One year into my course at art college in Bournemouth and it was the summer holidays already. I was 19 and about to take my driving test again. My last instructor smelt of stale sweat, cigarettes and looked like Spock on a slovenly day off, so because I couldn’t breath in the car I failed the first time, Luckily second time around I passed and it was a good job too. A week later I would be heading to a small corner of Borneo where it would be impossible to get around without wheels.
My uncle and aunt had moved from Kenya to Brunei a few years earlier and I’d been invited to join them and my cousins for the summer. I met my cousin in Singapore and we took Royal Brunei Airlines onwards from there to the capital of Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan.
The next morning I awoke to the sounds of cicadas, classical music and a terrible smell. For a joke my cousin had hidden a durian under my bed. Its a native fruit but is banned from most hotels and airplanes because its offensive stink.
After a tour of the house and garden alive with the sound of the tropics and now in daylight it was time for a cuddle with Abu, the cross-eyed cat and watcher of frogs in the storm drain. Also resident was a sunbird we called Gonzo. A healthy breakfast of papaya and toast (so british) we headed into Bandar to visit the palace and wander the markets.
Looking like a giant golden onion, the roof of the palace is ‘supposed’ to be made from real gold, I suspect that might well be true as it is owned by the Sultan of Brunei. Other rumours were that the sultan had a vast garage of cars which included the van from the A-Team and Kit from Knight Rider, amongst others. We went to watch the sultan’s team play polo one afternoon, a family friend was teaching his children to ride. It’s a hectic game and the sultan is a very good horseman.
One nasi-goreng later, from a street cafe, we took a river taxi and headed for Kampong Ayer. Its the world’s largest water village where 30,000 people live above the Brunei river in houses on wooden stilts.
Wandering along the walkways in the incredible heat and humidity we were treated to aquatic displays by the children who jumped and summersaulted into the river with great squeals of delight. I was tempted to join them it was so hot.
In the afternoons it was time to pack up the coolbox and head for the coast and Crocodile Beach. Of course there are no crocodiles now but I guess at one time there might have been. You could have the whole beach to yourselves and the only nuisance was the sandflies and some local men who would come and watch us from the bushes. You got used to both, eventually.
Quite a few evenings was spent at RAF Berakas camp where at the time, the late eighties, it was one of the only places you could buy alcohol in the country. We hung out at a bar called Tudor Rose, a watering hole for ex-pats, hissing beatles and geckos. A fair drive from our house it was when I got most of my driving practice. One afternoon we actually got to go up in one of the army helicopters to deliver some packages of medicine to a village deep in the forest with the flying doctor.
It was totally cool and one of the most amazing experiences of my life. The doors of the helicopter open like in the films and the head-gear to talk to each other. We flew low over the sea and along the coast before flying over the rainforest to our destination.
A bunch of us, sailed out to the fishermen’s islands a few hours sailing from the mainland (Effectively we were illegal immigrants in Malaysia at this point, but I only found this out recently from my cousin). On the way out we hardly had any wind and had to use the motor. I have NEVER been so sea sick as I was that day. Still, when we got to the island it was BEAUTIFUL & I soon recovered. We hung up our hammocks, made a fire and to settle down for the first night.
This photo I took above was on my morning stroll along the beach with the local fisherman’s dog who I had snuck some food too, thus acquiring a new best friend.
We had a great big fry up for breakfast and then it was time to explore and go for a swim. There is no let up from the sun however and the photo below is of a much younger me getting some shade after a swim.
Luckily on the sail back home there was some wind and we ended up in a race with another of the boats moored in the same bay as us. Fantastic fun and I caught most of it on film without losing the camera and myself overboard. In those days I took more film than photos.
The summer flew by and it was nearly time to head home. I’d had a fabulous time. The forest came right up to the back of our garden and we’d ventured into it on a few occasions. Its very easy to lose your bearings once you’re in the forest but if you really get lost the gurkhas are on hand to find you and bring you home and I’ve heard that they often do. We saw amazing frilled lizards, giant pitcher plants, orchids and not to mention lots of very large ants.
Abu the cat kept a good watch on the frogs that lived in the air-con overflow pots but these two seemed very happy in their froggy embrace and paid no attention to me photographing them or the cat.
Beautiful orchids of all shapes and sizes grow in the garden and before I left we visited an orchid farm to handpick some orchids to carry on to the plane to take home for my mum and my granny. They made it and so did I in time for my last year at art college. Needless to say my driving was much improved as there is nothing like an old Subaru that had to be double declutched and muddy jungle tracks to pick up a few good driving skills.