Le singe est dans l’arbre

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Okay, so how do I put an expatriate slant on this post?! For the past week or so I’ve been sans Wi-Fi or internet or anything remotely technological. I’ve taken some time out from my data gathering here in Borneo and have been getting up close and personal with nature and all of the exotica this wonderful island has to offer. I spent my first couple of days in Malaysian Borneo actually working, in the city of Kota Kinabalu, so I’ll start there.

Fishing boats in KK

Fishing boats in KK

The city of some half a million people is called simply KK by the locals and is the main urban centre in the Malaysian state of Sabah. It was completely rebuilt after World War II during which it was razed to the ground, and has blossomed into a fairly modern city, certainly by Borneo’s standards. In terms of consumer choice it’s no Kuala Lumpur but there is a surprising amount that can be hunted down if needs be and expats would be far more comfortable here than in Indonesian Borneo. It’s not a particularly memorable place but the locals, like all Malaysians I have met, are warm and friendly and there’s a “selamat datang” (welcome) sign on pretty much every building.

Moving on to the next part of my trip my expatriate connection is going to be that of recreational activities for expats (a tenuous link, I know!). Some will be assigned to rather staid locations where extra-curricular and recreational activity choices are few and far between. But others are more fortunate and if your recreational zeal is for the great outdoors then expats in Borneo have hit the jackpot.  One of the appeals of coming to work here is the quite astounding natural beauty on your doorstep and I’m sure many an expat working on the island (be it Brunei, Kota Kinabalu or Bintulu) has seen much of what I’ve been fortunate enough to see this week. Sometimes I’ve felt like Indiana Jones, other times like David Attenborough, but mostly I’ve felt like a kid in candy store.

How can you not love orang-utans?

How can you not love orang-utans?

After leaving KK I headed to the town of Sandakan, all but ravaged during the Second World War, but today is a popular stepping off point for getting into the interior of the island. My first stop was a visit to see the orang-utans at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. Orang-utans are the only species of great ape found outside of Africa and they share 96.4% of their DNA with humans and it’s quite heart-warming to see their human traits, albeit with long hairy arms! Even more intriguing were the proboscis monkeys at the Labuk Bay Sanctuary. With their striking long noses and playful verve it was a delight to see over 50 of them swinging through trees to munch on specially formulated pancakes which they are fed twice a day to supplement their natural diets.

The next day I ventured in to the unknown of Gomantong Caves which was an interesting experience to say the least. The roof of the huge cavern is home to millions of bats and swiflets and like all birds and bats they eat, process their food and then……get rid of any waste! The floor of the cave is like nothing I’ve seen before, ten feet deep of bat and swiflet guano (poo, for the unenlightened!) piled high and crawling with cockroaches. The ammonia smell is horrific and every other step on the boardwalk inside the cave was either a squelch of guano or a crunch of cockroach underfoot. Some in my group hated it, I loved it!



Borneo’s river network is three times longer than it’s road network and so in the evening I took a traditional longboat down the Kinabatangan River passing through rainforest and the many creatures which call it home. I saw crocodiles, giant monitor lizards, rare birds and colourful snakes but best of all were the macaque monkeys. Not least of all because I got to impress the French people in the boat with one of the few sentences I know in their language – “le singe est dans l’arbre”.

Leaving the province of Sabah I headed deeper in to the wilderness to the Gunung Mulu National Park in the state of Sarawak, a real haven for technophobes and those who despise the city life. I arrived in the steaming hot sunshine to find a room with no aircon and lizards crawling over the walls. It got worse though when I lifted the toilet seat to find a cockroach sitting there staring back at me. They don’t call it a rainforest for nothing and before long the rains came and pelted the park headquarters with some of its ten metre annual rainfall.

Abe Lincoln in nature

Abe Lincoln in nature

I spent a few days in the park trekking and taking in the sights and sounds of the forest but it was once again the huge caves which had me enthralled. One in particular, Deer Cave, was truly…er…awesome. Once inside the cave the shafts of sunlight which poke through are quite magical and at the entrance to one cave you can see the rather realistic silhouette of Abraham Lincoln’s profile – all 100% natural! Venturing further in to the caves the light soon disappears and the headlamps come on. Unfortunately for me this was too late as I got to the end of a rope handrail and rested my hand on the post before recoiling in horror (see the photo slideshow above for why!).

After coming across more cockroaches, blind catfish and spiders galore I waited outside the cave entrance for the spectacle of three million bats leaving the cave at dusk in search of the 20 tonnes of insects they consume each night. Quite amazing!

The biggest spider I've ever seen

The biggest spider I’ve ever seen

So if expats get tired of their day-to-day work in the cities of Borneo, at least they can take off for the weekend and explore a bit. There’ll be less of a ‘holiday’ vibe to my next post but I hope you’ve enjoyed me sharing my time off. After all, you can’t come to a place like this and miss it!!

STOP PRESS: Since I wrote this blog 24 hours ago I’ve been to the Niah Caves National Park and just had to mention its awesomeness. A three kilometre walk through pristine rainforest led me to the cave which is simply stunning. At the back of the cave (some 500 metres in) it’s pitch black and so for a minute or so I switched off my headlamp and listened as the thousands of bats circled my head – a rather special moment, especially as I was the only person in the whole cave as it’s so remote. A few of the bats emptied their dinner on me but what does one expect. The walk back through the rainforest at night was equally memorable, with fireflies guiding me along the path past centipedes and huge spiders.

How many legs?

How many legs?

I’m off to Bintulu tomorrow where I’ll be back in work mode, swapping bats and leeches for pizza and a hot shower.

About wanderingmark

World traveller, researcher, photographer, collector of interesting facts and cost of living data research for ECA International (www.eca-international.com).
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