Singapore, the Philippines and Borneo (Sarawak – Malaysia)
Flew with Singapore Airlines; travelled independently in Singapore and the Philippines. Borneo was a tailor-made itinerary with the Borneo Adventure Company.
Silk Road of the Sea
Malacca: the strait where you take Asia’s pulse. It is a funnel, a pinch-point, a sulky vein of blue-grey water where the Pacific and Indian Oceans reach through the East’s jumbled islands to uneasily shake hands. The plane turns into final approach above it, clouds parting to reveal the golf course and crowded harbour of Singapore.
This most famously clean of cities sits poised like a hunting dragon on the Silk Road of the Sea. A quarter of the world’s traded goods travel through its claws and along the Strait of Malacca; oil and coffee may dominate now, but it was not so very long ago that Sir Stamford Raffles’ newborn town was brightened by the painted tongkang and twakow boats of lightermen, delivering spices, rubber, coral and palm heart to godowns upriver.
Trade has a habit of choking water and air. By the late 20th century, Singapore was an ecological wreck. As we all know, wrecked lands are quite common. What Singapore has become after vigorous campaigns at greening up is far more novel. Out of the jungle has grown a city threaded with trees.
This is what a real ‘garden city’ looks like – everywhere that can be brightened with wild living things, is. And where there are trees and flowers, animals will follow.
Crab-eating macaques wander Singapore’s quieter streets.
They are the boldest of the wild creatures here and endure the same conflict as urban wildlife in the West. Signs order people not to feed monkeys, but clearly some tourists still do.
Behind them is a corner of Singapore that few visitors to downtown can possibly imagine. Bukit Timah is tiger country, now sans tigers but with that throbbing, humid, complex air that characteristics tropical forests everywhere.
Where the great cats once left tear-shaped tracks, monstrous flowers now bloom. I think this is a batflower.
Other predators still lurk. Water monitors are one of the world’s largest lizards.
Somewhere within Bukit Timah’s jungle, leopard cats and palm civets sleep. They are shy, but a waking cologu spies me. This strange creature is also known as a flying lemur although it is not one of that family. It can glide over 200 feet between trees.
It is hot, humid-hot, and the paths are steep.
A few miles away, the city continues its life, oblivious or accepting of so much nature next door.
Singapore’s water is everywhere, even in the air – it batters you with humidity. Water is never far away as a walking companion either; Singapore is, after all, a small island with a large river. Walk by the coast, and you never know who you’ll meet.
Paradise tree snakes are famous for flying – they can glide 300 feet between trees – but this one was weaving its way along footpath railings. They are mildly venomous but do not really pose a risk.
You may look upwards to detect snakes, but the crash in the undergrowth signals something much bigger…
Malayan water monitors are dragons of the sea: they can reach ten feet in length.
Oriental pied hornbills are giants of the feathered kind.
Their massive bills are surprisingly dextrous in handling fruit.
They share the trees with smaller birds such as bulbuls.
And tropical squirrels.
It’s so easy to forget that the city is just minutes away.
Across the Wallace Line
Back to the map of southeast Asia. Draw a line across it, written in tigers, foxes and deer. On side walks the great megafauna of Asia. On the other, the strange creatures of Australasia hop, bounce and glide.
The so-called Wallace Line was discovered in 1859 by Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Later, other scientists realised that it cut a bit further north, and I’ve taken the liberty of drawing that in red on in this 1863 map.
Few wild mammals ever cross the Wallace Line, but on this trip I’m flying above it, repeatedly, catching glimpses of the exotic Sulu Sea.
It is not safe down there; once the Sulu Sea was famous for its pirates, and today for its terrorists. But from 30,000 feet, you can get some idea of the tropical beauty of the waters.
I cross the Wallace Line just east of Borneo. A little further, and the Philippines come into view. This island nation sits astride the line – Palawan, on the Asian side, once hosted tigers, and leopard cats probably still survive. I’m headed to Mindanao, which lies on the Australian side and has no native felids.
Cats may be famous for their sleeping, but here a volcano dozes instead.
Mount Apo towers 2,954 metres (9,692 ft) above southern Mindanao. It is sleeping, a comatose monument to the blazing power of the Pacific Rim of Fire.
The rest of Mindanao rolls up to Apo’s feet in ridges.
At ground level, green, white and blue dominate.
It’s hard to visit Davao City without noticing exotic fruit. Durian is famous, possibly infamous. This sign on the Metro back in Singapore caught my eye:
Maybe Davao’s jeepneys don’t object to durian?
The reason for the anxiety is durian’s fantastically horrific smell. It is, however, known as the king of fruits because the taste is valued so highly. I sampled some in a milkshake; it’s complex, and your taste buds process it in stages. Very ripe melon is probably the closest description.
Meanwhile, Davao’s streets brim with coconuts…
…and venders turning them into buko.
Certainly that is appreciated in the tropical heat.
I’ve never seen a Philippine eagle – outside of a book, anyway. I do know that they are glorious, improbable, grey-beaked giants of the eagle clan, very nearly the largest of all. It might be a surprise that until 1995, the national bird of the Philippines was something far humbler.
The chestnut munia or red maya is a finch-like bird unafraid of urban life. It is found throughout south-east Asia, from Burma to Vietnam.
Tree sparrows are also strongly associated with people, and have an even wider range. They are clinging to survival in Britain, where they are far outnumbered by the also declining house sparrow. Tree sparrows have a huge international range however and not likely to disappear altogether.
The Philippines has significant environmental challenges, but there are whale sharks and dugongs (large marine mammals similar to manatees) off the coast, and critically endangered warty pigs roam remote areas.
And, naturally, some of these: golden orb-weavers, quite large but harmless. The tropics would not be the tropics without spiders.
Or without palm trees and sand, I suppose.
Samal Island watches us pass.
City of Cats
Time to leave Davao City and fly back across the Wallace Line – the third country on this trek around south-east Asia awaits.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kuching is also home to many Malay settlers, along with Borneo’s indigenous ethnic groups. And Melanau people fish in the rivers.
Of course, they are not alone by the warm water. This beauty is a stork-billed kingfisher.
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…
Sarawak: Out of the Sea
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.
Some people see faces in them; others, perhaps, are more astonished by the raw power of sea chewing stone.
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.
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.
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.
Away from the day-trippers at the park headquarters, the forest resumes a natural air: quieter, yet more intense.
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.
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.
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…
Sarawak: Hiking in Bako
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!
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.
Within the tangle of leaves and roots, many animals thrive. Borneo giant ants are an impressive sight.
The top of the ridge is pock-mocked with erosion from rain. Limestone always remembers any bruises from water.
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.
Dozens of pitcher plant species exploit the animals of Borneo. Some rest like pitfall traps on the ground, and others dangle from trees.
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.
The South China Sea lies ahead.
A little boat drives us around the headland back to our starting place. Bearded pigs watch the sun falling into the sea.
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:
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.
Keeled pit vipers hunt birds and rodents high in the trees.
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.
Some spiders surprise you with their girth. Others, with their colours – this is a long-jawed orb weaver.
Not everything is fully awake. Swiftlets rest on the rock face.
A stick insect of implausible proportions watch us pass.
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.
Journey to Semenggoh
Sunrise is as sudden as night. We have time for one final hike before the boat takes us away from Bako.
The bearded pigs watch us leave.
Fishing huts and mangrove forests flash by as the boat speeds towards its jetty.
Away from the river, the road runs southwards to Semenggoh, the first reserve I’ve ever visited where the authorities have apparently found it necessary to specifically ban gambling…perhaps there is a story behind that, but it’s unknown to me.
Semenggoh has orang-utans. They are orphans or rescues, restored to a semi-wild existence by the patience and respect of Semenggoh’s wardens. They roam freely through the forests here, but often return to feeding platforms, especially in seasons when fewer wild trees are fruiting.
Needless to say, everyone gathered under a small shelter listening to one of Semenggoh’s wardens give a safety briefing is hoping to glimpse an orang-utan. But they come at times of their own choosing, and there many smaller treasures here to observe too.
Longhorn spiders dazzle in the bushes.
And this – hopefully the novelty value can excuse the photo quality, for the little grey-brown animal on the left is a treeshrew, the first one I’ve ever glimpsed. They have a higher brain-to-body ratio than any other mammal. It is accompanied by a cream-coloured giant squirrel.
It may not have much cream in its fur, but ‘giant’ does fit; it is about 80cm long, including its tail.
They might be considered a supporting cast by some, but the shaking of the trees suggests that the stars are not far behind.
Royalty of the Forest
The trees are hardly big enough to hold them.
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.
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.
It’s hard to look at this tiny bundle of orange fur and accept that three decades later it may look like this:
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.
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.