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Borneo is part of Malaysia and is the third largest island in the world surrounded by the Java, Celebes, Sulu and South China seas. The first foreign settlers battled horrendous waves of cholera, malaria and warfare with local tribes to get their foot in the door of this resource-rich, natural treasure house.
Sarawak, the ‘land of the hornbill’, is the largest state in Malaysia, covering an area of nearly 125000 square kilometres in northwest Borneo with a population of just over two million. It is dominated by the snaking crocodile-infested Rejand river and is renowned for its Headhunters’ Trail and the longhouses of its indigenous tribes, the Iban, Melanu and Kenyah. In the mid-19th century, Charles Darwin described Sarawak as “one great wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by nature for herself”. Sarawak is Malaysia’s great natural storehouse, where little more than half a century ago great swathes of forest were largely unexplored and where tribal groups, collectively known as the Dayaks, would venture downriver from the heartlands of the state to exchange forest products of hornbill ivory and precious woods. Today the Dayaks have been gradually incorporated into the mainstream and the market economy has infiltrated the lives of the great majority of the population. But much remains unchanged.
Neighbouring Brunei glimmers with golden-roofed mosques whose calls to prayer ring out over the country’s dense and pristine rainforest, filled with proboscis monkeys and lazy pythons, while offshore, flares from oil rigs light up to clouds in the tropical night.
The moody peak of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo’s highest mountain (4095 m), offers views down through the swirling clouds to Sabah’s islands including Palau Gaya, Layang Layang and Sipadan, which offer unparalleled underwater adventures. Sabah’s jungle, though fast making way for endless plantations, still provides stunning jaunts for the hardy in the Maliau Basin, home to elephants, orang-utan and the shy Sumatran rhino.
Few travellers cross into Borneo’s greater portion, Indonesian Kalimantan. The coastal cities are seething with energy, chocked with traffic beyond which the jungle is rapidly becoming consumed by logging concessions. Boat travel is the most rewarding experience here, chugging up the Mahakam on the way to visit Dayak long-houses, or around the vast Tanjung Puting National Park, whose empty riverways still echo with the call of Borneo’s untamed beasts.