Mekar Baru: The Lost Gold of Borneo

Traveling up the Bata Lu Ung river for fishing and fun in March 2019.

While in my twenties, I bore witness to what would become the greatest mining scandal of the 20th Century — Bre-X — a Canadian junior mining company that claimed to have discovered the largest gold deposit in the history of the world at the Indonesian site of Mekar Baru, Busang, East Kalimantan, Borneo. A rather unbelievable claim, I thought at the time, considering the players. Eventually my suspicions were confirmed when the mercurial stock crashed almost overnight from staggering heights to zilch, shutting down both the Toronto Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange with frenzied trading — quite a feat indeed.

The front gate of the Bre-X site in 1995 and June 2015. (Original inlaid picture to be found at INISH “How The Bre-X Company Made Billions Off Of Nothing”. )

Since then, countless books have been written and movies made discussing the strange events surrounding the rise and fall of this junior mining venture, but, with the exception of a few Canadian journalists, none of these authors — as far as I have learned — bothered to venture into the jungle and interview the local Dayak people themselves who were there from start to finish, and of course are still there today. So to satisfy my strange curiosity regarding this debacle, I went into the Indonesian jungle in May 2015 for the first time to meet with these exotic forest people, and since have returned to their village of Mekar Baru on a regular basis, although not for the gold.

The pictures in this article are from my regular visits to the place where it all happened 22 years ago.

Mining still goes on at the abandoned Busang site. (June 2015)
Javanese miners still hope to find the elusive gold of the Borneo. (June 2015)
There’s gold in them there hills — gold can be found at Busang in small amounts and these rocks can be found in almost every villagers’ home. Pictured here is the type of rock Michael de Guzman allegedly purchased from the local Dayak people. Well, according to the Dayak people whom I interviewed, he did purchase such rocks and it was quite a booming business at that. (June 2015)

One of the greatest mysteries of Bre-X was the disappearance of Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman. De Guzman has been accused of salting the core samples at the Busang site, which in laymen’s speak means he added outside gold or rocks with gold mineral deposits to rocks dug up from the ground at Mekar Baru before sending the sample bag to the lab for testing.

My personal encounters with de Guzman took place In the winter of 1997, while I was working in a Toronto Canada bar and grill called Little Anthony’s — a local watering hole haunted by mining and exploration types at that time. Michael de Guzman was one of our more notorious regulars — not for salting core samples but for chasing cocktail waitresses and exotic dancers all around the Toronto bar and night club scene. The man fell in love on a regular basis, and he loved to shower his ladies with expensive gifts — definitely a popular guy.

Then one morning in mid-March 1997, I arrived at work to a great kerfuffle. Everybody was glued to the tube. Mr. de Guzman had apparently fallen to his death from a helicopter flying over the Borneo jungle on his way to the Busang site. Speculations flew as to the circumstances of his death. A suicide note was discovered that was apparently written by de Guzman a Filipino Catholic, while most punters believed he was murdered by the Suharto regime. Others speculated he staged his own death to escape the consequences of the final discovery of his fraudulent actions.

My mission in May 2015 was to ask the question: Is de Guzman still alive? Those in Mekar Baru believe he is — or at least was.

Expat drinking in Jakarta on Jalan Jaksa while preparing for journey into Heart of Darkness.
I love my Bintang Indonesian beer.

According to the accounts of Dayak members of the search team — people who were friends and associates of de Guzman — the body in the jungle was not his. These searchers explained that although the body was somewhat decomposed, it was still identifiable as NOT de Guzman’s. Their description of the remains is very different from those reported by the Western press. Apparently wild boars had not eaten away his arms, legs and such. They claim the stature of the body did not resemble de Guzman in the least and are therefore convinced that de Guzman staged his own exit from this world.

Traveling up river. Reminiscent of a Matthew McConaughey scene in the movie “Gold“.

But exit to where? Well in the pre-911 world, this would not be a difficult accomplishment, especially if one were trying to fly under the radar from a place like the Borneo jungle. After all Borneo is an island. Michael de Guzman could have easily bordered any small sea bound vessel from the coast to intercept with Filipino fisherman willing to abet his escape. Then off to a private island somewhere in the massive Philippines archipelago. With his money, after cashing out early from Bre-X to the tune of millions, he could have gone anywhere and afforded any price to get there. Furthermore, after one peculiar late night phone call from someone who had been in the Bre-X loop indiscriminately discussing offshore bank accounts, I was pretty convinced that de Guzman left Borneo alive.

So where is he now?

With de Guzman’s penchant for the ladies, maybe he absconded with one of the jungle’s beautiful karaoke working girls — yes there are ladies of the evening even in the jungle. Or maybe he lives there to this day. A popular village legend has one of de Guzman’s previous Dayak paramours receiving large sums of money from an anonymous source at her home in Samarinda. Possibly Michael de Guzman is shacked up somewhere with a lady love and Bruno Manser “The Penan Man”. He couldn’t have just simply perished that day in the jungle. All great thrillers and mysteries need that elusive romantic ending.

Jungle love — a working girl karaoke in the jungle. Sing a song and grab a babe (May 2015).

Further Information

  • Bre-X: A Dead Man’s Story? is a book by Alfred Lenarciak self-proclaimed master of the universe and language genius. The creative former chairman of
    Minorca Resources weaves quite an unbelievable yarn of encountering a suspicious — possibly de Guzman — figure years later in Rome. Although, I initially thought this was a fictionalized account; and was shocked to discover Lenarciak actually stands behind his sighting claim; this book provides an insightful look into the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing of the time.
  • Bre-X: The Inside Story is a book by Diane Francis a self-proclaimed master of all. It’s rather a snooze but gets the job done in detail.
  • Gold a movie by now disgraced producer Harvey Weinstien and starring
    Matthew McConaughey. Apparently, nobody warned Mr. Weinstien of the Bre-X curse. Try to make money with Bre-X and you are guaranteed to lose everything within 12 months — job, money, reputation, family, the whole motherlode.
  • Calgary Hearld: Bre-X: The real story and scandal that inspired the movie Gold
    By Suzanne Wilton, with files from Tony Seskus and Eva Danayanti is a deeply insightful article which of course was written by Canadian journalists. Who else can tell this story correctly. Hmmm … maybe Indonesian journalists.
I actually have two rings made from gold that I bought at Mekar Baru from the former Bre-X site. So there was gold in them hills! Just not much. (Cartoon by Adrian Raeside)

Photojournalist Ted Rhodes Talks about his trip to mekar baru

Gallery: Journey to Mekar Baru (2015)