I don’t know if I was having one of those moments, a small midlife crisis or something, but I found my mind wandering. I was semi-committed to going to New Zealand for the Tarawera Ultra Marathon when I came across an advert for the Maverick Camp Endeavour in Borneo. I’ve always wanted to see the Orangutans and love the work the Maverick team do, so I got thinking… Besides, the two week adventure was just a few weeks after Tarawera so I convinced myself that it made sense to give life the middle finger and swan off to the other side of the world for 6 weeks. So I signed up.
Leading up to the trip everything was easy. Ben, Justin and the Maverick team do a great job at organising all their events and this was no different. I had everything I needed and plenty of assurances all would be looked after. They weren’t wrong. Even with the Covid-19 outbreak and mass hysteria that swallowed the world, everything was exactly as promised. Better even!
The basis of the trip was an 10 day adventure with an option to stay on two additional days for the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon race. Each day was part of a packed itinerary full of running, yoga, adventures, culture, snorkelling and seeing the land. We were fully catered for in terms of accommodation, food, transport and activities. Essentially I just needed to turn up and follow instructions – something I was ready to do after a month of travelling and making decisions for myself! It was one of the best experiences of my life and went a little something like this…
I stopped by Bali on my way to Borneo (from New Zealand) and arrived late on the Friday night. As I exited the quiet arrivals hall a driver walked in with the ‘Maverick – Camp Endeavour’ sign and I was soon whisked to the Downbelow Lodge in Kota Kinabalu downtown. The Downbelow Lodge being the mainland base of ‘Adventures in Borneo’, Maverick’s Collaboration partner in Borneo run by Joanne and Richard. As the first arrival, I had the room to myself for the night.
The next morning I woke easily, refreshed and headed out in search of food. I’d identified a few local landmarks to go and visit including the Atkinson clock tower, Signal Hill Observatory, and the local food and Handicraft markets. On my journey I’d take in a breakfast stop in the highly recommended Nook cafe (a breakfast of Waffles with fruit and the biggest yogurt bowl with more fruit and muesli!). Heading back to the Lodge for midday I stopped by several shopping malls, mainly just to cool down in the air conditioning! It was scorching out there!
A number of others had arrived. And I first met Carl who I’d be sharing a triple room with for the trip. It wasn’t long before we found out we live just a few minutes away from each other in Crystal Palace! After another trip to the mall for lunch, a few of us met up and went out for a short run along coast. We covered approximately 5km as we began to get to know each other, speculate on the week ahead and swear at the blistering heat and humidity. I laughed to myself that only runners would turn up to a running trip and add more runs to the itinerary! This wouldn’t be the last either…
That evening we went for a ‘welcome’ meal in a nearby restaurant and got to meet Joanne and Richard and some more of the team who’d look after us for the week, including Jess who was our guide and local trail running hero. Later that night a few more of the group arrived including Jake, who was also the Photographer for the trip, and the last addition to our trip room – Spenny. Our Maverick rep and all round legend of the running community (I first met Spenny in the UTMB after party in 2018 after I’d completed the CCC and he the TDS. There was this giant of a man, drunk from a day of celebrating his achievements and slurring every word that came out of his mouth). After chatting for a while we hit the sack as it was an early start the next day as the adventures would begin!
The next morning we were up early for breakfast in the lodge and a boat transfer to Gaya island. Here we’d enjoy a run on Gaya island and the opportunity for snorkelling and diving before staying overnight on Manukan island. Upon arrival we met the final two members of the group (Alex and Tiff) who’d arrived earlier and headed to Gaya ready. As we walked the Long Island pier to the beach, Richard gave us all a thoughtful welcome and quick speech to set the scene for the week. The key message he delivered (besides the essential health and safety advice) was to enjoy. Enjoy ourselves as we were here to experience Borneo and find our own way to take it all in. They’d flex to our needs and desires for the duration and look after us. All we had to do was focus on doing what works best for us. I liked this message. He also warned us against the risk of wasp nests and the two venomous snakes we might encounter. We all laughed nervously.
Jess led us off on the run, flanked by our other guides Mira, Roger and Stanley. The trails of Gaya were well marked and it was clear where to run (although comically we all missed a turn and finished the run slightly short!). The run was tough. Just 7 km covered in total but by 2km I was drenched. I Don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life. I looked like I’d just emerged from the sea with my shorts and t-shirt sticking to my skin like clingfilm. The humidity was a whole new experience for me (and I’ve run in quite a few humid places!). For the first time I realised how tough a 100km will be in these conditions. Oh yes, as part of the trip we had the option to sign up to race at the BUTM (Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon) and I’d opted for the 100km race. I immediately started questioning if I could consistently run 10km in 3 hours out here and make it back to the finish in time to fly home (the cut off was 4pm and my flight was at 7pm)! Besides the humidity, the terrain was quite technical with tree roots throughout the trails and leaves covering the trip hazards. Masses of huge and crispy leaves crunching under our feet. The incline to the highest point on the island was tough, Despite it only being about 300m. The downs were surprisingly slow due to the challenging terrain. As we arrived back at the dive site we sat in the warmth of the sea, basking in paradise whilst our hosts prepared lunch. Above us Joanne pointed out the various species of bird including the White Hornbill birds gliding through the blue sky.
Just before lunch the team welcomed us more formally and gave a full briefing of the week ahead including the many options we can tailor as a group or individuals. They explained where we’d run, where we’d stay, rough timings and schedules for the week and whom to ask for help. Every base was covered and it was clear this was going to be a smoothly run adventure! Before we tucked into a huge lunch of curried dishes and rice, another surprise and gift from Joanne – beautifully handmade brass bracelets from our guide Jess – “Perfectly Imperfect”. Engraved with the words “Trust your Kolumpa” (Kolumpa translating to “shoes” in her Tribe’s language). A special gift with words of wisdom that are unique to us all on the trip to cherish.
After lunch we transferred to the nearby Manukan island for our overnight stay in resort. After checking in we were whisked straight back to Gaya island for a snorkelling session. There was word of whale sharks in the area and we went in search for them. Sadly we didn’t see them, but the Joanne and some of the team did as they left us after snorkelling to head home for the night. We did however see a variety of fish and sea turtles!
Later that evening we enjoyed yoga on the beach, as the sunset, led by the delightful Lily. This was my first yoga experience and what a way to sample it!! She released our senses with a variety of essential oils and calmly talked us through the poses with the biggest and friendliest of smiles you can imagine. It was then time for dinner and we were all relaxed and exhausted in equal measures. This was only day 1 of 10!
The next morning, a few of us woke up early to catch the sunrise. The benefit of having a professional photographer with us in Maverick’s very own master of the lens – Jake. Sadly it was overcast but were able to enjoy an additional short run along the length of the island and back. An enjoyable and sweaty way to start the day. The outward trail to the ‘sunset’ point was mostly slabs and stones with the return through the forest being a short climb and then descending back to hotel on some forest trails. I joined Carl and Spencer in cooling off in the sea and getting plenty of stings from the jelly fish! We were wide awake now!
We followed up with a breakfast of champions and I ate everything I could find. Cereal, toast, fruit, pancakes, yoghurt and lots and lots of coffee. After breakfast we snorkelled again, this time off the neighbouring Sulung Island. Here the coral was more vibrant and colourful. Baby reef sharks could be seen in the shallow waters as well as few rather large jellyfish. Knackered, I spent most of the time clinging to the floaty ring! After Lunch at the resort we then headed back to mainland and checked back into to Downbelow Lodge. That evening we ventured out for a run to Tanjung Aru beach to see the sunset.
For the run we were joined by Jess’ sister Narna along with an additional film crew in tow (filming a documentary on the sisters). We ran the along the busy main roads and cycle path to the beach. From there we turned and ran back along the beach where we had plenty of photos and stopped at the beachside market to enjoy a fresh coconut as the sunset. That evening we headed out for dinner and drinks to a Mexican restaurant where the food was fantastic. The next day we’d begin our journey into the mainland of Borneo…
We woke to breakfast in the lodge once more before we Loaded into the buses and drove to Kiulu for the next adventure. We arrived at the Kiulu Farmstay – Where we’d spend the night camping in a facility built by the local community and volunteers. We were greeted with what I thought was the best food from the trip so far – A combination of banana hearts, chicken, potato, papaya and local greens with chilli along with rice wrapped in banana leaf. All grown/produced on the Farmstay which was a cooperation from 13 nearby villages. We took the opportunity to capture a few photos with the drone whilst we digested lunch before heading out on the next run – A 10km with 400m of elevation that would take us to a waterfall deep in the jungle.
As we left the farmstay we ran up through a village to the beginning of the trail. We crossed over the first of many basic bridges built of wire and wood. Very, very wobbly. We climbed and ran some dirt tracks before running along the river and some wild and rocky trails. The smells were vivid, we weren’t sure what it was but it smelt like coriander to us.
We then ran a short out and back with a ‘fruity’ climb to the waterfall. We took the local advice to dip in the water to cool off in the cold (but not icy) water. It was incredible. Instantly our temperatures were regulated and we were just as wet in the water as we were before we entered!
We ran back to the farm stay and jumped straight into the river there too so we could cool off again before we enjoyed another sunset evening yoga session with Lily alongside the river. This session involving more essential oils and massage techniques. All very relaxing but we were subjected to lots of bites from insects as the sun sent down!
Dinner that evening was another wild spread with fresh river fish, chicken and lots of veg added to the feast. Of course more rice was included. The Farmstay manager introduced his son to us and also brought out the infamous rice wine we’d heard so much about. It’s is a wine produced from local fermented rice. Whilst we waited then for the wine to be prepared (after the rice produced, which involves harvesting the rice that is then washed, supplemented with a local yeast (specific to the village), and left to ferment, water is added and 10 minutes or so later the alcohol seaps into the water to produce the wine) he told folklore stories. Stories of forbidden love, of tragedy and stories about the Head Hunter tribes (yep – exactly as it sounds!). We then sang a traditional song and drank the rice wine as we each introduced ourselves to him. We ended the night sitting by the campfire and chatting away under the blanket of stars in the clear nightsky.
Today was the early wake up as we’d head for the longest and most challenging run of the trip – a 30km-ish point-to-point run. We’d negotiated a slightly later start and a 5:30 breakfast that consisted of donuts, cake and noodles. With the run starting later at 9am, our bags would be transported to the village of Lobong Lobong where we’d be based for the next two days. Given the difficulty of this run, Richard and Joanne had arranged for a number of water stops along the way. We were still advised to carry 2 ltrs or water and it was estimated that the run could take between 6 and 9 hours to complete. Briefed up by Richard we set off and said our goodbyes to the Farmstay whilst some of the group opted out of the run and instead went on a rafting adventure and would meet us at the end of the run.
We started out from the Farmstay and ran along road with a slight incline. I was conscious of the challenge ahead so started out conservatively with a slow plod slightly behind the group. We crossed many wobbly suspension bridges and wound down by the river. The route followed this approach and terrain as we passed through a number of small villages and paddy fields. At one point, as we ran, a few buffalos ran ahead and it looked as if the front runners were chasing them. After about 10km we approached the team and the first water stop that was prepared for us. Here we guzzled back the fresh goodness and reloaded ready to continue the adventure.
Next up was a short 3km section to the second water stop but this was a gravel path climb. Up and up for 3km in the blistering heat of the morning we climbed about 600m. Brutal. We were thankful for the next water stop so soon along with the unobstructed view of mount Kinabalu to enjoy whilst we tried to regain our composure.
Sent back on our journey, from here we next headed into the jungle and along a ridge line. It was a narrow single track, both rocky and on a camber. Not the easiest to run along, but the views from the ridge were spectacular. It soon transitioned into a very steep downhill. Very slidey with banana leaves and bamboo leaves covering the floor and making it particularly slippy on top of the loose dirt. We were falling all over the place. At the bottom we rested in a river stream and cooled off in the fresh jungle water the way the locals do – fully submerged.
The climb back out was very steep, steeper than the downhill even as we climbed about 450m in just a mile. It went on and on and we made slow but steady progress as we climbed through the humid jungle before descending once more. Eventually, after about 23km (cumulative), we emerged from the jungle and had another water stop with the team to rest and refill our water. From here the ‘gradual climb’ to Pekan Nabalu would take us the final 10km to our finish point in the village. Only it wasn’t ‘gradual’ it was a consistently steep 400m climb with some additional descents thrown in for fun.
A few hours later, in the blistering afternoon sun we finished in the town with beer and food. 32km covered with 2500m of elevation completed. It took almost 8 hours and was without doubt one of the hardest 30km runs I’d ever done. Once more my mind wandered to the 100km BUTM as I wondered what on Earth I’d signed up too. My rational thoughts kept reminding me that whilst it was over triple the distance, it was only double the elevation…
That evening we made the short journey to the Tanak Nabalu homestay in the near by village of Lobong Lobong. The villagers were so welcoming and we had a huge dinner of rice, vegetables and curried meats prepared for us along with piles of fresh fruit. Afterwards Jess had us all getting arty and hand carving soft wood boards (which she uses to print t-shirts), all while drinking copious amounts of rice wine.
After a long run the day before we slept well (also probably helped by not camping again!). We woke to breakfast on our respective home stays and ours was an absolute feast. There were mounds of noodles and rice and eggs as well as banana bread and fruit. It was then straight off to the village hall for some morning yoga with Lily which was a somewhat painful but great stretch out.
Following the yoga we set out on our next run – a 14km run along three ‘Pineapple Ridge’. So called because pineapples grow along the ridgeway. Obvious! Setting off just before midday it was incredibly hot and sweaty. Dry earth terrain with big steep climbs from the beginning saw us lunging upwards as we began the 750m climb. We stopped briefly along the way for photos as mount Kinabalu popped up with no clouds as we ran along the ridgeline. Naturally we put Jake to good use here! Further up we stopped at some villager huts for a break from the sun and a quick regroup. We ran the last 2km into the village to receive great views into the valley and back across to Pekan Nabalu on the distance ridge opposite.
‘Big Mike’ our host for lunch treated us to plenty of fresh juicy pineapples, Rose milk and another delicious spread of local food before it was then time to run back to the homestay and complete the loop by running along the village roads back down the valley. These were roads that initially were very steep down hills on sealed roads before the road disappeared and became gravel tracks and eventually un-pathed trails. Pineapples continued to line the side of the track with the mountains completing the idyllic background for our run. We crossed the rickety suspension bridge and made our way back into the home stay village.
Upon our arrival all the homestay hosts were waiting for us and we were treated to rice wine and banana frittas. Soon word crept out that in the house I was staying there was also banana bread. Turns out our host was a cook which explains us being constantly spoilt with food. She was so so generous. This particular rice wine was strong. The strongest yet that we’d tried. Two bamboo cups of the stuff and I was feeling pissed. I wasn’t alone. Some of the others went and found some beer and we met a few local characters whilst we enjoyed them – Like local ‘shop’ keepers and the very, very old lady walking up the street with a bamboo walking stick who went out of her way to come into the garden (not easy for her to open the gate!) and shake all our hands and say hello, despite her lack of English.
That evening we joined another group for a ‘cultural display’ by some of the villagers in the town hall after we were treated to yet another feast of amazing foods (spotting the theme of the trip yet?). The rice wine was coming thick and fast now. Debbie bought beer for us all and then we watched and listened as the locals played the gongs and danced a traditional village dance. We had the opportunity to try the gongs and dancing ourselves. Much to everyone’s amusement.
I left early that night when it was all over. The wine had gone to my head and I left the others chatting away and doing more arts and crafts (bracelet weaving) led by Jess. Tomorrow we’d wake to yoga before beginning the long journey (5hr) to Sepilok on the East coast of Borneo.
We rose to another morning yoga session with Lily in the village playing fields with the cows surrounding us with their curiosity whilst the sunrise behind Mount Kinabalu theatrically took place. The tough stretches worked our achy bodies and plenty of groans accompanied the morning (not just from me this time!).
We dashed back to the homestay for brekkie and to pack before we loaded into the vans. It was a five hour journey (with a lunch stop at a market) which followed and we drove along some roads that were very windy and very bumpy. It was a tough journey. We eventually arrived at the Sepilok Jungle Resort after 5pm and were all so glad to escape the mini bus.
We headed straight into the pool with beers and chilled. Today was the first of two non-running days and we were ready to relax. It was lush. That evening, for dinner I had chicken nuggets. They weren’t so lush!
Today was a day I’d been particularly looking forward too. In the morning we’d visit the orangutan rehabilitation centre where orangutans are reared, cared for and released back into the wild. I fucking love monkeys and orangutans. We started with a little video on the centre and I was welling up watching and learning about the work the volunteers do. We then headed out to the observation platform to watch the morning ‘feeding time’. The gibbons knew what to expect and started gathering on mass and crowding out the young orangutans. As the basket of food was delivered, carnage followed. Orangutans and gibbons descending like the rain, gathering up the bananas, melons, leaves and bamboo sticks. Fighting and hoarding was inevitable. There was even a little breakfast sexy time amongst the gibbons
After feeding time we went over to the outside nursery where we could watch the younger, and newer, orangutans play. There were plenty of comedy moments as they played together, swinging around the nursery and wrestling each other. After we said goodbye to the Oranutangs we popped next door to visit the Sunbears. Whilst there we also saw a viper hiding out in one of the trees along the walkway!
Following some lunch the afternoon couldn’t have been any more different. Whilst some of the group were whisked off for an additional river cruise excursion, we took a trip to the city of Sandakan where we visited the Sandakan war memorial which charts the Japanese torture of British and Australian pows during the Second World War as well as the death marches (260km) where prisoners were led on foot Ranau. This was a chapter of history I never knew about. All very sad and thought provoking.
After that we visited a Buddhist peace temple (Puu Jih Shih). It had some great views over the town of Sandakan and the sea. Finally we went to a local food market. It was your typical Asian food market. Nothing special from a tourist perspective. I bought a couple of ice creams including a uni-cornetto which was fucking ace!
Upon returning to Sepilok a few of us went for yet another off-itinerary run to stretch our achy legs. Over dinner we laughed and joked over the memories we’d made from the trip so far. It was clear we were having an incredible time!
Back on the road today as we made the very bumpy journey back west to Sinurambi. As it was two days prior, the ride was painful and slow. Slightly more tolerable though as four of the group had departed on the additional day trip and another 4 had opted to fly west instead. So at least the bus wasn’t as crowded or as stuffy this time round!!
We arrived at the property just after 4pm. Wow. By far the best place we’d stayed. Rose and Terry’s B&B was high up in the mountains with stunning views over the surrounding mountains, Kota Kinabalu and the cluster of islands we’d visited at the start of the trip. The house was spectacular. We didn’t get long to start enjoying though as we headed straight out for a quick run before yoga by the pool watching the sunset from high up in the mountains.
The run was short (less than 5km) but immediately steep. Quite possibly the steepest road I’d ever run on (it hit >40% gradient in some parts!). We then left the road and headed into the jungle. Up and down we bobbed before reaching the waterfall that didn’t exist. The lack of rain meant it was completely dried up. So we bounced back up through the lively forest to complete a loop. The Forest was alive with the sound of wildlife. Noisy crickets screeching and making sounds that seemed to lie about their size. As we found our way back to the road we had to run back down the steep road and within seconds the soles of my feet were on fire! I dived straight. Into the pool as we returned to the B&B.
Now we were all reunited with the day trippers arriving back, Lily then took as through a yoga session over looking the city as the sunset in front of us. This session was hilarious as we performed ‘couples’ movements in pairs. As the sunset we all relaxed with smiles on our faces listening to the dulcet tones and jokes that Lily made as she taught.
Rose then treated us to the best meal of the trip. No rice or noodles in sight. We enjoyed crispy pork, potatoes, fresh veg and salad as well as stuffed pumpkins and amazing soup with sweet corn and vegan banana cake and vegan ice-cream for desert. Dinner was also a celebration as today was Jess’ birthday. What a good end to the day.
An early-ish wake up call with brekkie at 7am as, before 9am, we were out and heading up to the salt trails. A trail so called as villagers and tribes used to travel the paths to trade items for salt. We were back in head hunter territory now. It was a fairly short but difficult run with 15km and 1300m covered. The climbs we were now getting used too – steep and rooty. There were a few sections that were good for brief spells of running but overall it was a another run were the sweat was instantaneous and we were soaked through. Sadly no rivers or streams to cool off in this time. Just 3 huts along the way that provided an opportunity to rest from the sun.
Back for a quick dip in the pool followed by another marvellous lunch from Rose and Terry. The rest of the afternoon was relaxing before one final yoga session with Lily overlooking Sabah once more before dinner and beers by the pool.
The final day and sadly all that remained was a final meal with Rose and Terry before a midday transfer back to the Downbelow Lodge and sleep before the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon (BUTM) where we all ran races from 30km to 100km. I ran the 100km starting at 6am on the Saturday and finishing at 6am on the Sunday. After the race it was back home for some sleep and a shower before 12 hours later I was heading home…
The trip really was a fantastic way to acclimatise to the heat and humidity of Sabah. I sincerely doubt I would have completed the BUTM race if I did my usual approach of turning up a day or two before the run and having a short trip. Getting familiar with the trails and climate in advance was a huge benefit.
In hindsight, we were incredibly fortunate, for many reasons. Firstly, as the first edition of the Camp Endeavour with Adventures in Borneo, I think we were spoilt rotten. The trip represented insane value for money and we were treated like royalty the whole time. Whilst some of the group opted to ‘upgrade’ various hotels and transport options, this was in no way a reflection on the offering of the tour. As a group of runners on a running adventure, the basic package was pure luxury for expectations and what we paid.
Secondly, the day after the last of the group flew home, the Sabah was locked down amid the Covid-19 pandemic. We were incredibly fortunate to have this wonderful trip and opportunity with no issues. We were able to complete the full itinerary including the races at BUTM which has probably been one of the last international running events that has taken place this year. For all of us to make it safely to Borneo, enjoy ourselves and return home safely in these difficult times is surely a reason to be thankful!
The friendliness of the people of Borneo was special. Everywhere we went, everyone we met were so welcoming and intrigued to meet and interact with us. We were always greeted with smiles and laughter, and of course rice wine!
With the ongoing uncertainty for the coming months, spare a thought for the small businesses who will be impacted by the economic climate and whose livelihoods are thrown into doubt as cities around the globe lock down. There are many, but to me right now writing this both Maverick Race and Adventures in Borneo are dear to me. They rely on social gatherings and events. So support them where you can – buy a race entry/ trip with them, use their shops and commerce sites, buy vouchers to be redeemed in the future when all becomes stable and help them be here still when that day comes.
- Maverick Race. Ben, Justin and the team have done a great job with all their events and this was my first experience of an overseas adventure with them. I’m grateful for this opportunity and thankful for their organisation and making it all so easy for me!
- Adventures in Borneo. Joanne and Richard are fantastic. They are the operation behind Camp Endeavour: Adventures in Borneo and without them it wouldn’t have been feasible never mind possible. The incredible amount of work they sunk into making this happen showed. As I mentioned before, we were spoilt, this wan’t your run of the mill running trip. I don’t think it would have been possible to be in better hands. Their team in the office, the guides, drivers and all those who supported us, thank you too! We made many new friends on this adventure.
- Lulu – Our ever present tour rep for Adventures in Borneo. You probably did more running than we did as you tracked after us all and ensured everything ran smoothly. The first one up, the last one to bed. The first one to the table, the last to eat. Your generosity was unheralded!
- Jess, Mira, Roger, Stanley – our trusty trail guides. Keeping us on track, on time and smiling throughout the runs. Your advice was welcomed and laughter and zest for the trails infectious!
- Lily – Our beautiful Yoga instructor. It was so challenging for me (to even sit on my knees!) but your patience and instruction was a virtue, your smile brighter than the sunrise and your jokes and sense of humour made everything so much easier!
- To all our hosts from the Farmstay, Homestays, hotels and Rose & Terry. Thank you for welcoming us into your homes and spoiling us with your hospitality!
- To all the others on the trip – thanks for the laughter, the stories, the beers, the piss taking, the memories. I don’t think a better bunch of strangers could be found. Thanks for the friendship. Until we meet again…
- Jake. Thanks for the pictures. They are alright they are! 😉 One talented man right there! Go check him out. Taking pictures is an art, running kms everyday chasing runners around the jungle to take pictures is next level! (and if you didn’t clock it, all but a few of the pictures here are his work! All credit to that man for his eagle eye and skills behind the camera)