by Martin Dugard
The jungle guide looked at me as if I were very dim. Eric was a small Malaysian man wearing a weathered felt fedora with a band of tiny white seashells and thick black rubber boots he claimed were snake-proof. "Did you just run through there alone?" I was on Pulau Tiga, 40 miles off the coast of Borneo, writing about the a TV show being filmed there ("Survivor"). The narrowest fringe of white sand ringed the deserted tropical island, but the rest was pure jungle. It wasn't uncommon for me to hear the crashing waddle of a 10-foot-long monitor lizard escaping into the brush when I ventured along the game trails for my daily run.
"Yeah," I told the guide, aware that sweat was flowing from my body as if I were a cloudburst unto myself. Pulau Tiga was just six degrees north of the equator. The heat and humidity were off the charts. "I like to run by myself."
"You shouldn't do that."
"I like to run alone. It helps clear my head." The run had lasted an hour. After jogging from bright beach sunlight through a portal into the jungle's thick shade, I'd established a loose rhythm and slowly increased my pace. The trails were spongy, except for the occasional Banyan roots. The jungle air was thick and wet, with the aromas of rot and growth combining for a fresh scent reeking of life itself. Too much life, maybe, for I could never totally relax. I kept my eyes glued to the trail, searching for the yellow and black bands of the poisonous krait. When the path abruptly detoured through a stagnant green stream, I slowed to watch my step more carefully. When the trail dead-ended in a shock of bamboo a few feet after that, I poked around awhile for its continuation.
A leaf grazed my shoulder. It was a very small leaf, and its touch was no more than a slight tickle. But my senses were so heightened that I leapt in the air and howled in terror, anxiously brushing the imagined snake back into the bush.
That's when I decided to head back to the beach. At least there I could see the snakes clearly. All in all, however, the run had been very calming. There's something primal about running through a jungle that centers me.
"It's not a good idea," Eric insisted.
"Yeah, I know, but..."
"You see, the pythons that live on the island grow to be 30 feet long and as big around as this." The guide held two calloused hands six inches apart, as if clutching an imaginary basketball. "They only eat once a month, but when they get hungry, they go to a tree branch above the trails. When they hear an animal coming they drop..."
"Drop? You mean, like, just fall?"
"Yes. They drop onto their prey. Since the pythons weigh about 300 pounds, the prey is stunned. Before it can recover, the python wraps it up, chokes it to death, then eats it." He stopped. A serene smile crossed his face. "That's why there are no more wild pigs on the island."
"So...do these pythons eat people?"
In a nutshell, that's the Borneo running experience: a little danger, a little paradise, a little common sense.
Don't Lose Your Head
Borneo, for the uninitiated, is not a country, but an island shared by Malaysian Brunei and Indonesia. It's just northwest of Australia and 600 miles southwest of Vietnam. Flights connect in daily from Taiwan and Malaysia. Terms like "wild man" and "cannibal" are still fresh in its history, and synonymous with Borneo. Once the jungle-covered land was a battlefield, where warriors ate their vanquished opponents. All that's illegal now, and the jungle has been pushed back in cities like Kota Kinabalu and Miri, replaced by resort hotels and golf courses.
But it's always there, the jungle. Green and thick and beckoning, laced with leeches and cobras and those monstrous pythons. And while some sections of jungle are no denser than an American forest, some are a virtual surroundsound panorama of trees and vines and insects and noise. The sights and sounds press in, reach out, fill the casual visitor with that claustrophobic dread only the jungle can induce.
Where To Run
Having said that, I can't wait to go back to Borneo. I like it for Kuching, a colonial outpost on the island's western edge. And for Mulu, where the massive limestone caves snake deep underground. Running in Kuching is easy, because the roads and Holiday Inn and modern accoutrements make for a smooth transition whenever I step from the modern world into jungle primitive.
Mulu takes a dash more courage. Dirt roads skirting the jungle make for an easy run, but the best is from the Mulu Resort to the mouth of the Mulu Caves on a jungle boardwalk built atop a swamp. I saw a human skull off to one side of that boardwalk a few years ago. In retrospect, my run was better for it, because I picked up the pace immediately.
Don't let the odd sight or sound put you off. Borneo is better for the adventure. Running there is a slow confrontation of personal fears. Just make sure to practice safety by running with a partner (actually not a bad idea anywhere in the world).
From Mulu, go to Miri by plane (always travel through Borneo by plane; roads take forever and are dirty and bumpy and driven chiefly by men whose Formula One aspirations were never fully realized). Miri is a bustling town, with nice hotels and open air markets and a refreshing lack of tourists. Run from the Holiday Inn or the Miri Resort into town, taking the time to enjoy the sights and smells and sounds. Carry cash in your sock to do some shopping mid-run, or maybe just grab a cold drink. Borneo is eminently affordable, perhaps one of the best travel bargains outside New Zealand.
Visit Bareo (another plane flight) and run the dirt roads connecting the jungle villages. Do speedwork on the soccer pitch built by British soldiers during World War II.
Finally, dash for Kota Kinabalu. Call it KK, just to sound local. Stay at the Magellan, where the spa offers a massage and the 50-meter pool makes for good cross-training. Run the golf course at dawn, before the golfers get up. Gaze out at the South China Sea as you run, because there are few lovelier places in the world to watch a sunrise than KK.
For a further dose of adventure, hire the Sea Quest VII for the two-hour boat ride to Pulau Tiga and see where "Survivor"'s first season was filmed. Run on the beach, where the sand is white and the water clear blue, and at least three or four times you'll shake your head in wonder. Because this paradise you're running about is Borneo, the land of the headhunters. Who would have dreamed this land of such grave danger could also be so perfect and wondrous?
And...if you choose to ignore everything Eric told me, and run in the jungle, watch out for those pythons.