when they’d finished their business Val asked if they would be prepared to take us too.  They explained they only had an open pick-up truck, but we assured them that would be wonderful, so they said sure.  As we left, we tried not to look too triumphantly at the taxi-driver + his crony the customs man.  Once again, our luck had changed at the last minute.  And stayed good, for the rain had stopped, + didn’t return all the way to KK.  I couldn’t pretend it was a comfortable journey.  The roads were appalling, + at times I stood up to save the wear on my bum, but we made it.

It took us about 5 hours in all, so we arrived in KK quite late, but that included 2 stops, one for them to do some work – they were reps for a toy company –  + the other for dinner.  Which they treated us to.  We had a companion for a time.  It was a slimy character who had been hanging around the customs post, who had obviously got a ride or chartered a taxi to the next town, where he caught us up while the others were working, + rode with us for quite a while from there.  But no complaints really – a good ride.

Our luck deserted us again in KK however.  The cheap place to stay mentioned in the book has ceased operations, the next one was full, + the couple of others we tried were outrageously expensive.  So, tho’ we were fed up with travelling, + had resolved to stay in the city, we were more or less forced into Plan B.  There was a church hall out by the station apparently, where one could kip on the floor for free.  So, after hanging around for a while, waiting in vain for a bus, we eventually took a taxi.  The only directions we could give the driver were vague in the extreme, but taxi drivers are supposed to know their own city.  But we drove round + round + round, asking people + getting nowhere.   In the end, he dropped us at the only church he knew, the Catholic Cathedral on the edge of town – we knew this wasn’t the right place, but what were we to do?  We gave him the $5 we’d agreed on in the beginning – I think he thought then he’d got a bargain.

Fate smiled on us once again here, for by chance – it was now 11 o’clock – there was a meeting still going on in the Church hall, so we asked for shelter.  Rather to our amazement, but in the true Christian spirit, the guy said yes, + arranged with the clerk + the security people to see we were undisturbed.  We were very grateful, + even more tired; rolled out the mats, + were soon asleep…

The whole of Borneo does not seem to be set up for travellers at all, budget travellers all the more so. The advantage of this situation is that others – boat ooperators, churches, etc, tend to step up to the mark,m and for the second time we have enjoyed some Christian hospitality.

  1. Pamela Blair

    Ah, for trusting in serendipity! I love Val’s spirit and when I was young, shared it. I wasn’t amazed to learn you’d lost 40 pounds–every photo of you showed you getting thinner and thinner. Separately, I’ll send you a little piece I wrote about one of my “back of the truck” trips in Algeria in ’72.

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