Once an environment for pirates and headhunters, today a paradise for nature lovers. They had warned me! Poisonous snakes, permanent sweating at hot and humid temperatures and permanently rice for a meal. That however, does not prevent me from following my dream meeting the last great apes in the rainforest of Borneo, the orangutans. Long-nosed monkeys and snakes as well are on top of my photografic wish list. Borneo, here I come!
My trip takes me to the Malayan region of northern Borneo starting from Kuching in the west far into the northeast to the Sandakan peninsula where an extensive labyrinth of waterways extends through the jungle. Just off the plane and having stowed away my luggage I take the public bus to the Semmenggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The Centre offers a good opportunity to view orangutans, if you are in luck and have patience, at close range. The nature reserve is a spacious area and the apes only appear at the feeding platforms when they are hungry or if they do not have anything else to do and they fancy watching the tourists. But if there is abundant food supply available in the wilderness they rather roam through the jungle and after only 90 minutes the visitors have to leave the centre empty-handed.
Lucky me! At the very first encounter with my animal relatives I get to know the leader of the group: Ritchie. Considering his height of 150 cm, his live weight of 150 kg and the span of his arms of 240 cm I am glad that I am spared hugging.
Ritchie is obviously completely relaxed. Meanwhile I am fighting with the adversities of low light conditions on site: high trees, a lot of shades, dark fur. The large cheek pads of an older male are well-marked and the eye sockets are hollow. I have to make great efforts to be able to catch Ritchie’s gentle eyes in a photo. In the upcoming days I go and see Ritchie and his social group time and again. I am fascinated by the gentle nature of these jungle dwellers with their long shaggy coat. Their calmness is contagious. Later on I also spot free-living orangutans in the high treetops but there is no opportunity for good pictures.
There is still so much to discover in the water-rich Bornean jungle – situations some travellers can do without like vipers dozing on the veranda as well as on the footpaths, tree snakes in the flower tubs and poisonous millepedes in open air restaurants. This is a paradise for friends of reptiles.
Many animals in Borneo are nocturnal and masters of disguise. I only discover them at second glance. Walking through the jungle at night only accompanied by the sound of nature is extremely exiting. Millions of voices are raising to a gigantic concert.
At nightfall two to three million bats exit the expansive cave systems in the Mulu NP in search of food. A seemingly endless living black belt flies through the moonlit sky. This giant spectacle occurs only when it is not raining.
But also the lives of the common people kept me spellbound. Many people live on fishing. Their work is hard. Day after day they put out to sea with their very old and often rust-eaten floating coffins. The subsequent sale at the fish market turns into a slippery wet business. Here the fishermen also practice in crate throwing competitions. The day’s catch is piled on large heaps and then sorted out.
Afterwards the fish will be auctioned off. When the day’s work is done taking a nap on the spot is not begrudged. This is a very special kind of a sleeping place. No matter at what time of day I frequent the fish market either in the morning or in the evening it is a never-ending cycle of going to the sea, catching and hauling the fish in, sorting and selling. And that for a whole lifetime.
But apart from its unique natural resources and its friendly people Borneo has its dark side, too: the systematic devastation of the rainforest wrought by the commercial cultivation of huge oil palm plantations. Day to day the animals’ habitat shrinks. Vast areas have already been destroyed. And yet hope remains that it is not too late to save the rainforests.