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I grew up in a North Houston suburb dubbed “the livable forest,” where I spent most of my days playing in the woods, climbing trees and biking along greenbelt trails. I usually returned to the house covered in dirt, leaves and mosquito bites, and my mom would welcome me back with a shout of “look, it’s the wild man of Borneo!”
It was a (politically incorrect) reference quite lost on me until my 30s — specifically, age 32, when I was dripping sweat and covered in dirt, leaves and mosquito bites in the humid jungles of Sabah, a Malaysian state in the northern corner of Borneo.
It’s a destination that I wouldn’t have been able to point out on a map a few years ago. And, in fact, when I told friends where I was traveling, the most common response was, “Where is Borneo?”
East of Singapore, north of Bali, Indonesia, and southwest of the Philippines, Borneo is the third-largest island in the world, and the largest island in Asia. It comprises three countries: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. And yet the enormous island flies quite under the radar with North American travelers.
My interest in the destination was first piqued by an episode of “Parts Unknown” with the late Anthony Bourdain. Borneo, with its remoteness, long, winding rivers and dense jungles reminded me uncannily of the setting in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Like the novel’s narrator, Marlow, who travels upriver into the heart of the Congo, I, too, dreamed of penetrating the mystery of an unknown place.
I was able to do that — and much more — via Intrepid Travel’s Borneo: Hike, Bike & Kayak itinerary, a nine-day trip in the tour operator’s portfolio of Active Adventures.
As far as adjectives go, “active” hardly covers it: Our journey took us cycling 22 miles through the Sabah jungle; trekking up Mount Kinabalu, a 13,435-foot goliath that we vanquished in less than two days; and kayaking along mangrove-lined waterways.
In addition to overnights in hotels, the tour offers two homestays for a better understanding of life in Sabah’s small rural communities. Though these accommodations were quite simple, the hospitality of our hosts was lavish. And the depth of flavors in their home-cooked dishes — made with vegetables grown from backyard gardens and meat from community farms — was unbelievable. During one homestay in Lobong Lobong, which is set beneath the towering Mount Kinabalu, our host, Angelina (who was often wrangling her 2-year-old and a puppy named Pikky), cooked us one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Wild boar, stewed sardines and sauteed greens with ginger and banana flowers were followed by a helping of fresh-cut papaya and fried banana fritters.
Sabah local Felix Moduin served as trip leader for our group of seven — a mix of 30- to 60-somethings from the U.S., Canada and England (Intrepid caps this trip at 12 participants). Energetic, talkative and never without a broad grin across his face, Moduin elevated the experience with his insider knowledge and unfailing cheerfulness during some of the itinerary’s more challenging aspects.
Take, for example, my mid-morning breakdown after summiting Mount Kinabalu, by far the most difficult and taxing part of the trip. Following the previous day’s grueling hike up the mountain — which features an elevation gain of some 7,000 feet — I wasn’t overly keen to rise at 2 a.m. to complete the climb. Nonetheless, I was determined to summit, and the exertion was well-rewarded with a celestial sunrise atop Malaysia’s highest peak, which is also one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia. (The UNESCO-protected Kinabalu Park is considered among the most important biological sites in the world because of its immense biological diversity, including nearly 6,000 species of plants.)
On the trek down, however, as we suited up for a via ferrata course along the mountain, exhaustion took hold of me, and before I knew it, I was on the ground in tears. Without missing a beat, Moduin offered me his hand and calmly said, “Let’s go back down to the hut and rest while we wait for the group to finish.”
Throughout the trip, Moduin demonstrated this consideration for each of us, mitigating any discomforts with speediness and empathy. His earnestness to share his homeland with us — and his desire for us to immerse in it so deeply that we couldn’t help but love it, too — was unlike anything I’ve encountered with a tour guide. It compelled me to reflect on the many places I have called home, and to consider if any have been as engraved upon my heart as Sabah is for Moduin. I was reminded of those wild Texas woods I once knew.
Borneo may have started as an unknown far corner of the Earth for me, but at every turn of my visit, I realized I was being welcomed home — dirty boots, mosquito bites and all.
The DetailsIntrepid Travel www.intrepidtravel.com