Borneo - The Wild Heart of SE Asia
In the modern age, where tourism has a tendency to develop, and then envelop, any place of beauty, many destinations get spoiled by overdevelopment - Malaysia’s Tioman Island springs to mind. Borneo’s coastal strip has so far largely escaped this fate, but the current rate of deforestation in the interior seems relentless, and it is unsure how much longer her receding rainforests will survive the remorseless depredations of the $2billion-a-year logging industry. Opponents, including such thorns as Swiss protestor Bruno Manser, are regularly silenced.
Most of Borneo belongs to Indonesia, but the northern provinces of Sarawak and Sabah, former British colonies which are now part of Malaysia, draw most of the island’s visitors. Kuching, Sarawak’s capital, is a less developed but more engaging city than is Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu, which has not recovered architecturally from having being razed to the ground not once, but twice, by the British during WW2 – once in a scorched-earth retreat before the Japanese, and later to encourage them to move out. Kota Kinabalu or KK is however a better place to eat than is Kuching, and way more fun at night – for a bit of a laugh, check out ‘Bed’ nightclub – best experienced in groups, the more people you can get into ‘Bed’ with you, the more fun you’ll have.
The cliché image of Borneo as a primitive land populated by cannibalistic headhunters is out of date – these days the walls of the longhouses sport satellite dishes, not trophy heads, and the island has a fairly effective, if somewhat chaotic, tourist infrastructure. The blend of old and new in Borneo is nicely summed up by a sign in a Borneo airport that sternly prohibits the carrying aboard of blowguns.
Superlatives abound and, in addition to Sipadan Island, the self-proclaimed best scuba diving site in the world, Borneo offers the highest Via Ferrata on the planet, the highest mountain in southeast Asia, the highest golf course in southeast Asia (088-888255), the largest collection of orchids in the world (www.sabah.net.my) and the largest cave system in the world, the Mulu (www.mulupark.com), so remote that it was only ‘discovered’ in the latter half of the 20th century.
Other popular diversions are drunken dancing to the latest nose-flute tunes in smoky and inflammable longhouses (polite guests will never say ‘no’), tough to soft jungle treks in the many national parks, white-water rafting on the Padas river (www.e-borneo.com) and visits to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Sanctuary (www.orangutan-appeal.co.uk). Borneo’s second favourite destination after Mount Kinabalu is, whilst still intriguing for the beguilingly intelligent looks in the primates eyes, rather over-crowded at peak periods and ethically problematic, as so much contact with human diseases makes our close cousins dependant on our medicines and thus usually incapable of successfully returning to the wild.
Whatever you do, it’s virtually certain you’ll ride in a boat at some point - Borneo is so mountainous and densely forested that roads exist only along the coastline. In the interior, rivers are the only highways. Attractions on Borneo are widely spaced and require the use of a variety of means of transport, with some of the more exotic destinations reachable only by small aircraft or chartered boat. On the major rivers there are scheduled express boat services, if you have the bottle to ride them. These sleek, speedy and claustrophobic craft look much like wingless jet fighters - their drivers even paint on fake cockpit windows to further the illusion - and have a terrible safety record.
And don’t worry about the leeches. The pesky little creatures usually manage to get through any protective clothing, but you won’t even notice that they’re sucking your blood because they first inject you with a local anesthetic. It doesn’t hurt a bit, but it can be a bit of a jolt when you remove your shoes and find blood-soaked socks. But unless you’re seriously squeamish or a haemophobe, Borneo leeches are not that big a deal. Really.
Mount Kinabalu, Borneo
A vast and jagged granite massif towering to 4,101m. Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in southeast Asia. Formed nine million years ago, the summit is being pushed upwards at the rate of 5mm a year – so climb it now, before its too late. Starting in tropical luxuriance, the climber ascends through alpine-like meadows and forests of tropical oak, rhododendron and conifer forests before reaching the rocky summit plateau. The Park has one of the richest diversities of flora in the world - designated a UNESCO Centre of Plant Diversity as well as a UNESCO Heritage site, over half of the species growing above 900 metres are unique to the mountain.
Whilst the round-trip trek to the summit can be accomplished in two days, a more comfortable 3-day trek is recommended for biology-lovers who want to fully enjoy the rich diversity of flora on the mountain. The current record is somewhat surprisingly held by a Mexican, who climbed the mountain in only 2 hours and 41 minutes – up, and then back down again. The age record is held by a 90-year old Japanese lady. There are 2 trails up Mt. Kinabalu.
The recently-opened Mesilau Trail offers more opportunities for viewing flora and fauna, whilst the Summit Trail is the more direct route.
Many of the trees and flowers are unique or extremely rare but, to the botanically uninitiated, there is no doubt that the pitcher plant steals the show. Even the most nonchalant of observers cannot fail to be impressed by these insect-guzzling monsters, which hold up to a pint of liquid in their death-by-drowning chambers.
The summit trail winds up a steep staircase of gnarled tree-roots to a mossy world of drifting clouds and orchid-draped trees. On fine days a myriad of butterflies flutter around, whilst on rainy days the legions of leaches are as numerous as the butterflies are in better weather. Just above the tree line at 3350m is a comfortable rest house where most parties spend the night. Before dawn next morning everybody is up and climbing by torchlight towards the summit. A steep rock step is aided by a fixed rope which continues all the way to the summit, even where the way becomes quite flat when it winds across bare granite slabs in an eerie moonscape of rock contorted in weird, wind-fashioned ways.
Whilst a porter is an optional luxury, the use of an authorised guide is compulsory, as in the past many people were lost on the mountain, some never to be seen again. The rope and the guide now make this extremely unlikely even in the thickest mist. Nevertheless the early start is a good idea in order to enjoy the views before mist descends on the summit, which normally happens at around 10 am. It is not a good idea to climb too quickly as the wait for the magnificent sunrise at the summit is rather cold. The arrival of daylight reveals the huge summit plateau, a vast expanse of smooth rock from which protrude an assortment of weird rocky pinnacles which almost resemble, with a stretch of the imagination, the udders of an inverted cow.
In clear weather, you can see almost all of Sabah spread out below in a soul-expanding panorama of jungle and forest, river and rock. Luckily for peak-baggers the highest pinnacle, Lows Peak, is also one of the easiest. On the way down you can take a glimpse down the dizzying depths of 1,000 metre-deep, 16 kilometre-long Lows Gully, which splits the summit plateau into the western and eastern plateaus. If tempted to descend and explore, don’t follow the example of a 1994 a group of adventurers who abseiled down into the depths of Low’s gulley, got stuck, and couldn’t be rescued for several weeks.
With the early start the descent to Park Headquarters is easily done in one day and is normally followed by the self-satisfied glow of having climbed one of the world's most spectacular and interesting mountains.
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