My Wee Ginger Man
The Sepilok orangutan sanctuary in Sabah takes care of orangs orphaned by deforestation of the jungles in Sabah for palm oil production.
Palm oil. I never gave it much of a thought before. Sure, it’s in just about everything we consume from Tim Tam biscuits to motor oil, yet not once did I ever think about its environmental impact on parts of the world like Borneo.
This country is beautiful and charming.
I spent over a week in the capital, Kota Kinabalu, enjoying the endless open air markets, sampling food at the local eateries (who knew Malay food was so fragrant and flavorful), touring historical museums and cultural exhibits, and taking jetty boats out to islands that dot the coastline. The local people are friendly and warm, and so, Malaysia was fast becoming my all-time favourite destination.
Then I joined a group of fabulous Aussies for a scheduled tour that saw us travel around the Sabah region. We headed north of the city, and stayed overnight with the Taginambur people who are mostly farmers deriving their income from rubber tapping and rice farming.
I love doing homestays. This particular community is progressive and its great to experience a slice of their daily life. The adults are gentle and proud, their happy kids are healthy, and know all the lyrics
One of the best things about my travels is staying in the houses of locals. Here we are fed and well looked after by Jess and her friend.
to Disney's Frozen...so we belted out a few songs to bond. Their food is grown on treacherous hillsides, so we take acclimatization hikes through narrow rows of pineapples, ending with a nice dip in the Kedamaian river, their local watering hole which was super refreshing in this forty degree heat. Later, we are treated to a banquet and a night of traditional music with a dance performance in their community hall, we all take turns trying to learn the dance moves and playing their bongs. The kids are in hysterics.
Back on the road northbound, it was only then I was jolted out of my touristy la la land. Much to my horror, all of the wild jungles of Sabah have been mowed down, clear cut, and replaced by endless rows of gigantic palms that stretch as far as the eye can see. Corporations with unrecognizable names adorn billboards staking claim along the highways, their field headquarters hidden behind long dusty driveways and security fencing. Pretty sure none of them are Borneo owned.
Up until now, I had no idea palm oil production was this expansive. I feel an overwhelming doom envelop me.
I come from the
Off of KK, there are some lovely beaches for day trips
land of Canola oil...so what the hell is this Palm oil? And why does pristine jungle need to be eradicated to make way for it? Simple answer, its super cheap to grow. Harvested year round, these palms produce way more product per hectare than soya, rapeseed, or sunflower combined. Not to mention that the demand in North America for palm oil has skyrocketed recently because of the whole 'trans fat' awareness campaign. So palm oil has become the new food for the free world's insatiable monster and there is no indication of it ever slowing down.
End of story. So bye-bye orangutans, and most of wild Borneo for that matter.
As we travelled for hours seeing nothing but these massive palms standing guard like terra cotta warriors along the highways, we come to a fresh clearing and I spot a mother orangutan hugging her baby in a field, looking disorented and scared. Nothing we can do, the driver says and pulls away.
It was enough to make me start shaking my fists in outrage. My tourmates stare at me with an uncomfortable amusement.
Has the Canadian lost her mind?
Palm oil has been
Little Girl waits
Waiting for her father at the sewing shop
a long-standing contention for the Australians so maybe there is a certain complacency setting in amongst them. I beg, plead for us to turn around so we can go back and collect them, surely we can squeeze a wild Orangutan and her baby into our already crammed van? Take them to a nearby sanctuary or something? I hear how ridiculous I sound and shut it. Instead, I make an impromptu protest by going through my snacks and swearing off anything that contains palm oil. Everyone happily accepts my rejects. I retreat to the back of the bus and sit dejected for a while. As we journeyed to Mount Kinabalu whizzing past all the plantations and the endless trucks carting away those evil palm seeds, my attention is cleverly diverted by our local guide. He tells me of a tragic incident that occurred here in 2015.
Apparently a group of tourists, (including two Canadians, boo) climbed Mt. Kinabalu and when they reached the summit they took off all their clothes and yelled profanities and danced around. This was highly offensive to the Borneo people, and I have to say I too thought this was a pretty stupid stunt. But a
Transport the Evil
Trucks carry the palm seeds to the ports to be taken to the processing plants all over the world.
few days later, a major 6.0 quake shook the mountain and killed 18 locals, including porters hired to carry things up for the tourists. The Dusan people immediately believed that because of this disrespectful act the mountain spirits were very angry and punishing them. So they started a campaign of rituals and special ceremonies to try to appease their normally peaceful mountain God. To date, they are on eggshells but no more tremours have come yet. The mountain sleeps. Me with my heightened senses, I can feel the local's anger and mistrust directed at us tourists even with their smiley façade, and I can't say I blame them in the least.
Luckily, I have again hit the jackpot when it comes to group tours. These beautiful Aussie people (and a couple token Brits) that I am sharing a bunkbed dorm with are lawyers, a nutritionist, landscaper, campus advisor, speech therapist, dancer, banker, podiatrist, and a couple of computer techs. We all get on like a house on fire. Our tour leader (I will call "The Wiz") is from a local Dusun tribe and is super knowledgeable and chatty, even with the flu. We all walk to a nearby restaurant
No more jungle
A mother and baby huddle at the side of the road, their jungle taken away to make room for palms
and stuff ourselves with peanut satay sticks and spicy noodle dishes, as the beer just keeps flowing. And soon, we stumble out and around the manicured grounds in the darkness, our intent being to look up at the blanket of stars in the clear night sky. But low and behold, the sky is lit up by swarms of glow bugs that swirl around our heads like magic. I haven't seen such a display like this since I was kid. The Brits are completely freaked out by bugs that can glow, and run for cover.
After climbing Mount Kinabalu, and spending a few days soaking sore muscles in the Poring Hot Springs and drinking homemade rice wine from a paper bag, we are on the road again. But not before I'm told there is a Rafflesia flower in the vicinity. Never in a million years did I think one could be possibly blooming at this time of year. So me and a few hesitant Australians trek through a local farm to see this exotic plant. The smell of the flower's perfume is like rotting flesh and as we descend down a steep trail, some of the Aussies start to gag,
The proboscis monkey is also losing its habitat thanks to Palm Oil. How can we do that to this face???
but I bound ahead as I am so excited to see one of these rare flowers in person.
If anyone has read my blogs before, you will know I am a huge plant enthusiast and travel the world to seek out rare and amazing flora. Without realizing it, it seems I have hit the jackpot here in Borneo. Some of the rarest and most diverse plant species are only found here, minus of course the threat of deforestation as it looms over them. Thankfully farmers have caught on and are cashing in when they find this rare plant on their property, charging a small fee for tourists like me to come see it, making the plant extremely valuable to them, and at the same time ensuring these beautiful specimens do not to go extinct. On this particular farm, a pack of dogs bark off flower poachers and daring intruders will be shot on site. No questions. It's serious plant business I'm telling you.
Onwards, the plan is to stay at a Bilit jungle lodge for a few days on the Kinabatangan River. Owned by a local Dusun tribe, it is quaint setup with cozy cabins that have, wait
Our little friends were so cute, and we had a dance off
for it, air conditioning.......what!
The April weather in Borneo has been extremely dry due to the El Nino effect, so it’s been sunny and hot with a heat index that doesn’t dip below 44 Celsius. But the best part? No biting bugs. Not one. Usually in tropical climates, I have to slather myself with Deet until I hallucinate. Me and the Australians sit out all night in what should be a mozzie banquet, on a deck overlooking the steamy river, and I don't have to wig out. Further entertainment is provided by the pigs that forage underneath the boardwalks that connect each building to the main lodge, and monkeys swing in the trees to thieve anything left out. Who needs TV or WiFi? Our stash of rice wine resurfaces and we find ourselves joining in with the locals to sing the only songs they know on the guitar, Yellow by Coldplay, and the John Denver classic, Take Me Home Country Roads.
We wait until about 10 pm and then take jungle treks out into the wicked. The dry weather means no leech socks either. Tons of insects and spiders creeping about, we shock the hell out of a
A couple years ago, some tourists got naked at the summit, a couple days later an earthquake occurred killing many locals, they blame it on the mountain being disrespected. I have to agree. Stupid tourists.
moon rat and several civets with our headlamps, and I almost trip over a ginormous python just chilling in the leaf litter. Colourful birds are perched eyelevel on tree limbs where they look dead but are in sleep comas, allowing us to observe them up close. Unidentified things crash all around us in the pitch black as we crunch along the pig trails, the sounds of frogs, crickets and cicadas, deafening.
Landscape Aussie and I stay out past midnight as we both desperately want to see a Tarsier, but no luck.
Dusk and dawn, we board skiffs and take off down the dirty waterways looking for wild things. Within seconds, we spot our first orangutan high up in a fig tree minding his own business. A little further down and we come across an entire bachelor group of proboscis monkeys, their huge bulbous noses jiggle as they aloofly stuff handfuls of leaves in their gobs, their oddly distended barrel-bellies provide shade for their tiny red penises that seem to be in constant arousal. I think about that UK travel show I saw and start snickering, Bill Bailey was right, they do look like most of the English autocracy.
I see you
This rhino beetle was staring at me as I read my book at the jungle lodge. Things are very big in Borneo!
Next, we visit Gomantong park and zigzag some unnecessary jungle boardwalks until we come face to face with the entrance of a huge limestone cave that looks more like a magnificent church cathedral (if you can just get over the nose hair burning stench). We watch in awe as tiny, chain-smoking workers are hoisted up by elaborate pulley systems to the roof of the cave where they painstakingly chip out the swiftlet nests, for Birdsnest soup, a highly prized delicacy in China. Cockroaches and crabs skittle under our feet as we descend further into the darkness of the cave. Some of the Aussies wig out and run, but my fascination has been captured by the gigantic mound of guano in the middle of the cave that has to be three stories high.
Do they not know they are sitting on a shit gold mine?
It's probably worth a million times those little nests, I question our local guide and I'm told that the government does not allow them to remove the fertilizer. I don’t believe it. Landscape Aussie and I confer. Someone surely knows its true value and will make a killing? Up in the nearby trees,
Rare bloom alert!
The Rafflesia is such an amazing plant and it was such an honour for a Hortie like me to see one in bloom!
a mother orangutan munches on leaves as her little baby clings precociously. She is watching all our action indifferently. I guess the positive on this, is that at least no one is chopping down her fig tree to collect the bird nests.
We head East.
In Sandakan, the vibe is different. This is a renegade town. There are pickpockets and prostitutes. Everyone is watching everyone, seedily. I find myself walking down the streets subconsciously clutching my bag. At the waterfront, me and the landscaper Aussie find a place to have lunch and a drink, I with my back to the wall so I can stop looking over my shoulder for a minute and just observe. But it is just a seaside port. A little rough around the edges but manageable. After a delicious tom yam seafood soup that makes our eyes bleed, I take a wander around at the open air markets to get my bearings. Later that night, me and the Aussies find a rooftop bar, and I find my new favourite beverage, a Mibu. Suddenly the city was very hip and metropolitan, and anything I said about it earlier, forgotten.
We spent a week out
Searching for wild beasties
From the jungle lodge we would take skiffs out onto the river way to search for orangutans and other critters.
on the islands just off the Philippines at a turtle conservatory (see my blog Marinating in This Thing Called Life
). Even under the threat of kidnapping, it was well worth it. These islands are surrounded by government protected corals reefs, swarms of tropical fish, and white powdery beaches. It was heaven on earth.
Back to the mainland, we head for the reason I had come to Malaysia in the first place.
At the Sepilok sanctuary, a swath of old growth jungle has been set aside, and seeing it only confirms to me how much original jungle has been removed from Borneo. Me and the landscape Aussie spend more time admiring the gigantic specimens of trees before we engage with the hundreds of orphaned orangutans cared for here. Orangutans are such gentle creatures, they are lovers not fighters. Peering into their eyes, you feel like you just want to hug the stuffing out of them. You know, go all Bob Marley on them, telling them everything is going to be alright. But it won’t be, will it? I tear up when I think of that little mother orangutan on the side of the highway. The way things are going, these Orangutans along with
the Rwandan Mountain Gorillas will be extinct in my lifetime.
As usual, I can't stay in my funk too long, as I find myself being chased around the parking lot by an escaped orangutan. Other pedestrians are shrieking and scattering in every direction, I crouch down and take a picture, before a ranger tries to corral him with bananas. He didn’t appear to be purposely loose, rather just out for a little stroll and maybe wanting that Bob Marley hug. No big deal.
We stay overnight in what I have to describe as the "Alice in Wonderland" hostel, someone obviously took magic mushrooms while constructing it. We also went to see the endangered sun bears, and then much to my chagrin, a shady unauthorized zoo where a busload of Americans pretty much had wild monkeys sitting on their laps for pictures. The owner was like a creepy ringmaster gleefully encouraging bad tourist behavior using food as a reward. I was waiting for someone's face to get ripped off. The Malaysian Forces heavily armed suddenly appear, and while the owner tried to head them off at the pass, me and the Australians scatter to our awaiting taxis, directing the
Rice wine is very tasty in Sabah, I couldn't help but drink it every time it was offered.
drivers to drive like mad through the palm oil groves because unlike the Americans, none of us wanted to wait around to see what was up.
The following day, and before we caught our flight back to KK, we also visited the site of the POW camp in Sandakan. The Australians were so respectfully subdued as we toured this museum, but I felt weird and detached because in Canada, were never taught about this important moment in history. Last week we had been at a tea plantation in Ranau, at a hillside memorial of one of the POW leaders, and I was indifferent, but now at the museum, I was getting a better idea of just what went on. The death marches of 1945 saw the Japanese lead 2,700 Aussie and UK prisoners through thick jungle from Sandakan to Ranau to avoid Allied forces. The POW's were forced to march until they collapsed and died, six men managed to escape, their harrowing stories unfathomable, and they were helped by the local Malay people to survive.
Back in KK, the Australians and I enjoyed our last night together at a trendy waterfront establishment eating delicious Malay food, laughing and
Oh they were amazing but the smell!!
goofing around and drinking way too many Mibus.
I had to pour myself onto an Air Asia flight to Bangkok the next day.
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