“This. Is. Borneooo.”
There are cat statues everywhere. Each vendor has for sale a bedazzled t-shirt and a strange piece of meat or a compressed ball of fish. I have never seen so many pigeons feasting on gruel out of the gutter before. I’m beginning to feel self-conscious about the pith helmet strapped to my bag. So I just chant those magic words, which Omniscient-British-Wildlife-Narrator David Attenborough so effortlessly mastered, “this,” pause, “is,” pause, “Borneo,” applause. If you are not simulating the accent in your head you are doing it wrong. A European family walks by in clever matching cat shirts.
So Kuching, the capitol city of Sarawak, the largest Malaysian State on the island of Borneo, isn’t quite the haven of cultural integrity I’d envisioned. From there we fly to Miri, a gritty petroleum-driven backwater, and on to Gunung Mulu.
The caves of Gunung Mulu were thought to be the largest in the world until Vietnam stole the title just a few years ago. But the region has a more significant superlative than just being host to the single largest empty hole in the ground, Roxy tells me. The jungle we’re about to land in, apparently, has the most biodiverse habitat on the planet. From this I extrapolate that, in several minutes, I will be entrenched in the most ecologically sophisticated and most environmentally robust spot in the solar system, likely the entire galaxy. I anticipate nothing short of a tropical, orgiastic celebration of life bursting forth from the forest’s seams. This. Is. Borneo.
The thick overhead canopy obscures the moon and stars. Red-eyed insects shriek into the dark in some rhythmic alien tongue, laughing and wailing in chaotic symphony with their million brethren. The opera persists throughout the night, every predator and prey attuned to the haunting chorus of cicadas. Amidst the topsoil the jungle is devouring itself.
A slick red lizard squirms beneath the needles of a dozen engorged mosquitoes. Some imperiled frog fails to flee the oncoming tide of bullet ants. Beatles eviscerate less hardened bugs, colossal spiders ceremoniously feast on prisoners, and bats shoot through the branches to rid the air of winged insects. Parasitic vines reach out and strangle the trunks of monolithic trees, and out of sight a python is suffocating a rat or a lemur. Entombed in the hollow of a far off tree, a tiny family of spectral tarsiers is sharing a supper of grasshoppers, maybe. But nearly every creature is far too ensnared in a hyper-Darwinistic brawl to lift its camouflage and reveal itself to us. The ones that do are quickly devoured and excreted into mulch on the forest floor.
But one remains visible, the brave and venerable spider hunter, champion of the forest, friend to all life forms but one. His perch is a single narrow stem and his roof is but a bright red flower. Each night the feathery ball of grey, orange and white returns to the same spot beneath the flower to survey the world with his gold beady eyes. He’ll doze off to the cicadas’ lullaby but always awakens soon after, alert, stricken by visions of unknown terrors seen through those tiny, worried eyes. He straightens his beak and sits, motionless, deciphering the faintest of noises in the crepuscular hours of the night. In the stillness his mind drifts to cursory flashes of colors and smells and irregular sounds, but he must focus. If an arachnid should stray into his gaze, no matter its size, he will end it. For this is all he knows; biology has endowed him with this singular motive. He dozes off to dreams of driving his beak straight through the abdomen of a plump brown spider.
Yet as all generations of Proboscis monkeys know, the whims of evolution can be magnificently cruel and juvenile. Conceived in the mind of some elementary-school deity, these monkeys are scarred with giant red phallic noses that hang past their mouths, protruding potbellies and slimy webbed toes. Even with their limited cognition they know enough to feel shame. For in the discrete pockets of Borneo where they drag out their marred existences, the Proboscis will turn its head from prodding cameras. Not out of vanity but of shame. The tribe of monkeys I encountered on the coast of Sarawak resigned themselves to living above a row of trash bins, likely convinced they deserve nothing better in this world. And below, where their droppings fell, lived a bearded pig attendant who’d noisily feast on the nutritious offerings from above.
By contrast the orangutans of Borneo live a charmed life. Contrary to their reputation as beastly orange freaks, orangutans are remarkably smart apes; orangutan, a Malay word, literally translates to “man of the forest.” A whimsical, freakishly dexterous man, yes, but a clever proto-human nonetheless. In a rehabilitation center wedged in the thick jungle, orangutans are lured each day with the promise of fruit and flash photography. One by one the orange celebrities candidly emerge from the forest and leap and twirl and somersault their way to the fruit offerings like toddlers on parade. The more talented ones use their prehensile feet to perform cartwheels along vines, the less talented ones simply smash berries directly into their foreheads. The mother orangutans hurl their orange infants around like the globetrotters handling a basketball, and the human spectators, told to keep quiet, cheer wildly as though the orangutan were doing it all for the fans. But the wild screams of tourists irk the alpha male, a giant, belligerent tangle of muscle and hair. Soon the male leaps from the canopy and feigns a charge toward the crowd, willing, it seems, to pummel a human child or two until the onlookers show deference.
Today, however, there are no such casualties, as the rangers declare over the megaphone that everyone must shut up immediately lest the unstoppable alpha attack. And soon after the crowd disperses, scratching their butts and picking their teeth and slapping their children and checking their texts, and the Orangutans look on and wonder why these inferior naked apes keep bothering them. And this is Borneo.