The Wildest Man of Borneo
Jan 15, 2006
David Rich 1500 Words
T H E W I L D E S T M A N O F B O R N E O
Exotic destinations reverberate in the imagination 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 in Borneo, on the world's third largest island, a mission to find the fabled Wild Man tintinnabulating my imaginings.
I would scour equatorial north 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 man, out of control. The old guy had better hunker down because I was on the way to 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.
I worked out a modus operandi. Start at the top and work down, eliminating the possibility of a mountain hermit. Thus my initial mission was to climb South East Asia's highest peak, Mt. Kinabalu at 13,455 feet (4,101 meters), a two day one night ordeal. I was 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 15 minutes, with time and money to see Zanzibar, the Old Silk Road and Machu Picchu.
Instead of auspiciously, 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, would begin pitch black at 2 am.
A string of headlamps pierced the darkness, strung out in the bitter chill for miles. 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 we were still shivering 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 could negotiate stairs without a gratuitous scream. I was ready to resume the quest.
With no hermit lurking in the heights, I 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.
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, but her t-shirt proclaimed, "Property of Playboy." The ultra-wild mammals included the proverbial Wild Man of Borneo, the endangered Orangutan, really orange and hammy with bad hair, features expressive of an incipient wildness manifested by snatching tourist glasses, water bottles and cameras. Equally photogenic, for those still owning a camera, was the proboscis monkey, rather like a scrawny Richard Nixon crossed with Pinocchio while making a speech about his little dog, "Checkers." Hung.
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 it 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 as its skin is more akin to 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 that's recently fallen on hard times because of sloppy investment decisions 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. Still, Brunei retains attractions ranging from a gold-plated mosque to an opulent gold and marble one, 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 housing his humongous coronation chariot, the solid gold arm that supported his drooping chin during the long coronation ceremony and the many tokens of esteem received from foreign governments. These quite-incredible gifts range 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 a chintzy gift to 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 found 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, as I drank copious amounts of rice wine and tried 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 and teemed with cutesy boats in bright yellow, scarlet and emerald scooting across the Sarawak River. The city sprouted brightly painted and adorned 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 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. So watch for my picture on the cover of National Geographic and I'll see you down that long tourist road somewhere, in Zanzibar, along the Old Silk Road or in Machu Picchu.
When you go to Borneo: Resorts abound in Borneo, favorites for Malaysians, ranging from $50 and up. Medium priced hotels in the larger cities cost about $25 for a double, among which I recommend the DeLeeton Hotel in Kota Kinabalu and the Telung Usan Hotel in Kuching. For any level of resort or hotel, google "hotels Malaysia" and many will appear at your fingertips. You can fly to either Kota Kinabalu or Kuching on Air Asia for less than $100 roundtrip from Kuala Lumpur, with sufficient advance purchase. See www.airasia.com. Malaysian Air flies direct to Kuala Lumpur from major world cities while Air Asia flies all over South East Asia extremely reasonably, though their slogan that "Now everyone can fly," should be amended to tack onto the end, "late."