Where the Wild Things Really Are: The Top Wildlife Tours

Borneo: Into the Heart of the Wild
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Like Timbuktu or Patagonia, Borneo symbolizes the remote and the exotic. One thinks of impenetrable jungles, headhunters, leeches, snakes, hairy manlike creatures. And you know what? Except for the headhunters, it's all still pretty much true. Plus you get world-class caves, whitewater rivers, and the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.

About the size of Texas, Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Most of it belongs to Indonesia, but the northern provinces of Sarawak and Sabah, former British colonies now part of Malaysia, draw most of Borneo's visitors. Despite its image of primitive savagery, Malaysian Borneo is surprisingly civilized; Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are modern, bustling small cities, and there is a reasonable tourist infrastructure. The blend of old and new in Borneo is nicely summed up by a sign in the Limbang airport that sternly prohibits the carrying of blowguns aboard aircraft.
Because of its great variety of attractions, Borneo trips tend to be smorgasbord-style affairs. You may be climbing 13,455-foot Mount Kinabalu one day (no technical skills required, but nevertheless a stern walk-up) and sleeping in a longhouse with Iban tribesmen the next. (Although headhunting is now outlawed, you may meet some folks who remember it—or may even have practiced it in the good old days.) Jungle treks and cave explorations in Mulu National Park, visits to Sepilok orangutan sanctuary, whitewater rafting trips, and scuba diving along the 3,000-foot sea wall just off Sipadan Island are also popular Borneo diversions. Whatever you do, it's virtually certain you'll ride in a boat at some point—Borneo is so mountainous and densely forested that roads exist only along the coastline. In the interior, rivers are the only highways.

Practically Speaking Borneo is not an easy place to see on your own. Attractions are widely scattered and require a variety of transportation. Many cool spots are reachable only by longboat or small aircraft, which require advance planning. On the major rivers such as the Baram and Rajang, however, there is fast, cheap express boat service. (If you have the guts to ride them. These incredibly sleek, speedy and claustrophobic craft look much like wingless jet airliners—the drivers even paint on fake cockpit windows to further the illusion—and have a terrible safety record.) Local tour operators in the main towns of Kuching and Kota Kinabalu offer Kinabalu climbs and visits to Iban longhouses. The downside, of course, is that, almost by definition, any outing that's easy to arrange on the spot is going to be heavily touristed.
Southeast Asia's currency problems are good news for visitors; simple guesthouses in the larger towns go for $10-$20 a night, while Western-style hotels run in the $40-50 range. Jungle lodge prices are in the same range. Several U.S. outfitters offer guided group trips that hit most of the aforementioned high spots. They typically run 14-17 days and cost from $125 to $200 per day. They have the advantage of pre-arranged logistics and large groups for chartering boats and planes into remote areas.
And, hey, don't worry about the leeches. The pesky little critters usually manage to get through any protective clothing, but you won't even notice that they're sucking your blood because they first inject you with a local anaesthetic. Doesn't hurt a bit. It can be a bit of a jolt, however, to remove your shoes and find blood-soaked socks. But unless you're seriously squeamish or a hemophobe, Borneo leeches are not that big a deal. Really.


David Noland is a full-time professional freelance writer specializing in adventure travel, sports, and science. His book, Travels Along the Edge , published in 1997 by Vintage Books, is now in its fourth printing.

Published: 30 Nov 1999 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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