A young traveller explores Borneo’s Maliau Basin, where the orangutan roam and the trees are ancient, only to discover its healing power
Story by Sophie Kohn, Photos by Colin O’Connor & Rob Brodey | for Outpost Expeditions
We’re standing at the edge of a glowing waterfall deep in the Borneo jungle. The water is raging, furious, so loud we have to shout to hear each other, though we’re barely a foot apart. The falls tumble over a cluster of jagged rocks before settling gracefully into a rushing river, dancing and foaming, stained with brown.
It’s precisely the scenario we’ve been instructed to avoid.
Our travel clinics, our guidebooks, our parents, concerned strangers—pretty much everyone said it: jungle rivers are teeming with parasites, potential infections, creatures with ominous intentions. But after three days of trekking in unfathomable humidity, it’s becoming difficult to care. We’re sweltering and scratched, muddy, exhausted, doused in days of DEET and sunscreen, our legs and arms the bloodied battle zones for an untold number of leeches. We’ve been wearing the same sweaty, salty clothes all week. Here in the Maliau Basin, every piece of cautionary advice feels impossibly far away. There is only the primal need to cool what is hot, clean what is dirty, soothe what hurts.
We don’t think much more about it. We strip down and jump in.
The Maliau Basin Conservation Area is an enormous, mystical depression in the earth, nestled deep in Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah. At 130 million years old, this pristine rainforest is a vast expanse of primary jungle that, as it turns out, is one of the oldest on the planet. About the size of Singapore, the basin itself is bounded by forested escarpment that stretches high up into thick, hazy air, ancient trees distending toward perfect clouds. Often referred to as “The Lost World of Sabah,” trekking here gives you a lovely sense of being cradled by the land, and yet, nowhere in our expedition have we been less safe.
As we hike, we’re constantly negotiating the intense humidity, mindful to hydrate ourselves generously and often. Snakes, parasites and mosquitoes. Troubled, charging water and the precarious footbridges that reach across it, swinging and creaking, the planks of damp wood held together with wire. Jungle trekking is an absolutely exhilarating experience—but, as with most exhilarating experiences, it pushes you and tests you. It makes you work hard for the rewards.
Within minutes after we set out on the trail each morning, the humidity soaks my clothes, and stinging trickles of sweat meander down my face into my eyes. At night, we peel off wet and sticky shirts, socks and shorts, but hanging them to dry in a rainforest is futile, and in the morning they’re cold and damp against my skin.
The wildly undulating landscape leads us from one extreme to another—we’ll hike straight uphill for hours, my thigh muscles burning, my heart pounding wildly, only to slide straight downhill in a sudden, deafening rainstorm, the trail disintegrating into dark, slippery mud, the leeches emerging by the thousands from god knows where.
• • •
It was, however, an unlikely moment in my life to be yearning for challenge. This particular expedition arrived at the tail end of a year spent as a primary caregiver to my mother, who has incurable late-stage cancer. By the time I booked my flight to Kuala Lumpur, I’d logged hours, days and months in hospital waiting rooms, sitting by bedsides, watching the slow drip of IVs, feeling constantly and acutely the quiet fragility of life.
While the Malaysia expedition offered a much-needed adventure, it wasn’t until I began preparing for the trip that it occurred to me just how long I’d been inhabiting the strange and scary world of cancer; how normalized that world had become, how relentless and intense it is to watch death and disease so up close, and how deeply that experience had scrambled my psyche.
The expedition promised to yank me out of that world for three weeks—but it would have to reach far, far, down to get me, farther than I knew or realized, pulling me up into a burst of sunlight through layers and layers of calcified fear and neurosis, mostly to do with illness and bodily harm.
Hours after signing on for the trip, I became overwhelmed by a sudden onslaught of information about the physical risks of the expedition, a murky swamp of concerns that began with some cursory Internet research. A chorus of other people quickly added to it—travel doctors, friends, my family, random acquaintances, the guy who sold me my hiking boots. Was I aware of the prevalence of malaria? Dengue fever? Japanese encephalitis? Rabies? Being a Western woman in an Islamic country? What about poisonous snakes? Would I promise—no, this one’s important!—not to jump into any jungle rivers?
I’d heard the jungle portion of the trip described as the toughest trek in Borneo, and I worried about my physical stamina. For me specifically, this isn’t just an issue of willpower: at 14 years of age I had a full spinal fusion to correct severe scoliosis. When it comes to carrying a heavy pack while sustaining a long and challenging hike—though my first thought is always yes, when do we leave?!—I’m often humbled if not hampered by the complex steel infrastructure that holds my spine together.
I listened, I nodded a lot, and suddenly I recognized my biggest challenge of all: sifting through the barrage of information and deciding what mattered. What to hold on to and what to wave away. I came to understand that while some of the chatter was sound advice, people will often imagine a mystical, faraway place like the jungle and start breathlessly telling you their impressions and associations because they’re nervous for you, they’re excited for you, and they want you to be safe.
In the days before we left, the murky swamp of concerns had widened and deepened. I had been feeling nervous and ill-prepared, up until the night we departed.
And then very abruptly, in the van ride to Toronto’s Pearson airport, something strange happened with all those concerns: I realized there were simply too many to worry about any.
That’s the thing about air conditioning: you get used to controlling everything in your environment. At home in Toronto, I easily avoid discomfort and inconvenience on a daily basis. But as I’d learned on previous adventures, and as Malaysia was about to remind me, there’s something scary, thrilling and profoundly freeing about giving up that control. Landing somewhere on the planet that simply forces you to let go.
• • •
It doesn’t take long before the trekking assumes a beautifully serene and almost meditative quality. Though the terrain is tough and meanders all over the place—up, down, wet, dry, twisting, turning, then suddenly flat—I feel my body beginning to crave the next step rather than fight it; absorb it, rather than resist it.
For days, the crunch of our hiking boots on the forest floor provides a steady, repetitive drumbeat through all kinds of shifting weather and moods, colours and conversations. By Day 3 of our hike, I begin to feel a deep acceptance, a releasing of the million different ways I had been trying to manage and regulate nature. Discovering a leech (or 50) in my boot is no longer alarming; if it’s going to attach its mouth-parts to me and drain vital fluid…well, OK.
The heat starts to feel less oppressive as I realize how limber it’s been keeping my legs. Sure, there is discomfort and even pain—we struggle through a number of falls, banged heads, pulled muscles and racing hearts—but the vastness of this wild place, bursting with colour and sunlight, silence and sound, keeps me grounded and grateful whenever I start feeling impatient for rest.
A trek like this demands that you be constantly and thoroughly present. That you show up for every single moment, which is an increasingly welcome gift the older I get. The four lives we left behind are filled with preoccupations about the future (as media types we worry constantly about our next contract, our next gig, how and when we’ll find it). The future of our careers, where our relationships are going, who our kids are becoming, how long we have left with a parent who’s ill.
We stress about what will be, could be, might or might not be; a huge chunk of our energy is directed at what isn’t. This swirling vortex of unknowable things creates so much anxiety, we then have to distract ourselves with computers and phones and movies and alcohol and elaborate, expensive entertainment.
Each day in the jungle, we exchange long-term stresses for a single, perfect, short-term purpose: to roam through this magical place—explore it, examine it, play in it—and get to the next campsite before dark. Our needs are distilled to very basic, uncomplicated things: when we’re hungry, we refuel, loading up on fried rice, eggs, chocolate bars, and plenty of water, boiled and treated with iodine to kill all the bugs.
When we’re tired, we crash on thin mattresses on our damp cabin floor, unconcerned with the time of day. There’s little to worry about at any given moment, beyond the state of my body and what it currently wants. And in being so present, I feel my senses awaken and expand in ways they just don’t at home. I begin to really hear the rustling, leaping hoots above our heads as the gibbons chatter to each other in the treetops. I begin to notice when a hoot goes unanswered.
I can smell the slight metallic tinge of the wet soil under my boots, and I can sense a growing restlessness in the ancient trees just before it rains. Though I’ve essentially been eating the same meal of rice and eggs for days on end, it tastes perfect every time, because I start eating it only when I really need it. In the jungle, we leave our toys of distractions behind. There is nothing to numb us. But in concerning ourselves with only the simple and the immediate, we lose the need for distraction in the first place.
My eyes are flooded with spectacular and foreign sights: an enormous, bright red millipede the length of my forearm slinking its way across our path; an inky black sky with a heaping handful of stars thrown across it; a Soraya tree so bright green and friendly, so impossibly tall that it looks like Dr. Seuss put it there. The old-growth jungle is pristine, shaggy, pulsating with life. The trees clamour for space, and sometimes, like in the case of the strangler fig, they even suffocate each other. We breathe deeply, and it’s a welcome, healing smell of warm, wet, living earth.
My eyes are drawn naturally to the forest floor as I hike, careful not to trip over vines, or step on the occasional raging army of fire ants that charge across our path. But when I gaze up into the clouds, I begin to notice that the treetops hold their own secrets and surprises: a handsome flying squirrel crashes through the leaves, and our eyes just barely catch the quick flash of his red coat and crazy webbed wings, wide open and gliding. Birds of bright colours and varying degrees of boldness take off and land all around us, calling to each other, insistent and curious.
At the urging of our guide, I stare at a branch of neon green leaves inches from my face for a full minute, searching and confused, before yelping at the sudden realization that a snake of the very same hue is coiled around it like a figure eight.
I know nothing about this snake. It could be harmless or poisonous, sleeping or stalking me, indifferent or aggressive. I decide to reflect on these possibilities from as far away as I can humanly get—thanks to the immediate shot of adrenaline coursing through me, that turns out to be pretty far.
Late at night, a furtive leopard cat darts through the brush, immediately freezing in place when she hears the whispers of our hushed excitement. She crouches in the foliage, her enormous eyes gleaming in the moonlight. She’s a small and startled thing, the size of a house cat with the perfect, mesmerizing spots of a leopard. She looks simultaneously fierce and fragile.
Before we head to bed, we arrange a few food scraps from dinner into a little pile near her perch in the bushes, attempting to coax her out, make her venture closer. (It is just a few minor table scraps—we are conscious of the eco rules—just to lure her out so we can get a better sense of her.)
We linger outside our cabin in a cluster, waiting and watching, but the leopard cat has no plans to approach while we’re standing there, so awake and expectant. Her amber eyes hold steady and patient from deep in the tangle of leaves. She’s motionless, outwaiting and outwatching us all. Eventually, we give up and collapse onto our mattresses. In the gentle light of the next morning, we stumble outside to find the food scraps have been boldly whisked away.
In the Maliau Basin, the presence of things we don’t see is just as loud as the presence of things we do.
Several locals have told us about the staggering range of creatures that live and lurk in the jungle, and we’d arrived at the basin knowing we could happen upon anything from a giant ant to a family of wild elephants. Although we never actually encounter elephants, or the peculiar sun bear, or the delicate sambar deer, just knowing that they’re encircling us, even watching us as we hike, is a wonderfully odd and invigorating feeling.
Every so often, there’s a rustle in the bushes, the snapping of a stick, unfamiliar droppings up ahead, or a section of foliage that’s missing all its berries. I try to imagine this place deep in the night when all the humans are sleeping, still and oblivious. When animals small, strange, and majestic step out from their hiding places, chirping and chattering, the whole jungle partying late into the wee hours of the morning, and then they gradually go quiet again. I love being a guest in such a vast and pulsing ecosystem.
I love that the sun bear and I can sense each other even if we never meet, both of us mindful of the natural rhythms and symmetries that let me move while he stays silent, and let him re-emerge while I rest.
• • •
Borneo immediately felt very different from peninsular Malaysia. It’s a little wilder, a little less polished, a little moodier. You can feel the jungle getting closer, surrounding you, slowly circling, though you’re not quite in it yet. Kota Kinabalu is a city, but it doesn’t have the sprawl and sparkle of KL. It’s bounded by primary forest, but it’s the edge of that forest, not the heart. Happily between worlds, I felt something crack open. I felt something shift.
Augustine led us through some of the astonishing wilderness just on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu. The most striking by far is Mount Kinabalu, a mystical peak shrouded in lazy clouds, looming at 4,095 metres over a vibrant national park. Much of the activity at the park centers on the considerable ordeal of summiting the mountain—there’s even an annual race to the top—and Augustine was bursting with stories of notable climbers, world records, and several of his own attempts.
At the base of the mountain, we meandered through a sprawling botanical garden, as Augustine excitedly showed us the magical properties of native plants. Plants that cured illness and prevented pregnancy. Plants that were edible or not edible, that were secret aphrodisiacs or unusually flammable, should you ever need an emergency fire, or want to avoid starting one. After examining these details, touching them and turning them over, we climbed up a ladder onto a treetop canopy walk and surveyed the big, breathtaking picture from 50 metres above the forest floor.
I loved Kota Kinabalu instantly, and not just because it’s a beautiful seaside town. I started to notice that our movement through Malaysia was progressing perfectly in sync with my own evolution as a traveller, echoing and inspiring it all at once. When we landed in KL, I had all the familiar comforts of a big, shiny city. I didn’t have to worry yet about dengue fever or leeches or parasites.
By the time we arrived in Kota Kinabalu, I had become much less worried about all of that. I was feeling ready for wild places but quietly appreciative of showers and beachside smoothie stands. By the time we arrived in the Maliau Basin, I was genuinely hungry for adventure. I truly couldn’t wait. I didn’t want anything except tall trees and open spaces. A toothbrush, maybe, and a book. But I was yearning to shed every other amenity. All the kilos, the plastic and paper, the extra shoes and the rain gear and the passport and the hairbrush—I wanted it all to just fall away.
We left Kota Kinabalu and headed south to Tawau, a town that serves as the entry point into the Maliau Basin. We spent our last moments in civilization happily wandering through a fish market, perusing the strange and shocking creatures on offer, our hands sticky from the juices of durian fruit and mangosteen. Under the awnings, kids chased us around, giggling, posing for photos and shouting at us in sudden bursts of English—“Cool!” and “Hi!” and “Where from?!” The surprised, excitable reactions we got from the market vendors and locals made it apparent that Tawau doesn’t see a lot of tourists. The jungle grew louder and closer.
• • •
For many, the lure of Borneo isn’t the jungle so much as “the man of the jungle.” Malaysia’s orangutans have become its sort of unofficial mascot, and the country’s numerous primate sanctuaries are a huge draw for visitors. After landing on Borneo, we had the chance to spend a day at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, an expanse of protected rainforest in the eastern state of Sabah.
Inside a cluster of simple wooden buildings, a dedicated staff works at rescuing orphaned orangutans and providing them with the medical care and life skills the jungle demands. Dangling knotted ropes teaches the apes to swing and climb, and pairing an older ape with an orphan helps replace some of the lost parenting. And, my favourite tactic—feeding the orangutans the same maddeningly monotonous food every day—encourages them to strike out on their own and forage for variety in the forest.
That was where our first orangutan encounter took place: standing on a wooden riser in the middle of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, craning our necks as sleepy ginger bundles ambled down tree trunks in pursuit of the tropical fruits awaiting them on the platform.
The mother looks at me the way my own mother looks at me: intently, a bit stunned, and with the slightest hint of amusement, as though she’s trying to decide who exactly I am, or who I’ve become. It’s a gaze of loving, gentle judgment, of knowing more than I think she knows.
Like all mothers, her face betrays both the young, lively being she once was, and the slowing down, the wariness, the weight of the world. I scratch a leech bite on my neck, adjust my camera strap, and her eyes, like wet black marbles, track my every movement. She watches me with concern. More than any animal I’ve ever encountered, she feels like a mother. More than any animal I’ve ever encountered, she feels like my mother. As she holds me in her unflinching stare, I suddenly feel self-conscious, like I want to behave properly, in a way she will understand and even respect. Strong, grounded and self-assured, she doesn’t move. She is mothering me with those eyes.
Our interaction lasts just 30 seconds, but it stops my breath. Abruptly, she remembers the mango she’s clutching, bites it, and goes back to assessing the growing cluster of tourists on the viewing platform, all straining to see her in their brightly coloured raincoats. The gleaming eyes that once rested on me, content and completely still, now dart around nervously at 50 other people. She has dismissed me, returned me to the masses. She has moved on.
I spend the next 20 minutes trying to reconnect with her eyes, curious if the next time she looks at me she’ll express some kind of recognition, or even delight. Selfishly, I want to have affected her the way she’s affected me. Why do I want this confirmation from an ape? It seems crazy. In the end, I never get it.
I leave the tourist platform slowly, staring at her until the last possible moment, wanting acknowledgment, wanting closure on our relationship. She won’t give it to me. She’s fallen in love with her mango all over again, gazing at it with such tenderness, sucking it, pawing at it. She’s someone else’s mother now.
• • •
Why is an orangutan dependent on a rehabilitation center in the first place? Why does Sepilok need an area of protected forest specifically for orangutans to develop and thrive?
There are several reasons an orangutan might become orphaned. The illegal pet trade is an ongoing issue, as is poaching—motivated all too often by the kind of profound poverty that makes the capture of a valuable orangutan an understandably attractive pursuit. Sepilok works hard at education campaigns and community outreach, and as a result, the staff has seen increasing cooperation from residents in the area, who will often alert the center if they learn of mistreatment.
The well-known palm oil industry has also had significant consequences for Malaysia’s orangutans. It’s a difficult collision of economy and environment, and the locals have a range of passionate opinions on the topic. The harvesting and processing of palm oil—used in everything from bio-diesels to furniture to cooking—employs many people striving to make a living in a developing economy.
And so, the country has razed vast expanses of its primary jungle in order to clear space for palm plantations. Although the government has protected some areas from deforestation, and organizations like the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) have partnered with Borneo to support its conservation efforts, the impact on the orangutan’s natural habitat has been undeniable. This is how rehabilitation centers like Sepilok become important.
Moments after we leave the rehabilitation center, kicking up clouds on a dusty road, we run right into a water buffalo submerged in a pool of mud under a shady palm tree plantation. Its two curious horns poke out of the water like exclamation points. Someone has tied it to a nearby tree with thick rope.
As we approach, it begins to rise out of the pool, slowly lugging its enormous body forward until it’s fully standing. In the blazing afternoon sun, the grey mud quickly cakes onto its skin. It glances at us briefly and snorts, uninterested. After long, hot days spent picking palm fruit off the trees, the locals use water buffalo to transport and organize their yields. The water buffalo pulls giant crates of these fruits to the side of the road, creating a massive pile. The picker will then haul the load into his truck with a pitchfork, and head to the processing facility in town.
At first, the mother orangutan and the water buffalo appeared to be unrelated encounters, but as I balanced on a wobbly tree stump snapping photos, their relationship came sharply into focus. This unlikely pair are part of the same story, bound together by a complex tension, a cycle where their country manufactures something unnatural, and then scrambles, often admirably, to make it natural again. But this isn’t simple like the design of the open-air mosque in KL—with wildlife at stake, the balance between natural and unnatural becomes much more delicate and dire. It becomes much harder to achieve.
The water buffalo wanders away from us as far as his rope will allow, sniffing toward the ancient trees just beyond the palm plantation. The rope quickly grows taut, forcing him to retreat back into his country’s new ways.
But standing on the platform at Sepilok is a hopeful thing. I’m one person in a bustling crowd of eager spectators, lost in the lilt of languages I don’t understand. Together, we form a growing cloud of concern for Malaysia’s orangutans, a widening fortress that contributes to their protection. For many people, a trip to Malaysia has become synonymous with seeing the country’s orangutans. In coming here, in making the choice to visit these spectacular creatures, in supporting the guides and the sanctuaries that work with them, travellers from all over the world help to underscore their importance.
We protect wild spaces not just for their inhabitants, but for ourselves, too. So that we get to wander through this mystical, otherworldly beauty, get happily lost in these forests and re-emerge more centered and connected to our land.
• • •
By the time I stood at the waterfall in the heart of the Maliau Basin, one foot on land and the other flirting with the blissfully cool water, there were just as many reasons to jump in as there were reasons not to. I felt just as safe as I felt in danger. It felt just as possible that I’d get sick as it did that I’d emerge from the jungle unscathed and perfectly healthy—healthier, even, than I’d been before. Moments later, I was treading water under the oldest trees, with the happiest shrieks, in the purest light.
Perhaps the deepest fissure between this and that was an internal one—the stable, durable peninsula of who I was when I left versus the wild island of who I became, while here.
But it’s not that one replaced the other. It’s that travel—the real, uncomfortable kind—stretches me until I crack in half. Until I’m reminded, beautifully, suddenly, and to my immense relief, that there’s space within me for both people to exist. *
- Sophie Kohn is a journalist and writer who lives in Toronto, Canada. She was part of Team Outpost for opXpeditions (Outpost Expeditions) Malaysia.