TRAVELING THE EXOTIC
Distinctive Experiences in Twelve Unique Countries
Orangutans Up Close
May 21, 1997 / Brisbane, Australia, to Singapore:
The Qantas flight from Brisbane to Singapore was lengthy and tiring. For most of the flight, it seemed that every seat had two occupants. From a previous era, the Qantas acronym represents “Queensland and Northern Territory Aviation Services.”
In promoting the extraordinary growth of the last few years, attractive beaches were filled in to construct a plethora of golf courses for Japanese tourists who are now less addicted to duty-free shopping. The attractive scenes from the supreme court building (which I remember vividly from a previous trip in 1957) have been replaced with modern, high-rise, carbon copy office buildings. The supreme court building now serves as the Performing Arts Center.
Chris Lingle, a writer for the International Herald Tribune was excommunicated from Singapore for reporting the truth about the strictures on civil rights in Singapore. The Tribune was sued by the government of Singapore for documenting corruption. Surprisingly, even our taxi driver had the courage to cite the repressive acts of the current Singapore government.
May 22 / Singapore:
A nostalgic visit to the historic Raffles Hotel revealed a restored facade which has preserved the gardens and courtyards but has created a sterile environment with seventy upscale shops in a new arcade. The “Singapore Sling” (gin and cherry brandy) cocktail which was concocted at the Long Bar at the Raffles during World War I is still served. More than one hundred rooms are available with a price range from $500 to $3,500 per night. Rudyard Kipling dined at the Raffles regularly, and Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, and Noel Coward were honored guests.
The Bum Boat River tour, with its trite, canned commentary, did not inspire fond memories of a city which now relies upon conspicuous consumption. In a generation, I am confident that Singapore will forfeit its appeal to the next batch of entrepreneurs.
May 23 / Singapore to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia:
Arriving at Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah (which is part of East Malaysia in Northern Borneo), we proceeded to the Tanjung Aru Resort Hotel.
In 1865, Brunei leased Sabah to an American company, and a small American colony was founded. The company failed. The mainland of Sabah was occupied by the British in 1877. In that year, the territory was leased to the Dent brothers as a private reserve. In 1881, the British North Borneo Company assumed control and ran the country until World War II. In the same year, Roman Catholic missionaries arrived.
In 1888, Sabah became a British Protectorate. In 1895, Sabah’s national hero, Mat Salleh, led a rebellion against the British North Borneo Company which almost succeeded. In 1898, the present boundaries with nine hundred miles of coastline--Sarawak to the southwest and Indonesian Borneo to the south--were established.
In 1963, Sabah was granted self-rule by Great Britain. In the same year, Sabah voluntarily became a state in the constitutional monarchy of Malaysia (composed of eleven states on the Malay Peninsula and two on the island of Borneo or Kalimantan).
With long-term ties to the Philippines, the state of Sabah was known by Sulu pirates as the “land below the wind” (signifying that it was located south of the typhoon belt). With the exception of the flat, relatively affluent western coast, the population of 1.7 million is not dense. Coconut, rice, and oil palm are the principal crops. Natural resources are confined to poor quality coal and limited bauxite.
Sabah incorporates a medley of thirty distinct cultures and eighty languages and dialects. The three principal languages are Kadazan, Malay and English. To illustrate the language diversity, the daily newspapers in Kota Kinabalu are trilingual.
The largest ethnic group is the Kadazan who reside in the interior. The second largest group is the Bajau who reside at the coast and who are also indigenous. In addition, there are the Malay (Moslems) and the Chinese, each of whom approximate fifteen percent of the population. The Kadazan are overwhelmingly Christian.
During World War II, the British seaport of Jesselton was destroyed by the Japanese. Following the war, with Australian assistance, it was rebuilt and Jesselton was renamed Kota-Kinabalu.
Kota Kinabalu (“KK” as it is known) is home for 300,000 people. Although the city is relatively new, intelligent urban planning was not a factor. Lovely tropical shorelines have been filled and extended into the ocean to accommodate potential country clubs and resort hotels for predominantly Japanese tourists.
Given the Moslem code, casinos will not be launched. With Japanese tourism no longer a significant factor, the new resorts may be in jeopardy.
“KK” has become a “boom town” with logging, manufacturing, and construction fostering the economy. The main coastal highway north to the second largest city of Kota Belud is modern and deadly. The Filipino open market is extensive. Having lived in the Philippines, we were impressed with the size of the Filipino minority, the common use of the Tagalog dialect, the distinctive Filipino fruits and wooden handicrafts which were available at the market, and the impoverished living conditions.
May 24 / Kota Kinabalu to the Danum Rain Forest:
After a restful night in “KK” enjoying the ocean breezes, we flew to Lahad Datu on the southeastern coast on the Celebes Sea. The crowded conditions reminded us of the rural Philippines. Lahad Datu is known as a “cowboy town.” It did convey the atmosphere of the frontier.
After a four-hour bumpy van ride on unsealed roads through heavily lumbered forests, we arrived at the Borneo Rain Forest Lodge.
May 25 / Borneo Rain Forest:
Until a few years ago, Sabah was predominantly rain forest. Untrammeled private lumber interests have decimated the forest. Now, in a few areas, secondary and tertiary growth is prevalent. In most areas, the ground is bare and devoid of life except for a few unsightly tree trunks. The one exception is the Borneo Rain Forest Reserve in the Danum Valley Conservation Area. The reserve is huge (encompassing approximately one-seventh of Sabah). The reserve is owned by private logging interests. On a constant basis, gigantic logging trucks move out of the reserve to the ports near Lahad Datu. In contrast to the other logging regions, the removal of logs from the reserve is partially restrained.
As a condition for a governmental grant of a private concession for the lumber company to remove logs from the reserve, the lumber interests agreed to designate five percent of the total forest concession as a protected area for flora and fauna and for tourist development. Compared to adjoining areas which should also be protected, the plot surrounding the Borneo Rain Forest Lodge is very restricted in size. Because the only road passes through the “protected area,” the ride to the lodge is illusory. As might be expected, the lumber company holding the concession is receiving plaudits for its “enlightened” environmental policy.
Reputedly, the Danum River Reserve constitutes a home base for 275 species of birds. More than 200 species of trees have been reported in a single hectare. The Danum River flows through the reserve.
The Rain Forest Lodge, with ten cabins, was constructed in 1994. The facilities are adequate. The food does not meet that standard.
Since there are few places to visit in Sabah where tourist resorts are not the order of the day, we spent four days at the Rain Forest Lodge, using the lodge as a base for day trips. For the four-day period, we looked up fifty to one hundred feet into the rain forest canopy. After our Costa Rican experience, the canopy was not unique. At the same time, the flora and fauna were vastly different and endlessly fascinating.
We followed endless trails through the rain forest. The local employees of the lodge are friendly, impoverished, and dismayed by the rudeness of the foreign guests. Relatively affluent citizens from the urban areas of Sabah do not appear to be interested in the rain forest.
On the last full day, Patti and I completed a three-hour walk along the bank of the fast-moving river. We admired the diverse flora within reasonable proximity to the lodge.
Two evening rides in an open truck presented a few highlights of Sabah--red giant flying squirrels, a leopard cat, a common palm civet, a western tarsier, and a banded linsang. The bulging eyes of the nocturnal tarsier reminded us of the bush baby in Kenya. In contrast to the common palm civet, which was uniformly gray-brown, the banded linsang had a distinctive black and white barred tail, brown spots, and white on the face. Both species were very cat-like except that the long noses reminded us of foxes.
During the days, we saw red-leaf monkeys, bornean gibbons, and common barking deer. The prize was awarded to the orangutans, which we saw repeatedly, feeding in the high forest canopy.
The orangutan is a remarkable animal. To see one in a zoo is a memorable experience, but to see them in their native habitat is sheer joy. The color is an unusual reddish-brown, but longevity may alter the coat to orange. The adult male can weigh in excess of 220 pounds. The female’s call has been characterized as “a long belch,” and the males seem to prefer loud roars. The orangutan builds a nest of woven twigs and branches high in the canopy. If necessary for security, the female will build a nest for its progeny every evening. The only other primate which makes a nest is the sun bear which we have seen only in captivity.
The orangutan was once plentiful in Borneo. Currently, as the result of extensive hunting and the logging of montane forests, the number has been reduced significantly. The Northern Borneo Rain Forest is one of the few areas where the orangutan is observed frequently.
The small critters to which we had access in the forest were the water monitor, flying and long-tailed lizard, house gecko, olive-spotted skink, and the giant millipede.
In the bird world, we identified our share of exotics: several species of hornbill, the white-crowned shama, the asian fairy-bluebird, and the white-bellied swiftlet. Probably the rarest and the most beautiful bird was the blue-headed pitta.
After standing still for an extended period on a very narrow path in the dense rain forest, a blue-headed pitta male quickly crossed the path in front of us. The conspicuous white bars on black wings were diagnostic, but the maroon-red back, bright blue crown and tail, and white throat were amazingly beautiful. The bird is endemic to Borneo. As it walked on the rain forest floor, I realized that I was enjoying a very special birding treat.
May 30 / Borneo Rain Forest Lodge to Sandakan:
For Patti and me, Borneo represented the epitome of tropical allure. We had never been exposed to Indonesian Borneo, but Sabah, one of the few accessible sections of Borneo, has lost much of its appeal. In reality, Sabah is a defaced tropical paradise which depicts the short-term greed of private entrepreneurs. The cash crops of tobacco and rubber, as well as lumber, have contributed to the demise of the pristine and unique ambience of Northern Borneo.
The three-hour van trip from the Borneo Rain Forest Lodge to Sandakan on the northeast coast displayed a nightmare of poverty and logging trucks. The roads were narrow and in a state of disrepair. It is unlikely that the requisite financial resources can be generated to improve the plight of the people while conserving the beautiful natural environment.
May 31 / The Kinabatangan River:
At dawn, we took a small boat across the Bay at Sandakan to the mouth of the Kinabatangan River, the only navigable river into the interior of Sabah. For more than two hours, we glided among the mangroves observing the Borneo of the past. A hairy-nosed otter was swimming near the river mouth. Proboscis monkeys with long, flexible noses cavorted in the trees at the river’s edge, and hose’s langurs (grey leaf monkeys), with pink faces and white beards, swung through the trees.
Friendly natives, who waved with dispatch, dried and hung their fish catch on the decks of precarious stilt wooden houses. Others fished from small boats. With the rare exceptions of an occasional boat carrying coconuts to market, or a logging barge, the scenes could have been extracted from a previous era.
After lunch, and a nap on a hard cot at Ben’s River Lodge, we bounced along in a small truck on a deeply-pitted dirt road through more scrub terrain en route to the bat caves. A female orangutan, with a good-sized youngster clutching her stomach, scurried up the only first-growth tree in sight. For an hour, we listened to the chirps, or were they belches, of the mother orangutan while she constructed a nest of branches high in the tree. The orangutan’s chance of survival, mother and child, in that environment is severely limited; however, for a brief moment Borneo came alive.
Since there had been a major rainstorm at noon, the birds had assembled to feed on insects. In the sparse, secondary growth, we saw a dozen new bird species.
At dusk we arrived at the caves in time to observe the thousands of emerging bats. Three rare bat hawks were attacking the separate bat clouds and emerging from the clouds with victims. Nature can be cruel, but the drama of the moment was electrifying.
Back on the river, in the dark, we returned to Sandakan.
June 1 / Sandakan to Mount Kinabalu:
Sandakan is a dirty, congested city which is a logging port, river entry to the interior, and residence for more than 100,000 people of Chinese, Filipino, and Malay extraction. Until World War II, Sandakan was the Sabah capital.
A visit to the new mosque, which looks and feels like a prison unfolded a pride of ladies in bright tribal dress. A taxi ride to the ornate Chinese temple overlooking the harbor partially restored our sagging spirits.
The Japanese invaded Sabah, at Sandakan, on New Year’s Day, 1942. During the occupation, more than 1,000 Australian prisoners of war were incarcerated near Sandakan. On a forced march to the interior to perform slave labor, virtually all of the prisoners died. The Bataan “death march” appears to be a brief hike compared to the Sandakan disaster. Today, Japanese tourists visit Sandakan in droves. The local citizens seem to have forgotten the barbarity.
After the War, Australia supported the rebuilding of Sandakan (as well as Kota Kinabalu). Both cities were heavily bombed.
Before leaving Sandakan, we made an effort to locate the former home of Agnes Newton Keith, the American author. Patti continued the quest and found the house where Mrs. Keith resided with her husband and son prior to World War II.
There are three books by Agnes Newton Keith which deal with North Borneo and the Philippines. All three present the unique trials and tribulations, as well as the joys, of a foreigner living in this remote part of the world.
The first book, Land Below the Wind, was written in 1939 and received the Atlantic Nonfiction Prize Award. The book describes life in North Borneo (Sabah) for the Keith family (the British husband was in the Forestry Service). Land Below the Wind is not only the title of the book but also is the Malay traditional language translation for the land of North Borneo.
In 1946, Mrs. Keith wrote Three Came Home which was converted into a 1950 movie starring Claudette Colbert. In May of 1942, Mrs. Keith, her husband, and her young son were imprisoned in a Japanese prison camp on Berhala Island, a former leper colony in Sandakan Harbor. Mrs. Keith and her husband were forced to live in separate units. After unbelievable hardships, all three were released in September, 1945.
While in the prison camp, Mrs. Keith wrote the draft of Three Came Home on the labels of cans and the margins of old newspapers. The book is a poignant portrayal of her creative efforts to keep her son from starvation.
The final Keith book, which concentrates on the Philippines, is called Bare Feet in the Palace. It was written in 1955 as a tribute to President Ramon Magsaysay.
From 1951 to 1953, Patti and I resided at Clark Field on the Island of Luzon in the Philippines, where I served as a Psychological Warfare Officer in the US Air Force. During that period, the Hukbalahap (Huk) insurrection had succeeded in controlling a large portion of the rural Philippines. As secretary of Defense, Magsaysay brought civility and sustained pressure to the attack, and the Huk movement was curtailed. Subsequently, Magsaysay (the first Filipino of Malay, as opposed to Spanish, ancestry to be elected to the highest office) was elected president. The book is inferior to the two previously mentioned, but it is one of the few which captures the history of a few critical years in Philippine history.
Flying from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu, we then completed a hazardous two-hour bus ride over treacherous roads with heavy traffic to Mount Kinabalu National Park. The three hundred square mile park extends to the top of the 13,455 foot mountain, the highest peak between the Himalayas and the Snow Mountains of New Guinea. The mountain was not climbed until 1857.
Mount Kinabalu is a figurative island of flora and fauna diversity with 300 species of birds and 1,200 species of orchids alone.
Our lodge at the park headquarters was named “Nepenthes,” the Latin name for the nine species of pitcher plant, each of which can hold one quart of water.
In contrast to the Tropical Rain Forest, the Montane Rain Forest can provide a semblance of comfort; however, the light in the forest was limited, the birds were evasive, and the leeches did not distinguish high from low altitude.
June 2 / Mount Kinabalu:
During our visit, the Malay Moslems were enjoying a holiday (most holidays are extended for several days). Any child who started walking up the mountain was entitled to a commemorative ribbon. Thousands arrived to qualify for the honor. The resulting hordes of vans and buses were oppressive. Wisely, the fauna also decided to enjoy the holiday.
Mount Kinabalu without the crowds might be captivating. Because of its proximity to “K.K.,” the crowds will continue. With variable holidays in every country, it is difficult to arrange a visit that will avoid peak periods of calamity.
June 4 / Mount Kinabalu to Kota Kinabalu:
After returning to the capital city, we collapsed at the Tanjung Aru Beach Resort and luxuriated with acceptable food, privacy, cleanliness, a large swimming pool, and spacious tropical grounds.
Generally, Malaysia and Indonesia have friendly relations. The major exception is the increasing concern in Sabah about illegal immigrants from Indonesia. Malaysia has been unwilling to assist with the problem.
In Sabah, there is sustained friction between the majority Kadazans and the controlling Muslim government in Kuala Lumpur. In 1987, the Malaysian government, without success, attempted to prevent the sitting of the newly-elected Kadazan Christian Party. Arabic is now being taught by law in all of the public schools, even if the student body is non-Malay. Currently, the Malay Islamic revival is reflected in religious-oriented legal prohibitions comparable to Sharia in The Sudan.
Recently, the government of Sabah has attempted to become semi-independent in the Federation of Malaysia. Sabah receives only a minuscule annual budgetary supplement from the Malaysian treasury.
Sabah does not entertain thoughts of seceding. At the same time, authorities in the Malaysian capital are becoming alienated by the divisive rumbles from Sabah.
Sabah’s virgin forest can only survive for a few more years. Tourism is temporal. The exotic flora and fauna are in jeopardy. The survival of Sabah as a unique entity is problematic.