In this article our intrepid guest author Rhys, climbs the unexpectedly steep Mount Kinabalu for a New Year’s view from the top, meets the king of the swingers, gets eaten alive in the jungle and catches some squeaking catfish in Borneo.
When people think of Borneo they usually think sprawling rainforest and amazing wildlife, not the highest mountain in South East Asia. For some reason though Danielle, my partner, thought the latter and we booked to climb Mount Kinabalu for what should have been the romantic New Year’s Eve to end them all. We also booked a little bit of the former as well with a three day camp at Uncle Tans wildlife camp.
Borneo, the largest island in Asia (and the third largest in the world), is divided up amongst three counties; Brunei and Malaysia to the North, Indonesia to the South. The country was actually once part of the British empire and you can see the British influence in the three pin plug sockets which were a welcome sight for us and our tangle of iPad, Camera and other assorted chargers and plugs.
We flew in it Kota Kinabalu to start our trip, Kota being the capital of the Northern region of Sabah where we spent all of our time. Although it’s nothing to write home about, it’s still worth a visit for a night on your way through to somewhere else. Check out the cool Sunday Market which closes down one of the main streets for the morning and also go to the Signal Hill Observatory from which you can look out over the whole city and various islands. The night market is a great choice for food, buying a whole fresh fish from a local fisherman and taking it to a food stall to have it cooked with various other delicacies is an experience in itself as well as a delicious meal.
Although information is scarce on this (even on the interwebs), minibuses depart regularly from the central bus station to Kota Kinabalu National Park, the home of Mount Kinabalu, for around $5 each way. Get there early though as once they’re full they’re gone; we were there for 8am and departed with the last minibus by 9am. The luxury buses are slightly more expensive and go from the main terminal a few km out of the town, most hotels will arrange tickets and the tuktuk there.
Mount Kinabalu, not just a walk in the park
Mount Kinabalu stands at just over 4000 meters but for some reason (mainly a lack of any real research) we thought it would be a nice gently sloping climb. As soon as we arrived at the national park to check in to our accommodation we saw what we were up against; gently sloping it was not.
There is a range of accommodation and tour operators with which to book, the secret however is that all accommodation in the national park is provided through Sutera Sanctuary lodges and you can contact them directly for the best rates. Prices range from RM100 to RM1000 per night at the bottom of the mountain, and RM350 to RM3600 per night at the top. We went for the basic packages as we were on a budget but we saw some of the nicer accommodation at the bottom and it certainly had the feel of a luxury resort about it.
Whilst the budget accommodation at the top of the mountain was extremely basic with bunk beds and no hot water (you only really stay for a few hours sleep though before the 2am start) the bottom was actually quite nice for the amount we paid. As part of the package, food is provided via a buffet dinner the evening before the climb, breakfast the morning before, a packed lunch for during the climb, a buffet dinner after day one climb, buffet snacks before day two climb, buffet breakfast after the climb and then another buffet lunch when you get down. Phew! Basically you get fed a lot and although the mountain top food is pretty average (you can see why when the only way to get food up there is on the back of mountain sherpas) the food at the bottom was fantastic with a range of curries and a decent breakfast including fresh cooked omelettes.
Day one starts by paying 80RM for a guide, 30RM climbing permit fee, 14RM insurance fee, 10RM certificate fee, 10RM trail fee to the gate and 10RM storage fee if you need to leave any bags at the bottom (it’s 80RM if you need a porter to bring anything up to 10kg up with you so I’d suggest storing it and bringing a light backpack with a change if warm clothes and any other essentials). It can feel like you’re paying for something every time you turn around, especially as you are shepherded to various windows throughout the process; to be fair most of these fees are pointed out at the time of booking but it’s easy to forget such things when you have to book months in advance to secure a permit.
It’s then time to spend the next five to eight hours walking up very steep steps, relentlessly, until you get to Laban Rata guest house for your lunch. It’s pretty knackering, there’s no two ways about it and it can be pretty miserable at times if it starts to rain as it did for the last two hours with us. I have to confess here that neither of us are mountain climbers in any way shape or form, we both keep fairly fit but we certainty weren’t accustomed to the type of exercise and I think it would have been a lot easier had we done any form of specialist training beforehand. There are some quite spectacular views early on but after that it’s a bit of a drudge to get to the mid way point for your food, sitting and eating said food looking out above the clouds is pretty special though. All though the advice for the mountain is that it’s easily accessible and for all ages we actually found it quite hard going and there were tears from Danielle on a few occasions.
Second day brings the summit
Day two starts at 2am and although that sounds horrific it’s actually pretty exciting being out there in the pitch black, with a head torch, heading for the summit and the first sunrise of the New Year. This second half of the climb is a lot steeper than the first in certain parts, lots of sections don’t have steps and you have to scramble up some quite scary bits of slippy rock in pitch black with just a frayed piece of rope to help you out. It certainly tested our nerve and resolve, this was the highlight of Danielle’s crying throughout the trip with there being more cries per hour than at any other time.
We eventually made it to the summit and a short period of elation gave way to the urgent need to get down as we felt unsafe in between a sheer twenty meter drop and a wall of people bustling to get past each other to have a photo next to the summit sign; it gets very busy in a very small space up there. It was even more treacherous on the way down as it had started to rain and there were certain sections where it seemed if you slipped you could be falling for a very long time. In the end we didn’t see an amazingly romantic sunrise as it was too cloudy but being above the clouds is still pretty unbelievable viewing and we were both overjoyed with our effort and achievement when we arrived back at the park headquarters.
At the bottom of the mountain you can catch one of the regular luxury buses back to Kota Kinablu or on to Sandakan. You can also stay an extra night at Sutera Sanctuary or do like most people do and stay at the hot springs resort near by. We chose to get straight on the bus though and on to Sandakan for a wild life camp at Uncle Tans. Uncle Tans wildlife camp started out in 1986 when the man himself began taking tourists on wildlife tours around Sepilok and Sandakan. Move on twenty years and Uncle Tan is no longer around but the legend lives on with a large Bed and Breakfast/Operations centre, a wildlife camp and boats along the Lokan river in Kinabatangan.
Viewing the elusive orangutan
We stayed at the operations base the night before our trek, this isn’t necessary but you do have to be there at 9:30am the next day so it’s worth at least staying on the same road as Sandakan is up to an hour away. The accommodation at the operations base is basic and our room had no hot water, Danielle would certainly recommend trying one of the number of other more upmarket choices close by. The morning starts off with a visit to the Sepilok orang-utan rehabilitation centre, this isn’t part of the camp and you have to pay the entrance fee of RM30 but the transfer from Uncle Tans is complimentary. The centre is a fantastic place, we were unfortunate to have two orangutans turn up for feeding who were camera shy and turned their backs on us for the entire hour but we heard from others at the camp they had seen up to twenty of them turn up and cause chaos jumping all over each other. It’s not a zoo and the orangutans come from the near by jungle for a free nosh up so it can be hit and miss but I guess that’s all part of the appeal.
Later in the morning we were off to camp, an hour by mini bus and then an hour on a boat headed down the river. For some reason the boats the camp use do not have roofs and after remarking to each other how amazing it was to be out on the river we quickly found ourselves in the middle of a biblical downpour. Although we both had decent waterproof jackets on I stupidly had my phone, passport and wallet in my non waterproof shorts pockets. Complete amateur. I’m happy to report both the wallet and passport are now doing fine but the phone didn’t make it. RIP phone. Be warned.
The camp is very basic but we forgave that as we spent the next two days seeing orangutans, proboscis monkeys, long tailed macaques and a host of other animals in their natural habitat. We went on morning, afternoon and evening safaris across the two days by boat along the river and some trekking through the jungle, all were fantastic. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and can spot the smallest of monkeys from miles away whilst driving a long tail boat down the river at full speed with huge smiles on their faces, they are all really lovely guys as well.
The catfish weren’t the only thing biting
There is a real family friendly atmosphere at the camp and there were lots of families with children when we were there. There is even a camp band to entertain throughout and after dinner consisting of a few of the guides and the cook. What lack in talent they make up for in volume though which did get slightly annoying later in to the night when we were trying to sleep for our 6am morning safari. Word to the wise, I am normally a magnet for mozzies, in fact I am utterly irresistible to them, like mosquito crunchy nut cornflakes; Uncle Tans mosquitos took it to the next level though. Yeah I don’t know what the next level is either but it involved bites too numerous to mention. Luckily we had some good soothing cream but stupidly we had the worst mozzie repellant ever as it was the only thing available near the camp and the camp incredibly doesn’t sell any….be prepared would be the motto of the day.
We also managed to squeeze in a bit of fishing which was a paid for extra but well worth it. Danielle cried when she caught cat fish after cat fish and they squeaked a terrible, sad sound when they were plucked from the water. Her sensitive side was no match for her competitive spirit though and she plucked a further eight out to my measly one, I didn’t hear the end of that for days. We BBQ’d our fish for dinner and luckily Danielle let me have a few of hers so I didn’t starve. The food in general was fantastic considering it was brought in by boat and prepared in the middle of the jungle. We had a number of different curries and vegetable dishes throughout our stay, all were delicious and we even received a free cooking lesson one evening from the camp cook.
Although there were times when we were extremely tired, uncomfortable, crying and wishing we weren’t there throughout the trip, we both look back now with extremely fond memories. Whilst it isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s certainly not a hard core adventure holiday either and you can certainly up the luxury levels of certain parts of the trip if you so desire. I don’t think we will be pursuing a career in mountain climbing after this but another New Years on a wildlife tour may just be a certainty.
Rhys is a 31 year old I.T. consultant from England who, after working in Sydney for four years, decided to pack it all in and set off with his girlfriend Danielle on the travelling adventure of their dreams. Destinations include Thai kickboxing camp, volunteering in Cambodia, Myanmar, Everest base camp, Burning Man festival and plenty of motorcycling adventures; they are currently blogging daily about their experiences on 365 Days Off Work.
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Ecuador is one of the countries that you’ve heard a lot about, but maybe would never consider visiting. Why go to Ecuador on holiday, when there are the exciting destinations of Colombia, with its rich jungles and famous beaches, and Peru, with its Inca history and Andes culture, both nearby?
One fabulous destination that Ecuador does offer, and one that you have probably seen countless times on TV documentaries and in wildlife, travel and photography magazines, is the Galapagos Islands. The islands will forever have their position in history due to their astounding array of endemic wildlife species and their connection with Charles Darwin and his infamous work on evolution following his trip to the islands on the Voyage of the Beagle.
However Ecuador has so much more to offer the discerning tourist than these islands, and the many tourists that fly in to Ecuador, transfer to the islands for a tour or cruise then immediately fly home, are missing out on so much! Having had the pleasure of travelling through Ecuador and experiencing the delights that this country has to offer, over and above the Galapagos Islands, I realised that many people are missing out. Here’s my brief guide as to the best of the rest of the fabulous country of Ecuador:
Quito is one of two main stopover points for international tourists travelling to and from the Galapagos Islands (the other being Guayaquil), but is potentially a destination in itself. If you ever get the chance to visit Quito (and you should give yourself the opportunity!) then try and stay in a hotel in the old-town city centre rather than in the new modern region – it might cost a little more but you won’t regret it.
This region of the city is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, due to its outstandingly well-preserved, ancient and beautiful central region. To explore this area is like stepping back to colonial-era South America – labyrinthine cobbled streets wind through white-painted buildings, leafy plazas, and ancient churches and religious buildings. You can get lost here for days, exploring, and soaking up the history. Make sure to visit the Basilica del Voto Nacional, if only for the adventurous climb through the rickety old roof for fabulous views of the city from a viewing platform on top near one of the spires.
Also worth visiting, although a little touristy (but good for a laugh!) is the equator visitor centre, only a few kilometres from Quito – stand on top of a painted line on the earth for a memorable, if a little corny, photo. Just don’t tell your friends and family that this isn’t “technically” the equator (they built the site in the wrong place – the true equator is a few hundred metres away!). Finally, for those that have fully acclimatised (don’t visit this if you’ve only just arrived), Quito’s “TelefériQo”, a giant gondola that travels from Quito, at 3117m above sea level, to the top of one of the valleys, at 3945m above sea level, offers excellent views of the city stretching away from you far below.
Okay, so this may be a metropolis, and quite a large one at that, but if you’re going to pass through a destination (many international flights and connections to Galapagos use Guayaquil Airport), then it would be a shame not to visit the best of this city. Maybe not worth visiting for more than a couple of nights, but in that extra day or so you will be able to experience modern Ecuador – how Ecuadorian people see it and live it. Head down to the “Malecon 2000″, the walkway overlooking the Guayas River, built in 2000, lovely in the evenings.
During the day Guayaquil can be a sweaty and humid affair, but as dusk begins to set and the temperature falls this modern river-side getaway stretches for a few kilometres along the river-front, and contains many monuments, mini parks, restaurants, art displays and plenty of space for a relaxing stroll. At one end of the Malecon there is the fabulous district of “Las Penas”, which is a regenerated area of the city, full of many mini streets built up the sides of a hill, complete with perfect little art galleries, salsa bars and restaurants, and other delights abound – explore to your heart’s content! A walk along the streets of Las Penas will eventually lead up towards the hill at Cerro Santa Ana – there are fabulous views of the city below and a lighthouse at the top of the hill.
Unspoiled Beaches of Ecuador
There are many fabulous areas of South America that are not that well known by the English-speaking world. Take the beaches of Uruguay for example – very popular with Argentinians, and with Spanish wanting to escape the humdrum of Europe in the height of summer, but not really on the radar of other Europeans. The same could be said for Ecuador’s beaches, and it was tempting to not even mention the beaches on this list for fear of increasing their popularity – some places are best kept secret! The benefit of Ecuador’s beach regions, compared to many of their equivalents in the Mediterranean or other similar locations, is their relative quietness without the crowds and without high-rise hotels of purpose built resorts.
Of course, there are exceptions, with the city of Salinas being one example (a resort-town if ever there was one)… however a journey north from Salinas up Ecuador’s beautiful coastline (simply a delight at sunset) will take you past endless fishing villages, all sitting atop beautiful sandy beaches – just take your pick. Montañita, once a well-kept secret complete with lovely sandy beaches and fishing shacks serving up cold beers, has over recent years started to grow in popularity (the secret got out!), but is still worth visiting for those seeking a surfing style holiday, cheap beach-side villas, and glorious sun. As you head further north, travel along the “E15″ road and either stop wherever takes your fancy – try Mompiche, Cojimies, or countless others.
Cotopaxi National Park
There are many national parks in Ecuador, and all are probably worth a visit if you have the inclination, and time. Cotopaxi is probably the most well-known of the mainland parks, because of Cotopaxi stratovolcano that sits within the park and gives the park its name. The volcano features the beautiful symmetrical cone shape that is synonymous with volcanoes in general, and sits majestically on the Andean plateau (resembling that other equally beautiful volcano – Mount Fuji in Japan). Visitors to the national park are greeted by stunning Andean landscapes – rough tundra shrubbery, grazing llamas, indigenous farmers, sporadic farming buildings offering limited shelter – all with the sight of the giant conical volcano on the horizon. This is a landscape unlike anywhere else. The best way to experience this area is to get up close and personal with the region, and go on a horse-trekking adventure through the lands. For the brave, the volcano can be climbed on a guided climbing excursion, worth it to experience the awe-inspiring views from the top.
Stay in a Hacienda
Not really a destination, but more of a way of life, haciendas were, and still are, large self-sufficient estates situated across much of the Ecuador mainland, around Quito and the surrounding area. Although their traditional ways have started to disappear, many of these haciendas have adapted and provide exceptional, and unique, tourism opportunities. Many excellent haciendas are close-by to Quito, so can easily be visited, and they provide an excellent way of experiencing what life might have been like for colonial people in Ecuador hundreds of years ago. The centre-piece of these large estates is usually the central mansion, some of which contain ancient Inca walls that were used in the construction of the mansions when built by the land-owners, and these mansions have been converted into wonderful and delightfully decorated accommodation.
Many thanks for this article to Jonathan, who spent time living in South America throughout 2008 and 2009, and who has travelled extensively in Ecuador. Since returning home to the UK, Jonathan has taken up photography after being inspired by the fabulous landscapes of the Andes, and works for Go Andes, a specialist holiday company that offers cruises and tours to the Galapagos Islands, as well as many other destinations through South America.
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In this article our guest writer, Catherine Stanley shares her love of Grand Cayman in the Caribbean, with glorious beaches, delicious local cuisine and flower-filled walks where you can spot the island’s wildlife.
If you have never experienced the Caribbean’s Cayman Islands, you should definitely add them to your bucket list. Having traveled to the Cayman Islands several times over the past few years, I have become very familiar with the three islands. Without a doubt, my personal favorite is Grand Cayman, the largest of the Cayman Islands. Whether you are on a family vacation of just spending time with a group of friends, Grand Cayman truly has so much to offer especially when it comes to the variety of activities you can experience.
Adventure on the beach
When you sit on the soft sand of the renowned Seven Mile Beach in the early hours of the day, it is easy to get lost in the mesmerizing teal-blue water, endless rows of beach chairs and lazy water sports. However, I am not one to just hang around when I am on vacation. Grand Cayman never disappoints as I turn to the adrenaline rush of kitesurfing.
My favorite kitesurfing spot is Barkers Beach, found within the Grand Cayman Nature Reserve, towards the north-western point of the island. With its winding, pot hole-filled dirt road and occasional lizard sighting, it is fair to say that Barkers is off the beaten track. I love the drive because you can see the bright colored kites, full with air, high above the trees far before you even reach the ocean. Once you arrive at the beach, you will find that it is quite removed from the rest of the island, swarming with locals who spend their free time out on the crystal blue water right off the reef protected beach.
An abundance of local culture and cuisine
After working up an appetite from kitesurfing, I like to make a pit stop on my way back at Jessie’s Juice Bar (great smoothies!) and the Farmer’s Market in Camana Bay. The Farmer’s Market has a wide array of items ranging from fresh produce and baked goods to homemade soaps. I always have to swing by the Ivy’s Cayman Treats stand where I do not leave without several bottles of Ms. Ivy’s homemade pepper sauces and jerk seasoning rub mix—all of which are to die for!
As someone who is innately curious, I love strolling through the beautiful courtyards sprinkled throughout Camana Bay. I would have to say that Canella Court is my favorite one as I am a sucker for the shady trees and soft trickling sound of the fountains.
If I plan on staying in the Camana Bay area for the rest of the day, I like to walk along Camana Way, a beautiful pathway connecting Camana Bay’s Town Center to the Seven Mile Beach. The path is full of life and covered with all types of native plants and flowers, giving you a true appreciation for the Island’s nature. Do not be surprised to come across the island’s colorful lizards and birds of all size. Make sure to bring a camera, you are bound to find numerous amazing photo opportunities along the path!
When dinner rolls around, neighborhood restaurant and local favorite, Season to the Bone, is my go-to. Located in Windsor Park (about a 10 minute drive from Camana Bay), Season to the Bone has, what I believe to be the best jerk meat I have ever tasted. Grab a picnic table outside the restaurant and prepare to taste the most amazing and authentic jerk chicken you have ever had. For a generous portion of jerk pork or chicken plus a drink, you will spend about $15 and definitely get your money’s worth! Expect to experience a wonderful blend of culture and warm hospitality at this local food spot.
A perfect sunset
After dinner, I like to head out to the Seven Mile Beach to watch the Caribbean sunset, one of my favorite parts of the day. The warm red, orange and pink tones painted across the sky make for an absolutely breathtaking picture. Without a doubt, Grand Cayman delivers both a refreshing tropical climate and amazing ocean views as the sun disappears behind the rolling ocean waves. It is quite a sight to see and I can assure you that you will not want to miss it!
Many thanks for this guest post to frequent traveler and blogger Catherine Stanley, who runs The Squirrel Machine blog out of her home (and on the go, as long as there’s a WiFi connection!). A New York City native, Catherine has vacationed in the Cayman Islands since she was young and has developed a deep appreciation for the warm weather paradise. In addition to traveling, Catherine is passionate about writing and enjoys providing her readers with posts on a variety of topics. Head over to The Squirrel Machine for more posts on travel, entertainment, health, business and more!
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