Jungle, rivers dictate life in Borneo

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April 6, 2010 - 12:00 AM

(A group organized by the Inland Press Association visited the island of Borneo on a river cruise March 6-20. Emerson Lynn, jr., associate editor of the Register, participated. This is the first of a series of articles on the trip.)

Borneo is the third largest island on Earth, behind Greenland and New Guinea. Its diverse population of 18,590,000 owes allegiance to three nations: Indonesia, which governs the Kalimantan provinces which cover about 73 percent of the land area and make up about the same percentage of the population; Malayasia, which governs the provinces of Sarawak and Sabah on the west and northwest and occupy another 26 percent of the island’s area; and the independent Sultanate of Brunei on the northwest coast, which has a population of 569,000 but amounts to less than 1 percent of Borneo’s area.
Our tour group spent nine days on the Rajang River in Sarawak, a few hours in Kuching, the largest city in the province with a population of 632,505, and two days in the amazing city of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
We traveled in the first and only cruise ship to travel on the Rajang, the largest river on the island. It is about 350 miles long and was about 30 feet deep and perhaps 500 feet wide where our triple-deck cruise boat traveled.

THE INLAND STUDY mission, as it was called, toured the Sarawak province by ship because there is no other means of travel in that jungle-covered tropical island. What highways there are serve the coastal cities rather than the interior. The longest trip we took by van was perhaps 30 miles.
We flew into Kuching, a key Sarawak port, and then went to Sibu to board the Pandaw which was making its maiden voyage on the Rajang.
Kuching, which means cat in Malayan, has a tropical rainforest climate: hot and humid: annual rainfal 165 inches; 247 rainy days a year (six or seven of which we experienced). High temperatures ranged daily in the 90s. Lows in the 70s. The high humidity keeps the heat index at or above 100 for days on end. There are no seasons, although the amount of rain varies as monsoons come and go.
Any physical effort produces sweat-soaked clothes in a matter of minutes.
We took two hikes into the forest, one of which required about three hours to complete. The trail was constructed under contract by the tour company. It climbed rapidly from the river dock on wet clay made more slippery by fallen leaves, following a ridge. Heavy ropes to serve as hand-holds on the sides of the trails were anchored to sturdy stakes or, when close-by, trees. They were essential to help us climb the rain-slick trail and to prevent falls.
The hike wasn’t required, of course, and several on the ship elected to stay in their air-conditioned cabins. I went to see what was behind the dense forest walls which came down to the river’s edge.
What we discovered behind that wall was more and more of more and more: trees, ferns, vines and wide-bladed grasses that made exploration next to impossible.
The island is very sparsely inhabited. Much of its area has yet to be explored. Human settlements lie almost exclusively near the banks of rivers that serve as transportation to other cities, towns and villages. The trail hacked into the jungle that we took to get a feel for it extended for no more than two miles before circling back to the dock and must have required months of back-breaking labor by a team of strong men to construct.
Nevertheless, more and more of the island is coming under the the settler’s ax. Its huge hardwood trees are being cut. Its rich mineral deposits mined. Cleared areas are turned into plantations growing oil palms, rubber trees and pepper vines.
While Borneo has one of the world’s largest rain forests, its hilly terrain and forbidding heat have preserved millions of acres from exploitation, giving conservationists hope that it might prove possible to bring deforestation under control.

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