In Borneo, the river replaces the highway


The view through the little window was absolutely mesmerizing. Rainforest as far as the eye can see. The canopy filled hills appeared to be green waves of jungle flowing across the entire landscape. Suddenly my eyes spotted a brownish stretch of land. The airstrip! A few minutes later, me and a handful of other passengers had reached our final destination: Gunung Mulu National Park, Borneo. This secluded mountainous piece of rainforest is one of Borneo’s highlights for sure. While looking up how to get there, the park’s website informed me that: ‘There are no buses, no highways and certainly no taxis to Mulu’.

‘I hope there’s still room in the dorm.’ I said to Tommy as we left the propeller plane behind us. I had met Tommy a few weeks back, in a canoe in the middle of the jungle. We both weren’t any good at planning ahead, but that hadn’t stopped us from seeing some of the most amazing things during my traveling. Together we had marveled at wild orangutans swinging from branch to branch through the tree tops of Semenggoh’s nature reserve. A few days later we were floating below the crystal clear water surface around the islands at Sipadan, one of the world’s most precious diving sites. The waters were filled with rays, eels and turtles. And hey, who doesn’t like spotting twenty turtles in one dive?

But now we had set foot in Gunung Mulu National Park and new adventures awaited us.
The park itself is completely filled with an incredibly diverse animal and plant life. A few hectares of Gunung Mulu rainforest contains more tree species than the entire landmass of Europe and North America combined. Of course, the best way for me and Tommy to witness this incredible diversity was to get high as fuck.

So we took a canopy walk tour, thirty meters up in the air, straight through the tops of the forest giants. We were accompanied by a Malaysian tour guide who knew his way around the park. But after a few minutes he completely started freaking out as he pointed towards a stone mountain in the distance. My eyes spotted a family of big birds. Apparently they were wild Rhinoceros Hornbills, the countries’ national bird and unfortunately close to extinction as well. In the past, the bird served as a connection to the god of war, worshipped by the local headhunting tribes living in Borneo. Even today, some local communities believe the horn on its beak to hold mystical powers. Owning one, would give you the power to control and influence another person. In reality however, killing this bird would give you three years spent in a Malaysian jail.

In the evening, we hung out and had some beers with two guys who also stayed in the park dorm. Jordan and Stefan, two crazy travelers who were hitchhiking through Borneo. They didn’t pay for taxis or took propeller planes.
‘We didn’t fly over the jungle.’ Jordan said, ‘We went straight through it. By river.’
A few beers later, this “off the beaten track” experience sounded pretty tempting. A few days of traveling down the river to get back to civilization, why not? It’s only 100 km.

But before we left, we still had some exploring to do. The other three guys headed out to do a three day long trek which brought them to the 45m high razor sharp limestone pinnacles on top of the mountain. I had something else in mind, I wanted to discover the enormous caves which are hidden inside the park. I took a tour which, after an hour of walking through the jungle, brought me to the deer cave. It’s the largest known cave chamber in the world and takes your breath away.

It wasn’t only the magnificent view which left you breathless, it was the foul smell inside the cave that did it as well. A huge pile of filthy reeking guano (bat shit) inside the cave exposed the presence of a few million bats. Yes, multiple millions of bats call this enormous cave their home and apparently they just can’t stop shitting all over the place. It was literally mission impossible not getting my hands full of bat shit while I climbed my way further down into the cave. Luckily it didn’t take too long for our tour group to reach a river. I washed the bat shit off my hands and followed the tour guide as he stepped through the river. Too bad it was full of blood sucking leaches.

Exhausted, we reached the garden of Eden, a remote green oasis, only reachable through the cave and river. We took a rest and enjoyed the waterfall, but it was hard to relax when you have to constantly fight off the leaches crawling up your legs. After our short break we had to hurry to get out of the cave in time because it was getting dark soon.

The setting sun triggered the millions of bats to fly out of the cave and to start hunting the thousands of creepy insects living in the rainforest. Outside of the cave I witnessed the gigantic streams of bats disappearing into the wilderness. When the orange of the setting sun had made way for the darkness of the night I returned back to the park headquarters.

After my travel buddies returned from their hike, we celebrated our time at Gunung Mulu by getting drunk and singing karaoke with the locals. The day after, we dragged ourselves, our backpacks and our hangovers into one of the thinnest long tail boats I’d ever seen. It could barely fit the four of us, our bags and the two boat guys. As we left the park and floated downstream, I was blown away by the sight of the rainforest starting from the river banks. The river curved through the jungle like a python and guided us towards our next destination.
‘Keep your eyes on the river banks,’ Jordan said, ‘on the way up I saw lots of crocodiles.’

That night we slept at our boat guy’s long house in Long Terawan, a small jungle village and home of the Berawan tribe. They are one of Borneo’s indigenous peoples and seemed to have kept a connection with nature we in the West lost years ago. As we explored the village, one of the villagers came back with our meal for the evening. A freshly caught wild boar was thrown on the ground. Somebody had killed it with a spear. In front of our eyes the dead boar got sliced up and distributed along the families in the village.

That night, we talked for hours with the locals, drinking up almost their entire week supply of beer. Our hosts gave us some wise advice. For example, they told us to never kill a crocodile. If you would do so, one of the family members of the killed crocodile would take revenge and go after you and your family. Not that I was planning to go out and kill a random crocodile, but it was good to know.

What I didn’t like hearing was what they told us next. Apparently the government was building dams and destroying parts of the rainforest. On top of the loss of precious land, this also meant a lot of pollution for the river. The pollution had caused a massive drop in the fish population, which used to be one of their most important food resources.

And if that wasn’t enough of bad news for the day, our boat guy had accidently stepped into a sharp piece of glass with a deep painful cut as a result. He didn’t have any disinfectant or pain killers, but luckily we had enough medical travel equipment with us to help him out. Shortly after he took the pain killers, he was already jumping around barefoot. It took us a little while to make him realize we didn’t cure his wound yet, we just took the pain away. At the end of the night we received some T-shirts with printed text on them from our new native friends. The texts were messages to protect the rainforest, they told us.

The next day we barely made it onto the express boat which left in the early morning to the next village. The view during the boat ride was amazing as usual. When we arrived at the village of Marudi, we decided to have some food and beers in a local restaurant. Marudi serves as an economic hub for the local tribes living in the area and quickly it became clear that some of them didn’t have a lot of contact with “white people”. A family walked by the restaurant and suddenly the father stopped his whole family to come up to us and shake our hands. Their broad smiles revealed the few teeth still left in their mouths.

After another night of singing Malaysian karaoke songs we tried to take another express boat in the morning. But this time everything didn’t work out as easy. Some Indian guy jumped onto the boat and demanded our passports. The fact that he was wearing ordinary jeans and a T-shirt made us kind of suspicious when he told us he was a police officer. After it was clear that the boat wasn’t going to move before we cooperated, we handed the passports over. At first we had no clue what we could have done wrong. But eventually he told us somebody had seen us with T-shirts which weren’t allowed. Apparently the inscriptions on the T-shirts we got as a gift were not only for the rainforest and native rights, but also against the government.

We told him we had no idea what they meant and got off with a warning. After the boat left, I climbed on top of the roof to scan the riverbanks for crocodiles. I saw one of those green Jurassic monsters and kept on enjoying the view for hours until we reached the next city, Miri, our final destination.

Now, when somebody asks me the famous question ‘So, which place did you like the most?’, I can say for sure:

It’s Borneo.

J.Gielen.

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