Thursday 6 November

With a comfortable mattress and aircon, this is one morning when I could really have done with a lie-in. But we have to be up and packed for breakfast at 6 am in order to catch the express boat to Labaun. I should have collected my laundry last night on the way back from the “Cave”. When I try to retrieve it from reception this morning the bill is wrong, and it takes about fifteen minutes for the lad behind the counter to work it out properly (2 shirts, 1 pair of underpants and a towel). The breakfast buffet is not yet ready, so we have to subsist on coffee and toast.

(magnify) Express boat to Labaun

The express boat leaves from close to the hotel. Inside the boat it is more like an aeroplane, with rows of forward facing seats along the length of the long narrow cabin. On two TV screens at the front of the cabin, a Terminator 3 video begins, but without sound. The boat is late departing. We move slowly downriver through the outskirts of Limbang and then accelerate to full speed. The river here is very wide indeed. Dense palm trees line the distant bank. We cross open water and after about three hours put in at the independent island of Labaun.

Labaun enjoys duty-free status, and the high street is lined with tobacco and booze shops. We have only ten minutes before we have to return to board the second boat, but there is just time to source a supply of chunky Kit Kats.

The two and a half hour second leg to Kota Kinabalu passes reasonably quickly, and there we part company with Dominique, Chris, Mark, Graham, Martin, Melanie, and Cherie. On the quayside, Chris has us line up in two groups and then solemnly declares: “You can say now say goodbye to each other.” As they head off to Manukan Island for the end of their trip, the rest of us, Rob, Helen, Steve, Fiona, Ronnie, Ann, and I, begin the “Sabah Nature Watch” extension. We will be meeting up with another group coming from the Tropical Sarawak tour, and also a new tour leader, as Chris too is leaving us here.

We are in the Beverly Hotel, on the edge of town and a ten minute walk down a wide dual-carriageway to Centre Point, Kota Kinabalu’s answer to Brent Cross. It is crowded and noisy and there’s plastic tat everywhere. TV screens outside a video store attract a small gaggle of goggle-eyed viewers.

A Chinese bakery provides another fine lunch but we end up perched on a wall to eat it next to the bus station and in light rain, just to get out of the noise and bustle of Centre Point. Helen, who is a vegetarian and has struggled so far to find much to eat besides eggs and rice manages with ease to demolish an entire banana cake, a feat that belies her small frame. (Apparently Ann had earlier compared her – rather unfairly I feel, though with good humour – to a stick insect!)

KK appears to consist entirely of post-war concrete apartment and office complexes and precincts. Indeed, the old city of Jesselton, which previously occupied the site, was entirely razed to the ground by the retreating British army towards the end of the war. There is little to detain us after our initial exploration of Centre Point, and we return to the hotel to shower and rest. Chris phones to ask me to pass on the message that the joining group has been detained in Miri by bad weather, and so the briefing with Peter, our new tour leader, has been rescheduled for 8.30 pm.

Come 8.30 pm in the reception, as we sit drinking expensive cups of coffee (by Borneo standards), there is still no sign of the other group, so we unilaterally decide to eat in the hotel buffet. It’s actually not that much later that Peter arrives, finding us still in the restaurant, and introduces himself and reschedules the briefing for tomorrow morning.