December 2015; it had been 8 months since my dream safari into the wild heartlands of Africa. The travel bug was igniting within me like a bubble of adrenalin impatiently waiting to burst open. I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to 2015 without ticking off another destination on my wildlife bucket list. So several phone calls later to the travel agent and it seemed I was off on another journey of discovery to one of the world’s oldest rainforests. My social media accounts had always been flooded with friends’ photos of their holidays to the exotic Far East, however it never seemed enough to seduce my senses. That was until a chance encounter with someone at work, a fellow animal lover. My expedition would take me to the Malaysian influenced, northern territories of Borneo, also known as Sabah and Sarawak. As I was about to discover, Borneo was the jungle oasis, steeped in history that every natural history aficionado should seek to explore. I would spend the next 10 days forgetting that civilisation even existed!
At 140 million years old this untamed land was certainly wild, and the mosquitoes didn’t waste any opportunity to turn my body into a dot to dot of red botches! In spite of all the itching, my every sense could feel, taste, smell and see this luscious, rich landscape wrapping itself and lifting me up as we drove along the winding roads of Kinabalu national park. We ambled across, steep slopes and the jungle rooftops of the botanical gardens with its brightly coloured orchids, ferns, and singing birds peeking out from the endless trees and plants. It would only seem right to stop and indulge in some green tea ice cream – a midday day must.
After a day of climbing up and down steps and navigating our way through undulating peaks of the jungle, we spent our first night at Sabah tea plantation. Standing at the top of this infinite valley of tea plants looking through the mist across to Mount Kinabalu was truly breath-taking. The landscape was untouched and untamed by western values and influences; a garden paradise with only the sounds and aromas of nature to serenade your ears; birds, crickets and various other tiny creatures. One member of our group even asked “are those sounds recorded?” Nature seemed an alien concept to its western tourists, deafened by the sounds of sirens, growling engines and loud voices.
Early the next morning, we took to the factory floor, this was surely to disturb and shock the hearing and serenity of the valley. With 15% of the tea grains being distributed worldwide to satisfy brands such as ‘Earl Grey’, and ‘Twinnings’ tea, I was expecting to be hit with a barrage of bodies and a bustling factory floor. Instead, I only saw a handful of people collecting and sorting through the tea leaves, with the machinery modestly doing the rest. According to the locals, the most organic tea is the loose granules.
After our visit to the plantation, we were back on the road again, this time heading towards the Kinabatangan River. The road sides were a never-ending parade of Palm Oil Trees, something everyone should expect to see in any part of Borneo, both Malaysian and Indonesia. By association, palm oil has always reminded me of forest fires and the loss of habitat for many of Borneo’s wildlife and species. I couldn’t help feel a little heartbroken by these regimented rows of palm trees. Nowhere amongst them could I see any form of life. However, under Malaysian law in the year 2000, these vast fields were protected under a new RSPO Government policy. RSPO translated means ‘responsibly sourced palm oil’. This policy would ensure that palm oil farm land remained protected, and its growth and use remained sustainable. The Sabah RSPO policy dictated the following;
- Anyone found encroaching upon these protected habitats would be slapped with a 5-10years prison sentence and a financial penalty.
- 85% of the workforce should comprise of local labour.
- Consumers must buy solely from these farms.
By 2010, the wildlife act was subsequently introduced and used to enforce this policy. It stated that no-one was allowed to kill or harm any wildlife, endangered or not, even if they wandered onto this land. Anyone, who dared defy this act, would not only serve the above jail time, but would also incur a 15 to 100k Malaysian Ringett fine. This policy encouraged many stakeholders and producers to unite under one umbrella and join. I felt reassured that even the smallest countries are making such grand advances in maintaining and sustaining the world’s eco systems in such a consumer driven society. Suffice it to say, the Bornean rainforest didn’t get to the wise old age of 140 million years old for nothing.
Wildlife Warriors within the ‘City of Nature’
This was no more evident than within the depths of the Kinabatangan river and wildlife sanctuaries of Sandakan. In Borneo, Sandakan is best known as the city of nature and the centre of the Sabah economy, linking all the areas of this beautiful rainforest. The new zoom lens I purchased prior to my trip became my best friend, as I snapped away at the Proboscis monkeys, the males with their long muppet baby/trunk like noses, looking puzzled at the strange looking humans snapping away on their DSLRs at these unique looking primates. One habitant or the river who was not so pleased to see us was the age old dinosaur of the wild, the crocodile. As the boats manoeuvred closer to the banks, hedging our bets, the crocs lay in wait, staring us out, no doubt anticipating out next move. Whilst some returned to the depths of the river to perhaps indulge in some much needed solitude, one young whippersnapper, with its feisty sense of self-preservation, decided to take a leap of faith and within seconds before anyone could catch their breath, launched himself towards the boat doing the infamous death roll to show off his prowess and visible strength. At 6am in the morning, most people’s sense of sight if not lost in the misty haze of sunrise, was now certainly alert, awake and speeding away, eager to stay on this crocodile’s good side.
Sadly, not all wildlife were able to roam so freely. Due to the destruction of habitats and unfortunate human ignorance, many animals have had a difficult start in life; either losing their parents to death and, subsequently being taken in as caged pets out of a lack of education and curiosity. I was fortunate to visit some of the wildlife sanctuaries at Sandakan that took animals such as sun bears, many of whom came from a previous life where they had been farmed for their bile, kept in zoos, or sold on the black market as exotic pets. Sun bears are known to be the smallest bears in the world, just think Winnie the Pooh. Unfortunately, many cannot be released back into the wild due to the trauma of their past life experiences, however, it was beautiful to see them tap into their wilder instinct; foraging for honey, fig fruits and insects or rolling about together. At other times, these bears seemed almost human. I was especially captivated by the cautionary yet clumsy movements of one bear trying to climb down from a log. Leaning forward, he jostled with the air as he contemplated using his paws as a base in order to save himself from toppling down the hill. He paused. He then gently turned his body around, holding onto the log with his sharp claws, he first guided his feet safely onto the ground, and then sliding down the log with the rest of his weight, off he plodded away into the forest. Sadly, the survival of these animals depended on a wire fence and surveillance, and yet the ability of these sanctuaries to create an environment so close to the wilds of their natural homes was more extraordinary than any animal kingdom at Disneyworld. The animals were and are respected and treasured as a vital part of the culture.
Leaving all my bags behind, I next made my way along the boardwalks of the world famous, Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, eagerly anticipating my introduction to this gentle, giant red Ape or as the locals knew them, the “man of the forest”. Some may argue that photo opportunities for visitors should be prohibited in these areas, and the sanctuaries should focus on healing these creatures. In fact, these centres provide an educational incentive for people everywhere as well as locals, to see how rescued orangutans are being cared for before being released back into the wild. Watching them swing excitedly through the trees to the nearest platform for twice daily feedings, or holding onto their buddies, shows that like humans, they are social and sentient beings; they do after all share 96.4% of human DNA. I was surprised at the trusting nature of these primates after all they had been through. Some of the silver leaf monkeys even allowed me to step within an inch of them, without even flinching. It spoke volumes about the symbiotic relationship between Borneo’s primates and their human counterparts.
Within the rainforest lay some of Borneo’s more hidden treasures such as the Gomantong Caves. Unlike the shining lights of the rainforest, when venturing into these caves, one might consider a more artificial torchlight and, more importantly, a nose peg. The Gomantong caves are home to some of Borneo’s smaller inhabitants, including; long legged centipedes, over one million cockroaches and bats, and four species of swiftlet birds. As we walked along the boardwalk towards the caves, I envisioned crawling on my hands and knees through small, dark, winding caves, which didn’t help my long standing fear of small and tight spaces. As I approached the caves, I was astonished to find a tall and open space, with sunlight shining through what looked like a natural skylight in one secluded corner of the ceiling. What one doesn’t see or know about is a powerful trick of the mind, thus most people fall into a state of psychological paranoia around all things bug related, flinching and ducking at the slightest sound and feeling that some small creature has taken a liking to their presence. Instead, it was more my struggle to dismiss the pungent odour of ammonia clouded my nasal passages as we walked around the walkway, which was covered in bat and bird droppings, cockroaches. One bat even decided to take a midday nap in the middle of the floor. The dark dingy ceilings of the caves prevented me from seeing the swiflets’ birds’ nests, which are historically considered a local delicacy for soups and such in Borneo. The bird’s nest are tendered 2 times out of the year for sale; 3 men, all with a weight under 47kg climb a ladder to collect the nests with or without the baby birds in them. Had I missed out on witnessing such tradition? My feelings could only be described as bitter sweet. Where there is beauty, I suppose there must always be a beast.
Occupation during WW2
Hidden beneath the tranquillity and serenity of these natural wonders, there was a darker layer to Borneo’s history. The steps we took as we ventured deeper into the rainforests, uncovered the brutality of the POW camps in Sandakan and tragic death marches at the hands of the Japanese during WW2. During one, 2 and a half hour hike along the Kinabatangan River, we came across a tree with a small hollow in it. This was not just any tree, but it was used to house up to 20 girls and food. These girls would have been trying to evade capture by the Japanese. In Japanese occupied Borneo, the Capture of young girls spelt out a life where they would be sold into prostitution. All one could do was to process the silence and carrying on taking the next step forward.
The final leg of my adventure through Northern Borneo carried me on a speedboat rushing towards the tropical Manukan Island, where snorkelling became my avenue to exploring the magic of the big blue. With my breathing tube securely in place, I turned my sights to the depths of the South China Sea. There I floated staring down onto the sea floor watching schools of tropical fish sneaking in and out of the peaks of the coral reefs. I think I may have even found Dori. Eventually the multitude of jelly fish got the better of me, and lifting myself out of the depths of the blue I decided to head back to life on land.
I definitely didn’t want to leave this tropical paradise; with the exception of the bloodthirsty tropical mosquitoes and the allergy they had gifted me. Many of the stories of animal cruelty that I had seen, heard of or read had predominantly had their source in South East Asia. However, my raw experiences of the Bornean jungle undid the chains on these stereotypes and prejudices. Despite a history of occupation by the British, Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese, Borneo has remained an independent state, and more importantly an independent culture with a focus on creating its own separate identity. Malaysian influenced Borneo with its welcoming people, charmed culture, and wise old rainforests, is an island that stands tall amongst its pacific neighbours. And yet, within its very depths lie precious, rare, and untamed treasures that they guard with pride. In my opinion, they are leaders in the world of conservation; a prime example of our environment and wildlife past, present and future.