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The first thoughts
My wife Annette and I, Malte, are on the budget plane from Malacca (Malaysia Peninsula) to Miri (Malaysia, Borneo). Next to us, our daughters Amelie (12) and Smilla (3) are fast asleep. For four weeks we have been travelling through the well-developed peninsula of Malaysia and now we are courageous enough to venture into ‘wild Borneo’, which I only know from Heinrich Harrer’s documentary films.
Images of impenetrable jungles and poisonous animals are on our mind and for Annette and me are cause for a bit of concern. Particularly because of our children.
During the two previous month-long family trips through Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, we were often reproached for exposing the children to serious risks. Well, not really other ones than the children who live there. The only difference is that we often change places and do homeschooling.
But Borneo? Annette and I are in doubt. Aren‘t we taking too big of a chance? At the end of the trip, three months later, we do have an answer.
The first steps
Every journey begins with a first step. In Miri, we grab a tiny rental car and drive to Niah Cave, one of the most impressive caves in Borneo and at the same time pretty accessible. Just right for our first cautious steps.
Niah Cave impresses with its large chambers into which the daylight squeezes through small rock holes like a spotlight. The high-frequency whining and whimpering, which could be misinterpreted as tinnitus, comes from thousands and thousands of bats that guard their nests in the ceilings and walls.
Half disgusted, half amused, Amelie and Smilla move through the cave.
The wooden planks leading through the cave are slippery with bat droppings. Half disgusted, half amused, Amelie and Smilla move through the cave. A cave guide tells them about a species of snake that lurks at great heights in complete darkness at the cave entrances and catches the bats in flight. In the evening, before falling asleep, our girls excitedly babble non-stop about their experiences. With shining eyes. A good start after all.
Brunei – in the realm of the Sultan
By car we drive north along the coast to Brunei. Just 400,000 inhabitants live in the immensely wealthy sultanate. Enormous natural gas fields and oil deposits ensure the prosperity of this small country. The monarch Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who has ruled since 1967, resides in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. His gigantic palace Istana Nurul Iman is the largest palace in the world with 1,800 rooms and a living space equivalent to 130 football fields.
Half of the capital’s 46,000 inhabitants live in Kampong Ayer – the largest stilt village in the world. The residents decided against relocating to the mainland. Therefore, generous modernisation was carried out with help from the sultan’s treasure chest: The stilts are now made of concrete, there is electricity and running water. We walk for hours over the wooden planks, for the children a wonderful environment for wild chases or playing hide and seek.
Many wooden houses are emblazoned with strange smooth signs in various sizes, which on closer inspection turn out to be dried horseshoe crabs. Actually, however, they are not crabs at all, but belong to the arachnids. Ancestors of these horseshoe crabs already lived around 440 million years ago, so that today’s species can be described as living fossils.
We find the Bruneians very friendly, curious and open. Again and again we are greeted with “Hello, welcome to Brunei”. In the evening, the residents sit outside their wooden houses, chat with their neighbours or greet passers-by. Families with two blond girls don’t seem to pass by here too often. And so we are only too happy to engage in the curiosity of the Bruneians and chat about origins, professions and – of course – football!
Such encounters recharge our supplies of courage. The next day, in the oversized stilt village, we simply walk into a school, which we have identified by the loud roistering of the children. The doors are open, all the children are wearing white uniforms, the boys with kopiah, a traditional headdress, and the girls with veils.
Immediately, we are warmly beckoned in by a teacher into his spacious classroom. After a short round of introductions, we watch classes and are amazed: the 20 or so children work with English-language textbooks, which are elaborately designed and lovingly taught. With infinite patience, the teacher strolls from table to table, answering questions and pointing to solutions. The atmosphere could be described as amplified concentration.
Bruneians are well-off. Poverty and crime are almost unheard-of. All educational institutions, doctors and hospitals are free of charge. Also, no taxes are levied.
Brunei: pure gigantomania. With its dimensions, the Empire Hotel is reminiscent of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Royal Wedding Day
After a few days in Brunei – in the meantime we have become more susceptible to luxury – we discover an separate article in the travel guide about the Sultan’s luxury hotel. An occasion and thus the justification is quickly found: It’s Annette’s and my wedding anniversary. After checking our finances, we nod each other in agreement and book a last-minute discount-weekend at ‘The Empire’! The children are jubilant: finally a palace where they can live out their princess dreams.
Already the approach to the hotel announces gigantomania: the hotel has its own motorway exit – on both sides! The car park is several hundred metres away from the hotel. We are chauffeured to reception in the golf cart. We can hardly gauge the dimensions of the building. Its architecture and size are more reminiscent of an American mall. No wonder, the Sultan himself was involved in the conception of the hotel.
It appears the founders were serious about breaking several Guinness Book records: The 11,000-square-metre pool was once the largest saltwater pool in the world. The view from the lobby spans 5 floors, even with my 14mm wide-angle lens I can’t capture all this space.
The main hall with its gigantic pillars of Carrara marble, up to 60 metres high, relegates the people inside to ants. And the original Formula 1 car on a platform also looks like a toy. Annette and I feel giddy at times, the kids think it is ‘regal’.
Homestay in Kudat
After two days princess-residency, we board our rental car and are adrift again – always along the coast – heading for the extreme north-east of Borneo. Here on the peninsula we spontaneously decide upon a so-called ‘homestay’. For us it means: we stay for a few days with the family of Jayantha, his wife and his two children and take part in all typical daily activities.
The very next morning we enter the mangrove forest. The cicadas are chirping deafeningly loud, it is well over 30 degrees centigrade with no wind at all. Jayantha and Amelie lay a crab trap: a cage the size of a bread basket is filled with dried fish as bait and thrown into the water.
A few hours later we return and sure enough, a crab with a wingspan of 30 centimetres is wriggling in the cage! Jayantha doesn’t hesitate and with two strong jerks rips off the crab’s claws and stows the creature in a cloth bag. “Very nice meal! ” he grins with a thumbs up. We are a bit shocked as actually we intended to release the crab again.
Voiceless discovery-enthusiasm and gratitude engulfs me.
On the way back, we stop at a dense forest. “This is our supermarket!” Jayantha explains “but we need no credit card, only this” and points to his machete. In fact, the inhabitants of Kudat find most of their food in nature. They rarely have to go shopping. Over 100 endemic fruits and plants grow in Kudat, including a completely inconspicuous little plant called bagu. It is difficult for us to see the difference between the many green leaves that Jayantha’s wife nimbly picks and conveys over her shoulder into the basket on her back.
It is only when we are served the many leaves on a plate in the evening, alongside the crab, that we are able to see the difference: bagu has an unpretentious but sensational taste. For minutes I consider similarities and comparisons, but nothing really sticks. Voiceless discovery-enthusiasm and gratitude engulfs me.
The next day Jayantha invites us for ‘easy fishing’. He stretches a net about 1.50 metres high and about 25 metres long along a remote bay. We wait for an hour and then we can pluck the fish out of the nets. The girls are a bit hesitant – understandably, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to put wriggling small animals into collecting buckets. But we wanted to take part in everything and this is part of it. In the evening, the tastiest specimens end up on our plates again.
After three days filled with a variety of experiences and encounters, we say goodbye. This much is certain: it will not have been our last homestay.
Borneo’s big plants and animals
We continue our journey towards the east coast, passing the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, Gunung Kinabalu (4,095 metres). At the side of the road we discover a simple scrawled signboard: ‘Raflesia here’.
Through a bamboo thicket we follow the signs on foot and half an hour later we come upon the largest flower in the world. With a diameter of about one metre, a huge red Rafflesia with hard wooden leaves – and a horrible smell – appears right in front of us. The smell attracts insects, mainly flies, to pollinate – and shoos us on to the next highlight.
Suddenly, the alpha animal shoots out, hisses loudly and bares its teeth.
They are among the stars of Borneo’s animal world: The Orang Utans. In two locations on Borneo – once here near Sandakan and once near Kuching – you can observe wild orangutans. A large proportion of these reintroduced primates still have a strong connection to the nursery where they were once raised, and so they return regularly.
During the safety briefing there, we are repeatedly reminded that we have entered the habitat of the orangutans – and not the other way around. Excitedly, we wobble along the plank path that leads past several feeding stations. And as it happens: we have luck and observe a female lovingly playing with and caressing her young. Every now and again both of them turn around for a bit longer, calm and curious, and examine us visitors thoroughly. It seems to me that they enjoy the attention that they receive.
The next day, not far from here, we meet another fascinating primate species: the proboscis monkeys! They only live here on Borneo and – like the orangutans – can be found at set times at feeding places in their habitat. And again we are lucky: in groups of four to six, led by a male, the proboscis monkeys shimmy down to the feeding plateaus and peacefully feast on their donated food.
The children giggle as the monkeys seem to mow to communicate with each other – they sound like a small flock of sheep! Suddenly, the alpha animal shoots out, hisses loudly and bares its teeth. The threatening gesture is not meant for us however, but directed at another gang of nose monkeys who are after the food donations as well – and are now retreating.
A nose monkey alpha male warns another group not to get too close.
Back in Kota Kinabalu, we take a small propeller plane to Mulu National Park. The journey overland is still very arduous; the flight takes just 35 minutes. It was only in the 1980s that huge cave systems were discovered in the mountain ranges near Mulu, the extent of them is still not fully known. Every year, speleologists survey still more kilometres of as yet unexplored cave passages and up until now there is no end in sight.
Mulu seems to be hardly developed for tourism. We rent a small room near the entrance to the national park. There are no room keys, the bathrooms have no running water. If you want to wash yourself, you scoop water out of the basin with a ladle and let it flow over your body or take a bath in the nearby river.
Every morning we hike into the national park with guide Shahrir. He makes us understand the jungle and leads us to and inside the caves. Through Shahrir we learn to ‘see’. At first we wonder how the guy spots the insects in the dense bushes. We already suspect him of having put them there in advance. But after a few days, we too can spot insects and animals much faster and more accurately than before. The easiest way is to keep a close eye on the railing alongside the wooden plank path. Animals like to use this as a highway. With the macro lens I capture caterpillars, dragonflies and centipedes. The macro lens, of course! My new acquisition opens up the fascinating world of the micro cosmos for us.
And then this contrast in size. While I have the images of delicate fascinating tiny creatures before my photographic eye, already Shahrir leads us into a gigantic rock cathedral.
Up until today 222 kilometres of cave passages have been explored here, making it the eighth longest cave in the world.
We cannot grasp the dimensions because they are far removed from what we usually get to see. Shahrir laughs when he hears how we vastly underestimate the height and width of the cave. “Noooo, this is the Sarawak Chamber, the world’s biggest cave room! ”. The Sarawak Chamber is 600 metres long, up to 440 metres wide and 110 metres high! About two million bats live here and the smell is strong accordingly. For us adults, it seems almost grotesque. And indeed: ‘grotesque’ comes from the word ‘grotto’.
Slowly we mutate into grotto-wanderers: We like the athletic exploration of these last white dots on the geographical map of the world. The deeper we advance into the caves, the darker it gets and the shoddier the paths become. For how long can we endure this? Despite being armed with a torch, at some point Smilla becomes too uncomfortable in the total darkness and we turn around.
By boat we chug across the crystal clear waters of the Melinau River to the entrance of Clearwater Cave. Up until today 222 kilometres of cave passages have been explored here, making it the eighth longest cave in the world. Visitors only get to see a fraction of this. And that is a good thing, because the fragile cave environment should be protected from too much human impact. That is why all the caves in Mulu are open and lit for only just under 4 hours a day. Artificial light should remain the exception, as it stimulates the growth of algae. In Clearwater Cave it gurgles, flows and smacks at every corner, we are awe struck at how the water has been noisily cleaving its way here for millions of years.
Dripping with sweat from all the climbing, we also want to jump into the cool water. We are not allowed to in the cave, but there is a natural pool nearby. Apart from us, no one has found their way here. Hurriedly we take off our clothes at well over 30 degrees centigrade and plunge into the crystal-clear water. Only seconds later we shriek. It’s freezing cold! No wonder as the pool is directly fed from Clearwater Cave.
By late afternoon we want to watch bats flying out of a cave by the thousands. But nothing happens: pouring rain falls from the sky. The bats then remain in the cave and won’t come out for days. We want to see the bats at all costs. That means waiting. For days. And do something else in the meantime.
The next day the weather has improved and we take a look at the jungle from above: on the Canopy Walkway – the tree top walk. It takes a lot of courage to walk over the wobbly, creaking suspension bridges at heights of up to 45 metres. It’s a nice exercise to put your head for heights to the test. Amelie in particular has a clear advantage thanks to years of adventure-playground experience.
In the middle of one of the largest caves in the world, Deer Cave in Mulu. About two million bats live here and the smell is correspondingly strong. Annette and the children stand on the right in the flashed clearing.
Borneo’s little animals
In Borneo, we noticed: there are two types of animal watchers:
- the tele-watcher: with binoculars he peers into the treetops for large, rare animals that have long since fled the noise.
- the near-watcher: they are mostly children! Through Amelie and Smilla we learn to get down on our knees and discover fascinating things just at arm’s length- often hidden under leaves or behind trees.
These include spiders that exploit the curvature of a leaf not even the size of the palm of a hand to spin their web in.
After days of jungle training with Shahrir, our eyes are focussed: Amelie even discovers a phylliidae, an insect perfectly adapted to its environment.
The same applies to the stick insect, which can hardly be distinguished from a thin branch when viewed from above. Shahrir extracts a huge specimen out of the undergrowth for us. How does he spot it?
Only moments later he puts a large ghost insect on Annette’s arm. We laugh out loud, but remain speechless.
On the wooden railing of the plank path we discover countless eccentric creatures, mostly caterpillars. Sometimes it seems to us that they would like to take part in a fashion show with extravagant outfits and want to attract attention at any cost.
Why would you want to know the names of all these strange creatures? That moment of rapture alone is the reward, the present. Ok, of course I want to capture it with my camera, so I can preserve the feeling of the first fresh experience a little bit.
And on it goes: like in a restaurant, Shahrir serves us the next sensations: Rhinoceros beetles, lantern beetles, weevils and his favourite animals: snakes. But now caution is asked for.
On a night hike where I accompany Shahrir alone, he suddenly stops in front of a bush and fishes out a long object with his outstretched arm. Visibly excited, he holds a pit viper in front of my nose, and asks me, “Where shall I put it for the picture?” I point to a broad leaf. He turns to me with the snake once more, I back away a little and Shahrir explains amusedly – with his index finger not 20 centimetres from the snake’s mouth, “Oh, stay away please. When she bites you, you dead!”
Encounter with the Jungle Punk
With my new macro lens, I can’t stay put during the lunch break in our guesthouse and go on patrol in the garden. I spot a small white flower on a bush, the size of a thumbnail, and take aim. Before I can press down the button, the flower suddenly moves out of my viewfinder! Then this something falls down into a hole in the ground and is – despite my attempts to dig it out – gone. I scratch my head. What was that? Weeks later I find more specimens on the railing of a plank path – and Shahrir’s explanation: that was not a flower, but a planthopper: a young pointed-headed cicada that imitates the appearance of a blossom almost perfectly. Now it’s hard for us to drop the nickname we’ve come to love for these cute little guys: Jungle Punk!
My jungle favourite: the planthooper, which belongs to the group of bugs. When I saw it for the first time, I thought: “What a beautiful flower”. But suddenly he moved away. Planthooper just about the size of a thumbnail, very nimble and therefore difficult to photograph.
And finally, after five days, we see a bat again – on the veranda of our guesthouse, directly above our dining table. Perhaps today – shortly before nightfall – we may be able to observe how the bats leave their cave. And as a matter of fact we are lucky, they swarm out. Up to 3.5 million bats fly out of the Sarawak Chamber to hunt insects.
They form up to twenty successive corkscrew-like flight formations to confuse the hawks swooping down on them. One last time we indulge in a stunningly beautiful natural phenomenon, accompanied by silent ooohs and aaahs. We feel enormous gratitude for this beautiful ‘final performance’ at the end of our cave and jungle excursions on Borneo.
On the journey back from Borneo to Kuala Lumpur, we make a detour to Taman Negara National Park. It is the green heart of Malaysia and, at 130 million years old, the oldest rainforest on earth!
We pick up on the tip that you can observe larger animals eating in the evening near a jackfruit tree. Annette obtains precise directions for reaching the location and after our evening meal sets off with the children. I return to the accommodation to dedicate myself to the ritual of reviewing the day’s photo and film material.
An hour later, my girls return utterly exhilarated. Annette and Amelie recount – interrupting each other: the observation point is only a stone’s throw away from the park’s observation hut at the edge of the forest. No one but them had come. Even from a distance they hear loud smacking and grunting noises. Creepy! For it is already almost completely dark.
Annette takes Smilla in her arms. In the light of the torches pointing down, they approach the scene silently and slowly. None of the three dares to make a noise. Annette senses the increasing tenseness of our girls from Amelie’s squeezing hand and Smilla clenching her neck.
About three metres from the tree they pause and slowly shine the light on the animals noisily devouring the fallen jackfruits. Tapirs! Three of them! And they are much bigger than in Annette’s recollection. Perturbed by the lamplight, two tapirs start moving – and in Annette’s direction. Amelie starts to whimper.
Annette tries to stay calm and retreats slowly. The animals speed up, Amelie starts running and Annette also turns to flee. They hurry down the path back to the park guard house. Smilla looks relaxed or shocked – in any case muted.
Arriving back down, they almost collide with an amused-looking park ranger who invites them into the hut for protection. He laughs and says they were lucky yet again. The animals are not aggressive and herbivores at that, but sometimes feel disturbed while feeding and then hunt the intruding spectators. The two tapirs have also halted and are looking for edibles right by the hut.
The ranger opens a window and so my girls can watch the animals searching, eating and burrowing.
This little adventure will be etched in my girls’ minds for years. Whenever they are asked about their most exciting animal encounter, they narrate their tapir story.
Travelling with children
Concluding this report, I would like to make a short plea for travelling with children. Three times now we travelled as a family through Asia for several months, altogether adding up to over 18 months of family travel. Each of these trips has etched many stories in our invisible family book.
The trips have bonded us like nothing else. We feel that the time we spent travelling together has been the best investment of our lives. For it is worth many times the expense at the time.
These investments have gone into deep emotional experiences. And these experiences are now part of our personality. No car, no status symbol can do that. These experiences are like an ‘inner treasure chest’: zero grams of weight, but priceless. No one can ever take them away from you anymore, but you can always draw upon them. What could be more beautiful?
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