When evolution gave humans their big frontal lobe, things became at once very interesting and decidedly uninteresting. It drove survival of our species into the realm of thought, which is invisible and not at all majestic. But before this, for many species, just biting something was top-of-the-line technology. How did it get that way?

I ask this now because I have just had one of the cat’s fangs plunge all the way into my thumb, and for an instant of white-hot pain I was on the wrong end of the same implements that the animal once used to maim a competitor or to kill food.

Why was my thumb in the way of the cat’s fangs? Apparently even hunters, the pinnacle of million-year refinement, get bronchial infections and need pharmaceuticals. I was trying to pry open the mouth of the cat to insert an eye-dropper full of antibiotics that are supposed to taste like mint, as if a cat cares what they taste like and as if mint were it.

This required trapping the animal in a kind of fake TV wrestling move on the floor. My method was to press in from each side of the mouth with thumb and forefinger until “Lily” couldn’t bear the pressure on her gums. Then she would snap her mouth open and I would squeeze the dropper in the miniscule timeframe in which this had a chance of working. This way I was able to get in a dose of something called Clavamox, which is manufactured by Pfizer in Hyderabad, most of which came back out of the cat straight away. There I sat with Lily gagging health all over me.

Suddenly my thumb slipped into her mouth and into my flesh went the fangs, to the hilt, as I mentioned earlier. The pain was beyond description, a satanic mix of avulsion (when flesh is torn away) and stabbing (penetration with a sharp or pointed object at close range). It is only a cat, yes, but my hand is only tissue and that little jaw can generate pressure well out of proportion to its size.

My hand was now stuck on the cat’s fangs and I was on the floor in a kind of pretzel configuration with Clavamox spraying everywhere and no way to let go easily. The cat was half under my left leg and trying to slink out backward while I was wedged up against the door frame for support.

So I took the natural course of action: panic. Panic is how I chose to deal with a leech attack in Borneo in 2009.  The animal had made its way onto my foot through leech boot, leech sock, and my new cargo pants. I ripped the leech off and my foot bled for four hours.

Now it was a cat’s fangs.

I jerked my hand out of Lily’s mouth and blood came streaming out with no interest in stopping. Lily is a Himalayan. I don’t know what that means except that her fangs are curved, like an Asian upland scimitar-type thing, rather than straight like a European-style pike. So the opening in my thumb was as long as the entire curve of the blade.

I sat there agape at the wound that the cat had just induced in my hand. But then the shock mysteriously evaporated, driven away by fascination at the process that gave this animal rigid, calcium scimitars in its mouth. These were tools aeons in the making, used to puncture, disable and then disassemble a far less well equipped being, all aided by equally destructive hooks protruding from each of twenty digits, and sometimes more if it’s one of those cats. I stared at my hand, transfixed as the blood radiated through the creases in my skin.

Charles Darwin found that when species are successful this is because random mutations in their form accumulated doggedly over immense time scales produce a favorable trait. Something that gives the animal an advantage, like enormous, sharp teeth. Reproduction passes the mutation on to offspring, a process finally mapped by Gregor Mendel in 1863. The offspring benefit from it in the same way that the parent did and in turn pass the trait on to their offspring, multiplying this modification exponentially until they outnumber whatever form of the species it was that initially produced them. Then they themselves become a “species”.

What causes the mutations then? Although environment appears to be the greatest source of pressure on living things, to say that evolution is simply adaptation to it misses the mark. The first life on this planet had to emerge, again, doggedly, from lifeless, organic molecules, which implies chance. The breeding ground was only part of it.

Are mutations then cosmically driven and therefore subject to the imperceptibly slow rate of change you would expect if baryonic matter, that is, the tangible stuff, is really only five percent of all the matter in a universe that has been expanding for 13.7 billion years at light speed at least? In miles that’s 13.7 billion times about about 6 trillion, or an 82.2 with twenty zeros after it.

Remember Carl Sagan sitting in a cave with a Geiger counter saying that cosmic rays from across the galaxy are piercing everything, all the time, including the cells in you and me right now, and that this causes mutation? If this is true, then at what rate? And are cosmic rays the only driver?

One standard answer for why mutations occur is still “errors introduced into the genetic code” as strands of DNA are unwound and strapped back together to make new strands by proteins in cell nuclei. What causes this, then? And why, if natural selection rewards favorable modifications, have successful species gone extinct unless something in their environment made their supposedly superior form unfavorable? Or was it just by more accidents of mutation that they then lost whatever element gave them the advantage and died a death as long and slow as their gradual rise?

What is certain is that somewhere long ago, an animal like a cat was born. It had slightly longer teeth than its predecessors and found that these longer teeth aided the ripping of the flesh of other animals, which put a meal into its mouth, which increased its chance of survival, which increased its chance of producing offspring with the same teeth. Over tremendous time scales these fangs grew into meat hooks, the sabre-toothed cat for example, whose sabre teeth were the key to success. The animal grew large and strong and lived a long time, until something changed.

We’re still trying to answer the question, “Why do living things change and how does this occur?” Current research being conducted in the tropics, where biodiversity is greatest, has found that some species may even be re-evolving traits that they once lost, which dramatically challenges the ‘one-way’ idea of evolution. It is likely that living things retain the genetic architecture that they have accumulated like a journal of this wandering process. Which would make every house cat still a wild predator inside, which seems to argue in favor of random mutation but still doesn’t answer why the mutations at all?

Cut to about 1,500 BCE. Sabre-toothed cats of any sort are long gone and Egyptians are mummifying their descendants. From that point, dispersion of cats as house pets follows civilization mundanely westward through the Hellenes and Latins, down to the animal that shredded my hand at about 9.30 this morning.

When I was growing up (no story about pets would be complete without a “when I was growing up”) we owned a large, black cat with white paws. The unimaginatively named “Sylvester” was the son, among 10 or 12 others, of a feral calico who we took off the street in 1976, called Lola. In Sylvester’s later life my mother would call him “the Thing from the Cellar” because he would retreat to this, his lair, every evening and maul any dog, in our case two extremely stupid setters, that dared poke their giant snouts down the stairs.

Sylvester was the heir of the entire sweep of evolution. But he was the last of his kind. What happened to me today, fang ripping flesh, instigated not by a struggle for survival in the cellar but by the routine administering to a house pet of a tri-hydrate amoxicillin clavulanate potasic something-or-other, was just an outburst perpetrated by an animal named for a flower that I’m allergic to. We’ve sought to administer nature and have rendered her fangs just something not to get stuck into your hand. What will we do with this power?


August 30, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

I’m checked into the Step-In Lodge, a backpacker dormitory near the waterfront in Kota Kinabalu. The doors to each level are locked with electro-magnets and if the clerk isn’t at the reception to hear you ring for an opening, you’re imprisoned in the stairwell. The stalls down on the street offer mounds of knock-off shoes and there is a giant shopping mall, Wisma Merdeka, serving Starbucks to bands of teenagers on forbidden dates.

“KK” is a Muslim, island city that looks back across the South China Sea to the Malay Peninsula. It has its own interpretation of modernity. It’s wired for broadband and AirAsia has dozens of flights each day from the Peninsula. But the men swagger more than a little and the women, who are always in hejab, keep to themselves. I make the mistake of ordering a beer at an eatery called Restoran Islam and the waitress shakes her head and gasps, “oh no”.

Kota Kinabalu is the nexus for travelers on Borneo and most passengers from the mainland de-plane here. Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia, dominates the Eastern horizon and on a clear day the Crocker Range is visible to the south.

In about 24 hours I will be entering Maliau Basin, a peculiar indent in the earth deep in the interior of Sabah state. The Basin is 25 kilometers across and the forest cover there represents perhaps the last true, old-growth rainforest in Southeast Asia. The list of flora and fauna supported by this habitat runs into the thousands. Bornean rhinoceros, pygmy elephant, and clouded leopard have all been recorded and there are eight species of the carnivorous pitcher plant.

To the west is Sarawak, the other Malaysian state on Borneo, and notched between Sabah and Sarawak is Brunei, a tiny sultanate built on oil. Although largely developed now, Sarawak still has populations of Penan hunter-gatherers who live several hours inland by logging road. When they do intersect society it’s not to exchange pleasantries. The timber industry invites riff-raff into delicate tribal areas the same way offshore oil invites it into fishing communities and Penan girls are often the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of loggers. Health workers regularly find family groups subsisting on sago palm and the children are commensurately malnourished.

Sabah forms the upper horn of this island world so rich in resources and the Maliau Basin Conservation Area, or “MBCA”, sits along its southern boundary. South of her is Kalimantan State, Indonesia. MBCA is now largely reserved for research, a desperate redoubt in a sea of commercial interests. Maliau has been called “The Lost World”, a reference to a story published in 1912 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about a plateau in the Amazon basin where evolution hangs suspended, permitting dinosaurs, Neanderthals and a kind of early Homo sapiens to live side by side.

To get to Maliau I will fly Malaysia Airlines’ local service, MASWings, on the twin-engine Fokker, which would have been better named Shakker, to the southern port city of Tawau. There I will transfer to 4×4 and be driven four more hours on logging roads. As one Australian diver I met here said, it’s “way off the map”. There will be no roads inside the Basin and I will have to travel with two rangers. Communication will be by VHF only.

To make the arrangements, I consulted several strings on Thorntree and all said exactly the same thing: this place is not easy to get to and the terrain is “Hell”. Several Skypes later I had lined up transport and ranger escort. I was originally calling the rangers “guides” but was quickly corrected by the manager at MBCA headquarters, who said “we prefer the term Ranger”. They also required a physical and proof of helicopter evacuation coverage.

 

September 1, Agathis Camp, Maliau Basin,  

 “It was, as seen from this height, of an oval contour, with a breadth of about thirty miles and a width of twenty. Its general shape was that of a shallow funnel, all the sides sloping down to a considerable lake in the center”

-The Lost World

I’ve been here at Agathis Camp, named for Agathis borneenthis, one of the gargantuan trees that thrive in the Basin, for three hours. This is the jumping-off point. There is rainforest all around, or more correctly, mixed dipterocarp forest, Greek for “two-winged fruit”. There are at least 70 species of dipterocarp here. The air is humid and the temperature is 20°C on the forest floor.

Maliau harbors flora with delightfully primordial names like the ‘strangling fig’, a heavy vine that winds itself up the trunk of its host like the threads of a giant corkscrew until the tree dies, falls, rots, and leaves the strangling fig still alive but laying across the forest floor like an enormous spring. Maliau is also very hospitable to leeches. As I walked along a narrow footpath of mossy terrain it was not 10 minutes before I had my first one.

A leech is innocuous and if you didn’t see it you wouldn’t know it was on you. But, where we tolerate mosquitoes, for some reason leeches horrify us. It’s probably their dark, wet shapelessness.

I arrived here this morning from Tawau, a small, boisterous city on the Sulu Sea, where I had flown yesterday from Kota Kinabalu. I was picked up there by the MBCA driver, Bromley, who stood out from everyone else I’d seen in Tawau in that he was tall. In fact he was giant and had a face that, with a mustache and the right sunglasses, could be made to look like the soldier who waves you over at a the checkpoint in places where it’s not entirely certain who operates the checkpoint. He said he had spent time in the military 20 years ago and that his service had taken him to Cambodia, which he still called “Campuchea”. He told me that he would like to trek with the rangers inside the Basin but, at 49, he was now too old. “If they cut the forest down I would leave the area,” he said.

Leaving Tawau on a paved two-lane road, we had passed a collection of corrugated aluminum dormitories behind barbed wire. This was one of the detention centers for Indonesians who cross the border from Kalimantan to work the palm plantations that are transforming the face of Borneo. The palm oil is rendered in colossal plants that fill the valleys with smoke. It is then sent to China. The oil palms are planted by the millions in a grid and stretch over rolling hills nearly all the way to the sea. From the road they look like an Earth-sized set of hair implants. The indigenous people of North Borneo, the Murut, Dusun and Penan, either refuse to participate in, or haven’t been asked to participate in, the desecration of their land and this is likely what attracts the illegals from Kalimantan.

Then, just outside Tawau, the road had abruptly turned to gravel and stayed that way for the next three hours. It was technically a logging road, an ominous contradiction in an area designated for conservation by Yayasan Sabah (the Sabah Foundation), the body in Kota Kinabalu that manages the southern interior forest of Sabah state.

Bromley appeared to believe that the absence of an actual road was no reason to slow down, however, and he admitted that in one round trip from Tawau he used an entire tank of petrol. He told me that eventually the gravel “highway” would be paved to bring more tourists into the rainforest. What they will experience is anyone’s guess. Large-scale tourism would burden the jungle just as badly as would unsustainable logging.

The Sabah State Legislative Assembly created Yayasan Sabah in 1966 to “improve the standard of living and education of Malaysians in Sabah”, endowing it with a 10,000-square-kilometer timber concession. Maliau is at its heart. The implication was that logging revenues would allow these improvements, and they have somewhat. A plaque on one of the observation towers outside the Basin announces that timber has been “very important” to the economy, furnishing up to 70 percent of revenues. But the newspaper also speaks of “timber barons”, suggesting a less altruistic motive. And Lonely Planet notes that only five percent of revenues actually come back to Sabah.

But now at Agathis, all that seems far away. The last 30 kilometers up here, on the Maliau Basin Access Road, a single-track, made it obvious why the only transport up here is by Land Cruiser. As soon as you cross the line dividing plantation and forest you’ve stepped back into the Miocene era. The road is either up or down over steep hills, and tree height instantly triples. This is the only way in legally. Poachers enter on foot through the jungle and, once inside, take whatever game or medicinal herbs they can find. They seek gaharu, a dense, fragrant wood prized on the black market as incense. They carve their names in a tree and then disappear. Sometimes they will come into the camps set up by Yayasan Sabah and ask for food. Rather than drive them away the rangers try to persuade them to give up illegal hunting, but to little avail.

Tomorrow at 7.30 am we will enter a time on earth that humans never new.

 

September 3, Ginseng Camp  

“I could testify that it was full of strange creatures, and I had seen several land forms of primeval life which we had not before encountered.”

-The Lost World

 Borneo is one of history’s chopping blocks and the last constructive influence was Islam 800 years ago. In the 20th century it was contested by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and, famously, Imperial Japanese troops, all against the backdrop of the Raj. When the Japanese invaded in 1941 they turned Borneo into an internment camp. Watching all this from a distance were scattered indigenous groups, the Murut, the Dusun, the fabled headhunters living deep in the interior.

After the war, the northern coast of the island returned to British Malaya. Then Kalimantan, the mountainous south, returned to Indonesia, both with a new sense of statehood. Putting two countries on one island has been less than amicable and accusations of cultural plagiarism fly back and forth across the border, typically over dances, music, and most recently batik, the intricately colored cotton wrap that serves as a global backpacker beach garment. The controversies are erupting into violence in Indonesia and the Star carries reports of vigilantes in Kalimantan and Jakarta seeking out and attacking Malaysian students.

The war and its aftermath never truly came out here except as prisoner marches or downed planes, and it’s not difficult to see why. The terrain simply wouldn’t allow it. We’ve been in the Basin for two days now. I was too exhausted to write yesterday and have spent all of my energy just trying to take in all that has happened. We’ve walked over 20 kilometers. My left foot is a bloody mess from a leech that found its way there after falling out of the folds of my pants as I undid my leggings. There is no electricity here. The generator is down and the night is coming on. If I had to describe where we are all I could say is that we are deep in a ravine, by a river, hidden by the canopy and surrounded by shrieking jungle. When I look beyond the camp all I see is tree and every dark recess contains something looking back.

When we left Agathis two days ago, we climbed out of the foetid lowlands into the cooler air of the plateau. The hardest part came first, which wasn’t the best placement for it. This was the wall of the southern escarpment, 300 meters up at 60 degrees. Here I had to accommodate myself for the first time to having mountainside right in front of my face as we ascended. In some places there were ladders and fixed ropes to get us up to the ridges and in others the path was little wider than our feet, falling away 20 or 30 meters on either side.

About 230 degrees of Maliau Basin, on the west, north and east walls, is circular, but the southern escarpment is broken by a plateau seven kilometers across and covered in lower montane and dipterocarp forest. Then at the higher elevations it becomes all montane and tropical heath, a misty, quiet wood choked with mosses and lichens. The ground is mud, leaves and roots that tangle themselves into a mossy bed thick with humus.

There were three of us, the lead ranger Lawrence, then myself, and after me the junior ranger, “JJ”.  Lawrence looked much younger than his 37 years and kept a brisk pace. He said he came from the Dusun people in the north of Sabah. About the trail he would say, “I prefer going up”, and at every rest stop would nonchalantly smoke a cigarette.

In my pack I had two changes of clothes, my papers, a point-and-shoot camera that proved useless, four packages of noodles, a package of almond biscuits, a tin of Penang curry, several packages of dried fruit, a fork, three flashlights, and an extra pair of shoes. I also carried several handfuls of spare batteries and my toiletries.

Now and then Lawrence would point out branches suddenly shaking violently overhead. This indicated common Borneo gibbon, a larger species that races through the canopy and rarely shows itself. Their call was a quick, low whooping, a warning that there were Gringos about. Immense coniferous trees swayed overhead, their crowns well out of sight. Some of them were over 200 years old, which made them contemporaries of Sir Francis Light, the first British governor of Penang. These trees can reach over 180 feet in height and it is their root systems that hold the mountains in place. That’s why deforestation is literally washing Borneo downriver.

Twenty million years ago Borneo was seafloor until crustal movement lifted it clear. The faults along which this movement occurred now form the Ring of Fire. One of these faults, at the boundary of the India Plate and the Burma Plate, produced the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. This same one just let go again off Sumatra too, nearly leveling Padang. The area now forming Maliau then became a river floodplain and this accounts for the layers of mudstone and deposit under the forest floor.

Crustal movement continued to buckle the surface, throwing up ridges and then rounding them into a circle. Then erosion took over, washing out the center and exposing the thick, jagged edges of substrate that we are now scaling. The whole island is in fact still being lifted out of the sea.

This is why Maliau is impassable. Whole sections of crust are falling away abruptly, in geological time. The Murut people live on the slopes of the northern escarpment and, even when they could get in to hunt, would have found it untenable to stay.

The Basin is also an enormous catchment. The flanks slope inward like a saucer, steering water and sediment south. Maliau has its own climate and rainfall is higher here than in the surrounding areas. The runoff escapes through one outlet in the southern wall, the Maliau River. This eventually joins the Kinabatangan River, which empties into the sea near Sandakan, on the east coast. All of the water in Maliau is tinted with tannins leached from the humus on the forest floor and the rivers all run the color of Lipton Tea.

Maliau Basin is true primary forest, the way the earth looked before humans. Walk 200 meters and you will see giant ants, termite nests as large as a sofa, and medicinal plants that have disappeared elsewhere on Borneo. In 1988 scientists discovered a previously unknown Rafflesia plant that had no roots, no stem and no leaves, surviving on its host as a parasite. Its appearance can only be described as urchin-like and bright orange. Maliau is one of the last two places on earth that this ‘plant’ survives now.

Unless you grew up here, unless you are Murut or Dusun and have this place in your blood, entering this environment is akin to a sea voyage. You are no longer on stable ground. Everything about your condition is your responsibility. You are imprisoned in a regimen of just keeping the jungle off of you. You must constantly inspect your clothing for parasites. Shake out your shoes for scorpions before you put them on. Hydrate endlessly. Unpack your whole pack to find one item that is suddenly necessary, a tool or clothing item, and then re-pack the lot.

Last night I ate one of my ramen kits for dinner. Every country in Southeast Asia has its own range of ramen kits complete with flavor packet. In Malaysia this is either ayam laksa, which appears to be for people who like their fish off, or “kari” (curry), which is for people who like their fish slightly less off. The difference in flavor appears to be effected by altering the amount of MSG. Then I tried to sleep, contorted by pain in my feet and shoulders. The journey up onto the Southern Plateau was over, and so was I, nearly. I listened quietly to Lawrence and JJ talking late into the night.

Then today we woke at 6.30 am, washed, cooked, and packed. The air was cool and the ground was wet from overnight rain. A rat had eaten part of my soap. I had my tea, an almond biscuit, and some figs and then we were off to Ginseng, six kilometers due east at the hub of Maliau’s trail network. We struck out into heath forest on a trail no wider than our legs. It was a balancing act just to stay upright while squeezing between heavy mounds of mossy undergrowth. A bright morning sun filtered through the mist and the pitcher plants grew thicker in a latticework pattern, like a spider’s web. We were literally enveloped in growing things.

The trail led east and slightly upward. According to the map we were at 900 meters and headed toward the Maliau Gorge. After about two hours we reached wide montane forest and the air freshened. Here the trees were agathis, belian, and soraya, all colossal and stately.

We were travelling along steep ridges on the eastern extremes of the southern plateau and in the distance I could see the eastern rim of the Basin. After four hours we were at the mouth of a ravine that would take us down to Ginseng.

Then Lawrence stopped suddenly, something he did when he sensed movement in the trees. As a ranger he was trained to count the animals he saw and report this back to the Maliau Basin Studies Center, 20 kilometers to the east. Normally I would never see what he was looking at and would just wait for him to give the signal to keep walking. But this time I saw it. About 50 meters away, high in the canopy, a heavy bough in an agathis tree was shaking violently and seemed to be laughing. Then three red objects shot across an opening between branches. They were maroon langur, commonly known as red leaf monkeys, and had probably smelled us before we had even come over the horizon. Then they disappeared into the canopy.

The sight of wild primates at a distance was actually sharper than seeing them in a zoo because their behavior was authentic. You see them in natural motion with their arms and legs flexing, and in their form you see humans.

Then the trail turned almost straight down on one of the steepest descents yet. My feet were raw and blistered, but down we went. Soon the rush of Ginseng Falls, another of Maliau’s hundreds of waterfalls, came into earshot and thirty minutes later we were in the camp, a collection of stilt houses in a tiny clearing that clung for all it was worth the side of the ravine.

I asked Lawrence why he did this job.

“Because I like to see the wildlife”, he says.

“I like to be in the forest.”

At 37 he was probably older than the average trekker but younger than the scientists who’ve studied the basin. Lawrence was Dusun, a people who now live around Ranau high in the Crocker Rage, which runs east to west across Sabah. That name, Ranau, is infamous beyond Borneo. The Japanese marched over five thousand British and Australian prisoners to their deaths there. There were others sites too, Jesselton, now Kota Kinabalu, and Sandakan, now a place for luxury dive tours. But Ranau was one of the worst. As the Japanese Forces advanced down the Malay Peninsula – on bicycles – the British commander, Henry Wavell, retreated. On Borneo the British were cut off and captured. They were forced to march through the jungle carrying sacks of rice. The marches continued well into 1945 and there are tales of summary executions even after the Japanese surrender.

From prisoner trains to nature treks in 70 years. As we walk, are our legs brushing the same bushes as theirs did? When you’re marching through the jungle with a 60lb sack of rice on your back, no shoes, and a rifle pointed at you do you note that the place you’re marching through is the very cradle of biodiversity?

There are strict guidelines for entering Maliau on scientific business: No taking of samples without permission, and that applies to everything, stones, leaves, wood, insects, and vegetation of any kind, and positively no hunting. One expedition proposal housed back at Agathis Camp stipulated that samples be lodged with Malaysian institutions. Full stop.

Funded by IKEA, the Maliau Basin Studies Center is where master-level students come to learn about MBCA’s rare fauna and flora. It’s a living program with rangers like Lawrence constantly bringing data out of the forest. The rangers are denizens of the Basin themselves and can deduce life from a gust of wind or a falling leaf. I watched Lawrence mimic the sound of the hornbill by placing a leaf between his lips and playing it like a woodwind. And for that instant he was a hornbill.

Tomorrow we will see the great Maliau Falls.

 

 “The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there’s no room for romance anywhere.” 

-The Lost World

 In 1947, a British airman flying across Sabah came suddenly upon a giant ring of cliffs reaching to 1,500 meters. This was the northern escarpment of Maliau Basin and was still terra incognita. From the air it looked like the edge of a massive, upturned seashell.

None of the extant materials on this event name the pilot and they don’t say why he was flying that route. The only account readily available is in a large hardcover for sale at the MBCA Study Center, Maliau Basin: Sabah’s Lost World, by Hans P. Hazebroek, Tengku Zainal Adlin and Waidi Sinun.

“In 1947 the Borneo Bulletin reported that the pilot of a light aircraft had only just avoided crashing into then uncharted cliffs on the Basin’s northern rim.”

The war had just ended and the interior of Borneo was still unexplored. The Murut people had hunted wild pig and collected medicinal herbs here, and there were records of attempts to build a railway past the southern plateau in 1906, but no one knew the scope of this perplexing geological feature. The Murut named it maliau, meaning muddy, a possible reference to the color of the water according to Hazebroek.

Doyle’s work appeared to have acquired a location. Maliau quickly became known as Borneo’s “lost world”. Sporadic surveys approached the Basin in the 1960s and 70s, and in 1976 a team of botanists tried to enter from the north but failed. In 1980 another expedition was “turned back by malaria and lack of supplies”. Then in 1981 Yayasan Sabah designated Maliau a protected area for “research, education, and training” and finally got a team in.

Hazebroek, Adlin, and Sinun write:

 “Yayasan Sabah dropped off teams by helicopter on the northern rim. These teams demarcated the boundary of the conservation area and cut three helipads, enabling a survey team to go in by helicopter in 1982.”  

To this day Maliau Basin remains only partially explored.

 

I first read “The Lost World” as an adult and felt foolish afterward. It seemed a blast of Edwardian propeller wash about Englishmen in the jungle complete with dinosaurs. Were it not for Doyle’s incredulity at his own characters, his sheer joy at insulting them to their face, the work would be unreadable. Edward Malone, a young newspaperman, is keen to impress his love interest, Gladys, who seems to calculate his worth by how willing he is to risk his life in order to thrill her. To this end he seeks out Professor Challenger, a brilliant but unpredictable scientist and hero of Doyle’s Challenger Series. Malone thinks that association with this volatile personage would provide an opportunity to deliver on Gladys’s wish.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection would have still been heresy and, through Challenger, who communicates with fellow scientists solely in pronouncements on his own superiority, Doyle seems to be suggesting that evolution is only for people so smart that they are in fact deranged by their own intelligence.

Professor George Edward Challenger is wide and short and has has “no neck”. He is incapable of preventing himself from assaulting anyone who doubts his assertions and particularly enjoys hurling journalists out of his office. On a personal expedition he has been to a terrible jungle in the Amazon where flying creatures that apparently aren’t birds occasionally swoop down from a raised formation. He operates on an account by an obscure American traveler named Maple White, who had been to the formation ahead of Challenger and had left sketches before dying in a remote village. Challenger has obtained these sketches and the stage is now set for another expedition.

At a meeting of the “Zoological Institute”, possibly a reference to the Royal Society, Challenger literally causes a riot when he asserts that dinosaurs still inhabit this plateau and, to prove it, proposes that he go back to find this place. Malone is in the audience and signs on as scribe. Also in tow will be Challenger’s nemesis, Professor Summerlee, and the moneyed hunter-adventurer Lord John Roxton, whose job will obviously be to operate any firearms that need operating when the dinosaurs become thick.

For effect, Challenger crosses the Atlantic on a separate ship and reunites with his companions in Manaus. They then travel for several weeks through the undergrowth, sometimes covering a hundred and twenty miles in the span of one sentence. According to the “Indians”, the place is inhabited by an evil spirit, Curupuri.

Challenger’s party arrives at the base of the plateau and a pterodactyl then indeed appears overhead, carrying off a pig that they had just roasted. The party then ascend the plateau and almost immediately spot what they had come for. Doyle’s dinosaurs are gleefully stupid, emitting “a mephitic, horrible, musty odor”.

Challenger and the party are then chased by hideous frog-like creatures, are hunted and imprisoned by a kind of Neanterthal race, and then engineer a revolt against this Neanderthal race by the squeamish, proto-homo-sapiens race that the Neanderthals had been hurling off cliffs for fun. The name Darwin appears several times and Challenger may be referring to him indirectly when, upon seeing the fresh tracks of an iguanadon, says that he had seen them before, fossilized in the “Wealden Clay”, in England, where they had “puzzled a worthy Sussex doctor some ninety years ago”. Darwin lived in Sussex for a time, but not in the 1820s, when Challenger places him there.

Although The Lost World is grade-school, it is still eerily predictive of Maliau. On Doyle’s plateau, “The ordinary laws of Nature are suspended. The various checks which influence the struggle for existence in the world at large are all neutralized or altered. Creatures survive which would otherwise disappear”.

Thousands of environments on earth today bear these characteristics but none so markedly as Maliau. In a time when old-growth forest has been cut into planks and stacked on the shelves of home improvement superstores it’s all the more remarkable that Maliau preserves the last communities of species that hang on the edge.

 

 Maliau Falls, Final day 

 “How shall I ever forget the solemn mystery of it?  The height of the trees and the thickness of the boles exceeded anything which I in my town-bred life could have imagined, shooting upwards in magnificent columns until, at an enormous distance above our heads, we could dimly discern the spot where they threw out their side-branches into Gothic upward curves which coalesced to form one great matted roof of verdure, through which only an occasional golden ray of sunshine shot downwards to trace a thin dazzling line of light amidst the majestic obscurity.”

-The Lost World 

 It’s evening and we’re preparing for the descent of the southern plateau tomorrow, back to Agathis Camp where our journey started four days ago. We’ve walked 30 kilometers. I’ve taken in my washing and have organized my pack, which is hanging from the rafters to deny the rats floor access to my soap.

Today we did an eleven-kilometer round trip to Maliau Falls, a torrent of dark water cascading over seven pools carved over a million years. This was the most difficult terrain since the trip up onto the plateau three days ago. It began with a steep climb out of the ravine containing Ginseng Camp and then proceeded through broken montane forest, before descending into Maliau Gorge. The trail was nothing more than a narrow muddy shoulder etched into the rock face.

The gibbon had decided to send us off this morning with their customary warning. In the right conditions this call can be heard for two kilometers and we had front row seats. Then, just before descending into Maliau Gorge, I unearthed a large black scorpion, not a remarkable event except that we had all been posing for photographs just inches from its lair.

This was on the bald ridgetop forming one of the first helipads in Maliau. It was a testament to the ruggedness of the terrain that this place to land a helicopter was little wider than the skids.

This spot furnishes a famous 230-degree view of the northern escarpment, the only place where you can see the entire curve of the Basin’s northern wall with the naked eye. It is a snapshot of how the infinitesimally slow processes of riverine deposit, compression, uplift and crustal movement created a circle, revealing order in the massive, and massively chaotic, forces churning the Earth’s surface.

Tomorrow we trek nine kilometers out of the basin, back to Agathis Camp. The trail will be “flat, down, flat, down”, Lawrence says. I’m ready to leave. Maliau Basin is meant to remind us how fragile is our situation, and also that it is not for us. Doyle’s plateau in the Amazon only occurred away from humans, hidden by geology and jungle. But we’ve conquered both now, and we throw away the spoils. When Edward Malone returns to London with the story of the century, Gladys has forgotten about him and married a clerk. Challenger unleashes a pterodactyl in the halls of the Zoological Institute and it promptly flies off to an ignominious fate, drowning in the Atlantic.