FINDING ORANGUTANS, THE WORLD’S LARGEST FLOWER, AND YOUR INNER ROAD WARRIOR IN THE HEART OF THE MALAYSIAN RAIN FOREST.
You guys aren’t scared of leeches, right?” The sun was barely up, I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee, and already I was risking a close-up with bloodsuckers in the heart of Malaysian Borneo. But photographer Tom Parker and I were on the hook for a float down the river—what’s the worst that could happen? “If you get one on you, just pick it off,” said our guide for the day, Romuald. “Besides, they won’t drain all your blood at once.” This advice would have been more reassuring had it not come from a guy who, just the night before, was bitten by a dog-toothed cat snake shortly after dinner. Still, we pressed on, slashing through dense rain forest for 20 minutes until we hit the put-in point on the river, flopped onto our tubes, and began a slow drift under thick jungle fog and dangling vines. It was silent but for the shuffle of leaves as the long-tailed macaques danced through the canopy. By the time we got back to our hotel, Kawag Danum Rainforest Lodge, I’d only picked up two small leeches, which Tom plucked right off my neck. Not bad for a Friday morning in the middle of nowhere.
But let me back up. Most people can’t pinpoint Borneo on a map, and even well-traveled friends who learned about my trip didn’t realize it’s divided between three different nations. Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia all share the island, one of the world’s largest, which bridges the South China Sea and the South Pacific and sits between the Philippines and Indonesia’s Java and Sumatra. Once seen as a prize by colonial powers, including the Dutch and English, the island remains a melting pot of Chinese, Malay, and European influences. (A majority of the population is Muslim, though in the Malaysian parts, as much as a third is Christian.) The name Borneo itself is as evocative as Papua New Guinea or São Tomé and Príncipe, places that you’ve maybe seen in an old National Geographic and figured you’d never visit.
To be honest, it was never on my list either, until I met the founder of Nomadic Road, a travel company that intends to open up the most remote corners of the world with obsessively planned driving expeditions. Its founder, a 33-year-old Mumbaiker who goes by the mononym Venky, spent years coordinating press junkets and itineraries for Mahindra, one of India’s top off-road-vehicle manufacturers. But for the past 18 months, he’s been leading guests across Mongolia, through the Icelandic countryside, and to Mount Everest base camp in convoys of 4x4s like Land Rover Defenders and Ford Rangers. “The vehicle is part of the experience, but it isn’t the experience,” Venky says. “Every destination has a different set of wheels.”
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At the heart of his concept is a bit of road-trip alchemy: You drive yourself, so the rush of conquering the Himalayas or Gobi Desert is all yours. But Venky’s team handles the logistics, like mapping out the route, getting permits for backcountry access, and booking obscure lodges you’d never find on your own, so there’s a built-in safety net. This fusion makes trips by turns serendipitous and preplanned, a blend of anything-goes adventure and the clock-watching precision of a big-ship cruise. I’d signed on for a weeklong circuit through the Malaysian state of Sabah, in northern Borneo, that called for long days of driving, broken up by stays in bare-bones jungle lodges deep in primary rain forest, where orangutans, pygmy elephants, and all manner of biting insects dwell. To be honest, it sounded more like a slog than a vacation—but then I heard about the bragging rights: We’d be the first group of outsiders ever to drive ourselves across Sabah using logging roads, dirt tracks through palm oil plantations, and other rarely used routes. Hard-core, I thought—but surely worth it.
The Kinabatangan River near Sukau Rainforest Lodge.
For our traveling party, of 13, Venky had coordinated a set of five four-door, diesel-fueled Toyota Fortuner SUVs, with 4×4 shifters on the floor, coolers of cold drinks in the back, and stashes of prawn chips and roasted peanuts in the center consoles. Running sweep for our convoy was a beefy Toyota Hilux pickup, driven by our local guides, Roy and Adrian, and stacked with equipment—including an enormous supply of Tiger beer that we’d tap after long road days. Each vehicle also had a radio, and it took about five seconds for all of us to start abusing the privilege, talking like we were in Top Gun with lingo like “roger,” “copy,” and “Nomad 4 to Nomad 1, come back.”
From Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s frenetic, traffic-clogged capital, we set off east for Kinabalu National Park, stopping at stripped-down, cement-floor roadside cafés for cups of kopi (thick, strong coffee). We broke for lunch at Poring Hot Springs, a miniresort with swimming pools and a café serving Malaysian stir-fry and noodles. Here, our group eased into conversation about past travels, in the way strangers on the same itinerary do in order to take the measure of each other’s mettle. Only Hemant, a soft-spoken anesthesiologist from India, had done a Nomadic Road drive before. (All the other guests on this trip happened to be from India, where Nomadic Road is based, though Venky says he’s had travelers from all over.) Hemant’s expedition to Laos was, he said, fairly insane: smashing over rough roads, fording rivers. And yet, here he was, back for more. “I just love off-road driving,” he said. Then there was Ram, who recounted how, on a sightseeing flight in Alaska, he’d ended up in the Beechcraft’s copilot seat and taken the controls while the captain egged him on. (“The Canadians were puking the whole time,” he said, chuckling at the memory.) I’d always considered myself well traveled and adventurous. These people were next-level.
Which was a good thing. As we pressed deeper into the countryside, the roads narrowed, guardrails vanished, and tailgaters—buzzing motorbikes and huge trucks carrying palm oil—multiplied. Stray dogs, who occasionally darted across the road, patrolled the shoulders (where there were shoulders). But these sorts of challenges are all part of the fun, said Venky’s friend Rahul, who was also along for the ride. The pair met in 2016 while driving from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India, a 3,418-mile, 16-day expedition that Venky helped plan. It started poorly: They were delayed by a terrorist attack, and Venky had to coordinate with local cops to sneak their 25-vehicle convoy through a Himalayan tunnel to get back on schedule. That he faced this as a logistical puzzle rather than a monumental disaster speaks volumes about both his left-brain cunning and calm resolve under pressure.
A rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, nearing Poring Hot Springs.
Those traits came in handy on our expedition too. One afternoon, after hours of slogging across gullies and rock-strewn roads in the Imbak Canyon Conservation Area, one of our Fortuners had the rear right tire blow out. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t have been a problem—our SUVs were crammed with spares, jacks, and tow ropes—but there was nothing we could do about the thunderous tropical downpour that swirled in and turned the road to soup as Rahul and Roy worked to change the tire. A handful of us pressed on, and later that night, Venky pulled up next to me at an intersection and rolled down his window. “This is the adventure you promised us!” I yelled through the deluge. “More than we expected!” he hollered back, managing a smile despite it all. As soon as we reached the riverside Sukau Rainforest Lodge, having driven nearly 300 miles, I collapsed into my twin bed.
Unfortunately, morning on the river starts before sunrise, when the boatmen fire up the outboards and the hornbills start squawking and the rustle of leaves hints at the primates feeding in the canopy. At our lodge, set on stilts above the floodplain, guests were tramping down the boardwalk to breakfast—a few German tourists toting binoculars, older Brits on a quest to tick off their birding lists—when there was a sighting: a mother orangutan and her baby, swinging through the branches just past the pool. Forks were dropped, cameras grabbed, and most everyone made a dash to see the pair feeding on tender leaves above one of the suites. Me? I was too beat from so much driving to move. For all my bravado about wanting to rip up the roads and return home with some holy-shit stories, the miles were starting to add up.
Thankfully, Venky had built a rest day into our schedule, and there was no better place for it than here, with little to do besides head out on cruises in small wooden boats looking for proboscis monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, pygmy elephants, and rare birds like the storm stork. After four days on the road—snacking on cuttlefish puffs and other iffy gas-station food, hundreds of miles of forest, the endless downshifting to power up spine-rattling hills—letting someone else take the controls was a luxury. As I coasted down the river, it finally clicked for me that the point of this trip wasn’t just the occasionally thrilling and at times monotonous driving, but the privilege of being here at all—at the edge of the map, in one of the world’s last virgin rain forests, where you can’t even have breakfast without an orangutan interrupting you.
Contributing photographer Tom Parker and articles editor Paul Brady on the road, captured by drone.
Now I was all in. I charged into the Gomantong Caves, a stunning network of caverns swirling with millions of bats and swiftlets, where the air is thick with humidity and ammonia—by-products of all those cave dwellers—and the guano-covered ground crawls with cockroaches. I pulled over to see a rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, in full bloom—measuring a foot across and smelling like rotting flesh. I climbed through the canopy on rickety rope bridges that would make Indiana Jones stop short. I paid a guy to hack open a pungent durian fruit with a machete so I could taste it. (That one I’d like to take back.) And I drove hundreds of miles, through the raw and wild Imbak Canyon and the electric-green Danum Valley and other strange places I never dreamed I’d see. “We take you on roads that normal people don’t use,” Venky had told me. Then, just hours after I got home, he texted: “Getting ready for Patagonia and the launch of the 2019 season!” Wouldn’t I like to come with him to Lake Baikal in March? It was, he promised, going to be wild.
Need to know
It’s easy to underestimate just how much you’ll be at the wheel. In a week plus, we covered about 750 miles, which would be like driving from Chicago to Philadelphia. And while we hit highway speeds on a few stretches, many of the miles were fairly slow going, on rough roads. Also know that in Borneo, the steering wheel is on the right and you drive on the left.
Where you’ll stay
Nomadic Road booked all our accommodations along the way, and though they were often the best available in a given place, they were basic, if clean. Most had wall-mounted water heaters and AC, but little else in terms of comfort; it wouldn’t be crazy to BYO snacks, drinks, bath products, and even pillows. Some places had Wi-Fi, but fill that iPad and Kindle before you go.
Malaysia’s cross-cultural cuisine can be epic: We had a lot of stir-fried fish, curried chicken, and prawns in chili sauce; some lodges did mee goreng (wok-fried noodles) and nasi lemak (coconut rice with curry chicken, peanuts, dried anchovies, and sambal), both of which are Malaysian classics. (Though many lodges have limited options, owing to their isolation.) It’s advisable to avoid tap water and even use filtered water to make instant coffee (or tea) with an electric kettle.
What to pack
Among the essentials I brought—or wish I had—were tough water shoes for tubing and river swimming, a headlamp, a vest or jacket for cooler nights in the mountains, rain gear that’s rated for the tropics, a few freeze-dried meals (just in case), plus extra instant coffee, and a water purification gadget like the SteriPen. If you’re even a tiny bit interested in wildlife, a legit zoom lens (with a focal length of at least 100 mm) and binoculars are two must-haves.