Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Why Borneo will win royal approval

This weekend the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visit Sabah. They are in for a treat.

As part of a nine-day Diamond Jubilee tour that will also take in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the Solomon Islands, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will visit the spectacular Danum Valley, on the island of Borneo. I made a near-identical trip to the valley, and remember it as one of the best travel experiences of my life.

Among other things, the tour will give William and Kate a thrilling introduction to the Danum Valley’s unique ecosystem, not least its orang-utans. Once, these gentle giants swung from one end of Borneo to the other through uninterrupted rainforest, but now their habitat is dwindling and the species is endangered.

The best place to see these majestic creatures is the Sepilok sanctuary, where young orang-utans, orphaned by illegal logging and hunting, are hand-reared. The babies are taught how to swing through the treetops by older orang-utan “buddies”, and gradually become rehabilitated to life in the wild, though for years after being released, the orang-utans return to the sanctuary at feeding time.

The royal couple will fly to the Danum Valley from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, on Saturday. From the air, they will doubtless notice that palm-oil plantations now cover most of northern Borneo, and that logging continues, despite a government ban, with convoys of lorries laden with hardwood trundling from the remaining patches of jungle.

The only place to stay in the valley, and the likely venue for the royal lunch, is the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, two dozen stilted huts built of local wood and stones, overlooking the river. By chance, the lodge has a royal chalet. Slightly bigger than the other stilted huts, with a sunken bath and staff quarters, this rustic cabin was built and paid for by the Sultan of Brunei when he was planning to visit the reserve. However, according to our guide, a psychic in the royal retinue foretold disaster from malevolent forest spirits, so the Sultan never came. Since then, the chalet has been used for non-royal guests – including me.

The view is magical. In the early mornings, mist hangs over the rainforest, forming a white veil from which only the tallest treetops emerge. Jungle sounds waft through the mist – gibbons whoop, barking lizards grunt, a brown barbet makes a repetitive tonk-tonk call and cicadas sound like dentists’ drills. By the cabin, shy sambar deer step daintily past clumps of teak trees, stretching to nibble the huge, heart-shaped leaves. A large bearded pig snuffles in the undergrowth. As the mist lifts, there are glimpses of orang-utans in the trees.

The Danum Valley is not a luxury destination. Leeches, blind but cunning, grope from leaf tips and clamp themselves to passing flesh, so William and Kate will need to wear canvas leech-socks inside their trainers, to protect their ankles and shins. Flies, desperate for salt, also cling to sweaty bodies. Other inconveniences include poisonous snakes and biting insects. It is extremely hot, and it rains frequently – not light showers, but sudden, drenching tropical downpours.

This is the homeland of tribes such as the Orang Sungai river people and the Keniah Dayaks – who led nomadic lives as hunters and gatherers until the Fifties. Despite attempts to convert indigenous people to Anglicanism, locals still believe in black magic and forest spirits, but tribal rivalries have declined, and today young Dayak and Orang Sungai naturalists work alongside each other at the reserve, combining their traditional knowledge of the rainforest with scientific expertise. The Danum Valley field centre is one of the leading tropical rainforest research stations in south-east Asia.

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Why Borneo will win royal approval