Meet the relatives

Dugald Jellie looks up his family tree and finds a branch in the jungle - the long-armed redheads.

Forty-seven per cent of Australians travel overseas for the purpose of a holiday. Another quarter tick the "visiting relatives" box on their departure card, as if the two are mutually exclusive. They journey so far with so little leg room for that moment of reunion: to be with kin, in the bosom of family.

And so it is for me: two flights, two passport stamps and a two-hour time difference on a trip to see some long-lost cousins. I'd not visited them before, this branch of the family - from my father's side, which explains the ginger hair.

They're the relatives who swing in trees, eat bananas and scratch their foreheads. Much like my niece. But when at last we meet I'm dumbstruck by the resemblance to my brother. It's the body language. He's a dead-ringer for a ranga.

This, of course, should come as no surprise to anyone who knows our family - or Darwin's theory of evolution. Only 3 per cent of DNA separates an orang-utan - meaning "man of the forest" in Malay and the lone species of great ape living outside Africa - from the biological make-up of humans.

In Borneo's steamy world of rare orchids, strangler figs and whooping hornbills, there's proof aplenty of nature's implacable laws of change, chance, struggle, survival, extinction - and bad hair days.

Amid all the hubbub about Darwin and this year's sesquicentenary of the publication of his On The Origin Of Species, it's a little-known fact that here in Sarawak, in this "least known part of the globe", a lanky butterfly collector first mooted the idea of natural selection.

His name was Alfred Wallace and he spent much time hanging about with orang-utans.

"Please keep distance, swinging on tree tops," says a ground handler as we arrive at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. It's a 740-hectare forest reserve south of Kuching, the riverfront capital named in 1872 by one of the "White Rajahs" of Sarawak and now the largest city in east Malaysia. "OK, quiet please. Orang-utan eating."

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Shards of coir (coconut husk) fall from the trees. It's morning feeding time and all eyes gaze upward, watching these arboreal long-armed primates chomp on sweet potatoes, pineapples, papaya and bananas and strip coconut shells as if peeling an orange. A baby swings upside-down. The crowd gasps. Everyone is spellbound.

Tourists gather beneath the tree limbs. British schoolboys take photos on mobile phones. A Californian watches through her digital monitor. A Swede focuses his 400mm lens. A Polish television crew does a piece-to-camera, with an improbably blonde reporter shaping as if she's about to interview an auburn-haired primate.

I meet a man from Brisbane and we talk of Pauline Hanson, another redhead (and banana-bender) found often in the media spotlight. It's his fourth visit to Semenggoh but he's never before seen one of the apes. "They don't tend to come in to feed during the forest fruiting season," he says. "That's from December to May."

Alfred Russel Wallace, the itinerent Englishman who spent four years collecting specimens in the Amazon, arrived in Borneo in September 1854 and stayed 16 months. He wrote: " . . . one of the principal reasons which induced me to come here was that it is the country of those strange and interesting animals, the orang-utans."

The naturalist explorer had previously met Sir James Brooke in London and now stayed as a guest of the "White Rajah" (upon whom Rudyard Kipling based The Man Who Would Be King) at his home on the banks of the Sarawak River. It was Brooke's successor, his nephew Charles, who later named the town Kuching.

Nowadays it's a pleasingly insouciant city of Chinese bazaars and Malay noodle houses and radiant bougainvillea and, for tourists, an idleness enforced by the tropical heat. Waterfront markets bustle with spice and rice sellers and stalls are full of water spinach, lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, dried fish and paku, a jungle fern that locals serve wilted with everything.

We visit the Brooke Memorial and wander through Chinatown, stopping at mosques and Sikh temples and snacking on plates of nasi lemak and mee goreng, washed down with coconut and sugar cane juice. Sweaty days are finished with kueh salat, small cakes of salty glutinous rice and pandan-flavoured jelly.

I stay at a resort on Santubong, a headland of rainforest north of the city and lapped by the turquoise brine of the South China Sea. By chance, this peninsula was where Wallace, marooned by rain in February 1855, wrote On The Law Which Has Regulated The Introduction Of New Species, known otherwise as his Sarawak Paper.

The explorer who gave his name to Wallace's line - the imaginary rule that runs between Bali and Lombok and divides the faunal regions of Asia and Australia - had penned the first-ever British scientific paper to claim animals had descended from a common ancestor and then produced closely similar variations that evolved into distinct species.

This first scandalous step out of the biological fairyland of creationism - from which four years later Darwin unlocked that great "mystery of mysteries", the origin of species - happened here in Sarawak, among Tarzan vines and long-haired orang-utans.

Not that Wallace's research methods helped the plight of our third-closest relative. The naturalist killed 16 of the great apes - nine males and seven females - skinning, flaying and boiling the corpses before sending them to London.

The apes remain endangered. Once upon a time they lived through South-East Asia but now only about 15,000 of the region's two species survive, in the equatorial jungles of Sumatra (Pongo abelii) and Borneo (Pongo pygmaeus). Clear-felling for timber and palm plantations is the prime threat. The female's eight-year birth cycle, the most protracted of all mammals, doesn't help either.

But recent news at Semenggoh is good. A female was born last month, increasing its orang-utan population to 25, of which 14 are locals, with names like Roxanne, Ritchie and Rose.

For wildlife watching, this orang-utan rehabilitation centre is less touristy than Sepilok in northern Sabah and less natural than Tanjung Puting National Park in the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan but Semenggoh is the most accessible for Australians visiting Borneo.

Conditions are semi-wild, which explains the blood-sucking leech on my left ankle. The inconvenience is mild, for the wonder of being so close to my tree-hugging relatives in their own back yard is indescribable. I'm smitten by their antics, their doleful brown eyes , their resemblance to my brother.

One squats near me in the folds of a buttress root. We chat. The crowd draws closer. She gnaws on sugar cane. I know it's a female, because she has a beard, just like my old aunt Mavis. The rainforest sings with insects. I wouldn't think it's easy being orange.

Dugald Jellie travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies to Kuching for $968 with an aircraft change in Singapore. Malaysia Airlines flies for $973 with an aircraft change in Kuala Lumpur.For the same fare it is possible to fly into Kuching and out of Kota Kinabalu. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney excluding tax, which varies with itinerary, airline,stops and time of payment.)

Watching orang-utans

Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is 32km from Kuchingand accessible by local bus (No.6),taxi or guided tour. Daily feeding times are 9-10am and 3-3.30pm. Sightings are uncertain when theforest trees fruit from December to May. Entry fee is 3 ringgit ($1.30).See sarawakforestry.com.

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