Hey there everyone. Today is my last full day in Borneo! Tomorrow I fly to Kuala Lumpur for two days before catching a flight to Ho Chi Minh on Thursday. I've been in Malaysia now for almost six weeks, and I'm not entirely sure how that happened. I'm almost half way through my second notebook, despite all my attempts to keep my writing as small as possibly (seriously, if you think that I'm a tiresome windbag on this here thing, you should check out my books. I'm slightly concerned that if I don't curtail things a bit soon I won't have any room left in my rucksack for clothes and the like.) though since I discovered the sick and twisted creations of the chief taxidermist at the Sarawak museum in Kuching, my pages are filling up even faster than before. And boy do I have a lot to tell you all. I'm putting in more pictures today, but it's going to be a long 'un so brace yourselves.
Some drawings of the exhibits at the Sarawak museum
The title of this posting is a complete misnomer to be honest, a cheap ploy by which I meant to extract sympathy from you fine people. Please don't feel sorry for me because I have been far from alone. In fact, within an hour of arriving in Kuching (shortly before my camera was stolen, but we don't speak of that) I was sitting in a little art gallery on the Main Bazaar near the water front, drinking a cup of tea and eating fresh bean cake with a lovely man called Ramsey Ong, who's work adorns much of the wall space. We talked about his paintings, which are all acrylic on flattened tree bark and of art in general for about an hour. I'd only gone up to the counter to buy a couple of postcards and before I knew it I was being treated like an old friend. Can you imagine such a thing happening in London?
Proboscis monkeys feeding in the mangroves at Baco National Park
Anywho, I've been loving this whole lone traveler thing. I've been able to wander about wherever I like and sit like a gormless lunatic staring at proboscis monkeys in the mangroves for as long as I want -or at least as long as the monkeys hang about, they will insist on moving back to the forest when the tide comes in. Unfortunately however, things tend to cost a lot more when you're on your own, and by things I mean specifically transport. For example, to get to Baco; the national park where these primate laden mangroves are, you need to charter a motor boat to take you across the water. Luckily though I managed to find a slightly weird German couple, Gorro and Ulrika who were also going to Baco, to share the cost of the ride. I wish that I could do this every time I need to get a taxi to an airport, though maybe not always this particular couple, as I said, they were a bit odd.
The view from just outside the park office, Baco
As you can see, Baco is pretty darned beautiful. There are loads of long hikes that you can go on if you so wish, but to be honest I spent most of my time near the jetty or walking along the beaches looking out at the South China Sea, with no one but the crabs and an occasional bearded pig for company.
Uber rare flying lemur fast asleep, Baco National Park
I had transport problems of a different sort when I went to visit the Semenggoh Wildlife rehabilitation centre last Thursday. They have a bus service direct from Kuching that leaves at 7.15am every day, though when I tried to get back I discovered that the drivers of said bus tend to turn up only if they feel like it.
Semenggoh is a National park that is mainly used as a research centre, its main attraction for people like me, is the feeding platform where, everyday at 9am and 4pm, the rangers put out fruit for the 27 semiwild orangutan who live within the grounds. There isn't enough forest left in this area to allow the apes to be fully reintroduced into the wild. They are fairly self sufficient though, particularly in the fruiting season (which is pretty much now) and so the rangers were very quick to stress that there was a strong possibility that we wouldn't see any at all.
How wrong they were! As we approached the feeding station, I could hear the familiar crashing noise in the trees that we weren't going to be disappointed. A young male came out of the forest just as we arrived at the viewing area, and he found himself a choice piece of papaya which he ate with gusto. His coat was very dark and as he had moved through the trees the disturbance to the branches was remarkably small for such a large animal, no wonder they are so hard to spot when they're in the canopy.
I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a mother with her tiny baby latched to her chest, moving through the trees behind the unconscious crowd, who's cameras were still glued to the male on the platform. I managed to manoeuvre my way to the back and was mere metres away when she came down the tree to receive her fruit, which was dutifully handed to her by the keeper. By this time the lenses had noticed the great ape behind them and were snapping greedily away. I know that I'm being a hypocrite, because I too have a camera with which I took photos, but I don't understand these people who only look at things through a viewfinder and who lose interest the moment they think that they've got the perfect shot. I simply couldn't take my eyes off her. She seemed so unconcerned by the people before her, simply hanging there, her baby peeking through from between her long arms, methodically eating her way through her bunch of bananas. The interaction between the mother and her child was enchanting. She was so gentle when handing the fruit to the baby, its grasping movements an almost perfect imitation of a human child. I simply cannot understand how anyone could harm these beautiful creatures who are so like us.
Female orangutan with her baby, Semenggoh rehabilitation centre
Once the female's appetite was sated and she had moved off into the trees once more, most of the crowd wandered off back towards the entrance of the centre. The feeding had only started half an hour before, but being deprived of instant entertainment, the majority of the spectators left. The idiots! Had they been patient and waited another 5 minutes, they would have seen the trees moving in 4 different sections of the forest. More orangutans were headed our way, and among them was the one I'd been hoping, but never thought I'd see- the 140kg dominant male, Richie.
Richie, the enormous dominant male, Semenggoh rehabilitation centre
Richie is about to hit the big 3-0 next year and is in his absolute prime. Complete with large facial flanges and glossy red coat, he was the most magnificent creature that I have ever seen, dwarfing the keeper who stood well back from the platform to give him room. He moved so smoothly through the forest appearing to dance across them like a tightrope walker, holding onto the branches above him which he pulled toward him, bending them almost in half before letting them go like a cartoon catapult. He sat on the platform like an emporer, watching us watching him, his gleaming fur falling in waves down his back and long arms. The other orangutans approached very cautiously and would run straight back into the trees once they'd grabbed their fruit. I could have watched them forever but far too soon, they had eaten their fill and disappeared like smoke into the trees.
I waited for an hour and a half for the bus back to Kuching, but I hardly noticed. The glow from seeing the apes was still with me, I doubt that it will ever go. I hope not.
It's not just been the animals that have been keeping me company though. There have been primates of a human kind too, I promise. While I was at Bako, I had shared a dorm room with an Australian couple (yes, I know, another one!) who recommended a hostel that they had been staying in, so when the time came to leave for Kuching once more, that was where I headed. 'Tracks' is the most homely hostel that I've stayed in so far and for just under 3 pounds a night, what's not to like?! It is presided over by a lovely Polish fortuneteller, Gosia and Henry who's family is from Kuala Lumpur (hi guys!), they met whilst working in Shrewsbury of all places and plan to open a restaurant below the hostel, but the malaysian construction industry is not the fastest and though they were supposed to open back in July, they are still waiting for work to be completed. They took me out for dinner a couple of times and we even managed to locate a bar which sold red wine. Mmm, red wine... The hostel's range of clientel was pretty interesting too, from the insane New Zealander, Tom who is cycling from Wellington to Glasgow, but doesn't seem to have planned certain small details, like Visas for example; to the malaysian Nick, who lay on the sofa and snored so loudly that I swear the walls shook, I've never heard anything like it.
It was here too, that I met Fabien, a chain smoking, effortlessly relaxed frenchman, who is also writing a blog of his travels (it's currently written in French, but I have been assured that there will be an English translation coming soon and it's definitely worth a look if only for the amazing photos). Through a weird chain of events, involving Sarawak museum and a random man called Desmond, on Friday, Fabien and I found ourselves thrown together and on our way to the tiny Bidayuh village of Mongkos right on the Indonesian border. Because of its proximity to Kalimantan and its general remoteness, not a lot of tourists visit this tiny place and so life there is pretty much as it has always been.
View from our homestay in Mongkos, the hills are the Indonesian border
The main feature of the village is the traditional longhouse, in which around 70 people live, the individual rooms connected by one huge, open veranda on which people sit to talk and weave their baskets. You can tell whether the family within is Christian or Animist (a sort of paganism which was the norm before those pesky missionaries started messing with the locals) by the decorations on the front doors. The animists have dried leaves hanging above the mantle, which are there to ward off evil spirits, whilst the Christians have anything from a cross to a picture of the Virgin Mary (and in one case a very strange pencil drawing of the last Pope- weird). The Longhouse is set up on stilts and the floor of the veranda is made from bamboo slats to allow for the cooling air to flow up through it, as well as protecting the home from flooding and pests.
That first day, Fabien and I were taken on a walk to a couple of huge rocks, of which the village are very proud. We were accompanied by our guide, a slightly chubby man in a woven conical hat, with a machete slung over his shoulder, and a great rabble of girls from the who whooped and galloped around us. Our guide explained, in broken English about the properties of the different plants and leaves that we passed. One of these he passed to me, explaining that the Bidayuh believe that if you sleep with these leaves under your bed it will keep nightmares and vampires away. When I asked him if they would protect me if I slept with them under my bed he told me that I needed 7 leaves, but he'd only given me one and he seemed far less concerned than I was about finding me another 6, so I had to spend the night entirely unprotected from evil spirits.
After our walk Fabien and I were each presented with a coconut sapling, which we were asked to plant with the rest of the fruit trees next to the river. Imagine, there is a little tree on the border of Kalimantan in the heart of Borneo, which has a little cardboard sign around its trunk saying that I planted it- that's pretty darned special don'tcha think?!
Fabien and I looking pretty pleased with our planting prowess- my grin is fixed because there's an ant biting my foot and I'm trying to ignore it
Those days in the village were some of the best I've spent in Borneo. We not only planted trees, we cooked chicken and rice inside bamboo on an improvised barbeque on the banks of a waterfall (though since the cooked chicken was served in the same container that had transported it when it was raw, I'm quite relieved not to have gotten salmonella from that particular enterprise), we ate the pith from around freshly picked cocoa beans, (slimy but delicious), drank the contents of coconuts through bamboo straws, swam in the river and learnt how to extract latex from rubber trees.
And then of course, there were the children. They really were amazing, ranging in age from about 3 to 17 and all running about tirelessly, always wanting to play. Our evenings were filled with the sounds of laughter as we sat in a large circle playing clapping games, or in little groups where they showed me to play a version of Jacks, with 5 little stones. I was rubbish at this, and they laughed loudly as I fumbled to get it right. Though they only spoke a little English and I only know one phrase in Bidayuh- 'Moobee sore' which means 'I'm full', we got on famously. Thank goodness for the home brewed rice wine though, with which our hosts liberally plied us, because I doubt that anything less potent would have induced me to join in with the traditional dancing. The children performed the dances with such solemnity and concentration that I was ashamed of my inept attempts to follow them. They loved the dancing. There was a large TV screen in the open dining hall of the homestay, but I never saw it show anything other than music videos, and it was through this that the music played. There was a very fat boy of about 17 who was particularly keen on the dancing. He was extremely camp, performing all the female moves faultlessly. Being gay in Borneo is still strictly illegal and I worry about what will happen to him, it can't be easy being the only gay in this particular village.
Little Nora beating me at a clapping game
Me attempting to pull a Madonna- she hasn't adopted a Malaysian baby yet has she?!
This photo was taken by Matilda, a particularly bossy girl of around 10, the kids loved taking pictures with my camera and laughed wildly when I showed them the images. Desmond has promised to print some of my pictures out for them if I email them over to him.
It was so sad when the time came for us to leave the village. The kids presented me with brightly coloured Hibiscous flowers, which they put in my hair, wishing me a Merry Christmas as they did so. They also gave me the stones with which they'd taught me to play Jacks. It was all that they had of their own and they gave them to me. What do I want with the hundreds of souvenir stalls that dominate the streets of Kuching, when I have these five little stones that mean so much.
Goodbye Borneo, I've dreamt of coming here for as long as I can remember and my journey here has been more incredible than I could have thought possible. I've met so many amazing people along the way and seen things that I have only ever dreamt about. I hope for everyone's sake that the dark predictions for this land are wrong and we find some way to save it.
Next stop Kuala Lumpur and then on to Ho Chi Minh to see what Vietnam has in store for me.
All my love xxx