Borneo: Face to face with orangutans

Borneo: Face to face with orangutans

They are the most intelligent of the apes, but human activity is causing their numbers in the wild to dwindle. Penny Batchelor went to the one place in the world where it’s still possible to have a close encounter with an orangutan.

Sabah, one of the 13 states of Malaysia, is the place to go if you want to see orangutans in their indigenous habitat. But also, it’s a near paradise place for a holiday too. Thankfully the days of chancing meeting a headhunter, whose collection of skulls are a symbol of his prowess, have long since passed. Tourism took a hold in Borneo in the 1980s and in the 21st century the country is now renowned for its wildlife holidays and cultural history.

I chose to holiday in Borneo to achieve a lifelong goal: to come face to face with an orangutan, the world’s largest living animal that has evolved to live in trees. Sadly there are only two surviving species of orangutan in the wild and Malaysian Borneo is home to the majority of the world’s population of them.

For those with the prerequisite physical stamina and ability the dream situation is to trek through pristine rainforest to observe orangutans in the wild. Not surprisingly this is controlled and regulated because the apes are an endangered species, with numbers dwindling due to human activity and development of the forests in which they live.

As a trek is out of the question for me I had to find another way. Before I travelled to the island I’d found out that the hotel Shangri-La Rasa Ria, a 30-minute drive eastwards from my hotel Shangri-La Tanjung Aru in Kota Kinabalu, has an orangutan education centre. A shuttle bus runs between the two hotels. My first port of call when I arrived in Borneo was to ask the rep about this. She advised that it’s a 15-minute uphill walk (for “walk” I substituted ”trek”) with no path to get there. A wheelchair would never make it. Time to find a plan B.

The rep’s solution was to instead go to the disability-friendly Lok Kawi wildlife sanctuary, again about a 30-minute drive away. A cross between a sanctuary and a zoo, here there are numerous animals typically found in the region such as the clouded leopard, Asian elephant, sun bear and the Malayan tiger. I signed up on the spot.

Where else to visit? I turned to the rep’s scrapbook full of information on each available tour. Each trip had a rating as to its suitability for disabled people. “Helpful!” I thought until the penny dropped that none of the trips were marked as suitable. Was I going to have to stay in the hotel all week?

Thankfully not. The rep proved to be more flexible than her scrapbook and she organised for me to borrow a wheelchair from the hotel. I plumped for a nature riverboat cruise that didn’t require much walking later on in my stay.

That done it was time to explore my shiny hotel. To be sure of an accessible environment I’d splashed out on a room with an international chain. The hotel’s standards lived up to its price. In reception new guests are greeted with welcome home made lemonade and a glockenspiel player making tranquil music. The complex itself is large with lots of leisure facilities including my favourite, an infinity pool that’s nearly as warm as a bath. No dithering on the edge of a freezing pool here for me.

The hotel’s grounds are fully accessible although the route around the complex avoiding steps, as is often the case, is longer and more complex than for those who can get up a step or two without help. What did prove to be an inaccessible, assault course adventure was a walk into the environs of Kota Kinabalu. Along we went.

My husband pushed me in my huge, rickety wheelchair borrowed from the hotel. When out of the grounds we realised that the chair was much more suitable for a toddle around the poolside than a mile urban, off-roading hike.

Kota Kinabalu, is a modern city that’s risen from the ashes of Second World War bombs. It’s a working rather than historical place, but is well worth a visit to see what everyday life is like for people in the area. In the city the spirit of accessibility, dropped kerbs for example, is there, but the flesh isn’t so willing. Kerbs are high, cars park blocking ramps, trees grow in the middle of pavements and the place is built more for the motorist than the pedestrian. However, people are very friendly and were only too willing to help and avoid running us over.

In Kota Kinabalu, and the bars around the beach, food and drink is much cheaper and more authentic than the admittedly delicious but pricey fare at our hotel. To get a true feel of local cuisine we popped into a café frequented by locals for their lunch. A dish such as noodles with vegetables or curry and rice is healthy fast food, at a fraction of the price of that in restaurants aimed at tourists. Whilst out we were treated to a refreshing downpour. The weather in Borneo is sunny all year round. Tropical showers come and go quickly, even outside of the rainy season, announcing themselves with cracks of thunder and forked lightning.

The day dawned for our nature boat trip a couple of hours’ drive south. The area is known for its macaque monkeys and the star of the show, proboscis monkeys with their Pinocchio-esque noses. The river itself verged on crowded. Cruises seem to be a popular activity not just with tourists but also with residents who like to end their evening at a riverside restaurant. We set off. One boat would stop by another, hoping that the others had spotted something, until there would be a line three boats deep of people all straining to see a shaking tree branch. For a while it felt like I was losing a game of “Where’s Wally?”. Later, though, the search was worth it when our guide was the first to spot a crocodile lazing in the shade by the waterborne tree routes and a monkey mother carrying her baby.

As the sun went down, fireflies came out of the bushes. We were treated to a light display rather as if someone had plugged in and switched on Christmas flashing fairy lights all along the riverside. It was magical and also apt for the festival of Deepavali (as they call Diwali) which took place whilst we were in the country.

A few days later it was finally time for my much-anticipated orangutan experience. Lok Kawi Wildlife Park has ramps and the “handicapped” get in free. I avoided the animal show, which sounded too exploitative for my liking, and headed for the orangutan enclosure.

Here I saw them. In a large open space with lots of trees and space to swing around, six rescued orangutans played, sheltered from the sun and generally went about their day to day living. It was fascinating to watch and indeed it was only our guide announcing that we had to leave that tore me away from the baby swinging upside down up high, trying to persuade the elders to play. I had achieved my goal.

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