Planning our trip to the rain forests of Malaysian Borneo (hoping to see wild orangutans, among other sights) I noticed that the airport we were flying into, Sandakan, was only about 20km from an unvisited confluence. I was unable to find any good maps of the area but checking aerial photos from Google and Microsoft, it appeared that the confluence was in a large area of palm oil plantations and some small roads might make it fairly accessible. So I contacted the company which was arranging part of our trip, Borneo Eco Tours, and asked if we could hire a car and driver for about 4 hours upon our arrival at Sandakan airport to take us wherever we wanted in the area.
When we arrived at the airport, we were met by our guide Sitoh and driver Jamil (forgive me guys if I have misspelled your names, I lost the sheet of paper on which you wrote them down). Sitoh had an itinerary in his hand for a “City Tour” of Sandakan. Armed with several printed aerial photos, I then began the long and difficult process of trying to explain where I wanted to go and why. “What is the place called?” “It doesn’t have a name, it is just this spot in the photo.” “What is there, a town or a monastery?” “No, nothing but palm trees.” “How do you get there?” “I don’t know, we just need to head approximately north until I tell you we are nearby.” And so on. Obviously, this was not a common request :-) Eventually after showing him how my GPS worked, I convinced him that I would be able to give him directions and off we went, still not fully understanding what a confluence was or where we were headed or why.
At first the roads were good as we quickly headed west then north from the airport but soon they became smaller and rougher and winding. Houses became few and far between as we drove through the palm plantations. The fact that these small roads were barely visible or discernible from muddy pathways through the palm trees in the aerial photos made navigation difficult but after a few dead ends we were able to pull up to a spot about 400m east of the confluence. The aerial photos showed the confluence among large mature palm trees but when we got there the area was a barren muddy field, overgrown with weeds. Sitoh explained that after 30 years or so, the palm trees become less productive and more difficult to harvest so they are chopped down and the area replanted with fresh young trees. This had just occurred on the plantation in front of us, one of the older ones in the region.
It was raining lightly and luckily I had rubber boots and a poncho for the trek across the field. Sitoh, however, was dressed for a city tour and I offered to spare his nice leather shoes by going off on my own. But he felt that it was his duty as a guide to accompany me. The terrain was a bit hilly and cut with streams that blocked our path periodically but it was fairly straightforward to hike to the spot of the confluence. The fact that the land was recently cleared made it much easier too the best path.
The confluence itself sat at the base of a recently planted young palm tree. Sitoh was very happy when I proclaimed that I had now seen what I had come to see -- he had met his obligation as a guide to please his customer. But he still didn’t really understand why this crazy customer wanted to see an empty field rather than the sites of Sandakan city. “OK, now that we are alone,” he said, “tell me what is the REAL reason you came here. I promise I won’t tell anyone.” I smiled and imagined some of the possible semi-illicit (and probably more likely) reasons a person might come here: maybe I was a CIA agent, or a land speculator, or an oil prospector, or searching for buried Japanese treasure from World War II. But instead, I once again explained the confluence project and this time it somehow made more sense as I explained how people around the world were curious about what Borneo looked like and how they could get a over-all picture of it by looking at this random spot and a few dozen other spots scattered around the island. He seemed satisfied, so I took the requisite pictures and we headed back to the car. The drive back was uneventful and they dropped us off at the Sepilok Nature Resort where we were spending the night.
At Sepilok, we were able to see many semi-wild orangutans that are being “rehabilitated” for return to the wild after being orphaned by the encroachment of men and palm plantations into the forest. After that, we headed into the real jungle, first to Sukau along the Kinabatangan River where we saw a number of exciting and rare jungle animals on daily boat rides on the river: wild orangutans, Borneo pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys and many species of birds. Sadly, the animals are in part so easy to see because the palm plantations have squeezed the animals into the thin fringe of protected park land along the river. We later went deeper into a larger area of forest park land, the Danum Valley Conservation area, which is apparently richer in wildlife but we could not see as much because the animals have more space to roam. But I would still recommend the Danum Valley as a beautiful destination for a trip and it also happens that there is an unvisited confluence on the way there: 5N 118E is only about 250m off the road, but through dense jungle. In general, Malaysian Borneo is a great tourist destination. It is easy to get around, the food is good, the people are friendly, and it is very convenient for English speakers. The large cities of Kuching and Kota Kinabalu are more modern and interesting than you might expect and of course the rainforest is an amazing experience.
Later in our trip we did finally get a chance to tour the city of Sandakan and I can say that seeing the palm oil plantations up close was probably a more interesting and thought-provoking tour, even without the attraction of a confluence . Much of the Borneo rainforest has been chopped down to be replaced by palm oil plantations, and deforestation continues at a fast pace, particularly on the Indonesian side of the island. Ironically, one of the fastest growing uses for palm oil is to make biodiesel, generally considered an environmentally friendly substitute for petroleum. Palm oil is also a potentially healthier substitute for trans-fats (partially hydrogenated oils) in our food. In addition, the palm plantations are the best source of jobs for the people in the area. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to try to balance the inter-tangled merits of wildlife preservation, global warming, local and global economic development, and human health.