Discover this jungle-clad frontier and its rich array of extraordinary wildlife – before everyone else does! Words: Roderick Eime.
Ferdinand Magellan’s vessel finally reached the shores of Borneo in 1521, after a tortuous voyage that decimated his fleet. Aboard was the famous Italian author and voyager, Antonio Pigafetta, who described the until-then undiscovered land and its people with wonder.
But the human history of Borneo extends back at least 40,000 years before the earliest European annals, beginning when nomadic tribes from Asia ventured south across the land bridge and settled in various regions of the world’s third largest island.
Tribes with particularly evocative names – the Iban, Melanau, Penan, Kelabit and Bidayuh (grouped together under the generic term Dayak) – established themselves alongside the ethnic Malays and Chinese to form an incredibly diverse population, each group having distinctive culture and traditions.
The British held sway for more than 100 years after James Brooke, through some backhanded dealings, was ordained by a grateful sultan in 1839 as Rajah of Sarawak, for helping the sultan to quell a local rebellion. The Union Jack continued to fly in Borneo until 1941, when invading Japanese took control of the region briefly.
Borneo’s four regions
Modern Borneo is segmented into four main regions: Malaysian Sabah and Sarawak; oil-rich independent sovereignty, the Sultanate of Brunei; and Indonesian Kalimantan. Unsustainable logging is an ongoing environmental issue, as are land-management practices that entail annual burn-offs and deforestation.
Borneo is a microcosm of awe-inspiring flora and fauna. The endearing orangutan, rare and unusual proboscis monkey and ludicrous Bornean bearded pig are just a few of its unique animals.
In concert with these species, Borneo’s plants have their own bizarre representatives: the gigantic rafflesia – the world’s largest flowering plant, a metre in diameter – and a rather scary pitcher plant that consumes hapless passing insects by dissolving them in its own corrosive juices.
To do justice to this fascinating island, a combination of coastal and river cruising and carefully chosen shore excursions is necessary.
Kuching, for example, is home to the Sarawak Cultural Village at Damai. Possibly too contrived for the adventure purist, it nevertheless portrays the vivid costumes and cultural idiosyncrasies of seven of the 20 or so ethnic groups represented in Borneo.
The carefully structured tour circumnavigates the quaint, man-made village, visiting each of the ethnic homes in turn. At each point, a ‘family’ demonstrates – a bit stiffly, perhaps – some of their daily routines and customs, giving a fascinating portrait of village life. Active travellers who have a little more time in their itineraries may wish to explore Bako National Park, just 30 minutes’ drive from downtown. At the little village of Bako, pre-registered park visitors can jump aboard motorised dugouts to reach the park HQ and campsite. Here, you can pitch a tent, throw down a swag in the bunkhouse or rent one of the rudimentary on-site huts.
The night is full of the noises of the Bornean jungle: foraging bearded pigs, rowdy bats and an orchestra of insects. Rise early and chances are the culprits will still be at their antics, scouring the lawns and perimeter shrubbery for morsels.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu
At the other end of the island, one of the world’s most accessible peaks – Mount Kinabalu – awaits keen climbers. Allow at least two days to make the trek and, though you need to be fit to make the ascent, previous mountain-climbing experience is not necessary.
Thankfully, Borneo still retains its ‘untamed’ allure and, like so many places around the world, it is largely characterised by the personality of its people. With such a diverse and generally welcoming populace, Borneo should rate highly with anyone interested in experiencing new cultures and customs on their travels.
The last of the ‘white rajahs’, Charles Vyner Brooke, who was forced to cede his family’s private kingdom after World War II, 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.
Kota Kinabalu: The capital of Sabah, East Malaysia lies on the west coast of ‘the Land Below the Wind’ in the shadow of Mt Kinabalu. A modern city with world-class hotels, it’s also a jumping-off point for adventures in surrounding regions.
Do: Trek to the summit of Mt Kinabalu, make an overnight visit to a traditional longhouse or sign on for a speedboat tour to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.
Muara: The recently improved deepwater port on the eastern tip of West Brunei now welcomes some of the world’s largest cruise ships. Gateway to the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, it’s the only city in this tiny, wealthy country.
Do: Tour the city’s mosques and opulent Sultan’s Palace, the world’s largest residential palace. Visit Brunei Museum, repository of Malay relics and priceless Islamic art; or take a riverboat trip along the canals for a glimpse of daily life.
Sibu: This bustling, ethnically Chinese port city is the embarkation port for Pandaw’s Rajang River cruises, the only such cruises operating within Borneo. In largely tourist-free Sibu, you’ll glimpse some genuine riverside life.
Do: Shopping, markets.
Bintulu: A major industrial centre in Sarawak, Bintulu still supports a few smallish tracts of rainforest.
Do: City culture and nature tours; visit the prehistoric Niah Caves, site of the oldest human remains in South-East Asia.
Kudat: This tiny port on the northern tip of Borneo suits smaller vessels and will always be an ‘adventure’ destination.
Do: Visit Rungus Longhouse where locals do beadwork and basketry. Enjoy cultural dances or roam the village.
Sandakan: The former capital of Sabah once claimed the highest concentration of millionaires per square mile (thanks to profits made from timber). Now, the city is remembered more for being the site of the tragic ‘death march’ of WWII.
Do: Visit Sepilok Orangutan rehabilitation sanctuary and rainforest centre, mosques, markets and villages.
Kuching: Capital of Sarawak, Kuching’s modernised waterfront retains a colonial charm, while its retail district brims with galleries, eateries, jewellers, duty-free shops and stalls selling traditional Dayak artefacts.
Do: Shop; visit Bako National Park, Matang or Semongok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centres, Bidayuh longhouses, Damai Cultural Village, Sarawak Museum and Fort Margherita.