Semenggoh: Royalty of the Forest

March 2017

The trees are hardly big enough to hold them.

Orang utan5 26 Mar 2017

Orangutans, people-of-the-forest.

Borneo hosts one of the world’s orang species; the other is restricted to Sumatra. These incomparably impressive and sobering creatures travel through the canopy on an armspan of up to seven feet. They are in fact the largest tree-dwelling animal.

Semenggoh is a sanctuary for orangs which have come to harm through the erosion of Borneo’s wilderness by humanity. Some have been rescued from the pet trade, and others from the palm oil plantations that are blighting so much of south-east Asia.

They are not tame. They live wild in 700 hectares of their native forest, and if they do not wish to be seen, you will not find them. Food is provided on large platforms, but whether they come to collect it depends upon their success in foraging for fruit and vines in the trees.

A warden asks the crowd to remain quiet and respectful. He emphasises that this is the orangutans’ forest, a refreshing sentiment after what I’ve witnessed in certain other places over the years.

We don’t have to wait long.

Orang utan1 26 Mar 2017

The orangutans have started families of their own, raising young that are, for all intents and purposes, wild. The bond between mother and baby is beyond and above anything else in the mammal world – she may suckle her infant for seven years, and they are utterly inseparable.

Orang utan4 26 Mar 2017

It’s hard to look at this tiny bundle of orange fur and accept that three decades later it may look like this:

Orang utan6 26 Mar 2017

King of all wild things – at least in Borneo. This huge male orang is 35 years old and the undisputed ruler of Semenggoh. He does not visit the feeding platforms that often so we were very privileged to glimpse him. The other male orangs seemed less pleased; they kept a respectful distance.

It is unforgettable to see them in their native forest.

Orang utan3 26 Mar 2017

Long may Borneo retain enough wilderness to support them – and the bay cats and clouded leopards and proboscis monkeys that also roam the hills that sweat mist and grow durian trees.

As for me, I’ve got a flight to catch to Singapore. This was the briefest of safaris in Borneo yet it has fired my imagination…and I need to return.

Sarawak: Jungle Nights

March 2017

Twilight does not exist in the tropics. In Scotland or Canada, the sun falls gently out of the sky and the land shines in golden half-light for an hour or more. But on the equator, there is no such patience. One moment there is light:

Mangroves Bako Mar 2017

And then it collapses.

We’re headed out into the jungle by torchlight. It is the only way to glimpse Bako’s most mysterious creatures. You tread softly, on boardwalks overshadowed by darkening trees, and illuminated by beings of magical beauty.

Bornean keeled pit viper1 Bako Mar 2017

Keeled pit vipers hunt birds and rodents high in the trees.

Bornean keeled pit viper2 Bako Mar 2017

Other predators try their luck on the ground. There are fewer spiders here than I remember from the dry tropical forests of Mexico, but they still make for an impressive sight.

Large spider Bako Mar 2017

Some spiders surprise you with their girth. Others, with their colours – this is a long-jawed orb weaver.

Blue and red spider Bako Mar 2017

Not everything is fully awake. Swiftlets rest on the rock face.

Swallows Borneo

A stick insect of implausible proportions watch us pass.

Stick insect

High above, a whistle sounds – the branches shake, and a palm civet leaps from tree to tree with the agility of a lemur, far too fast to photograph.

The night continues, and the snakes continue their hunt.

Viper2

Sarawak: Hiking in Bako

March 2017

Humanity is a puppet danced by a tyrant called Weather. We have moments when we delude ourselves that we are free – we sit under roofs, delight in air conditioning, and warm ourselves with fires – but we all secretly know that respite from Weather’s commands is temporary. Walking in the tropics brings this home: temperature and humidity are with you at every step.

Northern Bako awaits!

Bako map

Plants are living things. We underestimate them because they are less mobile than animals, but they have a presence, a purpose, and sometimes even a menace. Bako is a rainforest and the trees are its soul, its master, and they are not abashed to remind paths of their supremacy.

Path of roots Bako Mar 2017

Within the tangle of leaves and roots, many animals thrive. Borneo giant ants are an impressive sight.

Bornean giant ant Bako Mar 2017

The top of the ridge is pock-mocked with erosion from rain. Limestone always remembers any bruises from water.

Top of the rock Bako Mar 2017

Far more than the jungle below, this is a harsh place for a plant to make a living. And if they cannot take nutrition from the ground, there is always another, more proactive way to make a living.

Pitcher plants are carnivores. They lure insects with nectar but they are a one-way trap. Hairs on their flanks prevent the prey from climbing back down, and if the animal falls inside, it is consumed by the plant’s enzymes. Most of their prey are invertebrates, but they occasionally catch frogs and have even been known to ‘eat’ rats.

Pitcher plant Bako Mar 2017

Dozens of pitcher plant species exploit the animals of Borneo. Some rest like pitfall traps on the ground, and others dangle from trees.

Pitcher plant2

And they raise an interesting point. We think of clouded leopards and crocodiles as Borneo’s top predators, but perhaps that is just the human whimsy of wanting nature neatly organised into tables. Ecological food chains are much better described as ‘food webs’. Pitcher plants are kings of their own part of the forest, feasting on species that will never catch the leopard’s eye.

High above the sea in this thin forest, the sun burns hot, and then hotter. We hear stories of tourists who died here; never, ever, underestimate the power of dehydration.

Our path continues down rickety stairs.

Staircase

The South China Sea lies ahead.

Bako scenery Mar 2017

A little boat drives us around the headland back to our starting place. Bearded pigs watch the sun falling into the sea.

Pig on the beach Bako Mar 2017

Bako at sundown Mar 2017

Sarawak: Out of the Sea

March 2017

We’ve found the end of the road, or rather the beginning of the real world. Bako National Park can only be reached by boat and is consequently spared one environmental headache familiar to most North American and European reserves.

So you see it first from the water, mountains hazy under the remorseless brilliance of the sun. Monitor lizards and kingfishers guard shorelines where a tangle of trees totter uneasily between cliff and sand. Then, land soars out of the sea itself – fantastic sandstone stacks, crumbling bones of a mountainous peninsula jutting northwards from the world’s third largest island into the South China Sea.

Sea stack2 Bako Mar 2017

Some people see faces in them; others, perhaps, are more astonished by the raw power of sea chewing stone.

Sea stack Bako Mar 2017

Thirty metres from the beach, the boat grinds to a halt. We wade through the warm water and tread on Bako sand. The tropical sun burns our clothes dry in minutes.

Bako coastline

It is so hot, and bright, all wrapped up in the equatorial humidity blanket.

Wildlife strolls into view almost immediately. Bornean bearded pigs are distant relations of the wild boar.

Bornean bearded pig1 Bako Mar 2017

They are not aggressive, but encouraging wildlife to approach tourists with food seldom ends well, and it appears what happens in Yellowstone also happens in Bako – despite the best efforts of local staff.

Feeding the pigs

Away from the day-trippers at the park headquarters, the forest resumes a natural air: quieter, yet more intense.

Bako coastline2

Within that forest dwell one of the world’s rarest and strangest creatures. Proboscis monkeys have a more relaxed nature than much of the primate family, which may just as well considering their hefty bulk. They are called ‘Dutch monkeys’ in Indonesia because they allegedly resembled early Dutch colonists.

Proboscis monkey1 Bako Mar 2017

They are endangered, and only found in Borneo. They thrive in Bako’s tangled forests, eating leaves and unripe fruit. They generally live in family groups although some males rove together in bands.

Proboscis monkey4 Bako Mar 2017

Theirs is this forest, which is best explored on foot. Park Headquarters includes a small restaurant where we restock our water supplies and park unnecessary equipment. Time to hit the trail…

City of Cats

March 2017

Time to leave Davao City and fly back across the Wallace Line – the third country on this trek around south-east Asia awaits.

Kuching skyline

Borneo. The name is so intensely intertwined with restless wilderness that even the view from the skies is evocative of untamed jungle. Muddy rivers and towering tropical trees shelter some of the richest wildlife hotspots on earth.

Borneo rivers

Silk Air have landed us in Malaysia, or to be precise, Kuching – the City of Cats. It feels a huge saucer, rimmed by impossibly rugged tropical mountains and pouring out through the mighty Sarawak River.

Kuching skyline

Even in a city of a third of a million people, reminders of the natural world abound. The rhinoceros hornbill is the state bird of Sarawak and was traditionally considered the chief of birds by the Dayak people.

Hornbill

There are cats here, but also mostly of the concrete kind – the name might be a play on the Malay for feline, but it is oddly fitting considering what prowls Borneo’s heart. The ubiquitous posters warning of penalties for poaching are also reminders that the most secretive cats on earth are sheltered by Borneo’s rugged wilderness.

Seeing a cougar or leopard is a once in a lifetime event for most wildlife watchers – but that’s a trifle compared to the elusiveness of bay cats. Until the 21st century, less than a dozen records existed, and they are still largely a mystery to science. No one knows for sure how many even exist, but all of them are in Borneo. Somewhere.

Borneo wild cats

I’m headed out to the jungle in due course, but firstly, there is Kuching to ponder.  In a continent jammed with towns of noteworthy history, this one takes a worthy place. In the 1840s, the Sultan of Brunei gifted Sarawak to a British adventurer in gratitude for his help in suppressing a rebellion. James Brooke – the White Rajah – was one of Kuching’s building blocks. So were the Chinese who worked Sarawak’s mines in the same era, and left their own imprint on the skyline.

Chinese temple

Kuching is also home to many Malay settlers, along with Borneo’s indigenous ethnic groups. And Melanau people fish in the rivers.

Fisherman

Fishing Bako River

Of course, they are not alone by the warm water. This beauty is a stork-billed kingfisher.

Stork-billed kingfisher Bako Mar 2017

We drive half an hour to a jetty, and a speedboat is soon painting white froth on the grey salty river. We’re headed around the peninsula to Bako National Park and whatever wild things decide to cross paths with us on its trails.

The jungle is waiting…