Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The next thrilling installment- in which our hero finally encounters pongo pygmaeus and falls helplessly in love

Anyone want to buy a puppy? Or maybe a persian kitten? Only midly baked in the 40 degree heat of the full Malaysian sun. What's that? No, he's only sleeping, he's very happy really. We're not going to give them any water though, because then they'll only wee everywhere. How about a tortoise- we've got a bucket full, or a rabbit? No?

Such was the scene in which I found myself on Sunday morning in Kota Kinabalu. Anna had sadly left us for Kuching and Tristan had already planned ahead and gone on to KK straight from Mulu. Jonas had planned on going to the Kelabit Highlands, but couldn't get a ticket, so decided to join me for an evening flight to KK. Have you ever flown in a small, propeller plane through a tropical thunderstorm? It's quite, um... interesting- particularly when you have a rather annoying German humming the theme to Indiana Jones to himself in the seat next to you!

Kota Kinabalu is market crazy- in fact apparently it holds the largest Malaysian market in the world, and I can well believe that. In addition to the Sunday market that runs throughout the centre of town, there's a daily sprawl of stalls stretching down all along the sea wall. At around 2 o'clock when the boats come back with their haul, the stalls explode with everyone trying to get their own catch out first. I saw whole tuna being expertly butchered, a single fish taking up an entire stand with the head stood up, holding the tail in it's mouth. We ate red snapper, squid and weird looking seaweed straight from the sea, cooked with chilli oil on a flaming bbq and served with rice and mango. We ate with our fingers and boy did we enjoy it! Even Jonas' bottomless stomach was finally satisfied. One thing though, it was served on plates that had been sealed inside plastic bags, so that they can be reused without the bother of washing them! This is how things work here, plastic bags come with everything, even when you say you don't need one, fruit is handed over in individual ones (sometimes in two- and a polystyrene net case for pears!).

At least in KK there are level crossings so you can walk safely across the road- there were none at all in Miri, because in the towns, the people simply don't walk anywhere. They stare at me with my bright red face, sweating away in the sun as they sit in their air conditioned cars going from their air conditioned houses to their air conditioned malls. When the women do have to go outside, most of them sheild themselves from the sun with an umbrella. Mrs Lee was telling me that she has a friend who carries an umbrella even when she puts her washing out to dry. In KK we can see why. Here our hostel (the usual- geckos climbing the bathroom walls, cats in varying stages of arousal or pregnancy, dorm rooms with 3 sets of bunk beds, jammed so closely together in the boxlike room that only one person can stand up at a time...) has a television in the common room. This is the first TV I've seen for over a week and all of the ads are for skin whitening creams, featuring the palest humans I've ever seen, and trust me, I myself am practically see-through! The presenters too have a complexion of which any vampire would be proud- a stark and ridiculous contrast to their mahogannied, western counterparts.

All in all, I think I've had enough of cities for now, the filth and the noise (yes, Lady GaGa does get everywhere) not to mention the smell, is starting to get to me, so Jonas and I decide to take a bus and head off to Sandakan.

Now Sandakan itself is pretty non-descript, lots and lots of people; although tomorrow is the Malaysian new year, so the crowds may be due to that rather than the town's general popularity. The streets are filled with stall-like shops selling intriguing knock-offs. 'BlueBerry' anyone?! The reason that I wanted to come here though, is that it is a bus journey away from the Sepilock Orangutan sanctuary.

Why do people come to Borneo? It has some of the best diving in the world, one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, home to proboscis monkeys, Elephant and Rhino. And of course to the orangutan. I've dreamed of seeing these amazing creatures ever since I was a teeny tiny girl and they are the reason I am here in Malaysia. Jonas kept telling me that I was being stupid and that I might as well go and see them in a zoo as go to the feeding platform at Sepilok- but that's where he's wrong. These animals are all orphans, mainly from the palm plantations but occasionally their mothers have been killed for bushmeat and the babies kept as pets. They have been rescued and are brought to the sanctuary to begin their rehabilitation. This process takes around 8-10 years, with the older ones returning to the feeding platform as and when they please. The rehabilitation centre itself is not open to visitor, since any diseases that humans are carrying can be passed onto the vulnerable babies. But you can see them at the feeding platform, twice a day, vieing with the pesky makaks for the choice bananas. Seeing them so close, as relaxed as can be, you almost forget how bad things are looking for their species. I really really hope to see them in the wild, maybe on the Kinumatangan, or south in Bako.

The feeding frenzy over and the over-confident Makaks that lined the walkway successfully negotiated, I was waiting for Jonas in a large, secluded bandstand-like hut. In walks a young orangutan. Just like that, out of the blue. I was sitting on a step at the entrance and he came and sat next to me, before brushing past my shoulder and walking lazily up to the trees at the side.

I literally couldn't move. I have been fascinated by these animals for years, but having now looked one in it's soulful, intelligent eyes, I know that I am smitten, and always will be.

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