Over the Top and Looking Ahead

The past few weeks have been busy. Aside from a lovely overnight trip to Brunei by road to stay with friend Sean (from our Bahrain days) and his girlfriend Nhorma, we have motored Temptress via Labuan to KK (Kota Kinabulu). Enroute we’ve stocked up with duty free, visited the site of the Japanese Surrender, a Commonwealth War Cemetery and planted young durian trees in a bird park (all in Labuan), tried our hand at local cooking and had a briefing from ESSCOM (both in KK). And both the crew have been gaining weight due to the feasts provided by our hosts. Labuan Corporation chose to serve a Chinese Banquet with several of my favourite dishes including butter fried prawns, a steamed fish and lemon chicken! A supper I’ll remember for a long time.

Between anchorages, Temptress has also stayed in two totally contrasting marinas. Labuan’s is falling apart due to lack of investment, the hotel it was part of has gone bankrupt and the water was full of rubbish and logs. Labuan is a duty free island/port and essentially backed the ‘wrong horses’ in the form of offshore banking and the oil and gas industry. Since the heyday of the 90’s when their hotels were running at almost 100% occupancy, the financial crisis of 2008 and the more recent crash in oil prices saw that fall off a cliff to closer to 16%! The town is now a rather forlorn, scruffy place dominated by crumbling hotel buildings but it is tidy and free from rubbish, the small, interesting museums are beautifully presented, in the town is one of the best wet markets in the region and the populace are extremely friendly.

Sutera Harbour in KK has four gold anchors from the Aussies and prices to match. KK the state capital of Sabah is backed by Mt Kinabulu, the highest peak by far in SE Asia. Tourism is booming, we had to pass through a fleet of boats offering parasailing on our way in, on the way out the weather was too poor. The islands off KK are a day trippers paradise with boatloads departing from the marina every morning. Sutera boasts a 27 hole golf course and two huge resort hotels. Flights from China, KL and Singapore, as well as further afield, land every day in KK. It’s a big and growing city as the cranes testify, somehow though it didn’t appeal as much as our previous ports of call. Temptress was glad to be out at anchor again after a few days in port. As I write we are on our way ‘over the top’ (ie the northern tip of Borneo) Kudat in company with Obsession II, day hopping up the scenic coast, dominated at almost every angle by the glowering purple bulk of Kinabulu until the clouds gather mid-morning to veil the peak.

Thanks to the supermarkets of Miri, Labuan and KK, our bilges and lockers are full of supplies to see us through to the end of the rally and beyond. It seems impossible that the rally has just one month left. As a group we have gelled together incredibly, so it seems weird that our thoughts are turning to what next or rather where next. Several boats including ourselves want to be in Langkawi before then end of the SW monsoon. It’s a long way, some 2000 nm from the rally end point at the eastern tip of Sabah, hence the need to provision as the next city of any size we reach will most likely be on the western side of Peninsula Malaysia in eight to twelve weeks time.

Meanwhile our immediate concern is the final rally stage from Kudat to Tawau, via Sandakan and the Kinabatangan River. This area abuts onto the Philippines border, intact some of the islands separated by only a couple of miles are in the Philippines. The numerous islands and the ease with which criminals, terrorists and illegal immigrants can pass through them makes the border here porous. Fishermen even as recently as June get kidnapped for ransom and Malaysian homes plundered. The authorities desperately want to remove the water villages built by the undocumented immigrants but they are several generations old and the inhabitants stateless as a result. It’s a familiar political story where traditional migration comes into conflict with borders laid down over the past two hundred years or so. The British, the Americans and the Dutch decided on the boundaries, the settled traders from China, Malaya, Java and India had little say in the matter, the tribal native who mostly lived inland along the rivers had even less.

To protect the coast and inland up the many rivers the Malays formed ESSCOM, a joint operation between navy, marine police, coastguard and the army. A curfew between dusk and dawn (18:00-06:00) means no night sailing for the rally fleet. Under escort all thirty one boats will proceed from anchorage to anchorage at the pace of the slowest. We have been asked to keep within a box 2nm wide and 4nm long. No diversions into Filipino waters as ESSCOM obviously can’t follow us there and no separating from the fleet.

Onerous? Yes probably but bear in mind there is little actual sailing to be had in these parts, mostly we have been motoring. And, as we are in this together, as long as we all agree to the guidance, there should be no big fallings out. It’s going to be an interesting exercise of cooperation not just between yachties and the Malaysian authorities but also between all the nationalities and characters on board the rally fleet!

Why are we doing this you ask? Many of the yachts are Australians heading home over the top of Indonesia. Others are here because the islands apparently have some of the world’s top dive locations and we are here because we joined the rally! Temptress’ crew are looking forward to welcoming guests from Singapore and to exploring the Kinabatangan River where we are told wildlife abounds and aside from crocs we may spot Pygmy elephants, orangutan and more. It should be an exciting few weeks.