Rudolf Harmsen 

The Road to Sukau

Oil palm plantations and rainforest.


Monday, 30 January 2006


The Road to Sukau


From the Danum Valley Field Centre on the Segama, to Sukau at the confluence of the Kinabatangan and the Mananggol is, as the hornbill flies, a relatively short distance. But not being able to fly, we had to make the journey by 4WD on the Sabah road system. We, in this case, were Simon Robson from James Cooke University in Townsville, John Shillock from some small town in Yorkshire, Jeri and I. And of course, a number of drivers and the well organized, cheerful, but slightly annoying Robert, the mostly unnecessary guide provided by Wildlife Expeditions. The four of us, Simon, John, Jeri and I were thrown together by fate when each of us, for our own reasons, decided to accept Roger Kitchings’ invitation to join him on a two-week rainforest

The surroundings of the Danum Valley Field Centre are overflowing with gorgeous tropical birds.


experience in Borneo. Simon is looking over the area with the thought in mind of bringing students here for a rainforest field course, John is an English naturalist, who for personal reasons decided Borneo would be a good chance to meet up with his old friend Roger, and Jeri and I? Well, we wanted to escape the worst of the Ontario winter, and hoped that a journey to a far-off destination would improve our still somewhat fractious way of coming to terms with living the lives of a retired couple.

The center of operations for Roger’s venture was the Danum Valley Field Centre, an international – but mostly British, and run by the British Royal Society – research and education facility across the Segama River from the 110,000 acre Danum Valley Conservation Area. It is an exquisitely beautiful, secluded part of the world, which provided us with a superb general rainforest experience, hiking among the hills and stream valleys, and watching the Segama wax and wane depending on the recently fallen amount of rain over the hill country of its source. At the field station the river rushes among protruding rocks and sand bars through a narrow valley cut through the rainforest. After ten days at this pleasant and at times exciting place, Jeri and I greedily accepted Simon’s suggestion to join him on a two day trip to a well preserved lowland site. It was a ‘package tour’, arranged by Glenn Reynolds, the Field Station’s director, and organized by a friend of his, who runs ‘Wildlife Expeditions’, which has a lodge at Sukau on the Kinabatangan.

The road from Lahad Datu to the Danum Valley Field Centre

The night before our safari, not really knowing what all we could expect, we packed what we thought we would probably need, and went to bed. The next morning, well before the generator’s 7 am start-up, we rose in pitch darkness, dressed and walked down to our meeting point, finding Simon and John ready for our joint adventure. Soon, dawn started to diffuse some visibility into the day, and shortly after, Johnny arrived with the Centre’s rugged Toyota 4WD. We stowed our luggage, squeezed ourselves in and we were off on our two-hour, 77 km descent to Lahad Datu, the local provincial town on Darvel Bay. The vehicle was a lot better than the one we came up in ten days earlier, but the road was if anything worse, and Johnny drives like every other Malaysian driver: fast, by our standards recklessly, but also very competently. Perhaps in order to make us feel comfortable with his driving skills, he did not wear his seat belt.

Our six am departure had us hope that we might see elephants on the road, and indeed, we did. That is, we saw one elephant just off the road in shrubbery and small trees at the forest edge. It was for me an exciting sight, a clean, gray, mature elephant with snowy white tusks and flapping ears. What a treat! The elephants in Borneo are a small race of the Indian elephant. However, until recently dogma had it that in the 18th Century a mainland potentate had presented the Sultan of Sulu with a small herd of Indian elephants, which the said Sultan had subsequently released in Borneo. These elephants were assumed to be the founders of the current population.

Since they were therefore considered not native to Borneo, they were not protected and were well on their way to certain extinction. However, recent genetic research has shown them to be a distinct Bornean race of the Indian elephant. Suddenly it is declared an endangered, fully protected subspecies, and the population has started to increase rapidly, creating problems in villages and gardens.

Being with five people in a Toyota 4WD means that one person sits in the middle of the back seat, with nowhere to stick his legs. That was me. I was very relieved when we arrived at Lahad Datu and I could unfold my legs and put some blood back into my toes. Our next problem was to pay 670 Ringits cash each for our package, which meant

The road to Sukau: trucks, dust, heat and oil palms.


finding a functional ATM. The first one we came upon pretended to be so, but after eating my card, refused to do anything else. I just about panicked, but finally noted a ‘cancel’ button and retrieved my card. The second machine served us very well, and after paying our fees at the local Wildlife Expeditions office, we were ready to face the next leg of our journey. In a new vehicle (this time a small bus without seatbelts), a new driver (who remained nameless) and the useless Robert, we took off at high speed. This ride through the interior of Sabah was a very sobering eye-opener. For some 100 km we drove through virtually nothing but oil palm plantations on both sides of the road, for as far as the eye could see. There were old, established ones, young ones, recently planted ones and ones that were recently cut and were being prepared for re-planting. The realization that all that land was primary rainforest half a century ago was bone-chilling. That another area twice as large is slated to be cleared for oil palm over the next few years is even more disturbing. The scientific forecast is that despite massive use of fertilizer and pesticides the soils of the entire area will become so degraded that in another 50-100 years nothing of commercial value will be able to grow there. If such ex-plantations are simply abandoned and left alone, it will take centuries of scrub land to rebuild the soils and eventually re-establish a rainforest. Oil palm cultivation has to be one of the most un-sustainable forms of agriculture.

The first half of the trip was on a hard-topped asphalt road, going northwards from Lahad Datu. Then, some 20 km after crossing the Kinabatangan River, we changed both our vehicle and driver once again. The next leg of our ride eastwards to Sukau was over one of the bumpiest, dustiest and most desolate roads imaginable, traversing an endless plethora of oil palm plantations. Only some very small, very steep rocky hills still carry remnants of the forest that once was.

Oil palm plantations are productive for only about 30 years, then they are cut down and replanted.


We were treated to a short detour and a brief but very impressive stop at one of the largest swiftlet caves in Borneo. The Gomantong Cave is in fact a complex of caves, including one very large one, over 50 m high. The caves are in one of a number of high limestone outcrops, jutting straight out of the mostly flat surrounding landscape. This entire area of Borneo is an uplifted region, which was once a shallow sea with coral reef islands. The outcrop with the cave we visited was one of those islands, which has eroded into a limestone shell full of holes. On the walls and ceiling of the cave several species of swiftlet build their nests. Two of these species use their congealed saliva and a bit of moss or other vegetation as their nest building materials. These nests are the ones that are harvested and exported to China as edible bird’s nests for as much as $4,000 per kg. With close to half a million nesting pairs, this ‘industry’ is a major source of income for Sabah. Apparently, the harvesting is done in a sustainable manner, so that the swiftlets’ population is holding its own. How that source of income will fare as virtually all the surrounding forest with its insect populations is gone, is a question the Sabah government does not seem to have asked as yet.

The ten-minute walk through the largest cave was a most impressive and unforgettable event. The giant cavernous space, far larger than any cathedral I have ever seen has various holes through which light enters, creating exceptionally beautiful and mysterious color and light effects; some parts of the time-sculpted walls are green with algal growth, while other areas are gray limestone or streaked with brown, black or sepia where water seeps through the ceiling above. The upper walls and ceiling sections are festooned with swiftlet nests and thousands of bats of several species. So far this description sounds great, but let me continue. The stench of tons of decaying guano, which covers everything in the lower part of the cave, hangs thick and sickeningly in the damp air, while the gloomy light and the underworld-like fauna of millions of cockroaches and other creepy denizens of the guano world create a further nightmarish assault on the senses; even Dante in his Inferno did not come up with anything like this. Among all that, crawls a long-legged species of centipede of immense proportions, waiting for a hapless chick or bat baby to tumble down into the guano below. When I shone my flashlight on one of these monsters at close range to have a good look, it lunged forward, and clenched its jaws on the plastic rim of the flashlight. Trying to dislodge my determined assailant before it proceeded towards my hand I just about lost my footing on the slippery wooden boardwalk, which was covered in a fresh layer of slimy guano. Since the hand rail is rickety and broken down in places, had I lost my footing, I would have tumbled into the guano below, which would have been a disgusting and terrifying experience. The walkway is not the only man-made structure in this hellhole. Ladders made of rattan stretch and dangle, reaching up to the nest-covered ceilings, and small huts on poles, with listless guards – to prevent poaching – look like the dwellings of the doomed.

It is in this space that hundreds of nest-gatherers climb the ladders and swing from ropes during the early nesting season to gather the freshly made nests. Then, after a certain date, all collecting is halted, the birds will build new nests, and a new cohort of swiftlets is raised. After the breeding season, the old, dirty nests are also collected as a lower quality harvest. I am glad to have witnessed this unique place, but it was a relief when I walked out of that cave, which felt to me much more like a deathtrap than an avian maternity ward.

After another hour on the hot, dusty road through Oil Palm Land, meeting giant tanker trucks full of palm oil coming from the local factory, and driving behind other trucks full of berry clusters going to the factory, we arrived at Sukau on the Kinabatangan. What would have taken a homing pigeon two hours at most, took us just over seven, of which four and a half were driving on mostly horrid roads. But let me tell you, in retrospect, what we experienced over the next 24 hours made every dusty hot minute on those roads worth it.




  dolf@harmsen.net +1 613 544 3626