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When one arrives at the dock, the only entry point into Bako National Park in Malaysian Borneo, one is generally greeted by monkeys waiting to steal cellphones, cameras, glasses, anything. Try yelling an exasperated “why?” at these wordless hoodlums and they will give a look that stands in for their obvious mantra: “This is the jungle and fuck you.” You get this message quite a lot once there, an odd refrain, though it isn’t on the brochure.
The staff does provide comfortable hostel-style cabins which are frequented by the infamous proboscis monkeys of Bako: creatures sliding around the porches with their noses hanging red and veiny and reminding one of a wine soaked uncle. The majority of guests wisely book these cabins in advance.
I booked one in advance.
But, when I arrived and saw the rows of manicured cabin lawns; witnessed the French family snapping photos of a cobweb a foot from a well maintained cement path; walked past the Chinese girls taking selfies next to the ranger station sign; I decided I wouldn’t settle for this empty simulacrum. Not me. I came to see the jungle damn it.
Heading Into the Borneo Jungle
The ranger looked tired and his eyes were from far away. “Take some food, and mind the tide,” he told me as he handed me a tent stuffed in a duffle bag. Maybe he was hung over, overworked, fighting with his wife, or just didn’t like the cut of my jib, whatever, I’d like to formally blame him for not stereotyping me enough.
A real Malay park ranger with his head in the game would have slapped me across the face and reminded me I wasn’t Jack London.
My destination was a secluded beach at the end of an 18 kilometer path winding though equatorial rainforest. I bought the following at the little park store: two one-gallon jugs of water, three boiled eggs, a cake of cornbread, and 2 bags of peanuts. The plan was to arrive at the beach around sundown, camp out, and return the next morning to catch a bateau back to Kuching, the nearest city. I pictured myself arriving at the beach after a leisurely five or six hours.
Starting the Hike
It was Borneo jungle alright, pure and green. Green and intoxicating and swallowing me up one step at a time.
The start of the path led up for an hour, up and up and clambering all the way. At times I was climbing on all fours, finally up to a high plateau where the forest cleared, overlooking an isle studded South Asian Sea. I had not expected this kind of intensity when I started, but things seemed to be opening up and flattening out.
The plants were strange. Nepenthes lowii one rotting sign read on side of the path, referencing the pitcher plants which carpeted the ground, famous for making a living luring in flies with sweet smelling nectar until they slip and drown in digestive juices and slowly dissolve over the following days.
An hour passed, and then another. A fourth of my water was gone, and I’d only hiked about two kilometers. I braved on.
Sweat was pouring out of me, enough that the shirt I was wearing became heavy with it. I took it off and gave it a wring. It was like climbing a never ending flight of stairs inside of an enormous sauna during a Louisiana August.
The Borneo jungle loomed all around, more threatening now, like a happy bout of drinking gone sour and dark. Kilometer marker four passed, then five, and then a rest next to a waterfall. Some Germans passed and asked me if I was alright. They were going the other way, back towards civilization. When I told them my plan they smiled their wry smiles and said nothing. “Do you have any iodine pills?” a girl asked.
Running Out of Water
A few hours later at kilometer marker number ten I was out of water and starting to panic a bit. How have I possibly consumed so much? Two gallons gone and not even finished getting there? How will I make it back? Nervously I recalled something about three days. Is that right? Humans can live about three days without water?
I carried on; sweat pouring out of me, a garden hose left on to tinkle into the grass. Thirty minutes later I urinated something the color of Sunkist and realized my body was in trouble. What can I do? The sun was getting lower in the sky, and a troupe of boy sized monkeys seemed to be following me.
If I turned back, I’d be tromping through the deep dark Borneo jungle at night, jealous simians for company, and I’d never make it safely. I’d step on a snake or stumble into one of the many deep crevices along the path, I’d sink and be overwhelmed in quicksand.
I had to push forward.
I had to get out of the jungle and onto a pure tropical beach.
Every time I took a break, the largest alpha male monkey would swing down and look at me directly in the eyes, hanging from the canopy with a face like a disappointed gym coach. The path got rougher, and there weren’t many signs that the Germans, nor anyone else had been this far out in some time, no empty water bottles, no footprints or cigarette butts- just an endless tunnel of green that was now undulating up and down over jagged rocks and bicep-like tree roots.
What I wouldn’t have given for the reassuring sign of humanity, but there were none. I was in a part of the park that was seldom visited. Everything was sharp, jagged, piercing. A thousand thorns tore my arms and legs to shreds, and I started to bleed in places.
It was picturing the beach in my head, lovely, open and safe, that kept one foot moving in front of the other. Surely I could wave down a fisherman and ask for water at the beach. I remembered ‘air’ as the curiously contrary word for water in the Malay tongue, perhaps the only word I knew, but that wouldn’t help me unless I found Malaysians. However, they seemed to be smart enough to avoid this particular part of their otherwise lovely country.
Lost in the Dark
The sun went down at kilometer marker sixteen, leaving me two short. “Went down” is just an expression though. In reality it plummeted. I didn’t know it before, but at the equator, the sun has an on/off switch rather than the romantic dimmer of the temperate zones. From the time it cast its first orange hues, until total darkness, seemed to take only ten minutes. The monkeys overhead laughed at me and went to their suppers.
Two kilometers to go, and the blackest night you have ever seen. I pulled out my headlamp, happy with myself and reckoning that while I demonstratively had very little sense for being in this situation to begin with, I had enough to bring a light.
The Borneo jungle at night is scary. There are sounds of nightmares, things that howl from above and things that chortle from behind trees, long slippery things that squirm and dance against your skin and when you paw at them are incorporeal. A mental struggle ensued. I followed the blue blazes over rocks and through caves and then, in a canebrake, I lost them entirely.
I lost the path.
I darted around, at first making blind plunges in random directions. Realizing my danger, I calmed and tried to use my head. I made an ever widening circle in the suffocating cane, but no blue and friendly blaze beckoned me. Cane, in every dark direction, was blocking me in: tall, thick, and unassailable.
I was lost, lost in another country, lost in the Borneo Jungle, lost at night and without any water over ten miles from the needle in a haystack ranger station.
This is the jungle and fuck you. You are not Jack London. He has a state park in California named after him, and you are going to be just some bones that give a couple of hikers a surprise. They will take a video on their smart phone most likely, maybe post it online (NSFW) and have a story to tell at the bar when they get back to Cape Town. That is, if anyone finds you at all.
I had a camera with me. For some reason I took a picture of myself with the flash turned on. I wanted to see what I looked like when I was scared. Then I called out for help as loud as I could in the empty and echoing blackness. Nothing. I wandered for another hour in the black sauna of the night, scared and imagining the shape of my moss covered bones.
Searching for the Beach
I thought about what to do, about all the camping trips I’d been on, books I’d read, Bear Grylls, things I’d heard about situations like this.
One old adage kept popping up in my head. I’m sure you have heard it too. It goes like this: when you get lost in the wilderness, the thing to do is to head down.
If you follow a downward slope, eventually you will come to a stream or a brook; the brook will turn into a river that flows to the sea. Follow that enough and you will find people because people love water. Any major river or ocean in the world will have civilization all up and down its glorious banks, the reasoning goes.
I figured heading down would at the very least lead me to the sea, which is where I had planned on being all along. I would be out in the open and that was all I wanted at that moment.
So I did that, reckoning if I just went down a bit I was bound to find a beach. I didn’t care what beach so long as it got me out of the terrifying blackness of the nighttime jungle. I found the nearest downward slope, and let myself start sliding down it, the weight of my tent filled backpack pushing me forward.
It was a mistake that almost killed me.
While the reasoning was sound, I hadn’t taken into account the terrain. I was sliding down the slope, loose gravel and dirt giving way under me. I shone my light ahead and all at once, in a flash of approaching death, noticed there was no ground.
Suddenly, I was on a precipice.
About three feet in front of me was a hundred foot drop, a cliff that lead down to an angry sea crashing against jagged rocks. In panic I started to scramble back up, but the backpack, and my position, made it difficult. I was being edged forward to die.
I could already feel what it would be like, my body flying through the moist air, crashing down into the sea and maybe breaking a leg. I would struggle to stay afloat for a moment or two; before I inhaled a few burning lungful of water and the waves dashed my semi-conscious brains out against the cliff face. Later I would turn up on some Indonesian fisherman’s boat deck, having been emptied out of the guts of a tiger shark.
I put my arms out at my sides and grabbed at nothing, at first. My left hand grasped a rock that gave way and tumbled down to where I was surely headed. Some loose vines tore at my right and I followed them up with my fingers until I managed to finally get a hold of a root. The other arm grasped at a sapling, and I managed to pull myself up, the pebbles I’d unsettled splashing deep below me.
I scrambled, clutching at my racing heart, and managed the top of the hill. Then, as if by freak accident, through a clearing in the branches I saw a wide beach glistening in the moonlight. I found the North Star just to the left of it.
I had to get there. It was beautiful even from a mile away, and yet so far below me.
Risking Everything on the Rocks
Once I started to head in that direction the real danger started.
Remember those video games where the programmer has really run out of creative ideas, and so they just go with some platforms over lava? You test your skill jumping from block to block, knowing you have three lives to make it to the end. The way leading to the beach was just like that.
There were pillars of rock and they were wide and sturdy, but separated by caves of echoing blackness that I didn’t even want to imagine what was at the bottom of.
I went slowly, knowing one false step would see me plunge down into the maw of one of these caverns. Maybe I would survive the fall. Perhaps I would get trapped down in one, surviving for two weeks on a stalactite trickle à la Injun Joe. But no school children would ever read about it and no one would ever find me there and there would be no rock formations named for me in this alien place.
I had my camera holstered in a pack on my belt (which Americans would call a fanny pack, though the traveler learns not to refer to it in such a way, as it makes the Britons blush). At a particularly tight squeeze, I had to throw my weight back suddenly against a rock face to avoid tumbling. When I did the camera ripped off and plummeted into the darkness, never to return. If some spelunker does find it in working order, I expect they will be confused.
Finally, after several hours of clambering over jagged rock, I could see the beach stretched out in front of me. But by now the moon had grabbed up the water. At high tide, the pathway down was a raging torrent of crashing waves; it was as if most of the beach had been swallowed up.
Desperate for Water
I was so thirsty, waiting there on the edge for the bosom of the sea to recede, that I started to lick the moss and lichen growing from the rocks. I found leaves on the ground with trapped rainwater and drank those. I even tried once to dig down into the ground in a silted spot to see if I could release any groundwater. But it wasn’t enough, and after a day of sweating my body cried out for more.
I rested against a rock, and several hours later the tide receded and I could see the moon shining on a solid sandy path and a long strip of beach. I threw my bag down a ten foot drop and tried to shimmy my way down. Finally, I had made it.
Still no path back, but that would have to wait for the morning. I set up my tent and had the first break from mosquitos all day. Then, I set out to find water.
I’ve never been so thankful to litterbugs in all my life. The receding tide had left a line of drift all across the otherwise unspoiled beach. There were bottles, dozens of them. Some had their caps still screwed on. Of those, most were filled with sea water, and one with some sort of motor oil I will never forget the taste of. But, after an hour of searching among the refuge, I had 3 bottles of palatable water and a coconut.
I drank the water until my stomach roiled in joy and then I broke the coconut open on a stalagmite and drank its sweet milk. Things were going to be ok. My worry receded and for the first time I noticed the beach.
Aside from a few pieces of trash, the place was astonishing. Palm trees and white sand glowing in the moonlight. The stars were a milky strip of brilliance across the tropic sky. My breathing slowed. I slept, hearing mudskippers slap into my tent flap, and hoping no saltwater crocodiles chose that particular beach for a nightcap.
New Day, New Problems
The next morning I scouted around and found the path again. Someone was watching out for me. Everything was indeed fine, and I reckoned I could be back by dark. I had one gallon of water and would be home soon… but for the rain.
It started to pour the big fat drops that give the rainforest its name.
At first I was thrilled. I pulled out my tent and stretched it out wide on the forest floor, letting it collect into a full puddle of water which I happily lapped up, and washed the caked blood and dirt from my arms and shins.
I could see the monkeys flashing away from me through the trees, going into their secret cubby holes. And before I knew it, I was cold. It was a surprise when I started to shiver in what had been a baking hell up until that point. I found shelter under a cave and spent a few hours drinking from the stalactites and reading a copy of Dracula I had foolishly toted along.
Two hours or so later, the rain stopped. It was already noon and I had barely gone a quarter of the way. But, at least I was hydrated and cool. A new set of problems now made themselves known.
The rain had summoned the snakes.
I came to a sort of jungle ladder, of the kind used by tribesmen in those parts. It is basically just a log leaned up against a steep point, with little notches cut into it. Unless you are a mountain goat (or a Borneo tribesman), it is a guaranteed busted ass, but often less so than the alternative.
However, when I started down one particular ladder I noticed a golden band about halfway down. A hiss froze my progress, and I was looking it in the eye. I noticed the wide jaw and elliptical pupils that always signify poison glands. Later when I was back in the glow of the internet I would find a picture of it: Pope’s pit viper.
I threw a stick at it but it only looked at me fetchingly, willing me to come closer and try that again. I jumped down the incline, avoiding the ladder, realized how close I had been, how well the snake had blended in and how it had remained motionless until I was upon it.
Again, a fantasy of death flashed before my eyes. I was bitten by a snake here, in the ankle perhaps, a day’s walk away from aid. The faster I run towards the ranger’s hut the more the toxin quickens through my veins. My foot swells up and turns black, I felt a wave of cold weakness and nausea wash over me and a coppery taste in my mouth. I can’t keep going so I lie down on the path, telling myself I just need a short nap to regain my strength. If I ever wake up again it is only for long enough to curse myself a fool as I stare up Borneo’s blurring jungle canopy.
Ready for Respite
I keep going, but now progress is slow. I’m worried that every vine may have a surprise curled around it, so I pick up a hefty walking stick to brush in front of me like a blind man. The rain has stopped but in places it has turned the path to quicksand. Deep sucking silt comes up to my knees and beckons me to stay.
After a full day I’d only made it half way. I would have to sleep in the jungle.
That second night, I found the clearest, most open spot I could at the top of a hill. The sky was visible, showcasing infinity. I realized by now that I would be ok. I also realized that there are an infinite number of worse ways to die than expiring out here with all this nature, free and traveling and self-reliant.
I lost my fear in that moment, with the darkness of the Borneo jungle circling all around me with its strange serpentine noises. I was a part of it and I slept one of the deepest sleeps of my life.
Making It Out of the Borneo Jungle Alive
The next day I made it back.
When I emerged from the jungle I was bleeding and haggard, my face was yellow, I was dehydrated and my skin breaking out in strange rashes. I’d been in the Borneo jungle for over 50 hours and for a good ten I was lost and scared.
When I walked out into the clearing of the ranger station, there were happy Europeans sunbathing on a beach, a local had a generator going and was making pineapple smoothies, and there were South Africans playing volleyball.
I bought a beer and a monkey tried to steal it. I widened my stance, threw my pack down on the ground, and made a whooping sound in his face to assert my dominance. The sunbathers looked up at me, puzzled. Clearly I had been in the Borneo jungle too long and the Chinese girls went flittering in another direction, away from me.
It was time to go.
I hosed myself off, applied some antiseptic to my cuts and bruises, and paid a fisherman to take me to a beach resort where I ordered the surf and turf and white wine and sat in a beach chair that evening turning over my experience in my head.
Perhaps I’d been a fool. Perhaps I had almost died. But I had seen what I’d come to see.