By C. Roman Dial
This winter, my family went on vacation to Malaysian Borneo. My father, Roman, my mother Peggy, and my sister Jazz vacationed there in 1995 and 1996, and traveled separately there on trips afterward, but this would be the first time we all went back as a family in nearly 15 years.
The world’s third largest island, Borneo covers more than 287,000 square miles. Three nations comprise Borneo: the Indonesian province Kalimantan, the tiny, oil-wealthy sultanate Brunei, and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
This trip, the family would only visit Sabah, which occupies the northwest area of Borneo, just south of the Philippines.
A multiethnic nation, Malaysia embraces a rich cultural heritage. Malays, typically Muslim, comprise the ethnic majority. Chinese and Indians make up the predominant ethnic minorities, though there are significant numbers of Filipinos and Indonesians.
While Malaysia is a Muslim country, Christians are afforded specific protections under the law and tolerance of other religions is widely valued. Everyone celebrates Christmas and the Chinese New Year. In fact, we found a group of Malays practicing the dragon dance on the top floor of an office building for the Chinese New Year.
Over 15 years, I’ve seen Malaysia go from a third-world country to a nearly developed nation. Malaysia enjoys a newfound prosperity, in large part due to the value of oil palm. Fifteen acres of oil palm produce one ton of crude oil a month, worth an average of Ringgit Malaysian 4,000 ($1,333). The most obvious change are the new cars and new roads. The streets, once full of bicycles and motorbikes, with beggars on every corner, are now jammed with brand new Protons and Isuzus. The people now wear designer jeans and sneakers.
The cuisine remains unchanged. Malay barbecue stands still occupy every night market and transit center. The wood fires and blend of spices have a sweet, peculiar smell, reminiscent of burning plastic. The satay - chicken or beef on sticks - cooked over them cost about $.30, and are served in plastic bags with peanut sauce. Another traditional Malay dish is mee goreng - fried noodles. Fried in palm oil and a mixture of dark sauces, with egg and chicken or other meats mixed in. The dish is garnished with a small citrus fruit that looks like a lime on the outside and an orange on the inside, and skinny, sliced, spicy red peppers.
A popular dish at Indian restaurants is a greasy, flaky, unleavened bread, called roti, that is tossed like pizza dough and fried on a large metal pan. Young women in headscarves serve the roti with a dish of curry for dipping. Everyone serves kopi susu - coffee made from Nescafe with a healthy dollop of sweetened condensed milk.
Lying on the equator, tropical rainforests once covered most of Borneo. Centuries of development, logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, and most recently, conversion of forest into oil palm plantation, have fragmented the rainforests into a patchwork of mostly secondary forests.
Our first destination, Tawau Hills Park, was one such fragment. Nestled in low hills overlooking southcentral Sabah’s oil palm plantations, it is Malaysia’s oldest national park. Fifty years ago, after logging cleared out the most valuable trees, the government created Tawau Hills Park to protect what was left of the area’s watershed. Despite the recent logging, the park has the world’s tallest tropical trees.
We stayed at the Park for a few days in a chalet. Built in local Malay fashion, the wooden building stood on stilts, 4 feet above the ground, avoiding floods, rot, and legions of ants. An artificial pond formed above a dammed creek, surrounding the chalet with a louts-choked moat. The water rose high enough to partially flood the rainforest behind the building, attracting giant dragonflies and monitor lizards the size of small alligators. A beautiful stork-billed kingfisher, with shimmering blue plumage, dive-bombed the tropical aquarium fish in the moat with its giant, orange bill.
Popular depictions of rainforests err on two accounts: movies fail to convey the hostility of the flora and fauna, and you rarely need a machete to hack through the forest. A rainforest isn’t an impenetrable thicket of plants, but it’s not open either.
The dark, humid forest floor crawls with life. Virtually every stick, branch and trunk swarms with stinging ants. Centipedes, scorpions, wasps, bees, and spiders hide in crevices, in curled up leafs, under logs and bark. Unseen gnats and mosquitoes leave mysterious itchy welts on every bit of exposed flesh.
The worst, though, are probably the land leeches. The largest, the tiger leech, may grow to three inches in length. Lurking on the underside of leaves in the understory, they wait for a passing mammal. Upon sensing movement and heat, they wave and stretch wildly, hoping to latch on. Once they climb aboard their prey, they inchworm their way to a tight fold of clothing to find a place to suck blood.
As worms, the leech can get into just about anything, climbing through zippers that may be partially down, up an untucked shirt, or wriggling down the waistline. The worst part, though, is their attraction to places where they feel snug, like waistbands, belly buttons, and armpits.
Using multiple rings of teeth, they attach to the flesh, drill a hole, and gorge on blood. An anesthetic in their saliva dulls the pain, and anti-coagulent keeps the wound bleeding freely. After their meal, they drop off to the forest floor. The wound they create bleeds for hours. After the bleeding stops, the inflamed wounds weep pus and itch terribly, sometimes itching for two weeks.
Besides the host of invertebrates ready to bite and sting, the constant wet, lack of sunlight, high humidity and heat causes everything to mold and mildew quickly, including skin and hair. Shoes and clothes go sour within a day or two of use if they are not washed and quickly dried. After only a couple days of being in the jungle, almost every surface of my body itches, from mold or bugs or both.
Little of an old growth rainforest grows so thick you can’t get through it. Old growth, climax forests have canopies a hundred feet above the ground, the tallest trees reaching upwards of 200 feet. Less than two percent of sunlight makes it to the forest floor, which means low primary production and little understory.
The thickest growth occurs in areas with the most sunlight - logged areas, fallen trees, forest edges. Despite the lack of thick vegetation, after a dozen steps off a trail, one quickly becomes enveloped in a forest of trees and shrubs, where every direction looks the same. Without a horizon or landmarks to navigate by, the jungle threatens to lose anyone wandering in it.
In the rainforest, the droning cacophony of cicadas and katydids comes from all directions, their song without cease. Strange whistles and chirps echo from the foliage above. Some we could recognize- the cackle of jungle crows, the honking, gooselike call of a rhino hornbill, the low whooping and maniacal laughter of gibbons. We could smell macaques before we saw them, a muddy, animal smell, slightly sweet, followed by a clicking, chattering call, not unlike the aliens from Signs or the cave monsters in The Descent.
A smaller, arboreal relative of baboons, macaques travel in troupes composed of an alpha male, adult females, subordinate males, immatures, and babies. They can number in the dozens, up to sixty animals, though the troupes we encountered had no more than thirty members. Like their larger, red-assed cousins, macaques are aggressive, vicious omnivores that live in a hierarchical society, dominated by a large, muscular male.
Later, when we traveled to Sepilok, we would see them chase off orangutans, apes many times their size. Here in Tawau Hills Park, though, they would challenge us, yawning to display their canines. The dominant male of the troupe went as far as to bluff charge at us from a low branch, purposefully knocking dead wood down on us before he scampered back into the trees.
Due to the level of tourist traffic on the paths in the park and the relatively recent logging, the level of diversity in the rainforest we observed was not high. We saw a couple species of lizards, giant tree squirrels, some frogs, and heard hornbills, but the forest seemed relatively empty of animals, and we did not see much.
Seeing vertebrates in the rainforest is rare and difficult, as foliage obscures most of the arboreal habitat and most animals fear humans. Even the invertebrate life in Tawau Hills Park, though, was lackluster.
In our original plan, we would head to the Danum Valley research station, a large protected area of virgin rainforest, after staying in Tawau Hills Park. In 2002, I traveled there with my dad to do canopy research, and I looked forward to returning. The diversity of animals I had seen last time was staggering. Unfortunately, a school group would be there for Christmas, so we lost our reservations. To the delight of Jazz and Peggy, we decided on the beach dive resort of Mataking, on Mataking Island.
A couple hours speedboat ride out of Semporna in southeast Sabah, Mataking is one of several islands in a small chain that includes the famous diving spot Sipidan. Due to Indonesian and Filipino pirates kidnapping tourists, no one can spend the night on Sipidan anymore, and military bases and naval police stations dot the islands.
We arrived in time for lunch, served buffet style in a large, elevated, Malay-style longhouse. Ceiling fans and a sea breeze kept us cool. As this was a dive resort, my dad and I planned on diving. We had not, however, dived in years, so we scheduled a refresher course for later that afternoon. We had a few hours to kill before that, so Jazz and I went to the beach on the other side of the island.
The tide was out, exposing a mile and a half of gleaming white sand in ankle deep, bathtub water. At the far end of the sand we could see exposed reef. Marine plants grew sparsely but evenly on the sand, providing habitat for mantis shrimp that looked like blades of grass, armored crabs, thousands of sand dollars, sea cucumbers, star fish with blue spikes, and sea urchins bristling with spines like hypodermic needles.
Our instructor, Luke, an easy going, but professional, expatriate Brit, ran us through how to put our gear together. We then frog-walked walked into the water in front of the dive resort, virtually below the veranda where we had had lunch. After running through some exercises, we descended to 15 meters along a 110 meter sea wall, where a swift current pushed us along as a boat followed above us.
In spite of extensive coral damage from dynamite fishing ten years ago, the whole area flourished with colorful reef fish. We even saw a hawksbill turtle. Pleased enough with our buoyancy control, Luke didn’t bother with further exercises. After 45 minutes, we surfaced, got on the boat, and headed back. He said that we did well for not having dived in eight years, but he was also in a bit of a hurry, as he had to go bribe the local naval commander and chief of police with Christmas gifts of Chivas. We later discovered that Luke was also the resort manager.
Over the next two days we went on six more dives with a small group of tourists and a local divemaster. We were clumsy compared to the others, who had logged dozens and dozens of dives. I couldn’t wear my glasses underwater, so I didn’t see the blue ring octopus or the mandardin fish, but I did see giant mantis shrimp, spiny lobsters, turtles, anemone shrimp, anemone fish, and a hundred other fish that I had no idea what they were, except colorful.
On one dive, we came across a turtle resting on a coral garden, 18 meters underwater. It sat there, looking at all of us, growing more flustered as more stopped to look. Eventually it swam away.
We spent Christmas on the island, and ended up drinking and singing karaoke with the head cook, his assistant, several of the waiters, and some other staff. Despite being a predominantly Muslim country, Malaysia’s long history as a multiethnic nation has everyone celebrating everyone else’s holiday. Jazz would often comment that the Malaysians had more Christmas spirit than the Americans, where women in headscarves would wish you a genuine “Merry Christmas.”
The embarrassment of stumbling through Malaysian pop ballads paid off, as on our last day on the island, Rafi, the tour guide, broke a bunch of rules and brought a coconut crab to our bungalow. The thing looked like a giant hermit crab without the shell. This one had eggs on its abdomen, which it curled under its carapace. The world’s largest terrestrial invertebrates, coconut crabs inhabit isolated islands in the South Pacific. Omnivorous detritovours, they can climb trees and tear open coconuts with their claws. The largest ones grow to 7 kilograms (15 pounds), though this one was only around 2 kilograms (5 pounds).
After we left Mataking, we traveled to an orangutan wildlife rehabilitation clinic at Sepilok. There we watched the handlers feed bananas and sugar cane to one of the great apes as hundreds of tourists looked on, snapping photographs and shooting video. A horde of macaques, led by a large, muscular male, arrived, and successfully chased the mother orangutan out after the handlers had left the platform. She had a baby clinging to her, and did not want to confront the aggressive monkeys.
The dominant macaque, larger and more muscular than the others, ascended the platform with the food and chased everything else away. He sat in the middle of the food, gorging himself. Two wires led to the platform, and on one, macaques kept trying to grab food, which led the dominant male to move closer and closer as he chased the other monkeys away.
As he was doing this, the orangutan, baby attached, swung out to the platform and gingerly began grabbing food. She clung to the wire as if the floor was lava, but for good reason. As soon as the male macaque saw what she was up, to he charged, snarling, and she quickly swung away.
After the feeding, we walked around on raised boardwalks. The forest floor crawled with skinks and brightly colored jumping spiders prowled the handrail. I could not get good photos of the tiny spiders, as they would jump on the camera when I moved the lens close enough to focus. We also saw a couple of chirping, playful pygmy squirrels the size of mice. They scrambled up tree trunks and jumped from liana to liana, squeaking loudly.
We traveled to Sukao, on the Kinabatangan River, the next day, to go on wildlife river cruises. In a sliver of protected area along the Kinabatangan River, sandwiched between hundreds of square miles of oil palm plantation, one can regularly see the last of Borneo’s megafauna. Pygmy elephants, orangutans, gibbons, macaques, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, hundreds of species of birds, and jungle cats routinely visit the river, to the delight of thousands of tourists that flock to the region every year.
In the course of three days of river cruises, we saw six species of primate and five species of hornbill, a bearded pig, mangrove snakes, giant monitor lizards, a pygmy elephant, and dozens of species of birds. Despite the near constant river traffic, the development, the villages, and the oil palms, this once logged area flourished with life.
We saw multiple troupes of macaques and proboscis monkeys, each with upwards of 30 individuals, many born within the past two years. Several of the nest-building orangutans we saw had babies clutching to them as they slowly brachiated through the trees. We watched rhinoceros hornbills teaching their offspring how to forage for food.
Habitat destruction can cause temporary increases in the observed number and diversity of animals, as the remaining habitat becomes filled with refugees. I wondered if this was the case for the Kinabatangan, but the abundance of young animals, only a year or two old, makes me think otherwise. Somehow, the most charismatic of Borneo’s animals can survive, and apparently thrive, on this tiny slice of river habitat.
While there, we also visited a giant limestone cave complex, full of swifts and bats. The swifts nest there at night while the bats roost there in the day. Millennia of occupation by these insectivorous filled the cave with guano, on which million and millions of cockroaches feed. The cockroaches in turn feed giant cave centipedes. Before entering the cave, we were immediately assaulted by the godawful stench of a thousand years of feces, festering in the bowels of a jungle cave.
Following boardwalks slippery with guano and crawling with roaches, we carefully walked through the cave. Bats squeaked and swirled high above us, cave centipedes skittered up the walls, colonies of roaches filling every nook.
The first major cave openened up to the sky, a pile of rubble where the cave roof caved in eons ago. In the rubble, on a moss covered boulder, the skull of a sacrificial goat and a playing card, the king of hearts, were perched. A much smaller cave lay beyond the opening to the sky.
This smaller cave looked to be choked with guano, as if a giant truckload of it were pouring out of it. On that steep wall of guano there appeared to be a million glittering pennies. The coppery sheen on the dirt colored guano, however, was the sheen of cockroach wings. Millions of cockroaches constantly swarming up the hill and tumbling down.
The swifts that live in the cave make nests out of saliva. Prized by the Chinese as a soup ingredient for their traditional medicine, a kilogram of these nests fetch $1000 on the market. Regardless of the horrors and smell, climbers, usually Indonesian or Filipino immigrants, regularly brave the bats and centipedes, shimming up rope ladders, anchored to bundles of sticks, to scrape the nests from the cave. Due to the risk of poachers taking the nests, every entrance of the cave has a small shack where someone lives for months, guarding the nests.
After the Kinabatangan, Jazz and Peggy headed back to the states. My dad and I had plans to travel to Danum and packraft their rivers and creeks. Unfortunately, a bridge washed out and no traffic could get through.
Our next plan, traveling to Maliau Basin for a week of hiking through old growth forest, fell through when we couldn’t get the park proof of insurance covering helicopter rescues. We ended spending our last week in Malaysia in the town of Tawau, before flying to Tasmania for three weeks of packrafting.