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Borneo, the orangutan country

  • In the jungles of Malaysian Borneo, the writer realizes the importance of palm- oil-free products
  • There’s a heart-breaking reason why so much wildlife is visible from the river

Sunset over the town of Kuching in Malaysia’s Sarawak province
Sunset over the town of Kuching in Malaysia’s Sarawak province (Photo: iStockPhoto)

It did not taste like chicken. The sago-palm grub sushi came grilled, the larva perched atop a pillow of red rice with a spicy sauce on the side. We had opted for the sushi because the grub pizza sounded more intimidating.

My partner Bishan took a deep breath and bit into it. Grimacing slightly, he said, “Hmm, I think it tastes like potol (pointed gourd)." I didn’t quite agree, but I could see where he was coming from—that slight crunchiness on the outside and squishiness inside. I told myself this was “high protein" and swallowed it.

Borneo was shaping up to be a saga of “fantastic beasts and where to find them". It had all started with Tintin. Ever since Flight 714 crashed somewhere in Indonesia and I saw those drawings of Rastapopulous and the proboscis monkey, I had been hooked. This was meant to be the orangutan and proboscis monkey trip. I had not bargained for the larva. Or the bats.

The caves of Gunung Mulu, a national park in the Malaysian part of Borneo, are famous for the daily bat exodus. At twilight, millions of wrinkle-lipped bats pour out of the huge caves in towering white limestone cliffs. The day we went, it had been pouring and rivulets of water dripped off the dense green canopy of hardwood trees and vines. No one knew if the bats would venture out to hunt. First it was just a handful, like smoke signals. Soon it became a stream, and then a river, millions of bats spiralling and weaving to avoid the bat hawks against the grey overcast sky. The guidebook says they eat 30 tonnes of mosquitoes every night.

Orangutans are the star attractions of Borneo
Orangutans are the star attractions of Borneo (Photo: iStockPhoto)

Beyond the bats there’s a mind-boggling variety of life in the caves that stretch for miles. Scalloped by some long-lost river, the caves are so dark that when the guide turned off his torch I felt submerged in an inkwell. But in this pitch-black darkness live worms that weave sticky strings to trap flying bugs, earwigs, fat cave crickets, spiders, flies that survive only one day, and bacteria that turn calcium carbonate into frothy white “moon milk" so fragile even a breeze could break it off. Our torchlight picked out striped cave racer snakes slithering around in search of fallen baby bats. Legions of little cockroaches vacuumed up a black carpet of guano. Without them, the stench would be unbearable. The caves lead to underground cathedrals of stalactites and stalagmites, as fragile as meringues, but with edges as sharp as razors. The water dripped on to the limestone, creating little pools where tiny blind white crabs scuttled. These crabs have never seen sunlight, and are found nowhere but here. Through an opening, we saw the Garden of Eden, a hidden valley, glowing iridescently green and wreathed in wispy clouds.

There are no trains or buses to Mulu, only short flights from Kuching, Kota Kinabalau and Miri, or you can come overland through the jungle following a trail once used by local Kayan tribesmen on headhunting raids. The first time our pilot tried to land, the cloud cover was so thick our little aeroplane swerved away to nearby Miri. When we finally landed, flights of white cranes took off from the runway like a cloud of ballerinas.

The manager of the resort we were staying at came to pick us up. Where are you from, he asked, the standard opening gambit in tourist towns. It turned out he was Anil from the hills of Uttarakhand. He had no idea how to explain Mulu to his parents back home. They still think he is working on a cruise ship.

In our honour, Anil popped open cans of beer one night. That ended in sozzled renditions of Bollywood songs, while an entomologist from Slovakia (a dead ringer for Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park) periodically stomped outside to capture giant Bornean beetles with his bare hands while the rest of us shrieked, and river frogs croaked in joyful chorus.

A forest trail in Gunung Mulu National Park
A forest trail in Gunung Mulu National Park (Photo: iStockPhoto)

Borneo is split between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Malaysian Borneo itself is split into two provinces—Sarawak and Sabah. Kuching, the main city in Sarawak, means cat and is filled with cat sculptures. It’s a quaint town by the river with colonial palaces that belonged to the White Rajahs, Chinese temples, an old Tamil mosque with ironwood floors, and a museum boasting a stuffed 14ft man-eater crocodile whose stomach yielded the wristwatch of one of its victims. The local restaurant of the Dyak tribe, native to central and southern Borneo, tucked away in a strip mall, has a headhunter’s sword on the wall. The number of holes on it represent the heads the owner had bagged. I counted 23. The menu offers puffer fish, palm worms and pig brain on demand. We settled for the more mundane chicken cooked in bamboo, sealed with turmeric leaves, and a ginger flower salad.

Kota Kinabalu in Sabah is more of a party town, overlooking resort islands that are green humps in the blue sea. The city’s architecture felt left over from the 1980s, a modernism that has never been updated. Most of the city was levelled during World War II, razed by retreating British forces. But Kota Kinabalu’s real charm was the gorgeous flaming sunsets and the old Chinese coffee shops with their fluorescent lighting and plastic chairs. One sold only laksa, one specialized in roast duck, another in pork trotters and pork belly braised in broth.

But the real attraction of Borneo is always the wildlife. Kota Kinabalu is the gateway to orangutan country. In Sepilok, we finally saw the elusive creature, “the old man of the forest". In the hot humid afternoon, not a leaf stirred. Three sun bears waddled around their refuge, cute teddy bears with a golden V on their chests. Their cuteness is their undoing. They are taken as pets and abandoned.

Suddenly, there was a crashing noise in the branches above. A male orangutan from the reserve next door swung into view, posed on a branch, peeking slyly at the gawking tourists. “Please come away," said a volunteer. “This one is a bit naughty. Sometimes he flirts with the women."

At the feeding table in the orangutan reserve, black squirrels were picnicking happily on the pile of fruits when the rope that extended into the forest started vibrating. An electric ripple ran through the waiting crowd. There was a flash of orange fur in the green foliage and then that mournful beast we had come to see glided effortlessly to a touchdown.

The proboscis monkeys were less graceful. At the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, they showed up for a brunch of cucumbers and sugar-free pancakes. They are doleful-looking creatures, with bulging noses and bellies, and bright-red penises which they adjusted constantly, not very unlike the average Indian man on the street.

“You are from India?" asked a guide. “But you have so many big animals in India. Big lion, tiger, elephant. We have elephant, but small." He hoped we might be able to see the Borneo pygmy elephant bathing in the muddy waters of Kinabatangan river. There are ropes slung across it for orangutans to cross since they can’t swim. We saw no elephants, but there we did see squabbling pig-tailed macaques. A black-and-yellow mangrove snake was coiled on a branch while a water monitor napped nearby. A rhinoceros hornbill took off from a tree.

At one point, we saw a proboscis monkey sitting high up on a tree having a leafy snack. For a while, the monkey tolerated us and then, in a huff, he pulled up a large leaf, like a curtain, and covered his face.

I cannot blame him. There’s a heart-breaking reason why so much wildlife is visible from the river. The palm-oil plantations have encroached further and further into the jungles of Borneo, pushing the animals into narrower and narrower strips on the banks of the river. When we go back home and take a shower, chances are our shampoo will contain palm oil sourced from these forests.

Since our trip to Borneo, we have been trying to find palm-oil-free products. It’s not easy, but more than any souvenir, that’s what the fantastic beasts of Borneo really need.

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