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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Little earthquakes

Tori Amos once wrote a song called ‘little earthquakes’. Somehow I was reminded of that song yesterday when I experienced a couple of ‘little adventures’.

Yesterday was one of those ‘little adventures’ days. Exploring a defunct police station, renting a motorbike to visit urang utans, watch crocodiles from real close by, a 1 meter high waterfall that managed to kill two persons last week, a visit to a village, a big waterfall with kids playing, a visit to a traditional ‘longhouse’, a return trip through an epic rainstorm, and a beautiful Chinese Buddhist festival to finish the day.

Many little adventures create one great trip.


The most beautiful place in the world

After you’ve traveled a bit, people start asking you crazy questions like ‘what is the most beautiful place you’ve ever visited?’. I typically stumble over this question.

“maybe the Aconcagua mountain in Chile? But I also loved the temples of Bagan in Myanmar. And Iran had crazy beautiful things too, and Hampi in India is amazing, you all of New Zealand is truly beautiful and I’ll never forget my first gaze at the Himalaya etc. etc.”

And I’ve got bad news for prospective askers of this question: another location has been added to this list. It’s different than the rest though as it’s not on the earth, but in the water on top of it.

Located in Malaysia, next to Borneo island, there’s a small island called ‘Mabul’. And if you take a boat eastbound for twenty minutes you arrive at a tiny island (100 * 200 meters) called ‘Sipadan’. What so special about this place, one might ask? The answer is simple: if you swim less than 50 meters into the sea the bottom below you is already at 600 meters. His attracts amazing number of fishes and predators that feed on them.

Fresh out of my diving course I went to 35 meters and saw: sharks, barracuda’s, gigantic turtles, and dozens of other species. The biggest surprise wasn’t at this depth though. When my group started ascending to the surface, we arrived at a small plateau / reef at 12 meters below the surface. The sunbeams lit up the place like there was no water at all. Gigantic corals, uncountable numbers of fish in big schools, a turtle so close I could almost touch him. As a much wiser man once said: “the greatest show on earth”.

Maybe this is the most beautiful place?


A little fishy

On the highest mountain of South East Asia somebody told me about the amazing diving possibilities on Borneo. As I had arrived without a plan it seemed a great idea to check it out.

The arrival was tough. After ascending 1000 meters and descending 2000 meters, I continued with sitting 7 hours on a cramped bus. The muscle ache was unforgiving.

The small city of Samporna was ‘uninspiring’, to say the least. Fortunately, I could arrange to leave it the following day. I had booked the ‘open water’ diving course on Mabul.

The first day was a theory day in a small room without air-conditioning at 30+ degrees: not much fun. The second day promised a whole lot more: lessons in the water combined with several dives. However, as I descended into the water I  suddenly remembered why I never dived again after a trip in Egypt many years ago: I don’t like the feeling of having to breath through something, masks always leek and seemingly another ‘dimension’ is created under water which my brain fills with many dangerous animals. ‘why am I doing this? I don’t even like it and now I’m even paying to do suffer’ was my first reaction.

Things literally cleared up afterwards. The diving lessons went smoothly and my initial fears disappeared rapidly. To my own surprise I signed up for a day trip to another island. The diving there is called ‘muck’ diving. I soon experienced what that meant. We were about 8 people and the idea seemed to be to find the smallest possible animal and to get big time excited about it. I once was staring for a couple of minutes at something that seemed to me like a twig of about 3 centimeters in length. Judging by the enthusiastic reaction of my co-divers it was not (it’s called a ‘nudie branch’) I’ve got great respect for people who know a lot about animals, but I can only identify elephant, lion and giraffe, leaving me to be a social outcast in the post-dive discussions. I guess it would have been the same if I would have joined a group of coin or stamp collectors. With one big difference: I loved every part of it!


The information

> I must have been around 17 years old and it was a warm summer holiday in the South of France. Just shortly before I had picked up a book in the library of my small hometown in The Netherlands. It had a nice picture on the cover with an image I had seen before. The book was called ‘Chaos’ and was written by James Gleick. I read and re-read the book more than five times during that holiday and the weeks that followed. Some of the math in the book exceeded my knowledge, but the story resonated in a way that only ‘The Internet’ would in the two decades that followed.
> > James Gleick published several other books, mostly below my radar. But suddenly the book appeared into focus: ‘The Information, a history, a theory, a flood’. I bought it for my Kindle (ebook) and forgot about with good reason as I was reading the (brilliant) ‘Zero history’ by William Gibson at that time, something that wasn’t to be interrupted. When an old friend mailed me a review and I had just finished ‘Zero history’, I started reading immediately.
> > According to my ebook I’ve only finished 16% of The Information, still, I fully recommend this book. We’re living in the ‘information age’ and we don’t even know what information is. James Gleick won’t provide you the ‘final’ answer, but he will enlighten you with a thoughtfully written and extremely well researched book, written in a style that makes this deep subject as exciting as ‘pageturner’ novel.

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0375423729


Hell in paradise

Once you travel a bit in Asia there are several things that are pervasive: WWF wrestling, overacted TV soaps and street dogs.

I’ve seen many a type of street dog: the ‘faithful’ that accompanies you for hours, the ‘old fighter’ which can still chew a nice leg, the ‘ambitious king-to-be’ which is always ready to fight, and the ‘ugly one’.

This dog is one of the latter category. Without hair except for the top of his back (where he can’t reach with scratching), bite wounds on his nose, and a friendly smile that would melt a heart made of stone. This dog lives in ‘heaven’: right next to a $400 / night resort on an island that would be disqualified for a Bounty commercial as it is unbelievably pretty. He seemed quite happy.


My life isn’t easy! ;-)

Rumor has it that I have an easy life on this trip. However, these friends and family members can’t be more wrong.

Long term travel involves endlessly packing your stuff, finding something new to do, finding a new place to sleep, loads of scary stuff and exhausting activities….

I had no idea what else I could do here except climb Mt Kinabalu. I met several people who spoke highly of the diving possibilities. Not deterred by any advance planning, I immediately took the first bus after climbing the highest mountain of South East Asia. Sitting on a cramped bus for 7 hours wasn’t a smart idea. Massive muscle ache was the result.

The first of my diving course on Mabul was actually a full day of studying inside a room at 30 degrees without aircon. My ‘hotel’ was a crappy house on the water. The next day, I remembered why I had never dived again after doing it once in Egypt. Claustrophobic feelings when I went under water hooked up to a machine that I didn’t understand, a leaking mask that I didn’t manage to clear. I wondered why I was paying for this stuff, wasn’t my trip supposed to be fun? My diving experience was of to a bad start.

Things changed quickly though. The locals are amazingly friendly, the fellow divers are fun and the diving is truly amazing. On my first two trips I was fortunate to see a turtle that would make a great soup for an entire medium-sized village, a 1.2 meter long fish and god knows how many other small and big water animals (I’ll never know their names). I also realized that it had been ‘ages’ since I had been at a beach (which is quite an achievement in south east Asia). So I confess: It takes 45 minutes to walk around ‘my’ island. The room including all meals cost 20 euro/night. I’ve got my PADI ‘open water diving’ certificate and have scheduled several ‘fun’ dives. Now life is easy!

No mountain high enough

I woke up in Kuala Lumpur (‘KL’ for insiders) with the idea to do some hiking/trekking. I quickly found out that there were 2 good spots, spot one was a nice nature park in the north of Malaysia, spot two was on Borneo: Mt Kinabalu, the highest mountain in south east Asia.

Those who know me a bit, will know which option I chose. I packed my stuff and went to KL airport and bought a ticket on the first plane to Borneo. Only then I remembered what happened two days ago: I was walking from one site to another in KL and due to the excruciating pain in my left leg I had to sit down after only 1 hour of walking. As it was at the exact location where a motorbike had ran into during the water festival in Laos, I went to the hospital for X-rays as the pain was only getting worse. Nothing broken fortunately, but the advice was to ‘take it easy’. And there I stood at the airport with my boarding pass for Borneo.

The first day on Mt Kinabalu went relatively smooth. But that night I wasn’t able to sleep due to the altitude and adrenaline. The wake up at 02.15 (!) in order to be on time for sunrise was a very tough one. Together with another Dutch guy we were advised to leave last (as we had been quite fast the previous day) as otherwise we’d be to early on the freezing top of the mountain. We soon noticed the disadvantage of starting last: we had to overtake large groups of Japanese on a very small trail. Which was pretty ok until the trail gave way to solid granite and there was just one rope to hold on to. Needless to say that all this happened in the pitch dark. And the only light came from ‘hands free’ torches, actually making it easier to climb in the dark than during the day. I won’t easily forget the view from the top of the mountain on the ‘caravan’ of lights from our co-climbers.

Five persons out of 199 made it before us to the top (not bad for a 37 year old who doesn’t do any sports). The top was windy, cold, and even became crowded, but damn it was beautiful. High above the clouds, on a granite rock, we could clearly see the ocean tens of kilometers away. I was happy that after over 6 months of traveling, I could still be amazed by climbing a mountain. The descent was hell. With no other objective than to come home in one piece, the 8 kilometer downhill route took us 7 hours. And we were completely exhausted when we arrived at the bottom of the hill.