THE WILD MAN OF BORNEO
The word “orangutang” is derived from the Bahasa (i.e. Malay/Indonesian) words “orang” meaning “man”, and “hutan” meaning “forest”. This wild man of the Bornean rainforest is the main reason we wanted to come to this island, and today we were fortunate enough to see these incredible animals in their natural habitat. Definitely a moment to remember!
We woke this morning to a land shrouded in cloud. As the sun inched its way above the mountains and hills, however, its heat burned away the morning mist leaving us with a dawn vista that left us quite speechless. We got to see Mt Kinabalu in all its glory, amazed at the size of this jagged peak*.
*And its’ still growing! Mt Kinabalu is one of the youngest non-volcanic mountains in the world – it only appeared about 10 million years ago and is still growing a rate of about 5mm per year.
We couldn’t help but wonder, as we looked up at the mountain and the valleys below, how many climbers were standing up on the peak looking at the same sunrise. Around 40,000 people climb My Kinabalu every year, and most of them get all the way to the top in time to see sunrise. By all accounts the climb is quite a feat, with most people following this sort of itinerary:
- Day 1 – Depart base camp (altitude: 1,800m) around 8:00-9:00am, arriving at the mountain lodge (altitude: 3,000m) 4-6 hours later. Enjoy an early dinner and a few hours sleep.
- Day 2 – Get woken up at 2:00am and gulp down a hot cup of tea and a snack before setting off in the dark for the last bit of the climb. Leaving at this time ensures you reach the peak in time for sunrise (about 6:00am). After watching the sunrise climbers make their way back down to the base, usually arriving back at 1,800m around 3:00-4:00pm.
It sounds like a hell of a hike but everyone we’ve spoken to who has done it says it’s amazing. They also say the last bit is the most physically challenging as it involves using ropes and chains and is done in the dark during the wee hours of the morning when you’re not quite awake. I don’t enjoy heights and I LOVE sleep, so that just sounds horrendous to me! But who knows, maybe we’ll save that one for next time… For now, however, we satisfied ourselves with enjoying Mt Kinabalu from afar whilst we drinking our morning coffee. Definitely the relaxed way to see the mountain…
After a mediocre breakfast* we left our highland lodge and travelled back down the Crocker Range, emerging on the Eastern side of Borneo around midday. From there it was another 2 hours of driving by bus to reach Kinabatangan, our home-away-from-home for the next few days.
*Breakfast buffets are invariably bad, with cold congealed scrambled eggs never a good choice. Today we found out that you can make a buffet even worse if you also add in some mouldy bread and plastic looking chicken sausages (Malaysia is officially a Muslim country so there’s no pork to be found anywhere; that means pork alternatives are plentiful – e.g. Turkey ham, chicken sausages, and beef salami).
The drive from Ranau took about 5 hours in total and took us past acres of palm plantations*. It was just tragic to see all that land and think it all used to be rainforest. The destruction of rainforest continues as the human population of Borneo grows and economic imperatives dominate over environmental ones. Fortunately public pressure has forced a tiny sliver of forest that to be protected: the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. THAT was our ultimate destination today.
*Palm oil is big business here in Borneo. Palm oil sits alongside forestry/timber, fishing, and tourism as one of the regions’ main industries. In fact, Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil. Unfortunately much of the island’s once pristine rainforests have been cut down to make way for all the groves of palm trees. Fortunately the government of Malaysia, in response to concerns about deforestation, limited the expansion of palm oil plantations in the 1990s and has committed to maintaining at least half the nation’s land as forest.
Bordering the Kinabatangan River, the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is just 26,000 hectares in size and is hemmed in on all sides by palm oil plantations. It represents a final refuge for many of Borneo’s lowland rainforest flora and fauna species, and, due to the relatively small size of the reserve and its proximity to the river, makes for a great place to go river safari-ing and wildlife spotting.
The area is wet and humid and the swampy lowlands are home to high densities of Borneo’s more emblematic birds and mammals, such as hornbills, Pygmy elephants, orangutangs, and a number of monkey species. The Kinabatangan River itself is home to fish, crocodiles, turtles, and numerous aquatic birds.
To make the most of our time here we’re staying right on the river in a lodge reminiscent of some of the East African wilderness resorts we’ve stayed at (think Tsavo West or Shimba Hills). Our room overlooks the river directly and gives us a spectacular vantage point from which to enjoy the surrounding rainforest. The best part of our stay here is that our accommodation includes a dawn and dusk river safari!
We set off for our first river safari around 4:00pm today and spent the next 2 hours with necks craned looking upwards into the canopy of the majestic forest giants lining the river banks, trying to spot some wildlife. And we were most certainly not disappointed, with orangutangs and Pygmy elephants the highlight of the afternoon.
We were barely 2 bends of the river from the lodge when we came across a large herd of Borneo Pygmy elephants that included a number of youngsters.
Rarely seen so close to river or human habitation, these smaller versions of the African elephant are much darker skinned than the giants we saw in Kenya and Tanzania with small ears, tiny tusks, and a boney peak to their heads. Funnily enough we also noticed that their trunks only have 1 finger-like projection (rather than the 2 that African elephants have).
We were very fortunate to see so many Pygmy elephants, and to see them so clearly as they fed on the giant grasses that grow along the river banks. Sightings are increasingly rare as habitat destruction affects the ability of these wide-ranging beasts to find fodder. Estimates are that 50% of the Bornean elephant population has disappeared in the past 30 years. We couldn’t help but wonder how many elephants might we see if we return to Borneo in another 10 years?
Similarly our sighting of wild orangutangs was a rare gift no longer always enjoyed by visitors to this region. According to the World Wildlife Fund, half of the habitat of the Bornean orangutang has been lost since 1994, and both the Sumatran (Pongo abelii) and Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) species are critically endangered. Estimates are that just 7,000 Sumatran orangutans and 60,000 Bornean orangutans remain in the wild. There was a time, our local guide/boatman told us, when seeing wild orangutangs swinging through the trees was a daily occurrence – a guaranteed event. This is no longer the case, as more and more of the wet swamp forests these great apes inhabit disappear to make way for palm plantations.
Orangutans are the most arboreal of the great apes, spending nearly all their time in the trees. Certainly the male we saw seemed very comfortable in the trees. He was feasting on wild figs when we saw him, his face and hairy chest covered in sticky juices. Seems cleanliness doesn’t count for much out here in wilds…
We watched the orangutang for ages, but as the sun began to set, had to head home before the insects came out to feast on us. We enjoyed sunset from the boat, mesmerised by the colours and silhouettes of the jungle around us.
By the time we got back to the lodge we were pretty tired, but happy. It is SO cool seeing so this wild side of Borneo! Even nicer to be able to enjoy it all and then come back to a comfortable evening back here at the lodge, having dinner overlooking the river listening to the sounds of the jungle on our doorstep. Can’t wait to do more wildlife viewing tomorrow!