Whose Idea Was It To Come To Borneo?!

Trip Start Jun 25, 2003
Trip End Sep 2004

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Friday, January 16, 2004

While feeling the guano (bat excrement) squish between my toes and inhaling its harsh ammonia stink I couldn't help but feel relieved I was no longer surrounded by swarms of bugs only seen in an Indiana Jones casting call, I asked myself that critical question, "Whose idea was it to come to Borneo?!"

It hasn't all been bad - I did get cake on my birthday.

The second half of our Borneo Adventure (the trip is really called this) started off cush enough. After a nice birthday dinner with friends and cake (yeah!) we were off to Seligan island, part of Sabah's Turtle Island National Park. The park is a sanctuary for giant sea turtles to lay their eggs. Fortunately for us the turtles have good taste, Seligan is one of the most beautiful islands we've been to yet. Situated in the Sulu Sea between Malaysian Borneo and the Phillipines, it is a tiny lush green jewel of an island surrounded by white sand beaches and a beautiful coral reef. Luckily the turtles lay their eggs at night which gave us the whole day to laze about on the beach while intermittently jumping in the clear blue waters for a snorkel. After a rough day, night fell and we patiently waited under a full moon for the first turtles to arrive. We were fortunate not to have to wait long before the giant turtles emerged from the sea to dig holes in the sand halfway up the beach in which to lay their eggs. Once the turtles were finished, the park rangers collected the eggs and transported them to a hatchery for safe keeping. The rangers then gathered the days hatchlings for release into the sea - a turtle's version of a coming out party/debutante ball. It was amazing to see all the tiny turtles rush en masse for the water (not to mention their beautiful dresses) and everyone cheered as the last one broke the waves and entered the sea. It was like watching National Geographic live.

After another day laying on the beach outside Kota Kinabalu, we left Sabah for Sarawak, not realizing this would be our last relaxing day for the rest of the trip. We headed in the early morning light to the border of Brunei to grab the first of three boats that would take us 10 hours upriver to Mulu National Park. Taking advantage of sunny weather we sat on the roof, as the boat sped past jungle scenery and the occasional crocodile. Unfortunately after six hours we had to trade in our speedboat for a glorified dugout canoe with a 15 horsepower engine known as a longboat. Going slower made for better jungle viewing, however the view was limited when the sky darkened and opened up with a cold penetrating rain. As water gradually filled the open boat, I spent the last four hours of our journey to park headquarters trying to keep warm and wondering, "Whose idea was it to come to Borneo?!"

The next day, a bit drier - but nothing really dries in the jungle, we got back in the longboats to journey further upriver to Camp 5 where we would be spending the next two nights deep in the park. Mulu National Park is not only known for its dense jungle, but also for its caves and dramatic limestone outcroppings. On the way out to Camp 5 we visited two of the smaller caves. I never had much of an opinion about caves, but have quickly discovered that I do not like them. While everyone else was marvelling at the stalactites and stalagmites, I was hoping they wouldn't fall and block the exit. I also noticed the bugs, which I have only begun to tolerate above ground, are much bigger and scarier below ground. A spelunker I am not. But a good sport I am and did my best to tolerate the caves before beginning our trek to Camp 5.

After escaping from the caves, we grabbed our packs and headed into the jungle for a 9 km trek to our night's lodgings at Camp 5. The previous night's rain made it slow going as we had to wade through ankle deep mud the whole way. We were so muddy and hot that we actually welcomed the two swollen river crossing we had to make. If nothing else, it would get the mud off our boots as long as the raging current didn't rip them off our feet first. Clutching on to a rope to both steady our balance and keep us from getting swept away, we fought through chest deep water to safely and cleanly reach the other side. It was after the second river crossing that Jordan found his first stowaway. While wringing the water out of his socks he noticed a long thin ugly brown leechy looking thing attached to his ankle. When it wouldn't easily flick off, he confirmed that yes, it was a leech. Comically removing it from his ankle only to have it attach itself to one finger and then another until he finally bashed the tiny bloodsucker into a rock. Casually mentioning that his blood type was O-positive, he laced up his boots and we were off. I was just glad the leeches got him first.

By late afternoon we reached Camp 5 - a jungle camp that is as basic as its name. We bathed in the river before our guides cooked us a wonderful dinner. After which we spent the evening playing poker and watching the bats swoop over our heads thankfully picking large bugs out of the air. Sans mosquito net (who wants to carry that thing around?) I spent the night tossing and turning imagining all sorts of creepy crawlies strategizing ways to get into my sleep sheet. This of course gave me plenty of time to think, "Whose idea was it to come to Borneo?!"

After a sleepless night I felt anything but ready for the day's challenge ahead of us. Having visited the limestone underground we were now going to view its beauty above ground. Mulu National Park is home to a limestone formation known as the Pinnacles. The Pinnacles are series of jagged limestone outcroppings that can only be reached by an arduous climb up a steep hill covered in slippery wet tree roots and jagged granite rocks. The rocks are so sharp that climbers must wear gloves to protect their hands as they scramble their way up the mountain. The last third of the climb is a series of steep ladders and rope pulls. Only wanting to push his dislike of heights so far, Jordan opted out of the ladder bit leaving me to view the Pinnacles without him. He chose wisely, as the sheer drops on either side of the ladders were definitely vertigo inducing. From my point of view, I figured the altitude made the likelihood of bugs low and happily continued my climb up. The view was both magnificent and bug free and I would have lingered if our guide hadn't pointed out a snake sunning itself along the track which quickly sent me back down the ladders and into the jungle. Every cut and bruise I got up and down the mountain was worth those few bug-free awe-inspiring moments at the Pinnacles. By the way, Jordan didn't get off easy. Hanging out in the river waiting for me, he got covered in no less than 10 more leeches.

After another night of tossing and turning in our jungle camp, we got up early and trekked out along the same muddy path to return to park headquarters. The trail we were following is called the headhunters trail in tribute to the two former headhunting tribes that used to inhabit the area before the park's creation. In order to pass the time and make the going easier our guide, Churchill, told stories of ghosts and roaming spirits that inhabit the area. He even mentioned the room next to the one we had been sleeping in was haunted. In hindsight, maybe I should have been more worried about the spirits than the bugs. Which of course brought to mind the question, "Whose idea was it to come to Borneo?!"

After our hike out, I left Jordan to go "adventure caving" while I opted for an "adventure shower" and the relative civilization of park headquarters. When I saw him a few hours later, he seemed muddy but happy and excited for more cave visits that afternoon. Fresh from the shower I was not excited to head into more caves, but was told it was all part of the Borneo Adventure - I foolishly believed this and went on my way. Heading a couple sweaty kilometers back into the jungle, making my shower nothing but a memory, we arrived at Lang's cave. This cave is one of the smaller caves in the area but renowned for its remarkable and graceful formations. Even I could appreciate the beauty of Lang's Cave while trying to suppress my swelling claustrophobia and desire to run for the exit. Thankfully leaving Lang's Cave we were on our way to Deer Cave, known for having the largest opening in the world. This sounded good as I figured the large opening wouldn't induce claustrophobia. Instead it induced nausea. Being such a large cave it is home to thousands of bats. Where there are bats there is guano. And where there is guano there are bugs. Lots of bugs. Big bugs. I held my nose and tried to tolerate it but after the first squish between my toes, I flew out of there like a bat out of hell - no pun intended.

Jordan eventually caught up to me and while we sat in the Bat Observatory he showed me pictures of the two spectacular cave openings surrounded by lush gardens on the digital camera. Thank goodness for technology. This helped us pass time as we waited for night to fall and for the thousands of bats to emerge from Deer Cave for their nightly feeding. It was well worth the wait, as the bats emerged they looked like streams of smoke billowing out into the dusky sky. It was amazing to watch but there was one problem - we were now in the jungle and it was night. I've never covered two kilometers faster to quickly return to park headquarters and my shower to pretend none of this ever happened and of course wonder, "Whose idea was it to come to Borneo?!"

To mentally prepare us for another three days in the jungle, our tour leader wisely flew us out of Mulu National Park and into Kuching, the capital of Sarawak for a "city fix." Kuching is a modern, pretty city located along a curving river that is also home to many indulgent western conveniences such as hot showers, clean beds and Pizza Hut. After enjoying some of each, I felt ready to be on my best behavior as a guest of the Iban tribes people. As Sarawak is so isolated, the Iban have been able to maintain their traditional way of life. Iban life is centered around the longhouse, which is exactly what it sounds like. It is a long wooden house on stilts along the side of a river in which every member of the tribe lives. The longhouse we visited was home to 13 different families, numerous scruffy dogs and countless chickens.

To reach the isolated longhouse deep in the jungle, first we boarded mini-busses for a five hour drive toward the Indonesian border. Then back into longboats for a three hour ride upriver. The ride along the river was spectacular as we sat at water level watching the lush jungle scenery pass by. Occasionally we were below water level as we had to get out and push the boat through the shallower river passages. Upon reaching the longhouse we were greeted by the chief with afternoon tea and tropical fruits. Then down to the river for a communal Iban bath. As the Iban are not nudist, all the women wore sarongs while they bathed. While it proved a bit challenging to reach the dirtier bits, I did maintain my modesty and managed to get as clean as I could while bathing in a river while wrapped in a sheet.

After getting "clean," we were treated to a traditional dinner seated on the floor of the longhouse followed by lots and lots of rice wine to celebrate our arrival. While not excited about the rice wine, it proved helpful. We all slept on the wooden floor in the communal area. As this is also the communal area for the dogs, chickens and toddlers it is not the cleanest, most bug-free place I've ever slept. So the rice wine definitely helped.

The next morning after a brief visit to the Iban's black pepper and rice fields, we headed off for a short trek to a waterfall. Along the way our guide abruptly halted and began talking nervously to the other Iban accompanying us. It turns out our way was blocked by bees, large bees. Not sure what to do as he wanted to continue to the waterfall, the guide decided the best plan was to throw a stick at the bees. They were no longer simply large bees, they were now large angry bees. I am not sure what the Iban word for "run" is, but we got the message as our guide ran screaming past us. Needless to say we followed and as I ran to the safety of the river, I asked myself "Whose idea was it to come to Borneo?!"

After another night with the Iban we were back down river headed toward Kuching for a final night with our group before heading to Kuala Lumpur. We had a farewell dinner to say goodbye to all the friends we had been travelling with for three weeks. It was a lovely end to an amazing adventure. Now we are off to the beautiful beaches of southern Thailand to join friends and recuperate and dry out from our three weeks in the jungle. It should be enough time for me to figure out, "Whose idea was it to go to Borneo?!"
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