In search of Borneo’s elusive ‘man of the forest’

Deep in a jungled land, where monkeys and apes share the trees with myriad snakes, birds and giant insects – and the orangutan

Geoff CarpentierAs the flight neared the Borneo shore, the forest merged from the fog. The steam wafted skyward, slowly and mysteriously revealing the grandeur of the last remaining patches of Malaysian rainforest.

Thoughts of strange wild men and headhunters still lingered as I contemplated my imminent arrival in Kota Kinabalu (K.K. to the locals), the capital of Sabah.

The city unfolded below me and I could see its modern outline. My thoughts of a land too wild dissipated as quickly as the fog over the forest.

As a nature-focused tour guide, I had been here before. But I couldn’t get enough so I had returned with an eager entourage of excited nature lovers.

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is comprised of the Malaysian states of Sabah (straddling the north coast of Borneo) and Sarawak, the independent country of Brunei, and the Indonesian provinces of East, South, West and Central Kalimantan.

We came to see this jungled land, where monkeys and apes share the trees with myriad snakes, birds and giant insects.

But it was the ‘man of the forest’ – the orangutan – we most wanted to see.

The local guides spoke of a place where orphaned and injured orangutans are brought for care and it’s here we went first. After a short flight from K.K., we arrived in Sandakan. A brief cab ride brought us to Sepilok, the primate rehabilitation facility.

The setting is serene – forest on all sides, 4,000 hectares to be exact.

Tourists waited for the 10 a.m. orangutan feeding. Soon the crowd streamed to the viewing area. We chose a good vantage point and waited.

We heard the first ape rustling the branches before we saw it, and then another and another, until 11 were before us. We watched in awe at the bizarre image – arms and legs everywhere – the ultimate ‘bad hair days’ topping their torsos. What strange but beautiful creatures.

With surprising gentleness, they gingerly took bananas from the keeper and ate them, reaching for another even before the first was consumed. No fights, no squabbling, just polite feeding and sharing.

Soon a pig-tailed macaque, a small short-tailed monkey, joined the show. He was an unwelcome intruder but he took a share nonetheless.

After 20 minutes, it was over – but the memories will last!

The journey could have ended here and we would have been satisfied, but there was much more to come.

Skirting the edge of the Sulu Sea, we arrived at the Kinabatangan River. It’s the lifeblood of this part of Borneo, providing food and a corridor for travel to otherwise unreachable places.

Boat traffic was sparse as we plied its dirty brown waters upriver to the jungle lodges that awaited. We soon learned the brown water tells of erosion, deforestation and farming upstream.

For two hours we continued, marvelling at every turn and watching for wild things – and we weren’t disappointed.

Proboscis monkeys and long-tailed macaques used the overhanging branches as their highway, while crocodiles and water monitors staked out pieces of the shoreline. Egrets, darters and diminutive kingfishers chased swarming schools of fish as swallows and swifts hawked for insects overhead. And we were truly fortunate to glimpse three pygmy Asian elephants.

We stayed at Bukit Melapi Lodge, near the village of Sukau, where each day started with quiet reflection – hornbills (like flying, squawking dinosaurs) passed overhead and tiny tailorbirds flitted through the under story. A monkey screamed from the jungle, as if to say, “I’m awake. Are you?”

April, a delightful young woman working at the lodge, explained what our stay would entail. We were about to get very busy!

For the next few days, we were up early and to bed late as we explored Oxbow Lake, took day and night river cruises, and hiked through the jungle.

We were introduced to the tiger leech – a forest creature that enjoys nibbling on tourists as much as the next critter. Everyone wore green leech socks – unattractive but effective against these voracious blood suckers.

We saw a very big reticulated python on one of our night drives, watching it move its five-metre body soundlessly along the muddy shore.

A stork-billed kingfisher, its bright coral beak gleaming in the sun, waited from a favoured perch for a fish for dinner. Soon it launched and dove headfirst into the river, emerging with a shiny prize.

Animals were everywhere and the show was spectacular, since life went on as if we weren’t there.

Too soon we moved on – world-famous caves beckoned. At Gomantong Caves, birds’ nests have become the source of a delicacy, bird’s nest soup. Three species comprise the take – the white, black and mossy nest swiftlets. We learned that over a million of these birds share the massive caves, with a like number of bats.

The cave was dark and misty, and the odour of ammonia was almost overwhelming. Everywhere insects scurried, bats squeaked and swifts flew – careening through the dark recesses. A dead bat on the floor was consumed by myriad roaches.

I looked at the ceiling, 90 metres above, and wondered how the local nest collectors manoeuvred up the flimsy bamboo and rattan ladders, perching atop tiny aerial platforms to pluck the nests from the ceiling of the cave.

The journey and the days whizzed by. We sat for a spell in the waters of Poring Hot Springs – a spa in the jungle. We visited a butterfly garden, saw memorials to fallen Australian protect0rs, saw a rafflesia bloom (the largest flower in the world) and marvelled at the flora at a world-class botanical garden.

We ended our journey at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley. Getting there required a “Bornean massage,” delivered at the hands of a ruthless driver on a bumpy dirt road. The lodge is beautiful, sitting in the midst of the rainforest.

Our cabins backed onto the rushing Segama River. Herons and hawks hunt the shores by day but at night, others, unseen and unknown to us, take over.

A boardwalk bisects the grounds. We used it frequently as it rains a lot here and there are the snakes are out at night. A too-friendly bearded pig begged nightly for food, while gibbons and other monkeys abounded. The birds are seldom seen but we heard their voices echoing through the dense forest.

The local guides are well trained and attentive, and relentless in ensuring we saw and did everything. We were kept busy hiking the lodge’s trails – Hornbill, Elephant, Coffin (it leads to ancient burial ground) and View (a tough climb to a spectacular overview), to name a few.

Here we saw our first wild orangutan – a spectacular male, about 17 years old. Considering the threats these primates face from palm oil plantations, forest clearing and hunting, sadly this is a ripe old age for an orangutan.

A Bornean bristlehead, a prized sighting, sat in the open for a few minutes. The birder in me was thrilled.

We also enjoyed a restful stop at a jungle-swimming hole, called the Jacuzzi, where we soothed our tired muscles and cooled our sweat-soaked bodies.

But I think I liked the 300-metre-long, two-tiered Canopy Walk the best. Almost 30 metres above the forest, we were eye to eye with birds like the sought-after rhinoceros hornbill, and we looked down on last night’s orangutan nests.

Night fell and we were ready for dinner and perhaps a quiet drink of tea before we retired. But the guides reminded us to be on the truck for the night drive by 7:15 – don’t be late! So the meal waited and we trudged to the truck and took our places.

We jostled along the road, stopping here and there. Lightning bugs, bats and giant moths were everywhere, with animals rustling and scurrying nearby. The guide was good and so we stared into the face of night-hunting civet cats, lorises, nightjars, owls and bear cats.

Everything was having dinner except us but no one cared. Finally, the drive was over – but no one wanted to leave. We were exhilarated. The images won’t soon be forgotten.

And dinner was great!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online at www.avocetnatureservices.com, on LinkedIn and on Facebook.

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Borneo orangutan guides

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