September 2007: The island of Borneo was one of those wild places on earth that fascinated me since I was a kid. The very name Borneo brought to mind images of deep mysterious jungles full of exotic animals and tribes. It was a dream come true for me to go there and not only experience it but to be able to go into some of its deepest and darkest jungles and to scuba dive the coral reefs once named one of the world’s most beautiful by Jacque Custeau. This is the story of my 11-day trip to Sabah State, Malaysia in the island of Borneo.

 

 

My route of travel in Sabah State
The island of Borneo, one of the largest in the world is a huge, lush island of rainforests, orangutans, gibbons, elephants and belongs to Indonesia, Maylasia and Brunei. Borneo has a kind of wild west atmosphere to it where settlers from mainland Asia and Malayasia and foreign companies are all racing in to take a piece while it is new and still open for grabs. Sadly, Borneo Island, which once had one of the largest unbroken rainforests in the world has been vastly reduced to a fragment of what it once was due to deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. Most of the lowland forests have been cleared and those that remain are in the mountains. The deforestation has also harmed the coral reefs by causing sediment run-off that has damaged coral reefs. I visited the northeast Malaysian State of Sabah. I traveled with my friend Eric and our first stop enroute to Borneo was in Kuala Lampur.

 

 

Kuala Lampur
We spent one day in Kuala lampur, a large modern city on the equator. We decided to make the best of our time and visit the famous Batu Cave, sacred to Hindu people. the cave is adorned with large statues of Hindu Gods. The cave is divided into a well-manicured section with concrete and statues for Hindu pilgrims to visit and then there is another part of the cave that is wild and requires a separate tour with a guide. I chose the wild cave. This part of the cave had no paths, concrete or artificial light. It also has the most bugs of any cave I have ever been to. There are thousands of bats on the ceiling, and they leave dropping below that attract billions of cockroaches and centipedes. To enter this part of the cave, I had to walk through piles of writhing insects, and I will never forget the rancid smell and sound of millions simultaneously feeding on one another.

 

 

Batu cave
Cockroaches infesting a rock
The female workers at this KFC were all wearing hijabs.

Diving at Sipadan Island

From Kuala lampur, Eric and I flew to Tawau in Sabah State, Borneo, a kind of grimy hot frontier like city. From Tawau we departed to Mabul island where we stayed for a few nights in beach bungalows. Mabul was a great diving spot for muck diving, a kind of diving in the ocean sediment or mud at the bottom of the ocean floor where there is incredible micro diving, or small marine creatures that blend in well with their environment and are almost impossible to see sometimes. Micro diving is focused on small marine creatures whereas macro diving is more about the large marine animals like sharks, and turtles. Sipadan Island is famous for its sharks and turtles.  Erick and I walked around mabul island and visited the small community of sea gypsy’s that lived in a make shift village. The sea gypsies are stateless and belong to no country. They migrate in their wooden boats from one fishing ground to another no matter where the country and they large families live in their boats.

 

Sunset
Sea Gypsy Village
Sea gypsy boat
Sea gypsy family
Mabul island
Sipadan island is unique in that it completely rises straight out of the deep ocean. It is a huge mountain top of coral sitting on top of a volcanic mountain surrounded by deep ocean currents which makes it rich in nutrients and marine life. Since Sipadan island is a protected marine reserve, no one is allowed to stay overnight, and diving is limited to only a certain number of permits per day. I secured permits for one day. To get to Sipadan, we had to take an open top speed boat approx. an hour from Mabul island. There are no permanent structures on Sipadan other than a ranger hut to protect the island. A few years prior to my trip, a group of divers were kidnapped by Aby Sayyaf Islamic militants from nearby Philippines. So, this was always a though on my mind. But my thought soon turned to amazement and the island didn’t disappoint. it was both beautiful on land and in the sea. The jungle of its interior was wild and full of monitor lizards while the diving along its steep coral walls that dropped thousands of feet into the ocean’s depths are to this day the best place, I have ever dived for sea turtles. Each dive I would see and get within touching distance of dozens of green and Hawksbill turtles. I also saw a lot of white and blacktip sharks.

 

Sipidan Island
Sipidan Island monitor lizard
Mabul island muck diving creatures.
Sea turtle
Me diving
Sea turtle and shark
Sipidan island
Sea Turtle
Coral reef Sipidan
Sea turtle
Mabul island

Maliau Basin Trek-Lost World of Borneo

Maliau Basin is part of a vast network of protected rainforests the size of Singapore 25 kilometers in diameter located in the center of Borneo Island. The Maliau basin is also protected by its geography. Sitting at approx 3,000′, Maliauis old growth rainforest that has never been logged that grows inside a basin surrounded by towering cliffs. The cliffs keep development out and approx. only 30% of the basin has not been explored. Because of its isolation it has developed its own unique ecosystem. It is a vast steamy hot jungle infested with leeches both on the ground and in the trees and malaria is rampant. Some of the rarest wildlife can still be found in its old growth trees such as clouded leopards, orangutans, and even Sumatran Rhino. Gibbons and other primates are a common sight but are so high in the treetops that they are impossible to photograph. I signed up for a 5-day trek with camping in rudimentary shelters. It was hot, muddy and I would end up covered in insect bites, but it was one of the best treks I have ever done in my life. I knew the trek would be hard when the government agency in charge of issuing permits to visit required a doctor’s note certifying I was in good health.

 

 

Me and Erick started the trek in our trekking outfit with leech socks
Me starting  the trek  with leech socks
Each day we hiked approx. 10 hours through mud and humidity on trails that barely existed. The climbed ropes, rickety ladders and up steep jungle slopes to get to the top of the basin’s ridge. My friend and I were the only hikers in the reserve, and we were accompanied by a small team of rangers and porters.

 

 

Series of ladders set up to climb the ridge
One of the rivers draining from basin
crossing rivers on rickety log bridges that were extremely slippery
The leeches were horrendous, and they came at us from the ground and the sky just dropping from trees on to our heads. Every 30 minutes we would need to stop and remove leeches from our clothes and if unlucky our skin. We could never truly rest because sitting down meant you would become a leech buffet. So, when we needed to rest, we stood. I was vigilant for leeches and fortunate enough to not have one breach my defenses but others in my group like our ranger and some of the porters who hiked in flip flops were savagely gored by the leeches.

 

 

Leeches trying to breech my leech socks
Tiger leech named after its tiger stripes
Ranger guide removing leeches that got into his leech socks
Once at the top of the ridge the views into the vast unexplored rainforests of the basin were incredible. A green endless canopy continued for as far as I could see, and it was good to know that so much of what I was looking at before me still remained unexplored and is home to some of the last Sumatran Rhinos and who knows how many un-discovered species of plants and animals.

 

 

The malieu basin
The malieu basin
At the top of the basin, we saw more rare plant life like the carnivorous pitcher plants that attract flies with their sugar nectar that traps them and with the enzymes also digests them. We also saw the giant carrion flower plant that wasn’t ripe but when it is for only a day or so every year emits the foulest odor of death for miles to attract pollinators.

 

 

Carnivorous pitcher plant
We slept in basic shelters where we had an open fire for cooking while listening to the raucous jungle sounds at night. my friend had never been in the rainforest before and when the cicadas came out at night, he was frightened and thought we were being attacked by wild animals. He could believe that the loud sounds were just insects.

 

 

Shelter
The morning and evenings were always the best times not just because it was cooler. The gibbons and other primates were active as well as the large horn bill birds. The canopies came to life with the jungle sounds of the melancholic high pitched gibbon calls and the deep resounding flapping of the hornbill birds and their massive wingspans. We could spot the trees shaking as monkeys jumped from branch to branch throwing their feces hundreds of feet down at us.

 

 

Shelter
Despite hiking all day every day, there was always relief to be found in the cool waters of the raging waterfalls draining from the basin. 

 

 

Waterfall
Me relaxing in the river with the rangers
Me swimming in the waterfall
Me swimming in the waterfall
Me swimming in the waterfall
The hike in the Malieu basin was one of the most challenging but also rewarding one’s I have ever done.

 

12 + 1 =