Nothing in Borneo rushes. And when you’ve been around for the past 100 million years, you can understand see why.
Take the world’s largest flower. It quietly spends up to 12 months preparing for its debut, but only blooms for six days before withering away. Or there’s the humble firefly. It lies dormant in a river for two years before coming to life. A week later and it’s gone.
Borneo, which is made up of parts of Malaysia, Indonesia and all of Brunei, is also home to dozens of indigenous tribes. Some gained notoriety in pre-colonial times for their tendency to lop off the heads of those they defeated in battle and take them home as souvenirs. Leaving the bodies on the ground, they would take their prized head back to their village to show their prowess, and be rewarded with a tattoo on their backs. Ironically, the heads were then rather venerated, as they were washed, blessed and the local soothsayer would ask its spirit to forgive and protect the village. A few skulls still remain in some villages, but nobody is allowed to take photographs of them, for fear of upsetting the spirits.
Another unusual tradition involves the marriage dowry. Potential husbands need to present his girlfriend’s family with a few cows or buffalo before he can seal the deal. The logic goes that the girl is a farm worker and so the family will soon be one pair of hands short when she leaves her family, so the buffalo is seen as her replacement. Buffalos play an important role in death. In some tribes, a person will keep cattle all their lives. When they die, the beast is sacrificed as it’s thought their spirits will live on around the misty zenith of Mount Kinabalu, the 4,092-metre high mountain that dwarves everything else in the Sabah region.
Wildlife here is particularly interesting. The proboscis monkey can only be found on Borneo. It’s been taken to zoos around the world but its survival rate is poor – and it’s impossible to tame. Around Borneo it’s relatively easy to find as it’s not particularly shy and lives in groups of six to nine. Boat trips head out daily and are virtually guaranteed to see the monkey.
The east coast is home to a range of celebrity pelagic creatures, from turtles to sharks. The east coast has its own, more modest dive sites off Koba Kintabalu. On my dive a turtle suddenly appeared above us and we were able to swim with it for a moment or two. Elsewhere, there were scorpion fish, stone fish, puffer fish, sea eels, harlequin prawns, trigger fish and small fish that took a bite out of me within a minute of being in the water.