Letters from the Southern Man
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I so believe in travel – not just to escape the grey and rain of an Auckland winter but travel continues to provide me with work possibilities, opportunities to just take it easy and chill out and to interact with other people and cultures. The older I get the more I treasure these encounters on journeys through different countries.
I am in Malaysia enjoying a mid year break with my wife and sons. I have spent so much time in the capital, Kuala Lumpur but precious little time outside of this big bustling Asian city I decided this year to change that. Malaysia is not really well known by New Zealanders – we all seem to know Thailand and many know Bali but Malaysia for some strange reason is a country we fly over on our way to somewhere else.
Which is a shame given English is widely spoken, it is relatively cheap, it is warm (actually hot), it is diverse in terms of its people, food and ecosystems. I had two things in particular I wanted to see on this trip – Orangutans and to enjoy some of the great scuba diving I heard was readily accessible here.
So after a couple of days in Singapore the family and I headed for Borneo and in particular, Kota Kinabalu, a city of around 700,000 people in the eastern state of Sabah. While there I had some interesting experiences in mass tourism of the Chinese kind.
Our world view is so moulded by our home experiences and where I come from there are, once you are outside of Auckland, so few people that you can truly get away from humans if you wish without too much difficulty. And get away from humans is what I, perhaps naively, thought I’d be getting for my family in Borneo.
We had four days so we sat down and chose four day trips that we hoped would give us an insight into Borneo its people and its wildlife and settled on a river cruise to see the increasingly rare Proboscis Monkeys, a visit to an Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, a day on the beach at a local island and a day of scuba diving.
I have to say, I enjoyed all four but is equally fair to say that what we got wasn’t always what we expected.
The evening river cruise to see the Proboscis monkeys turned out to be the mangrove equivalent of the 30 Land Rovers all parked around a lion in the Masai Mara. Each boat contained about 20 people, almost all Chinese for whom a wilderness experience probably means a stroll in their local park with 10,000 others. So being quiet and just enjoying nature is not something I imagine too many of them understand or appreciate. The monkeys were somewhat plentiful (we were told we were particularly lucky to see so many of them) but our boat would be parked alongside at least six or seven others full of oohing and ahhing and chattering Chinese tourists clicking cameras and yapping away. An experience it was – a quiet ‘river cruise’ it was not as the outboard motors of scores of boats roared and belched their fumes up and down the river. It was most certainly an experience – but not quite what we had been expecting.
Our morning with the orphaned orangutans was amazing – three youngsters whose parents had been killed by poachers were being raised in a semi wild environment and prepared for a return to the rainforests around the age of 6. Coming from a country where 90% of our forests have been turned into grazing farmlands, I am not about to start lecturing the Malaysians who have as much right to a decent income as the rest of us, but it is habitat loss caused mainly through clearing of forest for the production of palm oil that has lead to the rapid decline of these magnificent cousins of ours. While it was a thrill to get up close with the Orangs I did wonder how many of the tourists there with me were really aware of how these cute young orphans came to be cute young orphans. The next time they bite into that chocolate bar or biscuits containing palm oil I wonder if they will associate it with the Orangutans they saw.
Our day at the beach was something to behold. More a cultural experience than a day at the beach as we in New Zealand would understand it. About 15 minutes by speedboat from the mainland we were plonked on a stretch of beach perhaps 400m long with about 2000 others – again mostly chain smoking chattering Chinese tourists who didn’t appear to understand what function the plentifully provided green rubbish bins were for. Each party was assigned a plastic table, four plastic chairs and four sets of masks and snorkels (along with life jackets for ‘when you are swimming’). Being New Zealanders and well used to the sea we chuckled at the ‘strongly advice’ to wear life jackets when swimming in two meters of water that was as rough as your average bath but we noted that virtually everyone else did. I guess they don’t get to swim in the sea very often. And most of them probably have never learned to swim – something we pretty much take for granted.
The water temperature was about 30 degrees and sublime. The sun was shining and we took our towels and lay on the fine white sand. The snorkelling was probably good if you seldom venture into the sea. What I couldn’t get over, but was expecting, was the rubbish in the water – plastic bags, instant noodle wrappers, soft drink cans, polystyrene containers – you name it – we were swimming in it.
My wife and I took a stroll over the island to try and escape the throngs and found our own deserted beach where we spent a wonderful hour or so in relative isolation.
If you could shut out of your mind the piles and piles of plastic water bottles and other cast off junk that littered the high tide mark it was almost beautiful.
The best however, we saved till last and I needed it to remind myself that away from the more populated areas there are parts of this huge island where you are not surrounded by and swimming in plastic. Or surrounded by chain smoking Chinese tourists. On our second to last day my sons and I spent an hour and a half on a bus and another hour on a speedboat getting out to an island to do some scuba diving. It was a revelation and everything I had been hoping to find. No rubbish. No plastic. No discarded fishing nets and other flotsam. And almost no people. Just clear warm water being shot through by the strong tropical sun and a reef alive with fish and coral that is being protected. It was magical. And well worth the effort in getting there. I had heard the diving was pretty good in Borneo and we were not disappointed.
There is in all of this a salient lesson for New Zealand – tourism is our single largest earner of foreign exchange and over 400,000 of us are directly or indirectly employed in the industry. Thankfully my experiences of tourism within my own country have been anything other than ‘mass’ and we need to keep it that way.
I like the ‘Botswana model’ where they have become a low volume high cost tourist market and when my family and I were on safari there a few years ago being able to drive all day and see not another human or vehicle was not only a revelation but an absolute pleasure.
Everywhere I have gone in Malaysia when we are asked where we come from and we tell them, the response is usually ‘Very beautiful and very peaceful’ to which we nod in agreement. It is both those things.
To which I might add – and it is very clean– promoting tourism but having the sides of your highways and cities looking like rubbish tips is not the way to seduce tourists. Malaysia has magnificent land and seascapes and the people are friendly and the food to die for – someone just needs to tell the local authorities to set up a regular rubbish collection programme so we tourists don’t have to swim in it or have our ‘wilderness experiences’ blighted by another plastic bottle wedged into the roots of a mangrove tree in which a Proboscis Monkey is sitting.
And to teach people (why it isn’t inbuilt in people is beyond me) to find rubbish bins to put their litter in. A city of 1.5 million people like Auckland can do it, so it is hard to understand why cities across Asia, and Africa for that matter, so utterly fail to do it.
It ain’t a good look.
Until next week
Southern Man - Iain MacLeod
I know Malaysia but not Borneo. Must go there, but very good personal summary from Iain.
I live in Cape Town but am looking at emigrating to Oz or NZ, where Asia is so much more accessible,
I agree, lack of discipline makes our world filthy and destroys nature's beauty