Darwin once said about Borneo: “one great wild untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself.” And I must say that it is an impressive piece of property. As you may have noticed through my posting, Borneo has become a playground to Pierre and I, the place where we got married, the surrounding seas we often dive in, the adventures we love to plan such as our latest one: An educational and photographic safari in the jungle with our great friends Marjorie and Adam, who came to visit from Canada.
Borneo is an eyeful of wonders and creatures that only exist or survive in this 730,000 sq. km of dense jungle forest, or what is left of it. A place that plays an important balancing role for the sustainability of life on this real planet. It is the Amazon of Asia and just like the rest of these magic kingdoms, the Island of Borneo is filled with unusual and unique creatures that you will never get to see unless you plan Borneo on your Bucket List. But if you do put it on your visionary board of things to do in life, please hurry because Borneo is cooking at high speed in your kitchen.
The gigantic island of Borneo belongs to Indonesia for the most part while a very small portion of it belongs to a little tinny Sultanate called Brunei, who’s Sultan is known for his extravagances and who has become rich because of the crude oil found in his minuscule kingdom. Then comes Malaysia who owns (since 1963) 27% of the island, a place that mainland Malays call: East Malaysia. Malaysian Borneo is part of the Federation of Malaysia and is, in land size, way bigger than its mother country. The so-called natural resource and main industry of Malaysia is another type of oil: Palm oil, a vegetable cooking oil that is the frying basis for half of the world and that is also partly used for bio fuel, although the latter one is not in full bloom yet in the consumer market.
When you fly over Malaysia, you see as far as your eyes can reach, palm plantations! Natural forests or jungles are confined in small government defined parks or reserves that are not very big in size. It is the nature of things here and a comprehensible evolution as this kind of oil is the driving force and growth of Malaysia.
But now that the mainland has been developed pretty much to its fullest, the logical step was to develop East Malaysia, so just like the Amazon, the jungle of Borneo is burned to give place to large palm plantations and now the small farmers are turning their land in palm plantations as well. It is again very comprehensible since growing corn or bananas would give them about $500 (USA) per month while a palm plantation will generate 5 to 6 times this amount. For these small families it means food on the table and university for their children, so please park your judgement at the door because I do not believe for a second that any of us would act differently placed in the same situation.
Indonesia, who sees his neighbour growing at a fast pace, is joining force to burn forests in Borneo and Sumatra. For the past 10 days, Singapore had a haze of smoke so dense that we could hardly see the city and has reached a level of pollution that was above the permitted 100 PSI, a level considered as dangerous. In Singapore we knew that the day the wind will change direction, the city will come back to its clean and clear air condition, but unfortunately it does not mean that forests will stop burning in Indonesia.While the indonesian part of Borneo is still very wild with over 30 different tribes and cultures (even some real head hunters that are not hunting you to offer a job), the Malaysian side is already very developed and holds half of the 15 million inhabitants of the Island. As well, the Malaysian Northern part is the host of some of the best wonders of Borneo, such as four of the greatest mountains of South East Asia including the famous Mount Kinabalu and also the breath taking Gomantong Caves in Sabah. I heard that the Mulu and Deer Caves of the Gunung Mulu National Park are the biggest in the world, but I must say that their counterpart in Sabah are very impressive as well. At one point there are not much differences between 100 or 125 meters in height and wether we can fit 35 or 40 jumbo jets in it.
These caves are between 17 to 40 million years old and just like Mount Kinabalu, they are World Heritage Sites so a big thank you to the Unesco folks here. But as a word of advice, get your pants in your socks while visiting the caves, wear very good closed shoes and make abstraction of all crawling creatures surrounding you… I did it, Marjorie too and so can you, so please don’t let it stop you. Our visit coincided with the yearly harvesting of the Swallows bird nests, a delicacy that Chinese people are willing to pay up to $1000 USA dollars a kilo because it is believed to help keep your youth, soften your skin and of course has some sort of an aphrodisiac effect. To harvest these nests, workers climb up 100 meters in the holes of the cave and without much protection or insurance, they risk their lives to get the precious product. It is in fact the saliva that the Swallow use to glue the nest together that is sought after as it holds the secret magic potion. We are the lucky ones since the proximity of Borneo from Singapore allows us to explore this wonder every time we can. We had done some great trips in mangrove forests using kayaks, dove the beautiful surroundings of Sipadan island, we had been impressed by the giant bats hanging by the hundreds from trees in Tawau, at first thinking that they were giant dark coconuts until you get closer and you realise that Hitchcock died way to soon as he would have certainly made a movie called: The Bats! Yet this time, on our safari trip, we explored the wilder side of Borneo and encountered some magnificent creatures that make you understand, without a doubt, that Darwin was right and that life evolves and adapts to its surrounding with magnificent capabilities. In Borneo you can find Orangutans and Proboscis monkeys. In the Indonesian language, Orang means Man or People so when seeing the size and human like shape of these great primates, you quickly understand where they got their names from. But it is when we encountered in the wild the Proboscis monkeys, a long nose monkey the size of a man with short fair hair, a big belly and a very bright red reproductive organ that we knew we had seen the best of Borneo’s animal kingdom! This humanly primate only exists and can only survive in the jungle of Borneo and we were lucky enough to see dozens of them, perhaps 30 or 40, hanging in trees at sunset. They sometimes look like trailer trash men who are waiting for their wives to bring them a beer, while doing… nothing. A Tiger Beer please!
Yet the pigmy elephants stole the show by coming so close to the river, so close to us that it brought the 10 year old girl in me back to the surface. There were many of them, perhaps a dozen, tearing apart the long grass that will unveil the new green tender growth that they are seeking to feed their large pigmy appetite. Yes they are adorable and did I say it: Right next to us on the Kinabatagan River banks. If you ever do this river safari, take a small boat at around 4:00 PM and stay till the sun sets at 7:00 PM. The animals all come to the river to feed and to drink at that time. If you are very lucky like my friend Tim, you may see a herd of elephants swimming across the river. A few crocodiles may be part of the party too if you look carefully around you. If you have time after, take a night walk in the jungle with a flash light (and a guide) to have a hell of a spooky experience.
It is sad to think that all these great creatures and outstanding giant forests are critically endangered to a point that they will no longer exist in the next 20 to 30 years, perhaps before. Our generation participated in the destruction of it all and when I see the growth of Asia, the demand for food, agriculture and palm cooking oil, one can only wonder how much time is left before the complete eradication of these unique biological wonders. Do not get me wrong, Asia has the right to live their growth like the Western world enjoyed theirs and although many people of our generation are trying to make people aware of the devastation that is happening around the world and are trying to preserve what is still intact, we will need to count on the new generation to make it real.
But then I get a reality check when I realise that most young people in the world have never bought a CD, have created a new virtual society on Facebook or QQ.com before knowing what the real human one was, that to them agriculture is a fun game called Farmville and Orangutan should get a waxing or be a stuffed animal. When I see that the last survey done in schools across the USA reveiled that 90% of the Y generation had never heard of Michelangelo before it became a computer virus and thought that Jimmy Carter was an actor while most of them had no idea that internet did not always existed, I cannot stop wondering: Who will care?
When I see two young girls or boys walking together but texting to other people without exchanging a look or a word to one another and when I see the world being lived in pixels instead of in emotions, I keep wondering what will the evolution be from now on.
If I ask the question today: Who is Darwin?
I am afraid that the answer will be:
“Darwin is an open source POSIX-compliant computer operating system released by Apple Inc. in 2000. It is composed of code developed by Apple, as well as code derived from NeXTSTEP, BSD, and other free software projects. (source Wikipedia)”
Perhaps we can make a computer game that is called “Save the Proboscis Monkeys and Orangutans of Borneo” and the winner will get a free download of Darwin!