Last week I was fortunate enough to see the premiere of ITV’s new documentary, Wild Borneo Adventure featuring Judi Dench on a David Attenborough-style expedition observing some of the oldest rainforests in the world.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s pretty cool but what on earth has this got to do with travel?
It’s a well-known fact that documentaries about faraway places inspire the imagination and watching the magical landscape of Borneo unfold on the screen definitely ignited a sense of adventure. But, perhaps most importantly, the documentary revealed just how crucial these rainforests are for our planet and although they may appear mighty, they are so very fragile. We can’t travel if there’s nothing to travel to, and at a time when climate change is a very real threat to our planet, it’s important to raise awareness of just how vital the rainforests of Borneo are for the continuation of the earth as we know it.
A bit about Borneo’s rainforests
As I’ve already mentioned, the rainforests of Borneo are some of the oldest in the world. In fact, they’re estimated to be approximately 130 million years old. To put that into perspective, they’re so ancient that they were around the same time dinosaurs walked the earth. Known as ‘the lungs of the world,’ these incredible rainforests soak up more carbon dioxide than trees in the Amazon rainforest, according to the Journal of Ecology. They’re effectively slowing down climate change by reducing the amount of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.
The rainforests are also home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world with creatures including dung beetles, crocodiles, sun bears, elephants, cloud leopards and of course, orangutans. Sadly, this wonderful world is under threat. Palm oil plantations and deforestation have contributed to more than 30% rainforest loss since 1973 and if this continues it will cause irrevocable damage to the surrounding wildlife as well as the planet.
Palm oil’s catch-22
Palm oil contributes to the loss of rainforest and the slow extinction of the orangutan. Palm oil plantations also absorb far less CO2 than rainforests so you could argue that they’re accelerating rather than inhibiting climate change. However, the answer isn’t as simple as cutting palm oil out altogether. It’s in quite literally in everything from toothpaste to shampoo and a huge amount of food products.
As destructive to the environment as it is, palm oil may still be the best alternative we have. No other crop can yield even a third as much oil per acre planted. So, environmental NGOs warn against boycotting it as it would mean shifting the same problems onto another commodity. Let’s also not forget the important fact that the industry gives people jobs and boosts the economies of the countries that share Borneo (Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei). So, it’s a catch-22. Either stop using palm oil and carry on the destruction somewhere else or keep using it and sacrifice the rainforests. Both paths lead to destruction.
All is not lost thanks to the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP)
Founded by the Royal Society in 1985, SEARRP facilitates world-class scientific research that addresses the major environmental issues facing the tropics: habitat restoration, plantation development and climate change. In this documentary about Borneo, SEARRP showcase, as its Director Dr Glen Reynolds says “how, with our partners in Malaysia, we are working to study and protect rainforests and demonstrate the critical role they play in regulating the earth’s climate, maintaining biodiversity and supporting human livelihoods and wellbeing”.
SEARRP collaborate with leading universities and local partners to make palm oil production more sustainable without sacrificing the rainforests or the farmers’ livelihoods. Their ultimate aim is to provide the knowledge necessary to provide changes in the palm oil industry that will halt deforestation, biodiversity loss and carbon emissions while improving the rights and livelihoods of people working in or affected by the industry. It’s a complex problem but I believe they will find a solution. There’s no other option.
Watching Wild Borneo Adventure has definitely inspired me to put the island on my bucket list. Who wouldn’t want to spot wild orangutans high up in 1000-year-old trees? So, if like me you’ve been inspired to see this wonderful place, here are a few tips to get you started:
About Borneo: Borneo is the world’s third biggest island and the territory is divided between the countries of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. The two Eastern Malaysian states, Sarawak and Sabah (the area Judi Dench visits) are in the north surrounding Brunei while the Indonesian state of Kalimantan occupies most of the centre and southern part of the island.
Best time to visit: Borneo is a hot and humid place. The dry season falls between May and October whereas the monsoon season tends to hit November and February each year. If you find heat and humidity a struggle then the monsoon season is an ideal time as it will give you some respite. However, if you have an action-packed trip planned then heavy rainfall can hinder it considerably and may even cause flight and boat cancellations.
Wildlife spotting: As I’ve mentioned before, Borneo is home to the most incredible wildlife from pygmy elephants to orangutans. It’s surrounding waters also have an abundance of marine life including turtles and clownfish. If you want to make the most of this incredible biodiversity, do an eco-tour of the rainforest or visit an ethical sanctuary dedicated to helping and rehabilitating the animals.
Food and drink: Bornean food comprises of a mix of world-class cuisines – Indonesian, Malaysian and Indian- with a few regional alterations. Their famous Hawkers markets have stalls around a central eating area. Order a variety of nibbles from different vendors before sitting at a table and scoffing the lot.
Where to stay: Borneo has an exciting range of accommodation that promises to make your trip extra memorable. From treetop lodges to guesthouses, hostels and resorts, they have everything for all budgets. Make sure you spend at least one night in an ecolodge in the rainforest because there’s a very real chance you might see up to nine different primates, crocodiles, butterflies and rare birds!
Borneo promises an adventure beyond our wildest dreams. In the words of Dame Judi herself “I’ve learnt how vulnerable this wonderful place is and what we need to do to save it. […] This trip has been the most extraordinary time of my life”. So, why not add this incredible island to your bucket list? And if, like me, you can’t quite manage to squeeze in the time or money just yet, grab a cup of tea, get comfy and watch Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure. That’ll do… For now.
Judi Dench’s Wild Borneo Adventure is on ITV on Tuesday 2 July at 9pm. There will be two episodes in the series.
Thanks for reading,