We left the Tropical Spice Garden in Penang with deepened appreciation of how much we rely on the bounty and beauty of the flora of the natural world. Our time in Borneo expanded that sentiment exponentially and focused our attention to the value of biodiversity. Borneo was a place that incited the full spectrum of emotions—wonder, awe, confliction, confusion, fascination, enchantment, and disheartenment. One of the first elements of the island that we were completely unprepared for was its enormousness. We had the misconception that we could explore all around the island in our two-week stay, and boy, oh boy did we not fully grasp the sheer vastness of where we were. Flights were the main mode of transportation between the cities and when we chose to use a bus from the northeast coast of the island to the northwest coast, which was the narrowest part of Borneo, it took us over nine hours. As the third largest island on the planet, Borneo is absolutely massive. For those that are unfamiliar, the island is unique because it belongs to three different countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. How it became part of three countries has much to do with colonial rule. Brunei used to have control over much of the island, between the 15th and 17th century, but eventually pervasive Western Colonialism parceled the land into the three countries that now have claim to it. The north is where British colonies existed and that eventually became Malaysia. The Dutch colonized the south of the island and that eventually became Indonesia. Borneo has quite the interesting history, and we only learned a fraction of it.
Since we had decided to fly to Borneo the day before we left mainland Malaysia, we didn’t have much time to plan out our trip in a way that maximized our exposure to the island, while not going overboard cost wise. The island thrives on tourism and because of that, it is difficult to see what it has to offer affordably. We did the best we could planning our trip the first afternoon we were there, and at around nightfall we walked to a nearby night market with a dazzling array of fresh fruit and goodies. The stalls stretched endlessly under the roofing of a vast wooden outdoor pavilion that bathed all of the delicious fresh fruits and vegetables in a warm yellow light. It put to shame any farmer’s market or other night market we had been to previously. We fluttered our way from stall to stall, tasting the samples that were offered, and picking up the wild and weird fruits that Southeast Asia has to offer. A specialty of the area was mangosteens, a fruit that we had only ever read about and seen on TV. It is a round, tomato-sized superfruit with a hollow, deep-purple skin that gets peeled away to reveal creamy white, sweet flesh on the inside. We filled one of our bags up with mangosteens and another with rambutans and some other new and unknown fruits. We got some small, sour mangoes that we later realized were most typically used for pickling, as well as a honey-golden fruit that bruised easily and had a warmer, softer flavor. We ended our first evening at a Sri Lankan curry restaurant and ate vegetable curry in banana leaves before heading back to the Airbnb and letting both our bodies and our taste buds get some much-needed rest.
We spent another full day exploring around the city of Kota Kinabalu in the region of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. We had brunch at a sleek and trendy restaurant near our place called Laundry. It looked like a place where one would have a business lunch with their associates. The “spin” on it however, is that beyond the stylish glass walls of the right side of the restaurant was a line of washers and dryers where you could do laundry while you munch on your waffles and Eggs Benedict. It was certainly the most glamorous way to do laundry that we had ever seen. After filling our bellies, we spent the day out and about and, in the evening, we decided to check out the local climbing gym. During the course of our trip, we had been climbing in a few popular French gyms in Toulouse and Lyon, a well-hidden gem gym in Geneva, and a gym converted from a huge old church in Edinburgh. None of the gyms had quite the experience that the climbing gym in Kota Kinabalu had. Located in an expansive park where families were walking and biking along paved paths and a soccer stadium had an exciting match going on nearby, the gym was an outdoor/indoor hybrid, where we able to enjoy the night’s warm breeze while participating in an indoor climbing experience. Large bugs and birds buzzed and flitted by and geckos skittered past us as the true best climbers in the gym. For the cost of about $4 each, we climbed to our heart’s content and left the gym just as it was getting ready to close.
The following day was a travel day, and we sat on the bus for nine long hours on the journey from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. While we drove, hours went by where palm oil plantations stretched back as far as the eye could see. The impact of this sight didn’t fully hit us until our time along the Kinabatangan River. We arrived in Sandakan in the evening and quickly dropped our stuff off at our hostel, eager to get some dinner and check out our new surroundings. We ended up inside a nearby mall, and when we saw that this mall had a movie theatre, we decided to buy some tickets for a late-night showing of Sonic the Hedgehog. Sometimes, when you are in a state of constant change, it is nice to feel the familiar experience of sitting in a dark movie theatre, shoveling handfuls of popcorn into your mouth and watching a huge image of Jim Carrey deliver lines with his signature zaniness.
The following three days and two nights were spent on the Kinabatangan River getting our first true introduction to the distinctive wildlife of Borneo. The itinerary at the river lodge was structured around us setting out (either on the water or into the jungle) at the times when the wildlife was most active in order to try to catch a glimpse of these myriad creatures going about their daily lives. What that meant was that our days were going to begin in the early morning and end late into the night. We arrived at the lodge in the heat of the afternoon with a few boatsful of other tourists and were welcomed by the manager with a glass of fresh fruit juice and a run-down of how the next few days were going to look. We were to awaken at 5:30 am to the sound of a gong and were to head straight to the docks for our morning boat ride up and down the river. We would then come back at 7:30 for breakfast. Next, we would go for a jungle walk in the daylight, not so much searching for wildlife, but more for learning about the Bornean jungle. Lunch would be served at noon, followed by a little bit of downtime. We would then have another afternoon boat trip down the river or an optional added activity, followed by dinner and a night walk into the jungle. It was our own abbreviated, adult version of summer camp, complete with bunkbeds. We shared our dorm room with an Irish surfer named Rosary, and she fascinated us with her stories of all the places in the world she had surfed. She was what many refer to as a “digital nomad”, where she worked remotely and traveled for half of the year on various surfing trips.
After our introduction to this summer camp experience, we settled into our dorms and hit the ground running with our first afternoon boating trip. We were broken up into groups, each with a guide and an assistant and piled into our respective boats. The boats sped off in staggered timing and it was clear that the guides were engaging in light competition with one another for superior wildlife spotting. Our guides drove the boats with one hand steering and the other with a pair of binoculars scanning the trees and banks of the river. Very quickly into our expedition we ran into our first group of monkeys. All along the river we could see large trees with their branches spread like veins and the silhouettes of small primates perched upon them. It was the sensation where once you noticed one tree full of monkeys, you could see them everywhere. The first group of monkeys we spotted were the long-tailed macaques. To our group, fresh and eager, we ooh’ed and aah’ed over these lively, dexterous creatures, only to soon realize that the riverbanks were practically overrun with them. It was all very exciting, however the true pièce de résistance of the first outing was the proboscis monkey.
The proboscis monkey is one of the hallmark creatures found only in Borneo. These curious creatures are oddly satisfying to observe in both their unique appearance and the idiosyncrasies of their behavior. Covered in a layer of golden-red fur, these monkeys are most well-recognized by the large, bulbous noses found on the adult males in the group. These males have compact, taut bodies, but with huge rounded bellies. Looking like wannabe Instagram influencers, they appeared as if they were posing for a camera as they relaxed on the tree branches with their legs spread, bellies out in their full glory, and one knee propped up with their arm resting extended on top of it. Our guides explained to us that the proboscis monkeys traveled in groups and there were two separate categories of their monkey groups. One was called the bachelor group, which was comprised of mainly grown adult male monkeys. The other was called the harem group, which consisted of female monkeys and their babies as well as usually one alpha male in the harem. When female monkeys gave birth to males, they would raise them to a certain age, at which point their male-ness would start to irk the alpha and they would have to go off and join a bachelor group. Alphas can be challenged, of course, by big brawny competitors from the neighboring bachelor groups, at which point a battle ensues between the alpha and the wannabe alpha. Their weapons of choice for their battle are their hands and they engage in a spirited exchange of slapping one another before one eventually emerges the slap-battle victor. As if this all wasn’t strange enough, we observed a clear alpha-sized male on a much lower branch than the rest of his group with his back turned away from everyone. We asked our guide what the deal was, and he explained that if alpha males are challenged and they lose control over their harem, they become outcasts and rejected by their peers. This can cause them to sometimes go into a state of depression where they sit alone and refuse to eat to the point where they, in some cases, starve to death. Truly strange, strange, fascinating creatures.
We saw a bunch of other exciting birds, crocodiles, and lizards on that first outing. That evening, as we were enjoying a nice buffet-style dinner with the other lodge guests, a civet came out to see what all the commotion was about. Civets are another interesting mammal found in Asia, looking like a cross between a racoon and a cat with the patterning similar to a cheetah. It was an unexpected encounter to get us prepared for our nighttime walk into the jungle. Although it was a bit eerie at first, walking into the jungle at night was invigorating and a bit of an adrenaline rush. From watching TV and movies, you think that as soon you enter the jungle, there will be some scary creepy-crawly waiting to bite/attack/jump out at you. We were thankfully in the groups from earlier that day and our guide led us assuredly with his flashlight into the dark thicket. We each had an individual headlamp and most our group was outfitted with knee-high yellow rubber boots to protect from the muddy trails. We tried to move as quietly as possible, our headlamps scanning the tree trunks, branches, and leaves around us for signs of fauna. There was a vague feeling of an emboldened closeness to the jungle, where instead of staying away from it at night due to the creatures it contained and their potential danger, we entered the jungle for express purpose of finding those said creatures. On the first night outing, we spotted some colorful nesting King Fisher birds, another civet up in a tree, and an adorable miniature tree frog on a leaf that was no larger than the length of half a thumb. We then met up with another group when they spotted a critter so odd and rarely spotted in these evening expeditions that they had to share with the rest of us. It was the Western Tarsier, a tiny, solely nocturnal primate. It had suction cup-like fingertips and was about the size of a Gatorade bottle. Its eyes were a yellowish-brown color and were enormous, perfect for seeing at night. We observed it for only a short time, before it tired of our presence and exploded into a leap many times its body length and disappeared into the night.
The dreaded gong came all too quickly the following morning and after a fair amount of grumbling and tossing around, we finally rolled out of our respective bunk beds into the darkness of the pre-dawn morning. Armed with our life jackets and seat pads, we sat gruffly waiting on the dock for our guide to shepherd us to our boat. In our exhaustion, we forgot which group we were in and briefly were on the wrong boat. Once was all sorted out however, we set off and, but of course, it was well worth the sacrifice of a few hours of sleep. Sunrise on the river was stunning. A canopy of trees framed the glowing aura of Helios and the day’s first rays of light glimmered on the surface of the water. We saw a few of the beautifully-colored teal and marigold King Fishers as well as a tree full of the bizarre-looking hornbills, which, as their name suggests, are black birds with large white beaks that look like they have horn growing out of them. We headed back to breakfast and then back to bed for a short nap before we went for a day walk into the jungle.
During this time, we learned of some of the commonly found trees and plants of the area, including one tree with tall, hollow-sounding roots that our guide informed was historically used as a way to communicate and alert others of your location. He beat the roots with a stick and it emitted a loud, deep bellow. We stored that fact away in our heads under the category of “Things to do if lost in Bornean Jungles”. As we continued on, we saw a spider the size of an open hand and a few minutes later one of the women on our trip exclaimed, “Does anyone know what this is?”. We all looked at where she was pointing on her leggings and Amanda immediately responded, “That’s a leech!”. We had seen in our research many mentions of the jungle leeches and our guide swooped in and deftly removed the leech onto a stick before confirming that it was indeed a leech of the jungle, a tiger leech. These leeches sit in waiting on leaves, patiently holding out for its next source of blood. When a person or animal brushes by the leaves, it sticks itself onto its host and finds the first patch of open skin to start feasting on. Luckily, our fellow group member spotted the little guy before he could latch on to her bare skin and successfully avoided being leech lunch.
We opted for the add-on activity in the afternoon, which was a boating trip in search of the elusive Pygmy Elephant, another species endemic to Borneo. It was thrilling ride that took us hours down the Kinabatangan, but alas we were unable to spot these small elephants. We were looking for herds coming to the riverbank for an afternoon cool-down and drink of water and although we found one, we got there a bit too late and they had already retreated back into the coverage of the trees. All we could hear was a single trumpet of an elephant’s trunk, presumably telling us that we had been outmaneuvered. Although we didn’t see what we were hoping for, the hours spent on the river were completely serene. The wind blew swiftly across our cheeks as the boat cruised along the river, the hot afternoon fading to lazy golden sunshine and eventually to the purple-gray of dusk. There were no cares to be had. We arrived back to the lodge in complete darkness, with scant enough time to eat our dinner before heading out again to another night walk.
The following morning was the last boat trip of our stay, and it ended on an incredible high point. After going up and down the banks for about 40 minutes, our guide confidently pointed to a small cluster of trees and said, “There”. At the very top of one of the trees was a wild, baby orangutan. This fascinating great ape was climbing around boisterously on the branches at the top of the tree and we all cooed our sounds of loving adoration. He must have gotten a little too lively, because shortly after we started observing, an enormous hand unfolded near the baby and pulled him close—the arm of his mother. She was laying nearby, obscured by tree branches, watching her young frolic around before deciding the treetop was no longer desirable. She grabbed the baby and skillfully worked her way down the tree before outstretching to another nearby tree and reestablishing a resting point. We watched, completely mesmerized. These spectacular creatures require lowland forest as their homes and their populations are directly threatened by the endless miles of palm oil plantations that we drove by on our way to Sandakan.
As we got out of the boat after our last outing, Amanda commented on how remarkable it was to see as much wildlife as we had in only a few short days. One of our group members replied that this region was such a great place to view wildlife because these animals had “nowhere else to go” since so little of their habitat remains. With that comment, all of the wonder and awe of our last three days came to a screeching halt. We looked at this place through a different, much harsher, lens. Day after day after day, these unique creatures that exist nowhere else in the world but on this island lose their habitat to the ever-expanding palm oil plantations. They retreat further and further away, closer to the river where Ha! there’s a totally different set of humans waiting out in boats with binoculars and fancy cameras to gawk and photograph them. For animals as intelligent as orangutans or elephants, what must that constant encroachment, that pressure from both sides, do to their psyche? How does that relentless invasion fare on their instincts to survive? It’s as if their wildness, their mystery, has been removed. How is this, then, that much better than observing these animals at a zoo, where there they at least they have less food uncertainty? We wanted to stay at this lodge and go on these expeditions in order to try to see with our own eyes the bizarre and beautiful wildlife that exists on this planet. We reasoned that were weren’t trying to touch or hold any of the creatures, just look at them from afar, and that the money spent in this economy on wildlife viewing creates an economic incentive for the region to want to protect the habitats of these animals and not ruthlessly raze it all for the sake of palm oil profit. But even that argument seemed to be of a “lesser of two evils” nature. It always seems like those most innocent are who bear the brunt of our follies.
There was much more to come in our time in Borneo, another week of discovery and amazement, however these questions and confusion about the nature of our role as tourists and as encroaching humans have continued to follow us.
See ya in the next post,