To be honest, my visit to the Kinabatangan River was among the saddest experiences I had along my whole trip. What else to tell, than the depressing story of a rainforest area that is almost completely replaced by palm oil plantations? Before I came here I heard the river cruises are a Must See with so much wildlife to spot. The truth is, animals have nowhere to go than to stick to those two lines of trees on each side of the river. It's really that bad and really that sad, but keep on reading to hear the whole story.
Before it gets to serious, let's start with something funny. Ironically I was hitchhiking towards Kinabatangan on a palm oil truck. The driver took me about half way and we were picking up more and more people. Soon the driver's cab was filled and I was told to get in the back, behind the curtain. I had no clue what was going on. Shortly after, I was dropped off. I walked back to discover that we just passed a truck scale. The driver had been cheating on the buyer, pretending to have more weight on his loading area than he actually had. I guess I and my heavy backpack were more than welcome to him.
After my little experience with the truck driver I hitched another ride into the little town of Sukau. There's a great number of hostels on each side of the river to choose from. I just kept walking past the town until it got a little more lonesome. Actually, it became so out-of-the-way that a few buffalo scared the shit out of me. I stopped to take a picture and before I knew one was rising from the mud starting to chase me around. I grabbed my bag and ran for my life.
I checked in at the Sukau Evergreen Lodge. The lodge seemed to be nicely placed and I saw different pairs of shoes in front of the entrance. After so many days alone I was looking for some companionship. The shoes belonged to a Swedish group made of 2 teachers and 4 students. They were on an evaluation trip for an international collaboration between Swedish and Malaysian schools. We took dinner together and had some fruitful discussions until late at night. It felt good to have some conversation and I was invited to join their early morning river cruise the next day.
Do you know the saying, the early bird catches the worm? Well, I haven't seen any worms on our early morning river cruise, but definitely some great wildlife. We got up at five and took off before dawn. Everything was really quite and peaceful and I had no idea, that this would be the beginning of a personal disaster.
Looking at my own pictures today, I still know exactly how I felt back than. I was in the boat, all excited. My camera was resting on my thighs, ready to shoot all those animals I heard of. How many different kinds would I be able to see today? How many river cruises would I have to attend to get them all? Proboscis monkeys, saltwater crocodiles, the rare Borneo pygmy elephant, horn-bill birds….was I missing something?
Well, in terms of animals my first cruise was a bull's eye hit. But far more important, something else hit me. Its been there all the time, sitting in the back of my head. Something unconscious that had been bothering me all the time but didn't make it to the surface of my reality. I had been traveling for quite a while now and all those impressions suddenly started to form one big picture.
What finally triggered my thoughts and helped to see things more clear, was the sad enlightenment, that all those animals sticked to the river, because they had no other place to go. There's a line of trees close to the waterfront, theres another line of trees behind it, and that's it! Further all you will find is a deserted monoculture of palm oil trees.
If you want to keep up your illusion of a world were mankind and nature live together in peace and harmony, stop reading here. I had been denying the facts myself for to long of a time, but you know, it's like a puzzle. At a certain point everything becomes clear and you are finally able to see the whole picture.
It had been adding up. All those experiences we made in Sumatra, Java, Bali, Malaysia and during the rest of our travels. All those things you notice and observe, but don't really understand. Its been a glass of water, slowly filling up and that day I was given the drop that spilled the cup.
JUNGLE IS DEAD ! It's over, gone. You know how people say, one day we will reach the point where there will be no return? That day was long ago. It's not in the future anymore, it in the past. We reached it, and even worse, we kept on going.
What might sound to you like an apocalypse explosion from my side, is nothing more than a conclusion from a sequence of facts I have witnessed with my own eyes. Take a look at the picture. Do you see the one tree that is larger than all the others? It's the other way around. All trees are supposed to be that big, but have been logged. Taken down in the effort to make profit. The one that is left has a hollow trunk and is of no value to the mainly European run logging companies.
The interaction between traditional tribes and nature has been brought out of balance. Large companies from all around the world have expelled good habits and are leaving no place for respect and dignity towards our surrounding. It's not only logging, it's farming, fishing, hunting and all those other exploitations of nature.
Once this truth slowly made its way into my thoughts my view changed. Every time I saw an animal I was asking myself, how does it feel? How big is his territory? Where are the borders? How long will it be able to survive under these circumstances?
Think about it on a larger scale. Think about Afrika, animals are forced to live in wildlife parks. You think there are some great natural and untouched environment left? Well think again. Borneo was supposed to be one of the last unaffected places on earth but from what I saw, this is more of a wishful dream than reality.
The Kinabatang River might be an extreme example. It's the perfect illusion of an untouched environment, but if you are open to see behind the curtains, a whole new level of unbelievable sadness will get you. It is a stage setting where monkeys have to cross a small creek by manmade bridges because there is no jungle left to walk inland and get around it.
The people that live here are not the ones to blame. They know for whom the bell tolls. They are anxious to protect nature wherever they can, because in the end, it's what they make their living with. The ones to blame are we. We who made it possible for big companies to act without any respect to nature. We who are buying all their products made from palm oil. We who drive around in fancy cars with tropical timber applications. It's us who have to change, to make a turnaround that should have happened centuries ago.
I know this article is a little bit more drastically than my others, but I had to get the words out. Trust me, it's been hard and sad to accept this insight myself. But for me it's been a game changer. It's not the media or newspaper telling me a story. I have been there, seen it with my own eyes. We have to change and I am working hard on myself to make this change come true, at least for myself.
Last but not least here's a shot clip from the river cruise. Feel free to watch and share our YouTube version of this video. Like with all our videos, watching the advertisement on Youtube will help to support us.