“When upon the subject of plants I may here mention a few of the more striking vegetable productions of Borneo. The wonderful Pitcher-plants, forming the genus Nepenthes of botanists, here reach their greatest development. Every mountain-top abounds with them, running along the ground, or climbing over shrubs and stunted trees; their elegant pitchers hanging in every direction…”
“Ferns are abundant, but are not so varied as on the volcanic mountain of Java; and Tree-Ferns are neither so plentiful nor so large as in that island. They grow, however, quite down to the level of the sea, and are generally slender and graceful plants from eight to fifteen feet high. Without devoting much time to the search I collected fifty species of Ferns in Borneo, and I have no doubt a good botanist would have obtained twice the number…”
“The forests abound with gigantic trees with cylindrical, buttressed, or furrowed stems, while occasionally the traveler comes upon a wonderful fig-tree, whose trunk is itself a forest of stems and aerial roots. Still more rarely are found trees which appear to have begun growing in mid-air, and from the same point send out wide-spreading branches above and a complicated pyramid of roots descending for seventy or eighty feet to the ground below, and so spreading on every side, that one can stand in the very centre of the trunk of the tree immediately overhead.”
~ Alfred Russel Wallace, Borneo 1855
The wet, heavy heat of Borneo seems to belch in indigestion with gutteral growls of thunder that burp and ricochet in the pensive air. Overhead a barrage of storm clouds scrape over the jungle itself – so low they can almost be touched. And in the background, behind it all, the incessant hum of an incomprehensible number of insects drones and hums an eternity of frenetic sounds.
We have come to make a pilgrimage up Mount Santubong – a place that should be remembered and visited by all good naturalists. While Darwin made the Galapagos famous for his discoveries that helped shape evolutionary theory decades later in England, Mount Santubong, like Wallace, remains largely forgotten by history. It was here though on the slopes of this tropical mountain by the South China Sea that Wallace penned his own theory of evolution on the spot before Darwin had even put his ideas together. Instead of being conserved like the Galapagos though, Santubong is increasingly being cut up into Malay resorts, golf courses, and shrimp farms. Talk persists of buying up the remaining land around the mountain, but funds can never be found…
And so Santubong remains forgotten. Its mystery kept hidden, like its summit obscured in perennial storm clouds. For me, hiking up here is a pilgrimage into the mystery of Wallace the man – the discoveries he made in the name of science and exploration, and the love he had of wild places and wild nature. Sweating up Santubong’s steep and muddy slopes it is also a fitting final adventure after almost four months chasing his ghost across South East Asia. Tomorrow I will return to Singapore to catch an onward flight back home. Today though a mountain remains to be climbed….
It is slow going hiking through air that feels like a sauna. With every few steps I have to wipe away a fresh stream of sweat that sops down my forehead. Everything feels damp, dank and organic. On the lower slopes towering strangler fig trees and rocky vine covered boulders bring Wallace’s descriptions of Borneo alive. It seems some giants do indeed remain here. In the coiled recesses of their buttressed roots I expect to see vipers, but find only mushrooms and seedlings reaching towards the light. Occasionally we hear the sounds of birds or monkeys trapezing through the canopy, but mostly the forest remains still and expectant.
On the higher slopes it gets steeper and our hiking turns into climbing. A long and elaborate chain of rope ladders continues on to the summit, but it only adds to the adventure. We take a breather near the top and meet a trio of older Malay woman making the same hike. They do this hike every weekend they say jokingly and suddenly us 20 somethings feel more than a little embarrassed. I can’t help but grin at the comedy of the situation, and wave them on with a laugh.
Near the summit I spot strange and unusual plants that give evidence to the unique microclimates these tropical peaks provide. Huge tree ferns, pitcher plants, and mountain rhododendrum bring Wallace’s collecting journals alive. It is also cooler here, whispering relief from the heat with drafty breezes on damp foreheads. Mist surrounds us as we stumble to the summit and a great sense of space pervades the air. Beside a rustic shelter surrounded by trampled down grass and snack wrappers it seems rather un-climatic. My wonder and enthusiasm begins to dim – does Wallace’s spirit still linger here?
But just then the mist clears for a moment and the sun comes out…Below the Sarawak river snakes through the lowlands of Borneo and beyond the enormous silvery expanse of the South China Sea comes into focus full of possibility. A gleam of color catches my eye and a big colorful butterfly wafts over the summit and disappears in the undergrowth below. I just have to chase after it…