Wednesday, December 31, 2008

On the Island of Borneo

We couldn’t finish out the year without including a posting about the island of Borneo, which we visited in September. Borneo is one of those places you hear about but never expect to see; it sounded far away to us, too, until we got our car in Singapore and the dealer’s license plate said “Borneo Motors.” Turns out that Borneo is only a couple of hours’ flight away, even if you’re visiting (as we were) the far side, the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Sabah is a strange and fragile place, in which the truly exotic rain-forest flora and fauna are forcibly intermingled with the ever-encroaching roads and palm-oil plantations. The great rain forests of northeastern Borneo have been squeezed up against the muddy Kinabatangan River until only two narrow strips are left. This means you can see a lot of wildlife from the river, since their only habitat is right up against the banks, but there’s an overwhelming feeling (perfectly captured by this article in a recent National Geographic) that the days of this precarious paradise are numbered.

Just beyond the rain forest’s edge, the neat rows of lush green palms look beautiful (and environmentally sound, as the oil they supply often goes into American and European biofuels). But the impact on Borneo’s plants and animals is inescapable. Spend some time watching the monkeys and orangutans swing (or even jump) powerfully through the rainforest foliage, and you begin to understand: with the rows of palm trees, there’s nothing to grab; the monkeys are reduced to crawling slowly along the ground.

We couldn’t visit Borneo without seeing part of the Gomantong Caves we’d seen on Planet Earth, replete with swarms of bats, skittering cockroaches, swallowtails, and workers climbing a hundred feet high on flimsy ladders to harvest empty birds’ nests for soup. David Attenborough never mentioned the happy and enthusiastic stray dogs that serve as self-appointed tour guides, though. They love to meet visitors at the entrance and lead you along the slippery boardwalk inside, making sure you keep up with your group and don’t fall into the massive heaps of bat guano. Perhaps they belong to a breed without a sense of smell...


Anonymous said...

Such an amazing place! It must be saved for future generations. (Great article and photos about this in National Geographic - Nov. 08.)

Andrew said...

I sure hope Jodel and I can visit before it disappears. What a wonderful experience.