Often, the term “Wild Man of Borneo” is in reference to the orangutan, which is native to the island of Borneo and whose human-like mannerisms and intelligence beg for such a comparison. In my own context, that term has an entirely different meaning, referring instead to a reckless whitewater rafting guide whose antics potentially jeopardized an otherwise fascinating visit to this amazing island. But before divulging that particular story, let me share a few important details.
Where is Borneo and how do you get there?
The island of Borneo is located approximately midway between Southeast Asia and the Australian continent, and just slightly southwest of the Philippine archipelago. The island is shared by three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, and the small nation of Brunei. Most tourists arrive via the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu, situated in the northern reaches of Malaysia’s Bornean real estate. Kota Kinabula – often shortened to just ‘KK’ is serviced by many Asian airlines, though to my knowledge there are no direct flights from either Europe or North America. Alternately, it is a port of call for various cruise itineraries – including my own which brought me to this primordial tropical paradise for just one day of exploration.
What is Borneo like?
Borneo is likely just as wild and exotic as you’ve heard it rumored to be. It is a rugged natural wonderland of ancient jungles and intriguing rock formations, as well as home to the tallest peak in Southeast Asia – Mount Kinabalu, where you can escape the steamy tropical weather via altitude. The city of KK has all the modern conveniences that have blurred the lines of culture, yet just outside the city you can find lovely islands with turquoise beaches, trek into the jungle to watch the comically-endowed proboscis monkey or seek the humongous (and smelly) Rafflesia bloom – the world’s largest flower. You can also sample exciting whitewater rafting through ancient stands of rain forest, which was the option I chose for my limited sojourn, and which brought me face to face with my own version of the “Wild Man of Borneo”.
What can be expected on a whitewater rafting trip in Borneo?
I had arranged a whitewater rafting tour ahead of time with a reputable operator, who arranged for my party to be picked up at the port (though there was confusion as to where, but that’s another story) and taken about forty-five minutes into the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, clad in rugged swathes of thick rain forest only lightly bearing witness to the presence of man. We were brought to a secondary starting point due to high water levels during that time, at a tiny village on the Kiulu River, which is ominously pronounced similar to the Kill-You River. More on that in a second.
It was at this point that we met our guide, who told us his name was ‘Dude’. Unless his mother was a pot-smoking skateboarder totally taken aback by the act of giving birth to him, I’m inclined to believe that this was a self-appointed moniker. Along with his assistant – a Mr. Kudu (again likely a pseudonym) – we were given equipment and instructions on paddling, emergency procedures, and what to do if you fall out of the boat. Little did I know then that this was more of a preview than a preventative lesson.
We set out into the greenish-brown waters under an overcast sky. The river was rather wide, but the aforementioned water levels meant that it was moving swiftly – a good thing for those not looking to paddle the whole time. Inevitably, with bends in the river, there were moderate rapids, which were fun and sufficiently exciting for most. Apparently Dude and Mr. Kudu didn’t find them stimulating enough, and while the rest of us paddled furiously to avoid crashing the raft into the hefty boulders lining the riverbanks, they guided us with expert skill right into them, time and again.
I was the first one to fall out of the raft when we slipped vertically up the side of a boulder. I spun to face downriver as instructed but still wound up being pummeled by a few submerged rocks. On the next bend, while enjoying the rapids, we again found ourselves inexplicably up against the boulders, where this time it was my mother who was dumped into the frothing water. Fortunately she (and the rest of us) escaped serious injury, but it soon became clear that despite his enthusiastic shouts of where and how hard we should paddle, Dude was steering us right into the spots that would make the trip more ‘interesting’.
Now, let me just say that I am fully aware that rafting has an inherent level of risk, and if it weren’t exciting, no one would want to do it. However, it really annoyed me that we were being subjected to unnecessary risks, ones that would not only would jeopardize the rest of our vacation, but our health as well. So it was at this point, after rowing furiously away from the rocks and looking back at our guides doing just the opposite, that I shouted in no uncertain terms that we didn’t want to crash anymore, and would they please refrain from doing so. Considering that for the rest of the trip we managed to navigate the swirling vortexes of turbulence without any further upsets, this only served to prove that my earlier suspicions were correct.
With the threat of imminent death or dismemberment removed, we were able to more fully enjoy the panoramas that unfolded around every turn; the massive tree limbs being strangled by hefty creepers that overhung the riverbanks; the occasional waterfalls trickling out of the jungle to add to the swollen river; the rickety rope bridges that connect one unseen village with another. At one particularly calm stretch , I was allowed to hop into the river and drift along freestyle, to serenely take in the scenery. And when we eventually arrived at our take-out point, the deafening chorus of insects and pungent smell of the wet jungle left me desperately wishing I had more time to spend in this primeval paradise – with or without a suicidal guide.
Would you recommend such a trip for a first-time visitor?
Yes, I absolutely would, though I would first explain a few caveats:
While you wouldn’t need to be in superb shape (such as would be required for those looking to summit Mount Kinabalu), there is a level of physical exertion inherent in the sport of whitewater rafting, and rafting Borneo is no exception. Be ready to paddle, either for your life or just to move forward more quickly.
If you’re afraid of nature, water, potential danger and/or being out in the sun, then perhaps this activity is not for you. But if you wear waterproof sunscreen, brace yourself for the possibility of a few bumps and bruises and embrace your inner sense of adventure, you’ll not only be just fine, but will have a great bucket-list item to casually boast about back home (“that reminds me of that time I was whitewater rafting back in Borneo…”).
How would you sum up a visit to Borneo?
I would say that a trip to Borneo is likely to be the highlight of one’s travels – provided said traveler has an appreciation for nature in the raw and at least a moderate sense of adventure. Just saying the name Borneo conjures images of untouched jungles and exotic flora and fauna. Visitors who venture into the interior will find all of that and more. I highly recommend putting Borneo on your list of future destinations, and even more highly recommend spending at least a week or more exploring the plethora of natural and soft-adventure options that the island offers.
And in the event that you do come, and run into my friend Dude, for your own sake, just tell him that you’ll be taking your next tour without him.