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Tahiti of the East: A journey into Borneo

Tahiti of the East:  A journey into Borneo

In room seventeen of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow there hangs a ravishing painting by Paul Gauguin.  Painted in Tahiti in 1892, Matamoe has always been my imaginary visual reference to the oceanic tropics; saturated powdery colours, red and yellow soils, the sway of palms, the opaque greens of dense forests and the cappuccino skin tones of peoples living on equatorial islands.  How strange that the continental tropics hardly have the same qualities of light, texture and colour; could it be the lack of wind?  Perhaps, because tropical islands are the prisoners of the warm windy seas.  Borneo is such an island.

It took nearly nineteen hours of flying to get to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah and by the time we arrived at our harbour side hotel I was comatose with fatigue - all I wanted was a shower and a lie down.  Dropping my suitcase at the door, I opened the curtains to let in the bright light, thinking it would help with the coming jet lag.  I stood rooted at the sight because elevation suddenly afforded perspective of the town and sea beneath, still in the heat and humidity of noon.  The promenade though was alive with figures, like termites around a mound, and at the center of the mound, a market.  Ever since I started travelling as a young man, markets have always been my gateway and introduction to a culture because they are the stages upon which the dramas of everyday life play out.  Markets are democratic, non-ageist, non-sexist and, above all, honest.  Forgetting rest, forgetting recovery, I dropped everything and rushed outside.

It so happened that I discovered the fish market first.  The variety of tropical marine life on display was a dazzling canvas of nautical hues; bright-eyed parrot fish on ice, crabs, shrimps, lobsters, mollusks and octopi.  Not only were they being displayed, but also for every stall there was an associated kitchen.  Imagine the scene: the ocean wall as background, the acrid smell of charcoal fires, sizzling fish on the griddle, fresh ginger, fresh fruit on the side, served on a banana leaf.  This first impression set the tone for the rest of out Bornean culinary experience.  I don’t think that I have ever encountered a cuisine more anchored to the fresh, the local and the seasonal.  As for taste and texture, the shock of recognition came soon afterwards – these are the deep roots of our Cape Malay cuisine.

Since I travel constantly, I have trained myself not to indulge in buying souvenirs.  Inevitably it happens: you drink the most delicious tea or coffee and insist on buying a large quantity.  Proudly you produce this at home and it tastes: absolutely awful. Why?  Simply because you are not free and relaxed, your kettle is too clean, your water purified and above all, your mind is at home.  But so close to buying pearls I have never been.  Tiny stalls offer cascades of fresh- and seawater pearls, in hues so subtle as if you are witnessing the secret heart of a conch.  Luster and nacre interplay with the obsidian of black pearls.

I would hate this writing to become a litany of bucket list wishes for the prospective traveller simply because I now profess to know something about Borneo.  Much rather I would wish to share with you my first impressions of a place that I had dreamed about all my life as well taught about during my long academic career.  So, what does Borneo conjure up?  Head hunting?  Japanese death marches?  Malarial miasmas?  Orangutans?

Most travellers to Sabah wish to encounter orangutans, in much the same way that they wish to see gorillas in Rwanda, chimps in Tanzania and geladas in Ethiopia.  All of these belong to the group known as the Old World Apes and are of the most charismatic primates on earth.  Having encountered gorillas, chimps and geladas before, I was particularly keen to see these “old men of the forests”.  For this you must travel to Sandakan, where there is a 400-hectare rehabilitation center for orangutans rescued from a certain death where their habitat has been destroyed by palm oil plantations, or where hapless babies have been caught for the pet market.  Later on the trip we found wild orangutans, but Sandakan is the place to meet them face-to-face.

Situated in a pristine rain forest, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is a model of scientific management.  Raised boardwalks connect the different modules of the institution; there are strict codes of conduct and in silence we were led to the nursery.  I was unprepared for the babies and for my own spontaneous tears.  Having raised children, I thought I knew something about infant play, but baby orangutans take frolicking to a new heavenly level.  Intertwined like giant red spiders, they laugh silently (apes cannot laugh out loud), but what struck me deeply was my immediate anthropomorphism in regarding them as children.  Later, seeing the adults at feeding time, I was again overwhelmed by their sheer human qualities and deep remorse for the devastation that we had brought to their innocence.  For surely these glorious rain forests must have been paradise before man came?

Glorious rain forests?  Yes indeed they are glorious, in a manner I could never have imagined.  Only when reading up for my journey, did I realize that the Bornean rain forests are older than those of the Amazon, in fact, the oldest on earth.  We spent three days in Kinabalu Park, a World Heritage Site of over 750 square kilometers and where Mount Kinabalu at 4095 meters, towers over the misty jungle.  This forest contains more than 4500 plant-, 326 bird- and 100 mammal species and this becomes patently obvious when an entire zoo walks into your room should you leave the door open at night.  I found it difficult to sleep simply because the shimmer of butterfly wings of the day gave way to the subtle leafy hues of moth wings after dark. 

As for plants, Borneo will leave you gob smacked.  Take a walk through the forest and you might think that you are in the orchid house in Kew Gardens.  With over 2200 species, the sheer diversity of shapes, size and colour leaves one speechless.  Lower your eyes to the forest floor, and you will see parasitic flowering plants and insects straight out of a science fiction film.  On a rainy day I found, beautifully camouflaged on dead leaves, a trilobite beetle, actually a firefly, winding its way.  Upon waking in the swamps off the Sulu Sea, a rhinoceros beetle, the size of my hand, slowly walked along my balcony balustrade.  This is the true glory of Borneo: the senses are constantly vaulted in scale exercises, from arm’s length to forest giant, from the gossamer eye of the Lalique dragonfly to the full moon over the Sulu Sea.

Once over the thrill of orangutans, Borneo holds even more mammalian surprises.  Sticking to primates, the proboscis monkey is currently my favourite ape.  They are slow moving creatures, living in large family groups, led by alpha males; large orange haired creatures with Donald Trump-like hairdos and a pendulous nose.  Rarely have I seen such baleful animals, gently moving through the canopy, munching leaves.  Their neighbours are much more lively and vocal, and with gibbons, five species of languor and macaque; a forest walk or river cruise is never without monkey business.  Then, there is the Sunda Flying Lemur, one of the most secretive of arboreal primates.  Not at all related to the famous lemurs of Madagascar, they are nevertheless very primitive primates, hiding against tree trunks in daytime.  After dusk, if you are lucky, you will see the eerie translucent membrane between their limbs as they glide silently through the canopy.

Sticking to the trees, Borneo has one final mammalian surprise.  So threatened, that one can practically only find them in rehabilitation, the Bornean Sun Bear which is the smallest true bear on earth, can be seen at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center.  Adjacent to Sepilok, in much the same system as for orangutans, rescued bears are kept.  This time however, the consequences of captivity is much more difficult to reverse and many of the animals here simply cannot revert to freedom since their spatial sense has been fixed by the confines of their erstwhile cages.  Even in freedom, they, like automatons, pace the imaginary walls of the pens.

Pigs have always fascinated me and one evening, just before dusk, I encountered the ultimate hog. The Bornean Bearded Pig is a long legged, forest dwelling creature with a nose as long as the bonnet of a 1930s Bugatti.  Bright of eye, and with a scruffy beard on the cheeks, they are wetland specialists, rooting noisily in die mangrove wetlands.

Finally, the overwhelming richness of Borneo’s wildlife is equaled by the cultural wealth of this island.  They are a gentle and happy people, rooted in a past that is not forgotten and celebrated in the rites of every day.  They still keep one of the oldest dogs known to man, the fabled Bornean Singing dog as pets, their chickens are closely related to the primordial jungle fowl from which all breeds arose, and they harvest the seas and land like their predecessors did.

The day came when we had to leave, and at the airport in Kota Kinabalu I gathered my guests from the Live the Journey tour around me.  After the usual pleasantries, I asked them if there was any aspect of the tour to Borneo that they would have changed.  Spontaneously they answered: “NO!”

By:  Dave Pepler