I used to think Borneo = jungle, jungle = trekking, jungle-trekking = getting tired, bitten, hungry and dirty and none of this = me. So Borneo had never really resounded in my mind as a suitable destination for me but travel is so much more than leisure – travel is education. And my visit here taught me that Borneo, Asia’s largest island, has about as many facets as the Kohinoor diamond.
Encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, this island will appeal to trekkers and climbers, botanists and animal-lovers, to those who seek out the world’s most beautiful beaches and those who pine to learn about tribal cultures. Of course, this diversity meant that it ticked the boxes for both Pumpkin and my respective wanderlusts but speaking candidly, I, like many, came to this island in search of meeting our endearing, fuzzy-backed, just-off brick-red, evolutionary friends, the primates with whom we share so many similarities – Borneo’s orangutans.
Our orangutan experience began about 25 km away from Sandakan in the state of Sabah, on the north eastern side of the island. We booked a tour through SI Tours. Although you will find orangutan-related tourist spots throughout Borneo, it is Sabah that is home to Borneo’s most renowned and reputable rehabilitation centres. We were fortunate enough to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation centre, a place that encourages and enhances the innate survival instincts of the orangutans in order to be able to equip them with the skills they need to survive in the wild.
Rather like Pumpkin, orangutans are quite independent creatures and you’ll generally see them in the wild either with their babies or on their own…you can see how nicknames evolved on this holiday – they were slung around carelessly, like pigtails in a playground. One of us was an orangutan, another a Proboscis monkey and so the banter continued. A little bit of name-calling never did a marriage any harm. Or not ours (so far anyway).
Orangutans are also quite shy by nature. They tend not to appear if there is too much noise around, which we were prepped about and as feeding time was about to begin, there was an anxious hush all around. You can imagine the stuttering, intent glances and irritated sighs that ensued, therefore, when an unknowing toddler in the vicinity chose this particular moment to throw his toys out of the pram. We could all see his poor Pops in a predicament about whether to stay or go but fortunately, before we had time to dwell on this any further, we noticed the first of the orangutans grabbing the ropes, one purposeful movement at a time, undeterred by our lights and our cameras, focused intently on their own actions only.
They were acrobats in the making, seeking out their grub, laid out by the rangers, whose affection and devotion for these vulnerable creatures seems boundless. Food is not brought to them in a baby-in-a-high-chair fashion. In the wild, they would need to seek it out themselves and this fundamental principle is emulated here. Food is left out and it’s for the orangutans to come and find it if they’re hungry enough and thus, over a gradual period of time, they learn how to navigate themselves around the grounds for this purpose.
One by one, they start arriving. You don’t have to be a biology graduate to see the similarities. I felt almost voyeuristic watching them – I wouldn’t go to a stranger’s home and take photographs of them eating and this is how it felt. It was lunch time, that’s all it was. They seemed to enjoy it. They ate contentedly, throwing a few scraps away; they peeled and inspected their food, as if checking for blemishes. Much like us, some were sluggish to eat, pausing between bites, chewing slowly, elongating their meals – we all know creatures like that. Others stuffed it down quickly and then made tracks, not interested in waiting for their peers. Table manners are so overrated.
Over the next ten minutes, our eyes flitted as more orangutans started to appear. Some days you may only see one, some days you’ll see 5 or 6. We were lucky I suppose. It’s hard to know where to look – each one has its own personality, its own unique grace. Their intelligence enthralls you. After the meal was done, we spotted one (clearly artistic) orangutan high up in the branches well above our eye-level.
She had something in her hand – to this day, I don’t know what it was. I can only assume it was some type of tree bark or branch but it looked like a lattice of long white threads. Either way, our little friend picked up this unidentifiable white object, wrapped it around her neck twice, much to the baffled amusement of the crowd, as if she was wrapping herself in a scarf and enjoying trying on her new garment, like so many of us women do. These beautiful primates, aside from proving to us how much they can look after themselves, were also revealing their humourous side.
The tour of the rehab centre started off with a brief talk from 2 representatives of a charitable organisation known as Orangutan Appeal UK, which provides funding for development of these centres and conservation projects. We watched heart-wrenching footage of baby orangutans who had been abducted, kept as pets in wholly unsuitable conditions and had been rescued by these groups.
After a period of rehabilitation in the centres, which varies in duration based on individual circumstances, the orangutans are released into the wild. You can’t help but wonder how poignant this moment must be for the rangers, that leadened, empty-nest hollow that parents must feel when dropping their children off to university for the first time. Most fare well in the wild, which is testament to the work of the sanctuaries. Sadly though, some don’t. They struggle without the support and guidance of the sanctuary staff and tragically, for those struggling orang-utans, life in the wild may be short-lived.
Part of the #SundayTraveler Link Up