Hidden Paradise of Borneo
When the fast-disintegrating remnants of Ferdinand Magellan's fleet finally reached the shores of Borneo in 1521, the famous Italian author and voyager, Antonio Pigafetta, described the undiscovered land and its people with wonder.
The history of Borneo extends way beyond these earliest European annals, some 40,000 years beyond, when nomadic tribes from Asia ventured south along the land bridge and settled in the various regions of the world's third largest island.
Civilisations with such evocative names as the Iban, Melanau, Penan, Kelabit and Bidayuh (grouped together under the generic term, Dayak) established themselves alongside ethnic Malays and Chinese to form an incredibly diverse population, each with their own distinctive culture and tradition.
The fearsome Iban, for example, took most of the credit for head-hunting, but were also described by a colonial bureaucrat as ""cheerful, talkative, sociable, fond of fun and jokes and lively stories...They are industrious and energetic, and are great wanderers." Conversely, the Penan are shy, nomadic jungle dwellers, known for their skill with blowguns, while the Bidayuh are recognised for their upriver longhouses and fully-roofed communities.
The British held sway for over 100 years after James Brooke was ordained by a grateful Sultan as the 'Rajah of Sarawak' in 1839 for assisting him in quelling a local rebellion. The Union Jack only came down over Borneo in 1941 when the invading Japanese took brief control. Australian post-war administration in Sarawak and Sabah was followed by a brief and spectacularly unsuccessful period of colonial rule before full independence in 1963. Dutch Borneo, now Kalimantan, was handed to the Indonesians in 1949 after the Dutch reoccupation failed.
Today Borneo is divided into four main regions; Malaysian Sabah and Sarawak, the oil-rich independent sovereign Sultanate of Brunei and Indonesian Kalimantan. (see map)
As large as it is, Borneo is still a microcosm of awe-inspiring flora and fauna. The endearing and shy Orang Utan, the rare and highly unusual Proboscis Monkey and the ludicrous Bornean Bearded Pig are just few of its unique animals. In concert with them, plants have their own bizarre repertoire, including the enormous Rafflesia, the world's largest flowering plant with a one metre span and the scary, insect-digesting Pitcher Plant that dines on insects by dissolving them in its own corrosive juices.
Like so many of the world's wilderness habitats, Borneo is a land under threat. In 1997, the world was reminded of island people's precarious farming methods when the annual burn-off continued unabated due to the late onset of the monsoonal rains. Dense, acrid smoke wafted throughout the region, choking inhabitants as far away as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. People were forced to wear protective masks and asthma and lung infection rates soared. Poor visibility even affected air travel in the region.
The environmental impact of these prolonged blazes is still being felt today. Some 45,000 km2 of virgin jungle and national parks were destroyed and untold havoc wreaked on plant and animal life as well as the many forest-dwelling tribes.
Accusing fingers were pointed at both the rich and poor alike. The rich land-owners for using the unusually dry weather to cheaply clear new swathes of land for forestry and plantations, and the poor farmers for doing the same to make way for new crops. Despite bans and government decrees, the burning continued in the many poorly policed and corrupt areas of Indonesian Kalimantan.
Uncontrolled logging by ruthless, mainly Chinese companies has contributed to the horrendous deforestation of Borneo. Animals such as the Orang Utan and the native peoples reliant on the jungle for survival have progressively retreated into the dwindling reserves and national parks. Many of these remaining areas are continually threatened by the forces of progress and industry who exploit the weak, corrupt and often powerless authorities.
This imbalance is countered, in part, by a growing interest in eco- and adventure tourism. Numerous operators, based primarily in Sarawak and Sabah, offer a wide diversity of tourist options that include strenuous jungle treks and mountaineering through to gentle sight-seeing and conventional tours.
Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, is a busy hub that defies the haphazard expansion afflicting so many Asian cities. Although tastefully modernized, the waterfront maintains much of its colonial charm with newer buildings and hotels springing up around the perimeter.
In the picturesque shopping district one can find galleries, eateries, jewellery, duty-free and stalls including many with traditional dayak artefacts and produce. As with anywhere, it pays to shop around - and don't be afraid to haggle!
Just a short hop from Singapore, Kuching is a handy base from which to explore the varied offerings of Borneo without racking up undue mileage. Within easy drive of the CBD is Bako National Park, Semongok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, several Bidayuh longhouses and the excellent Damai Cultural Village.
Designed to service the affluent resort district, the Sarawak Cultural Village at Damai is possibly too contrived for the adventure purist, but nevertheless portrays the vivid costumes and cultural idiosyncrasies from seven of the twenty-something diverse ethnic groups represented in Borneo. The carefully structured tour takes one on a circumnavigation of the quaint, man-made village, visiting each of the ethnic homes in turn. There a "family" demonstrates, a bit stiffly perhaps, some of the daily routines and customs of village life.
Slightly braver tourists with a little more time can venture to Bako National Park, a mere thirty minutes by car from downtown Kuching. The little village of Bako is the end of the road, where pre-registered park visitors must jump aboard motorised dugouts for the final leg to the park HQ and campsite. There one can pitch a tent, throw down a swag in the bunkhouse, or rent one of the rudimentary huts.
The night is full of all the noises of the jungle including foraging Bearded Pigs, rowdy bats and an orchestra of insects. Rise early and the culprits will still be at their antics, scouring the lawns and perimeter shrubbery for morsels. Marauding bands of long-tailed Macaques soon join in, often stealing food and trinkets from under the noses of inattentive tourists. Not surprisingly, feeding them is strongly discouraged.
The park's most outstanding attraction, the reclusive Proboscis Monkey is much harder to find. Dining out on leaves and fruit in the early morning and late evenings, Bako NP is one of the very few habitats left for these distinctive roaming primates.
Bako, and its neighbours parks, Gunung Gading and Kubah cover, between them, virtually all of the region's wildlife and flora attractions, with Gunung Gading the nominal home of the massive Rafflesia. This unique, parasitic plant takes nine months to mature and only blooms for a brief four or five days before dying. Sighting one of these monstrous flowers is certainly a highlight - and the smell is unforgettable!
Orang Utans may be seen at either of the two Rehabilitation centres near Kuching, Semongok and Matang. The latter is a much more recent complex, built around the dual needs of tourism and the rehabilitation of native animals, compared to the older, more utilitarian Semongok.
Trekking in any of Borneo's national parks is both strenuous and rewarding. The oppressive heat and humidity can tax the unwary, so be sure to take plenty of water and stroll at a relaxed pace. Allow a full day if you're tackling the Mount Santubong trail near Damai, arguably the toughest trek in the Kuching area.
For those with more time, some other highly recommended activities include the much-vaunted longhouse stays, where one can speak of an authentic Bornean experience thereafter. River cruises, gourmet seafood excursions and good old shopping complete the schedule.
Seasoned travellers have described the people of Borneo as charming and unpretentious, and the land as both wild and wondrous. One can only hope that an increase in visitors draws attention to the plight of the disappearing rain forests and the many people and rare animals within that habitat.
The last of the 'white rajahs', Charles Vyner Brooke, who was forced to cede his family's private kingdom after WWII, said with some melancholy; "You know, I've been all over the world, but I never found a better place than Sarawak or a better people. I was the luckiest man in the world to be the Rajah."
There must be something in that.
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