Borneo Adventure Travel
Borneo Adventure Travel: Holidays in Borneo offer much more than just a glance at a beautiful country, they immerse you in a delicate eco system that desperately needs our care. In this article Alessandro talks about his experiences working in Kuala Lumpur national zoo caring for captive orangutan.
He describes living in Borneo with an Iban tribe, actively working in an orangutan conservation, holding English speaking classes to the children of the tribe, and helping with duties such as planting rice and fishing for the community.
This is overseas adventure travel at its very best.
Borneo Adventure Travel by Alessandro Sanguinetti Bird
There are very few words that can describe the emotions I experienced as I stared up into the eyes of one of our closest living relatives. On this occasion our trek through the rainforest had proven successful and finally, after days of searching, there he was, this rather small, fluffy, beautiful orange little man, swinging so comfortably from one tree another, playfully darting from branch to branch.
He was always under the careful surveillance of his mother, who was sitting just a few meters higher in the canopy, indulging in the fruits of the forest. As this juvenile male orangutan gazed down upon me he never once showed any signs of fear, in fact he seemed as equally in awe of my presence as I was of his.
Over an hour passed like this before he tore off a fig branch from where he was perched, reached out in my direction, and dropped it at my feet, maybe as an offering of peace, or perhaps a sombre plea for help? Either way, it was a parting gesture and seconds after, both orangutans swept off and dissolved into the foliage. That brief encounter changed my life forever.
My journey began with a long, tedious flight from London, over to KL, Malaysia, stopping overnight in Bahrain, and then again for a 4-hour pick-up in Kuwait. Albeit a painstaking one, I wasn’t disheartened by this leapfrog-hopping journey over to South East Asia, I was able to see another part of the world and experience a new culture, and cultural immersion was one of the main reasons I set off on this expedition.
When we did eventually arrive in Kuala Lumpur, I was immediately hurried onto a short connecting flight over to Kuantan, where my summer adventure would begin.
After spending a month backpacking along the east coast of peninsula Malaysia, stopping for days at a time on idyllic little islands, scuba diving and drinking coconut and rum based cocktails along the way, I was to begin my two month volunteer placement.
This would see me getting my hands dirty in the national zoo in Kuala Lumpur, visiting orangutan rehabilitation centers, and living with an Iban tribal community in the Bornean rainforest.
The first two weeks of my volunteer placement were spent working at the Ape Centre in Zoo Negara. Here I learnt a great deal about the orangutans, especially each one of their unique personalities. I befriended a two-year-old orangutan boy named Chokey, the only ape we could safely handle and bottle-feed, much to the displeasure of Sarah, the grumpy old lady of the group who lived in an enclosure opposite. In the two weeks I was there, not a day went by where I could pass her cage without getting spat at, with 100% accuracy might I add.
As we lived on site at the zoo, I spent much of my spare time helping out in the animal hospital, caring for injured animals and successfully hand-rearing two hyena cubs, as their mother rejected them at birth. I used to share my lunch break with a charming mandrill called Joe, who sadly lost his arm during a confrontation with a dog. He enjoyed my company and I sat there for hours at a time holding his one remaining hand, which he stretched out between the bars of his enclosure.
From Kuala Lumpur we moved out to Borneo, flying into Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. Although I had by now already acclimatized to the humidity of the tropics, it was an especially hot day when we arrived and as I stepped off the plane, I was hit by this overwhelming blast of heat. A very long journey by minibus and riverboat took us into the middle of the rainforest, away from any form of civilization, or so I thought until we meandered round the river and I saw children playing in the shallow water by the riverbank, and above them, dwarfed by the huge Tualang trees, was an Iban longhouse. This would be my home for the next six weeks and where I would be immersed into a completely foreign culture.
I spent most of my days playing with the Iban children, teaching them English in return for Iban lessons, playing card games, football, swimming and exploring. One of the older ladies of the tribe took me under her wing, insisting I call her by the Iban name for mother, “Indai”, and from then on she was my surrogate, teaching me how to weave baskets from bamboo, which we collected together from the forest, and how to cook the traditional Iban way.
From the men I learned how to make fishing nets and the techniques used to catch dinner for the community, how to plant rice, and how to drink Lankao, an extremely strong, homemade rice whiskey. The rest of the time, we trekked through the rainforest in search of wild orangutan, which being such elusive creatures, proved to be a difficult task.
For six weeks, we had only the one sighting of wild orangutan to report. However my other days spent trekking were by no means uneventful. During one especially long hike, we arrived at a waterfall, and being drenched in sweat from head to toe and completely exhausted from the walking, this was a welcome treat. A chance to cool off, eat lunch and have a swim.
I immediately dropped my things, stripped off and ran to the river’s edge. I stood on top of a ledge overlooking the drop down to the pool where the waterfall reconnected to the flowing water and took a few steps back to get a bit of a run up. I started my approach and went to jump, only to be stopped just before my back foot left the ground by one of the tribesmen, who grabbed my the shoulder and shouted, in English, “NO!” He pointed down to where I would have landed, and sure enough, swimming silently through the water was a king cobra, at least 10 feet long. Through our translator, he told me that had the snake bitten me, without immediate medical attention I would have died within half an hour, the nearest hospital being over ten hours away.
It was a sobering thought, but a few minutes later the snake had slipped away and we were free to play in the cooling water. Any thought of deadly creatures lurking in the murky water evading me.
My time living with the Iban people really opened my eyes to the world, and I believe it helped me view life in a new way. With Iban communities declining as fast as their orange neighbours, it was a once in a lifetime experience and I am lucky enough to have been given a chance to be part of something that sadly, will one day be nothing more than a chapter in history books.
I encourage everyone and anyone with a passion for travel to share my experience and get out to Borneo before it is too late, and hold close the same memories and stories I tell all my friends to this day.
Alessandro Sanguinetti Bird: Since leaving university with a degree in zoology I have been able to pursue my interest in animals through my work and training. I enjoy travelling and writing about my experiences abroad. I live in New York.
Borneo Adventure Travel : Thanks very much indeed for reading. Please help us spread the word about responsible and sustainable travel.