#29 Into The Jungle

Sent: Monday, March 18, 2002 3:34 AM

It's the second half of January in travelogue land........

Sabah? Ever heard of it? No, neither had I before we set off. What about Borneo? Exactly, everyone has heard of Borneo, but I couldn't have shown you where it is on a map. Borneo is a very large island that sits in the South China Sea 600km off the East coast of Malaysia. Sabah and Sarawak, both Malaysian states, occupy the Northwest flank of Borneo with tiny, rich Brunei sandwiched between them while the majority of the island to the South East is called Kalimantan and is part of Indonesia. Borneo and Sumatra, a large, entirely Indonesian island South West of peninsular Malaysia, are the only remaining habitats of wild orang utans. We had originally planned to go to Sumatra but the particular part we wanted to go to (Aceh) is fervently Muslim and the Foreign Office are advising against travel there in the wake of September 11th so we have switched our attention to Sabah instead.

Sabah's capital, Kota Kinabalu, is a bright and airy city, two words which could not be applied to our windowless room in the Traveller's Rest Lodge where we stay for a couple of hot and sticky nights while we find our feet. Sabah offers a long list of tempting options and the result of our first set of negotiations sees Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, a trip to a jungle camp and climbing Mount Kinabalu making it onto the to-do list. So it is that after 6 hours by coach spent climbing into the clouds clinging to the lower reaches of Mount Kinabalu, before wending our way back down through pouring rain and heading South East across rolling hills we are the only people to get off the bus at the junction for Sepilok.

Sepilok is one of only four orang utan rehabilitation centres in the world. Founded 30 years ago to deal mainly with orang utans rescued from lives as pets their main purpose now is to rehabilitate animals made homeless or orphaned by logging and land clearance for palm oil plantations.

The latter half of the journey to Sepilok has provided ample evidence of what has happened. For mile after mile the road passes through gently rolling hills every inch of which are covered in a green blanket uniform in every respect, colour, height and purpose. Malaysia is the world's biggest producer of palm oil and over the last 15 years 80% of the orang utans rainforest habitat has been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Protruding from the green blanket are skeletal reminders of the rainforest, spidery dead trunks and branches climbing to 40 metres where the canopy used to be, a full 30 metres above the tops of the palms. When the Malaysian government was promoting the planting of palm oil plantations the price of palm oil was 2400 Malaysian Ringgits per tonne. It is now 100 MR per tonne.

We check into the Sepilok Wildlife Lodge an odd combination of beautifully landscaped gardens and huge lengths of concrete paths, railings, benches and tables all faked up to look like ridged bark tree trunks. (there's a photo of it on the yahoo photo website which doesn't quite do justice to the scale of the fake wood situation). We sleep poorly through a night when the rain pours down in torrents. This is the one part of our trip where we will meet the rains, the back end of the Malaysian monsoon.

The next morning we don our rain jackets and walk the 300m to the Rehabilitation Centre where we learn that a number of Malaysia's premier tourist attractions have increased their prices for 2002. The cost of seeing the orang utans has gone up from 10 MR each (1.83) to 30 MR (5.50). We stump up the cash and set off along a raised wooden walkway into the rainforest. The heavy overnight rain means that the forest is awash, the ground beneath the walkway entirely submerged, everything drip, drip, dripping and to look steeply upwards towards the top of the long slender dipterocarp trees is a certain invitation to feel the fat wet drops, more like small water bombs, falling off the leaves and onto your face.

Eventually we arrive at the feeding area where a feeding platform is surrounded on two sides by jungle whilst the other two sides offer wooden platforms for spectators. A member of staff points out a bundle of leaves in a nearby tree which, on close examination proves to be a mother and baby orang utan sheltering from the rain, waiting for the food to arrive. The orang utans that come here to feed have been returned to the wild but still need some support. In the morning only mother and baby come to feed and the rain pours relentlessly. When we return in the afternoon the rain has let up and there are two adolescent males in a addition to mother and baby.

The diet at the feeding station never changes, sugar cane everyday, a ploy designed to make the animals look elsewhere for food out of boredom. With four opposable thumbs and specially designed hips the mobility of these animals is amazing. It is extraordinary to watch one of the adolescent males gather up three lengths of cane, swing out to halfway along a rope strung between the platform and an adjoining tree, stop, swivel his legs up until they grasp the rope, let go with his hands and hang there in complete comfort chomping on sugar cane for a full 15 minutes.

Orang utans share 96.4% of our genes (though I swear when I've been out clubbing I've seen people with whom they had far more than that in common!) and the mobility of their faces, the similarity of their domestic concerns to ours, their spats and their playfulness makes for an experience that is in some way more than simply observing wildlife. While the work of the Rehabilitation Centre is undoubtedly important the real battlefield for the future of the orang utan and all the other residents of the dipterocarp rainforest can be found in the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpar and on the floor of the Malaysian Parliament. Anyway, I'm not sure this soap box can bear my weight, so I'm going to get off it.

The next morning another journey across the omnipresent green blanket, most of it on a bone shaking unmade road, brings us to a bend in the broad brown Kinabatangan river, currently running very high and littered with branches and whole trees floating ponderously downstream. The boat arrives which will take us upstream to the Jungle Sanctuary and disgorges a rather damp group of departing visitors who talk of ominously high river waters. There are 6 new arrivals, a Polish couple, a Swedish couple and the two envoys from Planet Sausage.

The boat meanders upstream pausing to look at wildlife along the way and we see proboscis monkeys, macaques, two types of hornbills (imagine heavyweight toucans with no fashion sense) and various egrets. The egrets make me laugh. On the riverbank they are incredibly elegant birds, standing to attention on long slender legs, their white bodies flowing gracefully into a slender white neck and long beaked head, rahter like half sized flamingos. But they take off with their necks extended, then concertina their neck back onto their body as they climb to leave them looking far less elegant on the wing.

90 minutes in the boat is enough, comfort levels aren't bad, but we are both down wind of the Polish guy who is smelling horrendously so we are relieved when we turn into a narrow twisting tributary which opens out after 150 metres to reveal a large lake. The jungle camp sits on the corner where the tributary meets the lake and its' main building consists of an open plan, open air sitting/dining area, roofed but without walls and two attached dorms. This wooden structure sits on a tiny isthmus surrounded on three sides by water. A short walk across the isthmus and along the banks of the tributary leading back towards the Kinabatangan lie a succession of huts.

Everything is very basic, matresses on floors, no electricity and the 'bathroom' attached to our hut involves going out of the back door of the hut, climbing down the perilously angled steps into an outdoor enclosure where sits an oil drum full of rain water and a porcelain WC, which can be used in various combinations for all your bodily needs.

Chris Perez, the guy who runs the camp, takes great pleasure in telling us that the ceramic tiling floor of our 'bathroom' is cracked because some passing elephants took offence at the colour of the tiles and stomped all over them, a tale that gains some creedence when we hear the calls of distant wild elephants in the still of the night. Chris is a great guy, laidback to the point of frequently needing to take to his hammock but with a very clear idea of what he is trying to achieve, a no frills, minimum impact jungle experience.

Six of us have arrived together and it is strange how responsible we feel for the behaviour off our travelling companions despite having met them only when they climbed into the minibus to come to the camp earlier on today. Nicolas the Pole is one of the rudest people I have ever met in my life and he requires no excuse or pretext for his behaviour, he willingly invents problems at a rate that means he is constantly moaning, bickering or declaiming on his chosen subjects. It is depressing to see the effect that his presence has on Martha his girlfriend, pleasant company on her own, a silent shadow whenever he arrives on the scene.

As soon as we arrive at the camp Chris whisks us off in his boat to a hidden corner of the lake where a wild orang utan is settling down for the night in a tall tree. Solitary creatures, orang utans are always on the move within their territory and make a fresh nest each night, a loose collection of branches and leaves. It is fantastic to see one in the wild with none of the caveats that seemed implicit at the Rehabilitation Centre related to the tameness, the semi-wildness of the animals there. Back at the camp we are introduced to the resident monitor lizard, a 2 metre monster and slope off for yet another early night after some delicious food and acerbic company.

The act of travelling means that we are constantly trying to sleep amidst a new set of sounds and it becomes almost a game to see which combination of traffic, music, chatter, cockerels and aircraft are present in each new location. The jungle is an entirely new kettle of fish. The underlying silence is profound, there being no background urban hum of any kind. Onto this entirely blank canvas are painted all manner of animal sounds each of which is amplified by the setting so that cicadas sound like power tools, small mammals sound like they re dog sized and when the wild pigs arrive we both think that the elephants have returned to do some more redecorating. It is fascinating in a 'I hope they all stay on the other side of the door' kind of way.

What goes around comes around very quickly for Nicolas the angry Pole as the boatman fails to arrive from the village in order to take us on our early morning river safari the next morning. I have by now, by and large, got over my embarrassment at his carryings on and there is comfort to be derived from the sheer pointlessness of his apoplexy at the boat's non-arrival. Chris concludes the episode fantastically by setting off by canoe to summon the boatman from the village with a severley disgruntled Nicolas sat in the front of the canoe issuing instructions to Chris on how to paddle. The none too oblique reference to paddling your own canoe seems lost only on the glowering Slav who is way to busy fighting everyone in the world to realise that it is only in his world that there is constant conflict. By early afternoon the boat has appeared and it is with a regret bordering on jubilation that we wave goodbye to Mr Angry and his belittled partner.

In late afternoon the boat returns bringing with it a much happier set of recruits. Amongst the six who arrive Jespar and Gunnar are the best value. Two twenty five year old Swedes, they look a bit like the kids who were really into physics at school, but their particular interest is reptiles and their enthusiasm is infectious. Inbetween stories of how a crocodile escaped from their garage and its' eventual capture by gun toting Swedish cops they keep pointing out what they hope to see in their many reptile reference books. The next morning they come to breakfast with a sock containing a 2 metre long snake that they had heard on the roof of their hut the night before and captured after a muddy, torch lit chase. There is a photo on the Yahoo photos website.

Overnight the river has risen still higher and threatens to cut the main building off from the huts but no-one cares, the atmosphere is so peaceful and the scenery so quietly energizing that the mud and floods seem insignificant. In the early morning we go for a river safari and as the boat pushes through the wispy mist clinging to the river's surface we see lots more monkeys, hornbills, egrets, lots of other birds and another orang utan, a magnificent mature male with big half-moon face plates. If you have very good eyesight you might just make him out on a photo on the website, but you'll just have to take my word for how exciting it is to see such a wonderful animal in the wild.

The Jungle Sanctuary is a fantastic reversal of the farce we endured at Chitwan in Nepal, it is cheap as chips and we float off down the Kinabatangan vowing to return one day, at a time when the monsoon isn't making islands out of isthmi.

While at the Jungle Sanctuary we have had a change of heart about what to do next. At the turn of the New Year the Malaysian Government has more than doubled the cost of climbing Mount Kinabalu and this, combined with the tales we hear from people who have made the climb, of how tough it is (approximately 10% of those attempting it make it to the top) and the distinct possibility that when you reach the summit you will see absolutely nothing due to cloud cover, all of these things set us off thinking about going diving at Sipadan instead.

Sipadan is one of the world's top dive sites and though a visit to it will stretch our budget the lure of sharks and turtles is too strong for a born again snorkeler and recently baptized diver to resist.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages
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