Why Borneo taught us a lesson and what we learned
Monday 4th December 2017
So Borneo didn't exactly go to plan. But we can't say it wasn't exactly what we needed because as it turned out, it was.
It was a bit of a spur of the moment, "shall we/shan't we" decision. We tossed about Cambodia, Vietnam, Bali (thank goodness we didn't choose there given the volcanic activity that has now grounded flights at its main airport), staying in Singapore but we settled on Borneo as we wanted to find some nature and see the orangutans the island is famous for.
We flew to Kuching where we stayed for a few days, opposite a recently opened massive new mall and close to the airport. We knew we wanted to visit the Semenggoh nature reserve as it had excellent reviews and was as close to keeping orangutans wild but protected as we wanted.
After a rest day we headed out to see them and we weren't disappointed. We arrived to find it closed, during the week the reserve only opens around the morning and evening feeding times where food is out out for the orangutans if they choose to come and get it. Sometimes they don't so we knew there were no guarantees.
However our uber had disappeared and with nothing around us we sat in the deserted office lobby while we waited for it to reopen an hour later.
As we walked the hilly path to the feeding areas we approached the little shop and were told the orangutans had already been spotted in the area. We were amazed to see a huge male known as Ritchie sitting and eating an armful of bananas. We watched amazed as he peeled the mini jungle bananas with his lips discarding the peel. He crunched his way through some sweet potatoes and even peeled some hard boiled eggs with his lips too.
He soon wandered off and the guard said how they don't interfere, he is free to head off and they don't try to make him stay to please the small crowd that had gathered to see him. He was much bigger than I expected and with much longer hair. Males have the much wider cheeks while the females have slimmer faces.
As he'd gone, Kitty and I headed up to the shop to get a cold drink but just as we opened it Darcy came dashing up to say a group had been spotted in the jungle along a pathway. We put the drink away and headed off to see if we would be lucky enough to spot another orangutan.
We were, we watched an older female hanging about up high. Watching us from on high, sometimes upside down. She moved through the trees using her hands and feet, often on the skinniest trees which she would use her weight to propel to the next tree, letting it go once she had a grip and we watched smiling as the original tree pinged back to its upright form. She crossed the path like this and then disappeared off into the jungle.
We walked further becoming slightly separated from the group ahead and suddenly another large male wandered out onto the path in front. The group further ahead were ushered forwards and we stood and watched and waited for him to make his move.
He lurched towards us and a reserve guide moved us back out of the path and urged us to move! He stopped and hung onto the odd tree before resuming his lungs towards us - it seemed as if he was asserting his authority and letting us know that if he wanted us out of the jungle, we had to go! And we did!!
We reached the main area and he crossed the road to the feeding platform, chasing off the female we'd seen earlier. We loved it though - the girls were thrilled to be able to say that they had been chased out of the jungle by an orangutan!
We went back down the path and found another feeding area where a mother a toddler were hanging about and a mother with a small baby clinging onto her. We watched joyfully as they swung from tree to tree, especially how the baby shifted about depending on its mother's movements, clinging on with its wide eyed little face looking all around.
And that was it, the guides told us visiting time was over and the revserve was closing so we made it way back along the long walk to the entrance thrilled at having seen so many and knowing how lucky we were.
Whilst in Kuching we also decided to visit the Sarawak Cultural Village, we really ummmed and ahhhed about it as I was worried it was going to be boring for the girls but as it had such good reviews on trip advisor we decided to give it a go.
I'm so glad we did as it was excellent, so informative without being dull, we arrived at the time of the first dance show and went straight in. We saw dances from different tribes for different occasions, and they were all so excellent in their own way. The girls particularly loved a death defying pole spin and we all loved watching the Iban blow darter popping balloons, particularly when he pulled out an unsuspecting audience member and tried to train him in the art of blow darting! It didn't go too well!!
We walked around the lake and went into examples of the different houses lived in by the tribes. I particularly loved the community feel of the Iban long houses, where there is a communal area out front then doors off it leading to family rooms. There's a real sense of community and togetherness from the way these people live.
The girls loved trying blow darting for themselves and learning about the toys such a spinning tops and having a go. Everyone was really friendly and kind and happy to chat to us and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. The girls got a little passport book which you stamped as you visited each of the houses and they really enjoyed stamping their books at one point emulating the passport officials we've become so familiar with stamping our passports as we enter a new place!
We then embarked upon a disastrous journey to the Bako National Park. Our uber driver got the destination wrong having put it into his own sat nav and when we did finally arrive, the park was shut!!
We headed home weary and annoyed as our time in Kuching was coming to an end. Our next stop was Kota Kinabalu which we flew to for a few days.
And that's pretty much where our Borneo adventure stops. Now whilst Nikki has pointed the finger for previous dodgy Airbnb or hotel bookings I'm not one to do the same however.... he would admit to not having done as much research about Sabah (the northern state of Borneo) as he should have and was lured in by the cheap Airbnb apartment above a new mall in the city.
It was here that we pretty much crashed out. We were in the wrong area for seeing the best wildlife but we were also exhausted. We'd done so much in Singapore, walking almost 20,000 steps a day for consecutive days and being over a very western shopping mall meant we barley even had to go out. So we didn't.
We were staying over the Imago mall, a huge shopping centre with restaurants, cinema, bars and everything else you could possibly need. All Christmassy and alluring to spend as much money as possible. The apartment was great though with pools and a gym. Borneo seems to be undergoing such development which I'm not sure is necessarily a good thing. In KK there were just so many malls. The only other place we'd seen so many was Singapore and that's the key - they're trying to draw on the success of their neighbours by building the things that appeal to Singaporeans and the Chinese - and that's shopping malls. The same thing was happening in Kuching. The massive Viva City mall wasn't busy at all and the Starbucks had NO customers at 10ammon a Thursday. Borneo seems intent on building itself up with all these mall but it doesn't appear to have the customers to justify it. There's no office blocks where workers are having meetings in Starbucks or popping out for lunches. I've never seen so many new industrial units offered for rent. All gleaming and empty whilst new ones are being built nearby. Who for? What for? It's so bizarre but it's creating jobs and they obviously believe they will fill these units.
Even at the airport was a massive sign up advertising a new "city" complete with an Ikea. Borneo wasn't quite what we expected in this regard, as we both assumed it would be more rural and village like but as the world's third largest island it has a strong infrastructure and clearly the strategy is to emulate the West by building more and more malls. In hindsight we should have headed to Sandakan to see the things like the pygmy elephants and cruises on the Kinabatangan River. But instead we just had a break from it all.
And what a break it was. We swam in the apartment's pools, mooched around the mall, sampled the many different local eating places in the food hall and started an Uno tournament. We even went to the cinema (justice league - was good if you like comic type action).
The girls relished the chance to lie about and in truth so did we. Plus it was cheaper to have a lazy few days here than Singapore, dinner out was costing us £15 rather than £50 that we become used to.
We did venture out to the Sunday market which we walked to on Gaya Street and looked at the various local handicrafts, dried seahorses and clothing. It was mainly geared towards tourists and had a lot of the same items on offer. We grabbed some brunch and then walked on to Jesselton harbour and weighed up going out on a boat trip.
In the end we decided against it as we couldn't face the drive and the companies were offering no guarantee that we would have an English guide as so many tourists are Chinese you're often on a mandarin tour.
So there you have it. I'm not going to lie I found it quite hard being somewhere like Borneo and not doing anything. The guilt of being somewhere like that and failing to see its full advantage somehow seemed like a failure itself but when I actually reflect it is just what the family needed. Some normality. A break from the sizzling heat and being drenched in sweat. Some down time.
We swam, we played card games, we ate great cheap food, we saw some orangutans. Thankyou Borneo for giving us the opportunity to do just that. We promise we'll come back and see the amazing wildlife you have to offer.
What it has taught us is that you really do have to research the place you're going and be sure you're located in the right place to see the things you want to see. You also have to be careful of interpreting things like "the kitchen is not for cooking" on Airbnb as that doesn't mean they'd rather you didn't fry/roast/grill your food, it literally means there IS no appliance to DO any cooking. Except a microwave. And a kettle.
We've learnt to listen to what we need and what the girls need, we've learnt not to push ourselves to do too much and we've learnt that a bit of normality isn't something to feel bad about. We know we're in for a busy time on our next stop in Perth so for now we've just enjoyed the peace and quiet.