By boat into a Noah’s Ark

Respect the vipers, sidestep the bearded pigs and you may be rewarded with the opportunity to see charismatic redheads at play, writes Kerry van der Jagt.

THE price of my life in the Borneo jungle is not something I had thought about before. According to Selvam, my nature guide, I’m not worth Ringgit3000 (about $1030).

After a two-hour trek through the rainforest, where everything outrageous sprouts, blossoms and blooms in the equatorial heat, I’ve come eye to eye with a green pit viper. In fact, there are two of them on the branch: a neon-green adult, as thick as my wrist, and a pencil-thin juvenile tangled around her. Their triangular-shaped heads identify them as poisonous; Selvam’s expression tells me just how much.

‘‘Be careful,’’ Selvam whispers. ‘‘I don’t have the antivenene with me. It’s too expensive. I only carry it for National Geographic photographers.’’ Yowch. That comment hurts more than a snake bite might.

Selvam casually pats the snake-bite kit slung across his shoulders. ‘‘This is much cheaper and should give you about four hours,’’ he says.

Four hours? Funny how the word ‘‘should’’ sharpens the senses. I do a quick calculation: two hours on foot back to the beach, a 30-minute boat ride up the Bako River and 40 minutes to Kuching by bus. I should just make it. ‘‘As long as you don’t panic,’’ Selvam adds.

I’m in the Bako National Park in Sarawak, clearly the place where Maurice Sendak got his inspiration for Where the Wild Things Are. And like young Max, I’m having trouble making sense of it all.

By choosing to visit a national park, I was hoping for Borneo lite – all the taste, without the weird stuff. But in a few short hours, I’ve come across two wild bearded pigs, a long-tailed macaque that tried to pinch my notepad and a monitor lizard the size of a small crocodile. Other wild things casually add colour and texture. Shiny blue crabs scurry across the mangrove mud, blood-red dragonflies dart overhead and carnivorous pitcher plants snap at my ankles.

For a suburban girl who grew up playing with labradors, budgerigars and cats, it’s all a bit much, really.

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Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo (the other is Sabah). In an area about the size of England lies one of the most ecologically diverse regions on Earth. It’s a veritable living laboratory; a Noah’s Ark of unique plants and animals sustaining 27 diverse ethnic groups.

There are no roads into Bako National Park. It can be reached only by boat from the tiny fishing village of Bako. The fast ride up the Bako River takes us past fishermen flashing wide nets and even wider smiles, past the misty Mount Santubong and past steep sandstone cliffs draped in vines. With the fearless Selvam leading the way, we wade ashore at Telok Paku Beach and are soon swallowed by the rainforest.

Selvam explains that local tribes consider Sarawak’s forests to be their supermarket, hardware store and pharmacy. Selvam casually points to a calophyllum tree. ‘‘Two drugs derived from this plant have been sent to the United States for testing for their potential as anti-HIV and anti-cancer drugs,’’ he says proudly. He also shows us the Tokang Ali plant, used to increase male libido, and Kacip Fatimah, taken by women to flatten their tummies. When I express interest in the tummy-trimmer, he tells me it works only if used in the first 40 days after childbirth. ‘‘It’s too late now,’’ he says, grinning at my Western waistline.

Of the ethnic groups, the Iban are the most numerous (34 per cent of Sarawak’s population). Once the legendary headhunters of Borneo, today they live a peaceful agrarian lifestyle. Other groups include the gentle Bidayuh, the river-dwelling Melanau, the Orang Ulu with their long, stretched ear lobes and the shy, nomadic Penan, famous for their nasty blowpipes. The Chinese also make up a large proportion of Sarawak’s population, as do the coastal living Malays.

We press on. It’s hot, sweaty work exploring a lost world, looking for crazy critters; the mouse deer, the hairy-nosed otter, the flying lemur, the silver-leaf monkey, the shy honey bear and perhaps a squirrel or two.

Somewhere not too far off, a troop of bulbous-nosed proboscis monkeys is crashing through the treetops. Their honks, hoots and child-like ‘‘O-ohs’’ are alien to my ears; to most people’s ears, in fact. These pot-bellied performers are one of the world’s rarest primates and are found only on the island of Borneo. Bako National Park has a small population of about 150, giving visitors a genuine last-chance-to-see.

However, another primate is causing trouble in the forest – the two-legged variety. Borneo has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation. Since the 1980s, Sarawak’s rainforests have been gradually depleted by logging and also by the introduction of palm oil plantations. Statistics suggest Sarawak’s primary forest has been depleted by more than 50 per cent during this time. Habitat loss has had a catastrophic effect on tribal groups, as well as on animal species, including the great ‘‘man of the forest’’ – the orang-utan.

The following day, Selvam takes me to the Semenggoh Orang-utan Wildlife Centre, 32 kilometres south of Kuching. After a short walk through the rainforest, we reach a place where orang-utans are known to gather. A resounding ‘‘crack’’ is the first sign a branch of my family tree has dropped in for a meal.

Overhead, a female orang-utan grips a tree trunk with one hand and uses the other to bash a coconut against the tree. On the third whack, she finally splits it open and hands it down to her baby, who is hanging off her foot like a hairy red jumper on a clothesline. It is sobering to realise that only a 3 per cent difference in DNA separates me from this not-so-distant cousin.

A family resemblance to these charismatic redheads was first recognised in 1854 by a British explorer, Alfred Russel Wallace. Four years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Wallace spent 16 months in Sarawak studying orang-utans and developing his theory that animals had descended from a common ancestor. His conclusion that ‘‘every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a closely allied species’’ has come to be known as the Sarawak Law.

The explorer, who gave his name to Wallace’s Line – the rule that divides the animal regions of Asia and Australia – was one of the first to raise concerns about the impact of human activity. Yet no one listened. More than 150 years later, orang-utans are endangered. Once they roamed in large numbers throughout South-East Asia but now fewer than 15,000 of the region’s two species survive, in Sumatra (Pongo abelii) and Borneo (Pongo pygmaeus).

Orang-utans are now Totally Protected Animals under Sarawak’s Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998. In the past, however, there was a lucrative trade in capturing and selling baby orang-utans.

The 650-hectare nature reserve is home to 24 semi-wild orang-utans (soon to be 26; two are pregnant), which have been found injured in the forest, orphaned or had been kept illegally as pets. Rehabilitation is a lengthy process and sometimes takes years. To make an easier and more gradual transition, orang-utans are provided with fruit twice a day at a ‘‘halfway house’’ feeding platform deep in the forest.

The orang-utans are free to come in and out of the reserve as they please, so it’s the luck of the draw whether you will see one, particularly between December and May when there is plenty of fruit growing in the forest. Those successfully rehabilitated rarely come back.

Today is my lucky day. I spend the next few hours watching the antics of two new mothers – nursing and nuzzling, cuddling and caressing their babies. Squatting on the forest floor, I realise it’s not pit vipers I need to worry about in the forest but the state of the forest itself. By maintaining and developing its national parks and nature reserves, the Sarawak government is taking steps towards improving its track record of wildlife conservation.

The writer was a guest of SilkAir and Sarawak Tourism Board.

With the kids

BORNEO is an ideal family destination, best suited to children over the age of 10 who enjoy outdoor activities and animals (and can handle the heat). The history and culture of Borneo will maintain their interest (particularly the history of headhunters).

Children can sleep in a longhouse, visit an orang-utan rehabilitation centre or watch dragon boat races on the Sarawak River in Kuching.

World Expeditions offers a 15-day Borneo Adventure family holiday to Sarawak and Sabah. Prices start from $3190 (child) and $3390 (adult) land only; see worldexpeditions.com.au. Under 10s can be accommodated by creating a tailor-made itinerary.

Imaginative Traveller offers a 10-day Headhunters of Borneo family holiday to Sarawak and Sabah. Prices start from $3257 land only; see imaginative-traveller.com (minimum age is six).

Trip notes

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Singapore daily for $1086 return. 13 10 11, singaporeair.com. SilkAir (+65 62 238 888, silkair.com) flies three times a week from Singapore to Kuching for $169 (both prices are low-season rates).

Staying there

The Grand Margherita Hotel on the waterfront in Kuching has doubles fromRinggit310 ($104). Along Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman; +60 82 423 111, grandmargherita.com.

Accommodation is available inside the Bako National Park in either the camp ground or hostel units. A camp site costs Ringgit5 and a bed in the hostel starts from Ringgit15 a person; +60 11 225 049, www.forestry.sarawak.gov.my.

Further information

See sarawaktourism.com for everything about Bako National Park, Kuching and Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.

Australians do not require a visa for stays of up to 90 days in Malaysia.

By boat into a Noah’s Ark

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