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Published: March 18th 2013
Verdant, primary, vital, alive, wild, flourishing - all these words seem too small to describe the rain forests of Malaysian Borneo. 60m tall trees with whole ecosystems living in their branches and on their stems. The sounds of birds and insects at inconceivable decibels. The only species of great ape found outside of Africa (besides us of course); hundreds of mammals, rodents and reptiles. Impenetrable rampant lushness.... This is nature at its most basic and beautiful; its most diverse and dynamic. Awesome!!!
Then, we take a corner and suddenly, as far as the eye can see there are oil palm plantations. Generic, homogenised, dead spaces growing bio diesel and cheap additive oil for the food and cosmetics industries. F*#k!! Yes, it's green, but it is sterile. No animals; no birds; no other plants except a single species of fern. The earth has been scraped bare of jungle and replanted with this, this.... I have no words. It hurts me physically.
Ever since I was about 8 and devoured every adventure of Biggles, I have wanted to visit Borneo. The place with the exotic name, impenetrable jungles, animals found nowhere else, head hunters, longhouses, intrepid explorers being eaten alive by leaches, wild rivers and a steamy climate. Of course this was a childish and romantic notion, and I am a cynical grown up now, but I have to admit to having been soooo excited about coming to Borneo, and probably still holding a couple of those enchanted prejudices.
I am not uninformed about what is happening to rain forests all over the planet. Besides Biggles, I also read all the second hand copies of National Geographic I could lay my hands on (mostly for the pictures ) and vividly recall the double page spread ads about how much rain forest was being destroyed daily. Of course I had no idea what a rain forest really was, but it seemed criminal that they were disappearing so fast and I hadn't had a chance to see one yet. That was in the early 1980's. Now, finally, I have managed to get to Borneo and have first hand knowledge of how it feels to come face to face with the most spectacular sensory overload of all time; but, I am afraid that it is too late for my young nieces and nephews who will probably never experience a rain forest in this way. Not in Borneo anyway. It is disappearing that fast and furiously.
Naively I thought that the Malaysians were doing a better job of conserving the indiginous forests on their side of Borneo than the Indonesians were doing next door. But, I have seen a different reality. After some research we have discovered that it is actually Malaysia who is losing its rain forests faster than almost anywhere else in Asia - to logging and palm oil plantations. Malaysia is losing MORE than half of its forest area every year and has been since 2000. That becomes a steep exponential growth (or should we call it death?) curve. Not sustainable and this is quite obvious in Borneo.
But, who am I to tear out my hair or judge? Us Europeans did this to our landscape centuries ago. Who are we to say this is wrong; this is sacrilege; this should not be allowed? This puts food on tables and builds schools and hospitals and roads. Or, does it? Who benefits? Is it really worth the sacrifice? Can't they see what they are doing? Don't they care? Is palm oil really necessary? Who is buying the stuff and why? All these existential questions have been running around in my brain since the beginning of this trip. The biggest impression this trip has made on me is to make me see so clearly the damage we are doing to our planet. Please boycott palm oil!
However, the self-indulgent ranting will end here, because despite everything, Malaysian Borneo is still a very special place (for now) and I love it. The people are lovely, the food is great, and the little that is left of previously pristine landscapes is fantastic.
We landed in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, in the morning and there was already a cloud draped over the impressive Mount Kinabalu, though the sun and searing heat on the coast was unforgiving. Instead of heading straight for our hotel we decided to take a drive. Hiring a car in Borneo is probably the best way to get around. you can avoid the crowds and get off the beaten track this way.
KK seems like a small sleepy town but it is actually quite large and spread out. We drove out as far as the Shangrila golf resort which has a beautiful, long and wide sandy beach with hardly any people on it. This was heartening. It felt like, maybe, there were not so many tourists around after all.
Later we checked into the Horizon Hotel in central KK. It is a city hotel trying to be hip and trendy. The service is ok but the best thing about it is the breakfast. After a quick swim we went walkabout around KK central. The day market was already packing up to make way for the night market and the food stalls setting up under the "sky walk" beaconed. Food doesn't get better than this. We started with balls of sticky rice and ground nuts wrapped in banana leaf; then moved on to pancakes (Malaysian folded pancakes with spicy fillings); then I just couldn't resist the Kuih lobak goreng, rice flour cakes fried with egg and vegetables and chili sauce; and then some fresh mango juice.
With full tummies we continued down to the waterfront, where we discovered that the fish market had transformed into a massive fresh seafood barbecue and so we were forced to eat some more. Grilled squid on sticks, nasi goreng, and of course some mango shakes. Bursting at the seams we stumbled home to get an early night, having spent only about £10 in total on all our dinners.
We left KK early the following morning to get to Mount Kinabalu Park before the crowds. We were fully intending to do one of the walks at the base - we had decided in London already that the summit climb was too expensive due to the monopolisation of accommodation on the mountain by Sutera Lodges. Once there though, we were sorely tempted to do the climb. The mountain is just so amazing and the lush forest which surrounds it is sublime. Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in South East Asia and fortunately the park is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, otherwise it would also be an oil palm plantation! Reason prevailed, especially since we only have time for 4 nights in Sabah and the mountain takes two plus recovery time; and we got back in the car and headed to Poring. We didn't even do a base walk as the crowds were already thick by this time. But, we have promised ourselves that we will come back one day in low season with more time, and hike this beauty to its top.
Poring is known for its hot springs, but actually it should be known for its jungle canopy walk and butterfly garden instead. There is nothing natural about the springs except for the water. It gets pumped into man made baths and pools which have seen better days. But keep walking past the pools and you get to the canopy walk. A 1km walk in the rain forest which includes about 250m of walkways suspended about 40m up in the forest canopy, between massive trees. Wow!! This is where I found my favourite tree in the world. See pictures..... The canopy walk is breathtaking and the jungle is fever hot and leaves you breathless and soaked in sweat - yes, even just 1 km of it. And the trees, the TREES!! Here I go again....
The road between Ranau and Sandakan ( also known for the death marches undertaken here when the Japanese forced Allied POWs to march from Sandakan to Ranau under absolutely horrible conditions) is a route of heartbreak. After Poring the way winds through incredible tracts of rainforest, some bits more pristine than others, but all of it gobsmackingly magnificent (try to say that fast). It follows a wide and lazy milk chocolate coloured river which snakes through the jungle and then, at around Kampong Matopang, as if by blinking you have brought it on, this loveliness suddenly turns into endless oil palm plantation.
When I say oil palm plantation, remember there are two sins which have been committed here: firstly loggers have gone in and cut down all the trees worth selling. These trees are massive and hundreds of years old. Then, once the valuable bits have been removed, the earth gets scraped bare, terraced and the oil palms are planted. Two blows for Mother Nature.
We stopped at the lovely Sabah Tea plantations. A cool spot on a hill top with views of Gunung Kinabalu and set amidst pretty, organic, tea plantations. They call themselves "tea from the rain forest" but in all fairness, they are actually tea from where the rainforest has been removed to grow tea. Excuse the cynicism. Their tea is very good especially the Teh Tarik with cinnamon. We almost decided to spend the night here, but then thought it would be better to push through to Sandakan, considering our time limitations.
Sandakan is only 200km from Ranau, but the drive takes about 4 hours. The road is horrible. The heavy vehicles carrying palm berries and palm oil have ruined it and the potholes can be as big as cars - especially our little 660cc silver car with the tiny go cart wheels.
A harrowing hour after dark we made it to Sepilok, home of SORC- Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, near Sandakan. We followed a dark track to a hotel we managed to contact on the way and arrived at lovely Paganakan Dii, where the friendly staff showed us to a pretty but simple room with white mosquito nets and crisp white linen, and pointed out the large wooden sliding door which they suggested we open in the morning. After dinner on their open air deck hanging off the side of a hill in the forest, we fell asleep to the deafening sounds of nighttime in Boreo: crickets, cicadas, ghekkos, and an orchestra of other nocturnal creatures. Andrew resorted to headphones.
Just before sunrise a cacophony of birds and a scampering squirrel on the roof woke us and we opened the enigmatic door. Flummox me!! The outside came flooding in and we realised for the first time that our bungalow was suspended on a ridge above a small palm plantation over looking the jungle. Absolutely f+*#ing amazing is the only way to describe the awesome view. (See picture!!) Then and there we decided to stay for a month, but unfortunately they were fully booked, so we had to move on.
After getting over the wow of waking up in the morning in paradise, we drove to SORC to meet some very special orangutans. SORC does amazing work rehabilitating orangutans orphaned or displaced by deforestation and general human abuse. The sanctuary is home to several semi wild orangutans who sometimes show up near the park HQ to partake in the fruit and milk put out for them on platforms in the morning and afternoon. Actually, I think the food is put three for the benefit of us, but the orangutans seem to enjoy the supplementary snack and on the day that we were there five of them turned up.
First in was a mom with small baby clinging tightly to her shaggy chest hair. She was quiet and quite wary and perched on
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