I flicked the 10th leech from my left sock before noticing the blood soaking my midsection. Seven fat leeches had feasted there, and they were now dropping off one by one. But who can complain—this comes with the territory when you are in one of the earth’s last great rain forests. Surely it is worth a little discomfort for the opportunity to see wild orchids hanging from branches, rhinoceros hornbills perched on majestic trees, and a monolithic summit shrouded in mist. I was in Indonesian Borneo—Kalimantan—climbing a mountain called Gunung Bondang.
Gunung Bondang has both incredible biodiversity and special cultural significance. The mountain itself is sacred to local Dayak communities, and their mythology tells of a monster or demon that used to visit the mountain and consume human flesh. To this day, rituals are still observed to protect those climbing the mountain (and it is seldom climbed by anyone other than the locals). Too small to attract the mountaineering crowd, and too remote to attract most wildlife enthusiasts, Gunung Bondang has had little contact with the outside world. Logging is also taboo upon the mountain, which has inadvertently led to its conservation. Surrounded by slash and burn agriculture and palm oil plantations, Gunung Bondang is truly an isolated ark of biodiversity. It is one of many mountains on the periphery of what has been called “the heart of Borneo”—the central region of Borneo where much of the rainforest is both intact and impenetrable.
I had the exciting opportunity to serve as the photographer on a month-long scientific expedition organized by the Heart of Borneo Rainforest Foundation. Our research team, made up of young British and Indonesian scientists, was studying the biodiversity of the mountain. The team’s goal was to survey the vegetation and the animal life at different elevations. We had set up camp in the rainforest and were living under a large tarp about four hours from the summit. From that base, we explored the forest by day and night.
Gaining permission to climb the mountain was not a simple task, since we needed approval from the local community leaders. Luckily, they were excited to have us there and permission was gained after we worked out payment for the guides and cooks we would hire from among the villagers. Because of the mountain’s significance, we each had to participate in a ceremony conducted by the village spiritual leader–called the Kepala Adat—before we set foot above a certain elevation. I sat in awe as he waved a live chicken over my head to appease the mountain spirits. Later on, after the unfortunate death of the chicken, our heads were anointed with an unknown liquid and some wet grains of rice were pressed on our foreheads.
It was our third day on the mountain when we decided to hike to the summit. The trail we took followed a ridge that dropped off steeply on both sides. The route eventually got so steep that I used my arms as much as my legs to move forward. We passed through lowland rainforest, hill forest, montane forest, and eventually moved into wet and spongy mossy forest near the top. My feet kept falling through holes in the seemingly solid moss and I took to crawling through a maze of trees and roots. Pitcher plants hung from branches and carpeted the ground.
The summit was cloaked in mist when we arrived after several hours of slipping and sliding. At the top, our guides invited us to sit down while they made an offering to the gods. They built a small fire, tossing rice, tobacco, and a bunch of herbs into the swirling smoke. I sat nearby, pulling leeches off my boots, and reflecting on what I had seen on the way up – light pouring through giant trees and dew glistening on thick moss. As the fragrant smoke vanished in the mist, I could not help but think that the world would be better off if we held more natural areas in such high esteem – that we just might have more forests like this one left.