Stolen Kiss

Stolen Kiss

October 22, 2007

Kinabatangan River and Sandakan, Sabah

Our return to Sabah was always with the intention of re-launching Stolen Kiss (she had been on the hard at Kudat for 5 months) and going up the mighty Kinabatangan River, the largest in Sabah. Near its mouth the Kinabatangan meanders across the large flood plain it has created, resulting in many oxbow lakes. The upper reaches can be in flood with no effect on the lower parts of the river. Good to know in case of some huge rains!

Peter arrived back a week or so before me, antifouling the bottom and doing a few other jobs. He met me in Kota Kinabalu where we stayed in Fiona’s (our dentist) condo and enjoyed some fantastic meals with her parents. They are a Chinese family; her father having been a highly respected Minister of Parliament, holding two degrees and speaking 6 languages. There are 6 children in the family and they have more degrees than a thermometer! A wonderful, warm, fun family. We hosted them on Stolen Kiss at a later date. They are intrigued by our lifestyle and what we do all day in such a small space!

Yusoff was the ‘yachtie’ contact as a driver between Kudat and KK as he had a reputation for being a safe driver. Of course, this is not so during Ramadan! As the afternoon progressed on our journey to Kudat, his driving became progressively worse. Peter told him off for passing a car on a blind corner and we were wishing the time to hurry up for 6 minutes past 6pm – when he could stop and drink and have something to eat! He explained to Peter that his eyes and his judgment were not as good during Ramadan as he needed to eat! As he liked to turn and face you when he is talking to you, we decided to keep quiet as we figured what eye sight he had; it was best focused on the road. Peter (skipper of Australian Cat, Zosha, whom we met) and his crew, Stuart, had noted similar behaviour in Kashmir and Morocco in their travels. Now they tell us!

We had the track of another yacht that had gone up the river a year or so ago, so we knew the best place to cross the bar and where to make the turns in the river system. The main entrance to the Kinabatangan is 45 miles around the coast, but Lifeline (a converted Tassie fishing boat) had followed some barges out of another river, joining the Kinabatangan, which has its mouth just north of Sandakan. A shorter route to follow!

The Kinabatangan is a major river, which for us is navigable for 30 miles as there are now power lines at the town of Sakau. Although there is not a lot of jungle left due to illegal logging, what is left is beautiful, stunning forest alive with wildlife. The river twists and turns and flows gently when not in flood. In some places it is very deep and others only a few metres, affording good anchorages anywhere. We found out later (the hard way) that the silt is not good for water pumps!

Trees fetch up to 2000RM each, which is excellent money and the reason for the extensive logging. We read in the local paper of replanting of mangroves by locals and the plan to replant 2 million trees a year in order to start sustainable logging. We only hope this is successful. Locals have no land tenure, so anyone can come and start a tourist resort with permission of a local minister with a little ‘incentive’. Tour guidesappear to show very little responsibility for the environment from which they make a handsome living.

Zainal (a local) works with international scientists and other interest groups, greets yachties and offers a personalized tour. We pay him what we think is a very good price. We get a more accurate picture of what happens along the Kinabatangan. Sometimes Zainal is a lone voice trying to get people to take responsibility for their actions that harm the delicate ecosystem. Wildlife and the river are also threatened by the barges which come to take the palm oil away.

Zainal invited us ashore to meet his wonderful extended family, who prepared a meal for us. He bought all of the 18 children out to Stolen Kiss. We had cold watermelon, which was well received. They were keen to take photos of our family photos!

Orangutans live a life of solitude and can be heard saying something which sounds like ‘0h no’ when they are stressed. Every night they make a new nest in the top of a tree. We saw many nests and heard them – just did not see one. Zainal took us out one morning to see if we could see an orangutan feeding on nipper palm roots. We didn’t see any as we suspect we were too noisy as Peter (Zosha) could not stop talking! (Zosha Peter had met a backpacker at Memorial Park in Sandakan, who accompanied him up the river – a young guy from Perth, who actually went to school with one of the young guys I taught with at St Hildas!)

Elephants often swim across the river – the females surrounding the baby elephants to help them swim. There are over 100 elephants that are divided into three groups, but unfortunately something had disturbed them when we were there as they had been moving at a faster pace. They are pygmy elephants, only found in Borneo. Even so, they are still large and the males have tusks. Sometimes the tour guides drive the boats too close if the elephants are swimming and some have been found drowned. The locals know how to approach the animals, but the tour guides are from the cities and appear to be more interested in keeping the customers happy.

Proboscis monkeys are also only native to Borneo. They live in groups – either with one male and several females/babies - a ‘harem’ or with one alpha and several lesser males and many females/babies. The males are distinguished by their larger size, larger nose and of course, their very large bright red penis! They spend the days inland sheltering in the trees and nights in trees by the river, so as to provide more protection from their predators – ‘cats’ and pythons. We anchored next to a troupe one night and sat for hours watching their behaviour. They are amazing jumpers and just hang in the trees without falling out! The larger ones would sit and stare back at us. We anchored as close to the bank as we dared, hoping to be out of reach of the wildlife! We spent hours in our cockpit watching their antics.

At this anchorage were also millions of fire flies that glow in the dark. The males attract females via their glowing. The trees looked like they had Xmas lights on as the twinkled when the flies moved! We did have inside knowledge about this spot!

There are also many macaques, which also live in troupes. They feed on fruit and river prawns (which are larger than tiger prawns!). Up and down the river there are many sticks just out from the bank, with prawn traps attached. These are checked on a daily basis. The fishermen have to hide the strings due to the macaques emptying their traps. We watched one male doing this. He was strong enough to hold on to the stick with one hand and pull the trap up by the string in the other. He managed to open the top then dived in to get the prawns. We thought he would disappear in the trap and drown has he went head first into the trap and into the water. However, he was successful and kept repeating the process until he thought he was done.

Using our river knowledge we anchored every night just down from the inside bend going up river where we are safe from river traffic. This proved fortuitous as an illegal log barge passed us one night. Two tugs towing a very long line of logs. Not sure how the logs were contained, but the tow was about 500m long. Somehow they got around the bends! We heard them coming quite a distance away and saw their flashlights. We turned on our floods, nav lights and flashing blue light just to make sure they saw us!

The small river boats are just big enough for a 15 year old boy to sit in. They have a small inboard motor and are steered by leaning to one side. They only have stop and go speeds, so can be quite dangerous. Despite this the young boys race them around. We were up the river during Hari Raya and the boys from Abai Village had gone up to Sakau to race, returning home triumphant with a large trophy they quickly showed off passing us at great speed.

There are many oxbow lakes as the old river wends its way across the floodplain. Zainal took us one evening up a very narrow channel which opened up into a huge oxbow lake. He had a house there and is going to build another one around the corner. It is full of wildlife – birds, crocodiles, fireflies, orangs and elephants! We sat in here at dusk to listen to all and sundry. We heard them all and sat in front of a mass of trees that came alive with fireflies after sunset. In our excitement we forgot a torch which made getting home a little bit of an adventure.

Lifeline has left excellent information re passage into the Kinabatangan at the Sandakan Yacht Club.

Lankayan Island is one of many islands which form a marine sanctuary where you can watch the baby turtles hatch and be released in the ocean at night. Green and Hawksbill turtles have their breeding grounds here and fisheries personnel collect turtle eggs and place them in a hatchery so that they cannot be stolen. Fishermen are prosecuted for bombing the coral or using cyanide. After bombing a reef, fishermen use a small hose to collect the fish off the bottom. No compressor, no mask. Many have died in the process. Through a large part of Indonesia and Malaysia, many reefs have been destroyed from such activities. We suspect the same will be in some parts of the Philippines.

Local authorities are now working with fishing communities to educate them about the long term effects and develop other industries like tourism to help provide them with an alternative source of income. Of course, this is a long term prospect and their need to feed their families, short term. In the local markets here, you still find small baby turtles, coral and precious shells for sale!

All the recommended anchorages along the north coast provide shelter from NE but not from SW squalls. This was to be interesting as we were nearing the end of the SW monsoon and this would be the most likely direction of any adverse weather. We spent the best part of one night (it was only actually two hours but I sat waiting for the squall to hit us as we could see it forming and moving ever so slowly in our direction) in our first squall, which was only 20 knots, anchored on a lee shore. Other nights we decided to up anchor to wander to a new home protected from the SW. A bit like wandering around with your pillow looking for a place to sleep! This was probably not the best decision, but one which was made easier with electronic charts that are accurate.

As the pilot book stated, the first sight of Sandakan Harbour is the very conspicuous cliffs of Berhala Island at the entrance. This is where some of the POW's were interned and was also a leper colony. Getting there from our last anchorage at Gullisaan Island (a mere 20 nm) proved to be a bit of an obstacle course, albeit interesting as we had to wend our way through bamboo fish traps, of a type we had not seen before. There were a few fishermen attending to the traps. As some had Malay flags and some Philippine flags we were not sure in which country we were in. We knew we were very close to the border, not that it mattered.

We did have a few pucker factor moments, like having to up anchor in Sandakan Harbour anchorage (at 10pm) with concrete walls behind us that became a lee shore. As we were pulling up the anchor in mid squall, the bow (and Peter!) were buried in a short, steep chop kicked up by the squall. We had to use a lot of engine revs to make any forward motion away from the sea wall. Being happy that we had moved anchor earlier to make some room between ourselves and Zosha, we once again in the middle of a black night, wandered across to the other side of the bay, (with Zosha close behind) which offered protected from the SE, dropped anchor, enjoyed the calm and finally, a sleep. The storm lasted 6 hours, going round in circles, seemingly trapped between the hills. Zosha had called Yela (in Sutra Harbour, KK) who said they had a storm as well which had 50 knots of breeze. I guess we got the tail end as we only had up to 30 knots. Sandakan was an interesting town to visit and had the best market we have seen in Sabah. Perhaps its because it is all new!

We visited Memorial Park and sat down where the Australian POW camp was trying to fathom all that had happened during Japanese occupation and the death march. Agnes Keith, an American woman who was interned in Sandakan with her baby son, has written two excellet books 'Three Came Home' and 'Land below the Wind', which are recognised as having a tremendous historical contribution in the account of the life in Sandakan pre and post World War 2. During the settled weather, the Yacht Club pool did provided a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Wifi and cheap beer was aslo welcomed! As there were storms around, we decided to leave Sandakan prematurely, sailing once again through the unusual fish farms.

On the return journey, we decided on the inland route and managed to find some fantastic anchorages behind reef and in a natural harbour. The anchorage at Banggi Island was the gem that we found and in particular, Mitford Harbour, which would make a great typhoon/bad weather anchorage if we need one on the way to the Philippines.

You can actually day sail from KK to Subic Bay in the north of the Philippines, then a few overnight sails and you are in Japan! Since reading the pilot for the area, we have discovered the write up on the entrances to Mitford Harbour anchorage. It is surrounded by beautiful hills – some grassy slopes and others covered in jungle. The harbour is between the very large main island and a series of other islands with protection from the elements by a series of reef systems. There are some small villages dotted along the shores as some boats passed us at anchor. The main town is small and has some local restaurants that sell basic Malay food along the pier. Peter had discovered a glitch in the water maker which translated into having a small water shortage on board! We had not thought to fill our tanks from the squalls. There were many showers around Banggi, but unfortunately not over the boat! Wanting a long shower, armed with shampoo, we went off in the dinghy to sit in the rain. Alas, by the time we got there the shower had stopped! The wind finally changed, allowing us to go the final 25 miles back to Kudat, where we stayed for another week.

It took us two attempts to get around the tip of Borneo (like all great capes that seem to attract a lot of wind!) as the wind was still SW and a rather large swell. The other shackle on the centre board had broken, so our wait did allow Peter to go over the side and replace it. Just a small obstacle to over come first as the board had slammed down and jammed. The 100 miles back to KK provided a little challenge, spending 6 hours motoring through a 2-3 m SW swell, (the course we needed was 210!) with winds from 10 to 25 knots. The seas were walls of water, one boat length apart with no backs, hence allowing us to go up one wave only for our bow to be greeted by another, which rolled over us. Our speed was reduced for a great part, to 2 knots. As we always say, warm and wet is much more acceptable than cold and wet! We had met up with a large tow at the tip of Borneo, and we kept crossing him and sometimes the reverse. He kept a slow and steady pace whilst we were tacking in and out. Our intended anchorage was Usukan Bay, a deep protected bay. We wandered in at 2330, found a nice little patch between the tugs and local fishing boats, had dinner and fell into our bunks.

We will be in Sutera Harbour Marina, KK for 3 months during the wet and not so pleasant start of the NE monsoon, after which we will make our way to the Philippines. Peter is working his way through the boat re-painting the white surfaces and we are off to Laos in December with Laura and Randy from Pollen Path. There are no complaints as we are in between two 5 star resorts, have great neighbours with a sense of humour, 7 pools to choose from, a movie theatre, laundry service at 70 cents/kilo and a courtesy bus to town every hour. Oh, yes, and the gym, which we visit every day. Peter is aiming for his young buffed self (inspired by Barns!).

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