Wildest Man of Borneo Revisited
Aug 6, 2010
David Rich 1600 Words
3 Malaysian Ringgit=1$ US
T H E W I L D E S T M A N O F B O R N E O R E V I S I T E D
Exotic destination reverberate like chimes, from Zanzibar and the Old Silk Road to Machu Picchu in Peru and Borneo lying on the South China Sea. And here I was back in Borneo after a 4 year absence, on a mission to find the fabled Wild Man tickling my imaginings, having failed miserably the first time around.
This time I'd do a better job on the world’s third largest island, skipping the dead ends I'd hit before and that had now become economically unviable. Then I'd scoured equatorial Borneo from balmy stern to stem, the East Malaysian half of the island, including the oil emirate of Brunei, searching for the composite picture I’d drawn in my mind: wild hair, crazy old guy, out of control. This time I'd find and unmask him. It’d be the end of the fabled Wild Man of Borneo when I located, placated and photographed the poor devil. Next stop, cover of National Geographic Magazine.
I'd worked out the modus operandi before, starting at the top and working down, eliminating the possibility of a mountain hermit. Thus my initial mission had been to climb South East Asia’s highest peak, Mt. Kinabalu at 13,455 feet (4,101 meters), a two day, one night ordeal. I'd been prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to find Asia’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. Then I would retire healthy, wealthy and famous for more than fifteen minutes, with time and money to see Zanzibar, the Old Silk Road and Machu Picchu.
The trek up Mt. Kinabalu began wet, drizzle segueing into rain for two hours. Minutes after arrival at the fanciest accommodations on the mountain, a labyrinth of four-bed dorms, the rain metamorphed into a cloudburst. I was heartened. With a downpour in the afternoon, the morning would necessarily dawn clear. In any event, the morning would dawn early because the assault on the summit by 159 intrepids and me had begun pitch black at two a.m.
A string of headlamps pierced the darkness, strung out for miles in the bitter chill. Perhaps, like me, they were looking for a wild something or two. We inched up the final steep granite pitch for two full-length hours, along ropes to the summit. Though garbed in colorful parkas everyone still shivered at dawn’s incandescent sunrise. Seconds later, Mt. Kinabalu began grabbing stray clouds born of nothingness as Koreans and Japanese, looking desperate and cold, snapped hiking-club photos. The slick gray granite walls were exponentially more treacherous on the way down, the steep descent dissolving knees into jelly. After three days of recuperation I'd finally been able to negotiate stairs without a gratuitous scream. Now I would resume the quest by skipping the mountain because the government had decreed the only way to climb the mountain was via a two night package costing almost $200.
With no hermit lurking in the heights I'd turned my attention to peering under the surface of the South China Sea, at Sipidan, Borneo’s answer to the Caribbean. I dove for days, looking and searching. Instead of a Wild Man I found an abundance of curious wild creatures: a whirl of barracuda circling by the thousands, ponderously fluttering sea turtles, skedaddling gray sharks and leopard sharks basking on the bottom, fancy lion fish and a million tropicals in a rainbow of hues.
But there were no overtly wild men to be found under the white fleecy clouds floating in the azure skies that picturesquely framed Sipidan’s fancy resorts. Instead, I suffered copious quantities of exquisite food and close encounters with my little dive group: two singular Aussies, a rich French guy, my diving buddy, a quirky female dive master from Holland, and a reclusive Kiwi couple into dolphins. Not very wild. I skipped Sipidan's fabulous diving this time around as the government had raised the daily fee to $175 plus accommodation, food and equipment rental totaling about $500 a day.
However, I found several mammals, fruits, flowers and the anomalies of Borneo to be cleverly wild, beginning with the little girl wearing a white head scarf, not unexpected in a relatively devout Muslim country, t-shirt proclaiming Property of Playboy.
The ultra-wild mammals included what the tourist office billed the Wild Man of Borneo, the endangered Orangutan, really orange and hammy with bad hair, features expressive of an wildness that might include snatching tourist glasses, water bottles and cameras. Equally photogenic, for those still owning a camera, was the proboscis monkey, rather like a pot-bellied Richard Nixon crossed with Pinocchio, making a speech about his little dog, Checkers. Utterly charming.
Borneo’s wild flora included the world’s stinkiest flower, the rafflesia, blooms the size of a breadbox owned by the Jolly Green Giant. After slogging through the jungle for hours, I couldn’t get close enough to photograph the flower without a gas mask. But along the way, I encountered a dozen species of the world’s most voracious plant, the pitcher plant, known in the West as the Venus Fly-trap for its wholesale devouring of insects drawn by the succulent stratagem of a natural pitcher collecting rainwater.
The favorite fruit of Borneo lads and lasses is durian, the only fruit allowed into no hotel in the world. Slice it open, or better crack it open because its skin is more like a medieval iron mace, spiked to bash in your head while confounding the nose with a nauseatingly sticky sweetness.
Equally wild was Brunei, the filthy rich oil sultanate the size of Delaware. Brunei has recently fallen on hard times because of sloppy investments made by the Sultan’s playboy brother. Prince Jefri was stripped of his princedom after billions of dollars magically disappeared from the Sultanate’s coffers, the Sultan learning belatedly that investments in gambling, booze and babes pay few monetary dividends. According, Brunei is a dry dry country, which in the natural course of things limits many Western visits to a maximum of two days and requires a separate passport, filled in on the spot, for liquor imported by non-Muslims. Still, Brunei retains attractions ranging from a gold-plated mosque to an opulent gold and marble pointy-thing, plus a labyrinth of stilt houses along the Brunei River, which empties from former Brunei Town into Brunei Bay on the South China Sea.
Brunei’s top attractions reside in the Sultan’s Royal Regalia Museum, which housed a humongous coronation chariot, the solid gold arm that supported the sultan’s drooping chin during his long coronation ceremony and the many tokens of esteem proffered by foreign governments. These quite-incredible gifts ranged from a solid gold model car with alabaster windows, to a golden fort and dozens of knickknacks from dirt-poor Indonesia, including huge solid-gold oil wells a foot high with gold oil-storage tanks. Colin Powell gave the Sultan a bronze cowboy on a horse with a gun, obviously a statue of his then boss, but rather chintzy for a man with a golden arm.
Next I searched the few remaining longhouses of Borneo’s headhunters, recently and hopelessly reformed, thinking I might locate a wild man or two amongst a community that still packed blow-pipes and congregated around nestled skulls. Instead I was found by Michel (pronounced “Michele”), my guide, a rather wild guy who picked up gay guys, specializing in Californians. I was so happy to come from Arizona and find a button on the inside of the knob on the door of my little room in the longhouse that night, drinking copious amounts of rice wine to forget who might be pounding on the bamboo wall.
As a last resort I looked for the Wild Man of Borneo in its cities, from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah Province, to Kuching, capital of Sarawak. And I quite liked Kuching, which means cats. The riverfront sported an old white-rajah fort named Margharita, teeming with cutesy boats in bright yellow, scarlet and emerald, scooting across the Sarawak River. The city sprouted brightly painted Chinese temples and cemeteries, home to half million people and nonstop construction, not unexpected in a completely modern country such as Malaysia, notwithstanding the misleading name of Borneo.
I ventured up the mighty Rejang River to Sibu, the video pirating capital of the world, shaming China into second-class status. Coincidentally, perhaps, about half of Sibu’s residents are Chinese. I bought The Singing Detective, hoping for pointers in finding missing wild men, but found none, unless one counts incipient insanity.
I realized at that moment that First-World Malaysian Borneo harbored few wild men, while I’d had the wildest man in my sights all the time. To paraphrase Pogo I had met the enemy and he was me, running around Borneo like nutso. So watch for my picture on the cover of National Geographic and I’ll see you down that long tourist road in Zanzibar, along the Old Silk Road or at Machu Picchu.
When you go to Borneo: Resorts abound in Borneo, favorites for Malaysians, ranging from $50 a day, and up. Medium priced hotels in the larger cities cost about $35 for a double, among which I recommend the Gaya Centre Hotel (new and $45) in Kota Kinabalu and the 360 Express Hotel in Kuching. For any level of resort or hotel, google hotels Malaysia and many will appear at your fingertips. With sufficient advance purchase you can fly to either Kota Kinabalu or Kuching on Air Asia for less than $100 roundtrip from Kuala Lumpur or the Philippines. See www.airasia.com. Malaysian Air flies direct to Kuala Lumpur from major world cities while Air Asia flies all over South East Asia with extremely reasonable prices.