December 2013. The last couple of months had been hectic. I am a PhD student in Zurich, Switzerland, where I study microbial ecology. Science-wise, this is a very exciting system, but practically it boils down to spying the secret life of tiny unicellular organisms through a microscope’s eyes; after two particularly intense months spent doing it on a daily basis I was scraping the bottom of some nasty blues. In the meantime R. was roaming all over Australia to collect the plant specimens she studies; she was also running low on energy. We both needed a break: from the lab, from microscopes, from computer desks and deadlines. We took a map of the world and looked for a wild place between Switzerland and Australia. We chose Borneo.
Split between Malaysia and Indonesia, Borneo is the third largest island on the planet. Its biodiversity is stunning: it hosts some ~15 000 plant species including the giant-flowered Rafflesia; more than 400 birds species including the spectacular hornbills; and more than 200 mammals including rhinos, pigmy elephants, the orangutan and the creepy tarsier. As ecologists, we were excited to be there to deal with less spectacular bugs such as leeches and the like. Also, Borneo is where Alfred Wallace was carrying out his explorations when he developed his ideas on evolution, at the same time as (or even before) Darwin, back in the 1850’s, so R. and I were thrilled to roam the same forests where Wallace used to chase bugs more than 150 years ago.
In the weeks before leaving we did not plan much; we did not want to spoil the adventure. Instead of a guide book, I read Eric Hansen’s Stranger in the forest – On foot across Borneo. Hansen was feeling pretty much as we did when, in the early ’80ies, he started travelling in Borneo: he had enough of western obligations, he wanted to be in the jungle. His book accounts of some six months of wanderings in the by-then uncharted Bornean jungles, guided by locals covered in tattoos, from the city of Kuching on the west coast all the way to Tanjungselor on the east coast. Our travel schedule was somehow less extreme: we would have travelled in the Malaysian part of Borneo for about three weeks.
I left a snowy Zurich on the evening of December 19th, 2013, to land in a hot and sweaty Kuala Lumpur about 14 hours later. There I met R. and from there, the day after, we took off together on an Air Asia plane headed to Kota Kinabalu. Kota Kinabalu is the main town in Sabah, Borneo’s northern region. We would have ended up in Kota Kinabalu a few more times during our wanderings, enough to start calling it simply “KK”. KK is an ugly town with a good bar, “El Centro”; a cozy hostel, Lucy’s Homestay; and the usual fair amount of expatriates, backpackers, vagabonds, hippies and hipsters mixed with the local fishermen and merchants.
MANTANANI. We came to Borneo for its wilderness, but before going exploring jungles and climbing mountains we needed a few days rest. Some 100 km North-West of KK is the small archipelago of Mantanani, a handful of small islands with long white beaches, known mainly among Malaysian tourists. We rented a shack on stilts at the Mantanani Backpackers Lodge and we spent a few days chilling out in the sun, sleeping on the white sand beaches and swimming over the coral reefs. We did not see the blue-ringed octopus nor any dugongs (last seen there in 2008) but a lot of clown fish and giant blue-fleshed clams of the genus Tridacna.
Thanks to the jet lag I kept waking up at 5 in the morning, in time to see the saw-like silhouette of Mount Kinabalu appear at the horizon just before dawn.
We spent an anomalous Christmas on the island, half-naked, giving each other necklaces made of shells and coral found on the beach as presents.
GUNUNG KINABALU. After a few days on Mantanani we were ready to tackle one of the main goals of the trip: the ascent to the imposing Mount Kinabalu. As a keen mountaineer I was excited to climb a peak taller than 4000m just by the Equator, very differently from alpine conditions. R. simply liked the challenge of “climbing the f****g mountain”.
We left KK on the early morning of December 26th, headed to The Mount Kinabalu national park. We could not get onboard of any of the minibuses, so we took a taxi instead: the scariest drive of my life, as the driver had a heavy foot and kept passing cars and trucks regardless of blind curves and vehicles coming from the opposite direction. Against the odds, we managed to reach the park entrance in one piece. After some paperwork and being assigned to a guide, we made our way into the jungle. Our guide was a chubby man in his thirties that knew about 20 words of English but had a good eye for flowers and pitcher plants. He also tried to teach us some Malay, but we were such bad students that all we could remember was paka (boulder), gunung (mountain), ular (snake), katak (frog), awas (beware).
As we went up, the jungle became less thick and was eventually replaced by a drier and less species-rich mountain forest. By then, when the clouds were opening, we could see the monolithic upper part of the mountain towering over us.
At the end of the first day we reached Laban Rata, nothing but a couple of big and comfortable mountain huts where to rest for a few hours. Resting was not really an option for us, as when we arrived the whole place was full of overexcited Indians that were climbing the mountain for some charity fund-raising. They stayed up until late, throwing out motivational speeches to each others, and when we woke up, at two in the morning, they were all already up and about, yelling at each other and fiddling around with their rucksacks.
Anyway, we left the hut at about 2.30 a.m., walking under a thick drizzle at the light of our headlamps. At that point we were well above 3000 m and soon we started feeling the effects of altitude: headache and short breath. When the high altitude forest ends, the mountain appears like a giant block of bare, smooth granite; the frequent rain does not allow any soil to form on it, and only few rare small bushes grow stubbornly from cracks in the rock. It is a fantastic, moonlike environment.
We kept walking along the fixed lines on the blank, slippery rock, step by step, until we reached the summit: it was around 5 a.m., just in time to assist to a gloomy, freaking cold sunrise.
The descent was long and painful. R., who suffered of headache during the summit push, was now feeling better, while I was suddenly feeling awfully sick and prostrated. A few hundred meters lower and a few painkillers later I started feeling better. Moreover, the rain came to distract us. It is easy to forget how tired your legs are when you are soak wet, walking in the mud under the battering rain for hours.
We cannot complain too much though. If the rain did not come, we would have missed some of the most iconic creatures of Mount Kinabalu: forget monkeys and colorful birds, I am talking about earthworms and leeches. With the rain, giant blue earthworms one centimeter thick and 30 centimeters long came to the surface. Soon after we also saw giant leeches, even bigger than the earthworms and bright red, hunting the worms to suck their fluids. The guides were giggling at our excitement, while we were stopping to take pictures and videos of these bugs regardless of the rain soaking us.
Our day finished with a staying at the unforgettable Mountain Rest House. As opposed to the Mountain Guest House, a basic but rather cozy accommodation just in front of the park entrance, the Mountain Rest House is a moldy barrack a hundred meters down the road. At least it was cheap, sort of clean, and the owner, a lady of uncertain age and with no experience of dental care, was very cheerful.
KINABATANGAN RIVER. After climbing Mt Kinabalu we headed toward the Kinabatangan river (Sungai Kinabatangan), famous for the abundance and variety of big animals inhabiting the forest by its banks. We soon discovered why: the patches of forest near the river are the last in the area, otherwise completely converted into palm plantations. As we traveled toward our destination we had to bear the painful sight of oil palm monocultures, seamless for tens of kilometers, till the horizon. The demand of palm oil from the food industry is high, and this area of Borneo has been taking advantage of it since the ’80s. The ecological price is high: it seems to us that, in Sabah, most of the lands that are not protected as natural reserves have been logged and used for growing palms.
Reaching Kinabatangan was a relief. The sides of the river are an oasis where the original jungle was partly preserved, partly allowed to regrow, so that many big animals can still thrive there. It is an example of the contrasting situation of nature conservation in Borneo: on one hand there are heavy logging and oil palm plantations threatening biodiversity; on the other hand, natural reserves and national parks managing to save patches of the original Bornean jungle, attracting tourists (and their money) from all over the world and supporting the idea that a different way of dealing with the jungle is possible.
We spent two or three days in a lodge on stilts, walking in the jungle and sailing up and down the river. We spotted plenty of macaques, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, snakes, monitor lizards, and even an orangutan preparing its bed on a tree for the night. Pigmy elephants roam the area too, but we could see only their footprints and their dung. The highlights of our staying were two encounters, in two consecutive night, with the rare tarsier or ghost monkey. R. got some prize-worthy pictures of it. These primates rank quite high in my personal list of stupid-looking animals: with their long fingers, their huge eyes and their dumb appearance, they beat even the Madagascar brown lemurs. On the other hand I must say that, for a night-dwelling animal, being suddenly surrounded by tourists and dazzled by their camera flashes probably did not help.
MULU. After Kinabatangan we went once more in KK; once again, guests of Lucy’s guesthouse; once again hanging out at El Local, where we were almost habitué customers by then. There we spent the first few hours of the new year, just before leaving at 06.00 am on a domestic flight to Mulu national park. Great logistics skills we have.
From KK to Mulu we had great expectations as well as questions. Was the region of Sarawak, where Mulu is, going to be as logged as Sabah? The change in the green texture gave us hope: the regular pattern of evenly spaced oil palms gave way to larger and larger patches of thick tree cover in different shades of green, a sign of healthy jungle. It is impossible to tell where are the borders of Mulu national park: in and out of it, the primary forest is everywhere. Perhaps northern Sarawak is less populated than Sabah, and the human presence has been less damaging. Perhaps the oil stocks found in the area, that made the wealth of the nearby Brunei and are also found on Malaysian territory, made the exploitation of the local jungle a less remunerative business. Few small scars in the green matrix could be seen from the small plane that brought us there, where the hills had been logged and terraced to prepare the ground for oil palms; but otherwise, here the jungle still prevailed. We fell in love with the place even before setting foot on the ground.
We dropped our bags at the Mulu Homestay (Betty Homestay according to the Lonely Planet guide), another very basic but somehow cozy wood barrack on stilts. Then we left to explore the jungle.
Mulu is famous for its karstic phenomena: the frequent rains dug giant cave systems in the limestone, some of them hosting colonies of millions of bats that can be seen flying out at sunset. R. and I set our mind on something even more unusual: the so called pinnacles or “rock forests”, consisting in sharp and slender limestone towers, tens of meters tall and towering over the forest canopy. We contacted a local guide, Lim Leah, that agreed to bring us there; our meeting point would have been “Camp 5”, an advanced camp one day away from the park main quartiers. We bought noodles for two days and we got on our way: a longboat ride took us upstream on Melinau river as far as the depth allowed, then we continued on foot. At camp 5 we met Lim. That night we slept lulled by the sounds of the forest, meters away from the shelter with no walls that is Camp 5’s “dorm”.
In the morning we began the climb toward the Pinnacles. The path is very steep, wet and covered in slippery roots; in some points, fixed ropes and metal ladders help the progression. Near the top of a hill the canopy opened up a little, and we found ourselves in the sunlight, on a sort of limestone balcony; from there we could see, on the side of the hill opposite to ours, the magical view of the Pinnacles. Some people might say that they are just big chunks of rock sticking out of the ground, but we found this giant limestone blades the most impressive. I cannot say why. Maybe it is because of the somehow unexpected sight. Perhaps the Pinnacles were not just chunks of rock to us anymore, but they represented the acme of all the experiences that brought us there, a sort of zenith reached after the crescendo of experiences during our trip; that might be why those chunks of rock looked so special to us.
KUCHING. Our last stop was the town of Kuching, whose name means “cat” in Chinese. The town is a sort of Chinese enclave in Malaysian Borneo; most of its inhabitants are of Chinese ancestry, they still build their houses in a Chinese style and they prey in Taoist temples. Street markets sell anything from spices to chicken’s legs, dry fish and unlikely potions for love and sexual vigor. The town is crossed by the river Sarawak, and the two sides are connected by a regular service of man-powered mini junk boats.
We took a room at the “Threehouse [sic] B&B”, a Chinese-style building owned by a Swedish tattooed girl; here we enjoyed the comfort of a big bed, air conditioning, and hot water. We wandered around with a strange empty feeling in our guts. We could feel the healthy tiredness of the road, that nice moment when you find yourself fantasizing about being at home, a place where emptying the rucksack and sleeping without thinking where you will go the day after. We stuck to that feeling, because our flights would have taken us back to Europe and to modernity very soon, and then we would have missed all that, the mud, the tiredness, the leeches, the jungle, waiting for being back into the wild soon.
Eric Hansen, “Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo”. First edition: 1988, Yolla Bolly Press/Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. Available on Amazon in various formats and editions.
Daniel Robinson, Adam Karlin, Paul Stiles, “Borneo”, 3rd Edition (Jun 2013). Published by Lonely Planet. ISBN: 9781742202969. The guide covers Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah), Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), Brunei.
www.mountkinabalu.com for booking the climb on Mount Kinabalu (see below).
www.walk2mulu.com is the website of Lim Chong Teah’s guide company. Lim himself guided us to the Pinnacles in Mulu.
VARIOUS PRACTICAL HINTS
For mysterious reasons, Bornean people often say that they are full even if it is not true (I suspect sometimes they are simply confused or shy because of the language gap), so it’s worth double checking with a phone call.
Buying grocery was never an issue apart from in Mulu, where the choice is minimal and the prices are high. Buying some rice, noodles and cookies before flying to Mulu is advisable.
Air Asia link Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. MASwings provides cheap internal flights.
CLIMBING MOUNT KINABALU
The climb on Mount Kinabalu can be booked via http://www.mountkinabalu.com/. The booking must be done and paid in fair advance; it includes the climbing permits and the staying in the hut in Laban Rata, on the way to the mountain top. The fees for accessing to the park and the hiring of a guide (compulsory) are not included and must be paid on the morning when the climb starts. If they say that Laban Rata is full you can ask for one of the other huts: Gunting Lagadan Hut, Panar Laban Hut and Waras Hut. They are within ~100 m radius from the Laban Rata hut; they are not heated but have plenty of blankets (in any case you’ll be so smashed because of the walk that you won’t really care).
You can leave Kota Kinabalu to reach the entrance of the Mount Kinabalu National park on the very same morning, but you have to leave KK around 6-6.30 am because you must be at the Park entrance by 8.30 to sort out the paperwork and be assigned to a guide (climbing without a guide is not allowed nor feasible). After that they will drive you for three or four Km to the actual start of the climb. You’ll start walking around 9-9.30 and you’ll reach Laban Rata around 16 or 17. The day after they’ll wake you up at two or three in the morning for the summit push. Leave the bulky stuff at the hut because you’ll pass by it on the way back.
Bring HEADTORCH, waterproof gear and warm clothes. NO waterproof backpack will stand Bornean rains, so pack all the things that fear water in smaller plastic bags inside your rucksack. Water: drink A LOT. Force yourself to drink two litres per day starting two days before the climb and continue drinking at least as much during the climb. It will protect you from altitude sickness, if you are lucky. There is plenty of water everywhere but it’s not treated; we used Katadyn Micropur Forte tablets to sterilize the water and we got away with it for all our staying in Borneo, even when we had to drink river water.
WHAT TO BRING
A well-packed 35+ backpack each did the deed for us over almost three weeks, provided that none of our jungle hikes required tents, sleeping bags or cooking equipment.
The internal flights have quite strict rules about the weight of the luggage, I think they allow 12 or 15 kilos per person.
Very useful items:
- Katadyn Micropur tablets for making water drinkable;
- waterproof/plastic bags for keeping the stuff dry in your rucksack;
- a mosquito net for the night;
- long socks to avoid leeches by sticking the end of the trousers into the socks (anti-leech “socks” also exist but normal socks do the same job);
- normal hiking shoes with a good grip.
More pictures HERE.