It’s still dark out when my alarm cheerfully startles me from my sleep. I’ve barely managed an hour of sleep in the oppressive heat of the night, but I stagger to the bathroom and let scalding water sluice sleep off me.
I doze fitfully in the car as the sky turns first grey and then pink. My guide chats cheerfully while I struggle to form comprehensible thoughts.
I’m a zombie.
The landscape slowly comes into clarity, a green blur of forest occasionally interrupted by towns and villages slowly coming to life. We’ve got the road mostly to ourselves at this ungodly hour, but slowly we’re joined by others making their own weary way to Beaufort Town.
There’s a bundle of nervous energy in my belly, and it’s slowly waking up as I do.
I’ve been white water rafting before, but I’m always just a little bit nervous about the prospect of hurtling through muddy water as it churns over rocks.
While I might whoop and holler my enjoyment in the moment, there’s a kind of ludicrousness to the whole prospect.
I drift back off to sleep.
My trip to Padas River for white water rafting with Riverbug Tours starts from Beaufort Town.
The day is all drizzle and clouds that seem to magnify the light rather than dim it. The entire town is cast in a fluorescence that isn’t entirely pleasant.
All tours, regardless of operator, start from here. The train station’s waiting area is thick with the humidity of the day’s rain and the too-many people crammed into it.
My guide hands me a bottle of something mysterious and black.
We slug back sweet black coffee from repurposed water bottles and munch without much relish on bread. One piece has red bean paste inside. I’m reminded of similarly bleary-eyed mornings in South Korea when I was younger.
I look around at the assortment of smiling tourists and stoic locals. Not all of us are taking the slow train into the jungle for leisure.
I’m reminded of the opening scenes in a movie – where faces have yet to resolve into characters with meaningful backstories.
I wonder at which of these faces will be familiar by day’s end. Which of the seemingly aloof guys will I have shared a laugh with by the evening? Which of the girls will I have struck up conversation with?
Traveling alone is like starting each day in a pilot episode of a new TV show. You’re the only cast member, but it never stays that way for long.
The Slow Train to the Padas River
The only way to get to the Padas River is by a slow moving train. A former sugar and coffee train, it remains as a stoic reminder of Colonial England’s greatest weapon.
It doesn’t always run smoothly or at all, and we’re only sure our day’s activities are going ahead when the slow-moving relic groans and shudders its way into the station.
“Go, find a seat,” my guide urges me, “I will stand”.
I soon see what he means. We’ve all purchased tickets, but they don’t guarantee a seat. I’m wedged in with a trio of Chinese tourists who spend the entire trip snapping selfies and playing on their phones.
I contemplate sleeping, but remember my guide’s advice to the contrary. This is apparently a trip not to be slept through.
Rattling and screeching in protest, the train jerks into motion. We leave civilization behind. Our phones lose signal. Cars and power lines are soon replaced by jungle creepers and isolated homesteads.
Our chariot is all warped wood and chipped paint.
Many of my companions doze, lulled to sleep by the rocking of the carriage and the predictable rattle and squeak of it.
For me, the trip soon descends into moments of silence save the soothing, alien drone of the jungle. It washes over me like white noise.
The Padas River meanders by like a lazy brown serpent. Its going somewhere, but it sure as hell isn’t in a hurry.
Not here, anyway.
The stations, such as they are, loom up out of the undergrowth like relics. Choked by hungry kudzu, they bring our train to a shuddering, indignant halt.
We only linger long enough for one or two passengers to clamber up and into the carriage. Occasionally, we disgorge a passenger who sets off into the jungle.
There are no roads here, but scattered settlements exist as conduits along the line. Some cling to existence like the aging railway that sustains them.
Others are garishly coloured and modern – a tribute to the enterprise of their population and the dynamic growth of Sabah.
I’m one of the few passengers awake. Two seats ahead of me, a wizened old local lady with leathery skin puffs away on a hand-rolled cigarette. The smoke coils around her like an inquisitive spirit. Our eyes meet and she flashes me a mostly toothless grin.
I wonder how many times she’s made this slow journey? How many trips did it take for her to stop finding the dense jungle growth both intimidating and beautiful?
Or is it as humdrum and everyday to me as kangaroos in the morning mist and sleepy New England farm towns?
We stop at a nondescript station at some point and disembark. We aren’t at our final destination, but we need to change trains.
Half-wild dogs dart between us as we mill about in the warming morning air. Foolish tourists offer them scraps of food and pick up persistent companions. They occasionally growl and snap at one another, but seem harmless enough.
The locals certainly aren’t moved by their yelping or fighting.
Our next train is somehow older than the last. It looks as if its best days were during the prime of my grandfather’s life, but like a baby boomer – it’s nothing if not stubborn. It hauls us slowly, inexorably up into the mountains to where the sluggish Padas River is a far hungrier beast.
White Water Rafting the Padas River
It’s mid-morning by the time we reach our destination, although it feels much later given the early start we’ve all made to be here.
We’re divided up into our tour groups like confused livestock, meekly following whoever shouts a word we recognise.
We all tackle the river together, but briefings are done by the individual companies. Our hosts, Riverbug, are a short walk from the station.
Helmets and life jackets are assigned, groups are decided, and a cursory safety demonstration is given. It’s more jokes than information, but it puts us all at ease.
Soon enough, we’re all awake enough to start making introductions and joking. I’m with a foursome of Europeans and my guide. He looks even more nervous than I am.
“I always drink the river,” he jokes, “Every time I come, I spend more time in the water than on the boat”.
We all make fun of his reticence, although I’m sure I’m not alone in being a bit nervous. Anything that comes with a disclaimer and a waiver needs to be taken seriously, in my experience.
Soon, we’re wading into the river and clambering into our boat. None of us do it with a great deal of grace, but we’re hurriedly perched in our assigned positions.
The river is lower than is ideal, which means our guide has to work all the harder to make sure we end up in the water.
It’s all a part of the experience. The rapids certainly aren’t enough on their own to unseat us, but our guide is certainly adept at it.
It’s on one of these unscheduled baptisms in the muddy brown water that I have what I could melodramatically call a ‘near death experience’, but which the benefit of hindsight shows me was little more than a scare.
Tumbled backwards out of the raft, my helmet strikes a rock. Floundering about in a world of alternating darkness and disorienting flashes of life, I kick for the surface and find my ascent blocked.
Frightened, but not yet panicked, I duck back under the churning water and try again.
I strike the raft again. My lungs burning, I begin to let that primal idiocy take over. I kick up again, shoving with my hands as if I could somehow lift a raft with six people in it, and inhale a heaping helping of flavourful water in the process.
Thankfully (for me at least) the boat has capsized and everybody has tumbled out of it. Instead of having to produce a feat of superhero like strength to lift the raft, I instead emerge into the confusing darkness and air trapped underneath it.
Gasping gratefully for air, I finally extricate myself and emerge to find my companions a laughing, sodden mess.
We’re still drifting downriver, none of us the worse for wear, and my supposed brush with death seems a silly bump in the road.
The remainder of the trip is considerably less life-affirming. We chat, we drift, we occasionally tumble into the water laughing like children, and it all passes by at a pleasant pace.
My Dutch companion and I drift on our backs for a while, dismissing the raft for a little serenity and the feeling of the world drifting by us.
“Your job, it sounds very interesting,” he observes, “But isn’t it lonely?”
I’m so used to people gushing with envy for what I do, that it startles me for a moment.
It is lonely. Immensely so, at times.
I’m away from my family for eleven months of the year.
My oldest friendships are preserved by a mixture of Skype D&D sessions, occasional texts, and gifs shared over Facebook Messenger.
My friendships in China, although fun in the heat of a booze-filled evening, tend to be superficial things.
There are a few good friends who make up for it, of course, but mostly, it’s lots of transitory friendships and temporary flings that salve the ego but do little for the soul.
Our conversation lapses and I’m left alone with that thought.
We eventually feel rocks and muddy earth beneath us, signalling that it’s time for us to wade onto dry land and leave behind the madness of the day.
Bedraggled and more awake than I have any right to feel, I join my makeshift ‘crew’ for a BBQ lunch and small talk.
When the train comes, we all shuffle onto it and find a seat as best we can.
Temporary friendships are largely forgotten as sleep overtakes us. We listen to podcasts or stare dazedly out the window.
Most of us just pass out.
Goodbyes are said at the station, half-hearted promises are made to stay in touch, and we all go our separate ways.
As twilight closes overhead and I’m allowed some time to reflect on the ups and downs of the day, I’m filled with a mixture of emotions.
Gratitude for the experience.
Sadness at the fact it was spent alone amidst a crowd of strangers.
Excitement for the adventures to come.
It was a day I’ll remember for a long while, and not just because of the thrills. The train ride was like a trip back in time and, in the many silences that accompanied me, I was better able to appreciate not only the superficial beauty of the landscape – but the persistent beauty of Sabah as a whole.
I’ll be back.
My experience with Riverbug Tours was part of the #HelloSabah campaign with Sabah Tourism Board. All thoughts are my own.