In Borneo I was on a two week volunteering project that concerned the conservation of Borneo’s rainforest and the wildlife that calls it home. Borneo’s rainforest is rich with biodiversity, some of the most extraordinary in the world, and unfortunately deforestation and tourism are putting it a lot of it at risk of becoming extinct. Although only two weeks long, this trip has taught me more than I’ve learnt during my whole time away. My eyes have been opened and I’ll be forever grateful to our guides Alvin and Jagger for introducing us to the beauty of the jungle and the wonderful creatures it contains.
Our first stop was Matang Wildlife Centre, about an hour from Kuching. This is a rehabilitation centre for Orangutans, Sun Bears, Crocodiles and Monkeys, amongst several other animals. Whilst we were here we helped make enrichment packages for both the Orangutans and the Sun Bears. This involved hiding treats, using different materials, for them to open and enjoy. Our half of the group made some for the Orangutans, and despite us spending 2 hours making them – trying to make them as hard to get at as possible – the animals that are 96% similar to us, managed to get at their treats within minutes.
Most of the animals they rescue have been kept illegally as pets, including birds which they had a lot of. Whilst at the centre we heard about the horrific back stories of some of their animals. We learnt about a bear who was kept in a cage not big enough to stand for 18 years, and about a gibbon who they assume used to work for the circus because despite being a the centre for years she still makes the gestures as if she’s juggling when humans walk past. We were told about “Bear Bile Farming” which involves the bears being kept in tiny cages with a tube going into their gall bladder. In Chinese medicine they believe the bile has healing powers, so by keeping the bears they have constant access to it. The sad thing is that bears are strong enough to withstand this, so they’re powerless to stop their own suffering. We also learnt about bear paw soup, and how sometimes bears will be kept alive outside of restaurants, often with paws missing, so that when someone orders the dish it will be as fresh as possible. Hearing about all these horrific stories filled me with an inextinguishable anger and once again I was questioning how people can be so cruel to animals who are often incapable of self defensive and of speaking out. The power to stop this kind of behaviour though lies with the consumer, the people ordering the soup, the people buying the animals for pets that they’re bound to get bored of, the people going to circuses with animal acts. If you take away the demand for such things, the people who are making a living out of them will have to look elsewhere. Often people are trying to make money, to support their families or just so they can afford food to eat. It’s difficult to say whether the blame lies with them, when its foreign consumers who are letting them continue.
On our last morning at Matang, just before leaving, we met Alvin and Jagger, our guides for the duration. Alvin is a wonderful man, but is full with a lot of anger about the situation in Borneo, with the rainforests being destroyed and the animals, especially Orangutans becoming at risk of extinction. He gave us a long talk about how Matang is keeping animals in cages when they should be in the wild, implying that what they were doing there was wrong. Although looking back I think he was rather saying that He’s frustrated and angry that there’s even a need for places like Matang. However, a lot of the group suddenly decided that there was something “not quite right about Matang” and that they were doing the wrong thing. I couldn’t believe the sudden switch, and personally believe that there is a very definite reason programs like this exist and there’s a need for them. An animal who’s been brought up as a pet and never seen the wild, who’s mother was killed so could never teach them how to survive, would likely not live for long if they were released. There’s a reason they’re in there, and the enclosures they are living in, and the care and love they are receiving is a great deal better than the horrific lives they were living before. They talk as if these issues are so easy to solve – “just invest in bigger cages” – the money is hard to find, and by the sounds of things so is the permission. I just think it’s really naive to think all animals are able to live in the wild, especially when you have the human race training hem for the circus, or beating elephants so much that they can be used for elephant riding. You can’t tell me that a sun bear who lived in a cage barely bigger than herself for 18 years would be able to survive outside in the wild by herself, I just don’t believe that’s the better option for her.
After Matang we made our way to Bako National Park first by mini van, then by boat. As soon as we arrived we spotted the very rare proboscis monkeys. They’re so funny to look at because the males have ginormous noses. We saw two males and two females, who both had babies, which was pretty incredible. Five of us then went to the lodge where we’d be spending the night to find it had been taken over by macaques, and not the most friendly ones either. We had to make a run for it into our rooms, and when I thought they’d gone I hung my wet clothes out. I heard some laughter outside and when I poked me head out one of the monkeys was running off with my swimming costume, which I luckily managed to get back (no thanks to the family who were just stood laughing!). In the evening we went on a night walk through one of the trails where we saw what seemed to be hundreds of fire flies, a dozen spiders, half a dozen frogs, some cat fish and the most beautiful little kingfisher, which we saw close up.
The next day we visited Sarawak cultural village, which was definitely one of the best tourist attractions I’ve ever visited. Upon entry you were given a souvenir “passport” which included information on all the
Bornean tribes, and space to get a stamp for each tribe you visited. Walking round in a circle each tribe had a different area, which included a building of their typical house, and a few also had people playing music typical of their tribe and/or people performing one of their unique dances. At the end of walking round the village, we watched a cultural show which was incredible. At one point a man was spinning round on top of a long pole free of any harness or support.
After a couple of nights in more luxurious accommodation, we headed to Padawan to stay in a traditional longhouse with the Bidayuh tribe. The house had 10 rooms all on one floor with the kitchen situated just in front. The floor was made out of bamboo and the stools hand made out of wood. Although the seating was a little less comfortable than we were used to in England and the rooms a lot more hot, it was fantastic. The people we were staying with were lovely and so welcoming and the food they made for us was delicious. On the first day we were kept inside because of the torrential rain, something we’d definitely gotten used to already. We were meant to go to the village to help some of the school boys pick up rubbish, but as that was called off some of the girls from the community came for a visit. We played a very amusing game of Chinese whispers, where I’m sure some people must have pretended to hear something different than they really had. Despite the girls not being able to speak English, we learnt some Malay words from them, none of which I’m able to recall now, and had a lovely afternoon socialising with them.
The next day we were up early for a jungle trek. This was so much fun, and much more “in the jungle” than I anticipated. Armed with machetes our guides lead the way by cutting a path through the leaves, bushes and branches. We learnt all about the riches of the jungle, and all the things you can find to eat and to use to make things like string and items of clothing. We tried raw cacao, which was completely delicious, although a little sickening after you had half of one plant… In no time we were thigh deep in muddy water, and we have since referred to this walk as the mud trail. It was tons of fun though, and a really great experience. The day was made even better in the afternoon when we got on bamboo rafts to our lunch spot. The bamboo rafts were long and built for 3 people sitting on the chairs and one guide on either end leading us down river with sticks of bamboo. For lunch we had a BBQ where they used bamboo for absolutely everything – as cooking tongs, they cooked the rice inside the tubes as well as making the tea and coffee inside the same thing, they used bamboo leaves to cook the chicken and to keep the cooked rice warm, and our bowls and cups were also made out of bamboo. Our meal was delicious and I couldn’t believe how versatile the bamboo plant is, we even were eating the young bamboo in our dinner. After eating we headed back down to the longhouse on our rafts again, and entertained ourselves by using our bamboo cups to soak everyone that dared overtake us. It was such a great day.
The following morning we set off for Batang Ai, which is what I’d been most excited about. Batang Ai is a protected area in Sarawak and to get there you need to go by longboat. The tribe we were staying with came to pick us up on their longboats, which were narrow boats made out of wood, with room for 3 of us in each not including the driver. Going in these was fantastic. We had several boats all set off and the water was so calm we seemed to glide through so effortlessly. The beautiful scenery reflected on the water so you were completely surrounded by nature, that was lit up by the sun and a virtually cloudless sky. After an hour and a half in the boat we made it to our longhouse, that would be our home for the next four nights.
The longhouse is only used by people doing the same tour as us, which currently only happens once a month. Therefore, no one had been in the accommodation for at least a couple of weeks, so we needed to sweep and rid our rooms of insects and cobwebs when we arrived. This annoyed some people and two of the group were so uncomfortable staying there they wanted to go home. The longhouse was open from the roof, something I welcomed due to the lack of fans in the rooms, but people have fears and they really had to push themselves in order to stay. But they did and we were all proud of them for doing so.
Jagger cooked all our meals for us whilst we were there, and after the first yummy meal they amazingly just got better and better. On our first full day at Batang Ai we trekked up Tuchong Janang mountain and within 45minutes we had spotted a wild orangutan. We couldn’t believe our luck, right before our eyes was a dominant male, who we believe had just left his nest where he was sleeping for the night. We were incredibly lucky to have seen him, Jagger explained how only 3 groups in 20 will ever see one, especially not as close as we did. That had everyone in high spirits and we continued to trek in silence hoping to see more.
The following day we were off on another trek to a waterfall. I’d woken up not feeling 100% well, so it wasn’t a great walk for me, although I could never not enjoy it when we were in such astounding surroundings. It was tricker on this day though, with downhill parts so steep we had to semi-abseil down them with a vine one of the tribesmen cut down from a tree. The waterfall was lovely though, as always, and made it all worth it. Our longhouse was obviously on the river so as soon as we returned back we were all straight in their trying to cool off.
The following day we didn’t have a trek planned, instead we were back in the longboats and going to fable beach. All the tribe joined us and together we cooked another BBQ lunch before heading down river floating in life jackets. That was definitely one of my favourite parts of the trip, it was so much fun making our way through the rapids by swimming and relaxing at the right points.
In the evening we headed to one of the community houses for the evening after we’d had dinner. That was really enjoyable. The whole tribe was there, including the chief, and they taught us a series of different games. Including one where they tied two of you together and you had to attempt to get out of strings binding you without cutting or burning the rope, that ended up with most people cheating, but eventually me and my partner managed it (with a couple of clues given). We tried their traditional dance that involves jumping through wooden poles that two guys are moving on the floor to a rhythm, we tried using a blow dart (it took me a lot of turns to hit the target) and we participated in a weird game that involved you carrying a coin in your butt for a short while before dropping it in a cup… It was fantastic meeting the tribe and it was a little emotional saying goodbye, we had bought them presents before we left for Batang Ai so we presented them before leaving.
The night didn’t end as well as the day had started, as I was in and out of the toilet all evening. I should mention here that the toilets were outside of the longhouse, down very steep steps. I should also say that there was a horrific storm that night, with thunder and lightening, so my trips down the death stairs and to the toilet resulted in me getting soaked through 8 times, involving 8 different sets of clothing… Despite this ordeal I was still sad to leave in the morning, and although the conditions weren’t as great as when we arrived, the rain had risen the water and turned it muddy, the longboat back was very serene and allowed me to reflect on all that I had learnt throughout my trip.
• Orangutans, Matang Wildlife Centre
• Making enrichment, Matang Wildlife Centre
• Baby the Bear enjoying her porridge and honey filled Kong, Matang Wildlife Centre
• Male Proboscis Monkey, Bako National Park
• Kingfisher, Night Walk @ Bako National Park
•Traditional Malay Townhouse, Sarawak Cultural Village
• Bamboo Bridge, Sarawak Cultural Village
• Cultural Show, Sarawak Cultural Village
• Mother and Baby Orangutan, Semengoh Rehabilitation Centre
• Peraya Homestay, Padawan
• Accommodation, Batang Ai
• The Top of Tuchong Janang, Batang Ai
• Trying Blowdarting with the Iban Tribe, Batang Ai