Borneo: Sun, Wind, Water, and Fire

We woke up later than usual today and enjoyed what can only be called an epic breakfast at the hotel. I could write an entire post about it but since I’m guessing you have other things you’re curious about I will just say that there was a chocolate fountain. At breakfast. How can we ever go back to corn flakes after this? I’m really asking.

We had a truly amazing day here at the Shangri-La. We spent the morning doing water sports like banana boating, water skiing, and sailing on a catamaran. It was a blast. (A couple folks who wanted to try water skiing but didn’t get a chance today will go tomorrow morning!) We enjoyed swimming in the warm ocean water (with very few jellyfish sightings!) and lounging by the pool. Sadly, it seems our sunscreen reapplication did not go as well as I’d hoped so a few of us are a little pink. Nothing too bad but the Renkert Aloe is being put to good use (thank you Melissa and Chris!). The food at the resort continued to wow us at lunch where we feasted on everything from authentic Malaysian cuisine (coconut curry chicken and laksa!) to fried chicken and burgers. We also enjoyed some pretty amazing ice cream. Some of us opted for exotic flavors (coconut and caramel with honeycomb!) and some stuck with old favorites. Our lunch lasted almost two hours and it was so nice to get the chance to catch up with everyone. We talked about water polo season (starting Tuesday—some of our travelers are very excited about this), how much the kids love their advisors, and so much more. After lunch we did more swimming and sailing (taking care to stay in the shade!).

Before dinner we had time for a quick (and gorgeous) photo shoot on the beach during the sunset. After Mr. Seamon got the last shots, the kids ran to the sand to watch the last of the sun dip behind the horizon. Then we took a few minutes to reflect on the trip in our journals. While I haven’t written about journaling in this blog, it’s been a big part of the trip. Tonight the kids were asked what they learned from the trip. We sat in a circle and volunteers shared their reflections with the group. This closing circle (what I call it in theatre) gave me yet another opportunity to see what insightful and caring students we have. They shared specific things about people we’d met along the way that impacted them (for example, a young Dutch woman we met in the KK airport who was travelling alone through Thailand and Malaysia before going to med school), and how much empathy they developed through the trip. At the end they surprised Mr. Seamon and I with cards…it was a pretty beautiful evening.

We didn’t have time to get too emotional because soon the resort show began and we had front row seats. (I don’t know how or why but they put us in the very front and we were pumped.) We were treated to a number of cultural dances that included some pretty special audience participation (yes, there is video) and ended with a display of insane pyrotechnics. (The photos and videos do it more justice than any words could so make sure you check those out!) Some of us were concerned for the dancers and other enthralled. Either way, we left feeling in awe of the brave dancers. It reminded us of our night in the longhouse—the first time we saw a traditional cultural dance here. It felt like we had come full circle.

We took a walk to the beach to see the water at night and even dipped our feet in. (Did I mention that the water is warm?) We spent a few minutes in quiet reflection down at the beach and spent the time marveling at the stars.

Somehow these kiddos lobbied for a later bedtime (11:30!) and wake-up call (8:30!) because they want to spend as much time together as possible tonight. “Haven’t you spent all day for the last 13 days together?” I wanted to say. But I didn’t. Because they care about each other so much and how can we argue if they want to squeeze all they can out of this time?

Borneo Travelers Scale Mt. Kinabalu

Ms. Ditkovski writes:

Today was our last full day in KK. We left the hotel early—a little after 8am—and got on the road to Kinabalu National Park, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park was named a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the immense flora and fauna that call the area home (around 4,500 different species!). At 4,095 meters, Mt. Kinabalu is the tallest peak in Borneo and one regularly frequented by both adventurers and average climbers. We would not be summiting the peak today (next time!), just hanging out at around 1800 m, taking a hike and tour around the visitor’s center.

The two-hour drive up the mountain gave us time to catch up on sleep! About 30 minutes before arriving at the park entrance we stopped at a small market in Pekan Nabalu for souvenirs. We also took the opportunity to enjoy the breathtaking views and, of course, snap a few photos in front of the majestic mountain. We got to see the scraggly peak before it was enveloped by clouds.

Once on the mountain we got oriented and learned about how climbers make the trek to the summit. It typically takes two days and the park rangers are very strict about letting climbers complete the second leg to the top if the weather is not just right. (At lunch we met a group from the UK and Australia who woke at 2am from the base camp hoping to summit the mountain but due to wet weather they were not allowed up.) Our jaws dropped a little when we learned that record holders have made it to the summit in 2-3 hours.

Our guide for the day, Laurien, was amazing. He led us on a short walk through the forest and shared loads of information about the flora and fauna. We learned that many of the plants are used for medicine, food, and are weaving (some for all three!). Laurien also shared some great information on the 33 tribes that inhabit the area around the mountain. While the tribes have converted to Christianity, most still practice a form of their indigenous religions which involve a strong connection to the mountain. In order to keep the mountain calm, you must honor the gods and live a god life. In a very seismically active area, it seems like good practice to stay in the good graces of the mountain! Laurien also talked about how thousands of years ago the Shaman in the area discovered the medicinal properties of the plants. While the villagers now have modern medicine, some still rely on these ancient plant cures. After our walk through the forest we made our way to the Botanic Garden in the park and saw even more amazing flora and fauna. My personal favorite was seeing the pitcher plants, a carnivorous plant that provided some of the inspiration for the musical Little Shop of Horrors. We had an amazing lunch in the park and then had a short tour of the Mt. Kinabalu Natural History Gallery.

Laurien was incredibly knowledgeable about everything Mt. Kinabalu related. His insight on the flora and fauna, the wildlife, and the tribes who call the foothills home gave us an in-depth picture of life on the mountain. Even though he was only with us for a short time, in gratitude for his awesome guiding we gave him a trip shirt at the end of the day.

We made it back to KK at around 4:45 and were back out in an hour to climb the famous lookout in the city. It proved to be the perfect spot for a sunset photoshoot. We had another amazing dinner in the hotel. We have an early flight tomorrow so only six of us elected to explore the night market again. This time we went a little further and discovered endless stalls that went on for blocks. The market was bustling with sounds, sights, and smells new to us. We even happened to catch the evening call to prayer at a mosque next to the market.

We ended the day early as we will be up at 4 a.m. to make our 6:30 flight to Sandakan where the jungles of Southeast Sabah await!

Borneo Crew Explores Jungle Caves

Mr. Seamon writes:

There are no roads to the Jurassic.

Our day started early, but the kids were all on time for our 4:45 a.m. gathering in the hotel lobby. After munching on our boxed breakfasts, Ham arrived with the van and we gave him a trip shirt as a thank you for all of his amazing work. Out on the roads of Kuching, we ran into zero traffic and made it to the airport in under 15 minutes, only to discover our flight had been canceled not long before we arrived. Ham sprung into action and connected with a gate agent. Not only after we were booked on a direct flight to Mulu leaving in the early afternoon.

Since we had to pickup our tickets in person, we stuck around in the airport, primarily based at a very comfortable Starbucks. The kids played lots of card games and were wonderfully social. We got another round of local food at one of the airport restaurants, got our tickets, checked in, then made it to our gate for a little more relaxation time. Shortly after 1 p.m. we were in the air on our 90 minute journey to Mulu. As the plane descended, we got our first views of the riotously green landscape dotted with mountains and rivers. No roads seemed to be in sight. After touching down at the small airport, we walked out into the 90 degree humid heat with open arms. We watched as our bags were rolled to the terminal. Ah, the fantastic joys of small airports.

Outside the one room terminal, we were greeted by Mac, our guide. He had us pile up our bags for delivery to the hotel and had lunch ready for us right there. After a bit of repacking of day packs, we got in an open-backed bus and got on the road to the park. 10 minutes later we arrived and started the 3 km walk through the jungle to the Lang and Deer caves. Along the way Mac told us about the local vegetation and wildlife. Our first loop was through the Lang caves which are layered with a stunning collection of stalactites and stalagmites. Mac told us about the geology of the space as we walked through what seemed like another world.

We then looped over to Deer Cave, one of the largest caves in all of Asia. The overall size of the cave is hard to take in. The entrance is a wide mouth of white limestone, almost totally enveloped by lush green. The wooden path took us looping along the edge and into the cave. Inside we could hear the sound of the fleets of bats very high up on the ceiling. And by a fleet, I mean 3 million bats! Mac told us more about the cave, the bats, and the other animals that spend time in the cave. Our path took us about km into the cave, but since it’s so big, it’s lit with natural light from the huge opening for most of the way.

We then took the wooden pathway back towards the entrance of the park, to a seating area where we joined about 60 other people waiting for the bats to leave the cave for their nightly feeding. Just before 6pm large globular waves of bats started leaving the cave in twirling corkscrew formations that were absolutely memorizing. We joined in with the rest of the gathering in various forms of Ooohs! and Ahhhs! As the masses of bats leaving the cave became larger. It was quite a sight. When the last large group of bats had swirled away, we walked the remaining 2 km back to the entrance of the park and were quickly met by a transport lorry which took us on a 5 minute ride to our hotel.

The Mulu Marriott Resort Hotel is absolutely stunning. We took a wooden bridge across the river to the unloading area and sat down in the lobby, which is more like a large open area pavilion The jungles comes right up to the walkways wherever you go on the compound! In the lobby Ms. Ditkovski got to meet up with the older brother of one of her best childhood friends who just happened to be in Mulu at the same time! It’s a super small world. We were then taken to our rooms, which were all in one of the clusters of rooms joined by walkways through the forest. Whoa.

Everyone was then given some time to get cleaned up and meet back in front of the rooms. When we all met up we were pretty giddy about the rooms and the entire place! We then walked to the hotel’s restaurant and dove into a truly epic buffet dinner where everyone got completely stuffed. We enjoyed more awesome conversations over dinner, chatted for a little bit by the pool (we’ll swim in it and a local river tomorrow!), and then headed back to our rooms.

The kids all socialized in one room for a bit before heading back to their rooms at 10 to crash. We can’t wait for our second day in this special Jurassic World come alive.

In Borneo, Roosters, Blowdarts, and, Surprise, Orangutans!

Ms. Ditkovski writes:

We awoke at about 5 a.m. to the sound of the roosters. This Los Angeles native was under the impression that roosters crow only once, but as we learned this morning there is a good two-three hours of crowing. The early morning light was breathtaking as the sun rose over the longhouse and the surrounding water. We soon ate breakfast (Ham’s French Toast is perhaps the best we’ve ever had in our lives), packed up our things, got a few souvenirs (one of the ways the Iban earn a living) and headed down for our last activity at the longhouse: a blowdart demonstration. This was the primary way the Iban people hunted for game and also killed enemies. They learned this skill from another tribe from what is now Indonesia (the name of the tribe escapes me). We each took turns attempting to hit our target (never fear—it was a leaf!). Turns out we have excellent aim. We said our thank you’s and goodbyes (some of us in the local dialect!) to our hosts.

We all savored the journey across the reservoir again knowing it would be our last time taking that beautiful trip across the river. While everyone was ready to get back to the hotel and shower, Mr. Seamon and I had a little trick up our sleeves. It turns out that an orangutan sanctuary was pretty much on our way back to Kuching, and we surprised the kids by making a stop. It was out of this world. Not only did we see a mama feeding its baby, we actually walked past an adult male on the trail.

Back at the LimeTree hotel in Kuching we had a couple hours to rest before dinner. We all met down in the lobby at 6:45 where we journaled for a bit and we went over our plans for the next couple days. At 7:15 Ham picked us up and we drove the short distance to our dinner spot where we enjoyed eating another meal of various dishes that we all shared. Dinner conversation was particularly lively as was the energy level in the van on the ride home. Even though everyone is rather exhausted from our long day, we’re having so much fun it’s hard not to always be leaning into all activities at full tilt! Everyone is now back in their rooms getting packed up and prepped for our very early departure tomorrow morning. Mulu, here we come!

See more photos here.

Borneo Travelers Take Off

Nine Williston students are on their way to Borneo for a spring break travel adventure. Accompanied by Math Department Chair Josh Seamon and theater teacher Emily Ditkovski, the group will spend time exploring the city of Kuching, swimming in rivers, visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, viewing coral reefs around Coral Island and spending time at Lang Cave at Mulu National Park.


Follow their progress here!