The draw of Labuan's cheap grog did me a disservice in delaying my intended early start that day, though belatedly I found myself a bus to take me the 12Ks up to the island's most northerly reach, passing on the way Labuan's main mosque, looking for all the world like a Vostok rocket about to blast off.
Tanjung Kubong (Coal Point)
Actually named after the Flying Lemur in the local language, it was renamed by the Brits after discovery of coal deposits here in 1844. Mining operations started in 1847 with its transportation to Victoria being performed by ship until a railway was built in the 1890s, initially under contract to supply the Royal Navy. In 65 years, almost half a million tons were excavated. After exhausting open cast deposits, tunneling was begun using mainly Chinese labour, the arduous nature of the work betrayed here by a photo showing its carriage in large whicker baskets hung from shoulder poles. The railway, known simply as the Labuan Line, is believed to have been constructed by an engineer A.J. West who later oversaw the administration of the North Borneo Railway. Though built for coal carriage a passenger service was also introduced, though sadly absolutely no trace of the line remains today. At the presentation centre which has been built here a walk through diorama had me find myself inside a coal mine, with Chinese mannequins gouging out coal from the face to be shovelled up into wagons.
Upstairs, the display concentrated on the sites main drawcard, simply known as The Chimney or in the local lingo the "Punil". A selection of bricks incredibly revealed a Scottish association, imprinted as they were variously with names such as Gartcosh and Glenboig. The function of the Chimney is actually unknown since it bears no traces of burning inside and it is also unlikely to have been a mine ventilation shaft since no underground link has been discovered. Its high prominent position on the headland leads some to believe it a lighthouse, though most surprisingly consider it to have been a belltower. I wondered if they had considered the possibility that it was a cannonball tower, used for making the things as I had previously discovered in Tasmania of all places. It may simply have served as a landmark for shipping, and it's dating is also guesswork, but believed to be in parallel with the railway's invocation in the 1890s. It measures 32.5 metres (106' 6") tall and devoid of deep foundations and sat upon a bed of soft limestone it's amazing that it still stands. An overkill description of its preservation was made more interesting in revealing the hitherto unheard of presence of similar chimneys at Mukah, Sarawak, another at Hulu Terengganu and a third at Tapah railway station in Perak. The 2 arches which form a hollow in one corner of its base are presumed to serve as a wind breaker in order to protect it from storms.
From the Chimney the next obvious distraction was a Bird Park just a stones throw away, and though under pressure of time I gave it a quick scoot around. I couldnt see anyone around as I entered the first enclosure and it was only after a while that it dawned on me that the varied welcomes and whistles were from a pair of talking Myna birds at the entrance! It was a greater marvel still to be able to get up close and clearly see normally elusive amazing species too many to mention, but once inside the main caged chamber I promptly scored a tick off my "must see" list in spying 2 Hornbill species, the second one being the fantastic Rhinosceros Hornbill. As if by magic it left its obscured perch to fly somewhat noisily right over me just above my head, a surprisingly strong flyer for such a large ungainly bird it struck me, to then land better placed for viewing. Sadly I had to forego the interpretation centre and whatever other offerings there may have been, and yet by the time a bus showed up to take me back to "Bandar" Labuan, the prescribed final boat to Limbang had just gone. It was also a pity that the bus up to the Chimney had also passed very close to Labuan's major remaining attraction Surrender Point, a spot by the beach where the Japanese had finally relinquished all of Borneo to the Allies, but again pressure to make my intended onward connection had precluded hopping off. With that now scuppered it was certainly giving me a recipe for a headache then in contemplation of the pros and cons of the various alternatives, with the initial instinct to stay another night quickly discounted in view of the cost of a room and my desire to press on. There was only one other passable alternative then but one which actually made sense, against all expectation after stocking up on supercheap duty free beer at 20p a can, I boarded a wobbly catamaran headed back to Brunei of all places. I had not even considered that contingency since I had hitherto already nailed its sights in 2 full-on superefficient days with Roberto. Brunei allegedly offered frequent speedboat connections onto my next target Limbang however, and I knew that in pricey Brunei the hostel was conversely plush and cheap compared to Labuan's overpriced "duty free" offerings.
That wasnt the only perversity however. Customs were unusually attentive upon my arrival at an unbefittingly shabby arrivals hall and it only now dawned on me upon enquiry from one of the officials that in dry state Brunei, my beers had to be declared. I had been handed a landing card and health declaration form which subsequently no-one asked for and yet no customs form, but the guy just waved me on in the end saying "Next time". I doubted that it would be anytime soon. Then the bus from Muara still some 25Ks from BSB left with me curiously the only taker, accompanied only by the annoying persistent beep of the tachometer once again. Brunei's large and impressive youth hostel was totally deserted upon arrival and eventually I had to resort to chapping on an arbitrary door where a pair of flip flops outside revealed seemingly the only inhabitant. The overfriendly limpwrist did me a favour in calling the warden and sure enough, eventually, I got my 3 quid room with starchy sheets and modern air-con.
What really took the biscuit though was that in a similar fashion to my enforced frenzy in order to reach KK from Brunei in time for the Merdeka Day celebrations, I now found that I had inadvertantly come back here as if to deliberately miss out on another party, today was September 16th, Malaysia Day. Although Malaysia had gone independent on August 31st, it wasnt actually ratified by the UN until 16 days later whilst a committee investigated popular support for it under pressure from Indonesian and Philippino antagonism. Given that there had been a singular absence of hype in that regard I rather suspected that it would actually pass unnoticed by most and so I wasnt missing out on much, I also read in local newspaper the Brunei Bulletin that the start of Ramadan had similarly passed unawares to me not at all evidently 2 days before. Failing to catch an anticipated replay of the Grand Prix in a coffee shop that evening, the coffee and newspaper was about all that Brunei had to offer. The spanky new air-con that night was absolutely freezing and could not be adjusted, I tired of getting up to switch it on and off and so wound up churning relentlessly in the deep freeze that night, just one more irony of which it seemed this whole side trip south was destined to become.