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Saturday, 01 September 2007

The Wild Island of Borneo

Written by Sherry Ott
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russBorneo…maybe you’ve heard of it - but do you even know where it is? I’m sure that if I gave you a globe you’d all have trouble putting your finger on it. What if I told you that it is the world’s third largest island…and it contains three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. At one time it was a wild place inhabited by headhunters, but it’s now a lush island in the Pacific near New Guinea and the Philippines. My curiosity with Borneo started about seven years ago when I was living in San Francisco. I was up late one night watching television. I came across the show “Eco-Challenge.” It was an adventure race that was shown on cable (before the craze of reality TV).


The race was completed in three days for the good teams and about six days for the slower teams. It included hiking, mountain biking, kayaking through rapids, horseback riding, caving, abseiling, orienteering, and any other crazy, dangerous outdoor sport that they could come up with. “Eco Challenge” was in a place called Borneo. I had never heard of it before, but it sounded and looked completely exotic - this sheltered mid-westerner was hooked.


I stayed up that night watching until about 3AM, utterly amazed at what these people were going through. They raced 24 hours a day and were often hallucinating due to dehydration and lack of sleep. They had foot-rot, leeches crawling all over their bodies (and into places that I can't even mention), and they were living on cliff bars. These were the toughest people that I had ever seen in my life and I wanted to be one of them. I was in awe of them and the dangerous, lush, jungle landscape that surrounded them. I got out the map that night and looked up Borneo - it took me quite some time to find it as I had never really heard of it before - but when I did, I knew that it would be someplace that I would visit one day.


After watching Eco-challenge, I started getting interested in adventure racing - wondering if I was tough enough to really do what those people did. The next few vacations I took were adventures to test out my ability in the various activities as well as my capacity to 'rough it'. After sleeping in the Australian rain forest in a hammock – scared to death of every noise and bump in the night, I realized that I probably wasn't cut out for the adventure racing life, but the experience kicked off my interest in traveling to exotic places. I may never get to pull leeches off my body, but I knew that I wanted to go explore, I wanted an adventure, and I wanted to push myself to the limits.


Shortly after I got hooked on Eco-Challenge, the first season of “Survivor” aired on television which I absolutely loved and it was also shot on an island in Borneo. So when I decided to do my year of extended travel around the world, I got out a map, laid it on my floor, and immediately knew that I had to stop in Borneo. There was never a question in my mind; I had to take this opportunity to see it. My friend Russ from NY also had an interest in Borneo, so he flew out to join me.


We arrived in Kota Kinabalu (the largest city in Malaysian Borneo) early in the morning on the celebration of the Chinese New Year. The holiday pretty much had shut down the whole city, like Christmas in Nebraska, no stores or markets were open. As we walked around the deserted town, we realized that we were two of a handful of Caucasians in the whole town…heck…the whole country. I guess that makes sense since most people from the west don’t even know where Borneo is! We were on a big island - so we decided that we would treat ourselves to seafood that night.


restaurantWe went to a place along the harbor, called ‘The Seafood Village’. The front of the restaurant had three levels of huge fish tanks full of a variety of extremely fresh seafood. It was also packed with people dining - large families dining together in this overwhelming banquet hall setting. I looked around and realized that the smallest table they had was one that sat 6 people. Most of the tables there were full of 10 to 12 people eating ‘family style’.



Russ and I were dwarfed at our big table for six, but we spread out and looked at the menu. The menu was all family style, with two portion sizes, small (feeds 4 to 8) and large (feeds 8 to 12). We looked at each other and kind of panicked. Russ was a guy that could put away a lot of food - but a rice serving for 6 people even seemed a lot for him! There were tons of wait staff mulling around us - most likely amused by the Caucasian couple trying to figure out what/how to order. They had little earpieces - most likely getting information from the kitchen or hostess. I imagined that there was a big warning going through their ears at that moment…”Code White, Code White! Caucasian couple at table 54 - they look confused and about ready to bail - someone go assist them ASAP!”


Sure enough, an older Chinese woman came over and asked, “Do you need some help?” We both said a relieved “YES” This lovely lady led us over to the fish tanks and helped us pick out a grouper for two…perfect. Then she let us order some individual sized bowls of soup and rice and we were saved! The meal was fabulous. We were surrounded by boisterous Asian families celebrating Chinese New Year – what a great way to ring in the year of the Pig!


Russ and I had worked with a local Borneo travel agent to plan our activities back in December. We were both rather busy and couldn’t seem to get to it ourselves. The travel agency put together a good itinerary; at least it seemed like it at the time. I guess I overlooked exactly how much time we were spending on the road to get to these various destinations. Suffice it to say - we had ample opportunity to see the countryside as many days we were in the car commuting longer than the activity itself.


trainWe decided to go white water rafting on the Padas River. We had both gone white water rafting before and were looking forward to some good rapids. We seemed to overlook the timetable that laid out our day…2 hour bus ride, 1 hour train ride, 1 1/2 hours rafting, 1 hour train ride, 2 hour bus ride back to hotel…oops…I guess I should have read the fine print better!

Our driver picked us up 15 minutes early, which made us miss our free breakfast at our hotel. Now there are two things that I hate. I hate missing breakfast, and I really hate missing a free breakfast. I grabbed a bag of trail mix that I had in the hotel room figuring that I could eat it on the bus instead. The guide put us on a tour bus with virtually no information exchanged besides ‘hellos’ - no one really told us what to expect, what to bring, or where we were going.


After an hour of driving and me fuming about not having breakfast - I decided to eat my trail-mix. I got it out and was about to open it when I noticed that ants were crawling all over inside of it. They were in ant sugar heaven…I was in a sick hell. After another hour of bus driving, we arrived at a train station in which they once again told us nothing but we simply followed the crowd out to the train tracks.


We waited around for a train and after about 15 minutes in the hot sun a single rail car pulled up. We all piled on to this old, dilapidated train car like sardines. Luckily Russ (being a good 5 inches taller than everyone else) got on quickly and got us a seat. We then set off for another hour and finally got out and followed our guides - for the first time in 3 hours, they actually told us what we were to do, leave our stuff here since this was our ending point. We hopped back on the train slathered on sunscreen and went to the beginning of the river rapids.



We were paired together with the only other Caucasians in the big group as well as an older Chinese couple. Gina (of the Chinese couple) immediately asked everyone if they had done this before. She was clearly worried that this was going to be dangerous and her husband was making her go.


life vestsWe all piled onto our raft after a small bit of instruction and Russ and I ended up in front…we were ready for a ride! We went over a very small rapid when we heard a shrieking noise from behind. At that moment, Gina announces to the raft, “I’m a screamer.” Poor Russ would need earplugs the rest of the trip.


There were a few good swimming holes along the way. Everyone would jump in and float down the river, cooling off before the next rapids. At one of these swimming holes, we picked up a hitchhiker, a middle age Indian man that seemed to have floated away from his boat and was precariously moving towards the rapids. We pulled him in and gave him a seat in the front between Russ and me. Upon approaching a rapid, our guide would always give us the run down of what to expect and the percentage likelihood that we would capsize. He would give us 2 options…a route that we would have a 50 percent chance of capsizing, and a safer route and then he’d survey the raft on which we would prefer. All of a sudden, Gina yells - “let’s go for capsizing!” This coming, from the woman who was scared to death every time the boat rocks!


As we took off through the rapids, the Indian hitchhiker sat up on the front of the raft hanging his feet over the front and hanging on to the rope like he was riding a bull. He started to hoot and holler like a cowboy in his Indian accent, “Yeeeeehaaawwww”! He was bounced around so much that his pants were falling off - he had some serious plumber crack. I was laughing so hard I could barely paddle. He later told us he had grown up on a cow farm. We made it through most of the rapids in tact - only losing Russ once… Between Gina and the Indian Cowboy it was a blast. We had the oldest (age), whitest boat, but we definitely had the most fun.


I finally got some much needed lunch once we got off the raft and then we started the long commute back to Kota Kinnabalu. It was a short rafting time - but it was packed full of laughs.

river The next night we went on a river safari - once again a 2 hour bus ride out of Kinabalu. We went to go to go see the Proboscis monkeys, which are only found in Borneo. They are these funny looking monkeys that are large, and have a distinctive large nose and big pot belly. They look so ugly that they are cute.


Ever since I had a monkey in Bali jump on me and take my earring, I’ve been trying to stay away from them; however, tonight I was in search of them. We took off under the cover of ominous skies and went in search of the big noses. I was hoping that they would be easy to spot and I had my telephoto lens poised to get a great close up - however my hopes of a great tight shot of their funny faces was dashed when I realized that even my telephoto lens couldn’t get close enough. We did see plenty of the monkeys - however they were high up in the trees and rather shy. Maybe I should have tried to lure them out with a shiny earring.



We raced around the river for 2 hours looking at monkeys and searching for crocodiles. Once the sun went under, we were treated to a strange site, Natural Christmas lights blinking wildly in the trees. They were fireflies. Growing up in the Midwest, I had seen many fireflies and like most kids I used to catch them and put them in jars, take them in my room at night and fall asleep with my natural nightlight. However these Borneo fireflies were different, they were the size of gnats and instead of a long flash, they had a very short flash and would blink in unison in the trees. There were thousands of them, coordinated like a symphony.


All of this river activity and rafting was fun, but the real reason why Russ and I were in Borneo was to climb Mt. Kinabalu, the tallest peak in SE Asia. Six months before I had attempted to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa and had to turn back the night the rest of my group summitted, due to severe altitude sickness. Ever since then I had my eye on Mt. Kinabalu.


A view from the top - above the clouds!




I thought that even though I couldn’t make it up to 19,000 ft. (Kilimanjaro), I should be able to make it to 13,000 ft (Kinabalu). I had an intense determination that had been building since Africa.

However, I miscalculated one thing; it had been 6 months since I left my home in New York. I used to run 25 miles a week, and go the gym. During my vagabonding – I’m lucky if I run 6 miles a week and each month my fitness level deteriorates. As soon as Russ and I started up the trail, I knew I was in for trouble.

russRuss descending the rock face…it looks as if he is going to walk off the face of the earth!







Russ and I were paired up with an older man, Mick, from London. Mick was 64, he had a great attitude, and he knew nothing about the climb, as he had just signed up for it the day before. He said that a young Chinese woman had sold him on the idea of climbing Kinabalu. She told him that it was an easy walk and that she herself had done it 3 times. He observed that she was about 3 stone overweight – so he was at least skeptical. The three of us were assigned a guide, Francis, and off we went. I quickly made some observations within the first km of climbing.

1. I’m out of shape
2. Francis has the personality of a sock
3. Mick, at 64 yrs old, was going to kick my ass all the way up the hill
4. I wouldn’t see Russ again until we met at the lodge
5. I’m out of shape


rockThe literature about the climb said that a reasonably fit person could summit. It takes two days to make the 8.5km climb – the first is spent going up, up, up from 5000 ft. to about 10,000 ft. where you hunker down in the Laban Rata hut. On day 2 you are to get up at 3AM and start on the summit route in the dark. You make it to the summit (13,435 ft.) by sunrise. The temperatures around the summit are normally right around freezing and the wind is brutal. The same day you summit at 6AM – you also come all the way back down to the Park Headquarters where you start – covering about 8,000 ft. descent in one very long day as you end around 3PM.



I struggled through the first day, sweating like a piece of lard, huffing and puffing as if I smoked 2 packs a day, but I did make it. Russ took off in front of the pack early. The last time I saw him was at 2.5 km at a rest hut. As he came into my view – he was sitting on the bench talking on his blackberry. After that he was on a mission to get to the lodge.


Mick and I sort of hung out and would walk about the same pace. Yet there were times when I couldn’t keep up with him. That would leave just Francis and me. I wondered what the Malaysian words for “slow, out of shape American” were. My paranoia got the better of me - I was positive that he was making fun of me to all of his guiding friends. He would walk behind me – right on my heels and work on text messages on his phone. I would stop to catch my breath fairly often or to look at flowers (which was just an excuse to catch my breath). When I did stop, it felt as if my heart were about to explode it was beating so hard. There’s just not enough oxygen to go around once you start climbing up a mountain!


I made it to the Laban Rata Hut in the early afternoon in the drizzling rain. (10,800 ft) I met up with Russ who had been there for about an hour. We had a chance to set down our packs and relax. We made our way up to our dorm room and got settled in. The hut is a basic, unheated wooden structure that pretty much resembled most of the hostels I had been staying in. Bunk beds, Shared bathroom, lukewarm water, at best. We were in the center of a cloud – therefore when we arrived you really couldn’t see a thing.


viewAt 4PM the skies cleared and we could witness what surrounded us. The hut was situated right at tree line, and when I looked up – all I could see was naked granite rock. Our task would be daunting the next morning. We had a good dinner full of carbohydrates at the lodge and were treated to an amazing sunset above the clouds. To top off the evening, the one television in the lodge had “American Idol” on; even at 10,000 ft. in Borneo you can’t escape it!


Francis suggested that we get started the next morning at 3AM. So we tried to go to sleep early to prepare for the next day’s climb. It was going to be cold and windy – so we laid out all of our winter gear and laid down for some zzzz’s. Unfortunately, I was quickly reminded that in altitude, you don’t really get good sleep. Sure, you lie down, you sort of doze off - but it’s not fitful sleep. I lay there sleeping on and off for a few hours – my mind racing with thoughts of the summit and anything else that I could worry about. Needless to say when our alarm went off at 2:40AM – I wasn’t feeling very well rested. We put on our layers of gear, mittens, hats and headlamps and took off in a semi-awake state.


The climbing was a bit more technical including steep steps, and big rocks to negotiate. In most places the granite rock was so steep that you needed a rope to get up the incline. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except that it was dark out.


topWith the headlamp, you feel like you are in a tunnel for 3 hours – you can’t see more than 4 ft. in front of you. Russ took off pretty quickly and I didn’t see him again until the summit. Mick also got ahead of me and had a successful summit (even though he was freezing in his shorts – the Chinese woman failed to tell him how cold it would be at the top!). That left me with Francis – slowly climbing to the top in silence.



As we got higher – I started feeling nauseas, dizzy, and disoriented from the altitude. Since I had experienced similar feelings before (on Kilimanjaro) – I at least knew what it was and decided that I would keep pushing forward. I certainly couldn’t walk a straight line; I just tried to follow Francis. There was a rope the whole way up, so that you could utilize it for climbing in the steeper parts and you could simply follow it as your trail marker at other times. In the dark, all I could see was that rope and the rock face. It felt as if you were on the side of a steep cliff and one wrong move and you would fall off the side of the mountain. Therefore, not only was I battling the lack of oxygen, but also the fear of falling to my death!


I would stop quite frequently to catch my breath. During one of my rests there was a woman coming back down the mountain asking Francis if he had seen her guide. She wanted to find him to tell him that she was going back down because she was starting to feel dizzy. I thought to myself, ‘lady, I’ve been feeling dizzy for the last 2 hours, but there’s no way I’m turning back!’ She continued her descent.



The wind was whipping as we continued to go up. Sometimes it would gust so strongly that it would blow you off your course and you would lose your footing. Now I also had to worry about being blown off the mountain…great. I looked to my right and started to see a light in the sky. I looked at Francis and said in a whiny voice, ‘I just want to make it to the top for the sunrise.’ He said that it was only 700 more meters. At first this sounded good, and then I started to do the calculation in my head and realized that it was about 7 football fields…straight up. We tried to pick up the pace, and for the first time, Francis actually would offer me a hand in going up the steep rocks on the final climbing section.


He perched me down on a rock at the top – and I sat in the blistering wind trying to get out my camera. At this point – I had no feeling in my fingers, so I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to take a picture! I tried to hunker down and about 4 minutes later…up popped the sun!



I looked around at my surroundings and was amazed at the beauty. We were on a rock above the clouds. It was stunning. Finally, I was able to summit a mountain! I was relieved and excited, though still a bit nauseas. I found Russ who had been at the summit in the cold for the last hour (he was the first person to arrive at the top). We were happy to find each other still in tact and hung out for a little while on the small peak enjoying the view. Then we decided that we better start the long road down.


The decent was long, hard, wet, and agonizing for the knees. It took about 7 hours total to get down to the beginning of the trail (descent from 13,000ft. to 5000ft). With every step down, I could breathe easier and felt more euphoric.


authorMe at the Summit!



After such a physical two days, we decided that our last bit of Borneo adventure should include beach time. We went to a secluded beach off the coast of Borneo called Pulau Tiga. This wasn’t just any island, this was the island that they filmed the first ever “Survivor”! I was excited to see it and get a feel for what they experienced - climate and landscape. However, it was also a chance to work on my tan and catch up on reading.


Once again, we were in for a long commute. We took a 2-hour car ride, and then a boat to the island - I found myself daydreaming about the first Survivor cast, wondering if they knew how much they would change television viewing for the next 6 years. When we arrived at the dock, a young boy came to greet the boat. We threw our bags onto the dock. The boy picked up Russ’s backpack and offered to take it - that left me lugging a big suitcase and a backpack. I was more than a little peeved that the boy didn’t even offer to take the suitcase, but that’s fine. I’m a strong, independent woman and I managed to let it slide. He took us to the lodge and gave us our complimentary welcome drink and explained the layout of the island.


The island resort (if you can call it that) was small, no frills, and rather empty. We had the whole beach to ourselves. I asked him where the show ‘Survivor” had been filmed (after all - they used the “Survivor” reference in their marketing material), and he looked at me blankly - he said that he didn’t know. I also asked the woman at the front desk - and she also had no idea. Russ and I looked at each other in confusion thinking the same thing - how can you market yourself as the first “Survivor” Island and then not know anything about it?


We had heard from other tourists that the island contained a mud volcano - a crude spa of sorts. However, there was a catch to it, you had to walk 1 km to get to the volcano in the middle of the island, and there was no running water around the volcano - just a little jungle trail that led back out to the ocean where you could wash off. We decided that we would go check it out; we found it on the map and took off. We had planned on only one of us going in at a time, as the other one would have to carry our personal belongings or else everything would be covered in mud.


When we got to the volcano there was a small structure there, we looked at it and found that it was the makings of a nice set of outdoor showers to wash off at. However, there was no water, just a little facet on the side of the building. It was halfway done, and no one seemed to be in any hurry to complete it.


volcanoWe put all of our stuff on the ground near the volcano and Russ took the plunge. It was about 5 ft. deep - but the thick mud was buoyant so you would float and couldn’t touch the bottom. I was shooting pictures like the paparazzi and then Russ all of a sudden surprised me…without warning he went under…completely under the muddy sludge as if it were a swimming pool. I don’t think he thought this through too well as when he came back up - he had no way to wipe his eyes or get it out of his mouth or ears as his hands were covered in mud! He eventually cleared his eyes and could see again - but he was picking mud out of every crevice for the rest of the day. After playing in the bubbling mud he had to make the long walk back to the ocean. walkWhen you are covered in mud - everything sticks to you, leaves, twigs, ants, flies…it’s not pretty. He blended into the trail camouflaged with leaves. He washed off in the ocean, but continued to find mud in his ears 7 hrs later!



flowerThe next day I decided that I needed to try this mud volcano experience - so once again we made the long walk into the jungle. I had a love/hate relationship with the mud volcano - I didn’t really want to go in, however I felt like I should try it. I thought about how when I was a little girl I would love to make mud pies in our backyard. I would work on them for hours, getting just the right consistency. I would decorate them with leaves and twigs and take it to my mom showing off my proud ‘baking skills’. I told myself that this was no different so I went into the gray/green sludge. It was grainy and thick and full of leaves and twigs (at least that’s what I told myself the solid objects were). Though I was glad I tried it, it was not a very pleasant experience. I guess I liked making mud pies better than being in a mud pie! My skin felt softer than ever, though, and it was free. What a great spa value!


After the week in Borneo participating in various activities, we concluded that Borneo was an emerging travel destination for westerners. Even though they had lots of travel agencies, hotels, and tours, we found that most of the time they were about 50% there on the execution of such tours, especially in terms of service. So - as a traveler - you had to be patient, trusting, and simply go with the flow.


coconutsRuss and I enjoyed our last night in Kinabalu by the harbor. We celebrated with a fresh coconut at the market (I would have loved a little Rum in mine!) Borneo met my expectations; my trip to ‘wild’ Borneo was complete. I didn’t have to pick leeches off of my legs, but I still felt tough having survived the white water rafting, Mt. Kinabalu and the mud volcano. I may not ever be an adventure racer, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not adventurous!

©Sherry Ott

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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