The Wild Men of Borneo

by franklyn1937

For her, the goal was seeing baby orang-utans in the wild. For him, it was riding on a working relic of British railway history. On a wedding-anniversary trip to Borneo, one couple achieved both

When someone recently asked us to name our most romantic meal out – ever – my wife and I were unanimous. It was the one served up for us on the beach at Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort in Kota Kinabalu, Borneo. The head chef had prepared a very special traditional Malaysian Steamboat dish (the significance of which is explained later) to mark our wedding anniversary. Our table was set out on the sand, complete with tablecloth and silver cutlery. We were just metres from the gentle waves of the lukewarm South China Sea.

Our reason for being in Borneo was two-fold. My wife Suzie particularly wanted to see orang-utans in their natural habitat. My dream was to take a ride into the rainforest on board the beautifully restored, British-built Vulcan 6-015 Steam Engine still operated by North Borneo Railway (www.northborneorailway.com.my).

We booked a 14-day trip with Saga (www.saga. co.uk/travel) – and, as usual, everything was well planned and organised to perfection. Our long flight was well rewarded by the welcome we received on arrival at Rasa Ria Resort. There were smiling faces everywhere, trays of cool drinks and none of the hanging around at reception desks experienced on other long-haul holidays. In our well-appointed suite (with large, comfortable beds and a separate sitting room), a bowl of fresh fruit awaited us. As we looked out over miles of sandy beach, it was a fitting welcome to Borneo.

Of the many places to eat in the resort, the one that most intrigued us was Tepi Laut Makan Street Market. In the daytime, it serves Asian and Western snacks, finger food and refreshing drinks; when night falls, it takes the form of a market intended to capture the nostalgia of Malaysia’s simple food stalls and open-fronted shop-house restaurants – hence the name Makan Street ("Market Street"). Malaysian dishes, with their tempting flavours, line the circular bar counter in the centre while seven cooking stations are lined up along one side, facing the sea.

One of our first outings was to acquaint ourselves with the steam engine, majestic in its green livery and with a brass plate stating: "Built in Newton le Willows, England". Long before it transported tourists, the engine was used to bring felled hardwood trees out of the rainforests – fuelled by large logs of timber, rather than coal. The carriages, too, had been brought back to their original glory. A final nostalgic touch was the issuing of tiffin cans containing our lunch and tea, as we progressed through the dense jungle. We were also taken to see a traditional village where stilt houses, connected by plank walkways, perch above the sea. 

The highlight, though, was visiting the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre (www.sepilokjungleresort.com/RehabCentre2.html), which cares for young orang-utans orphaned when their parents were killed during the felling of the hardwood trees. We were taken along a short boardwalk into the rainforest, until we reached one of the feeding stations. By then, our clothes were wringing wet due to the high humidity. Orang-utans are very elusive creatures – but gradually, one or two emerged from their hiding places, tempted by the sight of bananas. Once these "scouts" had indicated that the visitors were harmless, more young orang-utans appeared.

Known as "The Wild Men of Borneo", orang-utans are anything but in their natural habitat. These gentle creatures are trying to live in the tops of hardwood trees that are constantly being felled. One wonders how long they will survive before they become extinct in the wild.

We next visited the habitat of a different kind of "Wild Man of Borneo" altogether – a much more sobering experience. These days, thanks to the Australian Government (www.smartraveller.gov.au) and the State of Sabah (www.sabahtourism.com), it is a beautifully laid out Memorial Park – but it was formerly the site of the Sandakan Japanese Prisoner of War Camp. It was mostly Australian prisoners who were incarcerated here during the Second World War, but there were some Englishmen – brought here to build a refuelling airstrip for the Japanese air force. Due to sand getting into petrol tanks and other well-orchestrated "misfortunes", it was never completed.

The camp held 2,400 prisoners in January 1945 – and starvation, overwork, beatings, beheadings and forced marches in very high temperatures were commonplace. The Allies arrived in August 1945 to find only six Australians still alive. One thing Suzie and I vividly remember is the unearthly silence that acted as a shroud over the whole site.

You could, of course, opt out of this particular part of your holiday – but visiting Sandakan brought home to us one stark message that we will never forget. Even now, 60-odd years later, man’s inhumanity to man relentlessly continues with the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Don’t let this one aspect put you off Borneo. The people are among the friendliest you could meet, with a quiet peacefulness about them that is almost hypnotic. However, it was seeing baby orang-utans at close quarters, in their own rainforest environment, that will stay with us. That experience takes some beating as an adventure holiday.