Sunday, February 25, 2018

59steps: Postcard from Borneo - encounters with my cousins and other animals @59steps

I am not, or was not until recently, a fan of going out to seek the glories of nature. Like many couch potatoes, I prefer others to do it for me. I love the Attenborough programmes – the Blue Planet and all – for their miraculous photography, and for revealing things about the natural world that we might never otherwise know. And no doubt, when he’s old enough, we will take our grandson to the zoo, where he will be as thrilled by the elephants, tigers and giraffes as my kids were.

When I’m abroad, I find it easier to rouse myself to go out and visit the works of man (or should I say people, Mr Trudeau?) than to commune with wildlife. Give me churches, mosques, temples and amphitheatres any day. To indulge in nature, you have to go to inconvenient places where you risk falling off cliffs, being struck by bits of flying lava or eaten by lions. Buildings don’t usually threaten your personal safety, but some do speak to you as eloquently as the natural world.

That said, the glories of Borneo lie not in buildings but in the endless rainforest, packed with mammals, birds, reptiles and all manner of creepy crawlies. It would have been churlish not to pay homage to them.

So when we arrived in Sandakan, one of the two main cities in Sabah, at the end of our current jaunt through the Far East, we resolved to leave as soon as possible. It’s an ugly city, built by the British as the main point of export for hardwood and rubber, fought over and destroyed by the Japanese and the Australians in World War 2, and rebuilt around a number of hideous concrete buildings that dominate the skyline.

But beyond the town lies the Kinabatangan river. It flows from the interior, through patches of virgin rainforest, past palm oil plantations and ends up winding its way through impenetrable mangrove forests through to the sea.

About 90 kilometres up-river sits the Sukau Eco Lodge, which, as the name suggests, is very eco. Just about everything is recycled. This was where we came to commune with whatever wildlife chose to show itself during our three-day stay.

You get there by boat, which takes about two hours, assuming there’s nothing to capture your attention on the journey. Each tour party is accompanied by a guide, whose job is to point you towards everything worth seeing on the tree-lined shores.

“Are zere Hotteurs here”? It took a few seconds to figure out that the elderly French gentleman was asking about the presence of otters. To which the answer was yes. But we didn’t see any.

Our tour party was dominated by French birdwatchers. I’d thought always the French were mainly interested in blasting birds out of the sky and then eating them. These folks proved me wrong. Armed with high powered binoculars, cameras that must have cost thousands, they ventured forth on the river, grimly determined to see every orangutan, proboscis Monkey and hornbill that hung out in the dense vegetation on the banks.