Growing up, I was always in trouble for letting my wavy hair get a little feral. Mum would put me in a semi-headlock and furiously tug my steel-wool mane into semi-submission, all the while berating me for looking like “the wild man of Borneo”. Which basically taught me that the wild man of Borneo was my kind of people – a carefree, fuzzy fella who lived in a lush jungle surrounded by all of his happily wild-eyed mates. Decades later, I visited Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, on a private tour with Wildlife Expeditions, and discovered that my childish imagination hadn’t been too far off the mark.
Where the hell is Sabah anyways?
Borneo is located in Southeast Asia, on an island divided up between Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Malaysian Borneo lies in the island’s north and is split into two states: Sarawak and Sabah. Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, is easily accessible from mainland Malaysia or elsewhere in Asia, and is a stone’s throw from its namesake, Mount Kinabalu – a 4095m mountain that attracts climbers from all over. On my visit to Sabah I spend a couple of days exploring the city and the incredibly beautiful Mount Kinabalu National Park, before hot-footing it east for a more intensive jungle experience.
Oh, all that Faunography…
My first proper stop in eastern Sabah is the village of Sukau – a small settlement on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. My local guide, Wan Mustapha, grew up in the area and, being a member of the indigenous Orang Sungai tribe – the River People – he knows exactly where to go to find the best bits. And oh man are the best bits amazing. Sukau is a Faunographer’s happy place – a 26,000ha stretch of forest gazetted as the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary that’s teeming with critters (albeit hemmed in by palm oil plantations). In fact, there are more than 250 types of bird (8 of which are hornbills), and as for mammals, there are at least 50 different species (including orang utans, gibbons, floppy-nosed proboscis monkeys, otters, civet cats, tarsiers, slow loris, flying lemurs and pygmy elephants). The plantlife is astounding with more than 1000 botanical species, and if you’re thinking about swimming in the river, don’t– among the 90 types of fish and reptile species are freshwater sharks and crocs.
Rolling on the river
The Sukau River Lodge is a comfortable base for a few nights – it’s located right on the Kinabatangan’s banks and is surrounded by dense virgin jungle, so you really get that “wild man” experience. (FYI gibbon calls = excellent alarm clocks!) The best way to get amongst all the action is by hitting the water, so I take several cruises in a motorised canoe to explore the Kinabatangan’s various subsidiaries – particularly the Menangui River and Oxbow Lakes. Over the few days I get to see the highly endangered proboscis monkey, macaques, orang utans, kingfishers and even a herd of wild pygmy elephants, and I’ll never forget the distinctive calls of the rhinoceros hornbills. And although crocs are definitely in the area, the only one I see is just a baby (although, the half-munched carcass of a wild boar further upstream is proof his mum was out there… somewhere…)
Go to rehab
From Sukau I head out to the islands in the Sulu Sea to chill for a few days before venturing back to Sabah, where I swing by the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre near Sandakan. The facility was set up in 1964 and in the intervening decades its rehabbed countless orphaned orangs. This is not a zoo by any stretch – the fuzzy-haired wild men are free to roam around the park and, unless you visit them at feeding times, you might not even see them. But if you do, you’ll quickly learn that they’re naturally pretty curious and don’t mind getting right up in your grill – even if it’s just to tell you to ditch your hairbrush for good…