Borneo: Bugs, Sweat, & Beauty

12:25 AM Jmo 0 Comments

     Borneo. Thinking of it now still reignites that unmistakable childlike pang to go out, get messy, discover, and dream. Very few places on the planet can capture the ecological imagination that is this incredible island; therefore, it quickly rose to the top of my 'dream bucket list'. 
     I say "dream" because  I honestly never thought I'd make it here in my lifetime.  It seemed too unattainable. Too rugged. Too other-worldly for lil' ol' me. A place meant for elusive indigenous tribes and scientists. As a young child I dreamed of one day being on a National Geographic exploration team to this island. But. Alas, this was just a dream. A dream better left to the more experienced. A dream better left to the men with mustaches, khaki compartment shorts, and knee high socks.
     That mindset quickly changed as soon as my friend sent me that ever fateful message: "Hey, wanna go to Borneo with me?"

Uhm. Let me think about th....YESSS!

     If you read a few posts back (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Why I Will Never Go Back) then you already know that we used Kuala Lumpur as a base to get to Borneo. I was at the end of my South East Asia tour and was ready to pick up the pace; sprint to the finish. The morning of our flight we woke up around 4am to get to the airport. The city was asleep aside from a few taxis. We planned our escape from KL with what we thought to be enough wiggle room between us and our flight taking off... We were slightly wrong. 
     We took a taxi to the airport railway station and everything seemed to be timed perfectly. (I usually like to arrive at least two hours before a flight, whether it is domestic or international, just in case.) We departed the train and entered the huge, bustling, terminal that is the Kuala Lumpur 2. Immediately we were having a difficult time locating our flight on any of the digital boards. We scanned and scanned and scanned, but nothing. We finally managed to locate our airline desk and we were immediately rushed to the front. The airline attendant urgently informed us that our flight was already boarding and that yes, she could take our baggage but there were no guarantees that we'd make the departure. What? HOW? We were 2 hours early, had checked the flight the night before, but somehow had missed the memo that our flight time had changed?!
     We dropped off our luggage and went for it. Remember that scene in Home Alone when the Mccallister family is running through the Chicago airport like a bunch of idiots? Yes. That was us. Except, thankfully, it wasn't crowded like O'Hare. The Kuala Lumpur airport was a maze of empty corridors, untimely escalators, and wrong turns. It was huge, we were sprinting like crazies, and my mind was still reeling up on how this could've happened. I was about to miss the flight to my dream destination.
     I was the first one to the gate. I ran in to the waiting room and threw down my backpack. I looked up, sweating and heaving, and found an entire room of people staring back at me. Women in burkas eyed me like I was some kind of strange, out of breath, creature. Children stopped playing with their toys and stared. I guess I had to be quite the site. The gate attendant slowly stood and apprehensively asked for my passport and what flight I was looking for. Turns out, the flight was not leaving yet. There was some kind of miscommunication. They hadn't even begun to board. Why the airline counter told us this we will never know. But we double checked our original flight print outs, current boarding passes, and digital monitor... None of the times matched up. Our times spanned a flight window of three hours. 

     So. Long story short, (TL;DR)... When flying from Kuala Lumpur to Sabah, Borneo, quadruple check your flight time and be sure to have your running shoes on.


     As an aspiring National Geographic explorer (hehe), my main mission in Borneo was to stay at a jungle camp. An on-budget jungle camp that is. There are a few jungle excursion companies in Borneo, but because of exclusivity and permits, they can be pretty expensive. But! While doing my pre-trip research I found Uncle Tan's. I highly recommend anyone who is thinking of doing a Bornean jungle excursion to go through Uncle Tan's. The staff is incredibly friendly, the food was great, the location is surreal, and the programs that they offer are given by experienced local guides. I want to go back right now just talking about it...

     To get to Uncle Tan's we had to take a taxi from the airport. There is no public transport around Sabah, which is usually worrisome when traveling in an unfamiliar place. I usually like to avoid taking taxis while traveling in South East Asia because the drivers tend to scam tourists. But! The Sabah airport had a great taxi system set up that I think should be put in place at every "destination" airport. Instead of telling your driver where you would like to go, you must tell the taxi counter. They calculate your fare, you pay the fare there, and are given a receipt to give to the driver. This system protects the drivers and tourists, and cuts down on miscommunication and language barriers. Such a great system!


     We arrived at the Uncle Tan's OPS Base not too far from town. We sat down with one of the guides and were treated to a lovely buffet lunch serving up beautiful local Malay dishes. At first it was just the two of us, my friend and I. The OPS Base was still waiting for another group (who had just finished the same program we were heading off to) to return from the jungle to have lunch with us. Once the small van of people arrived and sat down to eat, the place was silent. These people... looked rough. Couples sat in complete silence staring down at their plates. A groups of teenage girls zoned out and scratched the mosquito bites clustered on their thighs... These people looked like they'd seen things. My friend and I looked up at each other with the same 'what are we getting ourselves into face'. No turning back now~

     We boarded the van (the van that would take us out to the river boat which would take us to camp) and met the fellow traveler who'd be sharing our cabin with us. His name was Timo, he was from Germany and was a solo traveler who'd just spent time in Japan. And, he was obsessed with bugs. He carried around his huge, macro lens, SLR camera wherever he went and his photos turned out stunning. (Check them out: Here) He was always on the look out for "creatures". Such a cool guy. It's obvious why we got along...haha
     Our van cruised on through the heart of Sabah. The countryside outside of town was unlike any I'd seen before. Fields and fields of thick palm trees, all strategically planted for palm oil, covered every ounce of the view out our windows. It was a beautiful field of swooping and sweeping green. The road went on and on. And aside from the occasional home, mosque, or power line there was nothing.  I rested my chin on my hand and looked out. This is truly the most remote place I've ever been. 

     After about an hour and a half ride out of town we reached a small village set on stilts. We unloaded the van and walked to a large wooden platform setup overlooking the river below. It was a steep incline from the platform down to the boat we were to take out to the camp. It had been raining and the hill was covered in slick, red, mud. The locals had fashioned some wooden beams to help footing and a coarse rope to hold on to. With the help of Timo and a few of Uncle Tan's men, we were able to sling on our packs (now wrapped in garbage bags to combat the coming storm) and lower ourselves down to the boat. The locals hopped down, barefoot, with ease. But I was awkward and resorted to sliding down partially on my butt. 

     We took off along the river and the only sound was that of the motor whirring us along. The river was its own. The colors were deep and moody. The boat skidded along and fought the wind as a storm picked up in the distance. There was no sign of development. Only a beautiful jungle tree line, dark foreboding clouds, and a winding river to follow. The rain finally began to come down and we all did our best to cover up our gear. The rain pelted us. We were soaked through. All traces of my uncoordinated decent down to the river had been erased. Even my raincoat didn't stand a chance against this persistent precipitation (See what I did there? hehe).  But, with soggy shoes on our feet, it felt like that was how it was supposed to be. I was in the rainforest. I wouldn't trade a second of it.
Ferngully: The Last Rainforest? -Our view from the jungle camp.

     We arrived at the jungle camp and climbed up with our gear to the camp's plateau. We were greeted by another one of our guides and showed to our cabin. The camp itself is completely raised up from the jungle floor via stilts and wooden platforms. This is to keep you dry at night and, more importantly, to keep the critters off of you. More than half of Sabah, Borneo is complete wilderness. This gives way for creepies and crawlies to have the upper hand. The camp assured us that there hasn't been a crocodile sighted in the area for years and years. But monitor lizards are pretty common and, sure enough, one made its way through our camp a few days later.
     Our cabin was small and %100 no frills. Uncle Tan's makes you well aware of this before you book. You actually have to sign a waiver stating that you are aware you are not signing up for a "resort-lodge" type of deal. The cabin had three thin mattresses lined up on the floor, mosquito nets hanging above, and an open door to the walkway which connected the other cabins. The bathrooms were at the end of this long walkway and were serviced by rain water buckets. There were no showers, aside from rainwater, and no electricity aside from one light that came on with the generators at night. Fine by me! I was as happy as a bug in Borneo.

     The rest of the camp consisted of a communal dining hall, debriefing room, office and library, and a few other guest houses reserved for the small staff and other campers. All three meals of the day were cooked and served by the staff. These amazing feasts were made up of (obviously) incredibly fresh and local ingredients. Coconut curries, banana pancakes, Malay squash, sautéed greens... I can only hope to infuse these cooking practices into my own. So good. I'm craving it all right now.
*quickly does a Google search for Malaysian restaurants in the area*
(Many traveler friends of mine who have been to Malaysia always leave raving about the food. Though the mainland isn't my cup of tea, the buffets that can be found on it are.)

Bornean Gibbon 

     Our time at the jungle camp had its fair share of down time, but it also offered numerous "programs" and excursions to keep us engaged with our location. Every morning we took the longboat out on the river to try and spot the morning activities of various animals. Borneo is home to an astounding amount of endangered and endemic (can only be found here) species. If you're lucky, you will see the Bornean Gibbon, Proboscis Monkey, Pygmy Elephant, and the famed Orang Utan; all exclusive species to the island. On both of our morning excursions we were privileged to tracking down a Gibbon by following its howl (their howl can be heard for miles).  Further along the river we watched different species of monkeys play, tend to their families, collect food, and try and impress possible mates. We also watched as a large monitor lizard cruise the beach and disappear into the reeds. My NatGeo heart was beating strong.

Female Proboscis Monkey.

     After lunch we were invited to take a jungle trek with a guide named Em. He was a local and had grown up in a small village not too far upstream. He learned English from tourists and prided himself on the knowledge of his people. Walking with him through the jungle was one of my top personal travel highlights. He was attentive and sweet and taught us the survival tricks and legends of his people's jungle. He showed us how to cut water out of vines, which leaves to use to cure a headache, and how to tell the difference between a poisonous centipede versus the friendly millipede. Em also took us to the largest tree in that part of the forest. Local tribes believe that this tree is haunted and if you stay by it at night, you can hear the spirits of the tree weeping. Em laughed and reassured us that it was only the wind combined with the paranoia of being in the jungle at night that the tribal people were hearing. But, standing amongst the expansive, history-spanning, roots of this old and wise tree you couldn't help feel that the legends were indeed true.

Friendly Mr. Millipede crawling on my hand.

     The most incredible (I know, I use that word a lot. But that's the way life is.) creature that Em showed us, and perhaps that I've ever seen, was the Bornean Cotton Bug. These little guys look like spindly, tuffs of fiber, left over from a arts and crafts accident. But, unlike your Great Aunt's needlework basket, these little guys are alive! And jump! Em assured us that they were completely harmless and we were encouraged to play with them. One little touch and these shy guys would jump off their home base twig to find another and scurry away. I was in awe and marveled at the beauty, simplicity, and quirkiness that nature had created. Hands down my new favorite bug!

The incredible Cotton Bug!

     I mean, just look at those things! They are absolutely
astounding little dudes! 

     The scale and variety of the wildlife in Borneo is beyond any cataloguing comprehension. At night we went out on another jungle walk. This was the darkest dark I had ever experienced. Without a lamp or torch of any kind, you were completely enveloped by it. Our torches guided the way down to the boat and we took off into the deafening night. The jungle was alive. Hidden, but definitely alive. Frogs and insects came together in a loud, riotous, chorus of beeps and barks. They left no visual indication to confirm their existence. They were completely hidden. But there was no need. They were there and it was loud.
     Our guide stopped the boat into a muddy incline of the river bank and we climbed out. It was only Timo, myself, our guide, the dark, and whatever else was lingering in it. We followed our guide who had complete control over the path in this night. He had a species in mind to show us and he knew exactly where each animal would be in this area of the jungle.

     Our first sightings were of sleeping couple birds. Two different species, both vibrant in color, sleeping together on their respective branches. Then it was on to the more creepy and the more crawly. I followed close behind Timo and our guide and suddenly it felt like my feet and ankles were on fire! Quick little pinches and needles pricks shot through my lower half and sent shock waves through my system. I started smacking my legs and our guide came over. My legs began to burn. My guide pointed his light down onto the jungle floor and calmly told me to move. The entire foundation below our feet looked as if it were breathing. The ground was covered in fire ants.
     Not only were we being attacked from below but from above as well. Our torches attracted all  of the bugs. I was wearing high socks, hiking shoes, long pants, a long sleeve, and a raincoat with all of the sleeves and collars pulled tight and Velcro-ed together so I wouldn't take any friends home with me. Though my fortress was sealed tight, it was also a sauna. The jungle heat and humidity were beginning to create its own atmosphere inside my jacket. Beads of sweat rolled down my arms and back and it was hard to differentiate between what was sweat and what might've been another vicious fire breathing ant. Bugs, sweat, and beauty.
     We continued on, following the single pool of light offered by our guide. He stopped, turned around, and ask: "You guys aren't afraid of spiders, huh?"
     Definitely not. He said that he knew where one of his "friends" were and that he was there sleeping every night. We walked a bit further, stopped, and the pool of light slowly traced up the base of a large tree trunk. It stopped and shown directly up into his "friends" tree-top apartment. It was an Indian Blue Tarantula. It was big. It was grey-blue. It was hairy. And it was amazing to see.
     Further on into the jungle, our guide showed us sleeping tree frogs with translucent skin, camouflaged stick bugs, and abandoned orang utan nests (Yes, orang utans make nests up in trees!). I arrived back to camp bitten, drenched in sweat, and longing for a non-existent shower. But I felt alive. That pitch black trek through the living, breathing jungle filled me with more zeal for adventure than I'd ever had before. It was the trump card played on an already high hand.

     Borneo is other-worldly. Much like the ocean, it is an alien colony on this already cryptic planet of ours. The biodiversity and the endemic species have kept generations of naturalists engaged with the "what-ifs", and will continue to do so in the future. It's estimated that roughly 20,000 new species are discovered each year. That breaks down to almost 54 new species a day. Our knowledge of the world is in a constant state of growth. Like the universe itself, there is no end in sight. Borneo is sheer proof of that.
     Leaving the camp was incredibly bittersweet. I yearned for more excursions, but I also yearned for a shower. My friend and I departed ways and I head back to the OPS Base to collect myself before the long journey back to The States.

     One more thing you should do before you leave the island of Borneo is visit an orang utan sanctuary. (I visited Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, Sabah) These animals, being one of the distinct prides of the island, are given amazing care and rehabilitation by the staff. The animals are free to come and go to the sanctuary and are given care based on the age, personality, and dependance of the animal. Some never leave the sanctuary, but most are rehabilitated on the goal of being returned to the wild.
     The sanctuary was vast and gave enough space for you to explore as well as enough space for the orang utans to hide if they weren't feeling too social. But once it was feeding time, they all seemed to come out of the woodwork! I was walking down a path when all of a sudden a large, male, orang utan shimmied down a tree trunk in front of me, hopped up onto the handrail of the bridge I was walking on, and strolled on past to get to his meal. No cages, no bars, no separation.  Photo opportunities galore~

Feeding time at the ...sanctuary!

     I don't know what else to say. I loved Borneo. I wish I had more time there. I need to go back. Those will be my final words: I need to go back.

Borneo Travel Tips & Reminders:

  • Stay Safe: Before you book you trip, be sure to read up on the current political climate in Borneo. Many of the popular diving island for tourists have been targeted by Philippine pirates lately and there have been a few fatalities. Do your research! Don't be an idiot abroad.
  • Malaria Medication: I personally didn't take it. I read up on its side effects (hallucinations, nausea, etc.) and emailed Uncle Tan's to ask if they recommended its use for the area. They said no, they do not recommend taking malaria pills as there haven't been cases of it for quite some time. My friend and I ended up being completely fine and had no symptoms or sickness after our trip. But!, before you make your choice, be sure to research the area of Borneo in which you will be traveling and consult your healthcare professional before making a choice. I'm not a doctor.
  • Be Prepared For Bites: On the Malaria note... Be prepared for mosquito bites (and fire ant bites!!!). You will get bit. I brought along a non-aerosol bug spay while others brought along creams. A small one will last you a few days, so depending on your trip, pack accordingly.
  • Pack Light & Wear Crappy Clothes: You know that old senior shirt that you keep throwing back into your drawer in the thought that maybe you'll wear it again? Yeah, were it here. You're going to be sweaty. You're going to be muddy. You're going to be climbing and crawling. You don't need to be fashionable. Please.
  • Ecotourism: If you don't plan on going with Uncle Tan's, please do your research to assure that your travel company does their part to protect and nurture the Bornean environment. This ecosystem, and species housed within, is not found anywhere else in the world. Be a conscious traveler. Support conservation and ecotourism.

"Did I leave the garage door open?" -him probably

*All photos taken by Jessica Montgomery, The Ticket The Ride. 
Please don't steal. Ask nicely!

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