Tag Archives: Borneo

Borneo & birds nests – In Conversation with Annie

Bexhill to Bexhill

Image courtesy of Bexhill Museum.

Arriving in Borneo and focus shifts from Annie’s “A Voyage in the Sunbeam” (1878) to her posthumously published “Last Voyage” (1889). Borneo, and the caves therein, triggered the deterioration of her health after catching a fever. Annie had suffered with her health for a long time, particularly with malaria, although she also commented on her arm troubling her at times, thought to be due to a riding accident (Julian Porter, curator, conversations at Bexhill Museum). The caves in Borneo and the story of their role in Annie’s deteriorating health are the reason I included Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) in my itinerary. Transfixed by the existence of the caves and discovery that the birds’ nests she went in search of, now held at Bexhill Museum, committed me to this journey and planted the seeds for this residency (and ‘In Conversation with Annie‘). 

Bexhill to Bexhill

Birds’ nest, courtesy of Bexhill Museum.

Annie’s interest with Gormatong and Madai caves was principally the habitation of the swiftlets within and their nest building. Prized for the soup, a particular delicacy in China, birds’ nests would be collected from within the caves and boiled down to make a glutenous liquid for serving. My interest was particularly piqued through Annie’s accounts detailed in “The Last Voyage” and the accompanying illustrations. It is described as quite an adventure to find said caves and the sense of far away lands are especially evident here.

Bexhill to Bexhill

Entrance to Madai Caves, image courtesy of Bexhill Museum.

Black bird's nests caves, Borneo "looking awkward" (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Black bird’s nests caves, Madai caves, Borneo “looking awkward” (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Bexhill to Bexhill

Gormatong Caves (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Swamps and rainforest eventually precluded Annie from reaching Gormatong. Men were sent to find the caves and she accepted defeat only after three day treks proved the challenge of reaching them. She had to be satisfied with Madai. In contrast I had gone in hope of finding Madai caves and had to settle for finding Gormatong. They were a good deal more accessible than they were in 1887, although much of Northern Borneo is still a little challenging to navigate without your own transport (and all the correct permits). They did look similar to Annie’s photographs of Darvel Valley and Madai caves and I trust smelled the same (I was fortunate to be harbouring a cold by then). The floor covered in guano, the walls in cockroaches. There were men living inside guarding the valuable bounty and rickety wooden ladders lashed together as Annie describes. The main difference was not at the caves themselves but when I came to leave Borneo. Arriving at the airport for my flight to Australia, I spotted a shop window filled with clear perspex boxes, each filled with small white birds’ nests.


Reaching Borneo

A Trail of Breadcrumbs’ continued from Bali to Borneo, where I spent a little too long in Kota Kinabalu before exploring Northern Sabah. This was dominated by a tour of wildlife in rescue centres, albeit impressive organisations, it was a saddening fact that these were necessary. This was only emphasised by the roads being almost entirely lined by palm oil plantations and tour guides emphasising their value to the local economy. Tourism and palm oil are two of the biggest industries in this part of the world, it must be a delicate balance in PR. 

There was the chance, however, to follow rivers and explore rainforest, to listen to the orchestra within and to see nature in the wild, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, snakes, elephants. All truly awesome experiences. 

The highlight was of course to reach the Gormantong caves that Annie didn’t manage to (she was eventually persuaded she wouldn’t be able to access them). Alas a breadcrumb wasn’t left here, but one did find a home (albeit temporarily) on the coastline of one of the islands not far from Kota Kinabalu and where I had dived the previous week. This was a relaxing, calming pause in the fast paced itinerary and one worthy of marking.

Bexhill to Bexhill

A Trail of Breadcrumbs reaches Borneo, Louise Kenward (2014)

Bexhill to Bexhill

A Trail of Breadcrumbs reaches Borneo, Louise Kenward (2014)


Shark! (Under the sea – part 2)

The Great Barrier Reef is arguably THE destination in Australia. Learning to dive at the beginning of the year, this was firmly on my list of places to visit. I had my concerns though, The Great Barrier Reef is under threat, at risk from many directions: climate change, mining, tourism. It may not be all it’s cracked up to be, the parts visited from Cairns by mass tourist vessels, the enormous industry around it with fixed pontoons out at sea and 300 passenger catamarans shuttling back and forth fill me with sadness and fear about the impact that this is having on the very thing it is celebrating. I wonder how long this is sustainable (although it probably has more to fear from the mining industry at the moment, as it dumps waste out at sea). My hope is, however, that it is such a vast entity that at least these pontoons keep tourists in roughly the same place.

In Borneo, just after leaving Indonesia, I went diving, making sure I could still do it, and without my instructor. All went well, despite poor visibility. I saw a turtle for the first time, and a lobster. After a wobble in my confidence around New South Wales I booked a dive while sailing in the Whitsundays (not the best outfit to go with but I did see a reef shark for the first time), I haven’t looked back. Stuck in Townsville and uncertain if I would make it to Cairns, I booked another dive – officially on the Great Barrier Reef here – and it was (as they say) pristine. There was no plastic, no nappies, just sea life. It was a couple of hours off the coast and felt wonderfully remote, a bit of a secret spot. The corals were beautiful. I did, however, learn to dive in Bali. I fear this has, to some extent, ruined me, I cannot be as awe inspired by these wonders, my standards are high, but this was beautiful. A mixed blessing, I finally got to leave Townsville, but on the day I could have dived at the ship wreck Yongala, renowned to be a pretty special place. Arriving at Cairns Easter weekend, with just three days before my flight back to Brisbane, my only option was to book a trip on one of the enormous catamarans out to a pontoon. The weather was ropey, so to be on a small boat may not have been a good idea, as it was the boat I was on was carnage, almost everyone was seasick. The dive briefing was a thorough and professional affair, it turned out there were just three of us diving, this was some relief, at least once under the water it was peaceful. Despite all the commotion on the surface, there remains a good deal of life under the water, a particularly friendly Maori Wrasse, several feet across, greeted me and, ignoring the structural supports, the reef was being looked after and in what seemed like pretty good condition, Tour operators are also required to fulfil various ‘environmental’ checks and demands. The highlight was the turtle, having passed us by several times during the day, just before ascending back to the surface it started having its lunch. We were able to ‘sit’ and watch for some time as it ate algae from the coral, just the three of us within a few feet of each other. It felt a very special thing to be able to do.

One of other great things you can do in Cairns is to go to the Reef Teach talk and adopt your very own marine biologist. From the tiny things to the giants of the sea, it gives a great over view. The extent of the reef is incredible, one of the wonders of the world you can see from space and filled with such variety of living things. One of the parting words for this talk is also about sharks, and it is something that has preoccupied me during my time here, following the Western Australia shark culling programme.

My first go with a Go-Pro...this is where the white tipped reef shark was a split second before (admittedly the visibility wasn't brilliant)

My first go with a Go-Pro…this is where the white tipped reef shark was a split second before (admittedly the visibility wasn’t brilliant)

‘Jaws’ has a lot to answer for, it certainly holds a good deal of responsibility for my own fear of the open water. But with more information and understanding fear is reduced. What is alarming is that much of Australia (and the rest of the world) seems to be acting on the basis of these fears, killing sharks in enormous numbers (that and shark fin soup, which is tasteless admit it China, where sharks fins are cut off and the creature is left to drown). The majority are of no risk to people. When my dive guide at the Whitsundays made the sign for ‘shark’ I have to admit several things ran through my mind, but seeing it was breathtaking. The white tipped reef shark, just a few feet long and with no interest in us, was sleeping on the sea bed. As we approached it swam off, and as it did there was something incredibly tangible about its history and time that it has been here (more than 450 million years). Something so elegant and graceful and a feeling of another time and another world.

I can’t say I’m a fan of sharks now, but I am certainly in awe. They are also at the top of the food chain out there so we need them. Unfortunately too many are being killed, some are near extinction. This is senseless. Sadly around 10 people die each year from shark attacks in the world. In response to this however, 100 million sharks are being killed every year, 100 million!. To put this in context, the most dangerous creature in the world, is the mosquito, responsible for 725,000 deaths each year. In Australia, you are more likely to be killed by a eucalyptus tree than you are a shark. With all the bravado of how dangerous Australia is, it seems to have swallowed its own story, nothing there actually wants to kill you. Cancer, diabetes and heart disease are still responsible for most deaths. Something seems to be getting lost in communication. We need the sharks. We need to be careful venturing into their habitat (as you would with lions and tigers) but killing them all is not the answer. So this is my parting plea, to raise awareness in what small way I can and to be someone who will talk and learn more about sharks. The Western Australian cull has come to an end for now, I only hope that some sense is seen and that the devastation that has been done to many endangered species can have time for repair.

For a beautifully illustrated film of the plight of sharks watch this.

Gormantong Caves

North East of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) sit the Gormantong caves. One of the sites the rare and much prized bird’s nests of the apparently culinary delight from which bird’s nest soup is made from. Annie Brassey had been very keen to visit these at the time of her visit to what was then Northern British Borneo in 1878. She had been able to visit Madai caves where the swiftlets also nested. Reached more readily by boat, the Sunbeam docked at Darvel Bay from where there was quite some expedition still to reach their destination. The trip is documented well in Annie’s journal and in photographs and sketches made at the time. The nests she brought back from her trip are also still in tact and currently being looked after by the Bexhill Museum. What is also well documented is her desire to reach Gormantong. A good deal further from Darvel Bay, her journal gives the impression that she had already had someone attempt to discourage her from such a venture. Despite this Messers Wilson and Walker were sent to survey the area on foot. Crossing rivers, swamps, jungle and general inhospitable land, they finally reached the caves some days later. Little detail is given about the caves themselves, however, and what they found on their arrival, rather emphasis spent assuring Lady Brassey that it really would be an impossible journey for her. With great reluctance she relents and they move on. This did, however, make me curious to recreate an expedition. Not the travelling through rivers, swamps and jungle, I anticipated that some years later it would be a little easier to get to.

Black bird's nests caves, Borneo "looking awkward" (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Black bird’s nests caves, Borneo “looking awkward” (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Planning as much as I could from the UK, with time restrictions and a less than clear answer from the internet, I arranged to join a tour that took me overland through Sabah, principally because it included a visit to Gormantong caves. With extra days to spare I still held out hope of reaching Madai but if nothing else, reaching the caves that eluded Annie so, and that she so wanted to visit would certainly be good enough.

Dressed in hard hat and head torch, long sleeves, trousers and fully covered shoes, I embark on my own expedition. A short walk through jungle, the orchestra was playing loudly and jubilantly. No one else was around and I wondered how much the environment had changed from the views that would of greeted Messers Wilson and Walker on their eventual arrival, and how much cursing dear Lady Brassey may have received. Long houses flank the entrance to the caves where equipment is stored for harvesting. A large cavernous opening awaits and I’m warned of cockroaches and falling guano. Nothing could deter me from going in. The central area is very tall with a small opening at the top allowing a small amount of light in, where I could see bats circling. On the ground lay a large mound of guano. Helpfully a walkway had been built around the perimeter so, unlike Annie and her group, I didn’t need to walk through too much goo. Blessed with a cold for this part of the trip my olfactory senses were blissfully hampered. The stench that kept others at bay did not bother me.

Gormantong Caves (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Gormantong Caves (Louise Kenward, 2014)

The atmosphere was cool and dark, taking in as much of the beauty of the caves, the light and the structure of the rock face I was completely absorbed and almost didn’t notice two people sitting in a small wooden hut constructed to one side at the base of the caves. Wardens of the caves, they are careful to protect their valuable bounty. As in awe of the structure and the cave as I was, I’m not sure I’d actually want to live there.

Reaching the sunshine again I’m a bit disappointed not to stay longer, but as with a tour I have to move on. Very very happy to have reached the caves and keen to report back to Annie.

Malaysia Revisited

Travelling through Peninsula Malaysia from Thailand I was struck by the attention paid to the roadside. Flowers and greenery which had been planted along the verges. It all looked very ‘looked after’ and ordered. The roads, mostly, were wide and free flowing, well maintained and a far cry from the ‘massage roads’ of Cambodia and Java.

The second thing I noticed was the palm trees. Vast stretches as far as the eye could see. Palm tree plantations. One of the most frightening sights I have seen. Almost for the entire journey the length of Malaysia, from Southern Thailand into Singapore, and from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan (Borneo) it was almost completely lined by these plantations. Having a little understanding of the dwindling rain forests and the implication on wildlife is one thing, but seeing it, not just on the peninsula but also throughout Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) it is truly upsetting. Eighty percent of the rain forest has been destroyed.

Palm oil plantation, Malaysia (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Palm oil plantation, Malaysia (Louise Kenward, 2014)

My attempt to learn more from the guide in Borneo proved a fairly fruitless task. He rattles off how the main industry in Sabah is palm oil and rubber, followed by petrol and tourism. Palm oil is big business. I am told that the palm oil plantations have ‘only’ been created in existing secondary forest, rubber plantations (replaced as rubber has lost its value). The difference being that palm oil plantations are silent.

Nothing can live in these deserts. There is no food or habitat for wildlife. Sepilok is home to three animal sanctuaries, Orang utan rescue (a UK charity), Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary and Sun Bear Conservation (recently opened). These are programmes developing in response to the dwindling forests. Orang utans have been rescued from palm oil plantations desperately looking for food. The work of the charity also includes educating locals how taking baby orang utans for pets is illegal, raising babies who have been taken as pets and teaching them how to be wild again. The balance of conservation and tourism is a fine one. Dedicated protected forests are the home of these organisations. During rehabilitation orang utans have their diet supplemented by the centre which provides food twice a day at platforms which visitors can view. We stand silently watching the ropes move and trees and branches sway, as orang utans make their way through the forest. There are only a handful likely to arrive, many living wild further afield or still not ready for this phase in the programme. One adult female orang utan arrives, swinging around the platform to assess the bounty and grabs a handful of bananas and starts to munch. A macaque monkey joins her and tries to wrestle them off her. She swings from one of the ropes and is joined by two more, one very small one just three or four years old. The dynamics and characters of each creature and their relationships with one another is fascinating to watch. The volunteer tells me a bit about them, how the smallest was rescued without her mother (they generally do not leave their mothers until they reach the age of about 10). She has taken to one of the adult females and more recently had started following a second as well. Watching her learn as she copied the older one, feeding and climbing. There are only 20,000 left in the wild, 200 are here in Sepilok. ‘Men of the Forest’ they share 96.4% of our genetics (particularly interesting in the wake of this recent National Geographic article).

Orang utan Rescue UK, Sepilok (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Orang utan Rescue UK, Sepilok (Louise Kenward, 2014)

The previous day I had been fortunate enough to witness several orang utans in the wild. A boat trip along Kinabatangan River saw proboscis monkeys, orang utans, hornbills and elephants. These were rare sightings and magnificent to witness even if fleetingly and from some distance. There are apparently ropes across the river enabling orang utans to cross from one side to another, but again there are large portions of land dedicated to palm oil. Throughout my journey I have only once seen any information about palm oil, a WWF poster on a bus stop in Singapore warned of the wider impact that our consumption of palm oil is having. It’s used everywhere, in edible and non edible industries, cosmetics, soap, foods. Mc Donald’s is not surprisingly a major consumer. I pledge to read labels more carefully.

Sun bear (honey bear) sanctuary, Sepilok (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Sun bear (honey bear) sanctuary, Sepilok (Louise Kenward, 2014)


Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary (Louise Kenward, 2014)


Headhunters and orang utans, hornbills and pygmy elephants. Borneo has it all. Jungles, proboscis monkeys, islands with white sandy beaches and incredible under water worlds. Coral reefs, turtles and multi coloured fish. Sun bears, reef sharks and houses on stilts. With 32 distinct ethnic groups, 55 languages and over 100 dialects, Malaysian Borneo, Sabah, is one of a kind. It can certainly be forgiven for not having modern shopping centres and efficient customer service. It would be a shame if it did.

Mount Kinabalu (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Mount Kinabalu (Louise Kenward, 2014)

For all its quirks and oddities Sabah is all the more interesting for them. It is not slick and polished but muddled and disorganised. This makes it all the more intriguing, nothing is straight forward so exploring it can feel like a rare chance to see something special. Which you are. Many creatures here can only be found in Sabah. Jungle life, bird life, sea life. Lonely Planet describes it as what God created on his day off (a ‘mad scientist’ experiment). I think it’s probably what she came up with on saturday night after a couple of margaritas.


Evening out with the headhunters – Mari Mari Cultural Village (Louise Kenward, 2014)


Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Sepilok (Louise Kenward, 2014)


Man of the Forest – Orang utan Rehabilitation Centre, Sepilok (Louise Kenward)