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Norman Bezona Prof emeritus University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture

Norman Bezona
Prof emeritus
University of Hawaii
College of Tropical Agriculture

(If you want to get a feel for this experience without heat, bugs and leeches, get on your computer and travel with me by searching the web for the places mentioned in these notes. We will also be back in Kona by July 4th and looking forward to talking story. )

We have been in Sarawak, Island of Borneo for a few weeks and now head to Singapore for a meeting of the International Palm Society. What a contrast from the wilds of Borneo to one of the most modern and spectacular tropical cities of the world. Much of Singapore is squeaky clean with immaculate landscaping. Almost as though Disney had a hand in the planning. Still there are old historic parts of this island city and many beautiful gardens. Being on the equator the weather is much more hot and humid than we are used to in Hawaii. The most noticeable difference from other tropical cities is that there are no homeless, no graffiti, no trash and the city has very strict regulations to keep it that way.

Photo: Voltaire Moise

Photo: Voltaire Moise

After the palm conference we will travel up the Malaysian Peninsula to the city of Malacca. This was an old Portuguese out post  and was important to the spice trade to Europe. However, the city dates back to the 14th century and has a long history of control by Javanese, Siamese, Chinese and several European countries due to its strategic location. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Looking back, our Borneo adventure started in the old oil town of Miri, Sarawak near the Kingdom of Brunei and ultimately ended up 800 kilometers south to the state’s capitol of Kuching. On the way we passed through the coastal town of Bintulu and the river city of Sibu. Along the way we visited 7 national Parks. We had to fly by small plane to Mulu National Park to visit some fantastic enormous caves. Thousands of bats have inhabited the caves for eons. The last time I visited these caves 40 years ago, I stepped into about 2 feet of bat poop and got a fungus between my toes that took years to clear up. Now they have boardwalks over the guano.

Photo: Voltaire Moise

Photo: Voltaire Moise

Walking along the forest trails to see all the rare palms was very interesting. It was difficult keeping our minds on palms because we were too busy picking leeches off as they tried to get attached! Voltaire made sure we were prepared. He purchased leech resistant socks for $75 a pair and we drenched our skin with repellant. Even though we tied our pant legs tightly and wore long sleeved shirts a few still managed to find some sweet blood. These little devils hang onto the leaves of plants and sense you as you walk by. I believe if someone passed out in this jungle, the leeches would drain one dry. Speaking of passing out, the humid heat with temperatures in high 90’s and what felt like 110% humidity was enough to knock some folks out. Lucky live Hawaii!

Much of the travel in this region is by river longboat. The ride is restful except when we had to get out to push the boats through shallows. At least there weren’t leeches in the river.

Another adventure was visiting the highlands of Lambir Hills National Park. Plants of this area would possibly be adapted to warm and humid areas like East Hawaii. The park has some spectacular waterfalls and rainforest. Palms like Arengas, Pinangas and Licuala were in abundance. A few have been introduced to Hawaiian gardens, but many have yet to be brought into cultivation. Some are close to extinction because of timber cutting and agriculture. Thousands of acres of forest have been cleared for timber and African Oil Palm production. The weather at least was much more comfortable.

Niah National Park was another amazing experience famous for the spectacular limestone caves.

We saw so many different species of palms that we lost track. Going by bus southward we arrived in the river town of Bintulu where we checked in to the River Front Hotel and hung out with the locals for a taste of life there. The next day we spent exploring the coastal mangrove forest of Similajau National Park.

We departed for Sibu on the Rajang River and spent time exploring the jungle by river boat . Much of this region has to be traveled by boat since many areas are not accessible by road.

From the hot and steamy lowlands we headed to the Borneo Highlands that are about 3000 feet above sea level. Here again we saw palms and many other plants that would do well in cooler Hawaiian regions. At this location we were actually bordering the Indonesian part of the island, Kalimantan.

We were able to visit several long house “settlements” on the trip to see how the folks live. These are raised structures all connected with families all related creating mini villages. The last time I visited, scores of human skulls decorated the long houses, but modern sensitivity seems to have pressured the folks to make their conquests not so visible! I will never forget my experience 40 years ago boating up the Sarawak River. My guide casually looked at me after several days of travel and said with a big smile on his face, “If this was my grandfather’s day, I would eat you by now!” I think he was joking?

We finished our Borneo adventure in and around Kuching. The capitol city of Kuching has a population of about 600,000, but has a small town feeling. It is relatively clean and the folks are very friendly. The Semenggoh Nature Reserve is near by where you can see Orangutans and other wildlife. Of course there are many species of palms found in the area and it is an easy trip to Bako National Park.

All in all, it was a great experience to visit Borneo after many years. Things have changed a lot. Most notably, it is the deforestation of one of the world’s priceless ecosystems. Animals, plants and cultures that have evolved here without interruption until the end of the 20th century cannot be replaced once lost.