Saturday, September 17, 2011

The awe of the Borneo jungle

The very mention of Borneo is enough to conjure vivid images of dense jungle inhabited by strange, hairy creatures, a land penetrated only by brave, machete-wielding explorers fending off menacing headhunters, blow darts and pirates.

Modern, internet-connected Borneo may have lost some of its wild and untamed characteristics but it's still one of the most dramatic and exciting destinations left on our shrinking planet.

Today we travel in four-stroke outboard-powered Zodiacs, putt-putting quietly along the mangrove-lined Kinabatangan River in the eastern Borneo state of Sabah, comical hornbills swooping overhead while boisterous macaque monkeys play tag among the palm fronds.

Chris, our naturalist guide from Orion Expedition Cruises, points out a rhinoceros hornbill just above the fork in a nearby tree.

Armed with powerful field glasses, large telephoto lenses and packing gigabytes of storage, we stalk these exotic species, ticking them off one-by-one as we progress silently within arm's reach of the mangrove-lined banks.

Tales of the wild lands, animals and people of Borneo first reached Europeans in 1522, when the straggling survivors of Magellan's fleet limped back to Spain. Indian, Javanese and Chinese traders, however, had been visiting for centuries prior in search of timber, ivory, gold and spices. Later, the Dutch and British colonial powers held sway, while the local sultans played their own power games. The 20th century was a dramatic chapter with a firm British grip until the Japanese took control briefly during WWII before liberation by Australian troops in 1945.

Sabah, on the farthest north-eastern tip, is now part of independent Malaysia and a source of much of the world's palm oil, a crop that is, unfortunately, replacing the coastal and riparian (riverside) forests vital to many endangered species of birds and mammals. Driven by this urgency, eco-tourism is the new growth industry of Borneo, often colliding with the more established forestry and palm plantations.

Continue reading at: The awe of the Borneo jungle

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