The air is thick with humidity. Leaves rustle, monkey calls reverberate through the forest, the throb of cicadas pulsates in my ears. Their sound, I notice, is vastly different from what I’ve heard back home in the Western Ghats. Ch-ch-ch Ch-ch Ch-ch-ch Ch-ch. Like psychedelic trance music rather than the score of a jungle. I scan the canopy closely, looking for signs of movement. The green is so thick I can’t see the sky above, the floor, or for that matter, more than a few feet on either side of the trail I’m walking on. Everything in this rainforest is bigger, louder, denser. The trees seem kilometres-tall, with leaves larger than my face and trunks so broad, I can half-hug them at best.
I’m in the throbbing jungle of Pulau Tiga, a small island in Malaysian Borneo that’s spread over six square kilometres. Accompanying me is Kenny, the chatty manager-cum-guide from our hotel, and Karen, a photographer and my travel companion on this trip. Each of us is lost in our own worlds. Kenny giggles at a text on his mobile phone, Karen scans the trail for snakes and monitor lizards, and I crane my neck upwards hopefully, looking for hornbills and proboscis monkeys. We are hiking to one of the island’s two mud volcanoes. A bit like hot springs, mud volcanoes are formed when water heated below the surface mixes with subterranean mineral deposits, creating pools of bubbling mud.
For the last week, Karen and I have been driving through the Malaysian state of Sabah, the northernmost tip of the island of Borneo, exploring its majestic forests and examining the animals that inhabit them. We began our journey in Sandakan, a small city on the east coast, where we visited the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, a refuge for orphaned baby orangutans rescued from plantations and logging sites, or kept illegally as pets. Borneo is the only place in the world where orangutans live, and the ginger-haired apes are the region’s biggest tourist draws. At the centre, we crowded into the visitors’ gallery with enthusiastic Malaysian families, to watch young orangutans hanging by their toes, picking their noses, eating fruit, and grinning gummily at each other. “Stop stressing so much,” they seemed to be telling the camera trigger-happy humans watching them from afar. “Have a banana, instead.”
The orangutan centre lies within the 10,000-acre Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, a majority of which is virgin Borneo rainforest, millions of years in the making. It is a rare, stunningly beautiful piece of our planet that has somehow managed to remain unscathed. Walking around its fringes, I saw the towering Menggaris tree, a favourite of wild honey bees because it grows up to 250 feet tall (and well out of reach of the honey-hungry sun bears that roam these parts), deep red skinks that look drenched in blood, and a parasitic species of ficus called the strangler fig tree that slowly, and elegantly, kills its host plant over decades. Every tree trunk was riddled with roots, covered in moss, and dressed in ferns—layer upon intricate layer of life, feeding and thriving off each other, giving and taking unscrupulously. I remember pausing to flick away a plump mosquito, leaving a red splotch on my repellent-slathered wrist. When I looked down at my pants, I noticed at least 50 more hitching a ride with me. “It’s the circle of life,” our guide, Ben, had commented shrugging his shoulders. I now understand the potency of his words. In Borneo’s jungles, every creature, large and small, is both predator and prey.
From Sandakan, we drove to Kota Kinabalu—Sabah’s capital city—on the west coast, dozing through views of sweeping palm fields and the smaller islands of Borneo dotting the South China Sea, like silhouettes of sleeping children blanketed in green. We stopped frequently, to soak in water views, explore Sunday markets in small towns, and to buy packets of purple, red, and black wild rice from highway stalls to take back home. It was at one such no-name stall that I was introduced to the healing powers of bak kut teh: “meat bone tea,” an aromatic soup made from pork ribs simmered in a long list of spices for hours, sometimes overnight. Accompanying the bak kut teh, was a quarter plate of perfectly barbecued boar and a soy-flavoured stew of glistening pork belly. It was the best lunch of our trip, and we had it watching an old kung fu movie on mute with the owner, a gentle old man with knife skills worthy of a YouTube video.
In Kota Kinabalu (or KK as the locals call it), we spent an evening poking around the noisy fish market and gorging on plates of chilli-garlic scallops before settling down for fruit margaritas and foot massages at one of the many bars that line the city’s harbour. The people we met along the way were warm, inviting, and always happy to chat, but it was Borneo’s forests that had me in rapture. Now, as we walk to the mud volcano, I feel their quiet potency again, seeping under my skin, heightening my senses, slowing my mind. “Watch out for the monkeys,” Kenny says, and I scan the forest in futility. I can’t see a single creature, but I’m pretty sure at least a hundred living beings—critters, creepers, and simian swingers—are aware of every step we take. “The macaques are harmless except for Jack and that other one I warned you about,” Kenny adds. “They can be real brats.” Close the doors and windows of your hotel room, we’d been told again and again, or you’ll return to find “the monkeys have been partying.” It’s a warning that Karen and I are used to. Rhesus macaques are an issue back home in India too, especially at hill stations and temples where offerings of fruit are made. “What’s the other monkey called?” I enquire, careful not to trip on the root-riddled trail. “Ass,” Kenny says flashing me a toothy grin. “Geddit? Jack-Ass!”
We arrived on the island yesterday. Pulau Tiga—or as everybody on the island prefers to call it: the place where the reality TV series, Survivor Season One, was filmed—is a breathtaking piece of land. It has a lush forest, gorgeous beaches, and turquoise waters that make the heaviest of burdens seem lighter. Better still, its home reef is part of Tiga Island Marine Park that covers 158 square kilometres of mostly ocean. Snorkelling the previous day, Karen and I saw pairs of clownfish, yellow-tailed angelfish nuzzling anemones, and soft coral dancing dreamily to the ocean currents. We are the only two guests at Survivor Lodge Pulau Tiga resort, and for a blissful hour that afternoon, were the only two humans in the ocean too.
Spectacular as it was, snorkelling around the island was a bittersweet experience. Sections of the coral we saw were bleached of colour—usually an indicator that they are no longer alive and a stark reminder of just how fragile this ecosystem is. Farther from the shore, the reef was healthier. Gliding through the water, I saw coral that was sharp and branched, like a forest of antlers; others were like pale pink rosettes, and a few more, like enormous cerebrum—a species I later found out, was sensibly named brain coral.
Thankfully, the jungles of Pulau Tiga have survived, despite the popularity of the reality television show that catapulted it to fame. Our resort, I was happy to learn, is the only one on the island, and the rooms are on the fringes, so guests wake up to sublime beach views and the forest remains largely untouched. The mud volcano however, has seen more than its fair share of humans I’m sure.
“Go on,” Karen says grinning like an orangutan and pointing her alarmingly large camera lens at me. I contemplate the brownish-grey pond of ominously bubbling muck before me.
Soaking in a mud volcano sounds terribly cool on paper, but now that I’m here, standing before this strange-smelling pool of slurry, I’m not so sure. “Just jump in,” Kenny urges. “It actually feels really good once you’re inside.” Jumping seems like a bit much at this point, so I kick off my flip-flops, strip down to my swimsuit, grab a hanging root for leverage and gingerly slide in.
The sludge is thick, like clay, and cloaks me instantly. It isn’t warm as I imagined it would be, but cool, like a mudpack. Occasionally, large bubbles emerge, breaking the surface, making me jump. It feels incredibly strange at first, but soon, I discover something else about the sludge that changes everything: I can float. The consistency of the mud, gives me absurd levels of buoyancy and I’m happily floating around the pool, urging Karen to join me. Kenny tells us that the clay is therapeutic, especially for the hair and skin. Still, it isn’t until a half hour later that I dare slather some muck on my face (in Survivor-style stripes, of course). In the distance a pair of hornbills call out to each other, and closer—far too close for my comfort—I hear the screech of a troop of monkeys. I stiffen instantly, but Kenny seems unperturbed, and it occurs to me again how comfortable so many of the people I have met in Borneo are with their rainforest.
A few days before we arrived by ferry on Pulau Tiga, we had spent the night at a homestay in Batu Puteh village, on the bank of the Kinabatangan, a temperamental chai-coloured river that snakes through upper Borneo. Most remarkable to me, was that one of the largest flyovers in Sabah criss-crossed over parts of the village and the rainforest that it skirted. And yet, the jungle thrived. On a morning boat ride, we saw bands of proboscis monkeys, pairs of hornbills, and dozens of longtailed macaques foraging for fruit. Watching the hornbills, some as close as ten feet away, was a rare privilege and we spent 15 minutes gawking at them in conversation with each other. These magnificently beaked birds mate for life, rarely ever leaving their significant other’s side after they’ve found them. “How old is this forest?” I asked Abby, our teenage guide from Batu Puteh. “Oh, about 20 years,” he had answered, and added “A little older than me.”
Later that day, we had met Rosli, an older gent from the Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp, a clutch of rustic log cabins in a secluded piece of jungle that is completely off the grid. Soaking in views of the Tungog Lake, blanketed in the beautiful but invasive Salvinia fern, Rosli told us about the forest he knows so intimately. From him, we learnt that large swathes of the lower Kinabatangan region were lost to the timber industry in the 1960s and ’70s, and it was only after the Malaysian government restricted deforestation in the ’90s that this land finally had a chance to heal. Today, this restored forest shelters creatures big and small: orangutans, pygmy elephants, crocodiles, spiders, snakes, and hundreds of species of endangered orchids. The biodiversity in this region is astonishing: a single dipterocarp tree, I was told, is home to over 1,000 species of insects.
The Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp is part of MESCOT, a community-based ecotourism initiative that began in the early 2000s to encourage locals to give rather than take from their forest. “What about animal-human conflict?” I ask Rosli, as we examine what looks like an armoured caterpillar on a velvety patch of moss. Don’t the monkeys ever stray over to the village looking for food? He smiles warmly, and shakes his head, “The monkeys have their fig trees now: no need to raid the village. The humans have a means of livelihood other than timber: no need to raid the forest.” It was of course, a simplistic approach to a deeply complicated problem, and yet, meeting Rosli, and walking through the forest along the Kinabatangan was uplifting: If that beautiful, throbbing cradle of life could be resurrected in only 20 years, perhaps there was hope after all?
I think about this as I soak in the mud volcano, watching Kenny carefully set aside a beetle that’s crawled onto his arm. It’s time to leave, he tells us clapping his hands. The light will start fading soon, and darkness we’ve learned, comes swiftly in these jungles. As if a lightbulb has been switched off.
When we emerge from the forest after a slippery 30-minute walk, we grab a pair of snorkelling masks from the dive shop, and jump head-first into the mirror-calm waters of the South China Sea. It is an invigorating swim because of the exfoliation treatment we give ourselves to get the mud off our bodies.
When it’s finally off and I am scrubbed raw, we swim toward the reef, keen to make the most of the dying light. The sky is a swirling potion of crimson, mauve, and pink. The ocean has a faint pink blush cresting its waves. The water is cool, perfect for this warm evening in December. With my snorkelling mask firmly in place, I glide over the reef, watching a dainty butterfly fish dart between fans of coral. A shoal of tiny silver fish swim by, impervious to my presence and a few feet away, I notice a crab perched on a hill of purple coral, surveying the ocean from its little throne. But the sounds I hear are from the forest above. Ch-ch-ch Ch-ch Ch-ch-ch Ch-ch. It’s an exhilarating feeling, observing a marine park, while listening to the rise and fall of cicadas. I raise my head to catch a pair of hornbills glide through the forest, and when I look below, a lone parrotfish streaks past my ear.
Pulau Tiga is a Malaysian island in Sabah, Borneo. It is a 30-minute ferry ride from Kuala Penyu town, which is 105 km/2 hr from the city of Kota Kinabalu. Borneo is the third-largest island in the world, and is located in Southeast Asia, in the South China Sea, which is part of the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Borneo consists of the northern states of Sabah and Sarawak which are part of Malaysia, the four provinces of Kalimantan which belong to Indonesia, and the nation of Brunei Darussalam.
Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, has an international airport with good connections to Southeast Asian cities. There are no direct flights between India and Kota Kinabalu. All connections require one layover, most often in Kuala Lumpur.
Indians require a visa to visit Malaysia, except if they are flying in from Thailand and Singapore and have a valid visa for either of these countries. Applications for a Malaysian visa can be done online and require only two working days to process (www.vfsglobal.com; ₹3,400 for a 30-day, single-entry visa).
Since much of Sabah is rainforest, it’s almost always raining somewhere or the other. That being said, October to March is generally considered the wetter of the two seasons, making April to September the time when the region receives more tourists. The weather is humid, temperamental, and characterised by short, heavy showers. Average temperatures range from 25-35ºC throughout the year.
Survivor Lodge is the only resort on Pulau Tiga. It has beach-facing rooms with a shaded porch. Accommodation is clean and airconditioned. The resort has a dive shop where scuba equipment, and snorkelling fins and masks can be hired, and a room near the lobby that doubles up as a karaoke bar a few times a week (www.sdclodges.com; doubles from MYR430/₹7,120, including meals).
The marine park is open to all. Visitors can take the morning ferry from Kuala Penyu, spend the day snorkelling, have lunch at Survivor Lodge, and return on the evening ferry.
To experience the virgin rainforests of Borneo in all their hissing, thundering glory, visit the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Danum Valley Reserve, or the Maliau Basin. The Tabin Wildlife Reserve has a single government-run resort nestled in the thick of a protected forest, and organises jungle hikes, safaris, and night walks into the wild. Danum Valley is predominantly a research centre, though it does have two 48-bed hostel blocks and two VIP rooms, and is open to the public. Nature walks are conducted daily. Maliau Basin is often called Borneo’s last true wilderness, and was until recently, completely closed to the public. There are no lodges here, but a few tour companies organise hikes into its dense jungles. These are rugged, no-frills camping trips, but do promise unforgettable adventures.
Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “Pulse of a Rainforest”.
Neha Sumitran loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.
Karen Dias is a photographer who shuttles between Mumbai and Goa. When she isn’t shooting, she can be found reading, drinking feni, and planning her next big adventure. She instagrams as @diastopia.