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Review: Caledonian Sky

Cruise - Expedition Cruise

Circumnavigation of Borneo

  • By SilverTraveller Holland

    35 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon

  • Apr 2013
  • Solo
  • Getting to another destination
  • Outside

27 people found this review helpful

From Travel News in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday in early March: “A region of Malaysia has been declared off limits because of fighting between militants and government troops. British travellers have been warned to avoid parts of Sabah, on the island of Borneo following the outbreak of violence. Followers of an exiled Filipino sultan landed in Sabah in February, seeking to revive a historical claim to the region”.



Oh dear…..Obviously this meant a revision of our itinerary as our group was due to fly to Sandakan, in the north east of Borneo to meet our ship, the Caledonian Sky. Expedition tour operators are accustomed to changing itineraries to avoid political or natural disasters (remember the Icelandic volcanic ash clouds?) and Noble-Caledonia sent a revised itinerary shortly before departure. Unfortunately this meant we were no longer able to visit the Sepilok orang-utan sanctuary, one of the better rehabilitation centres in Borneo. Once on board the ship we were told we were also not going to visit Tanjung Puting National Park and Camp Leakey, claimed by Lonely Planet guide book to be “the major highlight of Borneo” due to the mouth of the river, along which we were to travel in local boats, had not been sufficiently dredged. But we were assured that alternative visits ashore would be arranged.



We joined the ship at Kota Kinabalu, on the north west of Borneo and, although still in Sabah, not affected by the fighting in the north east of the island. Day One was a full day at sea to catch up with the original itinerary and there were a couple of mandatory lectures, on how to get in and out of the zodiacs (inflatable dinghies) and how to put on and use the snorkel gear. Also lectures on Birds of Borneo and Coral Reefs which we were to see on our cruise.



Our first visit ashore was to Pulau Kakaban known for its lake with non-stinging jelly fish then back to the beach for swimming and snorkelling. Our Australian captain, Frank Allica, knows this area around Borneo very well and is apparently very co-operative at finding extra places for us to visit and our little ship (approx 100 passengers) is able to sneak into places that big cruise ships can only dream about. Or see on a David Attenborough film. Next morning we had an early call at 5.30 a.m. and went in the zodiacs up a river looking for wildlife. We saw some proboscis monkeys; well I only saw one and a lot of shaking branches high in the trees. At lunchtime there was a ceremony on board ship as we crossed the equator. Neptune exhorted us all to behave or we would end up in the sea. Or something.



A full day to Samboja, on the mainland, started with a pleasant zodiac ride along a river passing initially through villages with houses on stilts and lots of waving inhabitants, then on through a tree lined area and monkeys leaping about in the trees. On to buses and a drive to the Samboja Lestari orang-utan sanctuary. By now it had started to rain and didn’t let up all day; well we were in the rain forest after all. Here our group was split up into smaller groups to see the nursery, larger islands with adult orang-utans, they can’t swim so couldn’t escape from their islands, and also to see some sun bears, the smallest of the nine types of bear in the world. We were, in fact, fortunate that it was raining. If it had been very hot and sunny the apes would have been sheltering in the shade and we would not have seen them. At the “nursery” some girls, wearing face masks to prevent passing on any germs, were teaching young orphaned orang-utans to climb trees, not something they would learn naturally and in the wild would be taught by their mothers with whom they would stay for seven years. One tiny one was only seven months old and very cute. Lots of “aaaahs” from our groups. A sad fact about the sun bears is that they cannot be released back into the wild as there is no wild for them to be released in to.



After another full day at sea we docked at Banjermasin where we were to leave at 4 a.m. to go to the local floating market. After a drive to the local river we boarded “klotoks” local motorised boats – very uncomfortable to get into as they had very low ceilings and we had to bend double and crawl along on hands and knees. I don’t do crawl on hands and knees so shuffled along on my bottom….. four persons in each boat so quite a few of them for our group though some passengers from the ship had opted out of the very early start. The market was very colourful; women were paddling longboats piled with fruit and vegetables and some with eggs, and local big round hats, bought by some of our group. Then it started raining again. After breakfast back on the ship and dried off from the early rain we boarded four buses for a city tour. At this point I should explain that Banjermasin had never seen a cruise ship, albeit a small one, before. We were greeted like royalty and two motorcycle escorts accompanied our city tour with sirens wailing. We raced around the town, whizzing through red lights on the wrong side of the road, scattering traffic coming the other way and pedestrians leaping out of our way. Great fun. The entire tour consisted of one mosque and two souvenir shops. Back at the Arrival Hall by the dock a reception had been arranged for us and we were greeted by a dance show, music, lots of photographers, the mayor and other dignitaries. Speeches of welcome were delivered and replied to by Captain Frank and gifts changed hands. The dancers were very good, boys made up as girls, very energetic and a very long dance which must have taken them ages to learn. The whole thing was filmed and was to be shown on Indonesian national television! Apparently the local newspapers next day reported that Banjermasin had been honoured with a visit by a cruise ship with 600 Americans. Ah well…….



Next day was another full day at sea. In fact a very long day. We had sailed at 3.15 p.m. yesterday afternoon and were not due to reach our next destination, Pulau Tambelan, 625 nautical miles away until 2.30 the next afternoon, 48 hours later. A long time at sea. Despite Lonely Planet saying the sea would be rough around the south and west side of Borneo we had calm seas all the way for two weeks.



At dinner one passenger at my table when asked what he wanted for dessert replied “nothing” Our waiter returned with a plate with the word “Nothing” written in chocolate around the plate. Very clever!



The people of the island of Pulau Tambelan had only been told in the morning of our imminent arrival in the afternoon but the whole village was out to greet us, including the children who had been given time off school. The mayor (again!) gave a speech and explained that although his people had seen Western people on television we were the first they had ever seen in person! And our little Caledonian Sky was the first cruise ship they had ever seen; and indeed would ever be likely to see as this little island is definitely not on the route for the big cruise ships. More dancing by pretty girls in pretty costumes, more speeches, more music, garlands placed round necks and photos taken by one and all. The head of the police, the army, coastguard and several other officials were all spick and span in their uniforms and all stood up when they were introduced. Amazing how they had all got themselves organised and dressed up in the short time they had available from hearing about us to the actual time we arrived. Amongst the passengers on our ship was a charming family with one son who looked a dead ringer for Prince Harry which caused huge excitement amongst the girls on the island who appeared to have an endless supply of mobile phones with which to take his photo. He had to make a mad dash to escape back to the ship! This was our last day in Indonesia for tomorrow we will be back in Malaysia, but this time at the west of Borneo



It was Grand National day today. I asked the Expedition Team if they would be doing a sweepstake but they said they were too busy and would I care to organise it? So I did. There was a lot of enthusiasm and in the end the winner acquired the princely sum of 24 US$. £10 to the second and £7 to the third. Good job we could get the results on the Internet.



Our itinerary said we were to spend two days in Kuching , “Borneo’s most stylish and sophisticated city”, according to Lonely Planet. But in fact we were only there for 2 x half days which = one whole day. The name Kuching means “cat” and there were many statues of cats around the city. Our guide, Lin, was very good. She spoke excellent English was very jolly and informative and much better than the Indonesian guides whom I found very difficult to understand. After dinner there was a Cultural Show on board our ship offered by the Malaysian Tourist Board. Both the men and women wore very elaborate costumes and danced to very pleasant music played on authentic instruments.



We left next morning by bus for the Semenggoh Orang-Utang Wildlife centre. Lin, our excellent guide from yesterday, had a fan club waiting on the quay to join her on Bus A.It was only about 40 minutes drive to the Wildlife Centre then on minibuses to the reception area. Orang-utans were immediately seen. One big male and a female and baby. A ranger went to the forest edge to give them food. These animals are semi wild; they live in the trees but come down for food when there is no natural food/fruit for them to forage. There was a huge crowd of spectators: 100+ of us plus local people and other tourists but the centre was only open until 10 a.m. so mercifully the animals had some peace when we left.



Next day on to Brunei; this tiny sultanate has some of the largest oilfields in South East Asia and the Sultan is said to be one of the richest men in the world but has had the foresight to preserve the country’s rainforests. He can afford to build over 25,000 houses to relocate people from the stilt houses built on the river in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB). Not that they want to be relocated. The port where we docked was some distance from the city centre and the bus I was on went first to a local boat and whizzed off up river where we saw many birds, a few proboscis monkeys and a couple of monitor lizards. Then back to the water village for tea and cakes (!) in one of the stilt houses which look nothing from the outside but remarkably spacious inside with electric light and an almost decent loo. After lunch we visited the Royal Regalia Museum – a celebration of the Sultan and all the trappings of Bruneian royalty. There was a huge recreation of the Sultan’s coronation day parade complete with his carriage pulled and pushed by men. Why no horses I wondered? The sultan plays polo, we were told, and has 200 polo ponies. Not that they would be any use trying to pull a huge carriage. A visit to the Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque entailed shoes off (as always) and women had to put on a long black robe – and jolly hot they were too. Because the current sultan is his dynasty’s 29th ruler, the complex has 29 golden domes and there are 29 steps up to the huge prayer hall.



It only took two hours to sail early the next morning from Brunei back into Malaysia to Labuan, an island which only owns two buses so we were split into morning and afternoon tours. It was here that the Japanese surrendered at the end of the war in 1945. We visited the Commonwealth War Memorial, mainly for Australians who suffered heavy losses in Borneo plus some Indians and British. Then we went on to Surrender Point and Peace Park which was actually built by the Japanese, a very low key monument without any names listed.



There were two options next morning: swim/snorkel or go ashore at Pulau Tiga, a remote island which was made famous (so I was told) as the first secret location for the US reality TV show “Survivor” in 1996. Which I never saw. Given that the Expedition Team said the snorkelling might not be up to much, I opted for the island and a hike through the forest, just over 1 km but 45 minutes to a mud pool where we were to submerge ourselves. Shades of the Flanders & Swan song…… It was very slippery and difficult to get in and out of and the water/mud was quite buoyant and seemed to turn me on my back. All a bit of a laugh; however those of us who braved it put it down to experience. Never to be repeated!! In the afternoon we went on a “Culture and Wildlife Tour” The Lok Kawi Nature Park was no more than a zoo with too many animals in very small cages with no shade or water. Particularly stressful was the sight of elephants, sunbears and tigers pacing up and down. We were all horrified and the Expedition Team rounded us up to leave early. The Cultural Village gave us demonstrations of rice pounding; making fire by rubbing two sticks together (!) blowpipe blowing and eating widgety grubs. It was raining by then and the mosquitoes came out. Finally we saw some human skulls though they couldn’t really be identified as such.



Back to the ship for the photo slideshow of the voyage. This is something which is always presented at the end of an expedition cruise but this time I felt there were too many pictures of the passengers and not enough of the wildlife and places we had seen and visited on our two week circumnavigation of Borneo which had been a very enjoyable and interesting experience.

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