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Author: Maria Zehentner
Beitrag vom: 10.04.2018

Borneo - a journey into an adventure!

Borneo, Sabah, March 2018

Where the hell is Borneo? Frequently, when we researched the island, we ended up mentally in an Indiana Jones movie, that was full of adventures. We talk about undiscovered rainforests, rare bird and animal species, including the orangutan, exotic plants, turquoise sea and one of the best dive sites in the world! Legendary stories about pirates, bounty hunters, and uncanny aborigines provide goose bumps. Even cannibals should still be up to mischief there. Are we accompanied by ritual dances, cooked in a steaming saucepan and then eaten alive? Maybe ;-)
Borneo is the third largest island in the world and slumbers in the Malay Archipelago of Southeast Asia. Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia divide the rugged island among themselves.
To be on the safe side, we flew a few days before Akela's expected arrival to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malay part, called KK for short.
Around midnight we stumbled dog tired out of the airport building and took a taxi to the booked accommodation. Unfortunately it turned out, that our reservation was shabby and currently no room available. While the boys were waiting at the reception, I rattled off the surrounding hotels until I found a free accomodation. Finally sleep! That the room was small, grumpy and stinky disturbed at this time nobody.

Completely done by the exhausting night, we blinked out of the hotel the next morning, where the next slap awaited us. Merciless heat. In general, we tolerated tropical temperatures very well, but Borneo toped everything. In an air-conditioned coffee we gathered first and planned the next days, because in two days Akela should arrive in the port of KK.

We experienced many bad luck during our trip. But the luck to meet helpful people remained faithfully on our side, it did not stop in KK, where we met Emi. A "typical Italian"! Big, stately figure and owner of a pizzeria. He helped where ever he could and urged us to make our way through his menu.
Finally, the long awaited moment was here. Akela had arrived in the port of KK. Home sweet home! After a month of backpacking through Thailand with Lennox, which was the ultimate holiday for many people we had learned, that we could not take it anymore and looked forward to our home, to finally be on the road again.
With numerous tips from Emi in the bag, we started a loop through Sabah, the eastern part of Malaysia on Borneo.
The roads were narrow, but in reasonably good condition. We quickly realized, that Akela was probably one of the largest vehicles on this island. With a width of 2.5m, he filled more than half of the street, that`s why we often hit the banquet. Native Trucks were sometimes not even half as big as our truck, and almost everywhere we wanted to go it was very tight. The left-hand traffic was for Leander, after South Korea and Japan, nothing he feared about.
Our tour took us first to the most northern point of the island, the tip of Borneo, where the South China Sea and the Zulu Sea meet.

In recent years, tourist kidnapping of pirates from the nearby Philippines and the shores of Sabah made repeatedly headlines in the newspapers, which is why beaches were partially under police protection. It was the first time since we left, where we had a little queasy feeling in our stomach. Despite the fact, that we were very attentive during days, and especially the nights, we did not spoil the mood and spent some relaxing days bathing and eating coconuts, after which all three of us were crazy. The only attack we, or especially Lennox had to suffer, were sand fleas, which ate him alive, when he played on the beach at sunset.

Hang out on the beach and doing nothing was fine, but in long time it`s getting a bit boring. We packed up, got motivated behind the wheel and drove east into the Sandakan region. An unprecedented flora passed Akela's windows. Various green nuances were set up in seconds. Flowers, shrubs, plants and trees everywhere, in size dimensions, that were previously unknown to us. "Lost in the jungle" was Borneo's easiest practice. A few steps into the thicket were enough to lose your orientation. It was overwhelming and so new to us!

But on closer inspection our euphoria quickly got a damper. Because the lush green of the landscape was not only due to the proliferating wilderness. Countless alike-looking palms stood in a row and disturbed the picture. Driveways closed by barriers and marked with large billboards, mostly in Chinese, quickly helped our ignorance. These were palm oil plantations, that were omnipresent. Now we understood, why there were dozens of tank trucks on the road. They transported palm oil.
But Borneo is not only famous for its "supposedly" pristine and wild landscape, but also for the orangutan, Borneo`s mascot, which is located there. Unfortunately, one finds the forest people, as they are colloquially called, almost only in protected national parks such as the Sepilok Lodge.

The big red-headed monkey, whose genetic information is 97% like ours, tops the list of endangered species. Why? We humans are the reason. For decades, we have been clearing the precious primary forest, hitting tropical trees, to decorate decadently our homes and leveling the remaining precious green with bulldozers to the ground, to grow palm oil plantations on it. From the fruits of the palm trees, palm oil is obtained, which meanwhile can be found in every second supermarket product. Bit by bit the natural habitat of these unique animals is destroyed. The ruthless grubbing is not to be overseen in Malaysia.
Thousands of orangutans, and of course many other animals, fell victim to people's greed. They were ruthlessly killed, sold or enslaved. Few of them are fortunate, if one can call it that, spending their twilight years in sheltered facilities. In the wild, you can hardly find the king of the treetops.
On the one hand it was of course very impressive to observe the animals so close in the Sepilok Lodge, especially for Lennox, but on the other hand, we were accompanied by an oppressive feeling, which narrowed our throat closer and closer, the more we learned about it.
We did a lot of research on the Internet about jungle slash, palm oil, consequences and solutions, and penetrated deeper and deeper into the shocking matter. There seemed to be no beginning and no end. The global impacts of the world wide jungle clearings are staggering and shocking. We spent days in front of the computer and of course, tried to confront Lennox with the situation too.

We are talking about a problem, whose scope has spread to the entire planet. It affects every single one of us and must not be swept under the table, just because it can`t be seen right infront of your door. It is important to us, to point out problems in our travel reports. Although we know, of course, that we can not change the world with our blog, we naturally hope to animate our readers to stand up for their own initiative. The goal is to form an opinion, learn to recognize and understand global contexts, and become more responsible and aware of what we are doing.
However, the subject of rainforest and palm oil would be beyond the scope of this article, and because it is a real concern for us, to communicate this issue, we are writing a separate article specifically on this topic.

There was so much to explore around every corner of Borneo, and so we discovered the Kinabatangan River, the longest river on the island. With a length of over 560km, it meanders across Sabah. While the upper reaches of the river fell victim to a large-scale tree strike, the lower reaches were largely preserved and protected. On the river banks opened up a variety of habitats, including flooded riparian forests, lowland forests and mangroves. With a bit of luck, you may spot proboscis monkeys, orangutans, gibbons, pygmy elephants, macaques, crocodiles, hornbills, and a variety of other birds.
As usual, it was difficult to find a suitable pitch with Akela, because he was just too monstrous. Countless times we drove up and down the river bends until we stopped in front of a small resort. Without batting an eye, the staff allowed us to park in front of it. On top of that, we were allowed to use the showers and just relax in their open air lounge, for free.

The people of Borneo received us everywhere extremely open and friendly. They were helpful and curious, but never intrusive. We got on well with English, and although much of the Bornesen people are Muslim, I never felt underdressed in shorts. We camped for a few days in the town of Sukau and made several exploration trips at different times of the day, even at night, which was pretty spooky. The river was studded with crocodiles. For them it would have been easy to overturn the tiny boat and eat us for dinner. But our expeditions were under a good star. We were not eaten and were allowed to enjoy the full range of animals except pygmy elephants. Even could even discover wild orangutans. We also made our first experience with a highly poisonous centipede on the island.

It was raining and we all sat under the covered porch and read a book. We chilled thoughtfully on the couch, until I saw something big crawling on the floor. A closer look gave me a shiver. I knew this animal! So far, I had only seen it locked behind glass in the insect department of various zoos, always marked with a sign `highly toxic`. Do not scream now, it does not help anyone! Leander was the only one with his legs on the ground. With a certain tone I urged, him to lift his feet immediately, which he did without hesitation. He looked questioningly at me and followed my request to look at the floor. What the fuck! He just saw the animal turning around the corner. As soon as he showed up, he disappeared again. Our pulse stayed on high frequency for a while.

As a farewell, the girls from the resort organized a spontaneous photo shoot with us. After all, it was not every day, that a European family parked outside the door with their mobile home. It was hard for them to say good buy, especially from Lennox, but who does not? Again and again they hugged and squeezed the little one. With his blond hair and his open-minded nature he was a real eye-catcher in Southeast Asia. He liked that less. Now and then he asked us, to dye his hair black. He was sick and tired of being touched so many times. He wanted to look like all the other kids and not being special.

After relaxing and eventful days, we continued driving on the east coast of Borneo, and made our way to the city of Semporna. It was the gateway of the Sakaran Marine Park, a group of 8 islands, that hosted some of the most beautiful diving spots in the world.
Leander's interest has long been in indigenous people, and it was also the idea to visit some of them during our trip. Fascinated by their different ways of life and especially their access and interaction with nature was a point, we wanted to bring Lennox closer.
That's why we went to the very last corner of Borneo to visit the Bajau Laut, the last sea gipsies, that are located far out in the Malay archipelago. The Bajau Laut are an indigenous group of people who prefer for several reasons, to inhabited the ocean on houseboats for more than 500 years. Leander had done a lot of research, but what we expected was beyond our expectations.

Semporna seemed to be a gate to hell. What can I say, a dirty sinkhole. When I subsequently incorporated a description from a travel guide when writing our blog for the purpose of research, I still feel like puking. "Fancy” Bamboo Bungalows on crystal clear water invite you to swim, snorkel and enjoy the clean, exotic and natural beaches. Enjoy your sunset dinner in one of the many seafood restaurants along the promenade. "Where the hell was this dream senery hidden? We've always been skeptical of descriptions from travel guides, but this one surpassed anything we've read so far. The reality showed abandoned and scuffed bungalows right on the harbor, fringed in tons of garbage. Numerous, cheap stomped out from the ground tour operators were keeling for Chinese tourists, which were gathered into big groups, and shipped out in boats to the reef for snorkeling excursions.

We had a different plan, thanks to Emi. Thanks to his contacts, we were able to hire a small boat and a guy, who was able to translate, which should bring us to the Bajau Laut. If the sea nomads agreed, we wanted to spend a day or two together with them. Equipped with rice, clothes and drinking water, we set off early the next morning and headed out to the open sea.
We were half an hour on the boat, when a village built on stilts appeared in front of our eyes. The closer we got, the clearer became the spectacle.
Several excursion boats full of tourists anchored in front of the simple wooden huts, and treated the people living there like exhibits. As a "reward" for posing, children were given money and sweets. After the photos were taken, the engine was started and the boat trip continued. Terrible, what was happening in front of our eyes. We wanted to avoid such situation as far as possible. We are no stupid tourists, who entered a country ruthlessly and behaved ourselves like pigs. We were travelers, always intent on showing respect to a country and its inhabitants. We wanted to learn more about the culture, customs and traditions.

To be on the safe side, we explained our guide again, what were our motives to come here, just to make sure not to be misunderstood. He gave us the feeling, that he understood what we were looking about and kept on driving, until we reached another settlement after an hour. The boatman docked at Little Lepa, as the boats of Bajau Laut are called. On board were a woman and several children. Kenny, our guide, exchanged a few words with her and made us understand, that it would be ok for them, if we anchored here.

A Lepa is not a ship as we imagine it. There were no cabins where to sleep, no kitchen, no toilet, nothing. In fact, it was a ship's hull with a small gas cooker. The few belongings of the family were scattered across the boat. Already in advance, we had thought about what questions we want to ask, or what we wanted to know about the Bajau Laut. Kenny translated. Unfortunately, it was a very one-way communication, because the woman showed no interest in having conversation with us, despite we asked her, if she wanted to. After some time had passed we gave her the rice, the clothes and the drinking water. She took the things and stowed everything in the boat. There was no thank you, no smile, not even any eye contact. Nothing. We've been around a lot the last few years and a smile has never been overcharged, whether rich or poor. We felt an unwell and somehow unpleasant feeling! A feeling, we did not know so far, and a feeling, which we could not handle.
It was not to be overseen, that the woman held an apathetic toddler in her arms. Through Kenny`s translation we found out, that the child had been in this delirium for days. It was rash all over and had a high fever. It was impossible for the family to consult a doctor. First, there was no money and secondly, the sea nomads were threatened with prison, when they entered the mainland. They are stateless and nowhere like to be seen. They do not have a passport, birth certificate or any identity card. What to do? We could not watch the child die slowly in her arms. We ordered Kenny to ask her, if she would like us to return with medicine the next day! She agreed.

When we arrived back in the port of Semporna, I tried to get a proper diagnosis on the phone from our tropical doctor, who himself had traveled a lot. He advised me to an antibiotic, which we carried in our medicine chest, but gave me to understand in the same breath, that tribes treat differently with the death of family members. Although it was mourned, there was also a mouth less to feed in long term. For us Europeans an unimaginable thought, but I had to accept and respect this attitude. It was the natural selection as described by Darwin.
Nevertheless, we decided to drive to the Lepa the next day, with the medicine on board. Once there, I climbed into the boat to the woman and showed her, how to give the medicine to the child. Whether she did it in the episode or not, it was up to her. I did not have the right to push or even force her. We just wanted to help!

Although we think we were doing good, we felt bad. We stayed for some time next to the boat, but finally broke up and turned back because no feedback came back. Discouraged and with drooping heads we returned to Akela. A whirlwind of emotions raged in us. We were sad, angry, helpless, discouraged, confused, all at the same time. What did we expect from a visit to the sea nomads? Honestly, we still can not answer this question satisfactorily. Did we really believe in our naivety, that we find people in the Bajau Laut who are still living originally and in harmony with nature? Googling the term "Bajau Laut", one finds numerous reports.
Even National Geopgraphic reportages and photos can be found. Could these people still be isolated from the Western world through the active internet presence? No! They have become a fair game for so called “adventurers”. This experience hurts in our hearts, and to be honest, we are ashamed of it. However, our motivation to go there was something else, we had an honest reason! But we could not convey the feeling or pass it on. Instead, we experienced the shameless exploitation of a culture, which should be protected because otherwise it will soon be gone.
But again there will be a separate article written by Leander.

Back to our trip. On our way back we visited the Gomatong Caves, which impresses with a gigantic population of bats. A terrible smell came to meet us at the entrance, which was caused by the excrements of the little animals. Lennox in particular wrinkled his nose and bleated incessantly. But with holding your breath it worked, and the cave was worth a visit.
Twice a year, thousands of swallows nest in the cave, when the young birds became fledglings, locals are gonna harvest the nests. For whom? For the Chinese, of course, for whom else. Potency-enhancing remedies still play a major role in the Middle Kingdom. Swallow nests are very popular because of their high protein content. For 1kg Swallow's Nest, they pay up to € 15,000 and more. Yeah, the Chinese seem to need it.
We finished our loop through Sabah, already on the way back to KK, in the Kinabalu Park, which is located in the mountains with altitudes of almost 1,000 meters, which lowered the temperatures to pleasant depths. We hiked to several waterfalls and ventured into the dizzying heights of a canopy walk, that led us on ancient rope bridges through mighty tree tops, over whose tops you could catch a breathtaking view over the national park.

The ascent of Mt Kinabalu, which is with 4,095m the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, was a bit too expensive for us. They wanted to charge us a fee of $ 300 per person (a guide is required!). Fortunately, the weather forecast was bad for the coming days, and so we had two good excuses to skip the challenging hike. Money and bad weather, not to mention our bad body shape.

Emi we are back! Our last trip in Sabah took us back to KK, to Little Italy, where we fortified ourselves with pizza, tiramisu and limejuice after the hardships of the last few days. The Italian guy was phenomenal. During our absence, he organized a lecture for us in the International School of his children. We had not even thought about the idea, that schools might be interested in our trip. But it worked. For an hour slide show with stories and pictures about us, they paid good money, which we gratefully accepted and urgently needed. We spent a few more days in KK before saying goodbye to Emi, which was really hard for us.




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  1. Robert
    Großartig! Eure Empfindungen decken sich zu 100% mit unseren. Wir weilen gerade im Drecksloch Semporna, was für ein Unterschied zum restlichen Borneo und Malaysia. Ich hoffe unser Tauchtrip auf Mabul wird besser. Davor waren wir auch am Kinabatangan River und hatten viel Glück. Aber die Palmölplantagen sind furchtbar. Die stundenlangen Busfahrten entlang dieser teils gerodeten Einöden machen uns auch sehr betroffen. Und wir werden definitiv so gut als möglich auf Produkte damit verzichten. Das haben wir uns auch davor schon in Sepilok gesagt. So herzig wie sie auch anzuschauen sind, die jungen Waldmenschen, so traurig sind die Gründe, dass wir sie überhaupt zu Gesicht bekommen. KK ist eine total sympathische Stadt, am Little Italy sind wir jeden Tag vorbeispaziert und haben uns noch gefragt, ob der Laden wohl von einem Italiener geführt wird :-)
    Die Freundlichkeit der Bornesen können wir auch nur bestätigen. Jeder grüßt und winkt und alle sind höflich. Aber nicht aufdringlich oder Löcher in uns starrend wie u.a. in Vietnam.
    Tasmanien steht auch auf unserem Plan, in einem Monat sind wir dort. Ich folge euch seit dem Start eurer Reise, seit dem SN-Artikel damals. Weiter so!
  2. Sara
    You guys look like your having amazing adventures,
    Do you take your van overseas? How do you do that?
    Please go to New Zealand you will love it!