Most everyone has heard of Borneo but few could spin a globe and quickly put a finger on it even though Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world! It sits 1,100 nautical miles north of the western tip of Australia and 300nm east of mainland Malaysia. Northeastern Borneo extends into the Sulu Sea with the Philippine islands not far away.
Indonesia claims the largest chunk of real estate dominating the southeastern 2/3rds of Borneo. Malaysia’s part of Borneo, often referred to as East Malaysia, or Malaysian Borneo, takes up the northwest coast and northerly 1/4 of the island except for the speck of a country called Brunei which covers some acreage on the northwest shore.
In my grandmother’s day, Borneo was known for being the home of “The Wild Man of Borneo” which sounded as untamed as the pigmy head hunters of New Guinea. Having done little research, we had only my grandmother’s concept of Borneo but soon we would be there!
Large sails and diesel fuel plodded Brick House northward from Indonesia along the western coast of Borneo. Eventually Rebecca, my wife and shipmate, and I threaded our sailboat inland following an ever-narrowing bay where we dropped anchor in a well protected, tannin colored estuary named Santubong. We were surrounded on two sides by thick tangled mangrove. This was the beginning of a brackish river that cut northeasterly into the mangroves for scores of miles. At low tide, our only neighbor was a long gray crocodile stretched out on a soft mud shore. On a higher tide, the local crocodiles straddled the knotted mangrove roots keeping their bellies elevated above the water. It seemed the nearly white Irrawaddy dolphin, which rolled in the estuary, had a truce with those snaggletooth eating machines.
Often obscured in the clouds a few miles to the west, was the highest bit of land to be seen, a volcano shaped mountain with a finale of vertical peak called Mount Santubong. It seemed much too steep near its peak to climb but we would one day take in the view from there.
To our surprise, in this seemingly remote area there was a modern floating dock where only one small fishing boat was tied. Securing our dinghy and wandering up the shore, we were caught off-guard to what we heard from the caretaker spoken in accented English. We were free to use the dock for our dinghy, the city water at the dock was safe to drink, we could walk across the property to get to the main rural road and nearby residential area and there would be no charge! The property and adjoining fish hatchery are owned by a wealthy Malaysian who visits only occasionally, yet he has instructed his employees to make visiting cruisers welcome.
Santubong is a quiet tourist community surrounded by nature attractions but first we had to catch the morning minibus for the $2., 35 minute trip into the city of Kuching (“Cat”, in English) to find the immigration and customs offices.
Kuching seemed a mirage, a sprawling modern city equal to anything in America. The 6 lane highways were crowded with new cars. The lack of motorcycles was testament to the country’s wealth, much of which is derived from the offshore oil wells. The city streets and sidewalks were clean of rubbish, and throughout Kuching, the municipal grounds were manicured like an estate. We were quickly becoming impressed with Malaysia.
Sensitized by customs and immigration corruption in Indonesia and the Philippines, we were uneasy with the smoothness by which the Malaysian officials processed our papers. It seemed these officers were setting us up for a backlash. But they in fact did their job properly. They did not eye us suspiciously nor dig through our documents searching for some imagined irregularity, and they even seemed happy to see us! No one needed to come to our boat and rip into every cabinet and inspect labels on cans and count ounces of liquor. Malaysia is an oasis of normalcy, civility, educated people, and no official was on the grubby side of greed.
Brick House spent over 6 weeks swinging with each tide change in the estuary. Rather than sailing 15 miles up a different river to a $5 per day marina in the city of Kuching, we preferred the country living of Santubong. Everything we needed to be a perpetual tourist was here. The well-known Sarawak Cultural Village was close by. Tourists traveled a long way to see the native longhouses; thatch buildings elevated eight feet off the ground. The short, dark skinned native men, with bowl shaped haircuts, and women demonstrated poison dart blowing and daily jungle living skills. Reenacting their jungle life for tourists is far easier than struggling for real as a speck in the web of life in the rainforest. But not all at the village is jungle tradition. One weekend a year, the open grassy grounds of the Cultural Village becomes an outdoor concert arena for the annual three-day “Rainforest World Music Festival”, featuring off-name musicians from around the world playing music from jungle to jazz.
There are sandy beaches on the ocean side of Santubong and several comfortable hotels which fit into the rainforest environment. Throughout the nearby forest, hiking trails wind through the mountainous terrain, across streams, past waterfalls to overlooks, then past hardwood trees of such an enormous width and straight up height that loggers would love to chainsaw this place.
Self-responsibility is part of the culture in Malaysia. To climb the steep grade to the top of Mount Santubong, a hiker cannot shift responsibility for his well-being beyond himself. With two other newly arrived cruising friends, we slipped from the road onto the damp leaf carpeted trail threading through the rainforest. Macaque and sometimes Silver Leaf monkeys rattled through the leaves in the upper tree branches, cautioning each other of our approach. Poisonous snakes and other animals normally hide away in daylight hours but biting ants and flying skin piercers are in the shade near the streams and are often the motivation to keep a hiker’s feet marching. Short steps are needed to chug up the slippery, steeper inclines of loose soil and marble sized gravel. In these areas, the park service has tied thick ropes from tree to tree so the hikers can help pull their way up and keep from slipping down out of control. Up close, the most vertical rock faces near the summit were as challenging as imagined when viewing from the estuary. Rope ladders with round wood rungs are secured in place for those fit enough to climb their way straight up without having to be a rock climber. After two hours of heavy muscling of legs and arms with rope burned fingers, the final elevation was conquered to stand on a spacious flat-topped pinnacle. In the tropics, it is a rare day to have a horizon clear of humidity but the reduced visibility at the top of Mount Santubong still gave a commanding view of our neighborhood and our speck of a yacht far below.
One day, along with our 2 cruising friends, we jumped at the chance for a nautical jungle adventure to race a bamboo raft 16 miles down the Padawan river, through the forested mountains deep inland from Kuching. Paying our entry fee gave us our pick of a freshly made brown and green bamboo raft, which we dragged into the river and tested for buoyancy. With the morning sun rising higher, we jumped on board and balanced like a wide surfboard as it supported us just above water level. Who knew if the raft would slowly submerge with each mile or if the vine lashing would stay taught and keep all the tubular stalks in a flat bundle or scatter from under us like discarded straws.
Our “Tourism” class was called and the race was on. We paddled hard with our own dinghy paddles and poled Huck Finn style with long skinny bamboo poles. The poles against the river bottom is what kept our river yacht bow-first through the sets of rapids. Other rafters who were caught in the white swirls spun sideways and flipped right over. But the water was warm and the river shallow so there was little danger. We passed a few rafts and shouted words of motivation to our competition but far more of the late starters, who were in the more experienced classes, passed us by and we received their words of amusing encouragement. Malaysians know how to have fun on a Saturday. After 4 hours on the river, with clothes thoroughly soaked, “Team U.S.A” spread a wake across the finish line, in the middle of the pack. The jungle vine lashings on our race machine held together but our platform was sloshing more under the water than above as we slid onto a sandy bank. There it would be stacked and the following weekend be the fuel for a tremendous fire and another celebration sponsored by the nearby town. The awards ceremony filled the modest town hall at the finish line; speeches, smiles and much applause. All of us went away having one of the most fun days a tourist or local could have in Borneo.
Of course, you cannot leave the Kuching area without visiting the orangutan sanctuaries. Orangutan; it is not pronounced with a “g” on the end. One zoo-like facility, called Matang Wildlife Centre, raises or rehabilitates orangutans (orang-person, utan-forest) preparing them for release. The other facility is a rainforest reserve called Sememggoh Nature Reserve. At the reserve, the orangutans are free to roam the miles of surrounding forest and are offered food twice a day. Well before the feeding and the appearance of the orangutans, a park ranger gives an orientation to the fifty or so camera toting tourists about the wildness and unpredictability of the animals. This place is not a zoo. These apes, (apes have no tails), are far stronger than any human so they need to be treated with great respect. There have been occasions when large males have come out of the forest in a feisty mood, and have wreaked havoc attacking and maiming tourists. If the orangs have not found plenty to eat on their own, the apes swing in from afar, climb through tree branches or along ropes webbed from the trees leading to the elevated feeding platforms. There, they take their time nibbling and posing for pictures. When they have had enough they slowly, individually, disappear back into the foliage till none are left for the tourists to snap pictures of. In the jungle the orangutans forage once again and build their nest for the night high in a tree, far from people.
Eventually the day came for us to pick up anchor and move northward along the west coast of Borneo. We drifted with the out-flowing current of the river when a major problem occurred. With the gear shift slipped into forward, our increase of speed was minimally improved. We limped along and only when we were well offshore in clearer water, well away from the crocodiles, did I go over the side and chisel the mass of barnacles from the propeller and drive shaft!
Billions of years ago large areas between Borneo and the mainland to the west were well above sea level. This not only made for valuable oil reserves but created a shallow mud bottom which extends well away from shore. To visit the national parks along our route, we often anchored fully exposed 2 miles offshore in 12 feet of water, then played the tides to land the dinghy high up on the shoreline.
In the Malaysian rainforest, there are many kinds of animals like deer, bear cats (a kind of civet), porcupine, clouded leopard and all sorts of snakes and colorful birds, like hornbills and parrots. The problem with hiking park trails, like at Bako National Park, is at the end of the day, you usually see only a lot of trees and some very nice waterfalls to cool off in. We found it best to be near the ranger station around 4:00 in the afternoon. That is when the wild pigs, monkeys, birds, and other animals wander out of the jungle and into the open looking for food dropped by the tourists. Groups of world-roaming tourists also know to gather at that time with their fully loaded cameras ready to snap away.
We were determined to search Borneo to see the rare Rafflesia. This is the largest and one of the rarest flowers in the world. For the Rafflesia to bloom, the conditions must be exactly right as it is a parasite that blooms on only the tetrastigma vine. The largest Rafflesia can be over 3′ across and weigh 22 pounds. The reddish flower can stink like a dead animal and has the spongy texture like a thick mushroom. We had to visit several national parks where these flowers occasionally bloom before we found one at Gunung Gading National Park. Normally, a tourist has to be escorted by a park ranger down a narrow trail completely canopied by trees to the site of the Rafflesia. It was around lunch time when we approached the ranger who was fully relaxed at his little wooden office near the trail. The ranger saw my head of white hair and our naturalistic demeanor then pointed Rebecca and me in the direction where we would guide ourselves and photograph the extraordinary flower at our leisure. This park also had other hiking trails with so many waterfalls which spread the numbers of tourists so thin that we usually had a swimming hole to ourselves.
Since there are few protected anchorages along the western coast, we slipped into a sparsely populated marina in the beautiful modern city of Miri. Miri was once a small fishing town with long featureless 3 story concrete buildings housing specialty shops on the street level. Now the city is shadowed by tall modern architecture. It is a clean, orderly city with a long esplanade at the ocean front. Miri is of a size that only a bicycle is needed to get most everywhere and is the perfect city without the big city hassles. Miri, like most Malaysian cities, has its distinct ethnic areas which include Indian and Chinese. This makes for a surplus of national holidays which no one passes up celebrating. To balance the air of western civilization, there are still the traditional open air markets selling everything including cooked mouse deer and thick, white, python snake meat fresh from the jungle. Other cruisers had tied to the marina for many months to work on their boats or simply live the easy life in a very affordable country. As tourists, we spent half a day at the local crocodile farm/zoo which raises the giant animals for leather and food. Miri is the historic home of the first oil well in Malaysia and thus has an oil museum at that site.
Further inland, we spent days being guided through the Mulu Cave system, a tourist hotspot. It is a debate if this is the largest or second largest cave system in the world. Each year a contingent of international professional cavers explore and map deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of seemingly endless grottos. Even though Malaysians are well educated modern thinking, prosperous and friendly people, without tourism, many East Malaysians living in the less than modern mountain villages would have little hope for employment.
Nearly 6 months in East Malaysia had ripped by. We had to clear out of the country and sail further up the coast to the speck of a country, Brunei, to once again reset the clock on our visas. In oil rich Brunei, Islam is not only the singular religion, but also the government. In Brunei, it is against the law to sing Christmas carols or for children to dress up and celebrate Halloween, and don’t even think about joking and ask where you might buy a pork chop. Muslims in Brunei do not keep dogs as pets as it is “haram”, forbidden, to touch a dog. The only exception to some of these restrictions is at the local yacht club in the port city of Muara. The yacht club is a small oasis for foreigners who work under contract in Brunei.
In East Malaysia it is not often that one sees a woman wearing a Hijab (Muslim head covering for women). This is a Christian area quite different from West Malaysia where Islam is far more prevalent and has a great influence in national government. However, Islam in all of Malaysia is of a tolerant shade and should not be compared to the zealots of other countries in the Middle East or Brunei.
As we moved up the coast we did not intend on staying so long at yet another marina, Sutera Harbor Hotel and Marina in the high rise city of Kota Kinabalu. But this marina is one of the most comfortable imaginable with its own bowling lanes, private movie theatre, extensive workout gym, and free shuttle into the nearby city. This was quite the contrast to our customary life of anchoring off remote thatch villages deep in the Pacific. The marina and the local airport became our base for exploring the northeast coast of Borneo. Because of pirates close by in the Philippines, and local bandits scouting just off the coast, the east coast of Borneo is a no-go zone for cruisers on yachts.
Flying in a twin engine, propeller, commuter plane from one coast to the other, it was stunning to see how tens of thousands of acres of Borneo has, like in the U.S., been changed. But here, the jungle has been burned and bulldozed and replaced with endless rows of palm oil trees similar to the way in the U.S., farmers plant rows of corn.
Staying in a simple bungalow nestled into the damp forest along the Kinabatangan River, we spent our days on the lodge’s river boats looking for the elusive pigmy elephants, orangutans, long nosed proboscis monkeys and the nearly extinct pigmy rhinoceros. On guided night walks through damp trails, often temporarily blocked by cobwebs, the local naturalist pointed out civets, lemurs, slow loris (a small nocturnal primate), and a tarsier. Some tourist spots closest to the eastern coast were watched over by a contingent of armed Malaysian military men.
Back on the west coast of Borneo, we sailed on to the island of Pulau Tiga (Island Three), one of a very few islands along the west coast. Pulau Tiga has recently been referred to as “Survivor Island” as this is the location for the filming of the first U.S. “Survivor” game show. In reality, Tiga Island is not very remote. Less than 10 miles away on Borneo there are a number of towns all with boats to run tourists out to Tiga for a day trip or a multi-overnight stay. All of Tiga Island is a national park. The game show contestants “survived” on the north shore while on the south shore, the 200 production crew lived in park operated cottages and two commercially operated resorts. On Pulau Tiga, tourists and yachties come to relax on the shores, snorkel the reefs, hike the trails and play in the one large mud puddle in the center of the island. The thick mud is advertised to be medicinal but this was some of the dirtiest, clingingest mud we had basked in anywhere in the world. With the ensuing mud fight with some French tourists, everyone lost. Soaking in the ocean afterwards, it still took a soft scrubby and strong soap to free our skin pores and clothes of the microscopic grime.
Now the play time was over as we arrived at Kudat, a town at the northern tip of Borneo, where we would haul Brick House for repairs. It is a basic small fishing town with little reason for a cruiser to visit but for the inexpensive haul-out facility. The labor rate for a general yard helper is no more than $15 per day. It is a safe area despite being within striking distance of the kidnappers from the Philippines. In Kudat, a Malaysian navy contingent is stationed which sends out armed patrol boats each day. Just over a hundred miles northwest of Kudat are the Spratley Islands, which the Chinese are making famous with their military fortifications.
Malaysia Borneo is a contrast of the most desirable modern cities we have seen anywhere in the world with small less cultivated towns which could rank as villages. There are bulldozed rainforests skirted by well managed nature reserves. Despite all the civility of Malaysia, along the east coast there still exists a modern version of the ruthless “Wild man of Borneo”. Malaysia Borneo is one of the most diverse destinations to drop an anchor, and maybe, one day for us, permanently.