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DESTINATIONS - TRAVEL DESTINATIONS

BORNEO
We've been asked about our overseas 4WD adventures and here's one.

Some OTA website visitors have asked us if we’ve done any interesting overseas 4WDing adventures, so we’ve kicked off with a trip Allan Whiting did to Borneo back in 1991. Unfortunately, the images that illustrate this story are digitised from 30-year-old transparency film, so the quality isn’t flash.

 

My initial interest in Borneo as a destination was sparked by jungle competition 4WD events that were held there from 1988. 

Possibly influenced by the 1985 Camel Trophy that was held in Borneo the Kinabalu Four Wheel Drive Club (KFWDC) was engaged to assist in the organisation of the Trans Borneo 4×4 Series. This competition event ran from 1988 to 1990 and that morphed into the first Borneo Safari in 1991. These annual safaris are still held today.

Back in 1991 I saw some of the action and spoke with some of the Aussie competitors.  I’d already had some muddy jungle experience, having participated in the Camel Trophy in 1986 that was held between Cairns and Darwin, during the wet season. I’d had enough of hammock sleeping to avoid Gulf of Carpentaria crocodiles and winching Land Rovers out of billabongs, so the Borneo Safari didn’t hold any attraction for me!

 

 

My brief from the 4WD magazine for which I was free-lancing was to check out the 4WD tourist attractions of the Malaysian section of the island of Borneo, not slippery logging tracks. In those days the drive from Kuching to Sandakan was on only partly sealed-road, with the majority of the hilly, northern section being rough gravel.

 

 

In the northern part of Borneo the road was quite rough and roadside services were very limited. Diesel for our rented Toyota Bundera three-door wagon was dispensed from jerry cans. However, the food at this basic roadhouse was superb fried fish, fresh from a tank out the back.

Obviously, much has changed in the 30+ years since my Borneo visit, but some of the highlights are still popular with tourists today.

 

 

You can do a posh ‘longhouse’ experience with the Iban tribefolk, or a much more basic one, where you actually live in a section of a fully functioning longhouse, sharing accommodation and food with the residents. That’s what I did and enjoyed every moment of it.

 

 

Getting to the up-river village meant a half-day trip in a long, powered canoe, along a river that gradually narrowed as it cut though overhanging jungle. Wonderful!

 

 

The longhouse was hive of daily activity, with these hunter-gatherers kept busy harvesting natural jungle crops, such as bamboo shoots, catching escaped piglets from the fenced pen and sun-drying pepper seeds. 

 

 

I also accompanied a ‘warrior’ kitted out in traditional garb and armed with a long hollow-wooden blowpipe, from which he blew poison darts with terrifying accuracy.

 

 

I took a turn on the blowpipe and found it very easy to become reasonably proficient at hitting a target at around 10 metres. I was told that the poison darts were fired into jungle prey, to debilitate them slowly, while the hunters followed at a safe distance until it was time for the coup de grace.

 

 

The most challenging ‘decorations’ in this longhouse were the woven baskets hanging from the rafters, containing rounded, blackened objects. These, it turned out, were human skulls and dated from the days when the Iban were fierce headhunters. The skulls were taken from the baskets periodically and placed in ceremonial fires, to re-invigorate their resident spirits.

I asked the longhouse headman why some skulls looked newer than others and he explained that the Iban tribes’ traditional ways may have returned to ‘greet’ some of the Japanese soldiers who occupied the country during WWII. 

 

 

Speaking of the War, the infamous ‘Sandakan Death Marches’ were a series of forced marches in Borneo from Sandakan to Ranau which resulted in the deaths of 2434 Allied prisoners of war. The tragic paths through the jungle, on which these unfortunate prisoners were herded, are still accessible and marked with several memorials.

 

 

On a happier note, I visited the orangutan rehabilitation centre in Sepilok and enjoyed close encounters with rescued creatures that were being prepared for a return to the wild. My hand-holding session with a baby orang was cut short by the appearance of his somewhat concerned father, so I beat a hasty retreat!

 

 

This initiative has expanded greatly since 1991. Unfortunately, the obsession with forestry and palm oil production at he expense of natural rain forest had greatly reduced the size of the orangutans’ jungle home and this destruction continues today.

 

 

Niah Caves was another highlight for me. This massive cave complex opens up at the end of a long boardwalk through the jungle, revealing from a distance what looked like model houses within. The houses turned out to be full-sized: such is the scale of the cave.

Inside the cave were scarily high, flimsy bamboo ladders that were used by birds’ nest harvesters. The Chinese addiction for ‘bird-nest soup’, using edible nests as prized ingredients, is the root of this profitable trade. 

 

 

The nests are tiny translucent cups about the size of a small egg and are made and ‘glued’ high up on the cave walls by the male swiftlet from glutinous threads of its own saliva, which dries to become thin and translucent like fine porcelain. 

Edible bird’s nest are prepared for consumption by stewing the processed nest with water and rock sugar.

The nest collection business is strictly ranger-controlled, so that the nests aren’t taken until the fledgling chicks have left the nests, but there’s always the temptation to break the law. When I was there – out of nest-collecting season – I noted a group of men carrying large baskets on their backs, trudging along the boardwalk. I was told they were harvesting guano from the cave floor, for sale as fertiliser.

 

Guano baskets are similar in size to this firewood bundle

 

However, around the campfire that night, a different story emerged. It seems that at least one of the guano collectors ventured up one these rickety ladders, in quest of an out-of-season nest or two, to increase his weekly pay check. That foray led to a fall and his instant death. At least one of the guano baskets the men had been carrying contained his body that the collectors needed to smuggle past the rangers, to avoid prosecution.

 

 

It’s possible to enjoy the jungle altitude in a much safer way, I discovered, near Mt Kinabalu. Back in 1991 there were only two or three ‘jungle canopy’ walks, but now there are many, scattered around the island. You climb up a wooden tower and emerge onto a series of flexible walkways, high above the jungle floor, amid the verdant canopy. I can tell from looking at current photographs that the walk I did is still being used today. (I hope they check the air-bridge cables and fittings regularly!)

 

 

One of my most outstanding memories is of a visit to a Murut village, with a guide. I thought that I’d arrived during a festival, because the all the villagers were dressed in traditional garb. However, tourism was in its infancy back then and my guide assured me that they’d dressed up in my honour! I was gobsmacked.

 

 

At the invitation of the village chief I ascended into a longhouse that had been built for celebrations, not as a dwelling. It was about 30 metres long and had a cut-out, lower central ‘stage’ in its centre. This platform was mounted on giant bamboo poles that were longitudinally fixed only at their extreme ends. 

Thus, the stage could flex up and down on the bendy poles, like a trampoline. Needless to say, there was much hysteria when I joined the bouncing throng of villagers and danced with them.

 

 

Another special destination was Turtle Island Park, off the cost from Sandakan, in the shallow Sulu Sea. On the motorboat trip out to the island I passed several fishing ‘houses’ built on bamboo stilts, in the middle of the ocean. Graced with a small tent and drying nets, each was temporary home for fishermen from Borneo.

 

 

Turtle Island visitors these days get a highly organised tour, I hear, but in 1991 it was turtle watching on a much smaller scale. The concept is the same as endangered turtle protection everywhere: set up a secure location, where turtles come to lay their eggs; collect the laid eggs for protection from predators – animal and human –  and aid the eventual hatchlings to get to the sea in relative safety.

To that end, the island was equipped with a hatchery and staff to collect the eggs and supervise the hatchling development and migration. Tourists were invited to help in those tasks.

The nightly routine was to wait in your ‘donga’ until the guide arrived and then walk to the beach, to witness a female turtle laying a clutch of eggs. Another function was to take freshly hatched baby turtles to the beach and watch them rush across the sand to the safety of the water. I can still feel the sensation of a baby turtle in my hands, flailing away with its fore-flippers in an instinct-driven urge to search for briny freedom!

 

 

Egg security was give absolute priority, because the threat of egg poaching by ‘pirates’ was ever present. A single turtle egg represented a normal week’s salary on the black market. 

When I was there a detachment of Malaysian Army troops was deployed on the waterfront after dark and we were warned not to venture near the beach without a guide. Without saying as much, our guide intimated that sometimes rough justice got carried out!

 

 

Another privileged Borneo site whose location was kept secret involved a tramp across paddy field and a steep climb up a mountain track. There, on a grassy hillside, under makeshift rain cover was a large, carved stone.

 

 

Viewed from one end it clearly represented a woman and from the other end, a man. Interestingly, the shared common organ was a grinning mouth full of teeth. The man’s nipples became the woman’s eyes and the woman’s breasts, the man’s eyes.

Going through my photos and memories from more than 30 years ago was an enjoyable exercise and subsequent research showed that similar Borneo experiences are possible today, although on a more organised scale.

Here are some more of my happy snaps:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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