Redmond O'Hanlon in Borneo and My Adventures with Leeches and Rhinos
Story and Photos by Sherry Shahan

A writer wanders into a rough Borneo expedition through a classic travel adventure book and reflects on creature encounters in Kenya and Australia.

Borneo travel story
© Anders Jacobsen

I sat on the beach in a laid-back beach town in California, thumbing through Into the Heart of Borneo (1984) by Redmond O'Hanlon, knowing it was probably as close as I'd get to the 3rd largest island in the world (287,001 square miles) after Greenland and New Guinea. Formerly a British protectorate, it's presently governed by three sovereign political powers: Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia.

The book's pages were marred with my inky notes and liberal exclamation points; the musty smell evoked tangled vegetation and inscrutable peril. I slogged in—leeches, parasitic worms, crotch rot, and all—slipping in and out of my own haunting memories as a traveler.

Professors on a Mission

Borneo travel
©Pat Whelen

O'Hanlon has always been obsessed with biology and spent seven years on his thesis of Conrad and Darwin; Darwin like O'Hanlon, struggled to land in a hammock without capsizing. His travelogues inspire and inform with a waggish wit.

James Fenton, a renowned poet and former Oxford University Professor of Poetry, asked his friend if he'd like to go to Borneo for a holiday. "To scuba dive," Fenton said.

The scholars were woefully out of shape. Fenton, bald with fleshy jowls, and a serious paunch. O'Hanlon, the older of the pair at 32, rosy-cheeked with a wild shock of white hair, and equally unfit, though he somehow wrangled permission to train beforehand with the Special Air Service (SAS), a unit of the British Army.

A plan began to unfold: A two-month expedition into darkest Sarawak, from Kuching on the South China Sea to the headwaters of the Baleh River, the fourth-longest river in Borneo. No outsider had been to the Tiban Mountain region since Swiss zoologist and ethnographer Eric Mjoberg in 1926, and he'd approached from the other side.

O'Hanlon laid out a kit-bag of gifts for the natives: bottles of whiskey, a smoking pipe, a vessel of ribbon-cut tobacco, a well-worn, hand-sewn cartridge belt, and picture postcards of the Queen, preferably, "on horseback and showing all four legs, because they (Iban peoples) think she's all one piece."

That quote and tip came from O'Hanlon's friend John Hatt, author of The Tropical Traveler, published in 1982. The medicine bag held water-purifying and anti-malaria pills, industrial-strength insect repellent, fizz-activated tablets for indigestion (swilled after the smoked tail of a monitor lizard appeared in his mess tin), anti-fungus powder (applied until, as he said his "erogenous zone looked like meat chunks rolled in flour"), etc.

Heart of BorneoThe scope and weight of items crammed into his rucksack astounded. I recall shrugging into a hefty pack for a single-day 22-mile round-trip assault on Mount Whitney (14, 491 ft.), the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. The burden of weight caused my body to lose confidence in itself.

O'Hanlon's purpose was in part to determine whether the Borneo two-horned rhinoceros, presumably extinct, might still exist in the central highlands. Markedly smaller than the three subspecies of Sumatran rhinoceros, the Borneo genus is a solitary animal, feeding during daylight hours and lolling in mud at dusk.

Into the Heart of Kenya

Moving across the globe to Kenya, I studied online photos of the odd-toed ungulate O'Hanlon hoped to see. The images brought back memories of its cousin the hippo. Both herbivorous mammals are immense with large heads. The hippo is a swift moving semiaquatic creature though—one that nearly took me out in a tent camp along Kenya's Mara River.

At the time I was showering in my smallings, lathering up with bar soap beneath a water bag hanging from a thorny acacia tree. Water slapped the dusty ground, tick, tick, tick, like drops squeezed from a rusty sprinkler. The tree and I were the only obstacles between the hippo and its beloved river.

Kenya hippos
© David Clode

Afterward, I sat on my cot and scribbled notes about the incident, feeling lucky to have escaped an animal that can snap a canoe in half with its jaws. Hippos kill around 500 people in Africa each year.

Treacherous Rivers and Sizzling Temperatures

O'Hanlon and Fenton and their three Iban guides sliced up treacherous rivers in an engine-powered dugout canoe, where temperatures boomeranged between 110° and 120° Fahrenheit and humidity hovered at 98 percent. They marched through a jungle with 1,700 different species of parasitic worm and unfurled bedrolls in longhouses beneath human skulls clustered in woven palm nets that hung from exposed crossbeams.

The threat of natives wielding poisonous blowpipes was as real as multi-syllabic diseases and Thread Leeches that like to attack your nose and mouth while you sip of river water.

"Should I tell James?" O'Hanlon writes after reading John Whitehead's warning of the foot-long giant leech. "Or would it be kinder to simply allow him to pull them out of his pants when the need arose?"

Whitehead (1860-1899) was an English explorer and naturalist who collected natural history specimens in Southeast Asia.

O'Hanlon's accounts teach and inspire, a bridge that invited me to cross over. I scanned the globe for a leafy place without malaria, dengue fever, cholera, typhoid, or bacillary dysentery.

Leeches in the Land Down Under

I flew to Queensland, Australia, rented a jeep and drove to an old-growth jungle, an area revered for its section of Gondwana Rainforests, the most extensive area of subtropical rainforest in the world.

It was late November, nearing summer, hot and sultry. I bunked at O'Reilly's Retreat in Lamington National Park, a bucolic lodge that had hosted guests since 1915. When I heard about their semi-annual 24-mile hike I signed on.

Three of us gathered at 4 a.m., testing battery-powered flashlights and stowing bottled water and box lunches in daypacks. From the lodge we followed the Border Track, crisscrossing McPherson range. Our guide didn't carry a map or compass; no towering power poles to follow.

"The Eastern Tiger snake is one of Australia's deadlier reptiles," she said with unbridled enthusiasm. "Its jaws are capable of considerable extension. It's best to avoid Lawyer vines, a climbing palm with spiny stems. Once they get their hooks in you they don't let go."

© Sherry Shahan

The sun rose in persistent pastels throwing light on overgrown grasses, fanning ferns, beech trees, ghost gums. Flame trees spouted a fountain of red bell-shaped flowers. Late morning, clouds blew in. Early afternoon brought rain. A suffocating mist rose from the ground.

On steep, downward stretches I aimed myself from tree to tree—arms outstretched like shock absorbers—to keep from slipping and cracking my head on boulders partially hidden by silt. The ground-dwelling jawed leeches seemed little more than a nuisance, like snippets of string raining from trees. There was nothing to do but pluck them from my shorts and sleeves, roll them into balls, and flick them into the bush.

Something like 18 hours later, I collapsed in O'Reilly's mudroom with a Billy tin of tea and removed my muddy boots and socks. Looking closer I saw bloodsucking parasites between my toes. They glinted like exquisite jewels. An anti-coagulant in their saliva kept me from bleeding to death; the vital fluid, they saved for themselves. I detached them with the edge of a credit card.

Poetry and Rice Wine

Farewell to the KingIn the Borneo expedition, Fenton sat in the canoe with "a straw boater on his bald head," reading his way through Hugo's Les Misérables and Jonathan Swift, the Complete Poems by Pat Rogers (editor), remarking on the Anglo-Irish's poetry, "Some of this juvenilia is pretty feeble."

O'Hanlon waxed lyrical about insects, birds, and the insufferable heat.

"It squeezed round you like the rank coils of an unseen snake, pressing the good air out of your lungs, covering you in a slimy sweat."

From Into the Heart of Borneo I learned the difference between tauk (rice-wine) and arak (rice-brandy). Tauk being saki in Japan, mi ju in China, Sato in Thailand, or moonshine in my California kitchen.

Arak (rice-brandy) looks like cloudy brandy. Well-traveled author Hatt describes the drink as "every bit as lethal as it tastes," known to "supercharge ordinary nightmares."

Ancillary Connections in Borneo

Farewell to the King is a 1989 film set in Borneo during WWII, starring lion-haired Nick Nolte as American soldier Learoyd. After fleeing Japanese forces, he staggers half-deranged through the jungle, and in time goes wholly native, adopting Iban customs and language. Eventually the Iban embraced him as their leader.

Writer and director John Milius adapted Farewell from the French novel of the same name, L'Adieu au Roi by Pierre Schoendoerffer. Likewise, Schoendoerffer's version drew from Tom Harrisson's memoir World Within: A Borneo Story (1959).

Harrisson was a British polymath born in Argentina in 1911. He's been called the barefoot anthropologist, a contentious conservationist, deliberately outrageous, grossly immoral, and more. A guerilla fighter in WWII, he parachuted deep into the jungles of Japanese occupied Borneo. (The rhinoceros Didermocerus sumatrensis harrissoni bears his name.)

While Farewell draws heavily from L'Adieu au Roi, it's not a literal replication. Though it does reflect Harrisson's concerns over those who yearn to practice pacifist isolationism and encroaching outside influences.

I continued to reread passages in Heart of Borneo. While wading into a river to bathe, a swarm of catfish nuzzled O'Hanlon's private parts, which spurred him to swim to an upstream eddy where

" ...luckily, all alone, I learned from personal experience the most important lesson of all for the tranquil conduct of life in the jungle: never, ever shit in a whirlpool. It is a terrible decision to have to make, whether to duck or jump."

No one else would have put it quite like that.

© Glen Carrie

The Bornean Rhinoceros

In 2015, the Malaysian government declared the Bornean rhinoceros to be extinct in the Malaysian portion of Borneo, with only two individuals (females) left in a zoo in the northern state of Sabah. However, in March 2016, a young female rhino was captured in the Indonesian portion of Borneo, proof of their continued existence. This, 33 years after O'Hanlon and Fenton's exploration Into the Heart of Borneo.

Sherry Shahan's Alaskan-based adventure novels include Ice Island and Frozen Stiff. Her travel articles and photographs have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Backpacker, Country Living and many other magazines and newspapers. See more at

Related Features:
The Last Village in North Borneo - Marco Ferrarese
Rent a Real Man in Borneo - Bruce Northam
Orangutan Warfare in Borneo - Marco Ferrarese
Dug-outs Downstream in PNG - Tony Robinson-Smith

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