Monday 21st May 2018
We spent Monday on a full-day tour. We thought we might be in a group of people, squashed into a minibus, but it was just the two of us with our driver/guide, Musa. First stop was the Semenggoh Nature Reserve.
The Semenggoh Centre was set up fifty years ago to rescue Orang-utans that had been kept illegally as pets or were orphaned due to hunting and loss of habitat. In the 70s there were eleven Orang-utans there and they underwent a rehabilitation programme before being released into the Semenggoh rainforest. This programme was so successful that eventually, over the years, they were all released and have set up their own wild colony of thirty animals, in the forest. In this way, Semenggoh is different to Sepilok, where rescued animals can still be seen by visitors. At Semenggoh, there is no longer a rehabilitation centre, just the opportunity to see the animals at twice daily supplementary food drops. Some of the animals never visit the feeding platforms, they only harvest their own food. Others will come to the food drops, especially when the fruit is scarce in the forest. At the moment, it is fruiting season,
so tourists are advised that they are unlikely to see any animals, since there is plenty of food in the forest for them. They have no need for human handouts. Consequently, we spent the morning at Semenggoh and didn’t see any Orang-utans. There are also gibbons there. We didn’t see any of them either! Wild animals do not come to order!
From Semenggoh, our guide drove us down to the Indonesian border country to visit a Bidayuh longhouse village, Annah Rais. The border country is really stunning, with jagged mountainous peaks forming the backdrop to acres of unspoilt rainforest. It was worth going there just for the drive. The village itself was quite interesting. There are about five hundred people living there in a very traditional community. They have both wet and dry paddy fields to harvest rice and also, they harvest pepper from the surrounding pepper trees. Rattan and bamboo are of course also plentiful, so weaving of baskets and utensils is an important craft. Interestingly they do not sell goods to tourists, which is quite a refreshing change; one can wander around without being expected to buy anything (although I did buy some pepper from one lady).
After leaving Annah Rais we drove on to Bau where we had a cheap lunch in a local food court (five ringgits for a rice or noodle dish with chicken or fish, about one pound sterling). From here we visited two nearby cave systems, the Fairy Cave and the Wind Cave.
The Fairy Cave mouth is high up in a limestone cliff face, also popular with rock climbers. To reach it there is a huge concrete staircase ascending thirty metres to the cave mouth. The concrete is old and stained by rain and vegetation, with ornate stone bannisters and creepers hanging down. It looks like a film set for the grand entrance to a lost jungle city. We were the only people there. The Fairy Cave is unusual because it has a lot of vegetation growing inside for quite a way, and of course it has lots of steps, stalactites, stalagmites and bats. There is some artificial lighting in this cave system, but a torch is still needed. Some of the steps are in need of maintenance and are seriously dodgy.
The Wind Cave is far more interesting because it is literally swarming with bats and swifts.
Thousands, flying around as one enters (but they soon settle down and go back to sleep). There is no artificial lighting in the Wind Cave so once having ventured in some way we were able to switch off our torches and experience complete blackness (only possible underground in caves or mines). The Wind Cave meanders through a rocky outcrop on the banks of the Sarawak river, and small tributaries run through the cave system. Outside the cave we saw some Silver Leaf monkeys high in the canopy. It was the first time that Musa had ever seen them in this vicinity so he was quite excited!
We got back to our hotel after a long eight-hour day out, tired but really pleased with what we had seen, especially the bats in the Wind Cave and the monkeys outside in the forest. We were sad not to have seen the Orang-utans, but knew it wasn’t likely anyway. We decided then, however, that we would return to Semenggoh later in the week, for a last try to see some of these magnificent creatures.
The museums in Sarawak are a real source of inspiration. Unfortunately,
one is not allowed to take photos and there are no books or booklets to buy with information about the exhibits. So, one has to just enjoy the moment and remember as much as possible! The museums are housed in lovely historic buildings, which are of interest in themselves. At least we have photos of the outside of each museum if not the inside!
On Tuesday we visited the Chinese History Museum which is housed in a building built in 1912 as a courthouse, by Chinese traders, to enact their laws and customs. Thereafter it became the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and since 1993 has been the Chinese History Museum to showcase the culture and contributions of Chinese communities in the development of Sarawak.
Close to the museum stands the Tua Pek Kong temple, where people were lighting paper offerings in the braziers and also incense sticks to place on the shrines. This Chinese temple is in a beautiful setting close to the Sarawak river. If my mum were alive, she would have been 99 years old today, so I said a little prayer for her as I wandered around the temple (she loved cooking and eating Chinese
Today we got up early and returned to Semenggoh. We booked a Grab taxi to take us on the fifty-minute journey south of the city to the nature reserve. At 8 a.m. we bought our tickets and started to walk the short 1.5 km road up to the Park HQ. We had the rainforest all to ourselves; most tour guides arrive at 9 a.m. and drive up the forest road as we did on Monday.
It was so peaceful, birds singing, some distant howling, which could have been gibbons and gentle rain. By the time we got to the park HQ and a covered viewing shelter, however, the rain was coming down heavily. Three young lads arrived, so there were just five of us there by 8.30 a.m. when a ranger walked along one of the pathways carrying a basket of fruit, ready to drop on a feeding platform about 35 – 40 metres away from our shelter.
High up in the canopy I spotted a huge male Orang-utan, waiting and watching the ranger. I quickly beckoned to John and the three lads and we watched as the ranger retreated
and the Orang-utan came a little closer. We then saw one of the most amazing sights we have ever seen. The huge male “Man of the Forest” sat up in the canopy and made himself a rainhat! Watched through binoculars it was sensational. If we had been able to catch this on film, it would go viral!
Orang-utans do not like rain. They usually stay in bed in their nests when it is raining. This big softie ape didn’t like the rain either but he obviously wanted some easy fast food for his breakfast, so he made his hat. He gathered large leaves, three or four to a stem, then he wove them together so he made a complete circle of leaves. Then, he wound his hair around the stems so that his hat was firmly attached to his head. Rainhat completed, he swung down to the platform. What a magnificent sight to see this enormous animal descending so gracefully to sit down to his breakfast!
By this time, more people had arrived, including a group of noisy English pensioners, so our Man of the Forest turned his back towards us so that he could ignore our disturbing
presence and enjoy his meal. Our photos are not good, the rain was torrential and the mist and steam coming off the foliage made it difficult even for those with better cameras. So, we did click away but also made sure we spent plenty of time viewing through binoculars. He stayed about a half hour before disappearing into the undergrowth.
Meanwhile, a female Orang-utan had arrived and sat patiently waiting for the male to leave, until she ventured down to feed herself. Whilst waiting she made herself a rainhat. The first attempt wasn’t too successful. It fell off. The second stayed put a little better but obviously she lacked his experience and needs a bit more practice.
We only saw two Orang-utan, the others stayed in bed, but how thrilling when we didn’t really expect to be so lucky, with the fruiting season in full swing as well as heavy rain. By the time we trudged the 1.5 km back to the park entrance, thunder rumbling, lightning flashing and rivers across the roads, we were truly drenched to the skin and actually we felt cold, which was a weird sensation when we were walking in tropical heat.
We caught a local bus back to Kuching. It took an hour, cost four ringgits each (five ringgits to the pound) and although we were very wet, it was a good journey because it took a different route, dropping people off and picking up along smaller local roads so we saw a little more of the environment. The bus journey ended at India Street bus station and the rain had stopped. We took our bedraggled selves into the smart Old Courthouse bistro for an expensive lunch! Charles Brooke’s Great-great Grandson was in there with a group of friends having lunch; Charles Brooke was the second white Rajah of Sarawak. Our waiter whispered “That is the Great-great Grandson of one of our white kings!” When John and I are wet, bedraggled, muddy boots and all, we know how to lunch with the best!
What a great morning. Seeing the big majestic “Man of the Forest” was such a bonus and a privilege. It was icing on the delicious cake that is Sarawak!
Today we visited three more Sarawak museums. Firstly, the Textile Museum, which is housed in a gorgeous colonnaded building, built in
1907 as a medical centre. It opened in September 2005 as the Textile Museum, celebrating the art and process of weaving, embroidery and batik. The display of ceremonial dress and wedding attire is outstanding.
Next, the Natural History Museum. This one is very small and not very interesting. On entry one is met by the painted skulls of the last two Thai elephants who died working in the logging industry. The building itself is of interest, however; built in 1908, it was known as the “Second Ladies Club” and is stylishly Edwardian!
We saved the best until last (on the recommendation of our son, Nick) and visited the Art Museum, housed in the 1892 Curator’s House. It was occupied by the British Council (hey ho, my old employers) in the 60s and became the Art Museum in 2006. The museum houses paintings, carvings and sculptures from the Brooke era until the present day. Best of all, it also houses the magnificent “Orang Sarawak” (“Sarawak People”) Exhibition. This exhibition, detailing the history of the state, is superb. It has also widened our knowledge and understanding of this amazing country and appreciation for its cultural diversity.
So, it has
been yet another full and busy week. This afternoon, after a late lunch, we are back at the hotel, I am typing up this blog and we are watching the weather to see if the rain will hold off to allow us to enjoy an evening river cruise. We only have either this evening or tomorrow evening to do so because we leave here on Saturday morning to fly to Kuala Lumpur. Our Borneo days are now numbered!
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