Borneo is divided in four political regions: Sabah in the north and Sarawak in the south-west, both belonging to Malaysia; the small sultanate of Brunei, an enclave within Sarawak; and Kalimantan, that includes most of the island and belongs to Indonesia. I came to Borneo with the goal of attempting an overland crossing of Sarawak west to east, from Miri to Bario, by means of the traditional ways of moving in the area, namely sailing on rivers and walking in the forest. Before that, both for becoming re-accustomed to the forest and for witnessing the status of nature conservation, I plan on visiting three among the main nature reserves in Sabah: Danum Valley, Imbak Canyon, and the Maliau Basin.
Danum Valley Conservation Area is going to be my first stop. To get there I need to reach Lahad Datu, the closest city, on the east coast of Sabah. It is 400 km and about 7 hours by bus away from Kota Kinabalu, my starting point, on the west coast. The road trip deserves a mention, for it passes by the spectacular Gunung Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in Borneo. I climbed it in 2013, and now, just like back then, its huge, dark mass seems to float in the ever-present clouds. The black teeth of the summit ridge top out of the cloud layer, towering over the dark green valley below.
It is a gloomy day. The road is surrounded by milky mists, from which trees emerge like green shadows.
Around the road, hills covered in dense forest seem to spread till the horizon. Yet I know that, as we move away from the Mount Kinabalu National Park, the forests get smaller and rarer. As the day ends, and the colours reduce to shades of gray and black, and the darkest green, the last thing I can discern out of the bus window is the change from the heterogeneity of the forest to the geometric regularity of oil palm plantations. They go on for tens of kilometers in any direction, all the way to Lahad Datu.
Lahad Datu. This city has a bad reputation. It is notorious for being a base for bandits and kidnappers, and my local friends advised me against going there as orang putih satu (a white man alone). I spend one day and two nights here, waiting for the transport that will take me to Danum Valley, and I come to think that the city’s reputation is a bit exaggerated. Lahad Datu is indeed dirty, stinky, full of rats, and has given me some of the rare sights of true misery I have seen in Malaysia. But in spite of the supposed high criminality, its inhabitants are very friendly and hospital. There are some very lively markets. And besides the concrete buildings and the store houses that came with the city expansion due to oil palm plantations, the there are still a couple of blocks with old wooden buildings, witnessing the pre-plantation history of the city.
But facts can still prove me wrong as I will have to pass by Lahad Datu a few more times in the next couple of weeks. Now it’s time to head to Danum.