Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Wonders of nature in Borneo

Lying on a tropical island beach, with the sun warming my body and the sound of the sea lulling me to sleep, was a perfect holiday moment. But when a turtle hatchling, smaller than the palm of a person's hand, walked by my beach mat, it took the experience to a whole other level.

From a distance I followed this infant as it made its perilous journey across the sand and into the open sea. Once it reached the water it swam away, its webbed feet moving like a clockwork toy. Most hatchlings are killed by predators at this stage, but for the small number who make it to adulthood this is the start of a long and complex life. They famously return to their birthplace to nest, travelling thousands of miles to do so. It was a delight to witness the first moments of one of nature's great mysteries.

I was on the aptly named Turtle Island, which lies off the east cost of Malaysian Borneo. It's one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet and is a wonderland of rare wildlife, rainforests, pristine coral reefs and picture postcard beaches. It also has a rich ethnographic history, with over 200 indigenous tribes and a large Chinese, Indian and Malay population.

Sabah is the region most famous for its wildlife and I joined a tour with adventure travel specialists Intrepid Travel. The trip is done in 'backpacker' style - perfect for those wanting to make the most of their time with minimum hassle and maximum experiences. Our group of 10 was small enough for a solo traveller like me to get to know everyone, yet big enough to offer variety. As it turned out, I had nine readymade travelling companions to accompany me on my journey.

Our first port of call was a home-stay with a family of the Dusun tribe. Once farming people and head-hunters, many of them now live in cities and towns. Head-hunting was common practice with indigenous tribes until the first decades of the 20th century; the ritual still continues but with replica heads made out of coconut shells. In days gone by the heads would be skinned and dried and smoked over a fire and then hung up in the longhouse. The skulls were believed to have powerful spiritual properties and could ward off evil and misfortune.

Robert, the man of the house, went to great lengths to teach us of the traditional, but disappearing way of life of the Dusun. The first task Robert gave us was 'paddy bashing'. Thankfully this was not an act of violence against my compatriots but involved preparing rice granules for cooking. The 'bashing' involved beating the rice with a stick to remove the husks. It was sweaty work and gave me a new appreciation for the humble grain. After dinner local children performed traditional songs and dances and then tried to teach us some of the moves. Our poorly co-ordinated efforts were a source of great amusement to the locals.

Robert's home is located at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, which is considered sacred by his people, who believe it's the resting place for souls. Standing at 4,095m, it's the fourth highest mountain and the steepest climbable peak in South East Asia. Conquering it was next on our itinerary. It was a tough, but gratifying two-day return journey, during which we travelled through the warm lowland rainforests to the near-freezing alpine conditions at the peak.

Welcome relief for aching legs came by soaking in the hot springs of the Mount Kinabalu National Park. These communal baths were established by the Japanese during World War II. The park is a botanical and ornithological paradise with over 300 species of birds and 5,000 flowering plants, some of which can only be found in this particular area of the world. It's home to nature's largest flower, the Rafflesia, which can grow to over a metre in diameter and weigh over 10kg. It's known as the corpse flower, because of the smell of rotten flesh it emits when in bloom.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Wonders of nature in Borneo