17 Sep 2010
In the dark recesses of the tropical foliage something is moving: a trembling, quivering branch, a commotion too big to be made by a bird. Then an arm appears, chestnut brown, hairy and impossibly long. With extraordinary speed and grace, an orang-utan swings out of the jungle and on to the wooden boardwalk on which we are standing. There is a strange buzzing sound that we can't quite place. As we stay rooted to the spot, the ape lunges for the rucksack of a speechless tourist, grabs her water bottle, unscrews the top and empties the contents onto its head. It is such a familiar, human gesture we half expect to see the animal screw the top back on and nod, "Thank you".
But the orang-utan, a vigorous five-year-old male, is in a hurry to get away from something. He charges past us pursued by angry bees, his fur glistening in the equatorial sun where he has tried to wash them off, then vanishes into the tree canopy above.
Our eldest daughter, Melissa, 12, is beside herself with excitement. "Did you see that? Did you see that?"
It is hard not to be moved by the sight of our closest living relative in the semi-wild. I don't mean some long-lost member of the Gardner family gone bush in Borneo, but the orang-utan species itself, which shares an incredible 98 per cent of the same DNA as humans. Its survival threatened by deforestation, development and poaching, the orang-utan is on the back foot in Borneo. But at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, in a patch of preserved jungle, rescued and orphaned primates are slowly being nurtured and prepared for reintroduction to the wild.
It has to be said that, for the visitor, Sepilok can be a distinct disappointment – straining to see over the heads of 300 other tourists, crammed on to a wooden viewing platform while a pair of over-photographed apes swing from one man-made rope to another as they drop in for their twice-daily feed. It has been described as a zoo with big trees.
Happily, Borneo holds rather more for the wildlife and adventure enthusiast than the processed conveyor belt that Sepilok has become. This vast island, over three times the size of the British Isles and shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, holds a diversity of plant, bird, insect and animal species second only to the Amazon.
There are said to be more than 160 species of snakes, but few are truly dangerous to man. Deep in the steaming forests there are tribal longhouses where the tattooed Iban people live much as they have always done, some still guarding the secrets of hunting by blowpipe and poison dart. There are rushing, whitewater torrents, just navigable by canoe, and there is the soaring Mt Kinabalu, at 13,435ft (4,095m) the highest mountain between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea. I decided to see how far up it I could get in my wheelchair.
From Kota Kinabalu, the bustling modern capital of Sabah on the coast, the road wound inland and ever upwards. The mountain, huge, purple and mysterious in the early morning light, grew closer behind its swathes of drifting cloud, its summit peaks all jagged and shiny with the rain that had fallen in sheets during the night.
More than 100 climbers a day are given permits to make the two-day trek up to the summit and back, but I had to be realistic: even with the cunning handcycle attachment that turned my urban wheelchair into an off-road trike, I would have to stick to the road and go downhill and not up. So yes, my sister-in-law and I cheated: we hired a jeep, a driver and an expert bird guide and drove as far up the mountain as we could get, to 6,500ft up, then I freewheeled slowly down for miles.
This was "jungle lite", as Americans would call it, enjoying wonderful views over rainforest-clad valleys, savouring the whoops and trills of tropical birds on the edge of the jungle, without actually having to venture into its leech-infested interior and a chance encounter with a Wagler's pit viper. The birds came in waves. One moment all would be still, the next the trees would erupt with feeding flocks in dazzling plumage – barbets, hornbills and the Bornean blue flycatcher.
Briefly alone, halfway up an equatorial mountain on the other side of the world, I savoured that intense, intoxicating smell that comes from concentrated jungle foliage after rainfall. A butterfly as big as my hand flapped past, and when the cloud all around me drifted past, the ground fell away far below to distant valleys where monkeys' calls reverberated back and forth in the moist air.
But as everyone told us, the best place from which to venture out and see Malaysian Borneo's wildlife was much farther east, from the edgy, Sulu Sea port of Sandakan, a 20-minute hop away by light aircraft.
Right next to the islands of the southern Philippines, this place carried a hint of illicit trade about it, with its rusty tankers lying at anchor, its passenger ferries chugging east to places with names such as Zamboanga, its night air filled with the scent of clove cigarettes and its growing population of illegal immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Sandakan is also a name that lives on in infamy from its wartime past under Japanese occupation. Allied POWs, most of them Australian, were forcibly taken 160 miles inland on the so-called "death marches". Out of 2,400 who began the journey, just six Australians survived, by escaping. Today Sandakan's war memorial has become almost a place of pilgrimage for veterans and their families, and further ceremonies are planned to honour the victims.
In our hotel, with winning smiles, reception staff offered to charge us three times the going rate for an excursion. "So let me get this right," I said, "for a one-day trip you're going to charge us more than £80 a head? When the taxi drivers outside in the street are offering to take us for a quarter of that?" There were hurried whispers, more smiles, a new price, vastly reduced, and a deal was struck. It proved to be one of the best days of the trip.
After that short and sweet encounter with a bee-plagued orang-utan at the Sepilok orphanage, we drove south, past ranks of palm oil plantations where no sign of life stirred.
"These are a big problem for the elephants," Mark, our nature field guide, explained. "Elephants?" we replied. "We didn't know there were any here in Borneo." Mark turned to face us with the full force of blue-tinted contact lenses that lent him a slightly extraterrestrial air.
"Yes, we have pygmy elephants here – they are the smallest in the world. But you won't see them in April, only when they are migrating. Sometimes they have to pass through the palm oil plantations and owners try to keep them out by sprinkling chilli water on the edge; others put up electric fences. We are trying to get 'bridges' made of forest that connects their habitats to solve the problem. Ah, we have arrived."
Down a muddy jetty lay tethered a pair of motorised canoes, our transport for the rest of the day: we were heading up the mighty Kinabatangan river in search of proboscis monkeys and other rainforest treats that are best seen from the river's edge. From directly overhead the sun beat down as we pushed off and chugged upriver, the jungle closing in inexorably.
First stop were the overhanging limestone caves, lapped by the murky brown water, where bats hung like drying tobacco and cave swiftlets darted in and out, missing our heads by inches. In a blaze of colour, kingfishers streaked across our bows, like some high-speed fluorescent missile, and draped on a bough above us a giant monitor lizard flicked out his tongue in curiosity. In the distance, I noticed, the thunderclouds were building up in ominous piles.
"Rhinoceros hornbills!" shouted Mark, clamping a giant pair of binoculars to his tinted contact lenses as we drew alongside a flock of more than 30 of these extraordinary birds. A slimmed-down airborne turkey of a bird, it bore a disturbing resemblance to one of those prehistoric pterodactyls.
"Croak" went the one nearest to us and opened its magnificent casqued beak. "They're dating and mating," Mark said, "but I've never seen so many in one place. This is incredible."
Minutes later we spotted our first proboscis monkey, a female with her baby clinging to the soft fur of her underbelly as she leapt and swung through the trees. A collective "ahh" went up from our daughters. So-called because of the male's great protruding nose, the proboscis monkey has become one of the symbols of Borneo's wildlife with only a few thousand surviving in the wild.
"Here it comes" said Mark, and we braced ourself to be boarded, but he was referring instead to the rain, which now started to fall in a relentless downpour.
And there, sitting alone at the top of a tall tree, was our first and only truly wild orang-utan, a bulky adult holding a drooping leaf above his head to keep off the rain, every bit as effective as a pensioner with a sodden newspaper. He made a forlorn sight in the gloom.
As we chugged home towards shelter, warmth and steaming bowls of noodles, we wondered what hope there was for these spectacular creatures and all the other macaques, gibbons and assorted Bornean wildlife whose habitat has shrunk so much in recent years.
Today our daughters had seen an orang-utan in the wild; we wondered whether their children would be so lucky.