Into The Lost World of Borneo

The Lost World

Excerpt from The Adventurist by Robert Young Pelton

The light lives to show off its creations
The mountain sits, smugly waiting,
growing larger with each arc of the blade
Clouds hold hands and circle the bruised green crown
A delicate necklace of light
The head scraped clean, hard, thrust upward
The mountain ignores preparing for the dark

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia – The helicopter ascended: white, clean and gleaming. I was filthy; burnt, brown, mud-dirty and disheveled, from exploring bat shit filled caves in the interior of Borneo, shooting rapids and sliding through dark forest floors. This was the quickest way to get where I wanted to go. A place where no one had been. Once on board and aloft, the complexities of the jungle intermingled into a rich, green blanket. The heavy heat became an icy coolness as the Bell 206 gained altitude.

From above the miles and miles of jungle carpet, the ground was unbroken, except by a few large rivers that had cut the dirt right down to the sandstone. Here, there was diversity, but also a monotony of endless green: a carpet of color every few miles from a flowering tree, subtle shades of green, blending from dark brownish green to light green and even yellowish green. If the helicopter went down in this canopy, we would never be found.

Off in the distance we saw the crisp shape of a continent rising above an ocean of mist. The sharp outline of the steep cliffs cut an exact shoreline in this cloud as if it were an island.

The only ground access in is a full day hike from the nearest timber camp on the Tawau Keningau timber road. The downside to this method is a very steep and dangerous cliff ascent late in the day or early the next morning.

My plan is to drop the gear at a crudely cleared helipad first, then have the pilot drop us off wherever he can find a hole. First I wanted to see just what I was up against.

I motioned the pilot to take us higher to get a better idea of the shape of this vast island within an island. The Maliau basin looks like an elephant track in hard dirt that has been washed by rain. The basin also could be described as a crown shape that rises in the north to a tiara-like configuration and slopes down on each side to where rivers have cut a series of jagged canyons through which they spill like wax from a candle. The Maliau is an important drainage basin that creates the Sungai Maliau, which tumbles down to create the Maliau Falls, then drains into the Kuamut, which links up with the Kinabatangan.

The area is so vast that we flew long and hard before we found the chain of rapids and waterfalls spilling out of the basin seen by so few people. The drainage of the entire 25 kilometer-wide basin made a most impressive showing. As the pilot dived and maneuvered between the steep cliffs, the ground turned from a smooth carpet to individual giants. What had looked like strewn pebbles were house-sized boulders. What had looked like rapids, were 20-30 foot waterfalls that cascaded into basin after basin. An extraordinary sight.

The pilot tapped his gauge, alerting us to his low fuel. We broke out of our aerial reverie and began to search for the helipad. Crude helipads had been hacked out of the dense jungle to let the research and survey teams in. But no one had penetrated the remote interior. Until now.

The helicopter touched down lightly in a clearing, not really putting any weight on the undergrowth. I leaped out and immediately sank up to our chests in moss. Shocked by the lack of solid footing,  the firm peat forest floor was an illusion. Their were three to four feet of moss and leaf litter before the trees rooted in the thin hard bedrock.

Labored like horses in deep snow we moved the gear away from the rotor wash. As the chopper lifted back into the bright sunlight, we had a chance to record our first impressions of the Maliau Basin.

It was cool near the rim. The altitude and humidity created an agreeable atmosphere. There was moss everywhere. The curious lack of soil and depth of the moss was typical of a peat forest. The trees were not the typical lowland dipterocarps. Here, there were conifers. Big conifers.

It was a discomforting feeling to descend from the clear, piercing blue sky into the dark grasps of the jungle. The trees towered above us. The contours of the basin, which had seemed gentle and caressing, were now wickedly steep and forbidding. Instead of seeing clearly in 360 degrees, we were now confined to staring at patches of sky through 60-100 foot trees.

Our weight restrictions and the distance we needed to fly to get to the Maliau dictated that we make two trips. Our solution was to send Jon back with the pilot to help find the helipad.

We flew into helipad four and set up camp at the base of the hill, lugging our gear and crashing through the dense brush like drunk elephants.

We were just five minutes down the trail and suddenly Tony asked us to stop. It appeared he had already made a discovery. He pointed to a thimble-sized plant that closely resembled a cross between an alien spaceship and a Victorian light standard. He collected the second finding ever of a small saprophytic plant; Thysmia aescananthus. The tiny plant is nestled under the roots of a tree and would have been easily crushed. Tony mentioned in a casual manner that the first time this plant was found was in exactly this same spot on an earlier expedition. The uniqueness and fragility of this area began to sink in.

Tony explained that we were in unique coniferous forest dominated by huge Agathus (related to the New Zealand cowrie pines), dacridiums and podocarpus trees, mixed with oaks and casserinas as it mixes with the lower hill dipterocarp forest.

This was truly pristine forest. There was no evidence of fire. There have been no natural calamities. There are no people to disturb the forest and there is no wind. Nothing to disturb the test tube-like conditions for creating new species. The only major trauma is the life cycle of the giant trees as they grow, die, and then crash into the forest, unheard and unseen, creating a gaping hole in the canopy for their offspring to fill.

In 1947, a pilot flying from the west coast of British North Borneo to Tawau experienced a rude shock when he narrowly avoided colliding with a wall of steep cliffs emerging from the misty jungle. This minor incident is the first recorded mention of the Maliau Basin. The “Lost World” was recorded in the Borneo Bulletin—and then quietly slipped back into obscurity.

The nearest Dusun villagers lived only four days away, but their belief that a fierce dragon inhabited Lake Limunsut at the base of the cliffs didn’t encourage exploration. Muruts along Sungai Sapulut were known to have reached the lower basin, calling it the “Mountain of Stairs” in reference to the many waterfalls and limestone ledges.

The first Western attempt to enter the “Lost World” was in 1976 during a forest service expedition to Lake Limunsut. They tried in vain to scale the escarpment but were forced to turn back just forty feet from the upper edge

Four years later, the Sabah Museum mounted an expedition to penetrate this remote area. The expedition ran out of supplies, was felled by malaria, and had to give up before they could conquer the escarpment.

In 1982, they managed a brief reconnaissance by helicopter, landing on a gravel bar near the falls.This preliminary mission was designed to lay the groundwork for a more intensive expedition a year later. They were greeted by animals that had never seen man before: a docile 22 foot, 400 pound python, mildly curious bearded pigs and a kijang, deer. In all, this brief foray into the wilderness posed more questions than it answered.

Finally, in April-May of 1988, a 43 man expedition spent three weeks in the Maliau unlocking its secrets. What they found was impressive. The 390 square kilometer basin covers an area of 25 kilometers across and is protected by an encircling escarpment that climbs up to 1500 meters. The highest point is Gunung Lotung, estimated to be 1900 meters high, but it has yet to be properly surveyed.

This expedition identified 47 species of mammals, including rhino, proboscis monkey and clouded leopard; 175 species of birds, including the Bulwer’s Pheasant (once thought extinct in Sabah); and 450 species of plants, many of them rare species.Their scientific finds and increased understanding of this absolutely untouched region led them to declare it a conservation area. But, along with the numerous rare plants and unusual ecosystems, the expedition also discovered significant coal seams.

There had also been a more adventurous and less scientific foray into the Maliau. Jon Rees walked in from Sapulut with three other Americans, a New Zealander and a Brit. They had heard there was a place no one had ever been, so they hiked through solid jungle from Sapulut for three days, plunged down into the Maliau River, walked along the ridge trail for five days, spent time in the central area and then devised a curious way to exit the basin. They had carried in canisters of two chemicals, used in boat building to create a buoyant foam. They also carried in two presewn plastic socks sewn in the shape of a Hobie cat.

The group tried to create hulls by hanging the socks in a tree, mixing the chemicals and pouring the chemical mixture into the socks. However, instead of a light, crisp vessel, they got two soggy bananas. The foam did not expand to its full volume, due either to altitude, heat, humidity or to all three. Nonetheless, they made a platform with roughly hewn crossbars and an old tennis net, tied sticks to the sawed-off blades of paddles, and proceeded to float down the Kuamut for 10 days to get out.

Their total time in the country was 27 days longer than any other outsider before them. During their foray they came across all the major mammals of Borneo except the rhino, and discovered “Jalan Babi,” a curious highway used by pigs to enter the Maliau. The profusion of coniferous and oak trees attracts the pigs in impressive numbers every year. The interior and the edge was still a tantalizing goal for scientific discovery.

Because of the area’s inaccessibility, various expeditions had passed the Maliau Basin by, or skirted its perimeter. The Maliau also had a curious history of being discovered and then undiscovered. My team would consist of Coskun who would cover our trip for European and Turkish magazines, Jon Rees a British born expeditor who lived in Sabah and Tony Lamb, a botanist whose fascination and experience with the Maliau Basin made him the perfect choice for our expedition. Tony was in charge of the Tenom Research Center, now retired, and his special interest is in the identification, propagation, and domestication of tropical fruits. He also has a vast knowledge of local insects, birds and mammals. His knowledge of the orchids and plants is encyclopedic. Only accurate identification of the multitude of trees prompts him to defer to a tree expert.

Tony was born in Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka) and grew up on a tea plantation during the British colonial period. Being educated in England and spending many years in Malaysia, another former British colony, may explain his genteel and pleasant nature.

The idea was to penetrate the upper basin and then head into parts unknown. We began our trek to the rim and then down along the edge to our rendezvous at a pre agreed base camp. For navigation we had a compass and a crude map.

The size of the Maliau is overwhelming. Like most wilderness areas, there is a mixture of monotony and surprise: smooth skinned gum trees, disrobed and red in the normally green jungle; streams that run with tea-colored water; pitcher plants that festoon trees like Christmas decorations. As we increased in altitude the trees became stunted, the moss became thicker and the forest wetter.

We could tell when we were close to the rim because we hit a green wall of moss. There is a distinct rim forest that lives in the constant wash of the mist and fog that pours over the rim. The trees are twisted and gnarled with their roots raised as if to keep their feet dry. The moss is constantly wet. Walking through the almost impenetrable maze of roots and branches drenches you as they squish their burden of water. It is chilly. It is also silent. There does not appear to be any life along the rim.

Another surprise was that the spectacular view we thought would greet us, did not exist. The dense growth at the rim blocked any chance to get a clear view of the surrounding jungle. We were floating in a “sea of mist” that stretched as far as the eye could see. “Sea” is an appropriate description because the mist bobs and ebbs like an ocean. It hits the cliffs, curls up and then floats above the trees, spraying a fine cool mist over the trees and moss.

I pushed out to get a view over the ledge and had a gut wrenching revelation. When the mist cleared for a few seconds, I saw below me over a thousand feet of sheer cliff. More correctly, “behind” me was over a thousand feet of sheer cliff. I had learned another intriguing fact about the rim forest. The roots of the trees grew far out over the cliffs. Covered with moss and detritus and being continually moist, the roots support more plants and trees, encouraging the process to repeat itself. I should have learned my lesson when we leaped off the helicopter into a mossy trap. Wiser, I gently returned to the safety of the cliff five feet behind me.

Tony and I, realizing that the day was getting late and that we had a long hike ahead of us, made haste along the rim. From the air, the rim looks like a smooth, clean edge sloping softly to a basin. Toiling ant like on the ground, it is a wonderland of ravines, cliffs, gullies and inaccessible smaller cliffs. In some places, water too impatient to flow into the central basin, has sliced through the edge of the precipice, creating a magical series of waterfalls and ledges ending in one last leap of escarpment. The water never hits the ground, dissipating into mist and drops of moisture.

We made our way through alleys of 20 feet high, five feet wide and 60 feet long slabs of sandstone. We clambered up the root-bound cliffs and slid down the other side. We passed the remains of a camp. This was the first evidence of man after the helipad—further evidence of the search for coal. In the coming days we would come upon holes dug to measure the depth of soft black coal. They had picked a most impressive spot: water had carved a notch in the cliff face providing a picture window view of the top of the mist sea.

Soon the path flattened out. Instead of the steep climbing and tumbling, we were dodging, ducking and twisting around the chaotic moss forest. I couldn’t help but think of British Columbia or the Olympic National Park in Washington. It was cool, green and refreshing when we were moving at a clip. We took a short breather. As soon as we stopped, the chill attacked.

We pressed on. Tony vaguely remembered there is a quicker route further down the rim. I chose to travel along the rim in my quest for a photograph that would capture the congested wet moss forest and the ocean of fog that gave us tantalizing peeks, but never the full picture.

The game path was now marked with survey sticks and occasionally flagging tape. We had been walking for a full day without food or water. Luckily, we were traveling light and the cool wet rim had made water abundantly unnecessary.

Tony’s muttering, normally an ongoing description of plant life and other information, turned to concern. He didn’t remember that ridge. We should be higher up. It was getting rather late.

Our crude maps showed we were still quite a long way from the helipad and eventual base camp where our gear was stored. Looking back, I could see the profile of the cliff that matched the map. The problem was, I was looking up at the ridge and it was behind me.

We continued. We were losing altitude at an alarming rate. It was getting darker. Now Tony and I were sure something was wrong. The map showed a smaller plateau below the cliff edge. We had been mindlessly following a game trail that we assumed would follow the ridge. Instead, we had found a way out of the basin and down the cliff.

We discussed our situation. We could turn back, but we didn’t know exactly where we went off the ridge and down onto this lower plateau. Since the path winds and curves tree by tree there would be no sure way of knowing where the path diverged, if it diverged at all. Plus, it was getting dark. Being lost in unexplored jungle at night with sheer cliffs was not a welcome feeling.

We decided to go forward because it would take us closer to our rendezvous. We would then cut in towards the cliff face as we got to the end of this minor plateau. There might be a way up, similar to the way we were fooled into coming down.

We continued losing height until we were in the depths of a black swamp. Trees blocked the light as our feet were sucked into the dark ooze. We were tired. It was late and the swamp was a depressing place to spend the night. Noxious gases were released as we struggled to pull our feet free. A blue oily film floated on the surface of the mosquito infested slime.

We decided that the swamp was the last place we wanted to spend our first evening in the Maliau. We could see the cliffs looming above us. We made a bold decision. We would push up the cliffs since the path we were taking went deeper and deeper into the lowland jungle.

Tony was tired. He had been helicoptered in from his comfortable desk job and he was now sitting in a dark swamp, about to cliff climb with a stranger, at night, in one of the most remote jungles in the world.

I was concerned about him. He had twenty years on me, but he was the one who suggested that we haul ourselves up the cliff. All he asked was that we have a good rest before we attempted the ascent. I gave him what little water I had, knowing it would be the last of our water for some time.

The sun had set, but there was still a dull light that illuminated our climb. The first section up was through tight brush and razor-sharp rattan. It was demanding, but doable.

We hit the first ledge. Using cracks in the rock, we pulled ourselves up. We hit our second ledge. Once again there were enough crevices to gain a purchase. Then we hit the wall—sheer cliff that ended in a green cornice of tangled, moss-covered roots. Momentarily set back, we explored the base of the cliff for a way up. We were drenched by the constant fall of water from the moss forest high above us. We had followed a narrow game trail along the base. We could spend the night here in the overhang below the face, but the sight of our quest, after working so hard, drove us on.

We had no ropes, no climbing gear, so it would be tough going. Office building size chunks of cliff had fallen off and blocked our way on the side. Occasionally there was a collapsed section but they ended up in sheer overhangs. Finally, we found what we were looking for: a section of the cliff that had fallen away leaving a crack that enabled us to get tantalizingly close to the green overhang—more importantly, a large tree root that gave us something that would allow us to hike up the clean, cliff face.

I climbed up to see if it was possible. I pointed out to Tony that once we were over, we could not come back down. We could find another cliff face just as high, if not higher, beyond this climb. Tony told me to go first. We could barely see in the dusk. We were soaked with sweat, hungry and thirsty after our climb. We didn’t know if we had the energy to make this climb.

I began to climb. I fell back, a handful of moss and dirt clutched in each hand. I burrowed my hands to find something solid. I began to climb slowly and nervously. A slight tug or pressure could bring down tons of rock and trees on top of me.

As I gained in height, the chance of going back down seemed dimmer and dimmer, making each upward move that much more desperate. My muscles were shaking with exertion as I reached the cornice. What looked like a green ledge was now a four foot overhang covered in slippery moss and elastic roots. For awhile I was baffled. I could not get a grip on anything to move myself back and then over. I could not go down, sideways or up. My muscles were turning weak and my mouth was dry. I locked my legs around the dangling roots and jammed my hand into the deep moss. Still nothing to hold onto. If there was nothing to hold onto, maybe I could use that to my advantage. Desperately, I began to burrow through the roots and moss with my bare hands. I almost laughed with the sight I must have presented as I broke through the dirt and moss to finally find a tangle of solid roots above. My strength was drained as I wedged my arm in like a stick and threw my leg up to avoid falling back to the rocks below.

Catching my breath, I found myself in the cloud forest of the rim. I crawled the remaining fifty feet under roots and over moss to discover that we were back on the rim.

Covered in dirt and my clothes dripping, I weakly made my way to the ridge. I yelled to Tony we had made it. I searched for a creeper or vine to help Tony up.

I tore off a creeper and dangled it down for Tony to tie his pack to. Tony said, “Don’t worry. I’ll come up with my pack.” He began to climb using the vine for support. When he reached the green wall that I had to burrow through, he used the vine to crawl over. As he tried to lift his leg up for the final push, he paused, looked at me and then fell back down. It all happened in slow motion. I almost laughed as Tony calmly looked at me as he slowly shrank in size and fell to the rocks below. When he hit, back first, I don’t think he even blinked. No screams, yells, or grunts. He just lay there calmly, eyes wide open. I assumed he was dead. I felt detached. A combination of the dim light and fatigue.

From down below I could hear Tony say quietly said, “I think I hurt myself.” Surprised he was alive, I asked if he needed assistance.

“No, just let me lie here awhile.”

He had fallen a sickening distance. Later we discovered what had saved his life. He had fallen in the crevice of two large moss covered rocks. In the crevice, the moss was almost three feet thick. Twelve inches either way, he would have had only two inches of moss to cushion the impact.

He rested for quite a while. This time, I hauled his pack up and then used the vine to take him all the way up. It was dark now. We shivered with cold as the temperature dropped and the sweat from our exertion chilled us. It looked like rain.

I found a hollow tree large enough to hold two people in moderate comfort. Lining it with fern fronds, it made a passable bivouac for the night. Tony’s pack held a cornucopia of treasures: a tin of sardines, one can of orange juice, newspaper, plastic bags—and eureka!—a pack of matches.

After planting Tony in his fern bower, I set about building a fire to dry our clothes and to provide some heat. It was not easy to create fire with wood that has been continuously wet.

After a few false starts and with the last of the dry newspaper, the fire reluctantly smoked to life. It is almost perverse to say we spent quite an enjoyable evening with a roaring fire on the edge of the cliff inside a fern-lined hollow tree. It is hard to describe the pleasures of relative existence. I say “relative” because we might have had to spend the night in the swamp. We might have had no matches, no food, and Tony could be dead.

The rain came down in polite periods, allowing us to dry out in front of the fire. Each onset was heralded by gentle showers before the deluge.

Tony became consumed by thirst, so I set off to find water, using the large plastic bags Tony brought to collect plant samples. At night the confused tangle of trees turned into a nightmare of dead ends, pits, and the ever present cliff face.

I tried walking down to where the water eventually gathers in small streams before joining the rivers that flow everywhere in the Maliau Basin. In the blackness I realized that by going down and then coming back up, it would be impossible to know if I should go left or right to return to our camp, despite the light from the roaring fire, which disappeared within 20 feet. I yelled to see if sound travels. The thick moss absorbed all sound. I wisely decided to follow the edge.

I walked for about a mile in the dark along the rim in search of water and almost fell into an open pit. Open is not a good description because it was full of brown water. I kneeled down and drink my fill from the gritty stagnant water. I kindly did not tell Tony where I found the water.

The morning dawned cold and wet. The fire was still smoldering. The sun skittered across the top of the mist, creating a strange sunrise. I climbed out on an overhanging limb to take a picture. The trees grew out and over still blocking a clear view of the golden ocean below. I still couldn’t capture the sense of being on the edge of a lost world. I was barred in by the jungle.


Read RYPs jungle tips here.

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