6PR Interview: Labuan Island on the South China Sea

Please enjoy the story below on Labuan Island:

 

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Get a fast boat there and a fast boat back

 

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Royal Malaysian Air Force flypast over the top of the Labuan War Memorial and Cemetery
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The beautiful Grand Dorsett Labuan; singing doormen and stunning views

6PR Interview: Abrolhos Islands

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Please enjoy the story below on the Abrolhos Islands:

 

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Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and another important Australian, Matilda

Rockingham Time

As a guest of Quest Apartments and Rockingham tourism operators, my family enjoyed a very busy weekender out of Perth.

Great weekenders, and the much savoured long weekend, often mean we try to travel as far as we can to somehow ensure the best time possible because we’re as far as we can be from home.

For so much of the Australian population, the state capital cities are our homes and these cities all have fond traditional weekend destinations. In Melbourne, the locals love Daylesford while in Sydney it might be the Blue Mountains.  In Brisbane there’s the Gold Coast while Adelaide has the Barossa Valley and Hobart has just about the whole island of Tasmania to choose from to get away for the weekend.

In Perth, Margaret River is the big one to head for. Close to four hours from Perth it is renowned for its opportunities to indulge and excite.

What about if I told you that south of Perth, just 45 minutes away, or north of Bunbury, just 90 minutes away, is a seaside community that offers high quality accommodation less than five minutes’ walk from the most remarkable beach and boardwalk in Western Australia and has a well-coordinated suite of tourist activities to interest anyone with a heartbeat?

For a breakaway with the family, and to shake off the beguiling summer laziness of the weeks immediately following Christmas, we headed to Rockingham to have an adventure and try out the Christmas presents, including the snorkel sets, boogie boards and beach towels.

For two days my family of four experienced the brilliant freshness and vibrancy of the Quest Apartments, a Rockingham Wildlife Encounters tour of Shoalwater Bay with dolphins, seals, ospreys and pelicans surrounding us for over two hours, a stand-up paddle board lesson tailored for all ages and dining experiences along the Palm Beach foreshore to rival and largely outdo the most popular Perth beachside eateries.

On top of this, I took the opportunity to experience the Jetpack experience available on Rockingham Beach and my son Tom enjoyed a ride on one of the jet skis available for tour group hire.

On a recent trip to Rockingham by a very different route I had arrived on Rockingham Beach after jumping out of a perfectly operating aircraft at 14000 feet.

As I had swung in my harness, linked in an embrace of clips and straps to my tandem skydiving instructor, I had looked around. We were high enough that there was curvature to the horizon and I could see Penguin Island and the smaller islands of Shoalwater Bay and the broad, thin white stretch of Palm Beach that marks the Rockingham foreshore.

It was at the Penguin Island jetty, where Shoalwater Bay meets Safety Bay that our weekend began. By mid-morning we were on the waters of Shoalwater Bay, within the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park.  Just past Seal Island we encountered a pod of ten dolphins.  Watching them graze on the sea grass below and lazily rise to breathe was remarkable but then the pod must have realised a few of us had cameras.  Sliding behind the wake of the boat they suddenly leapt from the water, spinning and splashing with what I am absolutely sure were smiles on their faces.

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Dolphins of Shoalwater Bay

We make our way around the bay and find some seals basking in the sunshine on Seal Island. All males, these seals get down to Rockingham from the islands around Lancelin to the north of Perth to escape the females and enjoy a bit of fishing and lazing about doing nothing on the beach.  Oh for the life.

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Dolphins of Shoalwater Bay with Seal Island in the background

It’s a tour with so much to see and while I probably am not usually too keen on commentaries, there is a lot worth listening to as well. After a quick stop on Penguin Island to successfully locate some little Fairy Penguins it’s back to the mainland, about a kilometre away, to complete this first adventure that has surprised and thrilled us all.

We make our way to the Quest Apartments and the kids are immediately impressed by the spaciousness of two adjoining rooms but before they can grab the remote control for the television it’s time to hit the beach and try out the snorkelling gear and boogie boards. Palm Beach has to be the best beach in Western Australia for a child to learn how to snorkel and Waikiki Beach, with the sea breeze in your back, has to be one of the best boogie boarding beaches.

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Quest Apartments Rockingham; new, fresh and close to all the action

That evening, we are sun blasted and salt encrusted and even though the kids are fading they don’t want to miss an opportunity to walk along Palm Beach once the sun has set and with torches and nets in hand they catch some prawns as they flick along the surface the water. It’s strictly catch and release as we’ve booked into Rustico’s, a popular tapas bar on the foreshore and with a big day deserving a big meal we suitably indulge and then walk back to our rooms for the evening where salty heads sleep soundly.

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Rustico’s Tapas on the Rockingham foreshore

The following morning after a great foreshore brekky we meet up with Bill at Surf Mania who is keen for us to have a go on a stand-up paddle board. I wish I had a few photos of us falling in after overbalancing but we are all surprised with how stable the boards are, particularly on the still waters of Palm Beach.  Just watch out for local resident, Bluey, when you’re walking through the water (see pic below).

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A very mean and bold blue manna crab, called Bluey, stopping me from getting closer to my family in the background.

We all take our turn and while I was obviously the best at standing up and paddling I don’t say anything to the family, choosing to wait until I can write and brag about the experience.

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Up and about on a Stand-Up-Paddleboard

Having completed the slow, calm and relaxing activity of stand-up paddle boarding we make our way a few hundred metres down the beach, about halfway between the café strip and where the skydivers are starting to land on the beach. We’re at one of Rockingham’s newest adventures, the jetpack experience.  The device works through a water jet propulsion system with arm levers that determine the direction you travel.  The controls are surprisingly sensitive and as Jetpack and Flyboarding Adventures operator Edward explains, you need to learn quickly how to vary your direction and altitude to avoid being dunked in the water.  It’s tough to get the hang of and you swallow a bit of water but it is something completely different and completely enjoyable.  With a bit of practise I’m sure I could be put to use doing stunts for the next James Bond movie.

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Up and about, and down with a splash, at Jetpack and Flyboard Adventures on Rockingham Beach.

Checking out of Quest Apartments later that afternoon I notice my daughter Matilda on the balcony taking a last look at the sea view. She turns and tells me that she is thinking about what I always tell her; if you’re sorry to leave it means you’ve had a great time.  She says she is very sorry to leave.

As we drive back to Perth I think about a family weekender we recently made to Broome, near the top of Western Australia. Broome is often described as being on ‘Broome Time’. I guess it’s meant to convey a slowing down, a lack of rushing about and taking it easy.

Is it possible we can enter a new description in the lexicon of Western Australian travel?

Rockingham Time.

Let Rockingham Time be a very Western Australian description for making the most of every minute. Let Rockingham Time be more than the traditional view of Rockingham being a pleasant day trip from Perth.  Let Rockingham Time be a weekend, or even better a long weekend to explore and indulge yourself, your friends and your family at full speed.

Whatever your age, whether it is a taste for dining or a thirst for adventure let Rockingham Time guide you through at least two days of exquisite time well spent.

Get to Rockingham. Get stuck in to what it has to offer.  Be exhausted and be alive.

Fact Box

Rockingham is 40km south of Perth and is home to the Royal Australian Navy’s biggest fleet base at Garden Island.

Quest Apartments Rockingham features 96 fully self-contained studio and one and two bedroom apartments with rates starting from $199 per night. Call 08 9591 0600 to enquire about their summer packages.

For information on tours, adventures and equipment hire in Rockingham call the Rockingham Visitor Centre on 9592 2778 or email enquiry.rtc@westnet.com.au

January 2017

Labuan: A very surprising and welcoming island

I featured Labuan Island in a recent interview on 6PR radio.  This article was written for Grand Dorsett Labuan.

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Grand Dorsett Labuan

I’m standing in the lobby of the Grand Dorsett Labuan amidst a crew of Dorsett Grand Labuan staff. They are about to perform their welcome song for my crew, an assortment of trekkers from various parts of Australia who have recently completed the Sandakan Ranau Death March Trek, retracing the footsteps of Prisoners of War in 1945.

I’ve been pulled into the group and handed the song sheet which is in English and Bahasa Malay. I keep up reasonably well even though I don’t know the tune and speak very limited Bahasa Malay.

The one image I have of this experience is looking up from my song sheet across at the singers alongside me as they belt out the line, “We welcome you to Dorsett Labuan!” and they’re singing with smiles on their faces. They’re not embarrassed and there’s no reluctance to show their pride and enthusiasm for their hotel.

My group of trekkers are spellbound. Many have travelled throughout the world and it’s the most heartfelt greeting any of them have received in a hotel. I used to think being gonged on arrival and handed a peach iced tea was pretty special but these guys are the best I’ve seen at welcoming guests.

The Dorsett Grand Labuan is the only five star hotel on the island and just minutes from the airport, waterfront and the busy town centre. The hotel receives regular awards for its customer service and with their singing staff I think they also have a good chance of winning Malaysia’s Got Talent.

Labuan Island is a territory of Malaysia off the western coast of Borneo and to the south of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. It can accessed easily by plane or ferry or if you’re slightly more adventurous, by speed boat. Electing the speed boat route takes 20 minutes from the mainland and you motor past islands, shipwrecks and red hulled offshore drilling ships waiting for their next job.

The island has a wonderful pace about it and even the traffic is slower than you’ll find in other parts of South East Asia and distinctly more courteous.

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Labuan:  Where even a Ferrari will slow down to let you cross the road.

While most tourists come for the great duty free shopping, particularly the textiles and technology, there is also a very good museum with free entry located five minutes’ walk from the Dorsett Grand Labuan. The colourful history and cultural themes of Labuan is well documented with many interesting and interpretive displays.

The first Governor of Labuan, James Brooke, was better suited to his original inspiration for coming to Borneo in the 1800’s.  After some strategic discussion at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, Brooke set off across the South China Sea to rid Borneo of its Pirates.  He was better at being swashbuckling than sitting behind a desk but those who took his place have done a magnificent job of creating an island where the shopping is brilliant, the history is rich, the hawker markets are cheap and delicious and the diving and fishing is just about unbeatable anywhere in the world. For those with a love of reality tv, Survivor Island, where the first ever Survivor series was set, is located nearby to the north and tours allow you to wallow in the same mud pools as the contestants, including a nude Richard Hatch.

My trekking group have come to Labuan to bind together the Sandakan Death March Trek that began with many days of trekking through mountainous Borneo jungle and then riding a stock carriage train to the coast, then a fast boat to the island. Every step we’ve taken and the stories we have talked about have led us to Labuan War Cemetery, the final resting place for the few whose remains are known and the many who are only ‘Known Unto God’.

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Labuan War Cemetery

As we walk the lines of memorial graves we think about the Australian and British Prisoners of War who perished at Sandakan and Ranau and on the three death marches in 1945. We think about how the final 15 prisoners were shot and killed 12 days after the war had finished. From 2434 Australian and British Prisoners of War, only 6 survived.

We stand in front of Richard Murray’s grave. He stepped forward from a line of men and said that he alone stole rice, knowing he would be killed. Stealing rice was a capital offence and he sacrificed his life so that others may live.

We stand in front of Captain John Oakeshott’s grave, a doctor who had the opportunity to escape but decided to stay with the sick. He was one those killed 12 days after the war had ended.

As a fighter jet from the Royal Malaysian Air Force flies over the Cross of Sacrifice at the cemetery we also remember the sacrifice of so many local people from Sabah and Sarawak who were killed during World War II and the bravery of those who provided assistance to the prisoners.

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The Royal Malaysian Air Force pays tribute to the fallen from the Empire.

It is a beautiful war cemetery, well maintained by Labuan authorities and staff are on site Monday to Friday from 7am to 4:30pm.

While the trek has been physically exhausting the walk through Labuan War Cemetery has been emotionally exhausting. Returning to the Dorsett Grand Labuan, our group is quiet and some choose to just sit in the lobby while others go off to breakfast, for a swim or a play with the resident sun loving cat.

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Susan Carlos is a wonderful General Manager of the Grand Dorsett Labuan but this cat is truly in charge.

For each us, in our own way, we find the space to reflect on our journey. I’ve cried during this trek but for now I am smiling. As I remember the staff at the hotel who sang to us I know I have to come back and share this experience with others, for the history of the past and for the friendships of the future.

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Back to Borneo, the race is on!

The West Australian newspaper: Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth

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Originally published by the West Australian newspaper and the writer was a guest of Skydive the Beach.

Disappointment. Now there’s a strange emotion to have in the middle of a skydive from 14,000 feet. The parachute opened, ending my freefall. I felt disappointment. It was a mixed emotion to be sure. I would have been more disappointed if it hadn’t opened.

The freefall had been an explosion of enjoyment for a full minute. I’d smiled for the Go-Pro, whooped for joy and as my cheeks were being blasted I looked skyward, drenched my face in the sun and quoted some lines from one of the most beautiful poems ever written, High Flight, by John Magee.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth…

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace…

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue…

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God…

In 1969, astronaut Michael Collins had a copy of this poem on the Apollo 11 mission and looking down on Earth had remarked that if Magee could write such a poem from the cockpit of a Spitfire, imagine what he would have written from a rocket ship in space.

John Macgee joined the Royal Air Force in June 1941, wrote High Flight in August and was killed in December. He was 19.

As I swung in my harness, linked in an embrace of clips and straps to my tandem partner Dan, I looked around. We were high enough that there was curvature to the horizon and I could see Penguin, Garden and Rottnest Islands just about as they appear on a map, from a top down view rather than from the view from shore.

The beautiful blue sky, the ‘delirious, burning, blue’ as Magee described it, contrasted lightly against the darker blue of Cockburn Sound, Shoalwater Bay, Safety Bay and the vastness of the Indian Ocean beyond.

Even the industry of Cockburn Sound looked spectacular. Silver networks of pipes, tanks and smokestacks with the black hulls of ships waiting offshore to come and collect whatever it is they’re refining, smelting and storing.

When I was a kid in the 1970’s, Cockburn Sound was a mess. I was lucky to spend school holidays by the sea. A little house in Shoalwater Bay was home to my family every school holidays and from the family runabout, the Red Witch, we would pull in King George whiting and revel in the silver flash in the water that would announce the arrival of the herring. I was also lucky enough to have a dinghy with a 1942 Seagull outboard engine which was responsible for disturbing the sleep of the local sea lion population for many years. We spent most of our time in Shoalwater Bay and Safety Bay because of the reputation Rockingham had for polluted waters.

The pollution of Cockburn Sound coupled with the rise of the bogun on land led to Rockingham developing a reputation it’s only recently shrugged off. Over the past few years, from a travel perspective, there has been a surge of interest in this area that has largely been bypassed by southern travellers for Mandurah and the communities further south.

At the beginning of 2015, Gemma Nisbet wrote in West Travel about Manuel Towers, a B&B in Shoalwater Bay. Gemma mentioned that it’s, ‘people from the city looking for a break that’s not far away’ who are coming to stay.   What a change has come over Rockingham! There have also been recent travel stories about Penguin Island, the local kayaking opportunities, swimming with dolphins, the new jetpack riding adventure and a beachfront promenade of dining opportunities that is hard to beat on the west coast.

Entering from above into this new world is Skydive Rockingham, an adventure tourism company that is catering to adrenalin junkies as old as 91 and as young as 12. On my jump, 13 year old Brandon-Lee had been presented that morning, as a surprise birthday present, the news that he was going skydiving. I would have loved to have got a wonderful quote from Brandon-Lee about how he felt about the experience but like you have to be when you’re a 13 year old boy, it’s all about actions not words. He didn’t say much but he can say he jumped out of an aeroplane.

Skydive Rockingham started dropping out of the sky over Rockingham in 2013 and have been frequent fallers above York (Skydive York) since 1996.

Arriving at the office on the foreshore at 0630 the level of staff enthusiasm was closely matched by the level of professionalism. While all the while smiling and asking how I was feeling, the paperwork was being checked and signed, scales confirmed I wasn’t lying about my declared weight and fitment of the harness and a firm introductory handshake with Dan were all accomplished without fuss.

“Do you have a nickname Dan? Diver Dan perhaps?”

“Nup. Just Dan.”

“Got it.”

After the short drive to Jandakot airport there’s no mucking about, we walk out to the aircraft which I’m told is an old crop duster from New Zealand. Less use of the word ‘old’ in the description of the plane would have been appreciated. Expecting to see an aircraft like Dusty in the movie ‘Planes’ I’m surprised to see something that looks more like a big green bean than an aeroplane. Never speak ill of a plane though, you don’t know what bigger plane it might be related to. Suffice to say, it was very narrow and I was already looking forward to getting out of it.

Dan, sitting behind me, starts clipping buckles and pulling straps and pushing me around like a hairdresser; tipping my head over to the side, pulling it up, pushing it down. As I feel him pulling straps I can’t help thinking of loads on my car or trailer that I always seem to loosen accidently as I try and tighten them.

I was about to ask him to shave the back of my neck when all of a sudden the two blokes in front of me just disappeared, they’d jumped out. Gone. No scream. No final questions to determine final agreement to embark at 9.8 metres per second per second towards the ground below.

Suddenly, unlike a hairdresser, Dan is pushing me towards the door. He reminds me to put my arms across my chest before exiting the aircraft. The funny thing is, I’m already outside the aircraft. He’s still inside with me stuck on the front of him.

Suddenly the plane isn’t there anymore.

Freefalling, or skydiving, only really became achievable once aircraft were able to operate at a high enough ceiling to allow time for falling before the deployment of the parachute. While jumping out of aircraft with parachutes and cloth buckets (not recommended) has been going on since not long after the Wright brothers first took to the skies, it wasn’t until the end of World War II that skydiving became a pursuit for adventure. Surplus aircraft and parachutes become available and ex-military parachutists wanted to do it for fun rather than being shot at as they descended.

As I’m falling, I’m doing what Dan has taught me, my arms are held out to keep my position stable. There’s not much else I have to do but enjoy the ride. I’m confident that Dan is checking his wrist mounted altimeter. I could tell him with a fair degree of certainty that we’re falling but I’m not aware at the time that our speed is closing quickly on 200 kilometres per hour. My car can’t do that.

After the parachute has deployed Dan grips my hand and tells me what a great job I’ve done. I’ll take praise most anywhere, most anytime but over the skies of Rockingham I found this a bit too difficult to take. Coming from the bloke who has literally shouldered the responsibility for our lives, it’s a great gesture to congratulate me but all I’ve done is grin my face until it hurt and quote the guts out of a 75 year old poem.

I’m given the opportunity to take the controls and I pull down hard on the right to begin our slow spiral towards the beach below. I focus on three dots below that I know are my family. I knew where they would be standing and I knew the colours of their clothing. With every second I drop closer to them. Dan snaps me to attention and reminds me to lift my legs up so that his feet touch down on the sand first. I stuff up. I don’t quite get my legs up high enough and as we hit the sand we end up looking like a sneaky couple seeking romance in the dunes.

As Dan unclips me from his harness our tethered relationship is at an end. As I leave his arms I am back in the arms of my family. I introduce them to Dan like he is God himself.

“Family, this is DAN.”

Next to the Skydive Rockingham office is the perfect venue to debrief the family, the well named, ‘Coffee by the Bay”. With fresh, warm muffins and a great coffee I regale the family and field their questions. The staff in the café have seen it all before. They’ve heard the descriptions and seen coffee cups go flying as gesticulating arms get out of control in the story telling moment.

Well I’m having my moment.

“So, kids, what did you think when you saw me coming in to land?”

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Borneo – Go for the past, stay for the present

 

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A jungle so hot and humid I couldn’t wear my wraparound sunglasses because the heat and humidity were so high that the glasses had formed their own terrarium in front of my eyes, constantly fogged and dripping.

A jungle so dense that the overhead canopy blocks light from reaching the jungle floor.

A jungle so enveloping that it was described by World War II Australian and British Prisoners of War (POWs) as the ‘green cage’.

It’s for the story of these POWs that I am here in Sabah on the island of Borneo.

I thought of that experience over a week later when I was in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, enjoying a gorgeous scoop of pandan ice-cream. I was with Ervina Masduki from the Hyatt Regency Hotel, enjoying the comfort of luxury accommodation at the end of a gruelling trek on both body and mind.

Ervina knew about the trek and some of the history. She has seen trekkers, nearly all of them Australians, stagger into the air-conditioned lobby of the Hyatt, muddied boots and trekking poles making a mess of the polished, tiled floor.

It was in 1942 that Australian and British Prisoners of War (POW) were transferred to Sandakan from Singapore. They were there to build an airfield but by 1945 it was clear that as the Allies advanced, the airfield would never be operational. Fearful of an invasion at Sandakan and not prepared to release their prisoners, the Japanese forced them to march to Ranau, at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, a distance of 240 kilometres.

Over three marches, the horrific conditions for those who remained at Sandakan camp and those who made it to Ranau, only 6 survived from a total of 2434. The final 15 were killed on 27 August 1945, 12 days after the war had ended.

Those that died on the track weren’t to know it but it had been cut by locals who had been instructed by the Japanese to make it. Thinking it must be for Japanese soldiers, the locals made the track as difficult as possible; up and over difficult mountains and avoiding flat ground, rivers and villages where food could easily be obtained.

When locals saw the POWs on the track they were distraught and many risked their lives by passing food whenever possible to the men as they walked past them.

For those who want to trek, the terrain will test you physically and mentally. For those who want to learn more about the Sandakan story, you will also be tested physically and mentally. There are opportunities to visit memorial sites, listen to locals and walk at your own pace in the footsteps of men who, for the most, didn’t survive.

The trek is designed to allow participants to learn and understand not just the loss of life to POWs but also recognise the sacrifice and bravery of many local Sabahans who provided assistance anyway they could.

Before the trek commences in Sandakan we visit the English Tea House for dinner. This colonial inspired restaurant sits high on the hill overlooking Sandakan town and harbour. Choosing to sit outside on the grassed terrace I adopt the atmosphere and sip a Gin and Tonic while reclining in a wicker lounge. Clink. It’s the gentle sound of wood on wood. I watch as others in my group play a game of croquet while being attended by a waiter with a drinks cart.

I turn away and focus my attention down below, past the lights of Sandakan town and out to the darkness of Sandakan Bay. It was from out there that the POWs had slowly steamed into the harbour on the dilapidated steamship Ubi Maru in July 1942. Just months earlier the Japanese had taken possession of British North Borneo after the fall of Singapore.

The next day we visit St Michaels and All Angels Church. When the POWs arrived in Sandakan in 1942, many spent the night in the church before being marched off to the camp. It’s a beautiful stone church that was one of the few buildings to survive the air raids in World War II.

In recent years the addition of the stained glass Windows of Remembrance by Australian stained glass artist Philip Handel has added a remarkable tribute to the Sandakan story. The windows show St Peter, under sentence of death. The windows are abundant with representations of flora, including Australian Bottlebrush, Banksia and Everlastings, British Shamrocks, Thistles, Bluebells and Roses and Borneo Orchids, Cordylines, Hibiscus and Vines.

The main window consists of 2,500 pieces – one piece for each POW sent to Sandakan. Each piece of glass was fired up to three times in Philip Handels own kiln.

A small area at the front of the church commemorates the POWs. There is a banner with the following words from Lord Byron;

“For there are deeds that should not pass away, and names that must not be forgotten.”

After St Michaels, we visit the Sandakan Memorial Park. Evidence of the past is here in the present. The boiler and a train locomotive alternator that was part of an intricate process to generate electricity sit upright and defy all attempts by the rust to topple over. Nearby, the Ruston Bucyrus excavator that the Japanese thought would speed up the job of building the airfield sits with its bucket resting on the ground. It’s doing about as much work as it did then thanks to some subtle acts of sabotage by the POWs.

A little further on are the concrete remains of the Japanese kitchen and quartermaster’s store. One of the six survivors, Keith Botterill described what it was like:

“The cooks would feed the dogs with swill, the kitchen rubbish. They’d pour it in this trough. We’d all hit together, the dogs and all of us. If you’ve ever tried to pull a bone out a starving dogs mouth you’ll know what it is like. The dog would fasten onto your wrist to take the bone off you and you’d still be putting the bone in your mouth.”

There is also evidence on a hill, now populated with pine trees, of the trenches that contained many of the bodies of POWs who died at Sandakan.

The last prisoner alive at Sandakan was Private John Skinner from Tenterfield in New South Wales. He was beheaded on the 15 August 1945, the day Japan announced its unconditional surrender.

As we leave the park there are children enjoying trying to catch dragonflies that flit among some lilies. Newly married couples position themselves in front of flowering gardens for photos and joggers make their way around the various tracks. It’s a peaceful, happy place that sits on ground with a tragic past. So long as we don’t forget the past, I think it’s wonderful that the land has found new life that is maintained and nourished by the people who visit it.

The trek begins early the next morning. There’s no way of easing us into it. This is jungle that is impenetrable without the sharp parang of our guides. This is jungle that hasn’t been trekked for nearly 8 months and in that time has completely regrown.

It was one of the great problems for the War Graves Commission when they returned to retrieve the bodies of the fallen after the war. The jungle reclaims itself so quickly that even with the experience of locals who had walked the track and with Bill Sticpewich, one of the six survivors, it was difficult to determine where the original track was.

There are steep short ascents, steep long ascents and descents that are sometimes easier to slide down than walk (well, that’s what I kept telling everybody). There is mud, there are rocks and there are massive trees that have fallen across your path and depending on your dimensions you need to make a decision how you’re going to go over, or sometimes under.

There are water crossings and there is walking in rivers, sometimes above knee height.

There are one-at-a-time suspension bridges that look and feel like they should be in an Indiana Jones movie.

There are leeches. There are ticks.

At times there are flying lizards, rhinoceros beetles and the best named creature in the world, the macrolyristes imperator, or giant long-horned grasshopper.

Each evening is spent debriefing the days walk and then briefing everyone on the next day. Everyone is keen to know how many water crossings there will be. More than ascents and descents, it’s the fuss of water crossings that cause irritation. The process of ensuring your feet are dry when you put your socks and boots back on is a routine you have to get right. If you don’t, your damp feet will easily cause blisters.

Most evenings are fairly short. After dinner there’s gear to be sorted for the next days walk, bruises and scrapes to be attended to, then a restful sleep.

Mid trek, we stay in a bamboo long house at the Sabah Tea Plantation. With each step sending a domino effect of creaking through the long house it’s a difficult late night walk to the toilet.

Along the way each day, we stop to talk about the lives of Australian POWs who are known to have died at particular locations on the track. We talk about their pre-war lives. We even sing for those who it’s known loved a bit of country music.

Our trek finishes at Ranau and we conduct a ceremony at the Kundasang War Memorial. We search the memorial walls for the names we have learnt, we look up at Mount Kinabalu.

The locals believe that Mount Kinabalu shrouds the souls of the dead while for the POWs they came to hate the ever present mountain that was always there, watching them from above.

As I look at Mount Kinabalu’s long, jagged peak I am proud to have reached the end of this trek and even prouder to know more about a story that unfortunately remains unknown to most.

Before I walk away I take a look out to the jungle past Ranau and imagine Keith Botterill hiding in the jungle with Nelson Short after escaping from the final camp not far from here. He hears a trampling on the undergrowth, big heavy footsteps that don’t mind revealing their presence. He thinks to himself that he’s had it, the Japanese soldiers have found him. His head slumps down as the footsteps stop in front of him. He looks at the boots and something is not right. Over two and a half years of captivity have taught him what a Japanese soldiers boot looks like. He looks up, and up, and up. It’s a great big Australian soldier, Lofty Hodges, who looks at him and his mate and says, “How ya going boys?” They were safe. They had survived.

While our trekking is complete, our journey is far from over. We now need to travel to the Labuan War Cemetery on Labuan Island where the graves of the Australian and British Prisoners of War from Sandakan are to be found.

Labuan Island is a territory of Malaysia off the western coast of Borneo and to the south of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. It’s accessed easily by plane or ferry or if you’re slightly more adventurous, by speed boat. Electing the speed boat route takes 20 minutes from the mainland and you motor past islands, shipwrecks and red hulled offshore drilling ships waiting for their next job.

Our accommodation on the island is at the Dorsett Grand Labuan. I arrive before our group and I soon find myself standing in the lobby amidst a crew of Dorsett Grand Labuan staff. They are about to perform their welcome song for my crew.

I’ve been pulled into the group and handed the song sheet which is in English and Bahasa Malay. I keep up reasonably well even though I don’t know the tune and speak very limited and badly pronounced Bahasa Malay.

The one image I will always have of this experience is looking up from my song sheet across at the singers alongside me as they belt out the line, “We welcome you to Dorsett Labuan!” and they’re singing with smiles on their faces. They’re not embarrassed and there’s no reluctance to show their pride and enthusiasm for their hotel.

My group of trekkers are spellbound. Many are well travelled and it’s the best greeting any of them have received in a hotel.

The Dorsett Grand Labuan is the only five star hotel on the island and just minutes from the airport, waterfront and the busy town centre. The hotel receives regular awards for its customer service and with their singing staff I think they also have a good chance of winning Malaysia’s Got Talent.

While most tourists come for the shopping there is also a very good museum with free entry located five minutes’ walk from the hotel. The colourful history and cultural themes of Labuan is well documented with many interesting and interpretive displays.

We’ve come to Labuan to bind this trek together. Every step we’ve taken and the stories we have talked about have led us to Labuan War Cemetery, the final resting place for the few whose remains are known and the many who are ‘Known Unto God’.

As we walk the lines of memorial graves we think about the Australian and British Prisoners of War who perished at Sandakan and Ranau and on the three death marches in 1945.

We stand in front of Richard Murray’s grave. He stepped forward from a line of men and said he alone stole rice, knowing he would be killed. Stealing rice was a capital offence and he sacrificed his life so that others may live.

We stand in front of Captain John Oakeshott’s grave, a doctor who had the opportunity to escape but decided to stay with the sick. He was one of those killed 12 days after the war had ended.

As a fighter jet from the Royal Malaysian Air Force flies over the Cross of Sacrifice at the cemetery we also remember the sacrifice of so many local people who were killed during World War II and the bravery of those who provided assistance to the prisoners.

It is a beautiful war cemetery, well maintained by Labuan authorities and staff are on site Monday to Friday from 7am to 4:30pm.

While the trek has been physically exhausting the walk through Labuan War Cemetery has been emotionally exhausting. Before our departure to Kota Kinabalu on the mainland, our group is quiet. For each us, in our own way, we find the space to reflect on our journey. I’ve cried during this trek but for now I am smiling.

As I remember the staff who sang to us yesterday and the kids playing at Sandakan Memorial Park right at the beginning of this journey, I know I have to come back and continue to share this experience with others, for the history of the past and for the friendships of the future.

Far from the wartime horror of what was then known as British North Borneo, the Malaysian state of Sabah is beautiful and the people are friendly and polite. They may laugh at my use of Bahasa Malay words I’ve picked up along the way but they laugh not to make fun but to make friends.

The island of Borneo, of which Sabah is the northern most region, has been described as the ‘Land Below the Wind’, taken from the title of a book, first published in 1939 and written by Agnes Keith who lived in Sandakan. It’s a description that tells you where Borneo is but not what it is. It tells you Borneo is below the typhoon belt of the South China Sea but doesn’t describe the near impenetrable jungle that blocks light from the jungle floor. It doesn’t describe the vast network of rivers that twist through deep rainforest valleys and gorges.

There’s something else missing from the description, the ‘Land Below the Wind’. It doesn’t make you smile. Despite the difficulty of the trek, despite being far from home and tending to blisters and an aching back you can’t take the smile off my face. The challenge this land presents, the locals you meet and the opportunity to be in real jungle has given me a desperate longing to come back.

Weeks later, I pull on my boots to start preparing for another trek in another part of the world. I cross the laces and pull on them sharply and a small cloud of dust puffs up and drifts over my face.

It is the smell of my footsteps in a place now far away. It is the smell of the jungle, it is the smell of leaves both fresh and fallen, it is the smell of my emotions, often faltering and falling. I am home and I weep that they, the truly brave and fallen, are not.