“Our extended time in Borneo, the Philippines and Indonesia was, for each of us, a special time. Sailing in this location reminded us of our adventures in the Red Sea, where we were on the cusp of untamed and wild third-world countries, where the people do not value western culture over their own and subsistence living is the norm. In Borneo we had to once more adapt, in the Philippines we found an island culture that for me was almost paradise, idealic sailing in remote locations with the absolute need for us to sink into the local culture to get by. When we then made our way south through the eastern islands of Indonesia it all changed again, there was no sailing or tourism infrastructure, just a vast seafaring country with incredibly friendly people…” Dave
Borneo – the name conjures up images of jungle explorers, Tarzan of the apes, orangoutangs, asian elephants, bow & arrow wielding natives along meandering river banks lined with crocodiles and lost tribes of pygmies hiding in unexplored rainforests. Magical Borneo is all of these. When we sailed Sänna to Kota Kinabalu in northern Borneo all of this world just opened up. Kota Kinabalu is very much the centre of tourism for the huge Sabah region, every tourist to Sabah arrives there and it’s the base from which everything happens – but you don’t have to travel far from Kota Kinabalu before you are in rich first-growth jungle and wild remote forests.
We’d already spent a short time in Labuan, the island located off oil-rich Brunei, having arrived there after an incident led five day sail from Singapore to fix up our engine. There we met Neil, the Yorkshireman who’d made his home in Labuan, who arranged for our tow into the harbour after our hair-raising entry to drop anchor under sail. Our engine problems turned out to be bad fuel which had screwed up our filters and diesel tank, with Neil’s help we were soon on our way from Labuan’s somewhat decrepit harbour – the same harbour that finally broke up a few months later under the ravages of typhoon Elias, a category three hurricane which unusually made its way a long way south of the normal north pacific hurricane belt.
In Kota Kinabalu we were once again joined by Henry and my youngest daughter Louise, normal onboard schooling resumed intermingled with exciting trips into the jungle to partake in jungle survival lessons deep in the rainforests – a rude awakening for us in that we were required to eat toads, frogs, snakes and bushmeat to re-enact survival techniques should we ever get lost in the rainforests – not a usual problem when travelling onboard a seagoing sailboat.
We planned to haul Sänna from the water to complete more hull work, to replace the anchor windlass and chain, and more importantly, to drop our rudder to replace much worn bearings. This was not easy work, we therefore arranged to sail north to a small Chinese-run boatyard that primarily repaired local fishing boats, the yard told us they could easily haul us which, surprisingly, they could. So we made our way to the northern coast of Sabah to Kudat, a real den of a location which we viewed with shock and horror when we first arrived. Kudat was rough, so Marie and Henry decided to return to England while Louise chose to make her independent way to Bali in Indonesia – there she would meet her lifelong friend Tash who travelled up from Adelaide in Australia, Natasha and her family, including my old friend Ian, had emigrated from England to Australia a few years before. In the meantime I would stay with Sänna in Kudat to get the work done, I would be joined by my by now good friend Neil and found a small cheap local hotel close to the boatyard to stay in – Sänna would be in no fit state to stay onboard with her rudder out and, anyway, the state of the boatyard and its decrepit facilities did not appeal. In any event, my two month refit stay-over in Kudat turned into an extremely memorable experience. I got to treasure my time with Neil – his numerous friends of dubious reputation even extended into the boatyard with other vessels in there undergoing repairs.
Also in Kudat boatyard, at the same time, was the infamous Norwegian yacht Berserk with her crew of five tough Arctic explorers. I got to know Berserk and her rebellious crew well, they were making their long way south into the southern ocean to the Antarctic, they’d rammed into something in the water having transited the northwest passage into the pacific, their prop-shaft now needed urgent repairs before they could continue and they were now hauled out of the water next to Sänna. Jarle Andhøy, skipper of Berserk was a hugely controversial figure, he gave no care to authority, generally entered restricted regions of the Arctic and Antarctic without permits or authorisation. Berserk had previously been chased through the northwest passage by the Canadian navy, finally being arrested by the coastguard before making his escape in the dead of night to freedom aided by his equally wild crew. Sadly, Berserk was lost with all hands off the coast of Antarctica with the exception of Andhøy and one of his crew, they had ventured onto the ice at the time to make their illegal attempt to reach the South Pole. You can read the incredible story of Berserk and her crew here.
In the event my time with Andhøy and his crew, Neil and a half-dozen other renegade vessel owners in the boatyard more often ended in the worker’s canteen for early-doors beers, delicious Malay food and riotous evening celebrations that usually ended with the Norwegians being surrounded by gangs of local Malay girls eager for vigorous viking company. And my early-morning sojourns with Neil for a local Malay breakfast of nasi lemak, downed with Sabah-grown farmer’s coffee were, and still are, memorable. Two hour breakfast in the company of Neil’s many friends of various nationalities were not uncommon – in particular the Frenchman Francois whose own exploration vessel was in the yard for major repairs and dubious equipment upgrades – Francois was determined to find the lost city of Atlantis which he truly believed was to be found in the South China Sea off the seaboard of northeast Borneo. These were truly treasure days.
In the yard we suffered a serious setback. Our new anchor chain and windlass arrived without problems from Singapore, but not our much-needed new rudder bearing from Italy. Well, it did arrive but it was the wrong diameter size to fit our rudder stock – we’d waited six weeks for this special delivery from Europe. It was fifteen millimetres oversized in diameter, manufactured from high quality 316 stainless steel and absolutely critical for our relaunch. This was a major problem, it was the fault of the dealer back in the UK who totally fucked up. Marie and Henry were due to return shortly, no way could they stay onboard in the rat-infested yard nor would they find downtown Kudat endearing. So Neil and I went to see Mr Wong, the overall-clad Chinaman who owned the boatyard. Not to worry, he told us. The yard and it’s men had recently illegally salvaged a wrecked WW2 US gunboat from the seabed, he had stored ample supplies of 316 stainless manufactured to high quality US standards, in the yard was his own workshops manned by Chinese cigarette smoking workmen using lathes and machinery of Japanese vintage manufacture – the machines were old, also WW2, left by the fleeing Japanese when they were defeated in their occupation of Borneo during the war. Mr Wong gave the complex bearing arrangement to one of his Chinese lathe operators who worked through the night, who told us to come back the next morning after breakfast when it would be ready. The next day Wongy presented an exact copy of the bearing which fitted precisely onto our rudder stock with absolute precision – Neil carefully examined the bearing beforehand and declared it better than the original.
Marie and Henry arrived back in Kudat and we launched. Everything was well. By now it was mid-July and the beginning of Henry’s English school holidays, we would have a good two months together and we had a real adventure planned. On the north coast, close to the historic colonial town of Sandakan, is the estuary of the long Kinabatangan Jungle River, a winding 350 mile watercourse that flows through the remotest and densest of Borneo’s jungle rainforest – the second longest river in Borneo. Whilst on anchor in Sandakan we learned it was possible to traverse the treacherous sandbanks of the estuary entrance to enter the river, which was then navigable for nearly two hundred miles, although overhead power lines in the small village of Tangulap prevented the passage of tall masted vessels further. Even so, in the current dry season when the river isn’t flooded by incessant rainstorms and debris, we could make more than a hundred miles upstream. This was wildest Borneo, the natural jungle habitat of many wildlife species including orangoutangs, numerous types of monkeys, pygmy elephants and Sumatran tigers – and numerous saltwater and freshwater crocodiles. In no way could we miss this amazing opportunity but, we were warned, the estuary entrance was treacherous. So it proved.
The river entrance is shallow sandbanks forever moving and shifting. Local fishermen in Sandakan told us they marked the deeper channels with wooden stakes but these were constantly being washed out by fast flowing currents. Nevertheless, there were routes through the estuary sandbar, it was a case of feeling your way through guided by what stakes were still there. We grounded almost straightaway, it was a worrying feeling knowing that it was high tide – soon the tide would be falling leaving us stranded. Marie and Henry stood on the bows trying to see a way through the different murky-coloured waters that suggested possible deeper passages but for now we were well and truly stuck. I revved our Volvo Penta engine at maximum in both forward and reverse. Nothing, we didn’t move. Marie said the tide was still rising slightly and that we might in fifteen minutes or so get enough extra water to free us. She was right, I revved the engine again and we drifted off into the channel only to be caught by the current and ground yet again on another hidden bank. I was seriously worried, there were no channel stake markers that we could see, we began to lean heavily to starboard which was not a good sign. I throttled to full revs, the current caught our bows to push us off once more, I kept the engine on high revs to make sure the current didn’t overly exert control and we made progress through what Marie said was probably the channel. We were ok, we followed the river course around to the left toward the mangroves where the fishermen had told us was always deeper water. Always stay where the mangroves are, they said.
We were through the entrance, the currents slackened and our depth sounder showed eight to ten metres of water under our keel. Anchoring overnight meant finding slack water outside of the current flow, which required us to find a sandbank with enough depth to drop anchor. The mangrove sides of the river meant deeper water and faster currents, too much of a risk close into shore, particularly with the amount of river debris and logs we were encountering. We found our first night anchorage around eight miles upriver. The next morning, in bright sunshine, we set off with Henry as lookout on the bows while Marie cooked up breakfast. The river meandered with many bends to negotiate but by now I was an expert Kinabatangan helmsman, the trick was to stay outside on the bends where the faster currents dug out deeper channels, inside were shallower depths and the dreaded sandbanks. The estuary mangroves soon gave way to green forest and from time to time we passed small fishing villages where kids would run along the banks waving and shouting – I told Henry to keep a keen lookout for dart-blowing natives with bows and arrows, advice which he took too literally with rather a lot of enthusiasm – we all three had a wonderful time.
By the second night we were nearly thirty-five miles upriver. We anchored close into the bank in virgin rainforest and around six at night, as dusk descended, we were rewarded with a tremendous sight. Not fifty foot from us in the overhanging trees, two wild orangoutangs swung indifferently through the trees then sat watching us in unconcerned deference. Tourists flock in large numbers to the orangoutang sanctuaries to see these incredible apes, they are extremely difficult creatures to track down in the wild but the Sandakan fishermen told us we would see them around dusk or early morning when they came to feed from the tree leaves beside the river. Now we sat watching each other, ourselves eating udon noodle soup while they selected and ate the more juiciest of leaves until darkness hid them away. In the morning we rose early but the orangoutangs had gone. We picked up our anchor and left.
Every so often the raw jungle rainforest gave way to huge palm oil plantations, the prime reason hereabouts for extensive forest clearance and the destruction of wildlife habitat – the smell of burning trees and drifting smoke banks was never far away. I’d had many arguments and discussions over this subject back in Kudat, local views drifted starkly between the economic necessities of Borneo, that we Europeans had already cut down our own forests a long time ago when no one cared, and the fact that many of these Borneo logging operations are illegal, driven by corrupt government officials on the take and Chinese owned organisations who fund the loggers and the ever increasing palm oil plantations that creep deep into virgin jungle. There is huge world demand for palm oil, it is a lucrative trade added to by the insatiable demand for the hardwoods cut down to make way for these man-made plantations. It’s all there, the evidence is well and truly visible along the banks of the Kinabatangan river.
Four days later we anchored off the village of Tangulap, we could go no further. A single power line crossed the river, our mast height was too tall. Two years before a French vessel had attempted to pass underneath, they caught the cable bringing it down causing extensive damage to their own vessel and severing power to numerous small villages and farm cooperatives. The French were impounded by the local Sabah government until reparations were paid – under no circumstances were we going to risk this happening to ourselves, possibly we might just have made it through because the dry season water level was lower than the charted depth – but why take the risk? So we anchored off Tangulap taking advantage of the small restaurant there and the hospitality of the local villagers. Then we had a big surprise.
Riding the dingy ashore we were suddenly joined by a local skiff carrying a small group of tourists, they pulled up alongside and a waving smiling couple shouted. It was Dave & Heather, an English couple we had got to know really well back in Singapore in their trimaran Milliways. We had bumped into them once more in Kota Kinabalu, they had crewed for an American yacht owner making his way from Singapore to Borneo for specialist medical attention in Kota Kinabalu. Having helped deliver the yacht they were now backpacking around Borneo as tourists. We pulled up alongside them, they were making their way to a reported sighting of a herd of pygmy elephants a couple of miles south of Tangulap, would we like to join them?
Of course we would, we left our dingy tied up ashore and the three of us jumped into their rented skiff, their guide was more than pleased to accommodate us. It was so good to see Dave & Heather again, they had made really good friends with Henry – Marie was seriously under threat from Heather’s mothering instincts with Dave often taking Henry under his wing. The two months we spent with them in Singapore whilst they fixed up their lightening damage to Milliways still held treasured memories for all of us. With their local guide we soon located the elephants.
The Borneo pygmy elephant is a sub-species of the Asian elephant found throughout India, Sri Lanka and Asia. It’s origins in Borneo are somewhat vague, two primary herds are found in Sabah with further herds in Kalimantan, or Indonesian southern Borneo as it is more commonly referred. As is the case everywhere, numbers in Borneo are dwindling fast, primarily due to habitat loss through deforestation and the scourge of poaching – but illegal logging is once more the prime reason for the destruction of wildlife. In the event, we climbed ashore and our small party quickly tracked the herd as it slowly made its way through jungle undergrowth, they meandered into a clearing in which a small tributary creek flowed. The herd then spent their time drinking and bathing in the fresh clean water. This was a memorable experience, we’d now had the privilege of seeing both elephants and orangoutangs in their natural wild habitat.
We spent the evening with Dave & Heather before they drove the rough track out of Tangulap, we ourselves decided to make our back towards the estuary entrance which was going to take three to four days. There were unseasonably rainstorms threatening, which would seriously affect river levels to put us in potential danger from flood currents and increased debris – in particular huge tree logs left behind by loggers which would hurtle down the river at speed. At worse one of these trees could pull out our anchor chain overnight or even damage Sänna’s hull – in any event, our engine was not powerful enough to combat floodwater currents. So early the next morning we pulled up our anchor and left.
We did not have an easy time leaving the river. Having to wait for high tide to make our way out over the estuary sandbanks, we anchored overnight in the last area of deep water before the estuary. This was on a river bend close into the mangroves, but by now there had been substantial rainfalls in the hilled jungle regions over a hundred miles inland, these waters now flooded the Kinabatangan, the river level was rising fast. More of a problem was the swiftly increasing currents which, we estimated, were now approaching five to six knots – a significant flow of water. This was fine whilst our anchor held us in the currents hurtling around the bend, but should our anchor slip then we could be in serious trouble so close into the mangroves. Our anchor seemed fine for now as daylight faded, but there were worrying amounts of vegetation debris accumulating around our chain which added to the force-weight on our anchor. Should this weed debris increase, or snag and trap heavy logs, then it was only a matter of time before our anchor would begin to drag. To combat this, Marie and myself stayed up the whole night taking turns to free the vegetation from our chain with our long boat hook. Undoubtedly this was our payment debt for our adventurous time on the river, but we managed to keep our anchor secure by taking turns with the hook – however, there was worse to come.
Massively relieved the next morning, we headed out into the estuary to find all the channel markers gone – they had been washet out by the rising flood. Using only our depth sounder for guidance and unable to control our speed with the fast flowing currents, this was a real serious challenge not unlike our groundings on the way in. There was deep enough water but staying in it was our problem – a nearby fishing boat began to shout instructions, their crew standing on their bows pointing the way to go. We couldn’t follow their way out, we couldn’t maintain enough control so Marie stood on our bows searching the water ahead of us. Our keel touched bottom several times, it was soft sandy mud so I wasn’t too concerned at this stage. In the end, I slammed on the engine revs to bump our way out over the last remaining sandbank, it was hair-raising but it worked. In around fifteen minutes we were out into deep water, Marie looked ashen-grey faced, we turned onto a course for Sandakan and a couple of hours later we dropped anchor off the town harbour mightily relieved to be safe.
Eventually leaving Sandakan, we sailed north following the coast back to Kudat, from where we planned to head north into the Philippines…