I first visited the island of Borneo in 1999 with a group of Aussies who were developing a new climbing area called Batman Wall just outside of Kuching (Sarawak). Garth Miller and Simon Wilson were among the climbers and Simon Carter had been commissioned to take the photos. Just by chance we bought a memento of our trip, a book of Borneo, Wild Borneo it was called. And in that book we found a mesmerising picture of a massive sweeping orange cliff, on an island, sitting idyllically above rainforest and a beach. We hadn’t told a sole about our discovery until recently, as we vowed, that one day we would find this island and explore it’s climbing potential. So the story begins…
We did some research to discover that the slash of rock is located on Berhala Island, just off the coast of Sandakan on Malaysian Borneo. The potential for climbing there has been described as huge and the cliff is said to be between 150 to 200-metres high.
After fifteen years we are finally here. We being, Simon Carter, Simon Wilson, our good friend from Adelaide who comes armed with a power drill, and myself. To reach the island we hire a local fishing boat for a hefty price (later we negotiate more appropriate rates). As the boat skims over the net barrier, intended to keep the rubbish from washing up on the beach, we come up underneath the monolith and are completely dwarfed by its enormity.
We gaze and stare in wonder and it doesn’t take us long to spot a line, potentially a new route taking an arête to the top. We discuss our options and hiking in to the top and rapping the line would be impossible. There are not many crack features, it’s a fused face, so doing a new route would mean bolting it. And so to access the top of our new line we plan to first climb an existing five-pitch route. We start the following day.
Progress up the route is slow and our feelings of awe are soon squashed as we realise the reason for there being limited development of this place. The rock quality is poor, friable edges, and the sun beats relentlessly on the wall until late afternoon, which we didn’t realise the day before because we got there very late. Even ferrying packs and supplies to the base of the cliff in 30 C, 85 F with 80% humidity is enervating. We persist and make it three pitches up the route, mostly stick clipping our way due to the fragile rock and difficulty in route finding, well I mean ‘hold’ finding. From the anchor of the third pitch Simon (Wilson) begins his mission of tensioning across to gain the arête to bolt the new route that we had spied. After hours of work he concludes that this idea is not a viable one, again due to the soft nature of the rock, with many sections of un-climbable rock penetrating the okay rock.
We return to Berhala to attempt to free climb the existing route. Even with a pre-dawn start our fingers and minds are destroyed after three pitches. We strip our gear and head to the beach to play on the single pitch routes down there.
Surprisingly these are good, and fun. Simon (Wilson) decides that there is no point taking his bolts home with him, and so goes on a rebolting mission to replace the eroded bolts.
It may not have been a successful climbing trip in terms of establishing a new route or getting up an existing one but it was a true adventure and a long awaited dream come true. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.