Monday, 31 August 2015

Wednesday 29th July

4:36am - London time!!

Only a little over an hour of the 13 hour flight to go and my feet will be back on English soil. The flight's actually been fairly nice as I managed to sleep for a good chunk of it, and I've entertained myself for the rest of it by finishing my book and watching a couple of films.
     Once we arrive at Heathrow, all that's left to do is to collect our bags and begin the last leg of the journey back to Wymondham where Dad will pick me up. And that will be it. The journey of my life will be over; our expedition to Borneo will be done.
     Only it won't be done, not really. I know it's so cliché, but I know that the past month has seen me grow so, so much as a person. I'm still the same old Soph of course, but for the first time ever, I truly feel like I know what that means. I'm not scared to be myself anymore. I've always been confident and independent in my own way, but also always so shy and insecure; so scared of what others think of me that I've always sacrificed myself slightly in order to 'conform'. But this month... this month has changed everything. Because when you're nearly 7,000 miles away from everything and everyone you know and love, you suddenly realise that the world isn't such a small place as sleepy old Norfolk makes it seem. Outside the boundaries of everything you know lies a whole new world just waiting for you to discover it. It's just up to you to make that choice to go out there and find it.
      I've grown up in the same house in the same town for all of my life, and I've always dreamed of escaping to somewhere new and broadening my horizons, but I was always a little scared. Scared of the unknown mostly. Who knows what big bad monsters are lurking out there in the darkness of uncertainty?
     Now I'm ready. Borneo has showed me that, even when you think you're old and wise beyond your years; when you've fallen into the dangerous trap of being content with the safety of what you know - that's when it's time to move, and to push yourself out there beyond the point which you were so convinced was your limit. I'm not going to pretend that I found every moment of the last month easy, because at times it was the complete opposite, and sometimes, when I was completely exhausted and covered in bites and sweat and mud and feeling like I was ready to drop, I questioned whether I would even make it through to the other side. But I did make it, and sitting here being able to write that is probably one of the proudest moments of my life.
     Borneo taught me how big and magnificent and gloriously intimidating the world out there really is. What does it really matter what those kids in high school thought of you when you can go anywhere you want, as far away from those memories as you like? What does one person who had it in for you matter when there are billions of others living out their lives across the planet, who don't  even know that you exist yet, let alone be bothered by it? What does that time you really embarrassed yourself (okay: many, many times) matter, when it's all so insignificant? In the grand scheme of things, everything is insignificant, and that's what's so great!
     I've grown up in a small little world and suddenly all the walls I thought made up the boundaries of my existence have crumbled into dust and revealed a hundred, a thousand, more paths that I can walk down if I choose to.
     And that's why this journey isn't over. I may now be thousands of miles away from Borneo again, and I may be about to travel back to sleepy Norfolk once more, but it's only temporary. This expedition isn't over because really it's more of a beginning. My eyes are open, my first big adventure in life is complete, and I can't wait for the next one to begin, whatever it may be. Whatever I do, it's my choice which path I take, and for the first time I truly feel in control of my life and what I want to do with it.
    Of course not every second of the last month was the best time of my life. At times I've felt terrible, and spectacularly insecure with no confidence in myself, and completely dependent on those around me. But at other times I've been utterly exhilarated, had my breath completely taken away from me, and I've witnessed the most incredible moments of my little life so far. I can honestly and truthfully say that this has been the best choice I have ever made, and all the stress and hard work that it took to get to this point was so, so worth it, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. It's been the hardest month of my life, and the biggest challenge of my life, but that's the point. And hey, look - I'm still alive!!
    I'm only 18 years old. I'm still very young and I'm so glad for that because I really feel like my life has just begun. My childhood has been the opening credits, and now we're really getting to the action. I'm still the same daughter/granddaughter/friend etc that I was a month ago. I'm still the same person, but now there's a restlessness to go places and do things and never sit still!
     I'm Sophie Nicole Miller. I've always been her, but thanks to Borneo, I think I now truly understand what that means, and I'm ready to take on the world.

Tuesday 28th July


At 9:00 this morning we left the hostel for the final time after a quick breakfast and double-checking that we had everything. From there it's been the beginning of the long journey home. We went through the airport and onto the flight pretty quickly at KK, and around 2:20 we arrived in Singapore.
    Once in Singapore, we were let loose to roam around the airport as we wanted until 10:00pm, when it was agreed that we would all meet up again at the gate. We all found some food (our first priority) and then wandered around to do some shopping. We were entitled to 20 Singapore dollars off of food and another 20 off of cosmetics/duty free because of the length of time that we had to wait for our next flight, so I decided to treat myself once more as a bit of a reward at the end of the trip by buying myself some perfume.
     At 5:00pm, seven of us all went on a bus tour of Singapore to view some of the city. It was free and we had plenty of time to kill so we thought why not?! This did involve us going through immigration so that we could leave the airport and actually enter Singapore, but it wasn't too much hassle. Our tour guide was called James and spoke to us all about the city, particularly how this year marks 50 years since Singapore became independent as its own country, so there are lots of celebrations soon to be held.
     We made two stops as well as just driving around lots of the city whilst James told us about the city, such as how the government re-plants all the trees in the city every 5 years to stop the roots tangling with underground cables, and how they all eat about 6 meals a day in Singapore, and how everyone gets a new car every 3-5 years because the road tax is much more expensive for older vehicles.
     The first stop was pretty much in the centre of the city where we marvelled at some of the architecture they have there, including a hotel which consists of giant towers topped by a boat spanning all three, with trees and a swimming pool on top of the boat! The second stop was in the East Bay Gardens, which had a spectacular variety of plants from all over the world, as a well as a small aquarium with giant fish and a pig-nosed turtle, and much more.
     We were back in the airport once more just before 8:00pm - where we found some of the guys still whizzing around on luggage trolleys as they had been ever since we'd arrived - and then it was time to hunt for dinner. A tiny bit more shopping time and then before we knew it, it was time to meet up with everyone else. On our way to the gate we witnessed Dave joining in with the trolley antics - definitely a big kid at heart!
     Once in the departure lounge we all laughed and reminisced about all of the memories we have of the expedition and whether we'd met our three goals which we'd had to set at the beginning of the trip. Mine were to learn some Malay, try some new foods, and to get through an airport without panicking... Check, check, and check!
     And then it was 11:00pm and we were boarding the plane, and here we are, miles and miles up in the air and, at last, reluctantly but also eagerly, we're homeward bound.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Monday 27th July


So this is it. The eve of our last day in Borneo; the end of the expedition of my life.
     I managed a bit of a lie in this morning until about 7:30, although I did wake up several times earlier and have to force myself back to sleep. We had the same old issues with either a stifling hot room or freezing cold air con in the early hours of the morning as we've come to discover is often the case in hostels here!
     We were allowed to get up in our own time, with all of us being up and about by 8 and out into the city shortly after 9. After successfully drying out my still-wet trainers from yesterday with a hairdryer, we set off.
     We spent all morning wandering around the shops and stocking up on souvenirs and gifts for everyone. I've now managed to accumulate 7 pairs of local-style cotton trousers in total - I couldn't resist! Along with plenty of key rings, fridge magnets, several bracelets, a couple of bags, a wooden owl and two wooden geckos, I was pretty much there with all the gifts. So we all headed to Pizza Hut for lunch as a treat for our last day, and despite the horrendously long wait for the food to arrive, it was well worth it!
     Then, after lunch, several of us girls decided to continue with the theme of treating ourselves and so together with Gemma and Anna, I set off for a manicure for the first time in my life! For some reason, Matt decided to come with us and sit there waiting for us to finish, but as we were taken into a different room which was separated from the reception by a curtain, he was left completely by himself for about 40 minutes until we were all finished. When we came out he looked utterly drained, it really was pretty funny! We'd interestingly had to change into flip-flops (which they called slippers) before we could enter - probably something to do with the Malaysian custom of taking your shoes off before entering most buildings (except shops etc).
     Then there was just time to do a bit more shopping before heading back to the hostel for a shower. Rosie lent me some conditioner she had left over, and honestly, conditioner for the first time in a month felt so good!!
     We headed back out into the city again for dinner, which was in an Italian (?!) restaurant by the waterfront. The sun was just setting as we got there and it was so beautiful to see it in this country for the last time, sinking and reflecting in the water across the harbour.
     Dinner was beautiful: spaghetti carbonara. Really good spaghetti carbonara - no other words necessary. It was a really lovely meal to be our last one together in Borneo. Everyone was so bubbly and cheery and glad to be together, and the whole thing was weirdly emotional as we've all grown so close together over the past months and it's felt like we've been here together for so long that there actually being an end feels so wrong!
     At the end of our meal we all went to take group photos and I was at the back so, together with several others, I stood on my seat in order to be seen. For one of the photos we were told to raise our hands in the air, and me being me, of course I had to end the last day in Borneo with a Sophie saga... So as I raised my hands in the air, I hit the moving ceiling fan... Luckily I removed my hand very quickly, so it was only a minor incident with no real damage done, but my shout of 'Ow!' was enough to turn everyone's heads, and soon - as soon as everyone realised that I wasn't hurt - we were all in hysterics. Way to go to end the trip in true Sophie style!!
     All that was left to do was to make our way back to the hostel for the last time and complete some last bits of packing, and now, ready for bed, we're all sitting out on the balcony together, gradually getting sleepy and, one by one, disappearing to bed...

Sunday 26th July


We left from the B&B after breakfast at 7:30 and the majority of the day has been spent travelling back to Kota Kinabalu.
    We stopped for lunch in Ranau, where we were given an allowance of RM15 and the choice of eating wherever we wanted rather than having to eat in a specific place, usually with a specific meal too. Unfortunately there wasn't exactly a big choice of places to eat in Ranau, and none of us really fancied chicken and rice again, so in the end all of us opted for that famous Malaysian delicacy: KFC. What a surprise, we found ourselves eating chicken once again...
     A short drive after lunch brought us to another stop - a war memorial. Here there were three memorial gardens (Australian, British, and Bornean) together with a list of all of the names of the people who were lost in the death marches from Sandakan to Ranau, ordered by the Japanese army towards the end of WW2. The Japanese were realising that they had no hope of being on the winning side and so they decided that it was necessary to kill all of the POWs. However, rather than kill them in the camps where they were, they took the 2242 POWs on these 260km death marches, ordering them to carry supplies with them - in 1943 these were supplies to build an airfield strip, but later on it was just generic army supplies that the Japanese didn't want to leave behind. Nearly all of the prisoners died on the way. The soldiers were already starved and sick, and therefore extremely weak, and in the heat of the Borneo jungle, with barely anything to eat at all, it's no wonder that they didn't make it. As soon as they showed any signs of struggling, the Japanese soldiers would take them to one side and shoot them.
     Only 6 of the POWs escaped and survived. All of the rest perished. It still is to date the biggest loss that the Australian military has ever experienced.
     We watched a video explaining about the death marches and then we were able to wander around the gardens, which were styled in relation to each country involved. All of us were really humbled, and shocked that barely any of us knew that this had even happened. It was a really interesting stop, even if a little melancholy.
     We then had a final stop at the same market we've been to several times on our journeys now for some souvenirs and toilet stops, and then after the final leg of the journey we reached KK this evening, where we're now staying once more in Travellers Light, the first hostel we visited before going to Gaya.
    We've just been out for a quick wander around some market stalls where I bought some hand-crafted jewellery made by local art students, and now we're back in the hostel again waiting to go out for dinner soon at another local restaurant.


Dinner was about a 15 minute walk away, further into the city in a part we'd never been to before. It was chicken fried rice (interestingly served with two slices of cucumber, a slice of tomato, an egg and three fragments of poppadom...?) and then we were left to ourselves to either spend some more time in the city or make our own way back to the hostel. None of the people I normally walk around with had brought their purses/bags out to dinner with them, and neither had I, so we decided to go back to the hostel as we have the whole of tomorrow to explore anyway.
     It had been beginning to rain a little when we were walking to the restaurant, but as we stepped outside of the mall where it was located, we realised that it was now hammering down, so we were soon absolutely soaked to the skin - most of us were just in shorts and tshirts... When we got back our first priority was to dry off and change into PJs, and since then we've been sat out on the balcony, and it is now the surprisingly late time of something past 10 at night (a time several of us feel very unacquainted with by now) and maybe it is time for bed at last...
     Tomorrow we actually have the opportunity to lie in!!! Although having said that, I'm 90% likely to still wake up much earlier than I need to, as I'm pretty used to the early starts by now!

Saturday 25th July


This morning we left from the camp at about 6, getting up at 5:30 to pack up and take down our hammocks. Then it was back to the jetty for breakfast (which included much-missed banana fritters), time to change quickly out of our jungle gear and rearrange stuff from our main bags to hand luggage and vice versa (cue usual bag-packing frustration/trauma) and then we were onto the coach for about an hour and a half before we reached Sepilok.
     We paid the extortionate price of RM 10 for a camera permit (the even more extortionate entry fee of RM 15 had already been paid for us - seriously, where in England could you get into one of the country's main tourist attractions for £3?!) and headed into the video room where a member of staff spoke to us about the work they do at Sepilok rehabilitating orangutans, and then we watched a video explaining more. 
     Sepilok is government funded and has been open since the 1960s, when the Malaysian government realised that they needed to act quickly to save the orangutans of Borneo before it was too late. There are only around 15,000 orangutans left in the wild, and it is estimated that unless drastic action is taken, they could become extinct within 10 years. The thought that I might one day be telling any children I may have stories about this expedition, but then have to explain that the incredible animals I saw with my own eyes are now extinct, really is heartbreaking. Since Sepilok opened, they have rescued and cared for hundreds of orphaned orangutans and successfully rehabilitated over 600, releasing them back into the wild.
     After we had watched the video we headed out to the feeding platform. There we waited for a little while in silence (well, we were all quiet - a lot of the other tourists there weren't) until a ranger came and piled fruit onto a separate platform a few metres away from us. After a few minutes, we saw a rope hanging from one of the trees wiggling around and then came an orangutan swinging through the trees and onto the platform for a munch on some fruit. 
     Sepilok works by rescuing orphaned orangutans who are then kept in the 'nursery', where they are taught vital skills, such as how to swing around and spend time in the trees, as in the wild babies spend 6 years with their mothers, so it takes a while for them to become independent. When they have grasped these skills, the young orangutans are let loose in the reserved area of rainforest owned by Sepilok so that they can spend time out there alone in the wild, but can return to the sanctuary for food and such until they are independent enough to live by themselves, at which point they no longer return. Although Sepilok has been really successful in helping orphaned orangutans, it is clear that more action still needs to be taken to try and prevent them becoming orphaned in the first place, which is due to various reasons such as deforestation and hunting in order to keep the orangutans illegally as pets.
     Once we had stood watching the feeding for a while, we progressed to the outdoor nursery, which we could view through glass from inside a building to minimise the chance of the young orangutans becoming distracted by humans and their behaviour. However, there are rangers who help the orangutans, such as by encouraging them up onto the jungle gym equipment rather than spending too much time on the ground - this is because in the wild, orangutans spend over 90% of their time up in the trees, so it is important that they learn this from an early age.
    At 11:30 we regrouped and then went into the Sunbear Sanctuary just across from the Orangutan Sanctuary. It was only small - just some steps up to a platform which overlooked the sunbears' enclosure - but from there we could see around seven sunbears roaming around, although there were probably more out of sight. I'd honestly never even heard of sunbears before this trip, but apparently they're the smallest bears in the world and get their name from the marking around their neck.
     With the morning finished, we headed to the B&B where we're staying for the night, and when we got there we dumped our bags in our rooms and headed straight for lunch. The rest of the afternoon has been free time for all of us to relax. I've made use of the time with a 2 hour nap and I also took the opportunity to completely empty and repack my bag ready for the plane, with everything I'll need over the next couple of days conveniently near the top. It took me forever, but I did it, with no trauma at all this time! (I really, really hate packing...)
     The accommodation here is really nice (although maybe my opinion of luxury has been simplified/downgraded somewhat during the month out here!) and the shower was beyond beautiful - I'd almost forgotten that pressure existed! And it's ensuite toilet and shower between 4 of us, which definitely is a luxury!!
     Since dinner we've all just been sitting chatting on the deck area with the usual persistent sound of bugs in the background - I think I might actually miss that sound once I'm back at home!
     In the morning we're on our way back to Kota Kinabalu, where we're staying in a hostel again until the 28th, when we'll be heading home. So that makes today officially our last programmed day of this expedition and I simply cannot believe that in four days time I'll be back in England once more.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Friday 24th July


The toilet here is now well and truly fly-infested, which is a little bit off-putting. The dilemma is do I need the toilet enough to risk being bitten on the bum by some truly nasty looking bugs? Unfortunately the answer is usually yes...
      The bugs are one of the only things that bother me here. They are constantly everywhere, always trying their best to munch you. But the bugs aren't all bad - yesterday afternoon and this morning we've also seen some beautiful butterflies, who happily rest on your water bottles and your fingers, fluttering around contentedly.
     One of the other things I'm getting quite frustrated by is how simple things become so much more complicated. Like getting ready for bed. Sounds easy. In the dark, in a hammock, surrounded by trip hazards - surprisingly difficult. But kind of fun in its own way.
     Other than that I'm pleasantly surprised by the jungle. I expected to find it a lot harder than I have so far. I might even go so far as to say that I'm going to miss it - especially now I've got used to my hammock!
      I was woken up this morning in the same way as I was yesterday - by the call to prayer from the mosque in the village downriver. The first time I heard it, when it was still pitch black and I had no idea what the time was, and all I could hear were these weird wailing noises coming from God knows where, it was really creepy. But this morning I was prepared for it so it wasn't too bad! Being out in the open means that even without the call to prayer I would be awake as soon as it gets light anyway, which is long before 6:00am. I really don't mind being up early though - if I'm not, I feel like I'm missing out!
    We're just now about to head off for project work, going back to the same clearing we were in yesterday afternoon so that we can do our bit to counter the deforestation in this area.


Our last day of project work is complete! This morning we headed back to the clearing along with bags full of saplings ready for planting. We each had to do about 4; digging out the hole, placing the sapling in, and then covering up the rest of the hole again. It wasn't hard work, but it's been a lot hotter today than it was yesterday, so everyone was beginning to struggle a little in the heat. We actually didn't get to plant all the trees that we had as we ran out of room, so there was nothing more we could do for the morning.
     Lunch was late being brought down the river so we were all extremely grateful when it did turn up and gulped it down before heading out for the afternoon. We got on the boats once more to head about 5 minutes downriver to the eco-camp which is open to tourists and is partly funded by Camps International. There, we were briefed about the camp and how it operates to help save the local eco-systems, including how they're working to remove an invasive weed, salvinia, from the lakes. This was our job: to get on two pontoons and help scoop out the weed, placing it in bags which were then brought back to shore. This is a really important job because the weed is choking up the lake, stopping sunlight and oxygen from getting to it and leading to the death of the marine life.
     At around 4:00pm we headed back to camp again. A lot of the group have decided that a few days without a shower is enough, but so many of them are coming back from the 'shower' a little disgruntled that I've decided maybe I can last one more day. For the showers you have to fill up a bucket from the taps, which are a little temperamental, carry the bucket into one of the tarpaulin cubicles and then scoop the water out over you. All while certain of the boys are stood up in the main area, which is on a hill, trying to look down into the showers and having a right laugh.... Yeah, maybe I can last one more day... However, I did decide to wash my hair using one of the buckets, which wasn't too bad and did actually make me feel a lot better, so at least I feel kind of clean! Baby wipes will have to do for the rest of me for now...
     And tonight is already our last night in the jungle - just as I'm getting used to the ways of the hammock (which is actually really comfy once you're settled). I will probably head to bed soon (it's so dark that it already feels really late, even though it's not even 8) as we have to leave camp at 6 tomorrow morning to journey back to the jetty for breakfast, and then it's on to Sepilok!