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Briefly in Borneo A Sight Inspection

Aug 17, 2007
I've embark on a journey of jet-lag so hard core, it could challenge an astronaut. Borneo beckons because I've never been there. A mere 5 hours to LAX, 12 to Tokyo, 7 to Singapore and 3 to Kota. Mind you this is just one way not including layover times.

Seated in economy class, I expect my body will dehydrate to a prune, my muscles atrophy, pores clog and I'll bloat with "jet belly" but it's ok. Bottom line is, I love airplanes. The near insanity of this that it's only a 5 day visit and I'm spending nearly as much time on land as I will in the air.

The best perk of my job are the site inspections, that is to witness first hand what my groups will experience if a destination is new to me. This is far on my globe. Prior to departure, I surveyed friends asking them, "Where is Borneo?" Only 10% answered correctly. This time I bring Terry and wonder of his fortitude in tow. But he proves to be a good aviation warrior.

On our arrival flight in, I see gleaming white beaches, turquoise reefs and coconut trees that spread out as far as the eye can see. At the airport, we are greeted by Martin who will oversee us and answer the 7,000 questions I've prepared on this land. It's sauna hot.

We head out past cocoa and tea plantations for our first resort stay at Shangri La Tanjung Aru, an oasis of luxury right on the South China Sea. In the distance are 5 coral islands. A short jetty ride will deposit you to any one for snorkeling the sea caves and world-class diving. Further out is Pulau Tiga with its mud volcanoes where the first Survivor series was shot.

Here we're spoiled like a couple of pot bellied pigs with an upgraded suite with fruit and orchids as well as a beachside massage. I feel like I've reached Nirvana with a mantra of "I'm not worthy" but I revel in all the amenities. Its pure playtime with activities provided here. And the spectacular Malaysian buffet breakfasts should be filmed by the Food Channel.

Kota Kinabalu (aka KK) is the capital of Sabah with 340,000 inhabitants. My expectations of Borneo were of 5ft. monitor lizards and head hunting tribal chiefs, but here I'm greeted with Starbucks and mega-malls.

The city is worn and struggling hard to develop itself. Established by the British in 1881, it also has a lot WWII history. The city's backdrop is the breathtaking 13,600 ft. Mt. Kinabalu, UNESCO W.H. Site for being the most bio-diverse mountain on earth.

It holds a complete ecosystem and is a botanical paradise. There's an astonishing array of rare flora and fauna such as insect eating plants, funky fungi and raffelsia, the worlds largest flower of 3ft. petals. It takes 2 years to bud and lasts just 7 days.

The lush National Park is the size of Singapore. Hillside tribes reside on the slopes. The mountain is scared to them as they believe it is the resting place of their ancestors departed spirits.

For free time we tour museums, handicraft markets and water village. I buy gifts of pearls, organic teas, coffee, batik and baskets. As Americans, we feel like VIP tourists as most visitors are from Australia, UK, Japan and Europe.

The locals are so respectful and polite. There are 30 ethnic groups speaking 80 different languages who live harmoniously together. Many are animists who worship all living things. The main tribes are the Dusuns with their female priestesses, the Bajau's known as the "cowboys of the sea" and the Murats who live in typical longhouses. They are descendants of the famed head hunters who once fiercely protected their territories and decorated their homes with "trophies" that were severed heads of their invaders.

Many here look Polynesian. Bahasa Malay is the main language, a dialect that sounds to me like they're speaking in tongues. Second language is English.

In August I bring 2 groups here. We'll enter the interior to discover the essence of Borneo with its virgin rainforests, lush wetlands and enough wildlife to feel you've entered a living zoo.

We'll learn of the culture and history but the thrilling part for me will be seeing the rare species of pigmy elephants, Sumatra rhino, giant crocs, bearded pigs, gibbons, macaques and omni-present proboscis monkeys (the one's with Jimmy Duranti noses.)

The highlight will be Sepilok, the largest orangutan sanctuary where we can get close and personal with these "wild men of Borneo."

Evenings by the ocean here provide a surreal beauty that envelopes one in serenity and it's totally romantic. I hate to leave but it's time to visit another resort I have booked for my groups.

The Shangri La Rasa Ria is a slice of heaven where one can do nothing or everything. There's morning yoga, Tai Chi, golf, ATV's, horses, parasailing, a huge spa and more. Classes are given in Malay language, cooking, sarong wrapping, beading, blow pipes and weaving. But what makes this resort ultra-special is its Nature Reserve.

The hotel helps fund orphaned orangutans here. If the jungle continues to shrink, these gentile creatures will face extinction in the wild. Dr. Galdikas of OFI (Orangutan Foundation Int.) grimly predicts, "Unless extreme action is taken soon, these forests could be one in 5 to 7 years and the wild orangutan with them."

We attend a lecture by a ranger to learn about the "man of the jungle", world's second largest ape. Genetically they are 96.4% human and are considered the most sentimental creatures on earth. We are led by trail up mountain slopes to view 7 protected baby orangutans, most orphaned from illegal logging that destroyed their homes.

Unlike other primates, they prefer playing over fighting. "Limon" had a tough early life. His mother was killed and eaten by plantation workers. They kept him as a pet chained to the wall of a wooden crate for 4 years until Forest Police rescued him. When he arrived here, he was a sack of bones and dying.

For 10 days he refused to eat until one day, a sweet pineapple changed his life. He devoured it in entirety and since then, Limon hasn't stopped eating. Now he's 5 times heavier and stuffs himself silly. Upon graduation, he will be released back into the forest.

I look forward to my return and experiencing the real mystical Borneo. The best journey is always the one going home. As I board Singapore Airlines, I feel I've gained 6 kilos from all the seafood I consumed. I sleep like a baby on the long haul home via Taipei. The miracle of it all is that my checked luggage managed to follow me 19,000 miles roundtrip and the fact that I still love airplanes.
About the Author
Former Miss Wisconsin Suzy Davis has traveled the world for nearly 30 years,
initially as a flight attendant and now with her company

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