My first Borneo adventure coincided with the financial crisis of 08’. At the time I was working for Wildland Adventures in Seattle, designing dream trips for our travelers around the globe. The economic crash ground most of our business to a halt, but a good friend from childhood and I saw an opportunity and began hatching ideas of a far-flung adventure. We ultimately settled on Borneo which scratched the itch for us biology and anthropology enthusiasts. So many bugs, fungi, wildlife and food!
After identifying the coolest places we could find and connecting with a few industry contacts we hopped a flight to Singapore to begin our journey. As we feasted at the hawker stalls and swilled Tiger beers we pulled out the guidebooks and maps to discuss our plotted course of upcoming adventures. Ultimately we chose Sabah, the Malaysian state at the northern tip of Borneo, as the epicenter of our adventures due to its wide terrestrial and marine biodiversity.
The next day we flew into Kota Kinabalu and met Eddie, our Malaysian Indiana Jones guide, who picked us up in a souped-up Toyota Land Cruiser that just begged to be driven through massive mud puddles. Our first stop was Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in Borneo and simply dripping with vegetation around its base. It was the perfect spot for our first taste of Borneo's mega biodiversity. And we were not disappointed. After asking around and following locals down a rough trail we spotted our first blooming Rafflesia flower. Botany lovers will know this as the "corpse flower" - the largest flower in the world, parasitic and truly other-worldly.
The Rafflesia flower takes about five years to bloom but only lasts five to seven days after it does. Lacking its own roots and leave, the corpse flower hijacks other plants' roots for nutrients and produces a gargantuan rust-colored flower with an awful putrid stench. While it's certainly not for the queen’s garden, the Rafflesia was exactly the unique expression of life that drew us to travel to Borneo.
We departed the slopes of Kinabalu and began a fairly long overland journey that was made even longer due to multiple stops at fruit stands. We were on the hunt for mangosteen. If you ever see a mangosteen in the store, buy it! Looking somewhat like a dumpling or a potsticker, mangosteen tastes like the adorable offspring of a pineapple and lychee. After we found the fruit we would eagerly peel back the fibrous purple exterior to reveal its plump white flesh and consume it on the spot!
Our roadside fruit stand bonanza also included the infamous Durian, a fruit so rank that it’s not allowed to be transported on airplanes. Eddie our guide wouldn’t touch the stuff and claimed that it messes with your heart. Some claim it’s an aphrodisiac. Great, we thought, why not! In truth it tasted rather nice, like mushy sweet garlic. But like garlic it lingered! For the next several hours I felt it slowly burning through my body and seeping out of my pores like I was Pepé Le Pew, which was enough for me to quickly check it off the list.
Eventually we reached the banks of the Kinabatangan River, a place that’s incredible and tragic all at once. Just along the river the forest's edge teams wildlife; hornbills, silver leaf monkeys, proboscis monkeys, orangutans, wild elephants. However when you move away from the water's edge you encounter endless Palm plantations. This monocrop is a desert for wildlife and propagates raptors, cobras, and rats, which then prey on the other wildlife or their food sources.
I’m not going to spin a diatribe on the ravages of palm oil. As in life, it’s in the shades of gray where the truth and understanding live. Yes, palm oil has massively disrupted the natural vegetation throughout Malaysia and Indonesia. Its cultivation has endangered the endemic wildlife and must be regulated. But there are also developing communities who depend upon the jobs provided by palm plantations and the government subsidies that are in turn invested into hospitals, schools and more. Palm oil plantations harm biodiversity and simultaneously drive economic prosperity for many Malaysian people. Both realities are true. From an environmental perspective there is a much better way to manage the situation, but in chatting with locals along our way and hearing both perspectives we were able to appreciate the issue from a more nuanced point of view.
Now back to the wildlife. The Kinabatangan River region was stunning and we had a great time cruising along the river and through backwater oxbow lakes. We loved watching the sun set as we paddled towards troops of Proboscis monkeys feeding in the leafy branches overhanging the lake. However, my absolute favorite and most extraordinary experience was at night. Millions, billions, zillions of fireflies cover the trees along the river and light them up like it’s Christmas. And they pulse in rhythm up and down the riverbanks. It’s utterly incredible - something out of Avatar - and will make your jaw drop when you see it in person.
Leaving the river behind, we hiked through the forest to the Gomantong Caves. Limestone and karst cave systems are part of the geography in certain areas of SE Asia and Borneo is known to have some of the largest. We had also read about a soup made from bird's nests that were harvested within the cave and wanted to investigate this strange delicacy.
The Gomantong Cave is massive, but no one mentions the smell. Dump a bunch of ammonia in a closet, turn out the lights and walk in. It’s worth it though! On the inside it’s like you’ve entered the upside down world in Stranger Things. The ground is alive too, writhing with an iridescent sheen of beetles and roaches frolicking in the nutrient rich bat guano. Disgustingly interesting. Following a wooden walkway, we made our way to the back of the cave where way up high you can spot the scaffolding that enables harvesters to access the swiftlet nests which are made from their saliva. Today we know that the consumption of bird's nest soup is ill-advised; the swiftlets are endangered and accessing the nests has tragic consequences for the workers. In 2008 I can't claim to have been quite as tuned in to the ethics of bird's nest soup, but I still opted not to try something made from bird saliva.
As we walked through the forest on our way back from the caves we heard some movements in the branches overhead. To our delight, an Orangutan mother and baby were foraging. I was so excited that I got a bit trigger happy with my camera and was fully immersed in capturing photos until I felt it raining on my head. That seemed odd. A daytime rainstorm on a sunny day? Maybe that’s normal in Borneo? Thankfully Eddie enlightened me; the mother orangutan was politely telling me to move along with a spray of urine. Solid move momma Orang. I packed up my camera, left them in peace and continued hiking through the forest...
Jeff's adventures through Borneo are continued in Part 2. Or if you'd rather chat Borneo in person, reach out to Jeff at email@example.com His infectious fascination for this place will have you planning your own adventure to Borneo in no time!