Rediscovering an Old Frontier: Borneo

PUBLISHED 4 July 2015

Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia

‘There are two tracks on the map but you want to take the green trail not the red one. The red one is dangerous and there is a lot of ups and downs. Don’t take the red one. The green one, it’s only a kilometre, quite easy’ he said. ‘Walk slowly, take your time and make sure to look 5 metres ahead when you are walking’
‘Yeah, ok, for branches and stuff?’
‘Uh, yeah… but also, I have seen cobra there before’ he paused. ‘Spitting cobra.’
I laughed.
‘No, really’ he iterated. ‘Twice.’ With those words he left us alone in the jungle.
Forest floor

When I was eight there was a series of collectable magazines specialising in biospheres around the world. One of those, first issue is 50p with a free ring binder deals. The first issue was the letter A. Amazon, anaconda, awesome. The second was B for Borneo. A distant green land I had never seen captivated me. I sat for hours gazing at the pictures of flawless jungle and the cuddly furries that made it their home. The band of land between the tropics concealed by an emerald canopy, home to millions of species fabricated by colour and noise, that gave me the travel bug. The magazine’s centre page was devoted to the King of the Swingers, the orang utan. A sulky orange mama gazed dreamily from underneath the staples, holding her tufty goblin baby close to her bosom. I wanted to hold one and tell her that I would single handedly save the rainforests.

As I aged my dreams of hugging every orang utan slowly dissipated. The idea of forking out £3000 to ‘volunteer’ for 2 weeks at an orang utan sanctuary were unjustifiable. What happened to solid virtue and good ethics? Why were these no longer adequate currency? I chased information but each ecotravel company was as disheartening as the last. The Q&A sections gave standard answers on fees. The £3000 would ensure that you would be accommodated in standard dormitory housing and fed two (not three) meals daily. Not including activities (tree hugging deserves R&R), no transfers (from accessible airports to inaccessible jungle locations), no innoculations, no (expensive) flights nor insurance (dengue fever, anyone?). Good intentions are worth nothing if they cannot be properly costed.
The bejewelled belt of the Earth had to wait. It was only this year when my partner and I decided to embark on a South East Asia bender that my love reared a new head. Having spent enough time in Malaysian cities we flew from the high rise shopping malls of Kuala Lumpur to Kuching, the city of cats. The anticipation which engulfed me became the root of my partner’s irritation as I jittered in my seat peering gleefully down at the ground. A thick chocolate river drew a long winding path through viridian sugar hills. Like Augustus Galoop, I was ready to dive in.
Sunset over the Sarawak River, Kuching

We were dumped on Lebuh ‘Carpenter’ in central Kuching with a guesthouse name and number. Wrong Place it was called. I quickly found the name to be a misnomer. The guesthouse had been crafted from recycled items. A giant wok and an old oil drum had been remastered as a sink. All of the signs and the cafe menus were written on the back of cut up cardboard boxes. Old corrugated iron felt a new lease of life as a shower cubicle. Environmental awareness and conservation weren’t just words, they were real.

We organised a driver to take us to Semenggoh Orang Utan Sanctuary the next day. Our driver picked us up and we exchanged formalities. His name was Eric and he had grown up in the forests of central Sarawak. Quickly the conversation turned toward the environment. I asked if the government set aside much money for conservation and environmental efforts.
‘Well, not Malaya, no, but Sarawak is autonomous. We are different. We even have our own immigration. The state of Sarawak spends a lot of money to look after the forest’ our well informed driver told us. ‘Many people want us to plant palm because it makes money, and because you know palm trees oxidise the air more than other trees… But we will not because one, the roots do not go deep enough. It may cause landslides one day. And two,’ he emphasised this, ‘the forest is our home.’ Eric explained the process of logging in Sarawak to me. All loggers must have a license, and for every tree felled, another 40 saplings are planted.
‘But’ he added, ‘the government has stopped issuing licenses. A way of reducing.’
‘But then… will you not have problems with illegal logging?’ I asked.
‘Oh… oh yes’ he replied gravely. I had struck a nerve. ‘But, that happens everywhere’. The difference in Sarawak being that the government is trusted. The government works with the people of the forests to clamp down on illegal activity.
Sanctuary feeding time

The orang utan sanctuary came and went. It was thrilling to see these great ginger mammals bashing coconuts on tree trunks and peeling bananas. The sedate chewing and mellow swinging of the orange men is incredibly rewarding. But it was Eric who had the greatest effect on me. He was no regular driver, he was in fact a park ranger as I later discovered. His love of the forest was bred with respect. Having grown up among the trees he understood the dangers as well as the beauty lurking between the branches. What to protect, how and why. Eric instilled in me a dignified respect for the forest.

No hugs please

Sarawak doesn’t need any more naive tree huggers than Scotland does. Our basic beliefs are often unfounded and, for the most part, ecotravel is bollocks. Whatever of that £3000 which isn’t spent on ludicrous administration is unlikely to be devoted to grassroots protection of the environment. Someone out their has a rather large pocket. If you really want to save the planet, go and see it with your own eyes and ask the locals what you can do to help.

We emerged from the jungle trail and found ourselves in the carpark of a jungle style garden centre. A man was spraying the hot dusty concrete with water. He saw us clambering free from the forest and winked. We stood, waiting for Eric who said he would meet us there. We waited twenty minutes, baking our pale skin under the Bornean sun. He finally arrived.

‘You took the wrong trail!’ he exclaimed.
‘What?! But that was the only tail we could see!’
Eric paused. He looked at me through the mirror.
‘Sometimes, it is hard to see the right way…’

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