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Postcard from Borneo: encounters with my cousins and other animals

February 25, 2018

I am not, or was not until recently, a fan of going out to seek the glories of nature. Like many couch potatoes, I prefer others to do it for me. I love the Attenborough programmes – the Blue Planet and all – for their miraculous photography, and for revealing things about the natural world that we might never otherwise know. And no doubt, when he’s old enough, we will take our grandson to the zoo, where he will be as thrilled by the elephants, tigers and giraffes as my kids were.

When I’m abroad, I find it easier to rouse myself to go out and visit the works of man (or should I say people, Mr Trudeau?) than to commune with wildlife. Give me churches, mosques, temples and amphitheatres any day. To indulge in nature, you have to go to inconvenient places where you risk falling off cliffs, being struck by bits of flying lava or eaten by lions. Buildings don’t usually threaten your personal safety, but some do speak to you as eloquently as the natural world.

That said, the glories of Borneo lie not in buildings but in the endless rainforest, packed with mammals, birds, reptiles and all manner of creepy crawlies. It would have been churlish not to pay homage to them.

So when we arrived in Sandakan, one of the two main cities in Sabah, at the end of our current jaunt through the Far East, we resolved to leave as soon as possible. It’s an ugly city, built by the British as the main point of export for hardwood and rubber, fought over and destroyed by the Japanese and the Australians in World War 2, and rebuilt around a number of hideous concrete buildings that dominate the skyline.

But beyond the town lies the Kinabatangan river. It flows from the interior, through patches of virgin rainforest, past palm oil plantations and ends up winding its way through impenetrable mangrove forests through to the sea.

About 90 kilometres up-river sits the Sukau Eco Lodge, which, as the name suggests, is very eco. Just about everything is recycled. This was where we came to commune with whatever wildlife chose to show itself during our three-day stay.

You get there by boat, which takes about two hours, assuming there’s nothing to capture your attention on the journey. Each tour party is accompanied by a guide, whose job is to point you towards everything worth seeing on the tree-lined shores.

“Are zere Hotteurs here”? It took a few seconds to figure out that the elderly French gentleman was asking about the presence of otters. To which the answer was yes. But we didn’t see any.

Our tour party was dominated by French birdwatchers. I’d thought always the French were mainly interested in blasting birds out of the sky and then eating them. These folks proved me wrong. Armed with high powered binoculars, cameras that must have cost thousands, they ventured forth on the river, grimly determined to see every orangutan, proboscis Monkey and hornbill that hung out in the dense vegetation on the banks.

As I said earlier, I’m not a naturist, and certainly not a birder, or twitcher as we call them in England. Until now, my interest in birds has been limited to the robins in my garden and the red kItes hovering over my local golf course. I’m not sure that this trip has changed that. But I was amazed by the powers of observation both of Raman, our guide, and the Gallic Six. A large bird would flap at a stately pace over the river, and Raman would shout “sea eagle”, “heron” or “crested hornbill”. How on earth he made such an identification of what was merely a dark shape on the horizon is beyond me. But sure enough, as they landed on nearby trees, he turned out to be right.

And if he didn’t spot them, the French did. It was so taken with the enthusiasm of my fellow tourists that every time I saw an animal with wings, I wanted to scream out “look – a bird!” even if the creature turned out to be a humble pigeon. Not a humble pigeon as we know them in Trafalgar Square, mind you, but an Imperial Pigeon. Definitely a cut above. But it still looked like a pigeon to me.

But even if the pigeons didn’t produce gasps of admiration, most of the birds were heartbreakingly beautiful – herons, hummingbirds, hornbills, egrets, parakeets, birds of paradise, kingfishers and all.

Then there were the small animals. We went into raptures over a squirrel. Again, not the grey pest that hangs off every tree at home, but a black squirrel, or a red one that glides from tree to tree. Even a Pygmy squirrel, which looked much like a mouse to me, sent shivers down the spine.

Birds, however, are quite ephemeral. You see them, and a few seconds later they’re off to pastures new.

For my wife and me, the highlights of the four trips we made on the river – at different times of the day to catch different species – were the primates.

The boss species in terms of size and star quality were the orangutans. There aren’t that many left in the wild, so we were lucky to see a sleepy-looking female foraging for figs, and then a family of three, mum and two kids, just hanging around at odd angles off the branches of a tree overhanging a limestone cliff.

They are beautiful creatures. They have a sweet, slightly melancholy, demeanour. By all accounts they’re smarter than gorillas. Certainly they look less grouchy.

Then the proboscis monkeys, so named because the male has a long droopy nose like an elephant’s trunk gone wrong. The longer the nose, the more virile he appears to his adoring harem. The females aren’t so blessed. She has an upturned nose. They are only to be found in Borneo. Like the orangutan, they’re endangered, but they hang out in reasonably large numbers along the river.

Unlike the orangutan, which is a relatively solitary animal, the proboscis form family groups. A dominant male, surrounded by women and children. Very Saudi I thought, remembering patriarchs in the shopping malls of Riyadh with wives and kids in tow. Very Malaysian too, according to our guide. We saw plenty of them, hanging out along the river, jumping from branch to branch or just sleeping. Or at least the women and the kids do, while the alpha male hangs impassively form a nearby branch.

Proboscis family

More common than either species is the long-tailed macaque. Smaller, quite aggressive, often fighting each other, and not fans of the human race, at least in Borneo. I’ve met these before. Near Ubud, in Bali, there’s a monkey forest packed full of them, waiting for bananas to be thrown at them by the visitors, who buy them in bunches from street vendors.

Macaques in Bali

My anthropocentric perception of macaques is that they’re the primate equivalent of football hooligans. Arguing with each other, ganging up, backing down and generally behaving in a threatening manner, particularly towards the other team.

The fourth species we saw was the silver leaf monkey, which was somewhat overshadowed by the others. The only thing of note our guide said about them was that most of their young start with red hair, and go silver at about a year old. Some, however, stay a silvery red, but fit right in with their silvery brothers and sisters. No ethnic cleansing here, I’m glad to say.

Hornbills, eagles and crocodiles we saw. Leopards, elephants and pythons we didn’t. The good thing about the bit of rain forest we visited is that it’s a reservation. No tourists are allowed to set foot in it. It’s mercifully protected from the scourge of the palm oil plantations that have destroyed so much of the Borneo rain forest.

Rhinoceros Hornbill

The Eco Lodge where we stayed is full of enthusiastic, dedicated Malaysians who love their jobs. You can see a pretty neat video on their website here. It recycles everything, including the large quantities of sewage resulting from their generous provision of three meals a day. Four squat green cylinders at the back of our villa appeared to be the end stage of the process, even though they were odourless and seemingly inert.

There’s a long boardwalk into the rain forest where you can look at birds, insects, trees and any passing furry mammals. Much to the delight of the French contingent who spent considerable time taking photos of a scrawny little orchid that grows at ground level. This apparently is quite rare. Usually orchids in this forest transplant themselves into trees.

The rain forest walkway

I wanted to shout out every time I saw something flying past – such as one of the large black and white butterflies that abounded in the forest. In fact, I became quite competitive. I wanted to be the first to make a significant sighting, but the damned French always got there first. Rather like Martin Sheen and his buddies chugging up the Mekong in Apocalypse Now keeping an eye open for Viet Cong, our comrades trained their binoculars to pick up the slightest twitch or tree disturbance that indicated the presence of their beloved hornbills, kingfishers and herons.

In a way, it was quite a sanitised experience. We were spared the less pleasant aspects of the rainforest – no hacking through the jungle at the mercy of leeches, poisonous snakes and other nasties. And the rainforest was spared our intrusion. Yet sitting on the balcony at night, we felt very close to the various creatures cackling, cawing and crowing away in the darkness close by. And cruising down the river, we saw enough creatures to satisfy even the insatiable French without ever getting close enough to bother them.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world. We only scratched the surface. But the villagers we saw looked very different from the “natives” pictured crowded admiringly around a refrigerator in the 1930. I always thought of Borneo as a land of head-hunters. Maybe there are a few left, but certainly not in the coastal areas.

Large parts of the island are now dedicated to palm oil cultivation. Now I’m not consumed with guilt over the effects of colonisation, but I couldn’t help thinking that all those millions of hectares of rainforest burnt down to produce Nutella wouldn’t perhaps have suffered that fate if it wasn’t for us Brits, who in the 19th century thought we would find gold and silver, and settled for hardwood and rubber instead.

Fortunately, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, indiscriminate forest clearing is no longer happening, and the government has set up rain-forest reserves. The rain forests can return, given time. South of the island, in Indonesian Kalimantan, “accidental” fires still break out, to be followed by palm oil plantations. A couple of years ago, when on holiday in Thailand, we felt the effect of these fires. For about a week, the area where we were staying was covered by a smoke haze that led most of the locals too wear face masks. I came home with a chest infection that took a month to clear.

To the north, there’s an increasing awareness that eco-tourism is a major income generator. If there’s no ecology, there will be no tourists. So things are changing for the better, even if local villagers on the river continue to toss their waste into the water with little regard for the consequences.

Has Borneo turned me into an eco-warrior? Not quite, though I have been dreaming in recent days of hornbills and pterodactyls. But anyone wanting to see nature in all its glory could do worse than adding this beautiful island to their schedule. The locals are delightful – friendly and welcoming. The food’s great – this is, after all, Malaysia. And the wildlife is beyond amazing.

If our trip taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need to rely on what you see on TV while munching your popcorn. The glories of nature are out there, and you don’t need to be an intrepid explorer to witness them. And you don’t need to destroy ancient habitats in the process.

So whether you’re young or old, and if you’re tired of malls, temples and museums, go forth to Borneo, and catch up with some of your cousins.

(By the way, I had to cheat with some of the photos, because my IPhone couldn’t hack it. So thank you Wikipedia Commons for the pics of the orangutan, proboscis and hornbill) 

From → Postcards, Travel

  1. Abdullah Wallace permalink

    Thanks Steve. It’s nice to read some positive reporting during these dreary days.

  2. Thanks Abdullah. Unfortunately I’m back in the UK tomorrow, so normal service will no doubt be resumed!

  3. I was thinking of going to Borneo in November and see Camp Leaky with the Orangutans and also go diving. How did you find the transportation to get around the country?

    • Camp Leakey is in Kalimantan, in the Indonesian part of the island, to the south. We were in Sabah, which is part of Malaysia. So I can’t speak to the roads in Kalimantan. Airports in Indonesia are pretty good though. If transportation turns out to be difficult (which I doubt) try Sabah, and go to one of the eco-lodges on Kinabatangan River, which I mentioned in the post you liked. Good luck, and enjoy your trip! S

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