Monday, October 10, 2016

Lydia French: Sarawak, Borneo

I had wanted to visit Borneo more then anywhere else on our travels across SE Asia. I am fascinated and enchanted by wildlife and especially those native to Malaysia - the probisicis monkey, silver langurs with orange babies, and of course Orangutang. However, having researched treks and staying, I found out that a lot of rainforest accommodation on Borneo is extremely expensive, geared up for the smart end of tourism, and guides are mandatory in many areas of rainforest and also costly.

So unfortunately - as we don't have the survival skills of Bear Grills nor the temperament to cope with giant ants and mosquitos, the idea of camping in the jungle was naive and also off the cards. I thought I would have to miss out on Borneo. Fortunately I was wrong! Rachel recommended we visit some national parks into wild Sarawak through the city of Kuching in Malaysia and to do some unguided treks and explore the wildlife and rainforest at Bako national park. She showed me a picture of a probiscis monkey (we nicknamed the penis nose monkey!) and I was sold. I needed to see these in real life! This sounded like a great opportunity to get close to some nature and also remote enough to feel like an exploration. The flights were booked!

After 2 flights from Hanoi we arrived late into Kuching, Malaysia, Sarawak. it was a Saturday night. On the taxi ride to our guesthouse I got the vibe it was pretty lively. There were plenty of bars with neon lights and shisha pipes on the go. Locals clinked beer bottles and the music was pumping..... about as much as the Pitbull album playing the whole way in the taxi. Now all I can think of is "drinks, hotels, sexy bitches" on repeat. Mr Worldwide can do one! I got the vibe of a young persons town - all of the small cars had been pimped up, lowered and bass systems installed.

It was like a Saturday night driving around Ipswich!! By day the town is far different, quite sleepy with plenty of cafes and restaurants but most quite empty. In fact all the other nights we spent there the bars were empty. This may have been because we timed our trip with Islamic new year - so perhaps after a blow out on Saturday - Sunday onwards was downtime. The city was clean - i noticed a prominent difference to Vietnam and Cambodia , and it was common to see different bins for recycling and refuse which was pleasing. But I still wouldn't call it smart. 

Encroaching on the city was the lush greenery of the marginal rainforest, turning your head whenever in a car to see what you can spot in the trees. At night and early in the morning we could hear the calls of the forest even in the centre of the city - birds, crickets and perhaps macaques over the sound of the bar music below. The name of the city - Kuching, is Malaysian for cat, which we were made well aware of from the central roundabouts which were enshrined with cat statues. Restaurants and hotels used the familiar iconography for decoration and artwork. All they needed now was a cat cafe! Ironically I didn't see one stray cat here on the entire visit... a few token dogs of course still roamed around for scraps.

Wanting to clear our heads when we arrived at our guesthouse and excited about what adventures lay ahead we knocked back some beers and spoke to the owners and some other tourists about their experiences of Sarawak. The guesthouse we were staying in - Borneo Seahare was quite random - a converted office block with that old thin school carpet (gum stains and all!) and just converted into bedrooms. It felt random sleeping with a block ceiling light and facade wall separating our room from another. But it had a hip and friendly vibe about the place and was clean.

The next morning we were eager to see what Kuching had to offer. We arranged a private trip to the Semenggoh nature reserve - about 20km outside the city, with one of the French volunteers at the guesthouse. Although this round trip ended up costing us about £25 instead of £5 for the bus - it was the best option because if we got the bus it would only leave us with 40 minutes inside the park before the last bus home. We wanted to maximise any chance we could get with the orangutangs so we went VIP style!

The orangutangs are left to learn to fend for themselves in the protected reserve of Semenggoh because they are being rehabilitated, eventually fully back into the wild. They have been rescued from all over Malaysia from poachers, locals trying to hunt them for meat or to sell the babies, and any orphan orangutans - the nature reserve is 740hectares so they have ample space to roam free almost wild. The centre has feeding stations where they lay out food twice a day to check the condition of the orangutans and to help them on their way with learning to feed.

There was a chance we could see the orangutans at 9am or 3pm when food was left out. We were told that because there was a 3 week old baby Orangutang, it is likely that him and the mother will come to the feeding station for a reliable food source. We hope we were in luck! We visited for the 3pm feed, and even by 2.45 when we arrived, there were 2 females in the forest trees just adjacent to the park internal road. They were incredibly cautious! 

Although they would have had interaction with humans before they waited for a good 5 minutes taking in their surroundings and some tourists with their cameras before swinging out of the trees and tip-toeing across the road towards the feeding platform! I was so surprised to see them that I took about 100 photos in the space of 5 minutes and 3 videos - certain that would be the only sighting....

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