Feature

The Borneo journey

By Thomas King

On a sponsored trip to Borneo, school student Thomas King experienced the natural beauty of Malaysia, as well as the tragic developments that are threatening the wildlife, indigenous people, and ultimately, the future for his own generation.

Thomas-King-Story
Orangutan

Credit: Thomas King

Borneo

Credit: Thomas King

Borneo-snake

Credit: Thomas King

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As the jet engines roared and the aircraft accelerated along the tarmac, I felt an overwhelmed surge of excitement, anxiety and anticipation. I sat back in my seat and imagined what was to come over the twelve days that lay ahead. Due to my stressed tendencies, I couldn’t help questions like: “Did I remember everything?”, “Will the trip go according to plan?” and “Am I going to contract some sort of sickness?” from running through my mind. But as the plane lifted off Melbourne soil, at 3:48pm on the 5th of October, it was as if all those worries were left behind. My journey had begun.

After eight hours in the air, we touched down in Kuala Lumpur. Stepping out of the plane, the heat and humidity hit me like a sandbag. We boarded our connecting midnight flight to Borneo and met Teon, our tour guide, who took us to our hotel in the city of Kuching, Borneo. I slept like a log that night.

Our first day involved numerous relaxing activities and sightseeing around the City of Kuching. The day allowed the group to settle into the country and become familiar with the smells, sights and flavours of the city. We were able to learn about the history of the ancient area, how the indigenous people live and the kinds of wildlife found in the state of Sarawak.

The day concluded with a water-taxi ride over the river to explore the other side of the city. We competed against a group of young locals in a match of soccer. It was a friendly atmosphere, however we were no match for their well-crafted skills. We then ambled our way along the colourful waterside, which was dotted with small Malaysian food stalls. Eventually, it was time to make our way back.

Our journey continued the next day with a visit to the Fairy and Wind Caves. These two incredible natural gems are truly breathtaking. Walking into the Fairy Cave, it is as if you’re in a scene from Avatar. The size of the cave is an amazing spectacle; the cave walls trickle with streams, native plants and moss grows on the cave floor and bats hang from the ceiling. We also got the opportunity to discover unique natural features in the Wind Cave; ancient shell fossils imbedded into the cave walls.

On day three we headed off to Bako National Park. This involved an exciting boat ride to the Bako peninsular. On arrival, we were met by a group of mischievous macaques (native monkeys) that stole our packet of chips. After weaving our way through the Bornean beared-pigs that grazed the area, we proceeded to our cabin, dumped our bags and were guided along on our first Bako bushwalk. I’d seen many pictures of Proboscis monkeys, but it’s not until you actually meet one face-to-face that you realise the overwhelming beauty and human-like characteristics that they possess.

In the afternoon, we were introduced to one of Borneo’s most deadly inhabitants – three green pit vipers in a tree beside the boardwalk that lead to our cabin. I am fascinated by snakes and was excited to see the three vipers perched as statues in the rainforest tree.

It was that night that I witnessed something that I will never forget. What I saw was relatively minor and insignificant in the eyes of most people, but to me, it was a special realisation. Teon lead us along a walk that weaved through the beach mangroves. Half way through, he stopped and told us to switch off our torches. He pointed to a group of trees a few metres away and said, “look”. It took me a moment to realise what he was pointing out; the trees were sparkling! Teon explained that the lights were male saltwater fireflies. By day, the insects live under the trees, but at night they come out and perform a unique sparkling lightshow where they pulse light from their tiny bodies whilst crawling along the trees to attract females.

This demonstrated to me the true complexity of the jungle ecosystem, and the fact that during the day we would have never have known we were walking past trees that beneath contained tiny treasures. The lights symbolized so much more than just insects.

The morning after, we undertook a five-hour hike to a beautiful beach inlet. On the way back I was tired, sore, and had a throbbing headache because I'd run out of water... but then, about thirty minutes from the end of the track, we came across a stunning male proboscis monkey sitting in a tree a few meters from the path. He sat there observing us, completely relaxed as we took pictures. It made the whole hike worthwhile.

Overall, the Bako peninsular was abundant with life. We saw proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs, pit vipers, kingfishers, flying lemurs, spiders, frogs and even rare silver-leaf monkeys. It was one of the most amazing, exciting experiences I’ve ever had. But it was a poignant moment when I realised that this was one of the only remaining natural, preserved areas of Malaysia, which may be lost within my lifetime.

After an overnight stay back at the hotel in Kuching, we visited Santubong to meet some residents at the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre. The area is a sanctuary for pre-released orangutans that had been injured in palm oil plantations and logging sites, or abused after being kept as pets. It was incredible to see these orangutans in their natural habitat, but once again, a saddening reminder that these were the closes to 'wild' orangutans in a country that was once plentiful with these magnificent red apes.

Next we made our way to the Sarawak Cultural Village. This living museum depicted a very realistic representation of the different communities and tribes that inhabit the state of Sarawak; many of which no longer exist due to modern development and logging.

We continued our journey and headed up to Damai, where we stayed the night at a cosy rainforest lodge near a secluded beach. That night there was a downpour of rain, so we all bunked in for a night of games and laughter. At this stage of the trip, we were all thrilled for the days that lay ahead…. but when morning arrived, our joy and excitement was smothered when we were struck with some extremely unfortunately news; a snake had bitten one of our teachers.

Luckily the snake was a non-venomous python, and despite it trying to eat Mr.Porter, he made it to hospital with only a few rows of teeth marks around his ankle. We tried to look on the bright side - at least he will always have a memento of the trip!

Continuing our original plan, we headed off on a six-hour journey to the Iban Longhouse, minus Mr. Porter. We travelled five-hours by bus, passing countless palm oil plantations, and then boarded three longboats which took us on an enjoyable ride upriver to the Iban community.

Once our official welcoming ceremony had taken place, we were lead into the longhouse. Thirty-eight families lived in the home, each with their own handmade souvenired stalls out the front of every doorway. We settled in and before we knew, it was nightfall.

The evening was composed of an Iban dinner, followed by traditional dancing and singing… all whilst drinking shots of rice-wine! Afterwards, we sat down with the longhouse Chief and were given the opportunity to ask him questions. I spoke to him about what the native rainforest means to him and his people, and he answered with a detailed belief that the forest is what keeps his community healthy. He said it provides them with all the food and medicine they require, and that they would never engage in any logging or palm oil development, because health and quality of life is more important to them than money.

It warmed my heart to hear that this beautiful community was dedicated to preserving their rainforest livelihood. They were some of the poorest people I had ever met; yet at the same time they were by far the richest. As I sat there, I thought to myself, I wish some of the CEOs of the world’s global corporate giants could be sitting here listening to this man speak. Clearly he has more intelligence than any wealth-consumed executive.

The night under large mosquito nets was uncomfortable, but insect-free. Morning came and one of the village elders gave us a lesson on Iban blow piping. Before we knew it, we were headed back to Kuching. We concluded our Iban experience with a traditional bamboo-smoked rice lunch on a small river stone island on the longboat journey back.

The Iban Longhouse was a short but rewarding experience, and one that I will never forget.

It was on the five-hour bus trip back that I realised the true damage of palm oil on this incredible country. There were long periods where I saw more oil palms than I did native rainforest trees, all because of the massive global demand for palm oil. Once you witness the detrimental loss of biodiversity due to this one ingredient, it really makes you appreciate companies like Orange Power that are committed to undertaking steps that won’t destroy my future.

Friday came and I was extremely excited. We were about to visit the place I had been most eagerly anticipating from the minute Miss Bennett told us the trip was going ahead in 2010 – Matang Wildlife Centre. And I can tell you now; the day certainly overpowered my expectations.

We were given the opportunity to see a vast range of rescued wildlife, including: binturongs, porcupines, crocodiles, sun bears, hornbills & other birds, as well as the charismatic orangutans. We were even fortunate enough to assemble enrichment toys for the orangutans, which were composed off leaves, peanuts and jam concealed in bamboo tubes. However the true highlight of the day for me was being able to meet and speak with the two incredible people that run the Matang Wildlife Centre volunteer program: Leo and Natasha.

Hearing Leo speak was truly inspirational. He is one of those people that has an incredible sense of morality and an extremely accurate overview of humanity and how the world operates. There was a specific lesson that he outlined that especially stood out to me. He basically told me that there is no easy way to solve issues like the development of palm oil, but instead, all we can really do is wait for humanity to change. I had a strong personal response to this, because I believe it to be very true, however there was one part I don’t believe to be true. I don’t think it’s about “waiting” for humanity to change, but helping humanity make that transition into a more sustainable approach to living, through education and awareness.

We had a fun last night in Kuching doing some late night shopping. We met a very charismatic little lady (and when I say little, I mean LITTLE – she didn’t even reach my waist!), who was keen to sell us her handmade Bornean souvenirs and attempt at an Aussie accent!

The last two days of the trip were hectic. We woke up at 4:30am on Saturday, flew over to Kuala Lumpur, spent the day shopping and visiting some popular tourist attractions including the Batu Caves and Patronas Towers, then boarded our fling back to Melbourne at 10:00pm, didn't sleep much on the flight and arrived to Melbourne Airport at 8:45am. I then arrived home Sunday noon, slept for 5hrs plus 12hrs overnight, unpacked, attempted to catch-up on homework and began preparing for school the next day!

Before I knew it, the journey was over and I had slipped back into regular day-to-day life.

I honesty cannot pinpoint a single component of the trip that was a strong standout. Each experience was unique and valuable in its own way.

“All social change comes from the passion of individuals." ~ Margaret Meads.

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The author would like to thank Orange Power for providing him with assistance for this life-changing journey, and for their constant efforts to make the world a better place for future generations.