Above Borneo

Sometimes the price of an air ticket is absolutely worth every penny. This happens for me when I get to see something amazing from the air: icebergs, Uluru (Ayres Rock), New Year’s fireworks over Europe, the Kamchatka peninsular mountains. I love watching the world from above.

Well, just now, en route from Jakarta to Tokyo (to Boston), I got a spectacular tour of Borneo, from southwest to northeast. Here’s the in-seat flight map:

First we crossed the coast from the South China sea, just south of Gunung Palung (at ~8 AM). There were a lot of clouds, but I caught glimpses of the main Gunung Palung massif and interior watershed, from the east, with Sukadana in the background:

Next up was Batu Daya, a ~800 m, tepui-like, volcanic stock (of andesite) to the north of Gunung Palung (GMap). I first saw it in 1990:

Then it was surrounded by forest. Now it stands alone in a vast sea of oil palm. It’s a mystical mountain and I’ve always wanted to climb it; apparently there are some tracks on the east side that are a scramble rather than a rock climb. The vegetation on the thin soils on top will be fascinating. Even though it probably burns on a regular basis, I’m sure there are some rare species up there; the similar Bukit Kelam near Sintang has a very rare Nepenthes species (N. clipeata). Here is what I just saw today (from the southeast):

I was officially seated on the right hand side (starboard), but fortunately the flight was almost empty and I was able to cross over to the left for these previous sightings. Coming back to the right, we approached a wide area of tall hills breaking though the clouds:

This is the Bukit Lumut massif, east of GP and south of the Kapuas river, where I set up plots in 1998, on a project sponsored but the US National Geographic Society. I had a very memorable trip, and made this radio diary for the NPR show ‘Living on Earth’ in 1999.

We then crossed the wide Kapuas (the ‘Amazon of Indonesia’), and passed right by the large lake system of Danau Sentarum, swollen with water at this time of year:

It then clouded up as we crossed into Sarawak, but the clouds broke just around Brunei, and I glimpsed the forest of Ulu Temburong, a superb national park in the interior of Brunei (which is in turn totally encircled by the logging concessions and oil palm of Sarawak). Passing over Brunei, I remembered that my Borneo life could have been quite a different one, based here rather than Indonesia: just as I was finishing my first year at Gunung Palung, I was offered a PhD studentship at a UK university, funded by the Royal Geographic Society, which would have involved setting up permanent forest plots in Ulu Temburong. I actually visited the site in mid-1990. I was still so ‘green’ (aka ‘stupid’) that I arranged for the dayak boatmen to drop me off alone in the middle of the forest, and to pick me up three days later. I remember spending a wet and lonely few days on my own; I was chased out of the tarp-covered camp several times in the middle of the night by swarms of Borneo’s vicious and painful fire ants (Leptogenys sp., possibly mutabilis or distinguenda)! Now there is a deluxe field station at the same spot, complete with 50-ha research plot!

Anyway, today we flew on into Sabah (the other East Malaysian state, and the ecotourism capital of SE Asia), along the western edge of the densely forested Crocker Range, an important protected area not far from Kota Kinabalu, the state capital city. And then, just as I had been hoping for, the rocky backbone of Mount Kinabalu appeared under the plane’s wing:

Known as the ‘summit of Borneo,’ Gunung Kinabalu is young (10 Mya), tall (4,100 m), granite, and the highest peak between New Guinea and the Himalayas. During the ‘Biodiversity of Borneo’ courses I taught from 2007-2010, I slogged up the mountain four times. It’s cold on top, and the air is thin, but the views are amazing.

Finally, we flew right over the very northern tip of Borneo, Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, with view of nearby Pitas Point:

...and on into the Philippines.

So... damn, that was an awesome overflight. I couldn’t have planned a better itinerary if I had tried. What luck, what a gift! And because I saw mainly upland areas, which unlike the lowlands are still forested, my immediate impression was of how much forest still remains on Borneo. And so, for today, I’ll simply accept that impression, and enjoy it.

(over Mindanao, Philippines, 11:00 AM)