Borneo - Natural wonderland or oversized palm plantation
Kota Kinabatangan, Malaysia
Borneo is apparently the third largest island in the world. Whoever wrote that obviously dosn't consider Australia to be an island as I was taught at school but whatever. Borneo is a few hundred kilometres off the East coast of Malaysia and is divided into Malaysian Borneo comprising approximately the top third of the island, Kalimantan/Indonesian Borneo and Brunei, a tiny country completely surrounded by Malaysian Borneo. Clare and I have now spent a month and a half in Malaysian Borneo and been captivated by the starc contrast between both the natural and man-made environments.
Looking out the window of our twin propellor aircraft as we descended into Kota Kinabalu the capitaly city of the state of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo is broken into the southern state of Sarawak and the northern state of Sabah) we saw little more than an immense expanse of greenery occasionaly broken by chocolate milk coloured rivers. Our first days were spent catching up with my cousin Dana and her family at a resort near the city. We did little else in those first few days as it seems there's not alot to see and do in KK. On the other hand if you're prepared to get out of the city there's plenty to do. You can climb the 4000+ metre peak of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak between the himalayas and Papua. You can check out the national park there, go out to Abdul Rahman Marine Park off the west coast for amazing snorkelling and diving. You can take numerous other day trips to other nature reserves and national parks.
Four days after arriving in KK Clare and I flew south to do our second workaway (see previous post) and then meet up with my uncle Springs to travel with him for a month. My uncle is incredibly enthusiastic about the natural world and wildlife, particularly Borneo's most iconic primate the Orangutan closely followed by the Pygmy Elephants. Sure we can go and see semi wild orangutans in various reserves such as Semengoh Nature Reserve but it's not quite the same as seeing them in the wild which is where we would turn our attention. It turns out that throughout Malaysian Borneo there are more National Parks, Wildlife Reserves and Conservation Areas than I count on fingers and toes alone. This seems to be a necessity to protect the ever decreasing natural habitat from the ever expanding reach of the logging and palm plantations. Should and could more be done?
The first of such parks that we visited was Semengoh Nature Reserve near Kuching (capital city of Sarawak). It is renowned for the habitat they manage with Orangutans at the forefront of their efforts. Twice a day the park rangers would put out some fruit and the semi wild orangutans may descend out of the trees if they felt like eating whilst tourists made the most of their opportunity to watch these incredibly human-like animals from a small area akin to a viewing platform. Our first impression was that the animals were being exploited for financial gain. In actual fact it served as a place of rehabilitation for those that had inadvertently wandered into plantations or towns and been injured. It also served as a breeding ground. Some lived out there lives in the nature reserve whilst others, usually males that had unsuccessfully challenged the alpha would be repatriated into National Parks around the country. The big males are typically solitary creatures that require a certain amount of space to avoid conflicts with others
We did a considerable amount of research to find the best place to try to find Orangutans in the wild. Unfortunately we were horrified to learn that there were very few places remaining. There are only one or two National Parks where the animals are not only completely wild but haven't been corralled into unnaturally tiny regions of jungle surrounded by palm plantations. Without our own tents and cooking equipment or any ability to speak the native dialects we were forced to find a guide to take us to Batang Ai National Park. This took another week or so to arrange. In the mean time we would visit Bako National Park. Funnily enough it was in direct line of site from our work away a couple of weeks earlier and probably only 20 minutes by boat. This place was beautiful, right on the coast and very well set up for tourism. There was a cafeteria, bungalows, dormitories, amenities, bordwalks through parts of the park and guides waiting to take tourists anywhere they would like. There were also a few more difficult tracks to trek but the best thing was the density of the wildlife. As beautiful as the coastal setting, mangroves and the jungle were it all seemed like the commercialised version of what we were looking for. A day later the authentic version was to begin.
It took about four house in a car during which time we got our first real look at just how much of the country side had been converted into plantations. This was followed by another hour and a half through a squall on a small boat to reach our desitnation in Batang Ai National Park. From the lake the NP appeared to be a mix of primary and secondary forest surrounding a flooded valley that was used as a hydroelectric damn just as Jindabyne is in New South Wales. Our first destination was a traditional Iban tribe longhouse on a hill over the lake. They're called longhouses because they are exactly that. In this case it was broken into 15 different units housing numerous different families. We slept in the 75m long communal area. After our first night staying with the local Iban tribe we were to head further into the jungle by boat then trek to set up camp and look for wildlife, in particular the Orangutan. We would then trek again the following day before making our way back to the Iban longhouse for the third night. The treking was some of the most arduous i've done. Not in terms of distance, altitude or weight carried. This was hard because there were no tracks. We had to cut our way through virgin rainforest. It was hot, so hot. It was humid, wet, sticky, steep, slippery with a never ending threat of leeches and plants with thorns that seemed to grab and tear at your skin from everywhere. Whenever we hiked to look for Orangutans we headed for high ground. Each time we seemed to end up hiking along a three foot wide ridge with near sheer drops either side. Seeing as what goes up must come down we had to pick our way down these slopes clinging to trees, roots and vines to stay upright. In Marks case he was usually clinging to one of us and ultimately clinging to his own shorts to hold them on after being torn to shreds by thorns and falls. We trecked through rivers, ate food cooked in bamboo, slept in a decrepit hut that we were fortunate to find (too much rain to set up the tents) and even more fortunate didn't fall on us in the night. Sadly for all the effort and discomfort we never saw the Orangutans. We saw plenty of the nests that they make each night to sleep in but never saw the main attraction itself. Ultimately it was a privilege to spend time in the rainforst of Borneo and then again the next night with the local tribes people.
On the third night we had our greatest cultural experience in Borneo. The first night in the Longhouse all the typical noises kept us awake. So this time a conscious decision was made to take the incessant crowing of roosters and fighting of dogs competing for b****es on heat out of the sleep equation. We got drunk on the local hooch with our guide and some of the other locals. They do a really strong rice whiskey known as Lankau which they were feeding to us in shot glasses to go with cups of rice wine called Tuak. My favourite though was the three dollars I spent for the three litre petrol can of something that I don't know the name of. Lets call it palm beer. There's a particular palm tree where you can cut off a branch, put a stocking over the severed end as a filter and a bucket below and catch litres of this fermented liquid straight from the tree. Apparently is actually comes out lightly fizzy even more so than when you drink the milk from a slightly rotting coconut. This liquid keeps for about three days, is usually somewhere between 5% and 10% alcohol and is bitter but by far the best of the drinks on offer. A bit of sugar is a nice addition. We drank and drank. It wasn't long before we were shooting paper spit wads through a hundred year old, two metre long blow-dart pipe at my uncle while he tried to sleep. By 'we', I mean me. Surely it's indisputable that he should have been up drinking with us. Eventually the chief sent us all to bed. Apart from a fun if not slightly bizarre cultural experience all the drinking got me through an unbroken night sleep with surprisingly little hangover the next day. It was sad to leave after all that.
We returned to the city of Kuching after our mission to the jungle and quickly made plans to head north and then make our way east to the Kinabatangan National Park with the main goal to see Borneo's Pygmy Elephants. This loosely involved about a week of travel and a series of local ferry, car and bus rides that would first take us to small interior towns of no real touristic significance. What it also did was give us about 20 hours of travel time on the river alone to further appreciate the beauty and density of the Bornean jungle and to comprehend the ever increasing expanse of palm plantations. We noticed that amongst the most prevalent vessels on the river were those associated with transport from the logging and palm oil industries. It seems that the two go hand in hand. Particularly when starting a new plantation as the land needs to be cleared and money can be made first from the sale of the timber. Apparently it is also one of the reasons for illegal logging as it can be carried out under the pretence of being for palm or other plantations but in many cases the land is just left empty. It has been estimated that illegal logging generates in the vicinity of $10 billion annually into criminal coffers. Logging aside, our ultimate destination would really highlight the contrast between the natural borneo and the man made or rather man planted borneo.
Arriving at our homestay on the Kinabatangan River after six days of travelling was a relief. This homestay came on the back of a recommendation and didn't disappoint. The main selling points were staying with a local family not in a hotel and our guide's reputedly cavalier attitude towards safety and interaction with wild animals. The father and guide is also renowned even to the point of having guided National Geographic crews including the great man David Attenborough. From now on our guide will simply be known as Naaang to protect the slightly less than innocent. Combined, these things made for some interesting, hilarious and even heart pounding moments. Everyday, sunrise, sunset and night game viewing safaris on the river are offered. Using the river is a great way to see the wild animals. They all need the river at some point, it provides an open area from which to view the animals and you can get so much closer to the animals without them fearing your proximity as they would if you were on foot. Our previous excursion into the jungle proved that the density of the jungle makes it terribly difficult to spot anything where as the open space on the river was far simpler by comparison. On these River safaris we saw five species of monkey including the bizarre proboscis monkey, crocodiles, monitor lizards, snakes, huge horn billed birds (funnily enough called Hornbills), and even a mouse deer crossing the river (smallest deer in the world) which Naaang had never even seen. Further evidence that he was the guide for us was having a monitor lizard land in the boat one morning because he took the boat too close which was followed by a snake the next day which Clare was kind enough to drag into the boat from the river. It bit Naaan. He's still alive. After three days though we still had not seen the pygmy elephants which were our primary reason for coming.
One of the reasons the Kinabatangan National Park is so good for seeing wildlife is that it has been pushed into an ever diminishing area by the palm plantations. In some areas the National Park is little more than a corridor running along the river from one pocket to another and in some cases the palm plantation goes all the way to the river and the animals are forced to pass through it. As you can imagine this creates all the usual issues associated with wild animals coming into contact with humans and agriculture. On day three which was supposed to be our last day, Naaang took it upon himself to ditch the boat and lead us into the jungle on foot. I don't believe any of the other river guides would have done this but we wanted to see the elephants and therefore so did he. He noticed evidence that a large herd of elephants had made their way from an area of National Park near the river to one of the plantations. Unfortunately we couldn't follow. That night Naaan proposed that if we wanted to stay another day he would organise for us to take a vehicle into the palm plantation and try to track them through there. This was mainly done for the benefit of a visiting photographer who was also doing an article on the interaction of the elephants and the plantations. Regardless, it was to our benefit so we stayed on for that.
It was fascinating driving around the plantation. Viewing what goes on and especially discussing the realities of the industry with our guide, called into question some of our preconceptions about the industry and it's ecological and economical repercussions. The plantation itself actually had a strange geometric beauty to it and there was surprisingly more animals living in the plantation than I had expected. A bit of internet research has indicated that the plantations can perhaps sustain about 20% of wildlife of the surrounding jungle. I assumed that must only be the smaller mamals, birds, insects etc but Naaang pointed out that the elephants actually like eating the new shoots of palm branches. That along with being able to physically knock over the palm trees explained why they can't be allowed to inhabit the plantation. It turns out they can be even more destructive than that. The workers are forced to light fires to scare them away from their lodgings and in some cases even shoot at them to scare them away. For example, one review I read of our homestay actually spoke of a herd of elephants passing through Naaang's property as they moved up river. They said the elephants would brush against and bang into the house causing it to rock on it's stilts. As we drove through the plantation we would get out on occasion to look at some tracks. After several hours we found where they had passed back into the jungle earlier that day so we gave up the search of the plantation and made plans to stay another day and try to find them in the jungle along that stretch of the river.
One of the most interesting things we learned in the plantation was that not all are owned by large corporations. It's estimated that approximately 40% of land used for palm oil plantations is owned by smallholders operating independently or under a state scheme. Given the incredibly low wages of rural workers anyone who owns even a small property and can grow just a few plants can earn significantly more by doing so. After a few years a palm oil plant can produce about 20kgs of fruit up to 15 times per year. Anyone that can plant even a few plants on their property can earn a significantly greater income than they could in the employ of anyone else to the point where it makes far more sense to plant more plants and make it their primary source of income. It turns out that palm oil is a somewhat sensible choice for bio oil products as it is by far the most productive of all plant oil crops being five times more productive than soybean and 3.5 times more productive than rapeseed. It is widely used in Biofuels and it's various properties make it suitable for and highly prevalent in all manner of products from cosmetics through to food. Thinking further about it from an ecological stand point becomes quite the conundrum. The use of palm oil has been widely boycotted for it's consequent destruction of habitat since the plight of the orangutan brought it to public attention. As tragic as this is, it seems somewhat hypocritical when one considers that most of the boycotting has come from first world citizens who live in countries that have already destroyed much of their own habitat for the purposes of urbanisation, industry and agriculture. There is also the micro economic considerations. The industry is supporting so many people that without some form of agriculture would not be able to earn any sort of income. All in all it was a fascinating drive through the plantation both to see how it operates and to gain a bit better understanding of both the positive and negative aspects of the palm oil industry. Given that Naaang is in the tourism and conservation industry I was somewhat surprised but also impressed by his ability to see and to explain both the economic and the ecological sides of the debate.
The following morning we set out at sunrise. The plan, to make our way to the same stretch of the river that Naaang followed their tracks towards from the plantation the afternoon before. We went directly there after most of the other sunrise river safaris were finished. We hid the boat among the low hanging branches and set off on foot. We picked up fresh trails very easily and set off into the jungle with our backpacks full of water, cameras and mosquito repellant. For the first time in months we were wearing shoes, socks, long pants and long sleeves and we sweated accordingly. After about an hour and a half Naaan realised that the herd had moved deeper into the jungle, too deep to follow safely and in that heat so we returned to the boat. We tied up under a tree elsewhere and waited for the afternoon heat to disappear and wait in hope for the sounds of the elephants as they approached the river again to wake. Naaang's plan was spot on. About 3pm their loud trempeting gave away their position and we headed along the river and back into the jungle. This time we jumped off slightly down river from where we could see them and were lying in wait for their approach. I don't care if they're Pygmy Elephants. When a 2.5m tall bull elephant is standing 3 metres away trumpeting his displeasure at a few humans and their cameras being in the path of his herd it is a spine tingling experience. Fortunately, Naaang has a pretty good understanding of these animals and made sure we didn't do anything stupid. Well, more stupid. We slowly pulled back a little into the thicker bush and allowed the to pass while we snapped away. Any previous experience i've had with wild animals had taught me to stay the hell away. I guess perhaps they are somewhat desensitised to our presence but there's a good chance they might also be more distrustful and aggressive towards us because of their experience with other people in the plantations. Anyway, we were unscathed and our adrenaline was pumping. That would have to go down as one of my personal wildlife highlights. Not to be outdone easily and not to be outdone for atleast another 30 minutes. The elephants all passed by and were moving too quickly for us to follow on foot. We got back on the boat and shot downstream to try to get in front of the herd again. The photographer was on assignment and had plenty more shots he wanted to get. Unfortunately for the group other boats were starting to come down river towards us. Naaang nosed the boat onto the nearest bank and the photographer jumped out. Clare, Unk and I were stunned. Apparently it didn't occur to either him or Naaang that a young man running into the jungle on his own to confront a herd of wild animals might be a bad idea. It did to me and after about 3 seconds of reason Naaang could see my point and told me to jump off and chase after him. So I did. Thrashing through the bush I could see our new friend up ahead and quickly joined him as we headed deeper into the jungle to find a creek that Naaang had told us the herd would have to cross. After about ten minutes we found it about 200m in running parallel to the river. A little way to our left was an electric fence used to divide the jungle from the property of the plantations. This was to be our escape path. If anything went wrong we had to make it about 50m back to the relative safety of a poorly constructed electric fence. As we approached the creek we could see the elephants were already there and in much larger numbers. We guess about 50 or 60 of them either walking along the other side of the creek, swimming and playing in the creek or crossing over to our side. It didn't take long for them to notice our presence and start trumpeting to alert one another. Crouching on a small spit of land protruding into the creek we could sit and watch in what we thought was relative safety. We photographed families of elephants on the other side, young animals swimming and playing in the creek and much of the herd crossing a little way ahead. Then, the big bull started crossing behind us and between us and our escape route to the electric fence. We couldn't go forward as the others were crossing there. It wasn't long before an adolescent male maybe two metres tall approached us making a hell of a racket. Then he charged. Naaang had warned us of this behaviour and assured us that if we stood our ground with the young ones they would stop as we'd called their bluff. Thank you Mr Photographer. He was the first to call the bluff while I crouched contemplating my options. Turn and run was not one of them. The bull elephant was still back there somewhere. The adolescent ran off trumpeting to the others. We crouched again and waited to see what the bull would do. Obviously he'd chosen to cross the river at a spot they don't usually use. Fortunately for us the bank was too high and he couldn't get out. As he made his way down the river past us we moved a little further away from the bank but he didn't give us a seconds thought. At this point the curious and or aggressive adolescent again decided to take matters into his own hands/trunk whatever and give us his second charge. We stood up as tall as possible and called his bluff again at which he trotted off to the group again. Not content with the this he came again. I stayed down shooting while Mr Photographer scared him off. We decided this was enough though just incase he and any of the other decided to take us more seriously. We made our way back to the electric fence then back to the river to find our boat a short way off. After a few other safari boats left the area we were picked up and headed for home. My heart didn't stop pumping out of my chest for hours. It's actually started again just typing this. We all headed for home satisfied with a days hard won animal viewing. I'd love to tell you that i've since topped this wildlife experience but even our next stop couldn't quite produce the same amount of adrenaline.
Our next wildlife experience was to be completely different viewing while providing just as much cause to consider the ever growing issue of conservation. From Kinabatangan we made our south east to a small and run down seaside town called Semporna. Our ultimate destination being a small island called Sipadan. For those of you that haven't heard of it Sipadan is a small Island where the scuba diving is regarded as some of the best in the world. The reason is that the island sits in deep water on the edge of the continental shelf at the junction of two warm currents that make the water incredibly fertile. The diving is famous for big sea life in massive numbers. The diving itself was everything it was reputed to be. Not just on Sipadan but the surrounding islands and dive sites also. We saw such weird and wonderful things as Frogfish, pipefish, Eels that could burry their entire length in the sand in about three seconds, sea snakes which really creep me out, gigantic Green Sea Turtles, Mantis Shrimp and the dangerous Trigger fish which actually took a bite of one the divers arms and too many other amazing creatures to name. The first day we arrived at the island Springs and I spent four hours snorkelling around the jetties and agreed it was the best snorkelling either of us had ever done. The diving at Sipadan was extraordinary for numerous reasons. We didn't see hammerhead sharks, we didn't see whale sharks but we did see huge schools of metre plus Barracuda form a spinning tornade that reached from 25m down to the surface. We saw more huge turtles, schools of reef sharks and got to swim over a drop off that went from 5m to 2000m within 10 seconds of swimming. It was extraordinary. So that we didn't miss our opportunity to see all this we were forced for once to plan ahead and I'll explain why. Back in 2000 a Philippino islamic terroist group captured and held for ransom 21 tourists and resort workers. Eventually all were released. In 2002 all the resort operators were removed from the island and it became a protected site. The navy is now stationed there all year round. These days only 120 visitors are allowed to the area each day not including tour operators. This means that permits must be applied for in advance through dive and tour operators. In order to stay where we wanted to, dive with whom we wanted and get our permit for the day we wanted, we were forced to book two weeks in advance. There are shorter time frames but with different operators and accomodation. For us it was impressive to see the extent to which the government was prepared to go to protect such a wonderful natural resource. It's one thing to remove the resorts but by installing a naval presence on the island they are also combatting illegal fishing in the area. It is not uncommon for Indonesian and Philippino fishing boats to make their way into the area to exploit the abundance of sea life by different methods. The day before and on the day that we visited various divers reported hearing loud explosive sounds underwater. We were later told that an illegal fishing boat had been captured and that they'd been dynamite fishing. As you can see the navy serves two purposes; Ensuring the safety of visitors to the area and preventing the reef and sea life from illegal fishing.
Sitting here typing it is easy to wonder why the government can't apply the same vigilence to the protection of their terrestrial wildlife and jungle habitat as they do to the sea life and reef around Sipadan. After all it is worth so much more in tourist dollars. Unfortunately reality is such that it is far more valuable again to the logging and agriculture industries. There are many private and goverment bodies doing wonderful things to raise awareness of the pitfalls of the loss of so much habitat and others still trying to create conservation areas along with breeding and rehabilitation programs so that the wildlife unique to Borneo should never become critically endangered or worse. I see and I understand the economic need for the government to allow these industries to thrive. The government has created so many conservation areas and National Parks yet still seem unable to stem the tide of illegal activities devastating these resources. Perhaps a model similar to that in Sipadan where a military like force is used to protect these areas. My great hope for Malaysian Borneo is that the government can take greater control of the logging and agriculture industries one way or another and crack down on the illegal activities that are undertaken in such an unsustainable manner. Perhaps by using the tactics employed in Sipadan as a model the government can not only reap the full economic benefits of these industries but they may even be able to conserve their own natural wonders whilst boosting their tourism industry at the same time.
After six days of amazing diving and the best snorkelling i've ever done it was not only time to farewell Mabul Island where we stayed, as well as Malaysia and Borneo but sadly it was time to say goodbye to Mark "Unky Springs". We travelled together four weeks and i'm sure got to know one another better than we ever expected. Sometimes it felt like Clare and I had our first child to look after. While at times it felt like we were organising him and his life for him it was also a pleasure to watch the often child like wonder with which he viewed the world. A most valuable reminder to me never to be complacent about the amazing adventure, places, things and people that Clare and I experience on a daily basis. Of course there were also plenty of other times when we were simply priviledged to be travelling with a man who is the life of the party and who's innate ability to break the ice with complete strangers made our lives easier on many occasions. To Unk, it's been amazing. You know you're always more than welcome to join us on our journey whether that's a week after you return home or down the track whenever you decide to pack your bags for a similar journey.
For the record, if anyone is interested in a trip to the Kinabatangan River and would like the best guide and best possible experience on offer contact me for Naaang's real name and contact details.
Until next time.
Clare and Brett