In the wild interior of Malaysian Borneo I set off in search of the Kinabatangan River, on a cruise to the Heart of Darkness itself.
I’ve always held in my mind the romantic notion of getting lost in the jungle and wilderness of Borneo. To me there’s just something untameable about the island, a place of vast, unreachable interiors, full of both the darkest and majestic creature’s of nature- one of the last frontiers left in the modern world, a Heart of Darkness.
With the words of Joseph Conrad in my head and the music of Apocalypse Now running on loop, I ventured intrepidly into the jungles of Borneo.
My destination was The Kinabatangan River. I set out from the coastal city of Sandakan- in Sabah, a part of Malaysian Borneo- an old colonial city fringed with palm trees and prone to the odd Filipino pirate attack. Away from the blue seas of the coast, the trees and greenery began to demonstrate the real and incredible diversity of Borneo, as sand and cliff turned to dense foliage and jungle.
I soon realised however that perhaps this wouldn’t be the romantic, last frontier I’d envisaged, as the road led inland and the density of the forested land began to diminish, to be replaced by wide and open palm tree plantations, while huge palm oil tankers shook the roads as they carried their cargo to the ports.
Land clearance is a huge threat to the ecosystem of Borneo. Palm oil plantations and logging have left the forests of Borneo in decline. Huge swathes of land have been cleared in recent years, and that of course has left the unique wildlife vulnerable. In the bus on the way to the river, as we passed plantation after plantation, we all wondered at why the locals could have led such a beautiful region to the brink of destruction, but my mate soon left us all confounded with one simple sentence. “If someone offered me £20,000 to cut down the tree in my back garden, I’m not going to to say no”. It’s easy, even selfish, to judge foreign lands from the privileged perspective of an affluent western tourist, but it’s not so easy to give solutions. Things are never that easy.
The Corridor of Life, a narrow, protected region along the Kinabatangan River is one attempt to preserve the natural landscape while balancing economic needs before it’s all too late. This was where I would spend the next three days.
I’d never really been in what one would- rather unscientifically I expect- refer to as ‘Jungle’. I suspect that this preserved reserve of land along the river, isn’t quite the extreme of jungle and rainforest you can find in other parts of Borneo- there were guest houses and riverboats- but for a suburban city goer, there was more to deal with than I ever could have expected. For me, I was in the jungle. And the moment I stepped off the boat that took me across the river, everything was out to either scare the shit out of me or to kill me. Sometimes both.
I was staying in basic lodgings along the Kinabatangan River, a solid base to trek into the jungle and cruise down the river from. Now, I’m from England, and we get a few big house spiders, but nothing even mildly threatening. I wasn’t prepared for the outlandishly oversized Golden Orb spiders that greeted us by the entrance to the dorm room. There were two of them, just weaving their huge webs on either side above the steps.
One of the Malaysian guys just laughed at the fear and wonder that spread across our group’s faces as we realised that we had to walk under them each time we went in and out. He said these were nothing, and that Golden Orbs weren’t deadly anyway. Their big fangs would definitely hurt though. It was fine as long they weren’t in the rooms, he added, before walking off into the trees. Some nervous searches of our lodgings followed, as we all wondered what the hell we’d got ourselves in for.
The corridor along the river provides a small, but safe refuge for wildlife in this region of Borneo. The best way to spot some of the forest’s inhabitants was by boat, but unfortunately the only way to the boat was along Spider Alley, as the Golden Orbs had hung their webs from all available door frames and trees that led to the jetty. So avoiding the inherent threat of the monstrous spiders I headed down to the river for a cruise along the edge of the preserve. I was hoping more than anything that arachnids are hydrophobic.
All eyes were peeled to the river banks as the boat sped off along the waterway. The Kinabatangan River is home to a diverse array of wildlife- monkeys, crocodiles, birds of paradise and even Orang Utans and pygmy elephants can be found in the corridor of life. In Malaysian Borneo, it’s perhaps the best opportunity to spot many of the island’s unique species in a natural setting.
Our guide was well practised in the art of animal spotting in these parts, and soon had us under the trees pointing out Macaque monkeys foraging in the foliage.
Along the river, the Macaques, both long and short tailed, were rampaging through the forest. The trees were teeming with them.
Further along, a group of Proboscis monkeys, endemic to Borneo, were setting up camp for the night.
The long nosed monkey, affectionately known as the ‘dick nosed monkey’ live in harems made up of a single adult male and as many females as he can get to join him. The rest of the males, with their hugely prominent noses, roam around in packs.
The sun was slowly setting on the Kinabatangan River as we cruised along, and the forest was alive with the sound of wildlife getting ready to bed down for the night. There were even a few crocodile eyes popping above the water line every now and then. And then, as darkness was about to fall and before we’d neared the lodging area, the boat spluttered to a halt.
We’d run out of petrol. Fearing we would become mere meat for crocodiles, as we drifted slowly along in the heart of darkness everyone pitched in to try and get the engine started again on the fumes that were left in the tank. To no avail. A hasty SOS was sent out on a mobile phone to the lodge, and we waited in the dying light as the noise of the forest echoed across the water, until a rescue boat appeared with a new tank of petrol. In darkness we arrived at Spider Alley, dodging the webs in the pitch black and eerily trying to ignore some of the more harrowing jungle sounds that surrounded the dorm room.
It was a restless night, with fear of Giant Orbs getting the best of even the bravest souls. I cocooned myself up in a sleeping bag liner, and tried not to think about what could get in the room…or what could already be in the room…
The next morning we set out before sunrise to try to catch a glimpse of more wildlife along the Kinabatangan River. Our boat guide showed us pictures before we set off of a mammoth looking snake that had slithered into his room a few days before, to attempt to alleviate the fearful stress of the night before by showing us how much worse it could have been.
The morning mist enveloped the trees and shimmered off the water as we cut a path down river and in the mud a shape moved quickly in the shallows. It was a crocodile, out to catch a few morning sun rays.
It quickly disappeared underwater. An unnerving experience, and I was thankful that we sped off along the river before it had a chance to resurface next to us.
Morning on the river was a noisy affair, as the monkeys rose from their slumber to fill the trees with their shouts and screams. There were a few Kingfishers out on the early hunt and birds skimming along the water. This time we had enough petrol to make it back and after a few coffees and breakfast we donned wellies, tucked our shirts into our trousers to leach proof ourselves and trekked off into the jungle, to find The Oxbow Lake.
The route was densely covered in greenery, the mud was swampy and deep in paces, a haven for leaches looking for fresh blood. Along the way there were a few tell tale signs of the pygmy elephants that had passed through perhaps a few days earlier. We wouldn’t see any this day though.
After a few hours of hiking through the forest, we emerged out of the trees to the lake.
My anti leach precautions had been successful, but a few had attached themselves to the outside folds of my trousers and attempted rather ungraciously to then attach themselves to my hand when I flicked them off. I was too quick in the ways of the jungle now however and their efforts proved futile.
The Oxbow Lake was supposedly, I was assured on several occasions, free from crocodiles. It was however most definitely full of fish. The small kind that nibble away at dead skin on the feet and people pay for in those swanky fish spas these days. It was time to brave the crocs and dip in my feet.
Another fearful night ensued in the dorm room. Fresh animal droppings were scattered around the bunks, possibly from a bat in the rafters. Possibly something else. Before dinner a monitor lizard had savaged a rat in the bush by the eating house. A fine display of predation in the jungle.
The next morning after being cocooned again listening to the sounds of the jungle through the long night, we set out on our final boat trip down the Kinabatangan River. This was the last chance to spot the what I’d really come all this way, and braved all those spiders for. The Orang Utan in its wild habitat.
I’d seen this primate- with which humans share 97% of the same DNA with- before, but enclosed at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, near Sandakan. The Orang Utan is endangered, due to habitat loss and human poaching and entrapment. There is a market for these animals as pets, but for that the mothers have to be killed first. The centre looks after those that have been saved from poachers and attempts to reintroduce them to the wild.
Along the river, there had been a few nests high in the branches, constructed by Orang Utans in the area. They make a new one each night in a different location to avoid predators- i.e. to avoid humans- and consequently are hard to track down.
As we drifted down river, I was looking high in the tree tops for any sign of the Orang Utan, when a sudden shout shook me away and focused me on the lower river bank instead. There was a huge crocodile, with yellow streaks, almost 6 metres in length and beastly wide sunning itself on the water’s edge.
The boat driver joked- or I hope he was joking- that he’d seen this particular crocodile before, and each time it was letting him get closer and closer.
It was okay for him, he was at the back of the boat. I was right at the front. And we were edging closer and closer to those big jaws until the crocodile dived underwater. Then the boat was gunned hastily away from the ripples.
Around the next bend in the Kinabatangan River, away from the overtly menacing crocodile, our guide gave out a long woop of excitement. He was ecstatic, and we all soon realised why. He’d spotted not just one Orang Utan, but two, swinging from the trees and collecting sticks and branches for nests.
Orang Utans are generally very solitary creatures. It was rare to see one on their own, let alone two together. It was nearing mating season however, and the guide reckoned they were getting a head start on the process together.
The majestic ginger apes were swinging around, picking branches and munching on leaves. We stayed watching, mesmerised, until the boat was swung around again to leave the pair to their own devices.
I left the jungles later that day, dodging spiders on my way to the boat that took me across the river one last time. The Golden Orbs who had been hanging by the doors to the dorm hadn’t really moved the whole time I’d been there, but I was still glad to the see the back of them.
I’d been to the heart of darkness, to the wild jungles of Borneo, and I’d seen all that it had to scare me, to frighten me and at the same time to amaze me. The bus drove once more through the lines of palm plantations on the way out, but through poor villages and rural poverty as well, and I hope that projects like the corridor of life on the Kinabatangan River can help to both preserve this wonderful ecosystem for the future and provide a means to develop Borneo economically too.
Check out more photos from the jungles of Borneo HERE!
I stayed for 2 nights and 3 days at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, along the Kinabatangan River. The best price I could find was inclusive of transport from Sandakan, all meals- there was a huge buffet- and guided river cruises and jungle treks. Accommodation was in a basic dorm room. I paid 300 Malaysian Ringitt for everything and booked through my hostel- Harbourside Backpackers– in Sandakan. This was the best price going in January 2016!