09.07.2010 - 14.07.2010 30 °C
wow- what a crazy few days. Have just arrived back in KK and collapsed onto my bed having travelled to the tip of Borneo, right down to the bottom and back up. My travels have taken me from the sleepy fishing village of Kudat in the north to the bustling Chinese logger-town of Sibu in the South, all in the comfort of 9M-KUL in the safe hands of a great captain.
Friday morning we arrived at the airport, and enter through the private terminal. We sit down, have some coffee and watch the safety video of what to do if the helicopter crash lands. This was slightly disconcerting and it seemed to look much worse than if your 747 suddenly dropped from the sky. We all had roles to play and things to do- someone had to chuck the life raft out, someone else bring the medical kit and someone had to bring the ELT (Emergency Locator Transmitter). However, these weren't assigned and it didn't appear that we'd decide who did what until we crashed. But fair enough, that was unlikely. So anyway, we strolled through the hanger which held a number of different aircraft. I was hoping for the presidential looking helicopter with wheels and the pointy nose. But we were instead by 9M-KUL, which you can see pictured below in all its glory.
So we jumped aboard and as we were flying over the sea, you have to wear a life jacket all the way. The engines were fired up, we popped on our headsets, which not only drown out the noise of the helicopter which is REALLY loud but enable you to talk to everyone on board through the microphone. I don't know how many of you have flown in a helicopter- it wasn't my first time but I was too young to remember properly. Taking off is absolutely awesome. First you start hovering and kind of taxi to somewhere where you can take off, flying a foot or two above the ground. Then when the tower gives the go ahead, the captain hits the throttle, you tilt seriously far forward and motor off. It's so much fun, and definitely didn't get old, despite a lot of them. At this point on the first flight I was really having to hold myself back from humming 'Ride of the Valkyries' or saying 'IRENE......FUCKING IREEEENE' (Black Hawk Down) down the mic. Even trying not to call it 'the bird' was hard. But i managed to keep quiet- i think film related helicopter banter would have pretty much fallen on deaf ears anyway. The flight took about an hour to get to Kudat,where when we landed we refuelled. Me and Mel jumped out with all the bags and went to the hotel, while the other 3 (Nick's daughter was with us on this trip) went up to do the first aerial survey of the day. During this whole trip, I feel like I have been totally spoilt. I haven't spent a bean in the last 6 days. We checked into what must have been a 4 star hotel and with nothing to do I just lay around by the pool, reading my book and waited for the others to come back. We grabbed some lunch at the golf club and then just chilled out some more in the afternoon. We all met up for dinner and wandered into Kudat where we ate by the waterfront. There's just 3 dodgy looking chinese restaurants floating on the water. There are cages in the water where they are storing and fattening Humphead Wrasses for export to Hong Kong, where rich businessmen can choose their dinner from the tank- absolutely horrible. Despite looking dingy and unclean the food was easily the best I have eaten here. If that's one thing I have learnt, don't equate the look of the restaurant to the quality of the food and if anything, the dirtier probably means the better! (to a point!). So yeh we ate and drank Tiger, all for free and headed back to get some kip. The next day I went out in the helicopter to run some surveys. Saw a few dolphins and an absolutely gigantic stingray basking at the surface, but unfortunately not what we were looking for (the leatherback!). We hadn't got permission yet to fly into the Philippines, which is what we needed to get further out to sea, so instead we checked out and flew back to KK. We spent the night at the hostel and me and Kit, the British guy here, worked our way through a fair few bottles of beer before calling it a night. And it was up early again in the morning. This time down to Sibu.
So once again we went through the private terminal and this time we had to hand over our passports. Malaysia is divided into 5 states, a bit like the USA, but you need your passport to travel between them and the laws are all different. Because we were flying so far this time, we had another member of crew to take with us- Richard- an engineer to make sure the helicopter was fit to fly every day. Nice to know that they think about these things. He was quality and rang ahead to fix us up some accommodation in Sibu. So we took off and headed south. We tried to fly over the sea as much as possible, but Brunei wouldn't let us so had to fly overland for that part. At one point on the journey we were flying over this Bay and the water was shallow and clear and the place was littered with hardshell turtles. Which was really exciting- finally seen my first turtle over here. We are after the leatherback turtle, however, so as exciting as it was it wasn't getting the job done so after doing a few circles we carried on. About two minutes later Nick, who was sat in the front got ridiculously excited and started shouting 'dugongs' and pointing furiously ahead. We slowed right down and circled this herd of dugongs, of which there were about 35! This is really rare as they mostly operate alone or in pairs. Nick thinks it's the biggest sighting of dugongs in Malaysia in the past 10 years, which was pretty cool and we all felt very lucky!
The trip to Sibu was too far on one tank so we touched down in Miri to refuel. This is basically an oil town and serves the workers of the rigs that you can see from the shore. We weren't there long but we managed to get a look at this helicopter that was in bits in one of the hangers. One of the logging helicopters (pictured below- this one was out on the tarmac) had ditched a couple of weeks earlier and killed the pilot. Apparently they are highly dangerous and the guys that fly them are constantly taking risks, flying too low and too fast. Clearly not a good idea when you're carrying tonnes and tonnes of logs. But yeh we saw inside the cockpit and it was clear which one of them had got it (co-pilot survived) as one side was completely crumpled in. It was weird looking at a helicopter in bits and quite spooky knowing someone had died in there. I didn't take any photos, as I didn't think it was appropriate but it certainly was interesting.
After that little depressing stop we carried on to Sibu and touched down at the airport, which was 25km from town. On the way over from Miri we hit this localised storm and after trying to skirt round it and realising it was really wide, we had no choice but to carry through it. It was cool as hell- could barely see a thing and rain was lashing down and the little chopper was getting blown around. The captain was literally about to make the decision to land the helicopter in the next clearing he could find when we broke through the otherside into glistening sunshine. Was quite an experience. We landed at the airport and jumped in a taxi and headed to the hotel. By this time it was the afternoon so we all headed out for some free Tigers and drank through the rest of the afternoon. We had an early free dinner with more free Tiger and then headed back to the free hotel room to get some kip. We were up early again in the morning to fly. We woke to the sound of rain outside and headed back to the airport. The clouds looked ok and the rain had stopped but we decided to hang around a bit to see if it burnt off. Nick has to pay for an hours flying anyway if we don't fly so we decided to go have a look. We might as well if we were paying for it. We got about 15 minutes out and it was getting worse, the clouds were really low which was no use for what we wanted to do. So we turned around and headed back. We hung around for a while to see if it would get better. During this time Nick showed us photos of some of the work he's been doing in the last few years. The most amazing one was the work he's done on Dugongs. He's been catching them so he can take things like blood and DNA samples and stick tags on them etc etc. But it is the way that you catch them that is just genius. Baring in mind these things are about 3 metres long, weigh 300kg and can get up to speeds of 30mph, catching them by hand definitely wouldn't have been my first idea on how to restrain them, but that's what they do. They run a boat alongside them and then you jump on them and restrain them by basically holding on for dear life and digging your feet into the sand (They're caught in standing depth water). Someone else then joins in the party and when it's basically restrained more people get involved and calm it down. But still, I've seen the pictures and still find it hard to fathom. Sounds amazing fun though. Anyway, in the end we called it off and headed back to the hotel, where I slept for most of the afternoon. I was ridiculously tired from watching the WC final, which finished about 4.30am here. That night we headed out for more free beer and food as usual and got a good sleep in.
The next day we went off ok and got two lots of surveys in. We still didn't find the leatherbacks though- it's starting to become clear that the IUCN aren't lying about their status as 'critically endangered'. We couldn't fly home that night as the weather wasn't good enough, so had to wait until this morning. I was pleased though as it meant more free stuff and comfy hotel room. So next morning we jumped back in the helicopter and headed home via Miri. Nick and his wife then took us out for lunch when we got back, as if we hadn't been spoilt enough. Good job I got him a huge bottle of 12 year old malt to give him at some point. That'll make me feel somewhat less of a scrooge.
So yeh, that's been my last few days. Taken the afternoon off today and not going into work tomorrow. Doing my PADI EFR course tomorrow so I can do my rescue diver after I complete AOW next week. We're all off to Kudat on friday, with the whole family to start the TED project. Nick's bought some cameras to set up on the net so we can show the fishermen that all their clever little shrimps aren't seeing the opening in the net and heading straight for it as they think they are. I think we'll be up there for the best part of a week, so probably won't write again until then. Have a great weekend watching the Open- if anyone has any tips then please post them as I'm struggling like hell. I will say Shane Lowry at 200/1 is fantastic odds though. Photos at the bottom are just a few snap shots from 'the bird'. speak soon x