Jacek Palkiewicz


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Borneo from coast to coast III

Jacek Palkiewicz In the hell of Borneo

Year of expedition: 1986

Part 3/4

Borneo 1986 photos

Where it rises the new year

The day before we arrived in the village we had pushed our boats by hand upstream for the whole day, struggling to save ourselves and our supplies from the white water and moss-covered boulders of the river, cutting our feet on unseen stones as we waded, soaked to the skin, towards our night-time resting place and the camp fire.

Tiredness was a constant factor. We were sleeping in hammocks, but we didn't get much rest. We were too conscious of the leeches hanging overhead in the branches of the trees, attracted by our smell and by our feet, which were aching from the strain of walking through miles of gripping mud.

The forest's many dangers were another source of tension. Seeing these dangers in time was not always easy. One day I stepped around a rotten tree trunk lying on the river bank. Fooled again! It was a crocodile and I saw his jaws at uncomfortably close quarters. Incidents like this one keep you on your toes. To reduce the tension a little, however, we had a running joke about the party the Italian ambassador would hold for us when we arrived. "There will be pizza", he had cordially promised. From then on, we would shout out at the most diffucult moments, "Come on lads, when we get there there'll be pizza".

In the meantime, though, we were immersed in a sea of green leaves, swearing like troopers with our vision obscured by the mosquito nets draped in front of our faces. Or maybe our poor sight was due to the weakness provoked in us by dysentery, which had stuck each of us down in turn.

Palkiewicz Borneo coast to coast 9
Palkiewicz Borneo coast to coast 10

Surprisingly, there are no wild fruits growing in the jungle. The vegetation is rich without being of any use to man. Only at its margins does the cultivation practised by some of the richer and more technically developed villages allow a modest harvest of bananas, mangoes and durian. This last fruit, little known outside Borneo, is as big as a coconut, but with a soft, green, prickly peel. On the inside it is divided into five segments, which are full of a rich creamy liquid. It has a delicate taste, a little like strawberries and cream, but it smells awful, reminding me, at any rate, of a railway station toilet. What a combination!

The jungle trees are emblazoned with flowers, most notably by orchids, of which 72 varieties have been discovered, although every unexplored gorge or ravine in this area may be harbouring new species. The orchids have bunches of little flowers which are both comely and somewhat humble. They are unlike the ones sold in flower shops in that their petals are not sticky. They grow everywhere since the hot, humid climate suits them. We found it unbearable. There was so much water vapour in the air that a fog often hung over the river and our sweat would not evaporate, rendering it impossible for us to keep cool.

The wildlife is extremely abundant. Some species date back to prehistorical times. The monitor lizard, a true monster, still survives here, the last living link with the dinosaurs. It looks like a giant lizard, being more than a metre long, with a crested head and scales whose colour merges into the background.

There are also orang-outans which the Diaccos call "animal-man". Its last remaining habitats are Borneo and the jungles of West Africa, though forestry is steadily reducing even these. It is now protected by law from the natives, who hunted it ruthlessly, and is no longer to be found near villages or other settlements. On average it lives about forty years. Orang-outangs are almost human. Mothers bring up their children with endless care and attention and only leave them to fend for themselves when they are more than two years old. They are solitary animals, whose diet of funs, berries and shoots condemns them to roam the forest since all three are in scarse supply.

The Badak rhinoceros is often considered a symbol of brute force and strength and is hunted mercilessly for this reason. Its forearm length horn, when reduced to powder, is considered to be an efficacious aphrodisiac, while its blood is believed to serve as a tonic.

Snakes are the most numerous species of animals. More than 160 types are to be found there. The bigger ones eat everything from small birds to monkeys. The most dangerous snake is the bungaro, which is about a metre long, and bright blue, except for its stomach, head and tail, which are red. It is very beautiful but deadly poisonous. Its poison circulates quickly, and can cause an agonizing death in less than half an hour. Since it does not have long fangs, it does not leave its prey when it strikes, but gnaws at the meat in order to impart as much poison as possible.

In my notebook I wrote: "We are travelling at an incredible speed: 100 mph." 100 meters per hour through an incredible tangle of plant life which scratched every uncovered inch of our skin. Renzo, who took his gloves off briefly, and then had to grasp a prickly branch to avoid falling, was left nursing a pair of hands which looked as if they had been burnt. Remo, a real character, voiced his opinion of the jungle: "Hell doesn't need to be a fiery inferno. All it need be is a jungle." Perhaps he is not far wrong.

We were tried and tested to the upmost in every way, but finally we reached the river. We quickly realized, however, that going down river with the stream would be no easier than going upstream had been.

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