I resisted the problematic side trip out to smalltown Sukau, staging post for the mighty Kinabatangan River, renowned for wildlife tours including the possibility of catching recently discovered herds of wild elephant, as well as the Gomantong Caves which harbour the worlds largest pile of shit (bat guano). It transpired that the single minibus wasnt running that day anyway since the driver was fasting instead, what a crazy state of affairs. It rather helped to qualify my fresh resolve to make swift progress then, my decision to head for eastern town Lahad Datu finding me retracing the bus terminal and appeasing the touts, though the lone bus headed that way left little to deliberate. Back out past the memorial park and the turn off for Sepilok, the very bumpy road then revealed concerted palm oil plantations and a first sighting of cocoa. At the junction of the main Sandakan-KK road we turned off south where there was an unprecedented ID check by some blue cammo uniformed guy, probably just police. Though I was predictably singled out the questioning beyond "Where from?" only extended as far as "Play rugby?", that was good enough for me. The get rich quick vibe around here was apparent in the "Ample Valley" and "Prolific Yield" palm oil estates.
In beginning to wonder whether I would be able to identify it or unconsciously pass it by, I was lucky in that a sign betrayed a pit stop I had decided upon, the Batu Tulug Archaeological Museum lay just off the main road. Readily apparent as a lone limestone tower of rock piercing the palmery, a viewing platform on its summit and square cut cave openings in it face could be clearly seen upon high. The guidebook had professed the place to be of specialist interest and so not really worth the stop, though that in itself proved a draw as it was predictably deserted. That is except for an ethnic Malaysian guy whose accent betrayed his London origins and he was clearly not aware of the apartheid pricing system in operation here. I gathered he had paid the local price whereas perhaps he shouldnt have. For what was clearly a small isolated attraction of limited scope, the 15 Ringgit foreigner price on a par with the Sabah Museum in KK was ridiculous, I made a point of sitting around in resistance to it in order to make a futile point and then eventually surprised myself in walking away back to the road, never looking back. Doubtless the locals didnt give a stuff and at most might have thought my actions a little odd, but in a resource rich land where every second vehicle was a shiny new 4 X 4, it pissed me off to be inflicted to yet another episode of economic apartheid. In a better position to consider it than me since he had just explored it, the Londoner had questioned whether an abrupt dodgy climb up to some underwhelming rock holes filled with externally discernible coffins was worth it.
Upon flagging another bus down promptly enough, the Kinabatangan River immediately passed below me brown and indifferent, and the palm plantations continued unabated for the hour or more it took to reach the east coast and Lahad Datu, now situated on the exotic Celebes Sea. Purportedly with a singular dearth of reasons to stay, the guidebook favoured only half a page in its dedication to Lahad Datu but I shunned that in immediately securing a better than expected hotel deal before hitting the town. Everyday things became the attraction then in a town where these certainly warranted investigation, with a wander down to the waterfront, unusually unclamoured to the point that it seemed the shops were in danger of succumbing to flooding. Perhaps it was the high tide but there was no littoral or elevation between the sea's edge and the shop fronts. The main redemption in strolling around was the people themselves though, a palpably diverse mix of ethnicities and a collective culture evidently little accustomed to tourists. The hails and enquiries were not overly intrusive or aggressive though as had sometimes been the case, and for once I actually enjoyed entertaining such obviously warmhearted curiosity. The very colourful market strewn along the pavements was especially drawing, and then a rare foray inside the eternally smelly and raucous fish market was redeemed by the discovery of many varied fish types, even stalls proffering the less attractive consideration of a melange of small multi-coloured reef fish. A couple of mosques were the final distraction before dusk fell and the muezzin let rip in his much awaited Iftar "all clear" to tuck in. I perversely in humble and notably Islamic Lahad Datu of all places finally discovered a seafront bar which bore a true relation to what one should be, offering such forgotten wonders as a happy hour, MTV and later, a live band. Pity I promptly conked out and missed the band then, though wall posters reminded me of just how much I had surely missed out on excellent bands I had never heard of, some of the Malay and Indonesian pop music would make it big if it was in English I reckoned.