Tropical Paradise Under Construction in Borneo
Story by Marco Ferrarese, photos by Kit Yeng Chan

Piggybacking on a development project's research trip, a travel writer discovers that in northern Borneo there's still quite a lot to do to keep paradise from falling out of grace.

Borneo Woman fishing

"What is she doing?" I asked, observing from the shore.

The old lady had zipped her jacket up to her chin, donned a large bamboo hat, put a woven rattan basket on her shoulders, and pulled a pair of long rubber boots up to her knees. The oblong fishing rod she carried in her right hand made her look like an improbable Asian warrior about to storm against the enormous monster called the sea. Slowly, the woman put one foot after the other in the water, proceeding for meters with low tide tickling just above her ankles, disappearing up to her torso only when she had reached the midst of the bay. She started spinning on her hips, drawing gentle circles in the air with the fishing rod, as if she had started dancing.

The three villagers in a single file next to me on the beach gaped at each other without knowing how to state what, to them, was obvious.

"She's fishing," the youngest, Jacky, said at last.

The ways of the Rungus, the North Borneo's sea tribe I had visited, were gentle and surprising even in the way they fished. It was stunning to see how they kept acting with the grace and innocence of heavenly creatures, even though international waste disposal was transforming their ancestral land into a garbage dump.

Beaches at the End of World

Simpangan Mengayau is the north-easternmost tip of Borneo, the world's third biggest island. Since time immemorial, the South China Sea has swept this lonesome crest, one last Malaysian rocky finger pointed towards the western Filipino islets. The tip itself has been a popular destination for day-trippers from Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah, just three hours away. People come here to brave a walk on the rock, risking the crashing waves, all for the sake of a perfect selfie. Fewer stay in a series of expensive hotels in walking distance to the tip. And close to no one realizes the existence of the Rungus, the local ethnic minority inhabiting these shores.

Borneo beach

Resourceful fishermen, the Rungus dwell on the coast to the north of Kudat, the closest town to Simpangan Mengayau. They have never been headhunters, conducting peaceful existences based on whatever the sea and the coconut forests behind it offered them for centuries. Their language, different from Bahasa Malay, has hundreds of words that describe shades of sound, smell, and sight. They are a special bunch.

The recent tourism development on the Tip of Borneo has never really affected their lives: the Rungus still stay in small villages along the coast. They live in wooden and concrete homes, or in their peculiar traditional Nipah-covered longhouses that have unique slanted and open walls for air perspiration. Besides a couple of home-stays that opened following the example of Tampat Do Aman—the area's most popular eco-lodge, run by a British hotelier married to a Rungus woman—visiting these communities is not very straightforward since land transport is difficult.

The place sounded like the ideal setting for a postcard-perfect beach paradise cast away from civilization. But I would soon learn that even in these Asian heavens, snakes await in the trees.

Paradise Lost?

"Nobody is doing anything to help these people?" was my constant refrain to Joe, my Sabahan-Chinese guide. He had been working with the local communities on an NGO-sponsored development project, and invited me to follow on a research trip to Simpangan Mengayau to make me aware of the problem. "Maybe a writer can help," he had said.

Rungus point Borneo

The project he was working on aimed at developing eco-tourism in the area in a bet to bring in some tourist dollars that would help sustain the local's livelihoods and keep the area clean. In fact, the blissful remoteness was also the region's main problem: trash. Situated at the bottom of the South China Sea, Simpangan Mengayau is a receptacle of garbage.

The sea currents that start in China funnel all the way down to Borneo on their way to Australasia, flushing with them refuse that comes from as far away as the Philippines.

"The cape's strong winds contribute to dispersing the garbage along the coast," explained John. He said that the Rungus do what they can, picking up whatever garbage they find on their beaches. "And to make things worse, Kudat municipality doesn't do a good job of collecting the trash produced by local villages," he concluded. Without a chance to dispose of it, the Rungus are forced to pile the trash in the fields beyond the shore, waiting for a way to get rid of it. Considering that plumbing in the villages is also almost non-existent, the barrage of trash slowly becomes an unattractive, silent, and smelly monster, growing day by day.

Borneo surfing

That morning, we zipped up and down the coast in a rented four-wheel drive, the only way to tackle the backroads to the area's most secluded bays, places where small Rungus villages are desperately waiting for tourist arrivals. The part of coast closest to the tip is connected to Kudat by a paved road, the only link shuttling day-trippers up and down the cape. But beyond that, the beaches are hardly accessible by car, and until now, they were the well-kept secret of adventurous wild campers seeking to break from Kota Kinabalu under a mantle of blazing stars.

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Read this article online at: Tropical Paradise Under Construction in Borneo

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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