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Golfing the Jungles of Borneo

Any other guests?" I asked as I dropped my bags and checked into the Borneo Highlands Resort.

"Just you," the desk clerk replied.

I turned around and glanced at the open-air reception area. Sure enough, the hotel's staff, unencumbered by other visitors, seemed inordinantly pleased to meet me. I was a resort of one.

Years before, a friend had told me about a resort—and spectacular golf course—perched on a mountain ridge in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo. "You like all that jungle kind of stuff," he'd said, subtly belittling my career in nature conservation. To hear him describe it, the Borneo Highlands Resort and its golf course was something between a rain-forest Shangri-la and a spectacular folly. It sounded like just my kind of place.

I had first lived in Sarawak in 1969 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Since then, I've spent much of my career working for a conservation organization—so I was well aware that the island of Borneo, larger than Texas, has become a front line in the global deforestation battle. Many of Sarawak's ancient rain forests have been gutted by timber operators. Today, logging roads crisscross much of the state, and a large portion of the forest has been damaged or destroyed.

Into this ecological battleground stepped Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew, a prodigiously wealthy Malaysian businessman. In 1997, he set a standard for carving golf courses from damaged land when he turned an ugly, disused opencast tin mine outside of Kuala Lumpur into the luxurious Mines Resort City. Then Tan Sri Lee set his sights upon this, a five-thousand-acre patch of rain forest that had been partially logged. He spent roughly $100 million to salvage this hidden land and build the Highlands Resort and Hornbill Golf & Jungle Club. Some might call it a foolish notion. He calls it "heaven on earth."

Unfortunately, the road to heaven is a long one: I was already in Sarawak, searching for wild orangutans in Batang Ai National Park as research for an upcoming book, so to reach the resort I'd driven an hour south from the Sarawak capital of Kuching. But then, at the foot of the Penrissen mountain range, the trail turned steep. Wisely, I'd opted for the four-wheel-drive van that the resort provides for the journey up the old logging road to the sixty-two-room hotel. Once there, I'd met and chatted with Tan Sri Lee himself, as he padded about the resort in a sweat suit and running shoes. Playing with his pet gibbon and spouting Buddhist aphorisms, he seemed blissfully unconcerned about the lack of guests—a perk, I imagine, of being one of the world's richest men. After a dinner of fried rice in the dining room, free from the pesky distraction of others, I retired to my room and fell asleep to the chirping-screeching-whistling chorus of the rain forest.

There was a cool morning mist the next day as I stepped to the first tee. I had procured a set of rental clubs and, for the sheer sake of company, recruited the resort's recreation manager, Allan Pandian, to play with me. Otherwise, the course was—naturally—empty, and the absence of other golfers and the raw jungle setting was a glorious combination. My enthusiasm was only slightly tempered when the first few holes wound uphill into the forest. I quickly learned that any ball off the fairway would be sucked up by the dense foliage, never to be seen again.

But it was on the tee of the uphill 560-yard par-five fourth that this jungle beast revealed itself. The hole required a blind tee shot, and after gazing toward the spot where I assumed the green to be, at the base of the dramatic massif of Penrissen Hill, I struck what felt like a decent drive toward it. When my electric cart arrived where I thought the ball was, I learned that a hidden stream that ran across the fairway had swallowed my Titleist. By dumb luck, my next shot avoided the mostly unseen lake that guarded the left side of the fairway and the rain forest that nestled both sides of it. As I prepared to hack my approach uphill—oblivious to yet another unseen stream guarding the green's narrow opening—I heard a slow pau, pau, pau cry. It was a Diard's trogon, an important omen bird for Sarawak's Iban tribe, but I forgot if its call means "blessings on your endeavor" or "danger ahead, turn back." In retrospect it must have been the latter. My ball sailed into the adjacent jungle.

I was losing balls left and right. I was even losing them center. So was Allan, who, despite the dearth of guests, doesn't get out on the course very often. I tried to seek comfort in a Buddhist guidance of Tan Sri Lee: "Lord Buddha teaches us how to live in harmony, not only in this world but with the universe. Material wealth has no relationship to how smart you are." Which is nice and all, but I was still running out of balls.

On the 465-yard par-four sixth, a stream meanders along the fairway and crisscrosses it several times. Of course I had no idea where the stream was. I could only whack and hope—and dig further into my dwindling stock of ammunition.

And so it went. By the turn, it was evident that architect Neil Crafter, with help from Tan Sri Lee, had designed a course mixing teeth-gnashing frustration with spectacular shot values. Beautiful?Yes. Challenging?Clearly. Fair?Hey, this is golf.

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