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Getting comfortable among the wild things

SABAH, Malaysian BorneoThe jungles of Borneo, the dense ancient rainforests, are home to primates and elephants, leopards and bearded pigs,…

SABAH, Malaysian Borneo

The jungles of Borneo, the dense ancient rainforests, are home to primates and elephants, leopards and bearded pigs, tropical birds and snakes, butterflies and insects.

Perhaps the most famous of all the residents is the orangutan, The Wild Man of Borneo.

The Kinabatangan River runs through one of the last few pockets of forest where the orangutan can be found in the wild. Small jungle lodges along the river are perfect base camps from which to explore.

Located on the eastern side of Borneo, it’s a six- or seven-hour bus trip from Kota Kinabalu.

“Good afternoon and welcome,” smiled Ahmid, extending his hand. “How was your trip across the island? It’s not much further to the lodge now.”

The van bumped along gravel roads lined with coconut-palm-oil plantations and small villages. Fruit stands loaded with bananas and papayas dotted the edge of the road.

“The lodge is on the other side of the river,” Ahmid said, beeping the horn as the signal for the boatman to come across. “It won’t be a moment.”

After clambering down the steps onto the wharf and into the boat, it was a 10-minute ride to the lodge. The small chalets were named after birds of the area: Storm’s Stork, Kingfisher, Oriental Darter. The jungle was all around.

“Just let us know if you decide to go off and explore,” advised C.T.  “You can walk around, or use the kayaks.”

Warm and outgoing, she explained the comings and goings of the camp. Born and raised in a local village, she knew the area well.

“The elephants are upriver, a couple of days away, so there’s no worry about bumping into them.” She nodded towards the tea and coffee urns. “Help yourself anytime.”

The wide Kinabatangan River cuts through the dense jungle, making boats an excellent way to travel and explore.

Louis, the boatman and guide, had no trouble spotting creatures that were, at first, invisible to the untrained eye: red langur monkeys and long-tailed macacques, hawk eagles and black hornbills.

Once he had spied them, Louis would slowly draw the boat up, allowing lots of time for quiet observation.

About an hour into the trip, moving along the river as the sky hinted at evening, Louis called out “orangutan.”

Thinking he was going to talk about the “people of the forest,” it was thrilling to realize he must have actually seen one — he was turning the boat to shore. He nosed the bow into the reeds and looked up.

A solitary female orangutan had propped herself into a sitting position amidst the branches of a large Ficus racemosa tree and was enjoying her evening meal.

Reaching around herself, she was stripping bark from the tree, peeling it, and cramming it into her mouth. She chewed away on her burgeoning mouthful of food, keeping one eye on the boat.

Once dinner was over it was time for sleep. She made her way to the top of the tree and started breaking branches to make a nest. Louis thought it was best to move on. He told us the last thing she would do was put a branch over herself, like a cover.

The incredible excitement of watching the orangutan overshadowed the final stop of the evening to view several proboscis monkeys, endemic to Borneo. Their enlarged nose, for which they were given their name, gives them a distinctive, comical look.

Arriving back at the lodge, Louis jumped onto the dock to tie up the boat. Tomorrow was another day.

Catherine Millar is a Whitehorse-based writer on a months-long tour of far-flung places. Her chronicle appears here every Monday.