Close encounters with orangutans, birds, and the largest flower in the world all await in Borneo, writes Georgia Tasker
THE DANUM VALLEY CONSERVATION AREA, SABAH, Borneo – Just after daybreak, we climb the 30-metre-high canopy walk in a lowland rain forest, watching for birds. Moving in a bouncy gait along the suspension bridge, we are discussing the orchids on the trees when suddenly a blurred flurry of orange hair in a wild fluttering and bending of leaves and branches is so startling that at first we don’t know what’s going on.
Then we realize we have awakened a mother orangutan and her son in their nest a few feet below us, and they are scrambling for cover.
The youngster is 3-to-5 years old, still without the dark face and cheek pads of an adult. His hair is wispy and thin on his round head, and his eyes are brown and serious, but ever so often he offers the briefest smile. While his mother stays hidden, he perches on a branch to watch us watching him. After a few minutes, he picks up a vine and twirls it like a lasso.
We have traveled halfway around the world to experience this moment, which never can be guaranteed. But here we were, 30 metres up on a tree platform in the largest virgin rain forest on the island, thrilled to be watching an orangutan in the wild.
Asia’s only great ape tops the list of wildlife and plants that brought us here. Male orangutans can reach 140 kilograms, twice the size of females, but this youngster probably weighs around 35. He will stay with his mother until he’s seven, after which he will become what his Malay name means: a man of the forest.
Bornean forests are home to Asian elephants, leopards, sun bears, orangs, even the world’s smallest squirrel (when scampering up a tree, it looks like a windup toy). An impressive bird list includes hornbills, storks and kingfishers. Huge numbers of orchids, palms, ferns and that bizarre parasitic flower, the rafflesia, are waiting to be seen.
Temperatures in places approach 40 degrees, and humidity is 95 percent. We encounter leeches, rats in a ceiling (one dropped onto one of us at 3 a.m.) and a cave tour that leads us on a grimy boardwalk above tons of bat guano alive with uncountable roaches and poisonous centipedes.
Oil palm plantations, land clearing and timber harvesting are destroying forests in Borneo (70 to 85 per cent of the forests had been felled in the last 30 years), and we decided to see this incredible biological richness before it disappears.
Mount Kinabalu, the highest in Southeast Asia at nearly 13,500 feet, is our first stop. For orchid lovers, it is Mecca. Some 1,000 species have been found on and around these slopes, including the imperiled lady-slipper, Paphiopedilum rothschildianum, which was discovered in the 19th century. That orchid’s location was falsified by early collectors to keep the source secret and the price up. Somehow it was lost until 1970, when the slipper was rediscovered in Mount Kinabalu National Park, now a World Heritage Site.
On the way to the park, our guide Adrian Chan leads us to a species of rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. The flower’s 17 species grow only between 500 and 600 metres on Borneo, Sumatra, Java and the Philippines. It is primo sight for plant lovers.
This one is orange, rubbery and decorated with raised spots. It parasitizes a specific vine. Both vine and flower are clinging to a ravine behind a residential house in a village just off the main road. Forty-four of 83 known flowering sites on Borneo are on private property, and landowners protect the habitat while earning money from tourists eager to see flowers that may reach three feet across.
Named for Sir Stamford Raffles, British founder of Singapore, our rafflesia has been open for five days and is disintegrating slightly at the edges. Its notorious rotting-meat smell has dissipated, however, so we can look into the center bowl, where a disc with fingerlike projections glows in an eerie light. Around it on the ground are flower buds ranging in size from golf balls to volleyballs. Each bud takes 10 months to develop and open.
Mount Kinabalu, where the spirits of the Dusun and Kadazan peoples are believed to reside, was sculpted by glaciers, left naked on top and punctured by a gully a mile deep. We set out the next day before sunup for bird-watching on its slopes, then tour the park’s orchid garden after breakfast. Scores of orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants, such as the Nepenthes rajah, with liter-size burgundy traps that digest scores of insects, are displayed in the mountainous setting. We see only one orchid along a hiking trail, however, a jewel orchid, collected more for its velvety, striped leaves than its tall spike of small flowers.
From Kota Kinabalu, known locally as KK, we fly to the city of Sandakan, on the northeast coast, and board an outboard to Selingan (Turtle) Island to overnight and watch sea turtles nest. A turtle hatchery was set up here in 1966. Every night, rangers patrol the beaches, quietly searching for green and hawksbill turtles that come ashore to lay eggs. They collect the eggs, count them, tag the mothers and move eggs to hand-dug sandy holes protected with wire cylinders.
Within swimming distance of the Philippines, Selingan is a desertlike research station so hot at midday that we retreat to our monastic room to catnap and read. Powerful black monitor lizards and rats stalk the dry forests and steal turtle eggs. Some of the rats have taken up residence in the ceiling of our room, which has a closet, small chest, twin beds and a sink. In late afternoon, it’s cool enough to snorkel, so we venture into the Sulu Sea.
After dinner, we sweat and wait for a signal that a turtle has nested. In a warm rain, we watch a three-foot green turtle squeeze out 124 eggs. She is untagged, so this is her first brood. Each of us in a group of a dozen visitors holds a small, leathery egg, then we gently place them in their new sand pit where, in two months’ time, hatchlings will fight their way to the surface.
Finally, we are allowed to hold a hatchling, feel the power of those tiny flippers, enclose it in our cupped palms before releasing it.
It is after the release of the hatchlings that sleep is undone by the falling rat. My friend’s scream jolts me awake, and I see her sitting bolt upright in her bed. The rat had fallen, probably from the window curtains, and landed, plop!, on her face. She lies awake until dawn.
From the island, we boat back to Sandakan, spend a couple of hours at the Sepilok rehabilitation center for orangutans, then board another boat on the Kinabatangan River. We disembark at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, tucked snugly in the middle of a wildlife sanctuary. The next two days, we go everywhere by longboat, and it seems the height of eco-luxury to be guided (even in rain) up and down the longest river in Sabah looking for wildlife.
We gaze and peer and find purple herons, a Brahminy kite, a serpent eagle, darters, imperial pigeons, swifts, kingfishers, white-crested and black hornbills, sunbirds, and our prize, a rare and seldom-seen Storm’s stork.
From our skiff, we watch a large proboscis monkey with his wives and babies occupy an enormous tree at dawn and dusk along the river.
At the lodge, built on stilts in Malaysian style, ceiling fans and hot water run on solar power. A small library is in the main building, as is the dining room and a lounge with sofas. Over the river is a sun deck for candlelight dining or morning coffee. We wear sarongs to dinner, and leave shoes at the door.
After rain, these lowland forests are full of leeches. They attach to the ends of leaves and perform leechy belly dances trying to sense the heat of a passing mammal or even bird. We leave our little boat and confront them on our single hike in this forest. Thin as matchsticks before finding you, they inject an anesthesia at the sucking spot, and drop off when full. A rule of thumb is this: the lead hiker’s body heat alerts the leech, the second hiker gets the leech, the third hiker is free to pass untouched.
My friend, second in line, gets a leech on her arm, but cavalierly insists I take a picture of it. Didn’t feel a thing, she says, plucking it off. Later, though, she feels a tickle and a short engorged leech on her stomach, and she doesn’t wait for a photograph. She gets the guide to pull it off. Now.
Yet, in this remote and wild place, where friendships over dinner are easily struck and nature is at her fecund best, our lives seem graced indeed.
Our last stop in Borneo is Danum Valley, where we arrive by car. We stay at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, with enormous open-air lounge, dining room and bar on the second floor overlooking the Danum River. It is here that we see the orangutans, watch rhinoceros hornbills play tag in the morning, admire a metre-at-the-shoulder bearded pig, and climb a 1,000-metre-high hill to see red-throated barbets. On the way up, our guide shows us the way his tribe buries its dead: in caskets made of tree trunks that are hoisted by ropes to ledges of limestone cliffs. We scale a tree-limb ladder and find human remains.
We drive back to KK, and spend one day getting to our next stop: Miri, a tiny coastal town. At Miri, we pare down baggage to 40 pounds, and hop into a small plane to Mulu in Sarawak, where a swamp and four caves are waiting.
I’m not overwhelmed with the idea of caves. On our drive from Sukau to Danum Valley, we visited the Gomantong Cave and it had been an unexpected horror. This is the most famous cave in Sabah. Three kinds of swiftlets nest here, but only those in the highest reaches build their nests of pure saliva. These are the delicacies made by the Chinese into bird’s-nest soup. A single nest may sell for $4,000 U.S. The government regulates harvesting now, but four times a year men are strapped to 100-foot ladders and raised up to remove the nests, once babies have fledged.
They’ve been doing that for 400 years. Not once has the floor of swiftlet and bat guano been cleared out, and the smell is ungodly. Little wonder the roaches are more plentiful than stars. The narrow boardwalk and handrail were slippery with guano, the roaches and giant centipedes were on the walls and the floor, and stretching my T-shirt to my nose, I was so appalled, my toes curled. Outside, all I could do was shudder. But at least, I told myself, I had seen it and now understood why those bird’s nests were so dreadfully expensive.
Mulu’s caves, however, are more rewarding. Three of four are lighted to show beautiful formations; the fourth, Deer Cave, is the world’s largest cave passage and home to millions of bats. The caves make up the world’s largest-known cave system, yet only about a third of the passages have been explored in the mountains that now are in a national park.
Perhaps the best part is the nightly emergence of the bats, which come out in waves of hundreds and stay in formation until they reach a certain altitude to disperse for nightly insect-eating. We watch a doughnut-shaped group stay perfectly in formation until it disappears.
Then we head back to the five-star Royal Mulu Resort, where dinner’s a buffet, and the rooms are air-conditioned.
Throughout the year, Intrepid Travel operates a number of fantastic adventures that will have you exploring Malaysian Borneo, either with a small group of like-minded travellers or independently on an arranged itinerary.
Sabah – Land Beneath the Wind
13 days ex Kota Kinabalu
Trip Style: Intrepid Original
Highlights: Kota Kinabalu, Mt Kinabalu climb, orangutans, Turtle Island, Malay homestay, jungle camp, Sandakan
Brief: Sabah, the land beneath the wind, is simply breathtaking. Join Intrepid as we meet orangutans and sea turtles on a trip that will have you lazing on beaches, soaking in hot springs, exploring tribal villages and climbing the mighty Mt Kinabalu.
Departure: Departs every Sunday
Price: AU$860, plus Local Payment of US$200 per person
A Taste of Sabah
6 days ex Kota Kinabalu
Trip Style: Intrepid Independent
Highlights: Mt Kinabalu climb, orangutans, Turtle Island, Sandakan
Brief: A fantastic introduction to natural Borneo, from the giant turtles to the awesome peak of Mt Kinabalu. Sabah is filled with rare and exotic wildlife and this trip takes in the very best.
Departure: Departs daily
Price: from AU$890 per person (seasonal pricing applies)
For more information on travelling in Borneo with Intrepid Travel, please visit www.intrepidtravel.com, free call 1300 360 887, or come and see us at 360 Bourke Street, Melbourne.
Know before you go
Best time of year to travel? Borneo has a typical tropical climate – generally hot and humid throughout the year. Temperatures stay in the high 20’s most of the year dropping back to the low 20’s at night. As in most tropical areas the rain falls in short heavy bursts with sunshine following. In theory, the wet season runs from November through to February, but in reality you can expect some rain at any time of the year. Sabah is famed for being below the monsoon belt and is known as the ‘Land Below the Wind’
Religion: Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Animist & other spiritual & tribal beliefs
Language: Bahasa Malaysian, Chinese & many other tribal languages and dialects
Currency: Ringgit (MYR)
Visas: A 3-month visa is free on entry into Malaysia. (Please note: If you are planning on sidestepping to Brunei, you may need to obtain a visa prior to arrival.)
Electricity: 220 – 240V, 50hz AC