Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Borneo: land of exotic beauty

The road, edged with lemon grass, wild ginger and tall bamboo orchids winds upwards from Kota Kimbalu, the capital of Sabah, one of the Malaysian segments of Borneo.  We pass through groves of wild bananas and acacias and see distant villages deep in the valleys below while crested serpent eagles wheel above. It is an awe inspiring scene.

“There it is, the sacred resting place of the spirits,” my guide Philip says pointing  excitedly to the mountain which now looms above us.

Mount Kinabulu

In the old days, Philip tells me, local people would not climb Mount Kinabalu and disturb the dead and when a British officer Sir Hugh Low tried to make the ascent 1851, his guides insisted on appeasing the spirits with the offerings of crystals, cockerels and eggs.  In 1994 five members of a British Army expedition were lost for a month in an area known as Low’s Gully. They were eventually rescued but the mountain is still afforded a great deal of respect by locals and climbers.

I had not come to climb the mountain however, but to visit Mount Kinabalu National Park which contains thousands of species of plants, insects and animals found nowhere else on earth and is justifiably a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On these slopes some 1200 species of orchid grow. So valuable are these plants that some years ago a Malaysian, Lim Sian was caught at Heathrow airport smuggling 130 of the most rare into Britain. We walk one of the trails through the oak and chestnut forest with laughing thrushes chortling above us and we find quantities of orchids including one of the very smallest bulbophyllum orchids, its bloom like a tiny drop of milk.


Much as I love orchids, I confess to Philip that my greatest desire is to see a Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, which I understand to be out of season. “No,” he assures me. “There is no real season, only luck.” On the way down the mountain, he stops at the Pecan Nabalu village market and after talking to a local man, tells me he thinks he’s located one.

We head off in the direction of Poring Hot Springs, sulphur baths installed by the Japanese during their occupation, now much used by weary mountaineers. At Ranau we pass the monument commemorating the 2400 Allied prisoners marched by the Japanese from Sandarkan -  six survived.

Enjoying bananas

Shortly afterwards we see a home made sign on the roadside, “Rafflesia in Bloom 3km” and turn off into the jungle.

“At first if people found these plants growing on their land, they would destroy them, thinking the government would take them, but now they make a little business of it,” Philip tells me as we meet the owner and pay her 10 ringgits ( about £2.00). She then escorts along a wooden walkway to the back of her house … and there they are! Not one but several huge, almost surreal blooms, the size of dustbin lids, growing at ground level. They are indeed  Rafflesia arnoldii  which are parasitic to a wild grape vine and take nine months to mature and then last only one week. I can’t believe my luck and can’t stop smiling as we head back down to Kota Kimbalu for a cool swim and a relaxing evening as I have to leave my comfortable bed at 4.30am for my next adventure.

This time I am heading  east, taking a short flight to Sandakan. I know of this town not only from the march of the prisoners but also from the books of Agnes Keith, an American who in the 1930s, married the Conservator of Forests for British North Borneo and wrote interestingly of colonial life in the area. Her house is now open as a museum and nearby there is even an English tea room where you can eat crumpets and play croquet.

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