Into the Heart of Borneo, By Redmond O’Hanlon

I think it safe to say that those of us who are the kind of readers who consume books like oxygen, tend to be rather introverted by nature. Reading requires long sustained periods of silence and sometimes (even preferably) solitude. But sometimes, these two defining characteristics can come into conflict with one another. Such is the case every year at the Friends of the Seattle Public Library Book Sale. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people show up at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall to wade trough a maze of tables stacked with boxes upon boxes of books. It is an experience that I find as entirely exhilarating, as I do truly terrifying. Thankfully though due to the combined sound dampening effects of being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of books, as well as the ability to dive into one at any moment, it is relatively easy to keep the anxiety of being around so very many people at bay, but not so much that I can truly concentrate and focus analytically on much. As a result, I often tend to buy books that had I spent just a few moments longer with them, perusing them with a more discerning eye, I would have quickly realized that they were not for me, and moved on.

Such, was the case with Into the Heart of Borneo.

A view of the 2017 Friends of the Seattle Public Library Book Sale.

Upon my first cursory inspection this book sounded like manna from heaven. It met all the criteria of a great adventure story.

  • According to the back of the book, it was “a classically shaped travel story: a long river voyage into the far interior of a tropical jungle,” that was thoughtful, witty, engaging, and even compared the author’s humor to that of Monty Python.
  • It was written by a naturalist, searching for the last retreat of the Borneo two-horned rhinoceros.
  • It even, as all good adventure stories must, had the obligatory map highlighting the area to be explored.
  • The book was printed in the 1980’s, so I figured the footprint of colonialism and imperialism would be minimalized, compared to perhaps something from the turn of the same century…
A map of the Borneo highlighting the regions to be explored during the author’s expedition.

Seriously, I could not start reading this book fast enough! In truth, I started reading it on the way home that afternoon.

However, right from the first page, I began to have reservations. While, yes, the author was in fact a trained naturalist and former academic, which I felt gave him credentials enough to be knowledgeable, at the time of this books publishing (1984) he was natural history book reviewer and not exactly leading a lifestyle that one would describe as outdoorsy, or even active. In fact, within a very few pages, I had formed the impression that Redmond O’Hanlon was the type of man for whom visiting The Palm House in Kew Gardens ( might potentially constitute a dangerous (should the need for sunscreen arise) and highly daring (lest he be seen wearing shorts while not on holiday abroad) Tropical Expedition. An impression, I am sorry to say, that was only further supported when despite turning to the SAS in help preparing for his trip (and ultimately his survival) rather than selecting a younger, fitter, more, dare I say, experienced (outdoor) explorer/adventurer to accompany him on this expedition, Redmond O’Hanlon instead chose to take his friend, James Fenton, an English poet, journalist and literary critic…with a heart condition.

The adventures, and consequently (given the members of the party) misadventures, that abound, are at times both awe inspiring and laugh-out-loud funny. However, in truth, I spent the great majority of the this book shaking my head and wondering how in the world anyone who was fully cognizant of the potential perils of this journey and the (complete lack of qualifying) credentials of O’Hanlon could possibly have thought it was a good idea to embark on a journey to the wild jungles of Borneo without some kind of supervisor/handler. On the one hand, O’Hanlon obviously had read a great deal about the history of Borneo, the conflicts there, and the wildlife that inhabited their jungles, as his descriptions and discussions of both are enlightening and informative. However, on the other hand, his complete and utter lack of knowledge about local custom, jungle survival, and physical fitness boarded on the absolutely irresponsible. And even at the end of the book when, spoiler alert, it became clear that they had not found any current trace of the rhino they sought, I still could not, with any assurance, say if his willingness to set out on this outing so ill prepared was due more to naiveté or arrogance.

Needless to say this book is never going to find a place in my top ten best books list; it just wasn’t for me. I really found the author’s lack of preparedness for the task he had undertaken to be almost offensive. There is a time and a place to bluff on one’s abilities and talents, but that time is most assuredly not on a jungle expedition to a foreign country.




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