Beloved by naturalists the world over, Borneo is teeming with exotic flora and fauna.
But as Sarah Marshall discovers, travelling in the wilderness is now much easier – and more comfortable – than ever before.
“Pro! Pro!” The honking, nasal call is quickly absorbed by the uncomfortably moisture-heavy forest canopy. We scan the dense tangle of tree trunks and twisted vines, waiting for a response.
Naturalist Justin Juhun has spent months out here, slowly attempting to gain the trust of a group of proboscis monkeys.
As resident naturalist for the luxury eco-friendly Gaya Island Resort – built on a protected island of the same name, a short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Borneo’s Sabah region – Juhun hopes he can one day bring visitors here to observe the lithe-limbed primates’ behaviour.
But today is not that day.
The monkeys, who are endemic to Southeast Asian island Borneo, and who locals historically referred to as Dutchmen thanks to their distended bellies and long, ruddy paddle-board noses, appear to be shy or sleeping.
Fortunately Juhun doesn’t expect to see results overnight. “This is a big job and I’ve been working alone,” he says with an element of frustration.
Brought up in Tawau, in south-east Sabah, he’s been surrounded by animals all his life. One day his father asked him to rear a deer rather than kill it, and from that point on he developed a Dr Doolittle-esque empathy with wildlife.
Of his past 40 years, he’s lived just four of them outside the jungle; he’s swung through the trees with orang-utans, and spent six months guiding scientists through the pristine primary rainforest of the Maliau Basin.
“Some of the species I remember as a child, I’ve never seen again,” he says with sadness.
Borneo’s woeful story of deforestation and near extinction of species has been told many times, and is far from reaching a happy ending. But the opening of luxury eco resorts, such as one-year-old Gaya Island, is bringing attention and money to the world’s third largest island, with a greater commitment to investing resources in conservation.
Juhun’s joined in his vision by Scott Mayback, a marine biologist who hopes to grow Gaya Island’s house reef, home to clown fish, blue-spotted stingrays and parrot fish. The remaining hotel staff are locals, including Nonny, a spa masseuse who’s terrified of the sea, and young waiter Adzeen, who grew up on a water village in the Philippines.
They belong to a melting pot of cultures in Borneo: there are 52 tribes and 82 dialects spoken on the island, which is divided between Malaysia and Indonesia.
On a visit to the weekly Gaya Street Sunday market, on the mainland, I’m bombarded with a chaos of smells, sounds and snapshots of different cultures. Young girls, giddy with excitement, choose pet rabbits from metal cages, while frowning women queue up for heavy-handed foot massages.
A band, with synthesizers protruding from plastic laundry bags, belt out a muzak version of ‘You Are Always On My Mind’, as a sausage dog waddles past, dressed in oversized pink plastic shades.
We’re undoubtedly in Asia, but I’d struggle to pick out where.
Borneo’s flora and fauna is no less varied, and despite David Attenborough’s shocking observations about the colossal loss of habitat to palm oil plantations, people are still drawn here by the lure of species found nowhere else on the planet.
The Mount Kinabalu national park is home to half of Borneo’s bird life and is the most researched region in Southeast Asia, due mainly to the number or rare orchids and pitcher plants found here. During my visit, a TV crew are filming in the botanical gardens; their focus is a Rothschild’s slipper orchid, which I’m told can fetch 40,000 US dollars on the black market.
But despite the many natural riches on offer, locals are more interested in the nearby Kampung Luanti fish spa, where toothless, foot-long fish suck dry skin from any body part they can slap their slimy chops around.
It’s so popular, visitors are restricted to 15-minute slots, making this the Bornean equivalent of an express pedicure.
In many ways, locals are starting to realise they’re sitting on a gold mine. A key ingredient in bird’s nest soup, swifts’ nests, found high up in the limestone Gomantong Cave on the other side of Sabah in Sandakan, sell to the Chinese market for up to 6000 ringgits (£1,150) a kilo.
Clusters of squealing bats flit overhead, as I enter the dark caves, filled with mounds of droppings, slithering and hissing with cockroaches and poisonous centipedes. Struggling not to slip in the muck, and almost choking on the toxic smell of ammonia, I’m astonished workers can spend up to 12 hours at a time in here, guarding the precious nests.
The caves, famously visited by David Attenborough in one of his early documentaries, are also close to the Kinabatangan River, one of the best places to view wildlife. We stay at the simple two-star Borneo Nature Lodge, where guests can peddle bikes to help power generators.
During trips along the river, we see baby-faced pygmy elephants playing in the water, and watch a 100kg alpha-male orang-utan, his cheeks swollen to the size of two giant saucers, building a nest in a tree.
“Males can build up to five or six nests in a day,” our guide tells us, “for sleeping or just for comfort.”
Although there are 10,000 wild orang-utans living in Sabah, for a guaranteed sighting tourists head to the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan. Home to 45 rescued animals, who will eventually be released back into the wild, the site is most popular at the 10am and 3pm feeding times.
Slowly, orang-utans gather at the platform. To tourists’ delight, a six-year-old male called Ceria performs a roly-poly along the timber walkway.
But it’s after leaving Sepilok to explore the neighbouring Rainforest Discovery Centre that I have my closest encounter with an orang-utan in the wild. We’re watching red-leaf monkeys from an observation tower, when a female’s pendulous arms swing into view.
There is nothing between us but fear and caution, so we keep a respectable distance.
Ravenously hungry, she rifles through the bins, tipping her head back to drain dregs from a water bottle, and licking the crumbs from a discarded crisp packet. Occasionally she eyeballs us as if to say, ‘What’s your problem?’
I feel much more comfortable when she climbs into a tree and tears apart a more familiar breadfruit.
As she passes by I catch the stale stench of a PE changing room. “Just like humans, orang-utans get BO too, “ our guide says, chuckling.
As if overhearing us, she disappears into the forest to make her nest for the night.
But I wonder how long it will be before she’s back rummaging through the bins again.
As animals slowly adapt to a world dominated by humans, their habits will inevitably change. Both Juhun and Mayback have challenges ahead of them.
Whether it be for money, love or even entertainment, people have different motivations for protecting wildlife.
I recall a story Juhun told me about a lodge he once worked in, where he almost died trying to pacify a rutting stag. He succeeded and the creature returned to normal once it’s hormones had calmed down.
But when he visited the lodge the following season, the stag had been shot dead.
“They couldn’t be bothered to find a solution,” recalled Juhun. “I suppose there’s only so much one person can do.”
Travel facts - Borneo
:: Doubles at Gaya Island Resort (www.gayaislandresort.com) from £140 per night (based on two sharing) with breakfast.
:: Malaysia Airlines flies to Kota Kinabalu from London Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur from £669 in economy, inclusive of taxes and charges (0871 423 9090/www.malaysiaairlines.com/uk).
:: For more information on Sabah, visit www.sabahtourism.com