Welcome to the first blog post from outside the UK. I’m currently lounging in the lounge of a very pleasent flat somewhere in Singapore, though in truth, using the train system has totally disoriented me, so I’m not totally sure where I am. Not to worry.
Over the past week and a bit, Dan (my friend in Singapore) and I have been off on holiday in Borneo. However there’s a ridiculous amount of stuff to talk about, so I’ll just cover a few choice bits of it in this post. Events have all occurred rather rapidly in the recent past, and unfortunately there hasn’t been a great deal of time for writing, hence this is going to be a bit of a catch up, and a bit of chat about the first leg of my travels. You may have noticed a missing post or two about what I have with me, so to save another very dry post detailing very little of interest, I have an android tablet, a waterproof camera, a slightly nackered old smart phone, a kindle stuffed with books, and a small pair of binoculars (set of binoculars? Binocular?… Yeah, one of those things).
Right, on to Borneo.
We arrived in Kota Kinabalu (aka, K.K.), a large town in the north west of Borneo, in the Sabah region of Malaysia. It has one of the larger international airports on Borneo (still not very big by many standards), and seems to be a fairly popular entry point for travellers. The taxi ride from the airport into town gave us a good measure of the way of things in Malaysia, with the taxi ducking and diving between slower traffic (ie most traffic), the ride costing about 5-10 times as much as a bus (we thought it safer to get a taxi as we had no idea where we were going), and yet still costing very little by UK standards. For the first night we had also prearranged a hostel to stay in, which worked out quite nicely, though a week of hostelling later, I think we would have been fine just turning up and looking for somewhere to stay (note: we’re travelling in the quiet season, so there aren’t too many travellers around… And it rains a fair bit). While K.K. was a lovely town with plenty to do for a day or two, we hadn’t gone all the way to Borneo to look at it’s urban centres (or at least not only for that), and so the following morning we went for a lovely roti (along the lines of a pancake), and then caught a 5 hour bus across the country to a small place called Sepilok, where there was (among other things) an Orangutan rehabilitation centre, a sunbear rehabilitation centre (which we didn’t go to due to time restrictions), and the base for a “jungle tours” company called Uncle Tan’s, where we would be spending a few days (accompanied with the blurb about me not being paid to talk about Uncle Tan’s, opinions are my own blah blah etc etc).
The Orangutan rehabilitation centre was my first experience of Rainforest proper. The Orangutans here are largely orphaned youngsters who’s parents may have been trapped and killed, caught for the pet trade, or suffered from deforestation. A set of boardwalks formed the tourist area, totalling a kilometre or so in a loose circle with limbs coming off here and there out into the forest. Mostly this was formed of a nursery area and a feeding area for young Orangutans, though the reserve itself is 43 sq km, with further forest beyond that, so they have quite an area to roam around in, and they aren’t restricted at all. Apparently the Orangutans are fed quite a bland diet at the centre, and therefore as they become more independent they are naturally encouraged to go and find more exciting food stuffs. It became evident that this is the case when, at feeding time, one Orangutan turned up (there were also a couple with very young babies in the nursery area). Considering this is entirely free, easy to find, food, it suggests that the Orangutans aren’t dependent on the human contributions, which is a very good sign for the future of these young apes. As great as it was to see Orangutans out in the forest, it did feel like a slightly synthetic setup, in a similar way to Zoos, you go expecting to see animals and lo and behold you see animals.
The next part of the trip was rather unlike the rehabilitation centre. We were heading out up the Kinabatangan river to what could only be described as a patch of rainforest. We were staying in huts built on stilts over a large swamp area, joined together by board walks. There was a toilet block, a canteen/lounge, a small football pitch, staff lodgings, and 8 huts for visitors which could (potentially) hold 5-6 people each. However on our visit there were about 7 people (including us) the first night, and 5 the second…. The beauty of going in the off season.
The trips largely involved going out in small boats and travelling up and down the rivers with highly experienced local guides who seemed to have phenomenal eyesight. On these we saw Long Tailed Macacques (which the local people affectionately refer to as the jungle Mafia), the famed Proboscis monkey, assorted hornbills (which are very impressive), and some very large white bellied sea eagles amongst other bits. The beauty of these trips was that the animals simply weren’t at all scared of the boats, and so we got some fantastic views. On one such trip we saw a wild Orangutan (trust me, it’s in that picture, honest) which was amazing, and gave a much more satisfying feeling of achievement than the orangutans in the sanctuary, even though it was at a fair distance and quite quickly disappeared back into the forest.
Considering a vast portion of the forest around that area had been cut down and replaced with oil palm (there may be a future post about oil palm, suffice to say seeing the monocultures across Malaysia is simply jaw dropping (from an ecologist’s point of view, for all the wrong reasons)), seeing that Orangutans (a key indicator around Borneo) were still living free so close was very encouraging (and led to some interesting discussions about the potential vs realised threats of oil palm). Another boat trip at night revealed a whole different raft of forest denizens, from sleeping birds which don’t respond at all to your presence, to this lovely little crocodile (full length perhaps 30cm), which our guide spotted from a good 200m away.
The highlights of the trip though came in the form of two rainforest walks, one during the day (which our guide referred to as “the boring walk” as it was mostly showing assorted plants and their uses), and one at night where we learnt to look for the reflected light of our torches in assorted animals eyes (if memory serves, green =spider, orange = mammal, yellow = reptile/amphibian). While the daytime walk was very interesting, and taught us about the uses of rattan, wild yams, Orangutan trees, and the stories surrounding the mysterious ghost trees, Dan and I both agree that the night walk was the absolute highlight of the whole Borneo trip.
This started with 2 hours of boat ride right into the depths of a rainforest sanctuary (totally protected area), surrounded by the most amazing (largely) untouched rainforest, with assorted monkeys and birds hanging out of every other tree. We then waited in silence as night fell and the sounds of the rainforest awoke, with a whole flock (is that the correct collective noun?) of flying foxes passing over, and stars completely untainted by any form of ground lighting. This was one of those experiences which no amount of photos could even plausiblely begin to describe, suffice to say I ran out of superlatives, and got stuck describing every sight, sound, and smell as “incredible”. Once night had fallen we pulled in to a nondescript bit of forest and started walking around, torches at the ready for anything of interest. Again, surrounded by only rainforest sounds (and the sloshing of our wellies through the waterlogged undergrowth) this was an elemental experience (yes, it was sufficiently awesome that I’ve taken to making up adjectives to describe it), made all the better for seeing a Civet, a blue (something) tarantula which was MASSIVE and about a meter or two above us, and various birds including the kingfisher below (which looks like it’s artificially coloured, but assure you it isn’t).
Arguably the best part of this walk though came when we returned back to the boat. While our guide started preparing the boat for the journey, Dan and I decided to have one last go at looking for eye shine, and spotted this little fella.
It’s an extremely small primate called a Western Tarsier, and is one of the national animals of Borneo. Now in itself, spotting this was pretty good, but the thing which really threw this experience into the phenomenal was our guide’s response to it. He had never personally seen a Tarsier, though he had lived in the forest for a vast portion of his life, and his response was as though this had absolutely made his year. It was clear that he was extremely passionate about the wild life around the area (having been a hunter in the forest in his past life), and it gave a great sense of the people’s respect for the forest.
Anyway, I’ll leave it there for now. Feel free to give some feedback on style/substance of posts.
Until next time