Just mentioning the name Borneo conjures up adventurous pictures in one’s head: vast, lush and impenetrable rainforests of an incredible biodiversity inhabited by dangerous animals such a venomous snakes and aggressive crocodiles. Borneo is the home of the Orangutans and big nose monkeys. Borneo is the home of many more herbal plants and animals, some of them have not even been discovered yet.
Borneo is the home of a great variety of native tribes, which once fought against one another in a brutal way. Pictures of headhunters and cannibals emerge in one’s head when paving one’s trail through the dense rainforest. Myriads of mosquitoes are buzzing around and countless leeches swoop down on the rainforest explorers.
Besides the wildlife, Borneo offers some idyllic beaches and small islands which each year attract thousands of tourists to do diverse kinds of watersports.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world. It is divided into four political districts: Sabah and Sarawak (Malaysia), Kalimantan (Indonesia) and the independent tiny state of Brunei.
During the Easter school holidays of our kids, Claudia and I travelled with Jacob to this exciting island. Since our time was limited to 11 days we decided to restrict our visit to three parts of Borneo: Kuching – Mulu – Kota Kinabalu
Our journey to Borneo started with a great excitement in the Singapore Changi airport: We had passed through all passport and luggage checkpoints and were on our way to the boarding gate when we became aware that Jacob’s passport was missing. He must have lost it somewhere on the way between the last checkpoint and the gate. Only 7 minutes remained to find the passport, otherwise the gate would have closed without us having boarded the plane. We scrutinized the way leading to the last checkpoint. But it was in vain. We couldn’t find the passport. We asked at the information counter whether the passport was with them – negative report! While returning to the boarding counter, Jacob started a new scrutiny of the way. We were getting mentally prepared to abandon our flight, when Jacob dashed up to us, gladly holding his passport up in the air. On the deep red carpet we missed to detect the passport which has a similar colour as the carpet. Just in time! One minute later and we would have been barred from boarding the plane.
Kuching (below: the futuristic bridge of Kuching)
Kuching is the capital of the Malay state of Sarawak. Due to its location by the sea, Kuching is an ideal gateway both to the jungle and the sea. Hence, we started our Borneo adventure there. Kuching is a charming town with a blend of old colonial buildings and new modern paned towers. The Sarawak river meanders through the city, walking paths along the riverside invite one to stroll. The eyecatcher of the city is a new gently curved steel bridge over the river. In the evening, it’s illuminated by changing red, green, blue and yellow lights. The best way to get a first impression of Kuching is through a river cruise. We hired a sampan (= Chinese houseboat) and enjoyed a great trip on the river. In the evening, we just hung out and indulged in the bustling nightlife of the river’s waterfront.
“When you realise the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.” This attitude of Dian Fossey inspired us to look deeper into the work of the Mantang and Semenggoh Nature Reserve. The institution dedicates its work to the preservation and rehabilitation of the Orangutans. This fascinating ape species shares 97% of our human DNA. Oranguntans which means jungleman, only live in the rainforests of the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Due to the ongoing destruction of their natural habitat, indiscriminate hunting and illegal capture, the Orangutan is a highly endangered species.
The heart2heart foundation invites volunteers to join in the daily work of the reserve’s preservation and rehabilitation program. The so called volunteer tourism is a fast growing niche market. The travellers typically do voluntary work for charity. Volunteering at the heart2heart foundation allows the tourists to gain a deeper insight and better understanding of the needs and challenges in preserving orangutans.
We joined a volunteer day. Our work ranged from cleaning up of cages to the preparation of the orangutan’s food. Provided with boots, helmet and mouthpiece we engaged in the work. The floors of the cages were to be scrubbed and hosed. Then we had to pack food in leaves and to tie them with cords. Finally, we had to hide the prepared food in the cages. Thus, the orangutans are to learn to seek their food and to unpack it before consuming. Like in real wildlife, the animals have to work for their sustenance. (right: preparing food for the orangutans)
Our volunteering was just a very superficial sniffing into the tasks and challenges of heart2heart’s daily work. Nevertheless, it will be a lasting experience which will be forever connected with our stay in Borneo.
Mulu National Park (MNP)
The next leg of our Borneo trip was in Gunung Mulu National Park. Since 2000, the park has been a UNESCO World heritage site. By plane we travelled for about an hour to the Mulu airport, a small site with just one landing and takeoff strip. Jacob was somewhat surprised at this jungle airport, above all when comparing with Singapore’s Changi airport, his “home” airport.
The MNP is a protected rainforest. It’s known for its seemingly impenetrable jungle, for its mountain summits and caves. You come here to experience life in unembellished nature. The more one penetrates into the jungle the closer one feels to the roots of life thousands of years ago, when humans originated somewhere in an African jungle: heat, extreme humidity and lots of little gadflies like leeches and mosquitoes. Adventure has its price – but those who are willing to pay it will be rewarded with incomparable and unforgettable adventures.
We started our jungle adventures with a kind of Borneo for beginners. We installed ourselves in the MNP Rainforest Lodge. “Unfortunately”, our longhouse room was equipped with aircon, hot showers and 24 hours power, which is generated by special generators. At least there was only poor internet connection in the camp, so that Jacob could get a first impression of a “Wifi-free” life. That fell in line with our intention to get Jacob acquainted with a simple life without shocking him.
Our first expedition in the jungle led us over well-prepared trails in the close surroundings of the camp. Once we left the camp behind us we were surrounded by deafening noise. Cicadas! Millions and millions of cicadas, many of them as big as a palm. After years in the ground they come out and now have just a fortnight to procreate. Therefore, the males have to chirrup, the louder the better. Only the loudest, which drown out their rivals will be successful and will get a female. It’s incredible what noise these tiny insects can produce. In terms of decibels, the unit of measurement for sounds, the cicadas’ noise equals that of a starting jet engine. Their mating calls are so loud that they drown out most of the other jungle noises. One has to concentrate in order to hear a bird sing or a frog croak.
Again and again, we perceived a 2m x 2m net of thin steel threads. We learned that these nets were installed by scientists. By the number of insects that get trapped in the nets, the scientists may do calculations in order to get an idea of the huge number of insects which inhabit the jungle. Further, time after time insects, which have never been seen before get entangled in the nets and so it happens that new, hitherto unknown insect species are still being discovered.
At dusk, we reached the famous deer cave. It’s inhabited by millions of bats. Each evening at sunset they fly out to find feed. In companion with other visitors we positioned ourselves in a clearing some 500 meters away from the cave and waited to see the bats fly out. At first instance, just some single bats came to the light – just as if they were exploring to see whether the conditions fit for all the other bats to fly out. And then, like the eruption of a volcano, big swarms of thousands of bats pushed outside, painting huge black stains into the evening sky. They left the cave entry, soared up the around 300 meters high, perpendicular rock face in order to disappear at last in the direction of the setting sun. It was amazing to see the different formations the bats built when flying out. No formation equaled the other. After hardly 30 minutes the stream of outgoing bats dwindled. The cave was emptied. Only in the morning, after around 10 hours in the air, the bats will return to the cave and hang upside down on the ceiling so as to rest, in order to start the same flight spectacle in the next evening.
On the next day, we set out for our next jungle experience: to explore the jungle’s canopy. The rainforest administration built a net of 15 narrow suspension bridges close to the treetops, thus creating a canopy round trip which takes approximately 2 hours to walk. Of course, one must not be scared of heights, because the swaying bridges made of ropes often lead to heights of up to 50 meters. But the adventure pays off! It provides one with a jungle view that is usually reserved for the treetop dwellers.
The renowned Pinnacles at MNP consist of a series of razor-sharp limestone spikes which are up to 45 meters high. The view of the pinnacles is an exclusive experience, the way up to them is another challenging adventure. The distance seems to be short, just 2.3 km away from the jungle camp. It’s the height difference which makes the excursion to the pinnacles a veritable, exhaustible challenge: On the 2.3 km way one overcomes 1200 vertical meters. Incredible – thereto add heat, humidity, a myriad of mosquitoes and leeches, which seemingly have chosen the hikers as their festival buffet.
In addition, there was the news, that just a couple of days ago a climber fell down the rocks and passed away on the trail.
The climb was tough – one of the hardest I have ever done, above all the way down. Jacob – on the contrary, did very well. For him, as it seemed, the climb of the pinnacles was just a longer hike through the mountainous jungle. Excellent job!
Scuba Diving in Kota Kinabalu (KK)
The 3rd leg of our Borneo trip led us to the beaches and reefs of Kota Kinabalu. Jacob wanted to learn Scuba Diving and so we decided to book a beginners-course in Scuba diving for Jacob and me at KK.
KK is the capital of the Sabah state in the northern Malay part of Borneo. Its coastline and reefs are ideal to do snorkeling and scuba diving. Already the journey to KK was an adventure in itself. With big eyes Jacob watched the two-engine propeller plane which he was supposed to enter in order to get to KK. Once we entered the small plane, there were no flight attendants to guide us to our seats. It was a 18-seater small aircraft, our seats were immediately behind the cockpit. Since there was no door to close off the cockpit, we were able to watch the two pilots doing their work. Still somewhat unbelievingly Jacob watched the procedures in the cockpit. With a hand grip here and a switch turned there, the propellers started to turn. With a hand gear pressed gently on the ceiling of the cockpit, the steering wheels in their hands, the pilots navigated the aircraft to the airstrip. One pilot pressed the lever on the ceiling forward and gradually the engines increased power. Then the other pilot drew the steering wheel towards him and the plane took off. Still Jacob was a bit tied up in knots, but the higher the plane got the more relaxed Jacob became. It was amazing to fly over the vast rainforest. Somewhere there below we had blazed our trail through the dense jungle in order to get to the jungle camp from where we climbed the Pinnacles. Then, the aircraft flew over the sea. We watched curiously all the fishing boats and cargo ships, each of them drawing their own trace in the sea.
After hardly 45 minutes the pilots started to descend and approach the airport of KK. Once more we were amazed watching the pilots doing their work. The whole flight was operated manually; no computers replaced the pilots in doing their work. The landing was also done by hand and sight. Once more, the pilots turned and pressed switches and buttons, the hand gear on the ceiling was gently moved back, the steering wheel was handled with much sensitivity. A soft jolt and mother earth had us back around midday.
We were picked up at KK’s airport by an employee of the diving school and brought to the small island Manukan, some 2 kilometers offshore from KK. There we had lunch and at
2 o’clock in the afternoon our scuba diving started with the introduction of the diving gear: Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), the air-regulator systems, the oxygen containing cylinder. After a profound introduction to the diving gear we put it on. “Puhh, we didn’t reckon that the gear was that heavy. Somewhat clumsily we managed to get the gear on our body and finally two bowed frogmen were ready to get into the water. The few meters from the diving base to the sea were rather strenuous. Once in the water we had to work hard in order to put on the flippers. Every beginning is difficult! While buoying in the water we pulled and dragged on our flippers to get them properly on our feet. Again and again we flipped over but finally we managed to be ready to go through our first diving trials. Slowly we deflated our BCD and gently we sank into the water. With wide eyes we gazed into a new world – the underwater world. Although we were close to the beach we saw for the first time fish swarms gliding through the water. For us newcomers these fishes seemed to be the most beautiful and elegant creatures. We did several exercises to get familiar with the equipment and the new surroundings: inflating and deflating the BCD which makes the diver to go up or to dive down; special breathing exercises to learn how to react when one’s oxygen cylinder or breathing devices aren’t working properly. Time rushed by and we had to get out of the water – 3 hours passed by swiftly.
Back at the diving base I started feeling some unexpected aftermath of our Pinnacle climb: When descending from the Pinnacles I merely slipped and fell – but it was enough to cause some open sores on my hand palm, a sprained thumb and a 10-centimeter long cut on my thigh. They seemed negligible to me at the moment when it happened, but now in the salt water they started to burn terribly. Moreover, the pain in my thumb joint hindered me from pressing properly the inflator and deflator button of my BCD. At the beginning of our diving session all these troubles were brushed aside by my excitement. However, the longer we stayed in the water the more I became aware of the pain.
Next morning, I tried once more again to continue the diving lesson – but in vain. The more and more my wounds were soaked in the salt water, the burning in my wounds increased. The back of the my hand was swollen from the thumb to the little finger – I could only handle the inflator and deflator button with great pain. I realized: my diving trials had to come to an end and above all I didn’t want to be an impediment to Jacob’s further scuba diving lessons.
To make a long story short: I quit, Jacob went on with his diving education and after three days he was granted his first diving licence: open water down to 12 meters – Congratulations!!