In Born-e-o (sung to the refrain of ‘Aquarius’)

Man of the ForestA week in Borneo is K’s birthday present. As most of you know, she has a long history with monkeys. But an ape she has never met. There are only two places on the planet where the great red-haired men-of-the-forest, the orangutan, live: one is Sumatra; and the other is Borneo.

The journey to Borneo really starts in Bangkok, where for us all trips begin. Getting back from India we are literally plunged immediately into a social milieu, running into our friend Peter while we still have our packs on our backs. Peter is an engaging and eccentric Englishman, who like us spends half the year in Asia, and has done so for many years. The next day Peter is meeting his friend Gail at the airport, and we invite them over to our utilitarian but “Absolutely Cheap” pad for duty-free Bombay G and T’s. Gail has relocated to southern Spain, and is in town to restock jewelry for her shop there. The next day we all meet for an evening beer at the usual spot, the Gecko, and the circle grows. Roger from Austria is there – he almost always is – and we are pleased to see Duane from Hawaii. Duane is also an importer, and we have been running into him in this neighbourhood for the last several years. Soon we are joined by Tom and Sue, friends of Peter’s and also, ahem, importers. Tom is off to Tibet the next day, where he sources the goods his shop specializes in.

Also coming the next day is Barbara from Jersey, also, ahem, with an imported goods Boris in Bangkokstore. She is a slim energetic blonde, and she and Peter are making plans to go to Burma together. In amongst this social action we also get together with Boris, our French ex-pat friend living in Bangkok. Unfortunately, Boris isn’t too keen on Thai food; but this is one of the most cosmopolitan corners of the universe, and we choose to eat (admittedly very good) falafel in a back alley place. Later Boris takes us well out of our usual stomping grounds, across the river to Thonburi where Bangkok still feels like a small Thai town, and then far to the southern edge of the city where a market sprawls along a network of canals.

When we leave Bangkok we make our way to Borneo – via Singapore. Singapore is always a treat – it’s beautiful, green, clean, and has such a mixed population that we don’t immediately get pigeon-holed as “alien”. But even better it has Frank and Kerry. Frank is an old friend of K’s, and she re-connected with him for the first time in 17 years last year. They hit it off immediately, and it’s easy to see why. Living lifeFrank and decantor large, Frank and Kerry are full of fun and generosity. Frank was just back from Bombay when we arrived, where it looks likely he will be setting up an office for his company. The evening started out with wine, and wine kept flowing well into the night, as Kerry, a dedicated Chelsea fan, was staying up anyway to see her team take on lowly Barnsley in the F.A. Cup. The wine in this case was probably a good thing, as Barnsley stunned the football world by beating the powerhouse London team.

And so, with several days working our way back up the Malay peninsula through Kuala Lumpur and a pretty little town called Taiping, we came to be in the airport of Penang, with our tickets to Borneo.

Borneo is a massive island – the world’s third largest – and the vast majority of it belongs to the Indonesian state of Kalimantan. Along the N. E. coast are the two East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, and in between them the tiny Sultanate of Brunei. We are flying into the capital of Sarawak, Kuching.

It is already dark when we arrive. We are only a few degrees north of the equator, and the night is as hot and perfumed with humidity as you would expect, but after so many hours in ice-box airports and planes, we have to ask our taxi driver to turn the A.C. down because we are so cold.

We have a room in a typically peculiar place, St. Thomas Anglican Cathedral Guest House. It was built in 1905, and no doubt many missionary priests have stayed here on their way to the notorious Iban and Dayak head-hunting tribes in the dark and god-less interior. View of KuchingWhat we get is a dormitory-sized room with smoothly polished hardwood floors and a view of a Chinese temple, a furnished balcony/sitting area, and a fully equipped kitchen. It is actually larger than our apartment, and would be a great place for a party. But there are stern signs demanding SILENCE, and a set of rules stapled to the door including an injunction against “merry-making”.

Kuching is a pleasant town with an old Chinese section cluttered up along the river, and more than its share of galleries, coffee bars and interesting shops. We soon know all the “antique” dealers, and are trying to figure out how to get a 9′ long long-house totem pole home on the plane. In the end we settle for a load of distictive Sarawak sarongs and weavings, and some heavy brass earings from thesarawak sarongs Orang Ulu people.

The day after we arrive is the day set aside to go out to Semenggoh to see the orangutans. The sanctuary was established to facilitate the transition of captive and orphaned apes back into the wild. In some ways it has departed from that mandate, since it depends on public support, and the public want to see orangutans, not just a forest where they were successfully rehabilitated. The center has feedings twice a day, when large amounts of fruit are set out on platforms, and we plan to get to Semenggoh for the 9am event.

It seems most other people don’t make their way here on the public transit system. From the park gate, where we are dropped, it is 1.3 km to the feeding area, and we are the only ones sweating it out up the hills on foot as A.C. mini-vans with tour groups speed past us.Delima and Selina It’s a good thing we weren’t expecting an intimate wilderness experience, as the parking lot is full when we get there. However, there are orangutans in the trees, and they are so beautiful and rather quizzically philosophical about it all that it is easy to ignore the people. The old matriarch Delima is the star of the moment, with her youngster, Selina, clinging to her back. She is sitting on the ground a dozen feet away, deciding whether to dine at the smaller but closer platform in this clearing, or at the main feeding station 500m away through the forest. She opts for the forest feeding station, and she chooses the public path to get there. The park staff are frantically calling to people to get out of the way, “she is tempermental!”, as she lopes off purposefully over the foot-bridge. It is a covered bridge, and on its walls are pictures of Delima when Selina was just a wide-eyed muppet. The baby is now 3 years old, and Delima’s face is more lines and tired. It’s no wonder that she gets grumpy.

As they are heading off, a young male comes out of the forest in dramatic fashion on two Upside down breakfastover-head cables. He shimmies down the tree to the feeding platform head-first, reaches an impossibly long arm out to select a bunch of bananas, transfers them to his right foot, and turns himself around to climb back up the tree, bananas in his toes, all without a slip, a sound, or a strain. Then he dangles himself in mid-air holding the cable with his right hand and right foot, and has breakfast.

The viewing area for the main platform is a short walk through the jungle. Even from this distance, and even with a crowd of people around it is marvelous to watch these beautiful creatures, startlingly orange amid the relentless green of the forest.

We are awed and quiet when we decide to leave the viewing area, thinking that the experience is over. But the best is yet to come. A young male has slipped through theChecking out the cousins forest, and for reasons of his own wants to have a good look at at his odd primate cousins. He settles into a tree right beside the path as we approach. His eyes are dark deep still pools. He is calm, and un-threatening, and although most people have stopped I continue walking past him, within a few feet, in as relaxed a manner as possible. K., I know, resists the temptation to invite him to house-sit in Vancouver (or alternatively join him off in the forest), and we walk back out of Semenggoh, satisfied with out experience.

I would love to take advantage of more of the amazing possibilities that Sarawak has to offer, such as visiting the tribal Kelambit Highlands, travelling by boat into the interior on the Batang Rajang River, seeing the ornately carved long-houses at Kampong Telian, or the vast cave systems at Mulu. But we only have a few days, and so we reserve accommodation for our last two nights in Bako National Park, on the coast just north of Santubong peninsulaKuching.

A public bus takes us to the launching area, and from there it is a 30 minute boat ride out of the mangrove-lined estuary and up the coast to park H.Q. Even without re-enforcing it by telling ourselves that we are on the coast of Borneo, the area is impossibly romantic and mysterious. The lost-world looking bulk of the Santubong peninsula is cloud-draped off to the west as we skid by small caves and limestone cliffs dripping with jungle. Even the park compound is wild and wonderful, and within 1/2 an hour weviper have seen numerous macaques, a bearded pig, monitor lizards and two beautiful, chartreuse, diamond-headed vipers. A short afternoon hike out to Teluk Paku takes us through jungle like jungle was meant to be. The air is as hot and humid as a sauna, and so fresh it feels as if we are breathing pure oxygen. Small streams bubble out of black caverns, tree trunks rise straight and smooth into an unbroken canopy, and creepers and vines cover everything. Up above us in the tree-tops there is a rustling sound, and we spot one of probiscus monkeyBorneo’s unique and famous citizens, the probiscus monkey.

Probiscus, of course, is Latin for “nose”, and I’m grateful to the biologist who resisted the temptation to call them “Honking Big Shnoz Monkeys”. On our hike the next day to the Tajor waterfall we see many more, up close, and you can’t help but be impressed by their huge, comical, unavoidable…eyes!

The trail to the waterfall climbs to a plateau and a completely different eco-system, dominated by scrubby brush and numerous species of carnivorous pitcher plants. There is no shade, and the sun is like a hammer, but it is hardly better when we enter areas of forest, and there is no breeze, and our bodies are dripping like humidifiers. The falls, therefore, are a huge relief, even thoughTajor pools the water has perculated through the loamy underbrush, and is the colour of dark tea. K is somewhat reluctant at first to go into the opaque, unfathomable jungle-lines pools, but I am too hot to care, and plunge in.

The next morning is routine as usual: coffee on the deck as the jungle bugs buzz in chorus and monkeys scamper along the board-walks and the bearded pigs snuffle around the yard and someone spots a rare flying lemur in a tree. bearded pigs in the yardThen, however, we get in a boat, and then a bus, and then a taxi, and then a plane, and then we are in Penang, and then next morning we catch another flight and we are back in Bangkok. All of a sudden everything is completely different. But this is Bangkok, and it is where trips begin.set:72157604327549665

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