In the late Eighties, early Nineties the Borobudur Run 10Km was the richest road race in the world, offering $1 million in bonus money on top of generous appearance and prize packages. Hosted by Indonesian businessman Bob Hasan — first as the Bali 10K, then as the Borobudur Run on the island of Java — the race brought together the very best distance athletes of the time to take on the world 10K road record in a setting of timeless beauty.
Staged at the spectacular 9th-century Buddhist temple which lent the event its name, the Borobudur Run was featured on ESPN’s Road Race of the Month series. But the race, itself, was only the beginning of the adventure.
The twin-engine speedboat heeled low alongside the rotting wooden jetty as we loaded our TV equipment aboard the bobbing deck below. It was tricky work, but with legs braced along the gunwales for better leverage, we managed to hand down the cumbersome gray cases one by one from the final rung of the rickety ladder and slide them into position.
Back on the jetty a group of local men with skin the color of burnished wood and eyes dark and unreadable watched our progress in silence, passing among them an amber-liquid filled bottle lifted from the seat of one of the men’s pants.
We had waited for nearly an hour for the speedboat to arrive from the logging company base camp, and now with the sun setting a trembling orange into the Java Sea, we were anxious to be off before the light failed completely. Our destination was an estuary heading inland to the north and west to the logging company base camp some thirty-five minutes away.
With the last case positioned, the speedboat powered off onto Balikpapan Harbor churning low through a field of rusting oil tankers lying darkly at anchor. To the stern, the twin Evinrude motors boiled the water to gray-white foam as the final rays of the setting sun inflamed the towering thunderclouds building off the western horizon.
As we pushed farther from shore the blue-orange gas flares atop the skeletal off-shore rigs shrunk from giant pilot lights to flickering match heads, leaving only their thick oily smell in the rapidly cooling evening air.
The skip of the boat off the light chop made for a jarring ride, while limiting conversation. But over the strain of the engines our guide, a feisty little filmmaker from Jakarta named German leaned close and with a sweep of his arm pointed over the harbor.
“Pirates still work these waters on occasion,” he shouted to me over the drone of the engines, his long, jet-black hair flapping in the wind over his shoulder.
Not sure I’d heard right, I hollered back, “What?!”
“Pirates,” he confirmed while leaning even closer.
“Where pirates?” I scanned the harbor quickly.
“Here, on occasion.”
“Well, for God sakes, what constitutes an occasion? And more pointedly, is this one?”
Our New Jersey-based cameraman Dale saw the look of apprehension spread across my face.
“What’s he saying?” he asked.
“He just told me pirates sometimes are in these waters.”
“That’s what he says.” I turned back to German.
“Not so loud,” he cautioned, nodding toward the speedboat driver whose broad back was to us as he worked the wheel.
“Wait a minute. You’re saying this guy might be a pirate?!”
“No, but these things aren’t talked about very often, and besides, things are not always as they seem on Borneo.”
“Hey, I didn’t bring up the subject in the first place, remember? Listen, on a scale of one to ten, one being the inside of your loving mother’s womb, and ten being a night out with Jeffrey Dahmer, where, do you think you would rank our safety?”
“Probably no more than a three. You should relax.”
So here we were in Borneo, or more precisely Kalimantan, the 70% of Borneo laid claim to by Indonesia. Our travel had been arranged so that we might record the cutting of ancient old-growth trees in the forests mid-island, and thereby bring back proof of the salvation work being done in converting these majestic canopy masters into three-quarter inch plywood for family rec rooms in Dayton and Poughkeepsie — or something like that.
Our guide, German (pronounced like the European nation) was a spirited little man who had previously developed two films. The first was titled Gone, But Not Forgotten, and told the story of the loss of ancient, old-growth forests to the rapacious timber industry. That film had been funded by Green Peace. His other film, The Endless Resource, had been funded by the International Timber Corporation of Indonesia (ITCI) and presented the opposite point of view. We teased German mercilessly about his apparent flexibility.
Though the harbor was littered with trash that more than once forced us to stop to unclog our propellers, we managed to avoid contact with any new-age pirates, and finally reached the safety of the timber camp just as darkness fully enveloped the island. After dropping off our gear we took dinner in the commissary, then, headed off to bed in the guest quarters set up in a series of longhouses native to the area. The long, single-story wooden barracks were built atop stilts to shelter livestock and protect against both the pouring rains and the poisonous snakes that populated the area.
The next morning we awoke to the bustle of the 6,000-man camp.
“How far out will we be going out today?” wondered our producer Rich to the head of the camp as he tore off a corner of toast and wiped up the remaining egg yolk spread about his plate at breakfast.
“I’d say at least fifty kilometers,” the official replied. “There are two possible sites we’ll visit, but I’m not sure which one yet.”
“They still really don’t want us going to the fresh cut,” he explained leaning forward to reduce the carry to his voice, as the commissary was filled with timber workers on base camp rotation. “There remains a quality of invasion to this visit, to be honest, in spite of our protestations. Though, if asked, this will all be denied. Only the intercession of a high-ranking political appointee of the president has gotten us this far.”
The International Timber Company of Indonesia (ITCI) was another of the joint ventures of our host organizer Bob Hasan and President Suharto’s family. Tired of being scolded for despoiling the planet with their clear-cutting techniques, Mr. Hasan had wanted us to show, instead, how they were creating jobs while clearing needed agricultural land by the cutting and hauling off trees. He also spoke of the value-added elements of the trade, as finished furniture and lumber was now being completed in-country instead of simply shipping raw materials out.
Their claim was that they were cutting no more than one tree per hectare, though it wasn’t meant literally. In other words, they really cut the bejeezus out of a wide swath of forest. Then, to make the PR story come out right, they divided that particular number of trees into the entire old-growth acreage. What’s more, they knew it wouldn’t look good to see the cutting zone.
Before long we packed up, taped our ankles to prevent insect bites, and found ourselves bouncing along in the side-facing backseat of Toyota Land Cruisers along a dusty, pitted, logging road, heading deep into the old-growth forest. The ride was bouncy and slow, and due to the quality of road kept conversation to a minimum. Behind us huge clouds of roiling dust spewed out, coating the thick vegetation alongside the narrow road.
During periodic stops sounds of the rainforest enveloped us as we walked into the forest alongside the road. Overhead, the sharp cry of baboons rose in symphonic union with the accompanying caw of birds, while insects laid a bass line beneath with their mantric hum. This was a world unchanged from its primeval origins when trees erupted on the land, filling every available space with quadruple canopy, stretching like…well, like a forest to the sky.
“If you only show us the public relations areas, people will manufacture their own idea of what the actual cutting sights look like,” reasoned Rich as we bumped along. “And they will fantasize the worst case, clear-cutting scenario. But if we begin by showing the real cutting first, then work backward and hold, in contrast, the work which is being done to save and properly manage the scarce resources, we can better show the intentions of the company.”
Outstanding mumbo jumbo, that, and it worked, too. Before we knew it, we found ourselves in the middle of deeply grooved ruts cut through the road by dinosaur-like cranes and earthmovers. Rich had his camera at the ready and began shooting as the huge machines of industry dragged, lifted and carted felled trees that lay scattered beside the road like so many bowled over ten pins. Strips of bark hung limply from the exposed horizontal trunks, like uniforms partially stripped from bodies in the aftermath of war. Dense, black smoke belched from the top-spewing exhaust pipes on the huge rigs as their rpm’s rose to gather power to move their dead-weight cargo.
Amidst the kidney battering ride aboard the Land Cruiser there came a loud, Bang! Then the unmistakable Flud, flud, flud, flud, flud, indicating a flat tire. Not unusual, we were told, on these harsh roads. And the ease with which the driver went about making the change indicated this to be so.
We had been out the better part of three hours by then and had been quite resolute in drinking plenty of bottled water. The combination of heat, humidity and the dust kicked up by the heavy logging equipment was a formidable dehydration trifecta. So as Rich continued shooting, Dale and I stood watching the driver stabilize the rover’s left front tire upon a rock to hold the vehicle in place. That’s when it came over me that I had to relieve myself of the morning’s hydration.
I had only been in Indonesia once before, but never to Borneo. It was at least as wild a place as exists on portions of the New York City Marathon course, what with most people’s only association with the place being the infamous Wild Man of Borneo. And though Dayak headhunters still lived in the belly of the island, these days besides shrunken heads they also collected all eight of the Texaco Olympic gold medal glassware collection. This is not to say that the true civilizing effect of collectibles had fully permeated the region’s social fabric. Borneo remained, as Tonight Show host Johnny Carson might have once said, “some wild shtuff”.
Peeing outside, I figured, was probably going to be acceptable behavior here. But then, upon further reflection, I reminded myself that the majority of Indonesia’s 175 million population – making it the fifth most populous nation on earth – was also made up the largest Muslim nation in the world. And Muslims, at least as I was thinking at the time, were a rather prissy bunch when it came to uncovering in public. Besides, I didn’t know our two Sulawesi companions all that well, and who knew who’d been sequestered for how long in the bush? And more pointedly, had the movie Deliverance made it to the camp’s movie night yet or not?
The moment of truth was fast approaching. I was beginning to double over in a fashion that would soon require explanation. I had to go. I was in the wild but within a Muslim nation. What to do? I figured it this way: These two guys would be fixing the flat for at least another five to ten minutes, so there was my time frame. Thus, rather than raising one hand skyward, while clutching my crotch with the other, like a fifth-grader in Catholic schools asking the nun for permission, I’ll just meander a few meters down the road here until I’m slightly out of sight, I thought. That ought to cover all the bases.
So down the gravel-strewn road I went, kicking pebbles before me like a modern-day Huck Finn, all the while turning this way and that to take in the beauty and scope of this lush natural setting. The sound of birds and baboons in the distance lent to the wonder all around. The stillness in the saturated air lent the place a timeless quality. Finally, I came across a small opening in the thick brush lining the road. Carefully avoiding the layer of dust that coated everything proximate, I proceeded to unzip.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of a large brown, four-legged, fur-bearing shape standing belt-high some 50 yards to his left across the road. Quickly, I jerked around. But before I could fully make out what it was, the shape bounded into the underbrush, splitting the growth with a luxuriant rustle, and emitting a deep, reverberating growl of disapproval.
Gulp! Where were a few pirates when you could use them? A 50-millimeter bead of sweat leaked down my back, and I thought about raising my hand and asking Mr. Wizard if he could wake me up now. Without even the pretense of calm, much less a re-zipping, I scrambled back to the Land Rover where the men were tightening up the lug nuts on the spare – pretty much what nature was doing to me.
“I think I almost just got eaten by a tiger,” I proceeded to babble breathlessly, pointing to the spot from which I had just come, and describing the sights and sounds experienced.
“We have no tigers on Kalimantan,” the local men assured me, exchanging an “idiot tourist” smile between them. “Only on Java and Sumatra are there tigers. You probably saw a warthog.”
“Warthog? No, you see warthogs don’t growl like a Harley Davidson with its muffler torn off, or stand yea high or bound,” I explained holding my hand at my waist to indicate the size. “Understand, gentlemen,” I continued with the confidence and demeanor of a man living in a witness protection program, “this thing didn’t hop or scamper. I’ve seen a warthog. This wasn’t any warthog. This sumbitch bounded. It didn’t scamper. That beast leaped large into the forest. Cat-like, you might say.”
“What are you talking about?”
Having returned from filming, Rich had come up on my conversation with the local men.
“I swear I saw a tiger about 50 yards from here while I was trying to take a pee,” I said, pointing in the direction I’d just come, but kept my eyes on Rich. “But these guys” – I turned back – “say there aren’t any tigers on Kalimantan, and it was probably a warthog. But I know the difference between a tiger and a goddamn warthog, and I don’t care what they say about there not being any tigers here. I know what I saw, or think I saw.”
“So you’ve been arguing with the locals while they are trying to work? Is that it?”
“No. I’ve been defending a very defensible position since it was me who lived through it.”
“Oh, did the big, bad warthog scare you?” Dale said, mocking me now.
I turned, zipped my trousers with a flourish, and pretended to storm off, though there was nowhere really to storm.
The sound of a Stihl chainsaw coming to life rent the air, sending birds fleeing from the canopy of trees. Across the road, a young Sulawesi man wearing a blue football jersey with number 19 on its back wielded the saw and torqued up the RPMs as he prepared to take on the massive Merandi tree to his right.
I waited until we got back to base camp before relieving myself while sending out an all-points bulletin for my dignity.