• Monika Krochmal

Borneo, the land of mist... and mystery

Updated: Apr 22, 2020

Mount Kinabalu is the roof of Borneo. Over 4000 metres high, it is towering over the island - the highest peak between Himalayas and New Guinea. Kazadan – Dusun, the largest ethnic group in Sabah, use a term ‘Aki Nabalu’ to describe the revered place of the dead. That is not surprising; many cultures across the world consider mountains sacred, they have always been surrounded by myth. When you are facing Mount Kinabalu it is easy to understand the reason for this veneration. Four metres of rainwater fall here every year, carving the stone, giving the mountain its stark and formidable appearance. It inspires awe and draws hundreds of adventure seekers, keen to climb its slopes.

Fascinating as the mountain top is, what lies beneath is no less intriguing. Unforgiving conditions that sculpted the rock into the spectacular shape also created unique forms of life. The rainforest at the foot of Mount Kinabalu hides enormous, carnivorous pitcher plants, giant Rafflesia flowers that smell of rotting flesh and weight up to 10 kilograms, and almost two thousand species of orchids.

Rainforest in Borneo is amongst the oldest on Earth and a treasure of diversity of plants and animals. It is home to the tallest tree in the tropics, yellow meranti tree, over 100 metres tall, Belian tree or Bornean ironwood, Tanggilan – Bornean kauri. Several species of hornbills also live here, as well as iconic endemic species, proboscis monkey and orang-utan, among others. Deforestation is a big and ongoing threat to these forests, where new species are still being discovered. Despite the struggle, Bornean forests still hide a lot of secrets. Jungle walk is an unforgettable and humbling experience, however local wildlife can be easily spotted from the Kinabatangan River, where monkeys and birds like to congregate. If you are lucky, you can occasionally see a pygmy elephant. We glimpsed an orang-utan nesting in the branches.

Orang-utans are threatened by deforestation, as they are losing their habitat and it is only thanks to the centres like Sepilok that their future can be safeguarded. Reserve surrounding the centre covers 4000 hectares of primeval rainforest. Young orang-utans brought to Sepilok are rehabilitated to enable them return to the wild. Unfortunately, the forests are shrinking.

Did you know that orang-utans share 97% of their DNA with humans? No wonder Malay word ‘orang’ means also ‘man’. Orang-utan is the man of the jungle.

Other conservation programs are carried out on the coast. Have you heard of the Turtle Islands? The islands between Malaysian Borneo and Philippines are a favourite nesting site for hawksbill and green turtle. Turtles have survived since the dinosaur time, but now they are endangered due to various human activities. Luckily initiatives to protect them are in place, here and in other parts of the globe. Another defining feature of Bornean shores are mangrove forests. Mangrove is a miracle of a tree that can thrive in saline water and endure regular flooding. It therefore protects the shore from weather events, like tsunamis, and provides habitat for many creatures. I saw monitor lizard basking in the sun among these trees.

Borneo could be a synonym for adventure: one of the last wildernesses on Earth, with endemic and often bizarre wildlife, thriving indigenous cultures and majestic mountain peaks it is the land of endless discoveries. Take your time to explore it, there is always one more wonder, one more mystery to unravel, that will keep you enthralled.

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