Working in Singapore recently gave us the chance to ‘pop’ over to Borneo for a few days. Not a phrase I ever expected to cross my lips!
At my first whale sighting years ago, I vowed never to go to zoo again. If I was to see wild animals I’d visit them in their own habitat, not expect them to live caged in mine. So this was my big chance to see Orang-utans at home.
There is something special about these great apes, with their doleful look and their lazy, fun, laid back approach to life. They are the most intelligent of animals, especially around problem solving. I was amazed to hear that they build a new nest whenever they want a nap, as well as at night time. And once it’s done, they poke their finger through to create a plug hole for the rain to go through – very important because when it rains in Borneo, it RAINS!!!
Our first stop was Sepliok the Orang-utan rehabilitation centre. Set in the middle of the jungle they rescue young animals who’ve lost their mothers or been taken as pets. At first it seemed a bit too organised – like a zoo – but once we got in amongst all the jungle sounds it was clear who was the visitor.
Visit from the ‘Big Un’
While watching the little ones play, I suddenly saw a large hairy body working its way along the ropes. Not just any adult, this was a dominant alpha male – face flaps, the lot. Later we discovered he’s completely wild and this was the first time he’d been seen this year. Apparently he was coming to check out the new female. And that was one lucky lady orang-utan – the bigger the face flaps, the sexier he is!
We saw him again the next day on the feeding platform. The rangers bringing food were extremely wary so he was clearly the real deal. We were all so engrossed that we never spotted a young one on the netting above us until she did a wee over the nearest tourist. That put us in our place!
Here come the Macaques
The bullies of the jungle, the macaques came in force to take over the feeding platform one late afternoon. Walking past us on the handrail, the big males led a tidal wave of monkeys to the feeding platform. They use their strong arm tactics liberally – including against their own. And can they fight! Wow, skin was ripped, punches thrown, food snatched, bodies falling onto the floor or flying through the air just to get out of the way. So this was why they told us to leave all our belongings in the lockers. There is no way I’d want to attract the attention of a Macaque!
Stage two – Abai Lodge
Then deeper into the jungle we went.
I sound so brave, but it’s time to come clean. We had Audley Travel do the heavy lifting, giving us a really easy adventure. Gathered up by our guide, we were taken to the boat and set out for the Kinabatangan River. At the grand age of 68, I want adventures while I can, but I’m too much of princess to rough it. So we call on Audley to help us tick off the bucket list in the most comfortable way possible.
Mind you, I am brave too. If there’s one thing I hate it’s frogs. Poor things, it’s not their fault they give me the heebie-jeebies. And what do I find when we reach Abai Lodge? Rooms on stilts in water – loaded with FROGS. And they did not keep a low profile. I woke the first night at about 2 pm, all of a sweat and in a fury – ‘what the **** am I doing here, lying in a room with its feet in the water surrounded by frogs! Who’s crazy idea was it to come here?’ (John was very restrained and didn’t point out the obvious – it was my idea.) I was totally ready to pack up and go home, but then…………
Out in the boat at 6.30 am. Watching the sky change colour, listening to the sounds – from a safe distance… in a boat… on a river… with crocodiles. (See how I get my priorities right?)
We pootled along, spotting storks, kingfishers, eagles, crocodiles, monkeys (various), orangs with their young in the trees, hornbills, monitor lizards – and then, the proboscis monkey.
Only to be found in Borneo, this has to be one of the stranger creatures. The dominant male has a flavour of Rupert Bear about him and the way his fur changes colour at the top of his legs
makes it look as if he’s wearing Shakespearian tights. And the nose – now that is something to
set the heart pounding! Like the alpha Orang, it’s the big bits of face that make him very sexy. And the extra echo chamber the extremely large nose provides mean he can frighten off predators as well as sing sexy songs.
So we sat quietly and watched him sitting in the midst of his harem. And he watched us watching him. And the little ones played around patient mothers. It was a treat not to be forgotten.
So I decided to stay.
And good job I did because we were blessed with the only guide who managed to find pigmy elephants. ‘I can smell them’ he said. From the middle of the river – wow! Once he mentioned it, I could smell hay – rather nice, I thought. So we edged in and waited.
There’s a lot of waiting when you go visiting animals in the wild.
And finally a female came to the edge of the water for her afternoon snack on the tall elephant grass. (Pigmy is a misleading term. This is one big elephant, despite being only half the size of the Indian or African variety.) Then it was the turn of old ‘one tusk’ – a male who made a short appearance. He probably thought just one boat wasn’t worth the effort, although he did come to see us on our own the next afternoon, so I’m not complaining.
Supper with Irix
The final treat was sitting over dinner on our last night with Irix, our guide, exchanging tales of our very different lives. It was really interesting to hear about life in the villages up river. Families living in long houses, in one large room, and communities joining together in the tough times to manage funerals and family struggles. And of course, how they are managing the young ones who want a different life now.
We found some similarities – our family is very close. We all live in different houses, but in the same town and we’re always ready to help when needed. Otherwise life is really different. We apparently have so much more, but who is happiest? Irix who has no desire to leave the Kinabatangan River or us who fly all over the place looking for adventure? The jury is out.