We arrived back from our time along the Kinabatangan river in Borneo unable to feel pure elation or unfettered excitement over the creatures and vegetation of the jungle we had just discovered. Our thoughts and discussions focused more on how people protect animals from other people, how we strive to protect our natural environment from ourselves. At few places is this more apparent than the next place we visited: the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Sun Bears are the world’s smallest bear species and are known for their extremely long claws and the band of golden fur emblazoned upon their chests. The goal of this center is to provide a haven for bears that were kept illegally as pets or captured from the wild to be killed for their meat or their gall bladders. The bile in their gall bladders is used in some practices of traditional Asian medicine. Eventually, the hope of the Center is that the bears can be readjusted back to life in the jungle and released back into the wild. For some of the bears, however, a life back in the wild is not possible or safe because they have lived in captivity for too many years. For these bears, the goal is to provide them with a safe and healthy environment for the rest of their lives, full of interaction with other bears. The layout of the conservation center is essentially a series of bridges and platforms at tree level for people to walk above and observe the bears. We watched a few bears rest peacefully in one area before heading to main platform where most people had gathered. There we met Wong Siew Te, the founder of the Sun Bear Conservation Center. He was there answering people’s questions about sun bears and showing visitors a hive of stingless bees through a telescope on a nearby tree.
There were some lively sun bears beneath us and one of the other visitors pointed out some injuries on a bear and asked what they were from. Mr. Wong answered that this bear had experienced a great deal of trauma in his life and was dependent upon the presence of humans around him. He said that the bear would self-harm and scratch himself with his claws and that they have been trying everything they can possibly imagine to encourage him to stop this harmful habit. Amanda then asked Mr. Wong for his opinions on the loss of sun bear habitat due to palm oil plantations. He replied that while it is disheartening to see the persistent deforestation and conversion of the land into palm oil plantations, the villains in the situation were not necessarily the plantation owners—it was us. He said that we were all complicit in the reality that faced these playful 3-foot bears in that many of the meals we ate since arriving in Malaysia were cooked in palm oil and palm oil is used in a variety of food products and body care items from brands purchased widely throughout the globe. It’s in everything from tortilla chips to scone baking mix to peanut butter. He said that as long as the demand for palm oil increases, so will the levels of deforestation to meet that demand. It was a sobering response, and one that made us even more acutely aware that our time discovering the biodiversity in Borneo entailed of much more than simply learning facts about the jungle and its inhabitants. We watched the sun bears a bit longer before heading to get lunch at an expensive-looking nearby hotel. Wanting to confirm Mr. Wong’s words in a location only steps from the conservation center, Amanda told the waiter she was deciding between the stir-fried veggie dish and the salad, and asked if the veggies were stir-fried in palm oil. The waiter replied that they were. Salad it was.
We spent the second half of our day watching orangutans maneuver from tree to tree and munch on fruit at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. The premise of this center was similar to that of the Sun Bear Conservation Center, where young orangutans that had been orphaned in the wild due to logging or poaching, as well as orangutans that were found to be held illegally as pets, were taken into the care of the center with the hope of eventually releasing them back into the wild. The deftness in which they moved their furry orange bodies between the branches captivated our attention and we both found it quite amusing the way that the primates seemed to avoid touching the jungle floor at all costs, playing an extended game of the Floor is Lava even as some macaques invaded their area with the intent of stealing their fruit-filled lunch.
That evening we took the long bus ride back to Kota Kinabalu on the night bus. The thousands upon thousands of palm trees, which, admittedly, had some appearance of tropical beauty to our uneducated eyes on the way there, now stood heavy in the shadows, a dark reminder of what a few short days of knowledge could bring. We arrived back to the city late into the evening and spent the following day at a casual pace, again visiting the buzzing night market and preparing for the days to come. At this point in our traveling, the desire for every meal to be new and exciting had slightly eroded, an erosion that began a few weeks earlier when we gave in to the temptation in Penang and had a long lunch eating chocolate lava cake at Chili’s. In Kota Kinabalu, there was a Mexican restaurant called El Centro where we dined among the other tourists before embarking on our most exhilarating excursion.
We had signed up for a trek with a company called L.O.S.T Borneo, which guides journeys into the jungle in order for visitors from Mainland Malaysia and the globe to understand more about the jungle and feel what it is like to rely on solely what it provides for a few days. We were picked up in a large truck by our guide, Con, driven to the edge of the jungle, and given a machete. We found the experience to be not quite as advertised—in that Con had entered the jungle with some supplies, but largely we spent the following 3 days and 2 nights observing what was around us, learning about its significance, and seeing all the many ways we could rely on our surroundings to survive.
Con seemed to be about our age, with thick glasses that magnified the size of his eyes and a huge, friendly grin. He drove us about two hours outside of the city and, after parking, we gathered our things and started walking into the dense vegetation. Immediately after we started moving, Con began telling us about different plants around us. He pointed out five-leafed small, thin plants with red stems and informed us that they were tapioca plants. He began picking them wherever he found them, explaining that the leaves were edible and full of flavor. Upon entering the jungle, we hiked down to a river, crossed it, and then went up a hillside, with Con telling us more about ways in which one may get their bearings if he or she were lost in the jungle. He told us that we now had the river to our left side, and that we were to use our location in relation to the river as a way to navigate ourselves through the jungle. We were in between two parts of the same river and had to figure out which section was upstream and which one was downstream. We learned that the side we could hear (or was louder) meant that this section was upstream because it was higher up (and closer to our earholes). Since that was the case, we traveled in the direction of the downstream section. He told us that since we entered the jungle up on a hill, when we were heading back to the car in a few days, anywhere we went that took us upwards after crossing the river would bring us approximately back to the car.
Moving through the jungle was somewhat difficult and much different from any forest trekking we had done in the past where we followed a defined trail. Here, Con led us confidently without much of a trail to follow, hacking through any brush with his machete as needed. He had made it seem as though we were hiking semi-randomly among the trees, but by the end of the day, we could see that there was a path that would become somewhat noticeable on the jungle floor every now and again that we had been following and that we were making camp in areas that they had clearly used before. Con also shared information on what to look out for regarding the safety of eating fruit found in the jungle. He told us that we should look around us for any nearby fruit of the same type. Were there any pieces lying on the ground, clearly eaten by other animals? That was a good sign that it was safe to eat. He recommended taking an extremely tiny bite to taste it. Does it taste sweet or sour? Then it’s probably safe to eat. Does it taste bitter? Then do not eat any further. Finally, you can rub the flesh of the fruit on your arm skin and see if it becomes red or inflamed. If it does, you guessed it, don’t eat that fruit. We became temporarily obsessed with looking for fruits and trying to assess their edibility. We found these small round fruits that Con told us where like “jungle tomatoes” that we were able to eat, although they were mouth-puckering in their sourness. He directed our attention to small thin wines that draped themselves in and around the trees and told us they were fig vines and that we would use them as rope when we set up camp. We spent about ten minutes with our machetes hacking down these vines and wrapping them into little bundles to be used for later.
The air while we were in the jungle felt stale and unmoving, while the heat and humidity ensured that we were pouring sweat almost immediately. Somewhere in the late afternoon, Con found an area near the river where he told us we would set up camp. We set out looking for firewood and twigs and asked if we were going to learn how to make fire without the use of matches or lighters. He said that we would the following night, as we needed to bring some wood with us that had been drying outside in the sun all day. After collecting the wood, we found some older bamboo trees that Con told us would be our cooking vessels for the evening. Since each segment of bamboo is sealed off on both sides from its connecting segments, it is an easy conversion to a cooking vessel. We cut off two large segments, filling one with rice and water and filling the other with the plants and fruits we had collected throughout the day. While Con was getting the fire started, we set up camp nearby using our recently collected vines. Our sleeping accommodations consisted of a hammock and a tarp to cover us from any unexpected rain in the night. By the time we had set everything up, night was fast approaching and we were starving. As the rice and veggies cooked in the fire, we talked to Con more about what it was like growing up in Borneo. He spoke about his tribe multiple times throughout the day and we asked him more about the kind of connections he developed to where he grew up with having so many different layers of identity. We asked if he feels identifies equally as a member of his tribe, as a Bornean, and as a Malaysian. Con told us that he feels most connected to his tribal identity and to the region of Sabah that we were in within Malaysian Borneo. He told us that Sabah has its own unique culture and way of life distinct from the rest of Borneo. We asked if there had ever been any move for Sabah to become its own country. He said that there had, however he said that as such a small country they would be too vulnerable and decided to stay with Malaysia. After about an hour of cooking in the fire, the bamboo was hacked open with his machete and out came some steaming hot rice and veggies. Once we finished enjoying the meal we partially foraged for, exhaustion took over and we each retired to our respective hammocks, falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle.
We rolled out of our hammocks the following morning, quite refreshed and ready for the coming day. We had both pulled our hammocks completely around us in the night, so we emerged the following morning like haggardly, uncoordinated butterflies escaping the cocoon. We took some time packing things up, but soon we were back at it again. We started the day hiking in a dried-up river bed. Bursts of exhilaration made our steps bounce as we moved across the smooth stones. The thick vegetation of the jungle radiated in vibrant light green and completely dominated our view in all directions, as if we had been swallowed up. Along the way we spotted some wild banana trees and Con pulled some of the young ones up by the root. He told us that the roots of the young banana were extremely nutrient-dense and were called the “sausage of the jungle”. After moving along the river bed, we intersected with the actual river. Con led us to a nearby cluster of bamboo trees and informed us that bamboo is remarkably good at storing water and if we were in a situation where we needed to locate water, one option would be to look for a cluster of bamboo. He then began to slash his machete close to the base of an old bamboo tree. Sure enough, as wood splinters flew around his head, water began dribbling out of the opening he had created. He then placed a spigot he fashioned from a much narrower piece of bamboo into the opening and so much water came out that we were all able to fill our water bottles. Magic, he said. Yes, we agreed.
From the river bed, we hiked back up a hillside and continued to follow the ridgeline of the hillside for the next several hours. The slope of ridgeline combined with the heat meant that our steps were difficult and sweat was coming off of us in droves. Eventually, we slowly and painstakingly climbed down the hill. With every step the ground underfoot would become loose and our feet would slide. We reached out to nearby trees and branches for support, however Con warned us that we should look out before grabbing onto what was nearby, because a lot of the plants had thorns and there could snakes on the branches. We thankfully had no issues and eventually made it back down to the river area. The first thing we noticed when we emerged into the clearing of the river basin was a powerful waterfall with a smaller waterfall next to it. Hearing the rushing water and seeing the clear pool it poured into was a welcome reward after hours of careful hand and foot placement. We admired the water for a short time before heading down the river a little further to our next campsite. It was an area with low tree density right near the water, and, as with the previous camp, it was clear that someone had recently stayed there. It was mid-afternoon and we set up camp again using our vines before concluding that we needed to cool off a bit. We put our bathing suits on and headed back upstream to the waterfall. It was an ice-cold shock to our systems, but it felt unbelievably refreshing. We swam under the waterfall and let the raging cold water pound the tops of our heads. It felt glorious.
When we returned, Con informed us that it was too late to try to start a fire without a lighter and pushed it back another day. We found some more bamboo for cooking vessels and, as we dried off near the fire, Con showed us how to use our machetes to make utensils from bamboo. We both hacked at our bamboo bits clumsily, grumbling about how Con made it all look so easy. He reminded us that he got his first machete when he was 5 and that we were just beginners. Mike was much more successful than Amanda, but eventually we both ended up with pieces of wood that very, very crudely resembled a spoon. Basically, a main takeaway from this experience was that bamboo can be used for practically anything and that if we were ever lost in the jungle, there would be a strong correlation between our survival and the amount of bamboo we were able to locate. That evening we spoke more about the jungle, with Amanda asking Con more about the spiritual elements of it. He responded that he confidently believed in things like Black Magic and had witnessed certain events that proved to him its existence. He told us that his grandfather always said that when the jungle is loud with the sounds of insects, frogs, and other creatures, the jungle is healthy and free from bad spirits. The time to worry is when the jungle goes quiet. We took those words with us when we retired back to our hammocks and felt a whole new appreciation for the cacophony of sounds that carried us to sleep.
Our last day in the jungle began with us trying to start fire. We used some dry bamboo with some rubber that had been harvested from a rubber tree and a stick that we rubbed back and forth between our hands and the kindling. All three of us were able to generate smoke, however none of us were successful in turning that smoke into a flame. Con then showed us some simple traps that could be fashioned if we ever needed to try to catch small animals for food. We then packed up and started trekking once more. Con tested our knowledge by having us take turns in leading our trio, using the knowledge he had relayed to us about our parking location relative to the river. The highlight of the day was perhaps when we came upon some small wild pineapples. We didn’t know that pineapples grew wild in the jungle and Con told us not to bother picking them, as they were much more sour and different tasting than the ones we were used to. We eventually made it back to the truck and promptly began to snooze as Con returned us safely back to our hotel. Our time in the jungle was above all educational, perhaps slightly mystical, and an overall fulfilling sensory experience. No scary beasts tried to attack us and we witnessed only one chillingly enormous spider. If only for 72 hours, we were brought back to the fundamentals of existing.
The following two days were a whirlwind, trying to get in all that we could before catching our flight to Bangkok. We rented a car and drove a few hours to the Sabah Tea Resort, where we were treated to hundreds of rows of tea bushes at the base of Mount Kinabalu. They had a Longhouse on site, which was a communal lodging style used historically by tribes in the area, where we stayed for the night. We were able to pick our own tea leaves, which we subsequently cut up and dried in the following days and later gave as a gift to Amanda’s dad—tea that had been picked by our own hands. They provided us with garb to wear that was historically similar to what those in the area wore while working in the tea fields, causing us have to mentally reaffirm the lines in our heads between cultural appreciation and appropriation. Later that evening we spent the twilight walking along the hills of the beautiful property and observing ants half the length of a thumb cross the dirt path we were on. Plaques nearby informed us that we were in an area along the route that Prisoners of War were forced to cover in the Sandakan Death March. Learn more about this if you have the time, because we learned about elements of World War II that we had never heard about before. It was deeply saddening to learn what the prisoners were forced to endure and greatly deepened our respect for the resilience of our Australian and British forefathers that fought in this war.
We spent the following morning touring the factory where the tea leaves were processed before heading out for another two-hour drive to the Guas Nabalu homestay in the village of Kota Belud. The village was situated high up into the hills and the landscape was stunning, a lush enormous valley of green with the massive Mount Kinabalu overlooking. We toured the village and were told about the creative ways in which the townspeople utilize their natural surroundings and repurpose their used goods. The numerous steps we climbed throughout the steeply-sloped village were created from re-purposed old tires and our guide took us to his aunt’s house, where she was the last remaining villager to process all the coffee from her coffee plants by hand. She told us how her family camped out for several days in the fields during the harvest season and we took turns grinding the beans in an enormous mortar and pestle. We roasted some of them on her stovetop and put them back in the mortar to grind them. We then enjoyed a potent cup of our freshly ground coffee with a side of tapioca root and sugar. We purchased some of the freshly ground beans for Mike’s dad as a gift—coffee that had been processed by our own hands. We were shown more of the Bornean stingless bees and the deeply sweet honey they produce. We learned about the pineapple processing plant in the village where fresh pineapples were turned into juice, chutneys, and jam. The highlight of the day came when we were able to cut into and enjoy one of these pineapples. It was without doubt one of the most succulently sweet pieces of fruit we had ever consumed, much sweeter and a deeper golden color than the pineapples we were used to. It was very sad to leave the village without a trunk full of these pineapples and it was easily one of the food highlights of our travels.
It was late afternoon when we left back to Kota Kinabalu and we were sad to go. The following morning we caught our flight to Bangkok and said goodbye to this wondrous island.
Overall, Borneo is a place that seemingly everyone wants a part of. You go there and feel magnetized to all you see, hear, and touch, and you want to become part of it. You want to look left and right to see if anyone is looking before blending into the leaves, trying to make it appear as though you had been there all along. Tourists are of course drawn to the island, but so are NGOs, research organizations, universities, activists, and industries. You want to say that you know it, and you know it well. You feel some draw to your surroundings, from some deep, cellular level. It feels as though the whole of creation was born of the land, like it is our origin. It is hard not speak of Borneo almost reverentially. It is both serenity and commotion. It guided us to look within, to go back to the basics, while provoking us to open our eyes to the way our choices ripple to affect the greater environment around us. At different times, we crouched over ants and took in breathtaking vistas and marveled equally at both. In short, it gave us so much to consider, to take in, and to enjoy and we await the day we can return.
See you next time,