Carnivorous plants have been fascinating me for more than 20 years and at the same time have also been my hobby. I am a child from a prefab, used to growing plants on small window-sill greenhouses, show cases and other makeshift structures made by myself. For such a man of fate a trip to the habitat of his life’s love, is just a dream. After discovering that an expedition to this area is being organized by one of the greatest photographers of nature and a famous naturalist Ch’ien C. Lee I didn’t hesitate even for a minute and I decided to turn my dream into a reality. The whole experience surpassed my expectations and the journey has become one of my strongest experiences ever, from which I will be drawing energy on it for a long time to come. The schedule was one week on my own in the Hose Mountains area in the central part of Sarawak, then returning to Kuching and joining up with the seventeenday expedition lead by Ch’ien C. Lee.
It is Thursday 23rd April 2009 and it is D-Day. It is the day before the start of the big Borneo adventure. At 9:00 I’m getting into a car and setting off in the direction of the Viennese airport. The way to the border goes smoothly with only one exception, a short unplanned diversion, however at the border we are at a complete standstill – the bloody Austrians are building a new motorway and we are crawling along step by step – I am at my wit’s end. Finally I arrive cca 45 minutes before the departure, which is almost on the limit for the check in. After parking the car in the airport’s longstay carpark I wrap my luggage in stretch foil to protect it against possible damage, and hooray to check-in. Finally everything goes well for a change, now I am sitting on my connecting flight to Doha, or if you like to Kuala Lumpur.
The first part of my journey is a comfort in itself – there is nothing more comfortable than to have three seats for yourself and to be able to lay down across them, but the second part from Doha to Kuala Lumpur is like a riding the public transport in Ostrava during peak hour. On the other hand I have my own seat, so am able to endure it, although from time to time I don’t know what to do with my legs. Finally KL, the closeness, the moisture, the sun… My connecting flight to Kuching on Borneo departs in two hours and in the departure lounge of this hypermodern international airport I find out that these flights are checked in at a completely different airport (CCT). Moreover it’s sods law that my foil wrapped luggage is the last but one on the belts …, but it appears. After several attempts with no joy to find a bus I choose the most convenient method of transport and call a black cab. Luckily there aren’t any traffic jams and we reach the right airport one hour before my scheduled flight departure. Now feeling relieved I buy a coconut with a quill to drink the milk and I bide my time until the departure of the flight to Borneo.
My flight to Borneo is like from a movie – the airplane is bouncing up and down like driving along the D1 motorway, out of the windows you can see the sky light up with sharp bolts of lighting and the tension and nervousness of the passengers can be cut with a knife. From time to time even I was praying, but the local pilots are used to flying in these harsh conditions. We arrive in Kuching at about 11 p.m. and because I didn’t book any hotel for myself I take advantage of the advertisement in the Air Asia in flight magazine “Tuna hotel – prices from under two dollars a night”. Once there I awake from my dream – the room for 2 dollars must be booked 3 months in advance, the price is now 25 dollars, hot water, air-conditioning and sheets are extra. But I have my sleeping-bag, heat does not bother me and I am used to cold water, so this was the final price. So I just have a wash, brush my teeth and put my head down – at 9 in the morning my connection to Sibu leaves. Unfortunately my friend you chose badly, the hotel is a system of cells separated either by plaster board or by glass walls and just behind such a wall, two meters from my bed, a lively karaoke is cranking up. Boys and girls singing till four in the morning, it is like trying to fall asleep in a sheet metal factory, bloody impossible. After four, feeling exhausted and emotionally drained, I finally say “good night” and manage to fall asleep for three whole hours.
7:00 alarm, slip on some things, buy some water and hurrah take the hotel bus back to the airport. Finally I have a good 40 minutes in land flight to Sibu, I am chewing on pre-ordered spicy chicken with rice (for 14 Czech crowns ), from a small airport I am transported to the port and the real adventure begins.
The port of Sibu is a gateway from which ships of all sizes sail all over the world. Freighters carrying mostly wood and charcoal onto Asia and passenger ships onto nearby towns. Sibu is situated in the Batang Rajang river delta or more commonly called the Amazon of Borneo. The Batang Rajang is the only connection with cities in central Borneo and operates as a highway on which really everything is transported, from living animals to furniture and automobiles.
My ship sails at 12:30 and it is approximately a 120km cruise to the city of Kapit which it does in three and a half hours. The air-conditioning is fixed at 19°C so I decide to sit on the upper deck together with the hens, tomatoes and smokers. The whole voyage is one big performance – a huge river, on which ships and boats flitting about in all directions, typical long houses for this location, so called “Longhouses”, dense tropical forest all around, simply a paradise although the forests around have been harvested and recently just only secondary, so it is a paradise in quotation marks. At 16:00 I arrive in Kapit, where the real tropics are awaiting me. The temperature at around 35°C with high humidity causes the whole body to perspire… Well definitely, constant streams of sweat from my forehead are flowing. Having forty kilos on my back doesn’t improve my comfort either, so hurray, into the nearest real hotel.
After checking in I manage one brief exploration of the surroundings and find the first treasure Nepenthes reinwardtiana which looks at me with its incommutable “small eyes“ by the road side. I run crazily around it and the locals just look around in disbelief. To bring the day to a perfect close sittinf down with a local dish of meat and rice washed down with an ice cold beer and I hit the sack. By the way: in Kapit I felt like a freak while walking around the city. The locals are only 160–170cm high on average and I with my 196cm, towering above them, finally got to be too much for me. Girls wanting to have their photographs taken with me and inviting me for a drink – it is not that I am an unsocialable person, but it was really too much.
At around ten I lie down in a small QUIET clean room, the air-con is on 25°C and I fall asleep very quickly.
7:30 alarm, fruit breakfast and let’s go on a joy-ride. The destination is the Hose Mountains where the pitcher plants should be growing and which for their remoteness and inaccessibility have only been visited by a few people up to now. Therefore there are no maps. I have only got a satellite snapshot of the area with a web of dusty lumber roads, printed from Google. Worst of all though is orientation without a real map and without a knowledge of the local topography.
But I am lucky. I go to buy some water from a little shop under the hotel and a salesman asks me where I am heading. I explain that I am going to take some pictures of plants (which he couldn’t understand) and that I need to reach the other side of the river and then further into the Hose Mountains. He offers to help and very soon we are in front of the small shop with about 20 people flocking around us and all of them want to help. They look at my satellite snapshots like it is a kind of art form but gradually with hands, legs and broken English they start to understand it, then the salesman calls his small son who is just on his way to school and tells him to help me to catch a mini bus to take me approximately 20 km to the ferry. The youngster takes me by the collar and drags me to the main square. We are waiting about twenty minutes. During this time at least fifty mini buses pass us by, but he says none of them are any good. Finally, he flags down the right one and explains to the bus driver where he has to drop me off. We say goodbye and I head into the unknown.
Out of the city and we are in the wilderness, the ride is a sight for sore eyes as well as for my other senses. Yahoo!!… we are there… as I sink up to my knees in the muddy shore down by the river I see long narrow boats, so this is the local ferry. Completely muddy I sit in an unstable boat and coast along to the other side, to a timber warehouse. To get out of the boat and walk on narrow timbers for about 20 meters is very demanding, like a trapeze artist, but luckily some kind local passengers help me with my bags. Here is where civilization ends – ahead lie only dusty roads and good fortune.
I walk to the woodcutters’ canteen and tell people that I need to get to the last timber warehouse about 120 km up into the mountains. As the last warehouse is owned by the competition, they are not willing to help me and are more likely to send me to hell… So I go to the boss with a story that I am a forest inspector and that I want him to take me into the mountains. The unwilling boss of Chinese origin repeatedly calls around maybe ten times and he keeps asking me which company I am from, and at the end offers me transport for 60.000 Czech crowns. I’m flabbergasted. With an ironic look I tell him that he is going to get into serious trouble and I decide to hitch a lift with some woodcutters going up into the mountains. As I’m leaving his only remark is “good luck“ and there ends our discussion. It is Sunday, the probability that somebody will come by is really poor… one hour has past and not one car has gone by. As well as the midday tropical heat and high humidity… a “perfect” situation but I don’t want to return even if I have to walk there.
On a high note somebody upstairs must really like me because after walking maybe 500 meters I hear the noise of a lorry and I wave my right hand by the roadside and even though it is on a hill the guy stops, really!! Hurrah, I sit next to him and actually I don’t know whether he is driving to where I want to go to…, but later it turns out that he is. The road is incredible. Every time we meet another truck coming in the opposite drection and crossing the bridge, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. After a few of kilometres he stops for a break and then he disappears somewhere into the forest dragging back some empty barrels and shoving something into them. He shouts “no pictures and do not tell anybody…“. Hence I am only telling you this as late as now – I hope you don’t report him. After emptying the tanks we go another few kilometres and the driver stops. He is going right towards the river, but I must go up into the mountains, so I get out and the heat hits me instantly. I must find some shade immediately. But in tropics around midday it’s quite a challenge. So luckily after half an hour in a sauna another car takes me to the main transit warehouse at exactly the mid way point. I don’t go either to the canteen or to wash myself, I just continue on foot behind the camp to continue hitch-hiking. This time I am lucky and catch a lift in a pick up and I sit down on the back and they say they will to take me to my final destination… I must be dreaming…, what luck. At 4 we arrive at the end, to the so-called B camp.
After a threehour long drive on the back of the pick up I look like a badly made snowman – totally covered in dust from the local brush roads – I only hope that the photobag has shielded my belongings from any damage. B Camp is a transit warehouse in the mountains where the logs are brought down and prepared for a transportation to a dockside by the river. The generosity of wood cutters is unbelievable. They give me a little house to spend the night and invite me to a meal at a small local canteen. Everybody is very open, but they can’t understand what I am doing there or that I am only going there to take photos of a few plants. After some vegetable soup and delicious fish, served with what else but rice, I admire beautifully coloured tailless cats (the reason why local cats don’t have a tail I didn’t succeeded in finding out) and then I go and have a look around the surroundings and I find terrestrical bamboo orchids as well as the pitcher plants N. reinwardtiana and N. mirabilis. I take endless numbers of photos until it gets dark which comes extremely quickly in the tropics as we are only three degrees from the equator. Before going to sleep I watch hunting geckoes until late in the night as well as rear horses and many other bizarre insects of varying colour, shape and size. After 11 I go into my den to get my strength back before a long hike into the unknown.
It is Monday 7 a.m. and I awake into a new working day at the camp. I pack everything necessary and with 30 kilos on my back I go to check whether the local boss will keep to his promise from the previous day and take me at least a small distance into the mountains. Unfortunately, nobody will take me anywhere; the road up is apparently impassable. So on foot I go as fast as my little legs will carry me as to take advantage of the cool morning weather.
A climb from 300 m above sea level to 1.300 msl lies ahead of me. I take the road and miraculously I thumb a lift with a truck which for some of the way is going in the same direction. But after ten minutes to my horror we passed the detour from the impassable road, so to the driver’s surprise I scream “STOP” and jump out of the truck, while we are still not too far away. The way back to the turning, but is 2 km away and is quite a hau. The language I was shouting is not really suitable for publication, but finally I get on a good foot-path and in the plodding sultry heat I keep crawling up through the jungle. The road hasn’t been in use for many years and it is noticable at first sight; ten metre deep sunken holes from the monsoon seasons, fallen bridges and the road disappearing more and more into the bush. On the way I come across giant tropical butterflies of all shapes and colours more than you can imagine, beetles the size of a tennis-ball and from time to time around me screaming monkeys scrambling into the tree-tops. Every kilometre I stop to rest because my fleece jacket which I have as protection against the sun is turning very quickly into a drenched towel. On each of my stops I am covered in wild bees who are thirsting for my sweat…, I’m a little concerned about them attacking me, but fortunately they are very calm and do not attack me… Later on I find out from a friend that some species of bee don’t even have a sting.
I take every opportunity to fill my water container from the small streams. The first few times purifying the water with tablets, but as my thirst worsens I lay fully clothed in the stream and drink directly from the source. Luckily there are no consequences. I carefully put each source, where I take the water from, into my GPS so as to have something to look forward to on my return. At about one o’clock I catch my second wind and now there are “only” 10kilometres of flat in front of me. Though not completely flat. It rises to a peak before declining which is mentally exhausting. In addition the sun is beating down on me and there is nowhere to hide, so I drudge like a slave and my body and brain are slowly being fried. I manage to get over a huge landslide approximately 100m long which has disappeared into the valley. Feeling a bit letargic I look around wondering whether I will finally able to see some tropical pitcher plants.
Finally after two more hours of walking I see Nepenthes veitchii a mirabilis. It’s pageantry as N. veitchii grows on an uprooted tree and N. mirabilis on a downslope next to the road. I take some pictures, but suddenly I start to feel drained. The idea that I am out of range of any civilisation or even less to a mobile signal doesn’t comfort me. It is still a few kilometers further away to reach a former wooden shack, so I clamber over huge fallen trees and every 10 minutes I throw my bag down and lie on the sun-baked ground as there is no more strength to do anything else. Finally, at exactly five p.m. I trudge towards the dreamt of cabin. Totally dead, a 12hour tour in the Italian Dolomite is like a Sunday stroll in comparison. My final destination, further along the river has washed down a chunk of road so big that it is unsurpassable for one man. During that day I had drunk ten 1.5litre bottles of water without going to the loo. Just the throught of food made me feel sick. That day was like being beaten black and blue. In the cabin I erect a bivouac tent and at around eight in the elevating noise of the mountain jungle I fall asleep.
At 8 I wake up and gulp down some water and a little evaporated milk at least so as not to faint later. I just take my photobag and set off hunting. But my possible area is very restricted – on one side is a river, on the second side are an escarpment and an impenetrable jungle and on the third a steep hill. I explore all I can and with the exception of two species mentioned above I only found N. fusca and a beautifully flowering bladderwort U. striatula at the stream. But even still it is worthwhile. Finally I am fully able to enjoy the loneliness of the wild forest and the gorgeous panorama of the local mountains which dwarf the undergrowth in the valley like table top mountains. I search, take photos, rest until the afternoon and at around eight I wrap it up and head back to my gaff. I want to leave before first light and take advantage of at least the liveable temperature. On the other hand lying ahead of me mainly awaits a downhill trek so I am fairly relaxed… which was a mistake because I fundamentally underestimated how difficult the walk would be.
My alarm-clock rings at 5, I jump out of my sleeping-bag, drinking properly and hurrah. Sunrise and sunset are completely fascinating in the tropics and out of this world. All around the noises and colours are for the European something totally amazing. So I tramp along and fully enjoy this magical experience. Only me myself and the wild forest are around. The journey took more than nine hours so in six I should be down. In the end I walk seven hours and due to my underestimation of my drinking regime it is quite hard. I drink up the last of my water supply approximately two kilometres before B camp which was a completely fatal error. I verbatim creep into B Camp in the midday heat, throw my bag down in the small canteen and collapse on the ground. I am unable to speak or move. I can only feel an escalating tingling in my lips, legs and hands. Luckily there is Chang Ching Kun – a woman who cooks for the woodcutters. She understands what’s happening and tries to communicate with me to no avail so she comes running up with some water and pours it slowly down my throat and then she drags me under a huge fan and pours some more water again and again and again. After 20 minutes I can finally speak. “Thank you, you probably saved my life.” She just grins and orders me to take a shower and eat something properly. At the question what do I owe her she almost goes off at me: “I cook for everybody here and I am paid to do it.” “Fine,” I say and leave her at least my entire supplies which I had with me. She adds further: “Today it is very hot, 35°C inside, 47°C outside.” She grins but I don’t feel the cheer. And now a shower and something delicious for my stomach.
I discuss the sleeping arrangements with the local boss again and as well the transport from the mountains. “Be here at five in the morning, we will take you with the others to the ferry.” This is good news. After six the woodcutters come in the canteen and one of them sits down next to me and asks who I am and what I am doing here. He turns out to be a worker from Philippines who pays for studies this way. They are so fascinated by Europeans that they arrange a big Filipino party, a roast forest deer, a wild-boar and on top of that they kill and cook a cock which I pretty much give them hell over. Everybody here has cocks running around their houses and also uses them for fights. Cocks are considered to be respected animals here…, but they say that this one wasn’t a good fighter so amen to it. In return I bring with me a 50% calvados which I use as a disinfectant.
What they did after drinking a shot sparked a frenzy of spasmodic dancing. After telling them the alcohol content, their eyes nearly pop out of their heads and they all want to try it… and they all end up in a similar way. As they revealed to me later the strongest alcohol they have ever drunk was cheap Chinese wine which is not very tasty liquer with only 18% alcohol…, but a few of them had also disappeared. From the conversation I remember one quirk. A Filipino asks me: “Do you know how to really upset your neighbour?” And I say I don’t. He replies: “You get out of your bed in the morning and crow at his cock… and it thinking that you are its rival starts crowing all around.” He shouldn’t have told me this. I look at my watch and can’t believe my eyes – it is one o’clock a.m. “Guys I am getting up in less than four hours,” I say and go on to say goodbye. At that point one of them grabs me and says that “You are not going to sleep in the cabin, I invite you to my place and you will stay the night at ours.” In the end I agree, in return I give him my machete and lie down for a short while at least.
I potter about in front of the canteen at 4:45, nobody anywhere, only cocks in their small pens. After half an hour of loafing around I start to feel suspicious but I stay calm. What comes across my mind is to try calling the cocks to see if it is true… I go to one and mimic “cock-a-doodle-doo”… and it is like an avalanche. Gee, it really works… to the “delight” of the locals. I am rescued by a pick-up at 5:45. In the cab there are three people and a child, the bed full of cargo and 5 people on the top. I throw my bags on the last empty seat and stand so that I could cling to the cabin structure. The seat was not the last, because the driver stops at other buildings and another five people gradually jump on the bed…, so the pick up becomes a mobile tin of sardines. Just the thought of three hours in this position starts to make me feel dizzy again.
As the only one donning shades and a scarf againt the dust on my mug – how can they survive without them I have never undestood until this day. If I was a snowman on my way up, the opposite was more like golem – completely caked in clay everywhere…, and what’s worse I am heading towards the city. On my way down it’s getting light and the rising mist from the jungle creates lovely views – unfortunately we are driving without any stops hence everything remains only in my head and not on film. The driver doesn’t spare us on the small roads and at 9 o’clock offloads us at the ferry which is situated approximately 5km upstream from the ferry that I used on my way there. We get in the boats, on the opposite bank get in the minibus and drive as fast as possible to the small hotel. I arrange with a girl to wash my dirty and stinky clothes and quickly go to the market place.
The market place is the hub of local life and business and I am able to spend hours walking around, watching people, buying fruit and spices and taking photos of everything. All things imaginable are sold here. From tortoises, frogs, fish, snakes, chicken and wild-boars to the countless types of spices, vegetables and fruit. I walk around for the whole day, fascinatedly watching and taking photos and from time to time I dash to the pub for something to eat and for a beer. Life here is very laid back and with the ever-present smile. The icing on the cake is the Indonesian “dining” market place in the evening. I have a skewer with grilled chicken, chicken bellies and I wash everything down with the very popular soya milk. After a shower I lie down at 11 and am looking forward to the next day, when I am supposed to join the expedition. Though I am not sure whether I really want to leave the semi-isolated Kapit.
Ships depart very frequently up to nine, so I choose one at 8:30 and bid Kapit farewell, the city which has touched my heart. After a few hours of sleeping on board we sail into Sibu. Here I change for a larger ship to Kuching. We sail along the whole Batang Rajang Delta up to the South China Sea and through it following my nose further to Kuching. I take the first taxi in the harbour and give the address of the hotel where we have a meeting with the group. I arrive in front of the Harbour hotel at five, collect my keys at the reception desk and go to unpack. I meet the first member of the expedition in the room – a young boy from Germany – Matthias. He is nice and has been studying tropical pitcher plants in the Brunei sultanate for the last six months, which is a very small country in the eastern part of Borneo making a profit from crude-oil production. It’s six o’clock and we go full of expectation to meet the other members of the team at reception. Is seems to be very promising. The group is made up of three American pensioners from San Francisco, and one of them, Biensien Lee, is the father of the expedition leader Ch’ien C. Lee. The other two are his friend Philip and Sew from tennis. An young American called Drew is from the same city. He is approximately threetimes the size of me – this is something to do with his involvement in wrestling, then there is 40year-old Sweden Håkan, a very funnyman and my future buddy and finally the last member of our team is 50year-old American Shawn who is living in Thailand. The organisor of the whole action, Ch’ien C. Lee, is an American who moved to Borneo 15 years ago. He has been studying local flora and fauna there, published atlases of plants, bats, stick insects and other vermin and he also takes perfect photo of all of these things. His shots of the nature are some of the best I have ever seen and it is an honor for me to have the opportunity to learn from such a master.
After the introductions Ch’ien C. Lee direct us to a restaurant in the centre of Kuching so as we can get to know each other a little better. It consists of roughly fifteen courses of vegetable, meat and sea creatures prepared in a multitude of possible and impossible ways. Most importantly though everything is tasty and looks healthy at the same time. We start by breaking the ice at the dinner and are handed an itinerary for following days. After the final beer I go back to the hotel, together with Matthias, Håkan and Drew and we have two more beers and at around 11 we hit the sack because we have a demanding program for the next few days ahead us.
The hotel alarm rings at 7:00, a quick breakfast and at 7:45 we are already in the minibus on our way to the Bako National Park in the north of Kuching. After one hour we change to small boats and half an hour of rowing later we arrive on the shore of the Bako N. P. Immediately after getting out we are greeted by many mudskippers, the amphibious fish that spend most of their lives on the shore in brackish waters. We disembark onto what can only be called a wooden catwalk and shift onto the footpath heading to the Bako plateau. On our way we admire the mongroves, archerfish in little brooks who are squrting jets of water from their mouths at the insects above, a “flying” lizard jumps from tree to tree and three coloured snakes who Ch’ien C. Lee picks up by their tails despite them being poisonous and shows us their coloration at closely range.
The footpath heading to the plateau through the jungle is approximately 3km long and it is worthwhile having a look around again. The amount of orchids, myrmecophilous plants (they live with ants in a mutualistic associations) and termit colonies are only a fraction of what is possible to see beside the footpath. Finally we come to the snadstone plateau and I can’t believe my eyes – this place is without question paradise for even a novice grower. We are welcomed by the green form of Nepenthes albomarginata growing directly on a small foothpath of wet sandstone. Further on, where there is no deep jungle but only bushy shrubbery, Nepenthes gracilis and Nepenthes rafflesiana reveal themselves on a more open plateau and its Giant variety climbs up to three meters above the terrain on the bush. From arid sand poke out tiny pink flowerers of the bladderwort Utricularia minutissima and further along by the brook poke out Utricularia careulea and the sundew Drosera spathulata var. bakoensis and in the jungle brushwood about 20 to 30 meters further on Nepenthes hirsuta a Nepenthes ampullaria forming tens of pitchers close to the ground. We have a snack on one of the countless small sandstone plateaus and we discover the black form of Nepenthes albomarginata. We take pictures for more than two hours and on our way back we go around the sandstone cliffs from which hang clusters of the hybrid of Nepenthes reinwardtiana and Nepenthes albomarginata.
We stop for a quick drink in a local eating eatery and it is time to return to the small boats. On our way we take pictures of endemic long-nosed monkeys of the Proboscis genus and fiddler crabs with one big claw on the banks of inlets. After the small boat we finish the day in the fishing village pub sheltering from a cruel storm. Again, as is the local custom, they serve countless kinds of vegetable, fish and other things which I really would be better not knowing what they were… We return to the hotel with full stomachs and foremost full of impressions, at around ten the tiredness immediately carries all of us to our beds. I head out together with Matthias to get some washing soap so that our friends wouldn’t have to travel further with pegs on their noses.
To be continued…?