How to find Borneo’s heart of darkness

[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

You travel for two days and nights between riverbanks that are an unchanging and never-ending line of shimmering forest. Two days more and the banks begin to squeeze, almost imperceptibly, together. On the fourth day you spot the occasional bamboo huts on the banks. The villages seem to be besieged: surrounded by rioting vegetation and cut off by a swift cafe-au-lait current that is patrolled by fresh-water sharks and crocodiles. Sometimes the jungle gives way to the bright green flash of carefully-tended paddy fields. At other times a yellow wasteland shows where it has been fought back by the heavy artillery of logging companies.

Standing on the deck at dawn you see the odd deer, monkey or mongoose coming down to drink and, after five days and nights of constant motoring, you begin to feel that you are at last making serious headway into the centre of the world’s third largest island. But arrival at an interior trading-post reminds you that you are still just at the gateway to the jungle. The going will be slower from here – the rivers navigable only by small boats or dugouts, and the rainforested hills more impenetrable. There are few major roads leading into the interior and those who resist the temptation to fly in invariably find that the rivers are far more comfortable than the potholed dirt-tracks. Such is the scale and wildness of this island that it can take two weeks of travelling to reach Borneo’s secluded and timeless heart of darkness.

Borneois five times the area of England and Wales combined. It is made up of the oil-rich Sultanate of Brunei, Indonesian Kalimantan and the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. Mount Kinabalu(at 4,101 metres the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea) dominates not only the skyline of Sabah, but also much of its traditional philosophies. Until it was climbed, by British colonial secretary Hugh Low, in 1851 none of the local Dusun people – nor anyone else for that matter – had ever risked angering the spirits by venturing onto what they called the “Sacred Place of the Dead”.

The great granite spire of Kinabalu is the only peak in the whole of Borneo that rises above the tree-line and it is said that, on a clear day, you can see halfway across the island from the summit. Clear days are hard to come by up here, however, and with a chill wind whipping across the ridge it can be hard to remind yourself that you are just over a hundred miles from the equator, on a tropical island in the South China Sea.

To the south-west, the billowing green waves of the Crocker Mountains stretch out towards Borneo’s other Malaysian state, Sarawak. Almost lost between Sabah and Sarawak is tiny Brunei Darussalam (“Abode of Peace”).

Sarawak has lost much of its jungle to palm oil plantations and logging but off shore oil has, perhaps paradoxically, allowed Brunei to keep most of its other natural resources. The Sultanate still boasts rainforest across more than half its territory and it has become known as the most accessible point of entry to the world’s greatest jungle island. Brunei has almost 20 reserves, packed with troops of macaques, silver-leaf monkeys, gibbons, giant monitor lizards, barking deer, mouse-deer and the iconographic proboscis monkey – known in Malay, for its stupendous red nose, as kera belanda (the Dutch monkey). Sabah is rich in wildlife too and is justly famous as one of the best places in the world to see wild orang-utan – that most charismatic of apes – in its jungle habitat.

However, it is the bottom, Indonesian, two-thirds of Borneo that is the most unexplored and wildest part of the island. Only the least intrepid of hearts can fail to beat faster at the thought of the vast, seemingly limitless, expanse of primeval rainforest that covers much of Kalimantan (“The River of Diamonds”).

The popular idea of the jungle as a dangerous place is – like the stories of blood-thirsty tattooed warriors and jungle-nomads with tails – mostly a product of fiction. There are no large predators in the Borneo jungle. While most of South East Asia’s animals can be found here, naturalists believe that tigers never made the crossing. The bad-tempered and unpredictable sun bear is so afraid of man that it is rarely seen and the largest carnivore is the beautiful clouded leopard. Snakes are common (the king cobra can grow up to 5 metres long here) and although crocodiles are not often spotted they are never far from your mind when swimming in slow-moving jungle rivers. The most dangerous creature in Borneo is (as in so many other places) the humble mosquito and the most repugnant is certainly the leech. These can grow to several inches long and, especially in the rainy season, it is not unusual to have to remove scores from your legs during the course of an afternoon’s jungle-bashing.

There are 600 species of birds here and more than 90 different bats but many other creatures have taken to the air as the most effective way to travel through the dense canopy. Borneo is home to flying lizards, frogs and snakes, plus 12 species of flying squirrels and the strange colugo (or flying lemur), which in “flight” looks like nothing so much as a hurled coal-sack.

To see Borneo at its wildest you must take a voyage up to the headwaters of one of the great rivers, to the remotest villages and longhouses. In Sarawak, Sabah and even Brunei you can still visit communities living in these structures – like an entire village high-street raised on stilts over the jungle. In the deepest corners of the Kalimantan you come across longhouses that are hundreds of years old. The people are invariably friendly and – where Islam or Christian missionaries have not made inroads – social life frequently revolves around pig roasts and wild parties (fuelled on palm wine) that can go on for days.

These communities still live from slash-and-burn rice farming and from hunting and gathering. The men make long expeditions deep into the jungle to spend months at a time collecting aloeswood, bird’s nests and bezoar stones (monkey’s gall stones). All these things still fetch a high price from the Chinese traders who ply the rivers in cargo-boats that have changed little since the days of Joseph Conrad.

Sceptics will tell you that the world has been explored and that there is nothing new to see, but as long as the centre of the world’s third largest island remains a dense and mysterious forest there will always be an unexplored corner.

For those who have never been there, Borneo’s “heart of darkness” is the most evocative and least hospitable of jungles; but for those who have returned there is the siren call of a place – and a people – with which a part of your own heart will always remain.

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