Man of the forest in Borneo | NevadaAppeal.com
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Man of the forest in Borneo

Rick Gunn
Special to the Nevada Appeal
Rick Gunn/Special to the Nevada Appeal A young male orangutan stands on railing with the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve in Sabah. At the current rate of logging and palm oil plantation development, the wild orangutan is predicted to become extinct within the next twelve years.
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My head had gone bad.

There, on a narrow strip of asphalt, 70 miles into Borneo’s mountainous interior, my body began to shut down. Seven hours of riding beneath the equatorial sun had bled me dry.

Encrusted in thick patterns of crystalline salt, I pulled my bike to the side of the road and reached for my map. I shook my head. I still had 20 hard miles to ride before I reached the next village.

I looked over my surroundings.

I was in the middle of nowhere. A micro-dot within an endless expanse of oil palms as far as the eye could see.

I turned my attention to the road ahead.

I traced it as it lept in a series of merciless arcs, forever climbing toward the mist-enshrouded summit of Mount Kinnabalu.

I had nothing left.

I opened my bags, and began to dig. After a moment of searching, I found my vial of salt. I removed the lid, poured a small pile on my tongue, then cringed. Then I chased it down with water that had grown piping hot from the sun.

I’d consumed 6 liters since morning, and was nearly out.

Without water, I was in trouble. Or soon would be.

I climbed back on my bike and attempted to press on, but my limbs had grown useless.

I got off and began to push.

Then it began to rain.

Within minutes, a singular sheet of liquid had formed across the roadway.

That’s when I heard the sound.

The distinctive sound of car wheels skidding out of control.

Instantly I lifted my head and watched as a small sedan swerved out of control, across the median, then head-on into an oncoming big rig. Then I heard the crash.

All of this taking place just yards ahead of me.

“No!” I shouted throwing my bike to the ground, then ran around the front of the mammoth truck.

When I rounded its front end, I stood for a moment in disbelief. The small car was now crushed and wedged accordion-like beneath the truck’s massive front bumper. “No!” I shouted again, and ran toward the crushed vehicle. There were six people inside. Six precious human beings. They were bloodied, moaning, and impossibly compacted into a space meant for two.

For a moment, I was the only one there.

Then, out of nowhere, another man appeared, a passing driver.

“Call an ambulance!” I shouted at him.

The man shook his head. “No ambulance here,” he returned in softly broken English.

I swore.

Then the two of us went to work.

“UNLOCK THE DOOR!” the man shouted, pounding on the rear window. A shaky hand reached from the pile and unlocked the knob. I opened the back door, reached inside, then pulled out a girl of perhaps 13. I carried her like a rag doll toward the man’s waiting vehicle.

Suddenly she came to and began shrieking and grasping for those left in the car.

“It’s OK,” I said softly. “It’s OK.”

When I returned, her mother was dead.

After extracting three others, we began concentrating on the driver. A man pinned beneath a crumple of metal. He had large swaths of flesh torn from his face, and was moving in and out of shock.

A crowd gathered, then someone offered a pry bar.

As the rain increased to a downpour, each of us took turns gnashing at the folded metal. All of us taking aim at the simple door mechanism. Two inches of metal that kept the man ensnared.

After 20 minutes of thrashing, we freed the man, then four of us carried him to a car bound for the hospital.

Then, almost as quickly as they’d arrived, they all got in their cars and drove away.

Moments later I was left standing alone, covered in blood, standing near that crushed car. The dead woman still laying inside.

There was nothing more I could do.

So I picked up my bike and continued to push into the oncoming darkness.

This was my first day of riding in Borneo.

My arrival to Borneo began a week earlier, in the easternmost province of Sabah.

After assembling my bike from a box in the parking lot of the Sandakan Airport, I set out to find a cheap hotel. Within that short ride, every preconception I’d ever held about Borneo was instantly and permanently dashed.

Instead of pedaling into python-infested jungle, or happening upon grass-skirted head hunters, I came upon something far scarier: two mammoth signs emblazoned with advertisements for KFC and Pizza Hut.

This followed by a succession of strip malls, housing tracts and block-stores. All of it littering the landscape in a jumble of low-rise cement.

Even the rare bamboo huts I’d come across had satellite dishes.

Within 15 minutes of my arrival to the city, I wanted out.

The next day I made a dash for the Supu Forest Reserve, one of East Borneo’s last stretches of primary rainforest. An amazing natural area located on the lower Kinabatangan River near the rustic village of Batu Puteh.

A day later, I found myself on my hands and knees, covered with mud, while I planted more than a thousand trees as part of a volunteer restoration project.

This floodplain restoration work was part of the MESCOT Program, an ecologically sustainable community tourism cooperative developed in part by Australian tour guide Martin Paul.

Paul began collaborating with a group of local fishermen, farmers and villagers after a 1997 study revealed that upstream logging and palm oil plantations had cleared more than 90 percent of the surrounding rainforest.

Working quickly, Paul and the villagers came up with a sustainable tourism program that includes village home stays, guided wildlife treks, a boat service, horseback riding, and an eco-lodge.

With part of the proceeds, the group began the process of securing and restoring a 1,200-hectare strip of river-corridor rainforest.

This small safe haven may well be the last glimmer of hope for a laundry list of Borneo’s most endangered species. These include: the Malaysian crocodile, the Proboscis monkey, the Malay Sun Bear, the Cloud Leopard and the Orangutan.

The urgency of this conservation work struck my heart three days later, after a chance encounter in another protected area.

I was walking rather mindlessly across a boardwalk, on the edge of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, when I rounded a corner and stumbled upon something remarkable: a young male Orangutan – The Malay word for, “man of the forest.”

He sat on a railing and seemingly smiled, no more than an arms length away.

I was dumbfounded.

And for a few magical moments we exchanged glances.

As we did, I noticed something deep within the creature’s eyes. Something intelligent, tender, curious. A message perhaps, somehow beyond my comprehension.

But just before I could grasp that message, he tumbled off, back into the woods.

This small creature was one of many brought to the Sepilok Rehabilitation center, a 43-kilometer reserve dedicated to the rehabilitation of captured, injured or abandoned orangutans. The center’s primary goal is to return these creatures to the wild.

Unfortunately, porangs like this one had become partially domesticated, and entirely dependent on human beings. Each day they returned from the forest, and gathered in this area to be fed.

Much of this was the result of them losing their habitats to logging, or after being captured to be sold as pets.

But by far the greatest threat to these wild orangutans come from Malaysia’s ever-expanding oil-palm plantations. A place where many of these last great apes are frequently found – wandering dazed and confused – without food.

With palm oil prices up nearly 68 percent since January 2006, plantations now cover about 4 million hectares in Malaysia. Of late, the Malaysian government has leaned heavily on the production of palm-oil-based biofuels, offering it to the world as a remedy to our current fossil fuel crisis, and global warming woes.

Unfortunately, current research states otherwise.

In fact, recent studies have concluded that the cutting of forests for palm-oil plantations has been a major a contributer of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Subsequently, the drying or burning of peat-bogs during this process has proven to produce as much as eight times the amount of CO2 emissions than that of the mineral diesel it replaces.

If there were a solution to the earth’s environmental issues, it didn’t seem to be coming from the oil-palm industry.

After watching a handful of adult orangutans eat from the hands of their human caretakers, I left the Sepilok reserve a bit saddened.

A day later, I hopped on my bike and began pedaling madly toward the west.

In just over a week, I cycled over 500 miles. Starting in Kota Kinnabalu, I continued west through Brunei and Sarawak, stopping for the briefest of visits to Lamir Hills, and Niah Caves National Parks. A day later, after the rear hub of my bicycle failed, I boarded a boat to Kuching. There I spent a day wandering the forests of nearby Bako National Park.

On my last day in Borneo, after getting my bike fixed, I pedaled 30 miles out of Kuching, deep into the surrounding hillsides. There I came upon a fairy tale waterfall.

Hurriedly, I ditched my sweat-soaked clothes and slid beneath the surface of the cool, green waters. I swam until I reached the cascade’s frothy spillover. I hovered on my back for a moment, laying upon the surface and taking in each tiny bubble. As I did, I looked up at the canopy. The light seemed to penetrate the foliage eloquently, glowing with a kind of calming reverie.

What occurred to me at that moment was how temporary it all was: these trees, this forest, the animals – my life.

While I floated, mammoth bulldozers and machines busied themselves, tearing at the heart of the forests, cutting down the trees with cyclonic fury. The equivalent to about 300 soccer fields every hour.

At this rate, scientists predict the extinction of the wild orangutan within the next 12 years.

That thought snapped my mind back to my chance encounter with my young orangutan friend – the man of the forest. Sooner than either of us wanted to admit, we would be gone forever.

That’s when I recalled those eyes, and realized the message this creature had entrusted me with.

It was a message that seemed to say, “Tell them. Tell them who I was. Tell them of my beauty and my uniqueness. But most of all, speak to them of my ability to walk upon the earth in balance. Tell them that for millions of years I too held a place on this planet, just like you …”

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

June 8-30 2007

Mileage log:16,679-17,266

Elevation: Sea level-750 ft.

(Sabah): Sandakan, Batu Puteh, Tulepid, Kota

Kinnabalu, Abdul Raman National Park, Beufort,

(Brunei): Bandar Seri Begawan, Tutong, (Sarawak):

Miri, Lamir Hills National Park, Niah Caves National

Park, Bintulu, Sibu, Kuching, Bako National Park,

(Kalimantan): Pontianak

• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.

To read more of his entries and see more photos go to rickgunnphotography.com, or nevadaappeal.com and click on the Wish Tour icon.