Stepping into the Jungle Book

005 degrees 26′ 10 N 119 degrees 06′ 14 E Leaving the Kinabatangan River

Since my last blog three weeks ago I’ve ticked off many more species from my to-see list – including the ape man of Borneo, the orang utan.
After a day spent trying to repair the leech line of the mainsail by hand sewing it (and I have a needle puncture wound in my hand to prove it), we gave up and decided to leave it to the experts. The sail is working, but it’s a good job we’re in cruising mode, not racing mode.
For some well-earned R&R – well, we had done a good day and a half’s worth of work – we headed to the Pulau Penyu (Turtle Islands) Marine Park and anchored off the island of Silingaan. It is green turtle laying season at the moment and tourists can pay to do an overnight stay on Silingaan, coming over from Sandakan by boat, swimming and snorkeling by day and watching huge turtles heave themselves onto shore by night to dig a crater and deposit anything up to 100 eggs. Being yachties, and already having a boat, we were too cheap to pay for the package tour and so tried to do it ourselves, by taking the dinghy over to the nearby island of Gulisaan.
Turtles will only lay their eggs on the beach where they themselves were born, swimming hundreds of miles to do so. We found loads of sets of turtles tracks and the remains of shells and, round the back, a hatchery with hundreds of areas staked out with dates on them – and about a dozen were labelled with that day’s date. Although turtles are endangered and trade in their eggs is illegal, there is still a thriving black market for them, as they are considered a delicacy in Malaysia. The government has set up hatcheries, where eggs are removed from the sand and reburied in sanctuaries to keep them out of the hands of poachers but the selling is still going on – we were told that in some of the poorer villages, locals will give only half the eggs to the hatchery and sell the other half on the black market.
We headed back to Gulisaan after dark to try to watch turtles laying and arriving but a warden was there and asked us very politely to leave. We chatted him up a bit and he showed us a young green turtle that was unable to dive that he had rescued from the sea that afternoon. Without the ability to dive, it would have basically fried in its shell under the hot sun. In the same little paddling pool of water there was a clutch of hawksbill babies that had hatched four nights earlier and he let us scoop them up in our palms, put them in a basket and release them on the beach, about a foot or two from the water’s edge. A couple scuttled straight into the sea and it was amazing to think that such tiny things, only a few days old and, judging from what I saw, pretty rubbish at swimming, will one day be able to find their way back to this exact same spot.
From the turtle islands we made for Sandakan, a town famous for the death marches that killed thousands of Australian PoWs when Sabah fell to the Japanese in WWII. After restocking on food and beer – bought from a Chinese restaurant that seemed to only sell cases of lager to yachties, rather than food to locals – we navigated our way up the Kinabatangan River, into the rainforest. I say rainforest, and it looks impressive from the water, with so many different types of trees and plants, but it doesn’t take long before you realise the natural forest is only a few metres deep in places, the rest having been ripped up and replaced with palm oil plantations.
Perhaps because the animals have nowhere else to go, the shores of the Kinabatangan are teeming with wildlife and we went out in the dinghy every day in the early evening, once the temperature had dropped, to watch the animals and birds come out to play. There were so many different types of monkeys – long-tailed and snub-tailed macaques, grey leaf, red leaf and proboscis, which are only found in Borneo. The proboscis monkeys have reddish fur, long tails, pot bellies and long noses Pinocchio would be proud of. They live in the tallest trees and were just as fascinated by us as we were by them. When we spotted a group and sat beneath their tree watching, they would grab hold of a couple of branches and lean forward as far as they could to get a better look at us, with an expression on their faces that was a cross between a frown and incredulity.
We saw so many birds – egrets, herons, eagles, an owl, kingfishers and hornbills, huge black birds with what looks like rhinoceros’s horns stuck on top of their beaks, coloured bright red or yellow. I can’t remember if there are any pterodactyls in Jurassic Park but if there were the sound effects team would have done well to come and record the weird screaming croaks of the hornbills that they emit when they are about to take off.
We actually went up the river twice because we were determined to see wild pygmy elephants, which had outfoxed us on our first trip. Friends Greg and Debs on yacht Southern Cross had spotted them so we followed their lead and spent a frustrating and fruitless afternoon in the baking sun whizzing up and down for miles, burning up petrol in the dinghy. We’d given up and moved into the shade of a palm plantation irrigation channel to have a drink when Greg piped up “Why is there an elephant over there?” While we were not paying attention, a young lone bull had just quietly walked around the corner and stopped just 20 metres away, staring at us. We backed off in alarm, worried he would charge at us, but I think he was more frightened of us – he desperately wanted to go for a swim where we were but didn’t have the guts to jump in when we were so close by. After that it was like someone opened the elephant floodgate – one surfaced from underwater a few metres away from us the next morning and then a whole herd came to set up camp on the opposite bank from the yachts for two days. We could hear them crashing through the jungle and their loud trumpeting calls all through the day and night – sometimes they sounded like you’d expect, with a Dumbo-esque call and other times it was more like the “Woo-wooo” you’d hear on a ghost train at the fun fair. I’ve only ever seen elephants in the zoo or on TV, so to watch them in the wild, trying to back down a mud bank, throwing mud over their backs with their trunks and protecting their young by ushering them along was just amazing.
At the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary we had another magical animal experience. Here they raise orphaned baby orang utans and rehabilitate them for life in the wild. The sanctuary acts as a comfort blanket, offering food for released orang utans twice a day. At the morning session, only one ape came to the feeding platform and for just a short time. Then Steve and I trekked a trail through the rainforest, spotting lizards, squirrels, butterflies, massive ants and all kinds of weird insects. So far, so standard tourist trip. At tea time, though, there were about eight orang utans, who were more than happy to give us a display of their athletic ability, hanging upside down to eat just for fun, swinging along the ropes and stopping to pose for photos above the visitors’ heads. One obligingly had a wee for the cameras.
Then one little guy decided to up the ante a bit by jumping down onto the viewing platform and started chasing after tourists and grabbing hold of them. He was mainly content with hugging ankles but he climbed up one Australian man for a full on, arms round the neck cuddle. An adult male orang utan is four times as strong as a human man and the poor bloke didn’t stand a chance of pulling the animal off. When the warden told off the ape he threw a hissy fit like a toddler, lying on the floor and banging his arms and legs up and down in a silent tantrum. Does You’ve Been Framed still pay £250 for wacky animal videos?