Deirdre Mullins experiences the wonders of nature in South East Asia.
Lying on a tropical island beach, with the sun warming my body and the sound of the sea lulling me to sleep, was a perfect holiday moment. But when a turtle hatchling, smaller than the palm of a person's hand, walked by my beach mat, it took the experience to a whole other level.
From a distance I followed this infant as it made its perilous journey across the sand and into the open sea. Once it reached the water it swam away, its webbed feet moving like a clockwork toy. Most hatchlings are killed by predators at this stage, but for the small number who make it to adulthood this is the start of a long and complex life. They famously return to their birthplace to nest, travelling thousands of miles to do so. It was a delight to witness the first moments of one of nature's great mysteries.
I was on the aptly named Turtle Island, which lies off the east cost of Malaysian Borneo. It's one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet and is a wonderland of rare wildlife, rainforests, pristine coral reefs and picture postcard beaches. It also has a rich ethnographic history, with over 200 indigenous tribes and a large Chinese, Indian and Malay population.
Sabah is the region most famous for its wildlife and I joined a tour with adventure travel specialists Intrepid Travel. The trip is done in 'backpacker' style - perfect for those wanting to make the most of their time with minimum hassle and maximum experiences. Our group of 10 was small enough for a solo traveller like me to get to know everyone, yet big enough to offer variety. As it turned out, I had nine readymade travelling companions to accompany me on my journey.
Our first port of call was a home-stay with a family of the Dusun tribe. Once farming people and head-hunters, many of them now live in cities and towns. Head-hunting was common practice with indigenous tribes until the first decades of the 20th century; the ritual still continues but with replica heads made out of coconut shells. In days gone by the heads would be skinned and dried and smoked over a fire and then hung up in the longhouse. The skulls were believed to have powerful spiritual properties and could ward off evil and misfortune.
Robert, the man of the house, went to great lengths to teach us of the traditional, but disappearing way of life of the Dusun. The first task Robert gave us was 'paddy bashing'. Thankfully this was not an act of violence against my compatriots but involved preparing rice granules for cooking. The 'bashing' involved beating the rice with a stick to remove the husks. It was sweaty work and gave me a new appreciation for the humble grain. After dinner local children performed traditional songs and dances and then tried to teach us some of the moves. Our poorly co-ordinated efforts were a source of great amusement to the locals.
Robert's home is located at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, which is considered sacred by his people, who believe it's the resting place for souls. Standing at 4,095m, it's the fourth highest mountain and the steepest climbable peak in South East Asia. Conquering it was next on our itinerary. It was a tough, but gratifying two-day return journey, during which we travelled through the warm lowland rainforests to the near-freezing alpine conditions at the peak.
Welcome relief for aching legs came by soaking in the hot springs of the Mount Kinabalu National Park. These communal baths were established by the Japanese during World War II. The park is a botanical and ornithological paradise with over 300 species of birds and 5,000 flowering plants, some of which can only be found in this particular area of the world. It's home to nature's largest flower, the Rafflesia, which can grow to over a metre in diameter and weigh over 10kg. It's known as the corpse flower, because of the smell of rotten flesh it emits when in bloom.
At 560km long, the Kinabatangan River is Borneo's second longest waterway. Our group travelled by boat to reach a jungle camp where we went on day and night jungle treks. Wildlife encounters included big nosed proboscis monkeys, long tailed macaques, hornbills, crocodiles, pygmy elephants and, unfortunately for some, blood sucking leaches. The jungle camp was all about getting back to nature and our overnight accommodation comprised of a wooden hut with three walls. The fourth, would-be wall was a space open to the jungle - disconcerting to say the least. Needless to say, there was little sleep had that night.
Orang-utans are hard to spot in the jungle around the Kinabatangan. Your chances are much higher if you visit Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. Borneo is home to 90% of the world's population (the other 10% are in Sumatra). Sadly, orang-utans are an endangered species and the centre was set up to rehabilitate orphaned orang-utans who has lost their parents and habitat through logging. Borneo is a major producer of the controversial crop palm oil, which is having a devastating effect on the indigenous tribes and animals who live in the forests. The aim of the centre is to teach the orang-utans the necessary survival skills before returning them to the wild. The centre is on a forest reserve, which has around 70 orang-utans living freely and 25 orphans going through rehabilitation.
Twice a day the park rangers put food out on a feeding platform, which can be viewed by the public from about 20m away. The number of orang-utans that turn up is a matter of luck. On the first feeding I saw just one and on the second feeding I saw six, including a mother and her seven-month-old baby. Considering that orang-utans share 97% of their DNA with humans, it's easy to understand the magnetism that they hold for us. They are fascinating to watch as they swing through the forest, interact with one another and graze on bananas.
The infant orang-utan looked out at the crowd and I was convinced that we made eye contact. It reminded me of the other special moment I had with the turtle hatchling just days previous. Two powerful encounters with nature in a place that has so much to give to the adventurous traveller.
Deirdre travelled in Borneo with Intrepid Travel, which offers a 12-day Sabah Adventure from €1,285 including accommodation, transport, some meals and activities, and services of a local tour leader. Book at: www.intrepidtravel.com or: (01) 524-0071.
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