Descending into the Borneo Underground



 “…a terribly jungly place”
Somerset Maugham

This is my kind of background music. Insects prattling like powertools. We are walking through the Southeast Asia jungle. I love the sss ss steam heat, as long as I don’t have to do too much. I would have been one of the first ones kicked out of “Survivor.”

This is Borneo, home of some of the world’s oldest rainforests, an island that houses a freakshow of flora and fauna unmatched on earth: 1500 species of flowers (170 types of orchids), 262 brands of birds, monkeys, flying lizards and, should the jungle floor look at times as if it were moving, 458 appellations of ants.

Butterflies flutter by. Scientists have counted 281 breeds of them here. You see signs in villages advertising the local “Butterfly Taxidermist.”

When I was a child, I had a walk-in closet papered with National Geographic maps. Borneo was near the floor just below the hem of my rain slicker. Borneo always intrigued me because it was this huge island — a big green blob on the map — with a few rivers and very few names of towns.

What was there? Who knows?

Later I read tales of pirates and headhunters, of the Brooke Brothers, the fabled

James Brooke, the White Rajah of Borneo
James Brooke, the White Rajah of Borneo

White Rajahs of Borneo. One of the brothers was missing an eye and had a collection of exquisite glass eyes that a servant carried around in a case

There are still pirates in the waters near here. No headhunters, though.





Iban Dancer
Iban Dancer Photo: (c) Russell Johnson

We are told that the snaggle of skulls hanging from the rafters of this longhouse are antiques. We are being treated to some very graceful dancing: tatooed men with hornbill feathers and headdresses, women adorned with crowns and silver coins.

We had been led up the Skrang River river in a tippy canoe powered by an outboard motor. Our driver was a woman, of the Iban tribe. A cigarette hung from her lip.. Our guide is Malaysian Chinese. His name is Donald Duk, spelled DUK.

Borneo is divided among three countries. There are Malaysian and Indonesian sectors plus the independent country of Brunei.

We sit in a longhouse .a long structure on stilts that houses a whole tribe,.along with their dogs and gamecocks. Chickens and pigs run around below.

Even spookier was sleeping here, through a jungle storm. With those antique heads.hanging from the rafters. The only tourist death I have heard about from around these parts was a German who got swallowed by a python. It pays to watch your step. Didn’t sleep at all that night.

There is a fascinating underworld side to Borneo. The next way we began our hike through the Niah Caves, a cathedral of limestone in the jungle. I feel like jungle man. The sight of the mouth of these enormous caves strikes a chord. I look up, eight stories perhaps, at swiftlets slaloming through limestone icicles. From deep inside I hear water dripping and the flutter and screech of birds and bats blending and echoing through holes and passages like chords from a prehistoric pipe organ.

Niah Cave - Sarawak, Malaysia
Niah Cave – Sarawak, Malaysia  Photo: (c) Russell Johnson

As I walked through the cave I looked up through the cavern’s chimneys at blue sky and the lush vegetation of a jungle plateau. (half expecting a B movie brontosaurus to poke its head through the hole.)

It is easy to see how cavemen developed their vocabulary; they had to schlepp around on bat and bird guano. The experience is sort of like a Laurel and Hardy pie-fight. You can’t avoid getting dirty so you might as well dive head-on into the action.

There is quite a business in harvesting this..stuff. You see men hiking through the jungle carrying huge bags on their backs. Makes good fertilizer. But its not where the big money is. In the cave’s ceiling, flashlights swirl like fireflies as the birdsnest collectors poke to dislodge their delicacy. Swiftlet nests, scraped from the ceilings of the caves, are a hot commodity for the Chinese who boil them to make bird’s nest soup (which is actually bird spit the nests don’t dissolve). The Niah nest trade began about 700AD during the Tang Dynasty. The going price when I was there was about $260 U.S. a kilo.

“Hurry, we’ll miss our flight,” insists our guide. Indeed we will have to march four kilometers through the jungle, shuttle across a river in a tippy canoe, and drive several hours to the airport in Miri, an oil town on the Sarawak-Brunei border. Alas, I will miss Niah’s daily media event. Around sunset there is, they say, quite a stirring. Bats screech and birds scold and flutter as the cave cycles from daylife to nightlife. Swiftlets swarm by the thousands into the cave (perhaps to find their nests missing) and bats flap out into the night.

Visitors to the caves at this hour are warned to wear disposable headgear.

We do a forced walk through the jungle. Looking up into the trees snapping pictures, I lose my step on a bridge and jam my knee between two planks. It takes two people to pry me out. Hurting badly, I hobble on.

Arriving at Miri airport ten minutes before the day’s last flight to Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak’s, we find that there are no seats left in economy. upgrade to first class. I limp on board the Malaysian Airlines jet, sweating, knee throbbing, feet swelling inside of terminally soiled sneakers. I am seated next to a Malay man in a perfectly tailored dark business suit. There is Dom Perignon on the menu but I sheepishly settle for a local beer which I gulp while trying to avoid eye contact with anyone or making broad gestures so as not fan my ill wind around.

The man speaks politely with an educated English accent. “Are you here on holiday?” he asks.