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Uncle Tan’s, orangutans, Kinabatangans

MALAYSIA | Monday, 18 May 2009 | Views [1132]

Jason Mraz should feel pretty proud of himself. Probably unbeknownst to him, his song “I’m Yours” is currently being sung, strummed, hummed and played obsessively by jungle village dwellers along the Kinabatangan river in the east of Sabah. I don’t expect that when you create something like that you expect it to travel quite so far, or be loved quite so much. These guys are loving this song to distraction. There is no escaping it. Like it or not, this is my soundtrack to the Borneo jungle.

This is my second night in the jungle, staying at a place called “Uncle Tan’s”. We’ve just finished dinner (rice and a melange of vegetables, meats, curry and the ubiquitous tiny banana) and now everyone is lounging around the common area reading whatever they can get their hands on and waiting for their evening activity. They will either be going on a “river cruise” where they will pile into a longboat and zigzag up and down the river with a spotlight, trying to spot proboscis monkeys, kingfishers, crocodiles, macacques and other dormant jungle dwellers, or they will be jumping off the edge of one of the boardwalks here at camp (replete with sexy gumboots) and going hunting for spiders, frogs, insects and other such goodies in the forest surrounding the camp.

I’m wondering if the insect count is going to top what I’m currently experiencing here in the common area. I’m sure you’re aware of the effect that light has on moths. Now imagine that the moths are ten times the size (some the size of my hand with fingers spread) and accompanied by shiny black walnut-sized beetles, dragonflies the size of marie biscuits, and one bat which is flying circuits up and down the building, I presume om nom nomming up the bugs I have just described.

Being blessed as I am with thick luxurious locks, I have had several occasions this evening where I have needed the help of my fellow temporary jungle inhabitants to remove these more permanent inhabitants from my hair. “Uhh… guys?”

It’s pretty cool.

I arrived at this place by way of a six hour bus ride from Kota Kinabalu. Boy, was I glad to get away from those guys at the end, even if it was certain that I would meet Matt again at the camp. Despite the fact that we needed to follow pretty much exactly the same itinerary to arrive here, it was all beautifully co-ordinated: I caught the 12.30pm bus, he caught the 2pm bus. I chose to stay at the Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, he chose the Sepilok Jungle Resort right next door. It was such a relief to be seated on a bus with a brand new bunch of people, none of whom would presume to call me a liar.

I spent a reasonable portion of the journey in indulgent reflection on what exactly happened there. My conclusion placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mike the Australian — obviously a very jealous, needy and manipulative man who was singlehandedly responsible for sowing the seeds of conflict. I would have put money on the idea that it was he who first suggested that I was “fibbing”, and 20/20 hindsight showed me a dozen other situations where he had painted me in a bad light. It was clear that his objective was to steal Matt away from me.

Oh yes. On that six-hour bus trip I did become a 12-year-old girl.

Conclusion thus reached, I was imbued with a tremendous sense of calm. I cranked up all the songs on my iPod with special powers of cheering — Including that “I’m Yours” song by Jason Mraz — and watched the landscape roll by.

I arrived at Sepilok Junction at 7pm in the dark, and half an hour later I was sitting around a table with some Canadians, a French girl and a Polish woman, talking rubbish and waiting for an overpriced grilled cheese sandwich.

The main reason foreigners can be enticed to leap off the KK to Sandakan bus at Sepilok Junction is to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. And for most tourists the visit to this place is timed to coincide with feeding times.

This is when a man will emerge from the jungle with buckets full of bananas, and mount the stairs to a platform where he will scatter a few bunches of bananas and then sit with his back to the jungle. Then the jungle will start to rustle. A single orangutan will make its way hand over hand along a rope — first to one platform, then to the platform where our friend is sitting.

This orangutan is extremely brave because less than 20 metres away about 100 tourists are aiming big black weapons at it.

The orangutan will fossick around in the bucket, ignoring the bananas that are already on the ground in what I consider to be a very human gesture of fussiness. Then, with food in hand, the orangutan will disappear behind the platform to eat, much to the disappointment of the 100 tourists who will simultaneously lower their weapons and exchange bewildered expressions.

This process will be repeated for about three different orangutans. Once it becomes clear that the orangutans aren’t going to break into a song and dance routine, the 100 tourists will pack away their weapons and trudge back along the boardwalk to buy icecream at the cafeteria, 30 - 40 ringett poorer and a great deal sweatier for the experience.

I do not think I have ever sweated more than I did right here, and then again back at my “resort”, hurriedly packing my stuff in my dorm room. There was no daytime electricity, so no fan. I removed my shirt and packed in my bikini. This didn’t make me any cooler, but it did save my shirt from being completely drenched. Note to self: For next visit to tropical country, pack shirts that do not show the sweat quite so much.

I was dropped off at Uncle Tan’s operations base down the road from my resort, and easily settled in for the first of many feeds with the Canadian couple I’d met the night before. Matt shows up, and sits at another table. Rice, vegetables, instant coffee, creamer powder. We pile into mini vans for a three hour journey to the Kinabatangan River.

When you think “Borneo” I bet you think “jungle”, right? And hot on the tail of “jungle” you probably think “orangutans” or “proboscis monkeys” or some other wildlife. Snakes, insects, crocodiles. Things you wouldn’t typically want in your bed. What you should really be thinking is “palm oil plantations”, since that is what really dominates the landscape here — in Sabah here at least. In my naïveté I at first thought that the plantations were the jungle, until it occurred to me that jungle doesn’t tend to organise itself into neat rows.

Here in Sabah the jungle as you imagine it has largely been chopped down and replaced with these highly profitable crops. The remaining forest has been coralled into protected pockets, or inaccessible (to budget travellers) national parks far in the interior.

The success of wildlife tour operators like Uncle Tan’s is ironically in part due to this destruction of the forest: It has concentrated the wildlife into much smaller areas. Along parts of the Sungai Kinabatangan there might only be a narrow sliver of jungle between the river and the palm oil plantations behind it. This means that the orangutans, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, kingfishers, otters and other such creatures are present in higher densities in areas conveniently accessible by boat.

When you think “Borneo” you might also think “elephant”. There are elephants here. The large majority of the elephants in this area are confined to one particular “lot” of protected forest. The problem with these “lots” is that they are separated by oil palm plantations, and the animals have no way of moving between the lots, except by crossing the plantations.

If you can imagine how much foliage an elephant needs to eat every day (I ask you to imagine because I myself can’t remember — but it’s quite a lot) it’s obvious that they need quite a large area in which to browse. Sometimes the lot isn’t big enough, so they strike out for another lot by charging across one of the intervening plantations.

Now, there’s a reason why we say to children who have made a mess in a room “it looks like a herd of elephants have been through here!” An elephant can wreak a lot of havoc in an palm oil plantation. The farmers try to prevent this by erecting electric fences and by digging ditches, but the elephants still try, and it’s apparently not uncommon to find them dead with legs entangled by wire.

And although they are protected, a frustrated farmer may also take it upon himself to dispose of the pest himself. Prosecution is rare because the damage the elephants inflict on the livelihood of the farmer is so great already.
Anyway, this is what our guide told us today as we were squelching our way through the rainforest in one of these protected lots. He was an extremely wry young gent with eyebrows in possession of a life of their own, and obviously no sweat glands given that he was wearing jeans while the rest of us could be wrung out in order to fill a swimming pool.

The jungle trek was more of an opportunity for looking at plants, trees and insects rather than wildlife. Right at the start he pointed out an extremely poisonous spikey tree which will make you extremely sick and itchy. On the other end of the spectrum he showed us a millipede which sprays acid at its foes when threatened, only the acid doesn’t burn, and smells remarkably like marzipan.

In total I have seen a whole bunch of long tailed macacques, one orangutan, two otters, some hornbills, some kingfishers, one frog, several trees full of the extremely amusing proboscis monkeys (called “Dutchmen” by the locals because of their big noses and pot bellies), many millipedes, many moths and beetles, and one bat. I have seen no crocodiles or snakes, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

I have been unable to avoid Matt because, as it transpires, we are the only singletons in an overbooked camp, and therefore we’ve been banished to the staff quarters. It’s not so bad because at least we don’t have to share a mattress under a mosquito net, as everybody else does. And there are only the two of us in the one hut, as opposed to six. But really. I think the joke has gone on long enough.

Unlike the “normal” huts, we have no sheltered balcony with a light bulb. My head torch has finally given up the ghost, despite a sincere bashing. So our only light comes from a single outside bulb, two huts down, and my nightly shit-sorting has to be done in the dark, or in the wet.

Perhaps that’s what I’m going to be associating with Borneo: Not jungle, not wildlife, not even the oil palm plantations. But the shrieking of nocturnal creatures from the jungle, and no escape from the dark or damp.

And that Jason Mraz song. It’s just too damn catchy.

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