I Spent a Fortnight Lost in Borneo's Jungle


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I Spent a Fortnight Lost in Borneo's Jungle

Tasmania's Andrew Gaskell nearly lost his life in Mulu National Park. Here he tells us what that was like.

This story was written by VICE staff, based on the experience described by Andrew Gaskell.

After the initial terror of realising you're hopelessly lost passes, the experience settles into a fairly steady rhythm. You trudge on, trying to problem solve through the fog of hunger. Your body hurts. You daydream about food and people you'll possibly never see again. You constantly imagine you're seeing a road up ahead or a break in the trees, but you never do. Sometimes you feel weirdly peaceful, and other times you're on edge of panic. But you trudge on, and on, until you either die or find a way out.


I found a way out, but looking back at it now, the days all seem fairly similar. Here's just one of those days, as best as I can remember it, while I was lost in Borneo's Mulu National Park.

I was woken up by a sharp bite, somewhere on my foot. Trying to find my torch, I felt around the ground to find ants everywhere. "Leave me alone," I muttered, trying to brush them off. I only wanted sleep. And even if I wanted to switch the torch on, I knew it would only flicker for a second before turning off—the battery was almost gone.

My fingers closed around a small stone: self-defence. I started to crush the ants before they could get close enough to bite. My torch flicked on and off, illuminating flashes of violence, like in an action film. When the last of the dozen or so had been dealt with, I tucked away the torch above my head and tried to find a comfortable position to sleep. The grazes up my legs made comfort virtually impossible, but they were nothing compared to my throbbing feet. After sloshing up several rocky streams (it's faster to follow the streams than navigate through forest), my boots had rubbed the skin off the sides of my feet. Then the flesh had become infected, so it now throbbed and stunk. The only solution was to drift back into sleep. Back into my subconscious.

View of the national park from the summit of Mt Mulu

I'd set out for the Malaysian state of Sarawak in early August 2016, after losing my job in north Queensland. No, I wasn't fired. Just one day my elderly boss had walked into the office and decided he was done. The engineering business I'd been working in for three and a half years—the very job that I'd moved to Queensland for—was dissolving. And I know I'm phrasing this like I was pissed, but actually I felt free. Instead of looking for another job, I decided I needed to get away for a while. Re-evaluate my priorities. Decide exactly who I was and what I wanted to do with my life.


So I booked a trip to Malaysia, which is how I ended up backpacking Sarawak for almost three months before arriving at Mulu National Park. The ethnicity in Sarawak is extremely diverse. The region consists of the Malays (predominantly Muslim), several different groups of Chinese and many Dayaks, who are indigenous tribes, each with their own unique history. The Dayaks traditionally live off the land in rural areas, with their own group, their own unique language, traditional dress, and foods. I've found all Dayak food to be particularly delicious.

It was this love of the people, and their landscapes that had brought me to the national park with the intention of summiting Mount Mulu, which stands almost 2,400 metres above sea level. My intention was to complete the walk as a long day trip or maybe an overnighter. I'd had lots of hiking experience back home in Tasmania, so I assumed I could knock it over in a day. Basically I set out overconfident and arrogant when I should have been cautious and carefully prepared.

By mid-afternoon on the first day, I reached the highest camp. Since a heavy tropical rain was falling, I decided to spend the night in a timber hut before doing the final ascent in the morning. I finished the rest of my food before drifting off to sleep.

A selfie I took at the summit

At dawn I set off for the peak. I made it fairly easily and after taking some photos I turned back for home, which is when it all started to go wrong.


With just a few kilometres left to go, I took a wrong turn. Several streams crossed the trail, and despite my efforts to backtrack I couldn't find my way. I didn't panic as evening turned to night, because I knew I'd find my way out within a few hours. Or at least, that's what I thought. Rather than waiting for the morning light, I kept wandering through the jungle, looking for a way out. I knew I was close. So close. But all I did was completely and utterly lose my bearings.

As dawn broke I knew I was definitely lost, but I was still confident I could navigate my way out. But then day two turned into day three, and before I knew it I had been wandering for more days than I could count.

How I looked at point of rescue. Image via RTM Sarawak

I ate very little. Early on, I found a handful of unrecognisable jungle fruits that were sour and unpleasant. Later I found a bunch of round yellow fruit protected by a spiky outer shell, each piece about the size of a large cherry. I forced myself to gnaw the firm flesh from the large seed and washed the bitter flavour down my throat with water I had collected from one of many rivers winding through the region. I could only hope that the fruit was not poisonous. A short time later, I found a similar fruit, but slightly larger and darker. This tasted equally as bad. Several days later, I noticed a local fern, called paku pakis, which I knew to be edible from my experience visiting local people in Sarawak. I ate handfuls of these stalks, but was aware I was burning more energy than I was consuming.


The early days were spent climbing mountains and trying to figure out where I was. I then tried to follow the sun in a westward direction towards the area's major river, which I then planned to follow south towards Park HQ. However, the forest canopy made it hard to keep track of the sun, while the landscape was a frustrating matrix of mountains and rocky streams. Because of all this I found holding a consistent bearing without the aid of navigational equipment basically impossible.

So I wandered, climbed, slept, and ate whatever I could. I thought of the people I had betrayed just for adventure. The risks I had taken were entirely unnecessary, and I felt pretty embarrassed about had happened. But having said that I was never angry about the situation. Instead I channelled my energy towards finding a way out. I always believed I'd be okay, eventually.

After I was rescued I took this photo of my foot. Gross, as you can see

After the night's ant attack, morning broke with the usual chorus of cicadas and birds. I collected my still-wet socks and gently picked off the clay that clung to my yellow feet. Then I turned the socks inside out, tenderly rolled them on, and slid into my boots. I tentatively hauled myself to a standing position, feeling noticeably weaker, then got on with the day's task of stumbling through bristles, prickles, and giant trees.

After stumbling around for some hours I stopped. There was something familiar in the air: a sound. Was that a voice? A human voice? And then I saw it in the distance: the timber boardwalk. And I was now sure I could hear voices. Not just voices but English conversation—people complaining about the heat! My heart rate leapt and I started making for the boardwalk. As I staggered through the trees I considered how far south I must have come to re-find the track. I was absolutely nowhere near where I thought I was, but that didn't matter. I was done. Out. I was going to be okay.

But I wasn't. As I got closer I realised the timber boardwalk I'd seen through the leaves was just a fallen tree. "Help!" I yelled out to the tourists I still thought I could hear. "HEEEELLLLLPPPPP!" But they didn't respond. Why the fuck wouldn't they answer? Didn't they realise I was in distress? "PLEASE!" I tried again. And then, finally, a long sad please with a question mark intonation at the end. "Pleeeeease?"

But no one answered. It wasn't a boardwalk and no one was near. I was deluded and still lost. And at that moment I couldn't see how that would ever change.

For more of Andrew's story please visit his blog, andrewgaskell.com.au. He's also currently writing a book about the experience.