I’m in the jungles of deepest Borneo.
How about that, huh? Life goal accomplished. I lack only a pith helmet, monocle, and pointy mustache.
‘Deepest’ is kind of inaccurate, I suppose. It’s the northeastern region, called Sabah.
I’m in a campsite along the Kinebatangan river on Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Tour. There are twelve of us here, about an hour’s boat ride from the nearest village.
The accommodations are spartan; wooden shacks half-buried in mud. I’m on a wafer thin floor mattress surrounded by mosquito net. No running water, no electricity. The only source of on-site entertainment is listening to Lim, our guide, struggle through rough approximations of Nirvana songs.
The thing to do here is go looking for wildlife. There’s a morning boat ride, a morning walk, an afternoon boat ride, and a night walk.
Here’s how my shoes looked after one day.
I’d like to say the wildlife spotting is great. It certainly could be. But the really amazing stuff isn’t around, so we spend a lot of time looking at birds and trees. Neither of these subjects interests me. In fact, bird-watching strikes me as so profoundly dull that I’m wondering if I might be missing something.
Okay, it’s an egret. It’s white. It has wings and a beak. Let’s move on.
The trees are okay, but there haven’t been many world’s biggest or oldest or smelliests for me to get excited about. There was one tree that Lim claimed had the world’s strongest wood, but I found that claim dubious, difficult to quantify, and too arcane even for me.
I was sad to discover that Sarawak, the region neighboring where I am, has a park containing the world’s largest flower: the rafflesia. Ah, well.
We’ve learned about many plants that taste delicious, and many very similar-looking plants that will kill us. We learned about a vine that can be used as an eyedropper, a leaf that’s used to make baskets, and a tree that IKEA uses to make all its furniture.
Yes, it’s true. The jungles of Borneo have been largely destroyed by unchecked logging. It’s gone. From a plane it looks like a bunch of perfect green squares. All that’s left are a few small clusters that they kept around once they found out tourists would pay money to see it.
Aside from the birds and trees, we’ve seen hordes of monkeys. Four of the nine local species have turned up.
The most interesting is the proboscis monkey, which looks strikingly like an old Jewish man. I couldn’t get close enough to take a good picture, but I’ll grab one off the web without giving credit to the source.
The 800 pound gorilla, so to speak, is the orangutan, which we have not seen. We saw their nests and we heard them calling in the distance, but there have been no sightings.
The orangutan is the only great ape in the world living outside of Africa. The locals spell it orang-utan, which is closer to how they pronounce it — putting an emphasis on the ‘u’ as if it were two separate words. ‘Orangutan’ is the slightly bastardized English version, but I prefer it and my spell checker doesn’t make a stink about it, so that’s what I’m going with.
We saw numerous crocodiles. The ones here don’t hold a candle to the saltwater crocs of Australia. They’re hardly worth worrying about.
There are Asian elephants, but all we saw was their shit. That’s one shit that’s easy to identify.
There’s also a species of rhinoceros lurking around, but they’re extremely reclusive and no one ever sees them.
A large group of bearded pigs comes storming through the camp a couple times each day to roll around in the mud and inhale our food scraps. They’re ugly and wretched, but they really seem to enjoy being alive more than most animals.
Borneo is like the big city for insects. If they can make it here, they can make it anywhere. The largest of them is the rhinoceros beetle, which I think could probably take down a mid-sized dog.
The stick insect is one for my record book. It’s the world’s longest bug, with one specimen measured at 55.98 centimeters, or 22 inches. That’s one on the right next to the hand.
And we saw this fella hanging from a tree. It’s a long-legged centipede. It has a venomous bite that they say is potent enough to kill a child.
There was a big spider clinging to a leaf over the path. I didn’t get a picture of it. I was too busy shitting myself.
This is a microhali-something-or-other: the world’s smallest frog. I certainly wouldn’t dispute the claim. That one there is fully grown.
We saw a viper sleeping in a tree after what appeared to be a large meal. On the snake front, there are also king cobras and coral snakes in the area – both deadly – and the reticulated python: world’s longest snake. I saw one a couple weeks ago at Australia Zoo, but I haven’t had the pleasure of encountering one out here.
Other than that, the only large creatures to see are backpackers, and they tend to bore me.
I don’t get along very well with backpackers. There’s the odd exception, but generally I just don’t have much in common with them. There’s a different set of interests and values. I don’t want to say it’s a maturity thing, cause I’m not that much older than most of them. A fair few are even respectable professionals. And after all, I’m the one hunched over my GameBoy each night. But there’s something not the same between them and me that I can’t put my finger on. I don’t like being among them and I don’t like being considered one.
One member of our group is a rugged Australian bloke with a strapping build, heroic chin, and an accent that makes Steve Irwin sound like Peter O’Toole. He’s been walking the Earth for several years. He’s amiable and outgoing and I disliked him instantly.
He has one of those lazy rural drawls that makes me recoil and convulse. His tone wanders up and down in his sentences as if everything he says is the punch line to a hilarious joke. It’s tremendously irritating.
"Oiy down’t even ahwn a telivision."
"Oiyl take anatha wanna thaws beeys, thanks."
"Mix it with poinapple and that monkey shit makes some good tucka!"
He’s one of the few Australians I’ve encountered who actually says "G’day, mate!" In fact, just about everything he says is agonizingly clichi. When Lim described the village he came from and how poor his parents were, Ozzie man chimed in with, "Ya may be poowa, bat yer rich in family, roight?"
I would have happily joined Lim in beating him to the ground and kicking him in the gut Sopranos-style. I think Lim was considering it.
Needless to say, Ozzie man and I were assigned to bunk together. He seemed oblivious to my lack of tolerance for him, so I lay in bed the first night cringing each time he spoke.
Ozzie man can’t get enough of roughing it in the great outdoors. As soon as he saw the hole-in-the-ground toilets and the foot-deep layer of mud surrounding everything, he decided to stay at least a week. He gets up before dawn each morning and dons his head-mounted torch (the lighting equivalent of a butt-pack) to get on the trail and beat the crowds.
Another contributing factor to his enthusiasm is the cost of 20 Ringit a night, which is about AUD $10, meals included.
On my budget, I could live here for a couple years.
Sadly, our time together was short-lived. Outdoor Ozzie man left food in his pack and the fire ants discovered it. His side of our shack was hopelessly overridden, so he had to move to a different one. They’re leaving me alone, strangely. So it’s massive army of vicious ants on one side, me wrapped in mosquito net on the other.
It’s nighttime now and I’m willing to admit that I’m too scared to go to the bathroom. It’s a dimly lit outhouse at the end of a very long trail of shaky wooden planks surrounded by mud. The usually irrational fear of being bitten by snakes, spiders, or giant insects is now chillingly rational, and I don’t want to get caught with my pants down.
There are four young Malaysian guys who take care of the camp. I showed one of them my GameBoy and that was that. All other activities came to an abrupt halt.
They were having a ball with Super Mario World. It made me sad to realize that I am no longer capable of reaching the intoxicating heights of sublime joy that they found.
Once again, thanks Pandemic people for the awesome going away present. I’m making great use of it.
I’m pretty sure the GameBoy, in combination with the laptop that I lugged with me to the campsite, has given me a bad reputation amongst the backpackers. I’m the nerdy American who drags his toys with him wherever he goes.
Fair enough, I suppose. But I do get a kick out of it. I like that I’m doing this trip in a way that hasn’t really been possible until recently; what with the regular updates and photos. The world is getting smaller and I’m casting my rope around to cinch it tighter. It may not follow the neo-luddite backpacker ethic, but I’m not at all upset about that.
I’ve decided that travel is a great thing. Imagine if all we ever did with our spare time – and I mean everyone on the planet – was move around and see how everyone else lived. The shapeless blobs of places we’ve heard about would take shape and the people in those places would matter to us a little more. I’m not talking about world peace or anything. We can all keep hating each other and stuff. I’m just saying that if we made ourselves aware, there’d be more common decency going around and maybe we’d be more considerate.
I’m trying to articulate this thought without sounding hopelessly naove.
As far as the places being visited go, the effect of tourism on developing regions is extremely positive on the whole. It straightens things out politically. It helps the environment a lot more than it hurts it. It brings in gads of cash. And it equalizes places with the rest of the world.
That’s all globalizatio n is, really. We’re equali zing.
Okay, now I’m definitely sounding hopelessly naove.
I’m in an area where malaria exists and I’m getting stung by mosquitoes constantly. I have pills that I can take, but it’s one of those things where the side effects outweigh the risk of the disease. It’s called Larium, and it’s the heavy duty type of pill that you only have to take once a week. The thing is, it’s known to cause vivid nightmares, hallucinations, and in rare cases, dementia. I don’t want that to happen to me in the jungles of Borneo.
I’m going to wait until Vietnam to take it, so I’ll have Brad to deal with me if I start seeing penguins gnaw at my toes. Actually, Brad might want to take one too and make a night of it.
Okay, I’m gonna jump around a bit to when I arrived in Borneo six days ago, then work my way back to the jungle trip.
My first stop was Pulau Sipadan (Pulau means island), a dive resort off the coast of Semporna in the far east of Borneo. The flight out was a bit of a drama. I left Kuala Lumpur around midnight and arrived in Kota Kinabalu at 2am. My connecting flight to Tawau didn’t leave until 6am, which I could cope with until I discovered they were throwing me out of the airport. There was no one around, nowhere for me to go, and nowhere for me to sleep. I was outside in the heat with my carry-on bags, which included plenty of extremely stealable stuff.
With flights going out every day en route to the resort, you’d thing they’d have things worked out a bit better.
I tried sleeping on a bench. That wasn’t happening. I wandered around until I found the customs office, which was wide open, lit, and even air conditioned, but there was no one inside.
I wandered up and down the halls of the customs office for a long time, flirting with the idea of dropping my bags and going to sleep right there. Then I got visions of Malaysian customs agents walking in and finding me asleep on the floor and all the unpleasantness that would most likely ensue.
I finally opted to get a taxi into town and find the cheapest hotel so I could sleep for two hours. I found a cab driver who understood my plight and was willing to pick me up again at 5am to take me back to the airport.
There were many hotels in town that rented rooms by the hour, but the cab driver and I agreed that wasn’t the kind of place I wanted to go. What I ended up with wasn’t much better. It was dank, dirty, small, smelly, and crawling with geckos.
Anyone want to speculate about what I’m supposed to do with this hose?
I slept for two hours and woke up with no idea where I was or what terrible mistake I had made in life to end up there. The cab driver was downstairs waiting for me and we were off.
The dive resort had a bus waiting in Tawau to drive the other new arrivals and I to Semporna. From Semporna, we took a boat out to the tiny little island of Sipadan.
Sipadan was great. It was a four day package trip that included meals, accommodation, and unlimited diving. It went like this:
Dive, eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, dive, eat, sleep, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, eat, eat, sleep, eat, leave.
The island is the peak of a mountain that shoots up 600 meters from the ocean floor. It mushrooms at the top, so the island curves in slightly just beneath the surface. Once you drop off the ledge, you can actually swim under the beach.
I used my fancy new underwater camera housing. It’s a neat toy.
Here’s a couple videos.
Underwater photography used to require a whole lot of money to do with any reasonable level of quality, and shooting video was a much larger expense. These digital cameras are a massive leap forward. You can shoot really good quality stuff with minimal competence.
I showed the pictures off to the other divers on my laptop. I felt like a salesman for Canon. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did sell a couple.
Surprisingly, the guests on Sipadan were mostly American, though I’m told it’s a big destination for Italians. I met some really nice, interesting people. I learned a little about the oil industry and a lot about meat. I will pay much more attention the next time I order a steak.
One of the divemasters had a daughter there named Beebee. She was adorable. There were no kids to play with, so I had to suffice.
On my last night, I struck up a conversation with the resort’s repairman, Elias, and got the low-down on the island gossip. Family members are not going to like this stuff, but it’s too interesting not to put down here.
Two days before I arrived, a diver died. He was a young Russian guy staying on nearby Mabul island, which has nicer accommodations but does most of its dives off Sipadan. The guy was reckless and went down to 75 meters on a two-tank dive. That’s 244 feet. Oxygen toxicity sets in at around 60 meters, which means (I think) that the volume of oxygen you’re taking in with each breath is so dense that your body can’t handle it. He panicked and rushed to the surface, causing the air embolism (brain bubble) that killed him. They found him face-down in the water. Elias said his neck had expanded from all the bubbles. Pretty gross.
Any diver will tell you that going down to 75 meters is completely insane. It’s suicidal macho stupidity. The deepest an Open Water diver is certified to go is 18 meters. The legal limit is 40 meters, although I have no idea who could enforce a law like that or what kind of penalty there’d be. I guess it’s just a thing they say.
On one dive, I was with a large group and the divemaster was chasing after a thresher shark. With six other guys around me, I didn’t worry about my depth and accidentally followed them 39 meters down into the abyss. It was pretty scary. All the horrible things they teach you about in the PADI course suddenly rushed into my head. I realized that each breath I was taking was five times more dense than a breath on the surface. My body was quickly filling up with nitrogen it couldn’t do anything with and oxygen it didn’t need. My first instinct was to shoot up to a safer depth, which would’ve been bad. I slowly made my way up to 15 meters and spent the rest of the dive there. Everything was fine.
I never saw the thresher shark.
Elias told me they usually have one or two deaths on the island each year. He told me a couple stories, and they were all reckless divers who should’ve known better.
I know that probably doesn’t help. Sorry, mom.
The other big story I wanted details about was the hostage crisis. You may have heard about this one. In April of 2000 a group of Filipino muslim extremists landed their boat on the uninhabited side of Sipadan and stormed the resort at around dinner time. They marched 20 people, both staff and foreign tourists, into their boat and took off.
I’m not certain of the details of what happened. I believe a ransom was paid and all the hostages were released. The kidnappers were eventually hunted down and all but one of them is now dead.
Security has been beefed up both on and around the island and it’s very unlikely that anything similar will happen again.
Elias, who’s Filipino, was very particular about not calling them terrorists. I used the word once and he corrected me. These guys weren’t trying to terrorize people. They wanted money for their revolutionary cause, which was to liberate Mindanao and its surrounding region from the Phillipines and make it a separate muslim state. It was a valid point. To us, muslim + guns = terrorist, but it’s a loaded word and we should be careful how we use it.
The other fun thing about the east coast of Sabah is that it’s notorious for piracy. When I read that, I wanted to don my eyepatch and peg leg and run out to join them. But apparently, it’s not that kind of pirates. These guys use assault rifles and they don’t say "shiver me timbers" or "yar!" or any of that stuff. I was crestfallen.
Sipadan sells itself as one of the world’s top five dive sites, and in their more enthusiastic literature they claim to be #1. They are safe in that claim only because it’s a completely subjective assertion. To be honest, I didn’t think the diving was all that spectacular. Aside from the unique shape of the island, which was very cool, most of what was on display was fairly typical for the Asia-Pacific region. There were lots of green sea turtles and white-tip reef sharks, which are fun to see, but not at all uncommon. The corals and smaller fish were beautiful, but for me that stuff doesn’t make a dive memorable.
I don’t want to be too down on the place. I had a great time. I’m just disputing their hype.
On my last day, one of the divemasters spotted a hammerhead on his morning dive. Seeing that probably would’ve changed my opinion about the place.
On the way back, I got them to drop me off at one of their sibling resorts called Sipadan-Kapalai, as it’s only a few minutes away. The resort is way out in the ocean and was built entirely on wooden stilts. There is no landmass at all.
The diving isn’t as good as Sipadan, which is why I didn’t stay there, but the resort itself is like something out of a dream. I kind of have a thing for wooden walkways. I have the silly notion that any place with elevated wooden walkways is a utopian vision. And elevated wooden walkways over clear blue ocean? Well, you really can’t beat that.
The place reminded me a lot of the game Myst in that it was incredibly beautiful, but there was nothing to do. I’m glad I didn’t stay there, but it’s at the top of my list for honeymoon destinations.
Part of the negotiation to get them to drop me off at Kapalai included me staying a night at the Sepilok Nature Resort, yet another of their sibling locat ions. I took a quick fli ght up to Sandakan and was met at the airport.
I soon learned that I was the only person staying there that night. I had the whole place to myself; 17 bungalows to choose from and a staff of 40 at my disposal. No kidding.
I took my dinner on the veranda.
They had elevated wooden walkways too, so I was happy.
In the morning, before leaving for Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Tour, I walked nextdoor to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.
Here’s the climax to my tale, told in Pulp Fiction-esque warped chronology. I started at the end, went back to the beginning, and here I am finishing off in the middle with a bunch of incredible apes.
Look at the eyes and tell me it doesn’t look a man in a suit.
The sanctuary is an open jungle reserve that provides a supplementary food source to the orangutans. They aren’t caged. They willingly come to this spot several times a day to get fed. They’re not really wild, but they’re not kept either. They’re sort of half-wild.
My tour guide was on edge around an ape who goes by the name of Honey Bear. He later explained that he had a long and ugly history with Honey Bear. There’s a group of unruly apes, or as he calls them, "the naughty gang," who used to habitually attack guests in the park. He would have to rush in to fend them off, which involved punching and kicking them repeatedly. Honey Bear, the gang leader, didn’t take kindly to being beaten up by a human. After retreating, he stared at the guide for several minutes, apparently memorizing his facial features. Years later, when he found the right moment, he leapt from a tree and bit the guide’s arms and legs.
I got the sense that someday Honey Bear and the guide are going to have to finish things once and for all.
And speaking of finishing, that just about wraps it up for me. This was another excruciatingly long one. I apologize. I hope you did a lot of skimming. For anyone interested, here’s a map of my course through Singapore and Malaysia.