This is the true story of the tragedy in 2001, told by Ellie’s father from his email. It’s a long story. I have divided the story into 7 posts for easy reading. Take your time to read Mr. Bruce James 8000 words write up. Pray the Lord that her soul will rest in peace.
Our holiday was booked in January 2001, but planned many months earlier. As soon as we knew that our elder son Tom was to undertake a GAP placement in Sabah we started researching the best way to visit him there and experience some of the landscapes and culture in which he would be immersed. We read every guide book about Borneo we could find and ordered several from our local library. After six months comparing itineraries and prices from British and German travel companies, we chose ‘Travelbag Adventures’ as they offered the most comprehensive tour, were committed to eco-tourism and our three children had thoroughly enjoyed trekking with them in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco with their school, the previous summer. It was going to be the holiday of a lifetime; little did we know how true that would be.
We had never been able to afford extravagant holidays, nor needed them. We lived close to beautiful beaches and countryside in Cornwall when the children were small and are fortunate to have family members living in Wales, the Scilly Isles and the London area, all ideal holiday destinations. Living for ten years in Germany provided numerous opportunities to travel in Europe, including driving to Madrid and back during half term and our annual snowboarding trips to Bavaria.
This was going to be a wonderful family holiday, as we would meet up with Tom several times during the three weeks in Borneo. It was, indeed everything we hoped it would be. We were travelling as part of a group of twelve people. Rather an unusual group for Travelbag as it fell into two halves, those under twenty one and those of forty plus. It was a lovely group, however, and we were all getting on so well. Ellie was very friendly with the other young people on the tour and kept them laughing as we travelled for hours upriver, pushing our longboats at frequent intervals when there was insufficient water to ride inside. She never stopped telling funny stories or doing impressions of people; her energy and enthusiasm for life were infectious.
We had already visited Sarawak and marvelled at the incredible sight of ten million bats spiralling out of the Deer Cave at sunset in Mulu, enjoyed the hospitality of Iban people in their longhouse and struggled up the Pinnacles, sweating profusely with every step. Needless to say, Ellie was the first of our group to the top of the Pinnacles and the first down in the torrential rain to wash in the river below. Ellie was revelling in the sights, sounds and textures of Borneo, taking photographs of rock and cave formations, plants and insects for her Art project on natural forms. She always thought ahead and had planned the artifacts and fabric she needed to purchase for her Textiles A Level. She was hoping to cram the two year course into one year as she had already learned and used so many techniques in her AS Level Art.
We arrived by ‘ekspress’ boat in Kota Kinabalu, the state capital, on Sunday 12 August and met up with Tom. He showed us the Outward Bound centre where he was working and introduced us to several of his friends. We enjoyed a very special evening together in KK. This included karaoke in a bar on the first floor of our hotel. Tom and Ellie sounded fantastic together, singing such old favourites as ‘Your Cheating Heart’ and ‘Yesterday’. Tom entertained the Malaysian patrons with his rendition of ‘Proton Saga Kelabu’; they were amazed that it was an ‘orang putih’ singing a local song, his accent was so authentic. Tom and Ellie were talking about the songs that they would sing together at the karaoke bar close to OBS (Outward Bound) when we met up again on Friday 17 August. This was going to be a celebration of Ellie’s AS Level results; they just had to be excellent because Ellie had worked so hard. Tom was extremely proud of his sister and could not wait to introduce her to the rest of his new friends. They met her at her funeral.
We said goodbye to Tom at 13.00 on Monday 13 August and drove to the village of Kiau Nulu. This was the last time Tom saw his sister alive. He waved and turned away, anxious to get back to OBS as he had work to do. Mount Kinabalu appeared to move from one side of the minibus to the other as the road wound higher and higher through the countryside. We were all excited as this was perhaps the high point of our holiday; the opportunity to climb through five different climatic regions of forest on our way to the summit. There are species of pitcher plant, rhododendron and orchid that grow nowhere else in the world. We are all keen conservationists and very interested in geology and botany and were hoping to see all the plants pictured in our guidebook.
The village is situated in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, but down a steep and winding track that leads to the school in the valley bottom and up again as far the other side. The track is accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles only. The children walk, some barefoot, several kilometres down to school each day and back again at the end of the session. Like Ellie, the children are always smiling, friendly and eager to learn. Learning English is their passport to a job in tourism or as a mountain guide. I arranged to send English language materials such as alphabet friezes, nursery rhyme tapes and books to the teacher of the first class.
We spent a very enjoyable evening of conversation and karaoke with the villagers and slept in bunks in a wooden house adjacent to the church. We rejoined them for breakfast of fried noodles and eggs and then set off again down the track to the school and up the other side. Mount Kinabalu was always in view, looking more majestic than before as wisps of cloud swirled around its peaks after the unusually heavy rain of early morning. It seemed impossible that we would be able to reach the summit; it looked so steep and barren.
On arrival at Mount Kinabalu National Park, we left our bags in our chalets and booked a twenty minute guided tour of the mountain garden. We were all so interested in the plants and their history that the guide showed us tiny orchids the size of a pinhead that most people would miss and very rare species which survive only in the garden. Our tour lasted one hour and twenty minutes.
We rose early the next morning. We had been fully briefed about the climb by Jacquie, our tour guide, the previous evening. We were certainly not undertaking the climb ill informed or unprepared. It was windy, but dry, so we were advised to wear shorts and a fleece, taking thermal underwear, rain Jackets, hats, long trousers and jumpers to wear at the rest house and on our climb to the summit. It was considerably warmer and less windy than many an occasion when we had hiked up the ‘Brocken’, the highest mountain in the Harz National Park in northern Germany. Our idea of a family day out is a walk in the mountains, but until the children’s trek in Morocco and Bruce’s around the Annapurna circuit last year, we had never hiked outside Europe.
To be continued…