Borneo is the perfect destination for those stuck in the urban jungle wanting to get a taste of the real thing
It was a tender moment between man and beast. My husband was standing not five feet away from a huge female orang-utan staring docilely at him and reaching her hand out to him. My breath caught in my throat, camera at the ready, as he tentatively held out his own hand. Suddenly, there was a flash of blue and the orang-utan was disappearing into the jungle. Eyos the orang-utan had stolen my husband's blue thermos flask from the side pocket of his bag and was making away with it in double quick time. We might be miles away from the big smoke, but you still had to watch out for those darn pickpockets.
This incident took place at Sepilok (http://sepilok.com), a rehabilitation centre made up of 43 square km of protected land in the Sabah region of Borneo, where orphaned and injured orang-utans learn how to survive in the wild and forage for food.
We had arrived in Borneo from Singapore via Kuala Lumpur using the new low-cost flight company, Air Asia (www.airasia.com), arriving at Sandakan Airport.
Like many visitors exploring Sabah's wildlife land destinations, we made Sepilok our first stop as it allowed us to relax after a gruelling journey and gave us our first glimpse of jungle life with the renowned orang-utan sanctuary. We stayed at Sepilok Jungle Resort, which is a five-minute walk from the sanctuary and offers all the comfort one needs to rest and recuperate. The lodge is ideally located in a beautiful jungle setting, with lagoons, wooden walkways and all kinds of vegetation attracting the tamer beasts of the jungle, such as hornbills, lizards and even a few monkeys. The lodge offers camping accommodation and dorms, as well as comfortable double and family rooms, making it accessible to travellers on all sorts of budgets.
Visitors are encouraged to come to the rehabilitation centre at feeding time, as this is when rangers hand out a bland snack of milk and bananas to supplement the orang-utans' diet. We duly went at ten o'clock in the morning, but the experience felt a little artificial because there were near a hundred people craning their necks to see the platform, cameras at the ready, sighing collective oohs and aahs when a single orang-utan finally came out to be fed, hang around and generally be cute. The crowd left when it got what it wanted and we lingered to chat to the ranger and watch the macaques, which had now appeared on the feeding platform to play and pick up scraps of food. About half an hour later, we ambled towards the exit, which is when we came face to face with the light-fingered Eyos and had our first taste of jungle crime.
After two days at Sepilok, we took a two-hour car ride to Kinabatangan River with a stop at the Gomatong Caves along the way. The caves are dark, beautiful – and filled with bats. While you might want to look up to observe the hundreds of bats flying overhead, it's a good idea to keep your eyes cast firmly downwards, as the wooden walkways through the cave are covered in slimy bat guano, big cockroaches, centipedes and scorpions. It's an interesting experience in an Indiana Jones kind of way. The caves are also home to swiflets, whose edible nests are used in the Chinese delicacy birds' nest soup. Our driver admitted he made a substantial supplementary income from making the perilous climb to the top of the caves to find swiflet nests and sell them.
The journey from Gomatong to Kinabatangan is a monotonous blur of palm oil plantations. Borneo boasts one of the oldest biodiverse ecosystems in the world, one that is increasingly threatened by the expansion of palm oil plantations. While these plantations certainly increase Malaysia's revenue and create much-needed rural employment opportunities, they are destroying the island's unique ecosystem and killing off wildlife, literally starving it of the natural resources it needs to survive. The Sabah region alone produces about 35% of Malaysia's palm oil (www.poic.com).
However, steps are being taken to protect the existing wildlife and ecosystem, for example in Kinabatangan, which has thousands of square miles gazetted as a Wildlife Sanctuary.
We stayed at Bilit Adventure Lodge, which is Sepilok Jungle Resort's sister lodge. Again, the decor was beautiful and the staff extremely friendly and helpful. The lodge employs local people, and all profits from drinks and snacks go directly to them and their families. The younger members of staff would excitedly point out lizards and birds to us, while older members of staff would tell us about their lives and encourage us to share their snacks.
The lodge operates a two-day, two-night package for 970 MYR (€194 / $288) , which includes river cruises where you can spot hundreds of birds (including the eight types of hornbill, oriental darters and the increasingly rare Storm's Stork), as well as pygmy elephants and the magnificent Proboscis monkeys, endemic to Borneo. In fact, there are ten types of primate to be spotted, so you'll need to keep your eyes peeled!
Cruising through the mangrove swamp estuary at sunset is an awe-inspiring experience, with a dazzling concentration and variety of wildlife to be spotted. We saw everything during these three days from pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys and snakes to insects, reptiles and frogs. The lodge also offers a nighttime jungle walk and a hike to the oxbow lake.
The trip to the oxbow lake took us on a three-hour walk through the jungle, which brought its own drama when we realised my husband had attracted four leeches and no amount of pulling would get them off his skin. Make sure you arm yourself with insect repellent - it's the only thing that will get these suckers off before they bleed you dry.
After all this excitement, I think I'm ready to handle anything the city can throw at me.