Wednesday 30 April 2014

The Twin Otter and Me

Organising a trip at short notice can sometimes create unexpected outcomes. This week I found out I was travelling to Kota Kinabalu again, so as usual I book myself a flight online with MAS wings, the local subsidiary of Malaysian airlines.

Because it was so late, I found that the only available flight departed at 11.40 am from Sandakan and it was rather inexpensive. "Hmmm why so," I thought to myself. I noticed almost immediately the flight took over 2 hours.  Usually it varies between 45 and 50 minutes depending on the aircraft type.  Obviously a stop along the way, though it wasn't indicated on the booking page.  I was not in a hurry, the extra hours flight time didn't concern me,  so proceeded to book. Seat 4C came up upon completion. (I had not bothered to preselect my own seat.) I assumed I was on the aisle. 

Being the curious beast I am, I searched for the aircraft type expecting it to be the usual ATR 72 500, a twin turbo prop French/Italian built plane that carries 68 passengers.  I have flown on this aircraft numerous times and found it comfortable enough though a little noisy.

To my surprise, it wasn't. This flight was going via Kudat on the northern most point of Borneo in a much smaller, Twin Otter DHC-6  400 series.
Really flying I thought to myself.  These aircraft have a fixed undercarriage and are unpressurised.  Meaning to say they can't fly very high, so in theory lots more to see.  The downside, of course, is that they must fly through more weather.  They can fly around, not over the numerous thunderstorms in this region.  Since the plane can only accommodate 3 seats across, my 4C was in actual fact a window seat.  "Great!" I thought.  I used to fly small aircraft myself ( Cessna 172 and Grumman Cheetah ) in what seems another lifetime ago and consequently started to really look forward to this trip.

Twin Otter 400

Further investigation dampened my enthusiasm somewhat.

Mas Wings has had 4 accidents since 2008, all  involving the Twin Otter (previous series) with the last one at Kudat air-field killing 2 including the co- pilot.  It appeared from the reports I read all involved pilot error and occurred during landing.  My wife immediately told me not to go.  "Lightning couldn't possibly strike twice, could it?" flashed through my head.  Anyway, it guaranteed this flight wasn't going to be boring. And it wasn't.

The flight was scheduled to depart during the quiet part of the day.  Sandakan airport is no KLIA, so after the early morning flights, there is virtually no one around. 
I had checked in online but was concerned about whether I could take my backpack on board.  I went to the checking counter and to my surprise, they wanted to weigh me!   I had to stand up onto where they weigh the bags on the conveyor belt,  much to the amusement of a group of Australians and British. They too went through the process and started to chatter to each other, a little nervously after being told the plane was small and that weight was critical. 

Through customs and into departure hall, empty apart from the 19 passengers for flight MH3005. 

Time for departure arrived, on schedule and proceeded to march over the tarmac to the aircraft.  It looked very new which was comforting, the refurbishment programme between the 300 series and the newer 400 was obviously well underway.  Maybe because of the previous years' mishaps, they were running out of aircraft.  Anyway, any doubts about the viability of the aircraft were now dispelled in my mind. 

For those who haven't flown in smaller prop aircraft, there are a number of differences immediately apparent.  The Twin Otter carries its own set of stairs forming part of the fuselage which are lowered by two cables at the rear of the aircraft.  I painfully discovered the door well is not very high.  My head came in contact with the top of the door frame even though I'm not a tall man. The interior is less than 5 feet in height, so you have to bend down appreciably as you walk along the short aisle. 

Though I had a designated seat number I was told by one of the ground crew to sit anywhere I felt.  First come, first serve.  How refreshing!  No such luxury of air hotties on this flight.  As it turned out, I chose the same seat next to the window under the wing.  The seats themselves a very rudimentary, light frame with minimal padding.  Only just ok for a short flight with a bad back and arthritic knees.

The small interior brings you close to all the occupants, therefore the plane was full of banter, nervous  laughter and we quickly introduced each other. Most were holiday travellers with I think one local who was flying home. Almost all the occupants had never flown in such a small plane before and were looking forward to the adventure, some with more than a little 
apprehension on their faces.

 Cockpit door wide open to let in some air 

The first thing you notice when the engines are turned on is the level of interior sound. It's noisy, still possible to talk, but with my hearing, I find it difficult.  

The runway in Sandakan is over 2000 metres, so the 'Otter' had little difficulty in getting airborne in well less than half the length.  The throttle is above the pilots head like sea planes and for some reason required the use of both pilots' hands. There was no door separating the pilots from the passengers and I had an excellent view of the GPS map in the centre of the cockpit showing our route.

The sudden lifting into the air and the rapid rate of ascend surprise most on board. I think it was more perceived than real, being a small plane. 
It's worth noting that most people have never flown in small aircraft, so the sensation of flying is very different than in a larger heavier plane. Weather affects smaller aircraft a lot more.  They move around more in the air currents and tend to give the feeling of floating and drifting along. The best way I can describe it is that feeling you get on a large Ferris wheel just before and after reaching the highest point except you have to add the lateral movement.  It's all a bit dreamy, like floating on cloud, or after having a few vodka and tonics, if you enjoy that sort of thing. 
The flight turned left after a few minutes and travelled north west along the east coast. The weather was clear and because of the lower altitude, you could see a lot more detail.  To the east many small islands dotted the sea, some in Malaysia, those further out the Philippines.  Rivers large and small, fill the land like a meandering network of roads which of course they are to the local Sungai.  The banks are predominately mangrove until they give away to firmer ground inland, then the manmade transformation of the land becomes evident.  Oil Palm dominates all that is not mangrove nor mountain and what jungle left is mainly secondary growth from the logging days. 

Midway through the flight to Kudat, the passengers had relaxed and everyone on the plane was enjoying conversing to each other by yelling above the engine din. 

I found myself constantly looking at the pilots doing their thing.  The captain in particular was a little fidgety, unable to keep his hands of the throttle as if it wasn't set right. 

As we approached Kudat, everyone peered out looking for the runway.  It was spotted early but disregarded for being too short. It wasn't until final approach that it became obvious that we were going to land on what looked every bit a paved footpath.  I'm sure there're shorter runways in the world but from the air, this one looked woefully inadequate.  Images of the previous years' fatal accident did cross my mind, but after all this was a short takeoff and landing aircraft.  Two or three of the other passengers were not quite so reassured.  The descend was steep and because we couldn't see out the front at this stage, one of the women screamed out,  "We're going to land in the swamp," at the top of her voice. 

Needless to say, we didn't.  It wasn't a copybook landing though.  We did bounce and float down the runway a tad. The roar of the engines peaked as the props were put into negative pitch to pull us up. 
Smiles returned to all and 17 of the 19 passengers disembarked. 
Myself and one other were going onto KK. 

Me trying to look intelligent. Notice the stairs.

It wasn't long before we were left to our own devices.  The plane got very hot on the tarmac, so we jumped out and wandered around the aircraft taking photos of each other.  No one seem to care, in fact there was no one there to care except us.  Everyone else had disappeared into the green nondescript terminal building.

The Green House. Notice Air traffic Control Tower

This wouldn't happen in too many airports around the world.
Twenty minutes passed and the flight crew returned to the aircraft.
This runway is only 700 metres long less than a third of Sandakan's.
The aircraft taxied to the end of the runway, lined up and gunned the engines with the brakes on.  After what seemed an eternity they were released and we screamed down the tarmac and was airborne in no time.  The lack of passengers helped whereas a full plane must use every last inche.

The 40 minute flight flew south along Sabah's west coast. I couldn't help but feel a little privileged having the aircraft to myself bar one. 
The flight was enjoyable and I looked out the window for most of it.  This part of the west coast is much more built up with numerous small and medium towns to observe along the way.  We did encounter a few thunderstorm cells but easily flew around them.  The site of Kota Kinabalu's long runway was very reassuring. 
The total travel time was a touch over two hours. 
Would I do it again?  The short answer is yes if time is not an issue. 

I have flown a lot over the past decade and have to a certain extent become jaded with air travel.  The little Twin Otter brought back memories of the first time I flew all those years ago.  Not quite flying by the seat of your pants, but close.  

Friday 25 April 2014

A Tale of Two Cities in Malaysia

Chance would have it I am spending a few days in Kota Kinabalu this week with my wive who, has some Dept of Education business to do in the Capital.  As I linger around the hotel, this has given me the opportunity to reflect on the stark differences between this place and the second largest city in Sabah and former capital where I live - Sandakan. 

Both cities started their life roughly the same time nearing the end of the 19th century.  Sandakan flourished quickly due to its deep harbour and access to natural resources such as rainforest hard wood. In fact it is said there were more millionaires at that time living in Sandakan than anywhere else in Asia and the wealth of the area meant it had a wire service to London and paved roads even before Hong Kong and Singapore.

Kota Kinabalu or Jesselton as it was known then, developed less spectacularly as a trading post in rubber, rattan, honey and wax. Both places were run by the British North Borneo Company in the colony known as North Borneo. World War 2 and the Japanese occupation saw both towns almost completely destroyed. By the war's end, the North Borneo company handed over the colony to the British who in turn moved the Capital to Jesselton.  Independence in the early 1960’s Jesselton got its new name and maintained its status as the state's capital.

From the lookout,  Kota Kinabalu

So what's changed in the last 60 years? In short, a lot.

Sabah is the poorest state of the 13 states of the Malaysian federation despite supplying 30% of Malaysian's palm oil and large reserves of hydrocarbons.  There are numerous reasons for this, which I won't go into here.

The rebuilding started soon after the war where the centre of both cities developed slowly replacing the mostly wooden structures that had been destroyed during the war into concrete shutter shops. 

A lot of Kota Kinabalu's commercial centre was built on reclaimed land from the sea  and being the capital of the New State of Sabah, it developed with better quality and more extensive infrastructure.  Most of Sabah's commerce is conducted here to the long term detriment of Sandakan.

Moving forward to the present. Kota Kinabalu is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city with a population around the half million mark. It is the only place you can arrive in the state from overseas therefore a bulk of the tourist trade stay in the local area. Mount Kinabalu is only a 2-hour drive and there are many beaches and islands with world class  facilities.

Sandakan, on the other hand, is much more limited.  They do have some islands off the coast but these generally have received mixed reviews due to management issues.  If tourists do venture to this part of the East coast, it's for the orang utan sanctuary in Sepilok, 30 kilometres west of Sandakan or the Kinabatangan River. There is accommodation in both these places, so many visitors never reach Sandakan proper.

Where Kota Kinabalu is vibrant Sandakan is not. The population is a little less than KK but the town lacks sophistication in its makeup and infrastructure.  The centre of KK has street appeal and variety whereas Sandakan is drab and predictable. Basic services, the Internet, electricity and water break down on a frequent basis.  A lot of this of course is to do with wealth. Sandakan is a poor place. A large proportion of the town's population are illegal immigrants.  Unofficial figures estimate the illegals as high as 600,000 within Sabah. The Philippines and Indonesia are very close and due to historical reasons the borders are extremely porous. These people have taken over the old centre of the city and the immediate surrounding area and consequently there is little desire for developers to spend their money, so the area is  in a gradual state of decay. ( in some cases not so gradual) Developers in general have concentrated their efforts in establishing new infrastructure projects in the outlying suburban areas. This gives the overall impression of a disjoined city looking for its lost past. Having said all this there are plans afoot to establish a new centre 3 kilometres along the coast in an area called Sim Sim, though this does not solve the issue with the old town centre.

Traffic is a problem in both cities, but the quality of roads are much higher in KK. The national highway between Sandakan and KK is a potholed mess, consequently a 300 kilometre journey takes up to 6 hours. 

In general, cleanliness is better in KK. Litter and garbage disposal is a problem in both, but Sandakan is a far dirtier place. The rat population is enormous due to inefficient collection of refuse and the dumping of cooking waste down the open drains that flow directly into the sea. This is not to say there are not people here that are concerned about the state of the environment and try hard to make an impact, but in generally they are overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. KK does a far better job at maintaining the immediate environment though litter in the surrounding sea continues to be an issue.   

Having choices is what most people want. KK wins hands down in that criteria. The restaurants and cafes cater for a more diverse segment of society. If you look hard enough you can find food and beverages that will please most.   Sandakan at best has only a handful of places that would come close to catering for a discerning connoisseur. 

So, there you have it my impressions of the two. The crown for most liveable place is firmly on the head of KK city. Sandakan’s glory days of the early 20th century are well and truly gone, but who knows the Phoenix may in one day rise from the ashes again. 

Historical Sandakan before and after World War 2

Wednesday 9 April 2014

The Self Conscious Selfie

Just finished reading an article hypothesising on the current social  phenomenon of the Selfie - 'Selfie Addiction' by Hilary Cadigan.

Apart from the word itself sounding painfully indulgent, the idea that there is more to it  than just people taking photos of themselves is very intriguing.

In a nutshell, the article examines an authoritarian society that sets limits of self-expression to a long-standing set of social norms.  Conformity is paramount to this social order where collectivism overrides all forms of individualism. Selfies are contra to this long established mantra.  It's viewed as self-promotion and deemed as inappropriate. Consequently, the powers to be have become exceedingly uncomfortable with this practise to the extent it has been publicly denounced.

Is it really this deep and meaningful?

To be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought beyond the obvious nauseous narcissist that can be often seen on Facebook and other similar social media. Do these people really desire excessive attention?  Are they afraid of becoming irrelevant if not constantly posting images of themselves in cyberspace to family and friends?

Perhaps it is much more mundane than this.  Maybe just a bit of harmless fun?

These are my thoughts for what it’s worth.

When I was at an age to be inclined to indulge in this sort of thing, the means to do so were not easily available.  You did occasionally try to point a camera at yourself, but getting it just right for a quality photograph was hit and miss.  The camera was generally heavy and at arms length you could not predict what was going to be in the frame with any certainty. There was no digital photography and film was expensive. The idea of “wasting a shot” generally meant you didn’t do it and besides, there was no instant gratification;  you had to wait to get the film developed.

Compare those times to now.  The dedicated camera has been replaced by the ubiquitous mobile phone.  Small and light to use, digital technology means you can take as many photos as you wish, to get that perfect shot.  You also see what you are  shooting due to the front facing camera and receive instant gratification to boot.

I'm part of this digital age and own an up-to-date mobile phone with all the bells and whistles, but I don’t take selfies. 
(Slight qualification - on rare occasions when forced to) 


I have no desire to admire my ageing face and am not the slightest bit in love with my self-image. This doesn’t mean I hate myself, mind you, but I know what I am and don’t need to be reassured each and every day how good I look for my age - polite lies at best.  Drawing attention to myself in this way is shallow and meaningless.  I would much prefer to be known for my conversational and writing skills - better or for worse.  Give me substance over form any day.

The selfie is predominately the domain of the young with plenty of free time to indulge. 

I’m sure in some instances it is a declaration of independence, but for the most part I feel its more to do with boredom,  herd/group mentality, convenience and of course a little self promotion thrown in.   

This is more like it!

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Writer's Routine

The alarm announces the day with an irritating excuse for an uneven melody.  Perfect because it works.  Five a.m. and the long days journey into night begins.  No light yet, just the stirring sounds of workers reluctantly preparing for a repeat of yesterday. 

The dog lets out a barks of frustration as a lone male walks in front of the house.  The thought of breakfast breaks through the befuddled mind as it fights the urge to remain inactive. No bouncing out of bed to meet this new day.  Slow right sided roll to the edge of the bed, then an arm thrush to stagger into an upright position.  Unsteady gait, a balancing act on an imaginary tight rope, undignified thrusting of one then the other leg into the opening of a pair of shorts.  The engine needs time to warm up. 

The early morning pre-dawn air is thick with moisture as he walks up the stairs to the kitchen at the back of the house to prepare the breakfast.  Two bowls of cereal and three cups of coffee begins the ritual.  Pairs of eyes stare into miniature screens to peruse any information that has made a difference. The sounds of eating, ironing and bathroom duties reverberates throughout the house as time watching becomes increasing paramount.

Six a.m. is the deadline for departure, to be met by most members of the household except for me.  The first sliver of tropical light dances over the surface of the weatherboard houses.  Wave goodbye, watch the car disappear around the corner and like a recluse retreats to the sanctuary of electronic aids of information and creativity.  The door is firmly closed and locked to shut out the increasing active outside world. 

Time marches on, an active mind makes it fly along, an inattentive one grinds it to a halt.  Reflection and mulling leads to periods of both.  Hours can turn into minutes or minutes turn into hours; the dice of daily fate decides.  Thus is the meanderings of a reluctant scribe. 

Inspiration flows like a creek bed in a dry country; flood or drought with zilch in between.  The tap is either on or off.

Working feverishly on the keyboard, thoughts to bytes building upon themselves creating layers of stone to support the complexity of ideas that form the structure of a new story. 
Otherwise, lying on the bed watching the mosquitoes circling the room wondering which one will attack next.

Ten thirty and the next pattern begins. Showered and prepared to enter the outside world of predictable chaos.  The ebb and flow of unbridled emotions a constant in the background during the walk from one sanctum to another - the coffee shop.  Twenty minutes of automation, one foot in front of another, no thought involved, a well ingrained path in the memory of routine.

Sanctum Two, the weigh station, the second home of possible creativity.  Coffee and cake, the fuel needed to plough on through a very long day.

Fleeting moments of conversation coupled with reading and writing; the pattern never straying too far from the original. Struggling to avoid the pitfalls of staying relevant to the world of the reader, staring and thinking, examining every nook and cranny for inspiration. 

Twelve thirty, work completed, uncompleted or not started. The dice only knows;
automation takes over again.

Inner sanctum one has changed shape and form by the afternoon light.  Neither comforting nor reassuring, but a place that separates the outside world from the existential self.

Period of satisfaction or despair, the struggle continues on and off until five pm when the routine of others intervene.    The need for sustenance brings with it normality as daily events are discussed around the table.  Writer’s inspirational thoughts and ideas simmer in the background all but forgotten. 

Domestic duties prevail until seven thirty.  Propped up in bed, no television, nor radio for distractions, just the electronic companion which screen dimly lights the four nondescript walls. Ideas surface without warning; being prepared to grab and mould them when they do is the key. The search never stops, the peak is never conquered, good is never good enough. Productive or not, the end comes when the writer no longer needs this day but yearns for the next.