The Borneo Identity Orangutan clan ain’t nuthinG tA F’ WIT

Having spent Tuesday night and most of Wednesday flying to Kuala Lumpur, then a good few hours of Thursday travelling from our KL hotel to accommodation in Kuching, Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, you might be forgiven for thinking we’d have a moderately slow “get your bearings” day ahead of us. But no, as anyone who’s already read episode two of this trip knows, Friday came with an 0630 alarm.

First things first: what does Kuching look like in daylight?

Not too shabby, really.

Second things second: breakfast. Down on the fourth floor there is an enormous breakfast buffet, the likes of which I have only seen matched by the other two places I’ve stayed in Malaysia. Perhaps it’s a thing around here to have ginormous selections of hot, cold, savoury and sweet food plus a wide array of drinks to choose from in t’morning. We each had a plate piled with mostly western-ish stuff with the odd chunk of local, and I went back for a plate of sugary cakes. This was not the mistake it had been on Thursday in the lounge!

We’d got up so early not just to beat the rush for breakfast, but because we had a chaperone arriving at 8am to take us on a bit of a tour. In reception we’re met by Nick, who along with driver Mark were there to take us to Semenggoh orangutan reserve/centre. As it happens, they are taking only us because no-one else has booked to come on this 2-8 person tour. Sweet!

Having Nick to ourselves we get to chat with him however we want, and en route to the reserve have plenty of yer standard “First time in <X>? Where are you guys from? How long did it take you to get here? What have you seen so far?” conversation. He also gives us a lot of background about what we will hopefully be seeing, tempered with the caution that we may see nothing at all. Also he tells us that Kubah national park has AMAZING frogs and we should totally go on the frogging tour there.

45 minutes or so through prosperous, middle class suburbs of Kuching (very little here matches any of what my brain has associated with the impossibly exotic Borneo since I was a nipper) and we’re at the centre with 20-odd minutes to spare.

Accompanied by Mark we head round the back of the huts just up the way, beyond the park ranger who shouts “Nice beard!” at me, towards where another 15 or so tourists are pointing fingers or cameras at a tree. Turns out there’s an orangutan up it, having a bit of an early feed of whatever’s in that water bottle. It’s hard to get any pics, and one of the other people annoys me greatly by having the flash turned on despite numerous warnings both written and vocal. Sigh.

Come 10am and the proper safety briefing starts. Delivered by one of the park rangers, we’re told (or re-told, in some instances) that the orangutans are big animals, especially the alpha males, and if two or all three of them turn up at once we should do a runner for our own safety. The reserve isn’t actually big enough, really - one male would normally have a territory slightly larger than here to itself, so to have three males is asking for trouble. So the dangers of what we’re all about to do are repeatedly hammered home, after which the walkway to the feeding platform is opened.

An orangutan is already there, waiting for breakfast.

Well this is a good start. We stand back a couple of steps, since we have zoom lenses but most people only have their phones. Other real-camera wielders are much more pushy and demand to get to the front. Whatever.

One ranger is feeding, and others are dotted around looking out for where the other orangutans might approach from – they might come across the floor we’re told, in which case get ready to skedaddle. But in the end they swing through the trees above and around us before making their way down.

One of the three alpha males turns up. This is Annuar, not the dominant Ritchie. Good lord he’s an impressive beast.

A mother and baby also turn up, but have to hang around rather than risk getting in Annuar’s way.

In the end we see 7 or so. There’s no real show. The main ranger dude says a few things but mostly he’s just repeating the warnings that if another big male turns up we should turn and run. This doesn’t happen; what does happen, as predicted by Nick, is that one of the local types of squirrel (there are 34 on Borneo!!) comes to steal some of the scraps.

Blurry because distant and fast-moving.

The ranger is also in charge of telling us all to sod off. We spend a couple of minutes looking at the family tree on display, before leaving the feeding bit.

Nick walks us to the other few things of interest they have here. There’s a pair of crocodiles in captivity.

And there are two types of pitcher plant growing around the way.

Pitcher plants are cool. Apparently frogs go into them for a kip and then they can’t escape.

By 1015 or so we’re out of the reserve and on our way back. It only opens for two 2-hour sessions a day, with feeding taking place in the second hour, in order to limit the contact between human and orangutan. There used to be many more paths and trails around the place but it’s better for the animals this way.

On the way back to Kuching, Nick shows us many of his instagram pictures of frogs. He really loves frogs and cannot recommend enough the night walk where you can see them all. It feels like we might break his heart to say we’re not really that bothered so we just kinda “mm, oh really, interesting” our way through it.

Kuching looks lovely at lunchtime.

Returning to the hotel, we’ve a bit of time to kill before our next activity. In theory we could go explore a bit of daytime Kuching, but in practice we have a nap before popping down to the hotel restaurant for a comedy of frantic lunch errors.

Someone is coming to get us a 3.45pm, so arriving at the restaurant just after 3pm is a bad enough idea. Helen realises she wants to charge her phone so pops back up to plug it in, only to return with the door key card not left in the “electricity on” hole so it was a waste of time. We each order nasi goreng, which takes longer than anticipated to arrive and is much more food than expected.

In danger of being late, Helen goes back upstairs to leave me to sort out charging lunch to the room, signing things etc. But taking the only door card we’d left with means I now cannot operate the lift to reach the guest rooms floors – and I ain’t walking up 6 flights of stairs neither. I call her, and can hear her but don’t know if she can hear me. A minute or so later she steps out of the lift, so we head back to the room together and pack uncomfortably quickly for the afternoon’s excursion.

A couple of minutes late down in reception, we’re met by Anthony. As with this morning, we’re the only guests on this tour: the Santubong Wildlife Cruise. Anthony is fantastic value, really chatty and knowledgeable and with a very interesting life story. Relating stories about English ex-military types who either visit or move to Sarawak, and how much he loves their way of speaking – “Jolly good chap!” – he drives us to the boat club and beyond, since without any extra pickups there’s enough time for him to pick up some food from his favourite roadside stall in this neck of the woods. Awesomely, he hands us a bag of banana fritters as a gift and they are bloody fantastic.

At the boat club he parks up, grabs a bunch of stuff from the van – including food for later, which we’d forgotten was part of the deal – and leads us down the jetty onto a large, comfortable 30 seater cruising boat. This is the one we must walk through and step off in order to board the much, much smaller 10 seater (pfft, they ain’t double seats...) little motorboat we’ll be spending the next few hours on. Let’s get on the river!

Mount Santubong, from this angle, looks like someone’s face laid on the back of their head. See the brow and eye and nose and mouth and chin? Yeah, that.

Egrets doing a runner (flyer?) as we get close by.

The river is lined with mangroves, with impressive root systems. Anthony tells us about the four stages of growth and stuff that occur on this side of the river, after which the soil has proven to be solid enough on which to build buildings for humans.

Out here we’re meant to be looking for Irrawaddy dolphins. The water is brackish, meaning 30% or so saline, which has some effect on both flora and fauna. Apart from the odd jumping fish, we actually see precious little wildlife. There’s a crocodile fairly early on.

Like this one.

Yeah, him.

We don’t just have the boat to ourselves, we pretty much have the river to ourselves. For 2+ hours we see no-one else on the water. There is a monkey in a nearby tree though.

At the end of the river the water opens up massively, and that’s prime dolphin spotting territory but also a bit needle in a haystack. The weather is spectacular, and unexpectedly so for all of us. This neck of the woods gets rain 250 days a year and everyone though there’d be a storm in the afternoon, but in fact it’s dead sunny and the air quality is so good we can see a distant island that is usually invisible. The one in the middle of the following photo.

After failing to see dolphins, we’re given our food - more nasi goreng, it seems, plus some outrageously delicious fresh pineapple - and make our way down a separate river, past a Muslim village on an island there. Another crocodile comes close, making their way across the water in front of us. Appearing from another river is a larger boat with 12 or so tourists on, the first people we’ve shared the river with all day.

By this point in the journey the sun is setting, and it is drop dead gorgeous.

With some daylight left, we pull up against some sand to see mudskippers. These are fish that live on land. You heard.

Magnificent, bulbous-eyed daft animals. I love them.

As the sun fully sets, so does a full moon set out its stall elsewhere in the sky. Again this is unusual for these parts, and not particularly fortunate: the last thing we’re being shown here are fireflies in a few of the trees down a third river. We do get to see them, but had it been darker the effect would’ve been much greater. It bothers us less than it bothers Anthony, who is a bit gutted with this on top of the lack of dolphins. We try and tell him it was just ace to have the river to ourselves for so long and see all the wildlife we HAD seen. Oh, talking of which, I forgot to mention the proboscis monkey.

This fella was up in a tree on the corner of the two rivers, near where we saw mudskippers. Hadn’t expected to see one at all, so this was a massive bonus.

With the tour over post-fireflies, we’re warned that the boatman is going to properly put his foot down so keep a-hold of all our bags ‘n stuff. It’s dark and the boat has no light of its own, only the torches shone by the boatman and Anthony. We think they’re mostly using them for a mixture of navigation and just to let anyone else know we’re nearby, but in fact all the way along they’re still looking for crocodiles – and we see our biggest one yet, lying on the riverbank. We observe for a few minutes until the croc suddenly ups and legs it into the water.

Infra-red torch helps eyes, but not cameras.

Back at the boat club we hand Anthony a tip and ask him to share it with the boatman, who is too shy to come thank us and say goodbye for himself. The drive back to Kuching is filled with interesting conversation including a long history lesson about the Brooke white Rajahs, the disquiet caused by attempting to hand Sarawak to the British Crown, and the formation of Malaysia in the 50s/60s.

We’re back at the hotel by about 8pm, with plenty of time to head out and go explore the local night market.

India Street is the Indian heritage companion to Chinatown, in the other half of the city centre. There’s a relatively impromptu 3-day festival going on here, hence it’s a fun place to go explore. As it goes nothing really takes our fancy until we walk up a side street and there are booze and durian ice cream sellers.

Actually we get nothing. Popping into a supermarket, we fail to find booze and remain mystified about how to buy it outside of a pub/bar. Is it illegal to sell for consumption at home? Who knows. We could do with a beer though.

Since Helen was so offended by our inability to get a second drink at Drunk Monkey the night before, we this time go to Walk-Star Bistro. Inside we go upstairs which is empty, and are followed by a waitress. Guinness and a Tiger please! She points out the “service” button we are to press whenever we want more beer. Damn it, we were uncomfortable with that in KL and we’re uncomfortable with it here too.

We are not uncomfortable with the music though. It’s all early-mid 90s grunge ‘n that, all those bands where you don’t need to know the lyrics to sing along: Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, and so on. It’s good stuff, and so is the beer and atmosphere even after a few more people arrive.

I press the service button. Nothing happens. I press it again and the waitress appears. More beer please!

As well as the drinks and music, things take an even better turn when the big screen TV behind the bar, which I can see over Helen’s shoulder, shows WWE Main Event followed by WWE NXT. The channel’s ident shows wireframe sportsmen morphing between badminton, table tennis, football, and wrestling to demonstrate the range of things they specialise in. I approve. A pub playing my-era grunge (plus a bit of Marilyn Manson and, er, Gun) that shows back to back wrestling shows at 10pm and later on a Friday night, while serving a cracking Guinness? Kuching!

Since we still don’t know how to buy beer for the room, we stay here ‘til about midnight. The beers are only halves, and we’ve had just 3 or 4 of them before going to bed with a Saturday morning alarm set for ... actually this time we don’t have an alarm set. We are on holiday, after all.

Created By
Darren Foreman