Borneo: An Island, a Head Hunting Tribesman, Wildlife and Pirates!
After a long journey of 20 hours of a bus, coach, two aeroplanes (Malaysia airlines), a taxi and a boat, I finally reached my destination, an island just off the coast of Borneo.
Following the recent news stories of one Malaysian Airlines plane disappearing altogether and another being shot down by the Russians, it amused my dark sense of humour that they gave us a newspaper on the plane with the headlines saying ‘Terrorists threaten Plane’ and on a most turbulent flight having the man who was sat next to me praying the whole time.
MA is a great airline; I will fly with them again.
After the long haul flights it was a relief to climb into a speed boat and enjoy the 30 minute ride across the dark sea where flying fish gleamed silver under the bright moon, the fresh sea air felt refreshing and it was exciting to see the black shape of the island looming in the distance.
I was the only passenger in the boat and reaching the island I was greeted by two Malaysian members of staff who took me up the very steep hill to my dwelling, which was a beautiful treehouse high up amongst the forest.
I could hear the waves gently lapping onto the beach below and the breeze in the trees that surrounded me and with that I drifted off to a peaceful and blissful sleep.
This trip was to explore the area and search for wildlife to photograph and it lived very much up to my expectations, the island was alive with green vegetation, bejewelled with bright hibiscus flowers, butterflies, huge bees and dragonflies flying from plant to plant and tropical birds calling from the canopy.
Only accessible by boat, the island itself on Malohom Bay, Gaya Island (named after the Hibiscus flowers) is the largest of five on the Abdul Rahman Marine area off the coast of Borneo’s Kota Kinabalu with a steep hillside ancient forest and mangroves.
I woke up on my first day there feeling a little odd, in that if I stood still it felt as though the floor was moving; it must be my body catching up with the flights mixed in with general tiredness.
During the early hours I soon learnt that I would get visits from a group of Long-tailed Macaque (Macaca fascicularis) monkeys knocking on the roof of the treehouse
Long-tailed macaques sleep in trees with each group sleeping in its own tree all huddling together when they sleep to maintain body temperature. They sleep toward the edge of the branches near the top or crown of the tree and preferentially choose branches that overhang a river in case any predators approach. In order to escape they drop down into the water and swim away from any threat, these monkeys are very strong swimmers, so it is an effective escape.
Apart from the staff that were warm and friendly there were only another two couples there, so it was exceptionally quiet and the staff from gardeners to caterers soon learnt of my passion for all creatures and would shout “Miss Amanda, come see snake….see dragonfly…….see bird” if they spotted anything.
It was like having lots of extra pairs of eyes, which when combing the area for wildlife was most useful.
I also got back one day to find that Nelly, who looked after the Hibiscus flowers on the island and had gardens of hybrids that she was growing, had left me three books to borrow in English on Amphibians & Reptiles, Birds and Plants of Borneo.
It was a lovely gesture and I used the books a lot to identify things.
There was a huge Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator) hunting fish in the lake, his markings were stunning and I managed to get some close up photos of him, his unblinking eye had a touch of the Jurassic, the adults can grow to a massive 3 meters in length.
Water monitors are superb swimmers by using the raised fin on their tails as rudders to steer through the water. They are carnivores and will eat most things including turtles, fish, snakes, rats, dogs and carrion; if threatened will defend themselves using their tails, claws, and jaws, unlike the Komodo they do not have the bacteria in their teeth that is fatal to humans, however it is still a good idea to give them a wide berth.
Later I swam in the sea, the water was warm and I could clearly see the striped tropical fish swimming around me, as I floated there it occurred to me that at that moment I felt no pain or discomfort, it was just pure blissful relaxation resting in the arms of the ocean.
There was a swing on the beach, just set there from a large palm tree and nightly I would enjoy flying through the air on that swing as I watched pale crabs scuttle across the sand, it was idyllic in every sense of the word for me.
One day here I saw three Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) which are listed as critically endangered, interesting almost prehistoric looking birds.
The male will protect the female from predators when breeding by sealing the female inside a hole in a nesting tree with plaster of mud and fibres, he will gather up loose earth to take to her so that she can seal herself inside the hole, leaving only a narrow slit for her to feed herself and their chicks. The male is then solely in charge of getting food to them and he busies himself fetching fruits, berries, insects, figs, insects, lizards and frogs.
I managed to get very close to these birds and observe them as they searched for food and preened themselves in the branches high above.
I went across to another Island, called Gayana, it is not as large and also there was very little there except huts for holiday makers and MERC an eco-centre where researchers are trying to breed giant clams and have a program in place to replant stray corals.
I spent a couple of hours there then headed back to my island on a boat full of eggs.
Mount Kinabalu and the Head Hunters
I planned a day off the island to do a 7 hour round trip journey across Sabah to see the foot of Mount Kinabalu, where I continued my search for bugs and other wildlife.
I did a jungle walk at the base of Mount Kinabalu, some very steep climbs up the forest paths and found some strange looking insects on the way as well as a stunning crested lizard, which was very well camouflaged against some tree bark; it is only when it moved that I spotted it. I also found two praying mantises, a superb moth and watched butterflies colourfully waft across the canopy from a treetops walkway.
Mount Kinabalu itself is the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago and its summit is 4,095 meters (13,435 ft.) above sea level, it is estimated that it has between 5000 and 6000 species of plants, 326 species of birds, and more than 100 mammalian species identified, including the Orangutan.
I met a man called ‘Mebo’ from an old Head Hunting Tribe called ‘Dusun’ he told me about how they used to head hunt to win the heart of a girl and prove their strength as men. It is said if you only had two skulls then you were deemed unworthy to get married, you must collect more and any head would do, it did not have to be from a warrior.
Mebo said that they no longer take people’s heads, however they do worship the skulls, one in particular, the last skull, they ‘keep the spirit alive’ as they believe it still lives in the skull.
To please the spirit the chief orders for a chicken to be sacrificed and then offers up its blood to summon the spirit, Mebo says that this ensures the spirit stays happy and the skull stays healthy, otherwise it would go white and crack.
It was fascinating talking to him and he is still very proud of his tribe and takes the sacrifices very seriously, he clearly believes that the spirit is in that skull.
Storms and Snakes
Most nights there would be a very heavy thunderstorm, being September Borneo is heading into the monsoon season; I soon came to know the rhythms of the weather, as in storms throughout the night and generally a very heavy rainstorm in the morning from 5am until about 8am. Then would follow the sunshine break through the clouds and I would watch as the mists rose from the forest, which was wonderful to photograph.
On one such very rainy morning, rather than catch the boat to the mainland, instead I opted to stay on the island as I did not want my camera equipment getting water damage from the rain.
I am so glad that I did as this was what I know refer to as ‘the day of the snakes’, I love snakes and finding any to photograph is always exciting, well today I got to see four snakes.
After breakfast I did the steep walk up three hills to the wooden steps up to the tree house and as I got there something caught my eye, an emerald green shape coiled up on the third step up, it was a Green Pit Viper.
I was so pleased to see it and took as many photographs as I could before getting a stick and gently moving it back down into the forest, this one was a juvenile snake, very bright green with a smattering of markings.
I later saw three more of these, two adults and a young snake, all green pit vipers so presume they were of the same family.
Then later on as I was wandering around the outer skirts of the forest, Syharin, my favourite person on the island came running to get saying that he had found a Python, I followed him and he led me to the snake, it had the most beautiful markings on and I took my photographs before it slithered away out of sight.
Syharin told me that a couple of months ago one of the boatmen went into the old boat house to get some equipment and almost tripped over a giant Python that was coiled up, the snake was as wide as his leg, he was terrified and came running out. It took several men to move the snake, none of them very keen to get too near as of course the Python can very quickly surround and suffocate its victims and it was this that they feared most.
It was moved to another area off this part of that island as they have a ‘no kill’ policy there which impressed me, they also had to remove two Wild Boars that were charging at people.
Though if they move anything to the other side of the island, the wildlife has to take its chances for it is not protected there and the villagers that live there (some rumoured to be pirates) will kill and eat virtually anything that they see.
I think I can hazard a guess as to where these Boars ended up.
Later Syharin came to find me and asked me to follow him as he headed to the wooden boardwalk with torch in hand, I grabbed my cave torch which had a strong beam and followed him.
When we got there he shone his beam into the darkened water below and I watched in fascination the mysterious creatures below including Squid, a Sting Ray and a Bat fish, it was very special to see them so close up.
A broken boat, Proboscis Monkeys and a thousand Fireflies
I had a restless night; sleep seems to be easily interrupted here for me from the noises of the forest at night and loud thunder storms, even without these sounds though I wake up at 3am on the dot, this is most likely from the time difference.
I was so tired that I opted for a morning looking around the island for more wildlife and found an abundance of butterflies, dragonflies and bees.
At 1pm I caught a boat across to Jesselton Point on the mainland and then a taxi (about 3hours) across country to the river Klein.
Although a beautiful river, the Klein has obviously become a tourist trap and was muddied for me by all the other boats going up and down it with extremely noisy people in.
Luckily the driver of the boat I was in was canny and he got ahead and away from the crowds and we sped off down the river to look for wildlife, this boat had just a handful of people in who were quiet and respectful which gave a fighting chance of seeing something.
We struck lucky and saw several groups of Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) , they were very hard to photograph as they are shy creatures and tend to stay high up in the canopy, however I did get a couple of shots of these strange looking creatures with their long noses.
The Malaysians often refer to these as Dutch Monkeys monyet belanda as they associate them with the Old Dutch colonisers who had large stomachs and noses also.
These gentle, shy monkeys eat berries and leaves and go together in small groups then these all congregate at night at a sleeping point in the trees.
It was such a privilege to watch these monkeys quietly playing and I have to say of all the wildlife I have seen over the years, these are up there as one of the most exciting species to see.
The boat went to start back up along the river but choked and spluttered before the engine stopped altogether, the engine was dead and we were stuck. I did not mind at all as it meant extra time watching the monkeys and eventually a rescue boat came down the river and we transferred in to that and watched as it was rigged up to toe our old boat back.
Later as darkness fell, I headed out once more down the river in a working boat to see the fireflies and was astounded to see so many, there must have been at least a thousand of them lighting up one of the trees, which twinkled as though it was covered in Christmas lights.
A beautiful sight and an enchanting night, leaving the river Klein to make the 3 hour taxi journey back to Jesselton Point and then get a boat back to my island, I call it my island as for the short time I was there it felt as though it was as I loved exploring every inch of the place.
Wild Boar and Pirates
I had a day looking for the Wild Boar on the Island, as fore mentioned I know that two had to be ‘removed’ for being too aggressive, but I knew that there were more of them and really wanted to see some.
It was almost 4:30pm in the afternoon when I finally got to see one, it was a female and she was pregnant, what a strange looking animal with that huge snout, I crept closer and approached to get some photographs. She sensed me immediately and started to put her head forward and stamp her right hoof on the ground, I thought she was gearing up to charge at me so I retreated quickly.
I have always loved Wild Boars, I remember seeing some in Africa with their young many years ago and having a fondness for them ever since then, as this one was clearly a little twitchy and needed to continue snuffling in the ground for food without me watching her so I left her alone.
As the light started to fade I watched Dragonflies surveying the area for insects, crabs on the beach started popping out of holes in the sand and scuttling about looking for sand-flies, the birds then started to swoop down on the crabs and so the dusk cycle began.
One of the things I really enjoyed was watching ships pass by the island, on this day though a black military looking speed boat sped to the island and a group of men all dressed in black with large guns jumped ashore and began running onto the island.
I was rooted to the spot for a moment, were they terrorists? I had photographed the boat and them, but then decided to quickly move off the exposed beach and further back into the forest area, cowardly though that seems, if a load of men with guns are running your way, I always think flight is best.
During my panic stricken run I bumped into a member of staff (who looked uncannily like the midget waiter in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun) and he explained that these were soldiers and police who were doing a sweep of the island for Pirates.
It is known that there is a hot spot for pirates on the other side of the island, I spoke to one of the other couples about it and they said that they were advised not to take any small boats in that area as there is high risk of kidnap.
So the men with guns were there to protect.
I wandered the island once more on my last night and enjoyed watching the reflection of the moon shine across the glittering ocean, I will miss this island and the staff, and I have made friends here and feel very at home.
When I went back to the treehouse to pack, I was pleasantly surprised to see a present beautifully wrapped on my bed, it had been signed by all of the staff, not just signatures, but personalised messages such as “stay away from wild boar”, etc.
What a wonderful gesture.
The Islanders gave me two sarongs and a mug decorated with the Hibiscus flowers that the island is named after.
I shall treasure them.