The Far East - 1994
Both of us enjoy watching wildlife, and one of our ambitions was to visit the Orang Utan sanctuary in Borneo. In 1994 we took advantage of a tourist ticket offered by Malaysian Airlines which fulfilled this ambition and allowed us to travel a little wider in the far east.
We began in Kuala Lumpur. The tiger economies were booming then, and the city seemed to be one enormous construction site. The older buildings were a mixture of ornate oriental and Victorian colonial; the KL railway station (see picture) must surely qualify as one of the most bizarre examples of Victorian gothic overstatement. The weather was perpetually humid, which encouraged us to leave the city and explore the peripheral attractions. The Pewter factory is worth a visit, but be prepared for some high pressure selling.
I was fascinated by the scorpion farm, which bred them to make ornaments. My compassion for the poor creatures and their short life expectancy wrestled with my lifelong fear of creepy-crawlies - the fear won!
We are no lovers of big cities, and KL held little for us. The streets swarm with hundreds of small motorcycles, making crossing the road a life threatening experience even when the light is at red. The rotten smell of the gurian fruit is all pervasive, and once out of an air-conditioned environment you have a tendency to melt. For me in was definitely a once only experience. We beat a hasty retreat to Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia on the Island of Borneo.
Kota Kinabalu is a tropical paradise: beautiful seascapes, wonderful scenery, the warmest sea I have ever swum in, and a quite magnificent hotel complex. No wonder Nick Leeson chose it when life in Singapore became too much! A typical day started with breakfast in the garden, cooked to perfection by your table. Then perhaps a short boat ride, courtesy of the hotel, to one of their tiny off-shore islands for a luxurious swim (only later did we learn about the notorious sea snake). Back to the hotel for lunch, followed by a walk to town for the inevitable shopping. After dinner a swim in one of the many pools and a drink sitting on a stool in the water (I had always wanted to do that). Everything was very cheap, except alcohol. We bought canned beer from the local shop and cooled it in the fridge in our room - for a quarter of the hotel price!
A couple of points to watch. When sunbathing I covered myself in Factor 30 sunblock, but forgot the soles of my feet; fortunately I heeded the early symptoms in time. Another thing to remember is that the tropics are teeming with wildlife, not all of it friendly. We were walking through a forest on one of the small islands one lunchtime (mad dogs and Englishmen ...) when something rustled a few feet from us - a huge fat monitor lizard several feet long (it gets bigger every time I tell the story). To our relief it seemed more concerned about us, and beat a surprisingly rapid retreat. Our guide told us later 'they have terrible bite'!
Selingaan Island lies 40 kilometers off the north east coast of Borneo, in the Sulu Sea between East Malaysia and the Philipines. It is about 500 meters in diameter and is one of the main breeding grounds for the giant turtle. We spent a night on the island in the hope of seeing one of them come ashore to lay her eggs - we got lucky!
Accomodation is rather primitive, but adds to the experience. A wooden hut on stilts, bunk beds with a single sheet, a cold shower using a bucket, electric power only between 6 and 10 in the evening, and temperatures mid afternoon reaching 40°C. However, the island has a well equipped visitors centre which provides excellent meals and hosted our lengthy briefing on what we might see. It also had a public phone box, connected via sattelite and wickedly expensive!
After a spectacular tropical thunderstorm at midnight, which drenched Elsa when she went to fetch a torch, the Rangers went looking for a turtle. Within the hour they found one, a grand specimen over a metre long, and lead their dozen visitors to her pitch. First she dug a sizeable hole in the sand and lay in it; then she laid 102 eggs the size of golf balls at roughly 10 second intervals - I could sense the mums among us wincing as each one dropped. Finally, she covered them over and struggled back into the sea. The Rangers explained that eggs buried on the beach were highly vulnerable to predators, so they carefully dug them up and reburied them in a fenced compound, marking the site with a dated post. Then, in best Blue Peter fashion (Brits only joke), they took us to the batch expected to hatch that evening, and right on cue 60 little turtles dug their way out of the sand.
We collected them all in a bucket and took them to the beach. When the bucket was emptied on the sand they all ran furiously to the sea, fighting the surf to get into the water. Sadly, very few make it to maturity. It was a profound experience which we will never forget.
On the boat home we were chased by pirates. So that was why just two of us had an armed police escort!
Orang Utan Sanctuary, Sepilok
Our next point of call was the main reason for our trip: the orang utan sanctuary in Sepilok. Orang utans (men of the forest in Malay) are frequently sold as pets and kept like human babies, which is against the law. Young animals recovered from this illegal trade need rehabilitation, and they are brought to Sepilok for training in 'jungle skills'. Every day two small parties are allowed to visit the sanctuary and watch the animals being fed.
Because they have such a close affinity with humans and seem to be natural performers, it was a very engaging experience. We had all been cautioned to leave our belongings in lockers because the orang utans love to steal them. A Japanese lady decided to keep her handbag, but Jessica, a young female, took a fancy to it and deftly removed it from her shoulder. To the owner's acute embarrassment Jessica climbed a tree and proceeded to empty the handbag, dropping each individual item for us all to see. I never realised the Japanese did that!
As if by magic, at the appointed time some fifty mostly young orangs congregated at the feeding point for their meal. They are deliberately fed a boring diet of bananas and milk to encourage them to forage for more interesting food themselves. However, one elderly male was clearly too lazy to bother, and proceded to bully some of the young ones into handing over their food. When we expressed our displeasure he stuck out his tongue, and of course we all replied in kind. No doubt this was how he had learned the gesture in the first place. If you plan to go then book in advance, as it is a popular attraction with limited places.
We concluded our far east tour with a visit to Hong Kong; just another big city with all its attendant drawbacks. I am glad we took the chance to go before it was swallowed by China. However, we were disappointed with it as a tourist venue, as it appears to be primarily for the shopaholic.