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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/February 1915/Botanizing Excursions in Borneo

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 86‎ | February 1915

BOTANIZING EXCURSIONS IN BORNEO
By Professor D. H. CAMPBELL

STANFORD UNIVERSITY

WITH ships plying to the remotest lands, it is now a comparatively simple matter for the traveler to visit almost any part of the tropics. Indeed, these fascinating regions are now so easily reached that it is becoming difficult to find any country that has not been exploited to such an extent that much of the original vegetation, and with it the rarer animal forms, have been exterminated.

The planter of tea and coffee, of rubber and bananas, sweeps away the jungle in all the more accessible regions, and the traveler often must make long and arduous Journeys before he can see the country in its pristine state.

However, there are still many places of comparatively easy access which richly repay the scientific traveler for any slight inconveniences to which he may be subjected.

No part of the world is richer in interesting forms of life, both animal and vegetable, than portions of the East Indies, especially the great Malayan Archipelago. Java with its unrivaled luxuriance of vegetation and magnificent scenery, is now on the regular tourist route, and is familiar to many travelers, scientific and otherwise. The larger sister islands, Borneo and Sumatra, are not so often visited by the tourist, and still contain large tracts of unexplored country. When as a small boy I first read Wallace's wonderful book on the Malay Archipelago, I determined that some day I should see for myself the wonders of these far-off islands in the Eastern Seas. In 1905-06 a sabbatical year gave me my first experience of this beautiful region, and, so satisfactory was that visit, that I looked forward to my next sabbatical leave to renew my acquaintance with the East Indies and to extend my explorations to Sumatra and Borneo which I had not visited on my first trip.

Much the greater part of the huge island of Borneo is still an unknown wilderness whose wild inhabitants render it a perilous region for the explorer. The coastal region is fairly accessible and there is no great difficulty in reaching the main ports. Dutch Borneo, comprising the major part of the island, has been but little exploited when compared with the extraordinary development of Java.

The rest of the island, except the small native state of Bruni, is under British influence, although not strictly British territory. A recent visit to Sarawak proved to be full of novelty and interest, as in some respects the country is unique.

The story of the young Englishman, James Brooke, who became Rajah of Sarawak, reads like the most exciting romance. Under his wise but firm rule, and that of his nephew and successor, the present Rajah, Sir Charles Brooke, who was closely associated with his uncle in the stirring events which accompanied the pacification of the country, a territory as large as England has been redeemed from absolute anarchy and has become a peaceful and prosperous community. Formerly a nest of pirates and head-hunters, where no man's life or property was safe, Sarawak is now a contented and thriving country where the rights of the humblest native are scrupulously safeguarded.

In this remote island these two Englishmen have ruled as absolute monarchs over a mixed population of Malays, Chinese, Dayaks and various other savage tribes, who all now recognize their indebtedness to the men who have freed them from the intolerable oppression of the native rulers and the constant incursions of the fierce pirates who formerly infested the whole coast of Borneo.

The present Rajah has carried out zealously the policy of his predecessor. This policy has aimed at developing the country primarily for the benefit of the natives, rather than to throw it open to exploitation by foreigners. At the present time the Europeans, mostly English, number but a few hundred in a territory as large as England, and these are nearly all government officials. This country retains its original conditions to a greater degree perhaps than any other Eastern settlement, and the life of the people must be much as it always has been. Although Sarawak has no railways or telegraphs, nor various other "improvements," the traveler will find life not only quite tolerable, but indeed quite delightful and intensely interesting.

Every week an excellent steamer sails from Singapore for Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, and two days on the shallow China Sea brings the traveler to the Sarawak River on which Kuching lies. The scenery along the coast is very fine, bold mountains coming down to the sea and forming magnificent rugged headlands. The mouth of the Sarawak River—or rather the delta—is guarded on either side by a fine mountain some three thousand feet high. Of these two mountains, Mt. Santubong is especially imposing, rising abruptly from the sea, its flanks clothed with primeval forest, the tall trunks sometimes rising a hundred feet without a branch.

Like most tropical tidal streams, the Sarawak River has developed an extensive delta. The low muddy shores are covered with dense mangrove swamps whose exposed mud flats are the haunts of crocodiles and many other less formidable creatures. Among the latter are myriads of curious mud fish which run about in the mud like lizards, or even climb up the roots of the mangroves. These odd creatures with their big heads and goggle eyes are among the queerest of the fish tribe. Bright blue crabs are also extremely common, and scuttle away to their holes as the boat approaches the shore.

Further up the river and along the narrow channels the bank is often fringed with dense masses of the Nipa palm, whose long, graceful leaves are extensively used throughout the Malayan region for thatch, and also for covering the sides of the native houses. Another palm, the Nibong (Oncosperma filamentosa), may often be seen forming groves behind the Nipa zone. This beautiful palm has a tall, slender stem and a crown of extremely graceful feathery leaves.

As the saltness of the water decreases, in ascending the river, the mangroves give way gradually to a variety of other shrubs and trees, supporting many climbing plants and with their branches often loaded with epiphytes. These epiphytic growths, comprising an astonishing variety of ferns and orchids, and other less familiar types, are a marked feature of this intensely humid region.

Back of the belt of shrubs and low trees immediately bordering the river the tall trees of the forest proper now appear, the outposts of the prodigious forests which still cover most of the wet lowlands of Borneo.

Most of the native settlements are along the rivers, which are almost the only avenues of communication except narrow forest trails. These river-people are Malays and the little thatched houses, raised on posts well above the ground, or actually over the water, are much like those one sees everywhere throughout the whole Malayan region. Plying up and down the river may be seen the picturesque native boats, usually having a thatched shelter, which not infrequently serves as a dwelling for these aquatic people. Squatted at the bow, dressed in a gay sarong, and often with a brightly painted sun hat, the owner may be seen propelling his gondola-like craft rapidly and gracefully along the stream.

Kuching, like all of the larger settlements of Malaya, is essentially a Chinese town. Much of the business of the place is in the hands of Chinese, and, except for the government buildings and the dwellings of the Europeans, the architecture is characteristically Chinese. Some of these structures, including several temples, are excellent samples of Chinese architecture, and are very picturesque, the ornamentation often being really admirable in its details. Highly colored glazed pottery in elaborate and often attractive designs is used lavishly in the decoration of the more pretentious Chinese buildings.

The water front is crowded with Chinese and Malay craft, among which the Singapore steamer and the Rajah's yacht seem rather out of place.

Opposite the town, on a sightly hill, lies the Astana, the Rajah's palace, an attractive but quite unpretentious building surrounded by beautiful gardens. Adjoining it is a picturesque but not especially formidable-looking fort. This structure, with the buildings of the Borneo Company on the opposite bank, contrasts strongly with the typical Chinese architecture of the rest of the city.

The population is about equally made up of Chinese and Malays, the latter occupying a special quarter on the outskirts of the town. A small number of Tamils from southern India and an occasional Sikh from the northern Indian provinces add variety to a decidedly variegated population. The Chinese women often adopt the gay Malay dress and may easily be mistaken for Malays. The latter are fond of bright colors, and a bevy of native women in their gay sarongs and delicately tinted jackets would be hard to beat as a color study. In Sarawak especially they also affect veils of various bright tints which they drape about their head and shoulders with all the grace of a Spanish woman's mantilla. Indeed, the artist in search of novel and striking color studies could not do better than to pitch his easel in Kuching.

The steamy hothouse atmosphere of Sarawak is of the true equatorial type. Kuching, lying within a degree of the equator, has a uniformly hot and humid climate, under whose forcing influence the vegetation attains a luxuriance which few places, even in equatorial lands, can equal. All the commoner forms of tropical vegetation abound. Palms, bamboos, bananas, orchids and the other plants familiar to those who know the tropics grow everywhere, and the gardens in Kuching exhibit a wonderful profusion of rare and beautiful trees and shrubs. Moreover, the stems of the palms and the trunks and branches of the other trees are laden with ferns, orchids and other epiphytes in bewildering profusion, while creepers with brilliant flowers of every hue are draped over the fences and clamber up the trees.

In the immediate vicinity of Kuching the original forest has mostly disappeared; but in many places the second growth of trees is of good size, and there is a dense undergrowth composed of a great variety of shrubs and herbaceous plants.

One does not have to go far, however, to see samples of the primitive forest, which is very difficult to explore, as the ground is usually a swamp, or else is covered with an impenetrable thicket.

Ferns are abundant, both epiphytic and terrestrial species. Among the most characteristic are species of Gleichenia forming dense thickets, and some very beautiful climbing ferns of the genus Lygodium.

Pitcher plants (Nepenthes) are extremely common, as they seem to be everywhere in Borneo.

Among the showy flowers noted about Kuching were various Acanthaceæ and Melastomaceæ, and perhaps the most striking plant is Wormia pulchella, a shrub belonging to the Dilleniaceæ. It is a common plant of the Malayan region, and its big golden yellow flowers and handsome foliage make it extremely ornamental. Sometimes a bright scarlet Æschynanthus was seen, climbing up the trunk of a tree, but this was not very common.

A number of interesting liverworts were collected at Kuching, but, as is usual in the tropics, these are more abundant at higher elevations.

Every season in Sarawak is a "rainy season" but the official rainy season includes the months of November to March, and I can testify from experience that this is a rainy season. During the months of December, January and February (1912-13), over one hundred inches of rain fell in Kuching.

As might be expected, this great rainfall contributes to an extremely rich and varied native flora, and Sarawak offers an especially inviting field to the botanist.

Not the least serious problem that confronts the traveler is that of transportation. Except in the town and in the immediate vicinity of Kuching, almost the only means of transport are the streams or else forest trails which are not feasible for either saddle or pack animals, and especially in the low lands are often largely under water. This makes expeditions into the magnificent forests anything but a pastime, and involves not only great fatigue, but also incidentally the discomforts of swarms of mosquitoes and leeches, the latter being especially numerous and voracious in the Bornean forests.

The various native tribes. Land and Sea Dayaks, etc., are of great interest to the ethnologist, but as my interests were chiefly botanical, and my time very limited, I was obliged to leave Sarawak with only the most cursory observation of these interesting savages.

One of my principal objects in visiting Sarawak was to secure specimens of two rare ferns, Matonia sarmentosa and Macroglossum alidæ, as yet known only from this country, and the first collecting trip undertaken was in search of these.

Through the kindness of Mr. J. C. Moulton, director of the Sarawak Museum, who accompanied me on this trip, I succeeded in accomplishing my object in a highly satisfactory manner.

We left Kuching before daylight in one of the launches of the Borneo Company, and watched the dawn come up behind the dense jungle reflected in the glassy surface of the broad river. In the delicious coolness of the early morning our launch plowed its way up stream, breaking the mirror-like surface of the river, in which were reflected the brilliant tints of the eastern sky. A dense wall of verdure, spangled here and there with white, yellow and purple flowers, bounded the stream on either side.

By eight o'clock we reached our landing place, and after a good breakfast, proceeded by "trolley" for about half an hour to the government bungalow, where we had arranged to camp for a few days while making our collecting trips.

The Bornean trolley is rather a different affair from what one associates with the word in America. The track is an extremely narrow gauge affair, and the cars are tiny things, consisting of a platform about three feet by four. These are propelled by a man standing on the platform and pushing the car along with a pole. At Ban, in the neighborhood of our bungalow, there are the most important gold mines in Sarawak, and these trolleys are used for transporting ore and other freight. The "passenger coach" has a single seat with a foot-rest. These cars are extremely cranky, and upsets are usually part of the regular program. On an expedition from Bau, my trolley was a two man power affair, my propellers being a Sikh policeman and a convict in his charge. We were going along famously, when, at a sudden turn the car jumped the track, and the tiffin basket which was resting between my legs jumped also! There was an ominous sound of breaking glass and a strong alcoholic aroma pervaded the atmosphere. Alas! the bottle of Scotch our kind host had thoughtfully provided for our refreshment was shattered to fragments—the soda-water bottles survived.

No further accidents occurred, and we soon reached the end of the line and set off for the jungle-clad base of the limestone crags which were our objective point. After pushing through a dense growth of coarse grass and wading a couple of shallow streams we reached the base of the cliffs, and, after eating tiffin, proceeded to explore the caves with which the rocks are honeycombed. In one of these caves, whose opening lay a hundred feet or so above the foot of the cliff, and which could be reached only by scaling a crazy, more than half-rotten native ladder, the fern we were in search of was seen hanging from the roof of the cave, fifty feet or more above its floor, and quite out of reach. However, after we left, our host arranged with some of the Dayaks, who are accustomed to climb the walls of these caves in search of the edible bird's nests which abound in them, to return with ladders and poke down the clusters of ferns, which were afterwards sent us in Kuching.

These caves are of all shapes and sizes, and are the haunts of the peculiar swift, whose nests, composed of a mucilaginous secretion, are considered such a delicacy by the Chinese.

Matonia sarmentosa is known only from a few limestone caves in Sarawak. A second species, M. pectinata, was for a long time supposed to be confined to Mt. Ophir in Malacca. It has now been collected at several stations in the Malay Peninsula, and the adjacent islands. I collected it on Mt. Santubong, and it is also reported from Mt. Mattang, both mountains of Sarawak.

The next morning a second trolley trip took me to the locality where the second fern. Macroglossum Alidæ, for which I had come to Sarawak, had been discovered by my host, who was able to give me exact directions for finding it; and I shall not soon forget my sensations when, just where we had been told, we found our plant—a magnificent fern with stately erect fronds more than four yards long. A happy morning was spent collecting a fine series of specimens for future study, and well content I returned to Bau for tiffin.

Before returning to Kuching a day was spent exploring Mt. Sarambo, a place of special interest to the naturalist, because it was one of the places where Wallace made some of his most important collections in Borneo more than fifty years ago. My companion, Mr. Moulton, showed me the site of Wallace's house, where he had himself camped a couple of years before.

On Sarambo there are a couple of small communities of Land Dayaks who received us very hospitably, regaling us with green cocoanuts whose water was most refreshing after our hot climb.

My most interesting experience in Borneo was a week spent on Mt, Mattang, about ten miles from Kuching, but more conveniently reached by a rather roundabout route by water. This mountain was tabu for some reason, and consequently was avoided by the Land Dayaks, who, from time to time, have cleared most of the lower hill slopes in the neighborhood. Except for some relatively small clearings, planted to tea and coffee by the Rajah, the mountain is still covered by magnificent virgin forest. The Rajah built a small bungalow about forty years ago in this clearing, an unpretending, but sufficiently comfortable building, which was kindly placed at my disposal during my stay on the mountain. The site was formerly occupied by a temporary structure erected by the well-known Italian botanist, Beccari, who in the sixties spent a long time in Sarawak and made extensive collections on Mattang. These included many new species. Beccari called his dwelling Valombroso, and this name was transferred by the Rajah to his bungalow.

Accompanied by my Chinese boy and half a dozen coolies carrying the necessary impedimenta for a week's camp (including a crate of chickens and one of the huge pineapples for which Sarawak is famous) I was soon comfortably established, and, for the time being, monarch of all I surveyed.

The surrounding forest is an intensely interesting one. Gigantic trees bound together by great lianas, like huge cables, and with their trunks and branches often quite covered with a profusion of epiphytes, rose from a dense undergrowth of palms, giant ferns, rattans and a host of other strange tropical growths.

The wet banks were covered with beautiful ferns, liverworts and mosses and, although, as is usually the case in the tropical Jungle, flowers were not conspicuous, there were a number of very beautiful ones. One of the prettiest (Didymocarpus) had small fox-glove-shaped pale purple flowers borne on slender stems rising from a rosette of very dark green, almost black leaves, exquisitely veined with snowy white. These dainty plants grew abundantly on the mossy banks, mingled with delicate ferns, and made a picture of exquisite beauty. Several showy orchids were occasionally met with, and a straw-colored rhododendron (R. Salicifolium) was found in considerable numbers in one locality, A common and showy shrub of the upper forest was a species of Ixora, whose clusters of scarlet flowers were not unlike some of the Bouvardias which are sometimes grown in our greenhouses.

Ferns in great variety, ranging from tiny filmy ferns, looking like delicate mosses, to magnificent tree ferns, thirty or forty feet in height, abounded everywhere and furnished some interesting specimens.

As usual in the mountain forests of the tropics, epiphytic ferns are abundant, as well as striking species of epiphytic Lycopodiaceæ. Besides the genus Lycopodium, represented by several species, the curious Psilotum flaccidum was occasionally seen. This plant, whose affinities are not quite clear, grows on the trunks of tree-ferns.

As evening fell the air fairly vibrated with the noise of innumerable insects—cicadas, grasshoppers and crickets, to which were added the pipings of tree toads and the bass booming of bull frogs. One felt curiously remote from all civilization, realizing that the nearest white man was miles away.

The weather was decidedly uncertain with a good deal of rain, and due no 'doubt largely to the moisture, the wet banks, the decaying logs and dead leaves and twigs on the ground, gleamed at night with an uncanny radiance. A little gully back of the bungalow glowed with this weird luminosity and would have made a fitting setting for some incantation scene. This phosphorescence, while not unknown in temperate regions, is very much more marked in the steaming tropical jungle.

A few days also were spent at the base of Santubong, the mountain lying on the opposite side of the delta of the Sarawak from Mattang, from which it differs much, in both its form and vegetation.

This striking mountain rises abruptly from the water, and although of no great height—barely three thousand feet—its steepness and fine contour make it a most imposing object.

A typical Malay fishing village lies at its base on the river side. On the seaward side is a broad beach interrupted at intervals by shelving ledges of rock and with here and there small patches of mangroves. Along the upper boundary of the beach is a belt of vegetation made up for the most part of a number of trees and shrubs characteristic of the Malayan "Strand forest."

The largest trees of this belt are Casuarinas, looking like straggling pines, and next in size is a species of Terminalia, a tree with the branches arranged in regular tiers and covered with big glossy leaves. Somewhat similar in appearance, but not closely related botanically, is Barringtonia, with big white flowers not unlike those of Eucalyptus, but very much larger, and beautiful dark green shining leaves. A yellow Hibiscus, very much like the hau tree (Hibiscus tiliaceus) of Hawaii (perhaps identical), was also abundant. A most characteristic small tree or shrub was a screw pine (Pandanus), with long slender leaves arranged in a dense spiral, and big heads of fruit, the color and size of ripe pineapples. Of the flowering shrubs, much the showiest was a species of Wormia with big golden yellow flowers and handsome foliage. There were also several leguminous shrubs with yellow and purple flowers. A considerable number of climbing plants occur, among them several species of Ipomæa very much like our common morning glories. A species of Gnetum, with clusters of showy salmon-pink berries, was also common along the shore.

The ascent of the mountain is decidedly arduous, as the trail is very steep, and at times it is necessary to scale the face of almost sheer rock ledges, where one must pull one's self up by the roots of trees or by clinging to such shrubs and roots as could find lodgment in the rock crevices.

The forest is comparatively open, and did not offer much collecting until the summit was reached. Here the forest is composed of gnarled and dwarfed trees whose trunks and branches are moss-covered and serve as a foothold for a host of beautiful epiphytes. The latter included two superb rhododendrons with snowy white and brilliant flame colored flowers; a number of interesting orchids and several pitcher plants (Nepenthes), one of which N. veitchii, is one of the finest of the genus, with pitchers a foot or so in length.

The ground was covered with a dense cushion of moss, in some places sphagnum much like that found in our northern bogs, and seeming rather out of place in the tropics.

The great forests of Borneo are hardly equalled in the variety and size of the trees of which they are composed. As in other parts of the Malayan region, the most important timber trees belong mainly to a family, Dipterocarpaceæ, which is quite unrepresented in the New World. The Dipterocarps are often trees of great size, with straight trunks which may rise a hundred feet or more without a branch, and yielding timber of great value. There are also many leguminous trees, remotely related to our own locusts and honey-locust. One of these, the tapang (Abauria excelsa), is the tallest tree yet measured in the Malayan region. Beccari mentions one of these two hundred and thirty feet in height.

Many other trees, unfamiliar to the American botanist, are components of the Bornean forest. Wild figs and banyans are conspicuous, and several species of Artocarpus, related to the cultivated bread-fruit, and also wild species of durian and mangosteen, the two choicest fruits of the eastern tropics.

A few types, however, appear less strange. Oaks of several species occur, even at sea-level, and in the higher mountains are a number of coniferous trees, mostly, however, of genera which do not occur in America.

The most characteristic genera of conifers in the Malayan region are Agathis, to which belongs also the Kauri pine of New Zealand, and Podocarpus, also well represented in the latter country. Another Malayan coniferous type is Dacrydium, which also extends to the Australasian region.

Borneo, probably, has more species of palms than any other area of like extent in the world; but these are often small and quite inconspicuous forms nor else they are climbing species, rattans, which are quite different in appearance from the typical palms. There are, it is true, a good many large and striking palms, but as a rule they do not dominate the vegetation to the same extent as in equatorial America.

The screw pines, or pandans, have already been referred to, and these very peculiar plants are a most striking feature of the eastern tropics and one quite absent from the New World. They may attain the dimensions of trees, and there are numerous species occurring from sea level to a height of four thousand to five thousand feet. The strange pitcher plants of the genus Nepenthes constitute another peculiarly Old World type, and these attain the greatest development in Borneo where they are very common and occur at all elevations up to eight thousand feet or more. These interesting plants, which one may occasionally see in hothouses, differ a good deal in the structure of their pitchers from our American pitcher-plants; but, like the latter, these pitchers are insect traps. The pitchers in Nepenthes are borne on tendrils at the tip of the leaf, and are often of very graceful form and beautifully colored.

As in all wet tropical countries, Borneo has a great many species of Araceæ, some with gigantic leaves five or six feet long, looking like huge callas. Others, e. g., species of Amorphophallus, have enormous leaves much divided and produce immense flowers with a most evil scent. Others, again, are climbers and clothe the trunks of trees in a luxuriant drapery of bright glossy leaves.

One naturally looks for many orchids in such a country as Borneo, and in fact the number of species is very large; but, as every collector knows who has visited the. tropics, it is only rarely that showy orchids are abundant enough to make a striking display. The great majority of orchids are small plants with insignificant flowers which would be quite overlooked by any one but the botanist. There are, it is true, a great many orchids of extraordinary beauty in Borneo, but these are for the most part rare and are only occasionally met with in flower. Two handsome orchids are common in the gardens about Kuching, Vanda teres and Arundina speciosa, both of which flower freely. Another pretty orchid, which at intervals blooms in great profusion, is extremely common, growing on trees. This is known locally as the dove orchid (Dendrobium crumenatum). It has the peculiar habit of flowering all at once over a large area, and for a single day the long sprays of beautiful white sweet-scented flowers may be seen by the thousands. The next day they are all withered and not a single fresh flower can be found.

As might be expected, the constant moisture favors a luxuriant growth of ferns, mosses, fungi and lichens, which show a bewildering variety of forms, and a marvellous luxuriance. These lower plants, except the ferns, have received comparatively little attention, and a magnificent field is waiting for the botanist interested in these.

It was with deep regret that I said good-bye to this fascinating country, and to the kind friends who did so much to make my brief stay a pleasant and profitable one. Some day, perhaps, I may be fortunate enough to return and explore further the botanical treasures of this wonderful land.