Hanging Out in Borneo

By Glenn Kessler

The Washington Post

When my wife and I thought about bringing our three children closer to nature by taking them deep into the jungles of Borneo, we didn’t realize how close we’d actually get.

We were visiting a vast rainforest populated by orangutans, rhinos and other animals when we decided to make a long trek into the sweaty, buggy jungle in search of the magnificent reddish-brown apes. At one point, my 6-year-old daughter, Mara, discovered what appeared to be a small black worm, about an inch long, crawling on her.

“What’s that, Daddy?” she asked.

Cindy, my wife, wondered if it was a leech. I examined it closely and confidently announced it seemed to be an inchworm. After all, it moved in cute, inch-long strides as it wandered over Mara’s hand.

Two hours later, I looked down to discover that I was bleeding profusely through my shirt and pants. Leeches! Those cute little “inchworms” had crawled under my shirt and into my pants and were swollen with my blood. So much for my expertise with jungle creatures. But in a bit of sweet justice, I was the only member of the family who ever got bitten by leeches. (They actually don’t hurt at all, and because of something in their saliva, the blood washed out of my clothes easily.)

That’s the joy of taking an exotic vacation with your children: You never know what will happen, making every day an adventure. We had settled on Borneo, the world’s third-largest island and home of vast rainforests and many unusual creatures. In addition to our trek through the orangutan forest, we would swim with colorful tropical fish, watch a giant sea turtle lay nearly 100 eggs in 10 minutes and see millions of bats swarm out of a cave for their nightly meal of 15 tons of insects — all lessons for our children in the force and power of nature.

Our trip to Borneo last summer was our fourth family vacation in the developing world. Most people, truth be told, think we’re a little crazy dragging our kids to places that require daily doses of malaria pills and constant reminders not to drink the water. But ask our children, and I think they’d take Hanoi over Paris any day. Besides, have you seen the exchange rate for the euro lately?

Plane tickets to Southeast Asia can be pricey. But clothing, handicrafts and food are incredible bargains, with meals for five sometimes costing less than US$20. We tended to pay more for hotels, but even so, we paid far less than we would have for comparable lodgings in Europe or the United States. So even with the cost of the tickets, we figured we came out ahead — maybe even far ahead — of an equivalent period in Europe.

Having traveled extensively in the developing world before we had children, my wife and I were pleased to discover one great advantage of traveling with children: It opens doors. Young tourists are such a rarity in these areas that people were especially nice to us. (Mara, our blond-haired daughter, was the subject of especially close attention.)

Borneo is divided among three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and the small sultanate of Brunei. We first considered visiting the Indonesian part, since my wife and I had made two trips to that island nation before children, but ultimately decided the smaller Malaysian section had better tourist infrastructure and was easier to traverse. Both countries are mostly Muslim, but politically stable Malaysia has had less trouble with terrorism.

However, pirates operating off the east coast of Borneo from time to time have captured tourists. In 2000, dozens of tourists, including Westerners, were kidnapped in two raids on dive resorts by an Islamic militant group operating out of the Philippines and held for nearly a year before large ransoms were reportedly paid to ensure their release.

Sabah and Sarawak are the two Malaysian states in Borneo, and we planned to spend nine days in each state. We would fly into Kota Kinabalu, the main city in Sabah, but return from Kuala Lumpur, the gleaming capital of Malaysia, so we could also spend a few additional days on the mainland.

We arranged an itinerary that had us crisscrossing Borneo, going from jungles to islands to jungles in an effort to build a rhythm of water and forest. Because of the distances, we had to take six plane flights and six boat rides. If we missed one, we were in deep trouble, because in some cases there wouldn’t be another flight for a few days.

The hotels in Borneo run the gamut, from super luxury to backpacker hostels. We aimed for something in between — enough creature comforts for our children but enough local color to make it interesting for the adults. In some nature parks, we had no real choice: The rooms can be pretty spare and the air conditioning so weak in the 90-degree heat that we never really felt cool.

Service also is a little lax in Malaysia. When we arrived at Kota Kinabalu’s airport an hour before takeoff for one of our flights, no one was there. I wandered upstairs to the air carrier’s office and found a group of workers gossiping. I politely asked why no one was at the counter.

“We don’t open it until an hour and half before departure,” one worker said. I pointed to the clock and noted that it said 7am and the flight was supposed to leave at 8. Her eyes widened, and the rest of her colleagues began running around frantically. “We’ll be downstairs in 10 minutes,” she said breathlessly.

When we boarded the 15-seat propeller plane, we learned we were the only passengers. The pilot veered from the flight path to give us a view of a lovely lighthouse on the northern tip of Borneo that few people ever see. He also took us past the majestic Mount Kinabalu, whose 13,435-foot summit is usually obscured by the clouds. When we landed in Kudat for a scheduled stop, the entire staff of the little landing strip came out to applaud us.

“We only heard you were coming 10 minutes ago,” the head of the control tower said. “The flight has been canceled every day for two weeks.”

The highlight of any wildlife visit to Borneo is seeing the orangutans. At the start of our trip, we flew to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, on the northeast coast, where orphaned orangutans, rhinos and other animals learn to fend for themselves before being reintroduced into the wild. We stayed at the Sepilok Jungle Resort, a simple but friendly hotel in a spectacularly beautiful setting with a constant hum of insects and frogs and just a five-minute walk from the center.

Genetically, the endangered orangutans are among the closest creatures to humans (“orangutan” is a Malay word for “man of the forest”). They are highly intelligent and incredibly agile, able to effortlessly dangle their 250-pound, five-foot-long bodies from the slimmest of branches. They have solitary lives, and it is rare for visitors to see them in the wild. But at the Sepilok center, twice a day bananas are placed near a viewing platform, attracting a few orangutans that swing from the sky by hanging on long ropes or vines from the high canopy of trees.

Suddenly, a few feet away from us, one of the orangutans decided he was in a mood to mate. The female seemed rather bored by his amorous activities, nibbling on a banana while the male grunted about. The tourists standing with us started to giggle, and then began laughing loudly. Our 14-year-old son, Andre, understood immediately. It took our 10-year-old, Hugo, a few more minutes.

“What’s so funny?” Mara asked.

Near the orangutans, we also visited a preserve of rare proboscis monkeys, which exist nowhere in the world but Borneo. The males, about 2 1/2 feet tall and weighing 50 pounds, have giant noses, potbellies and constant erections, perhaps because they usually have 10 or so mates.

After a few days of visiting orangutans and monkeys, it was time for giant sea turtles. At Sandakan, a coastal town about a half-hour away, we boarded a boat for a bumpy 1 1/2-hour ride to Selingan Island, near the line in the Sulu Sea that separates Malaysia from the Philippines.

Every night, the 450-pound turtles come to this tiny island to deposit their eggs. Female turtles always return to the island where they were born to lay their eggs, even though they may have swum thousands of miles around the globe and don’t start giving birth until they are between 30 and 50 years old; they can live up to 75 years. The island covers only a few acres, so we hung out on the beach and swam with tropical fish while we waited for the sea turtles to arrive in the evening. The number of people who can visit the island on any day is strictly limited, and the few cottages are spartan.

At night, park rangers led us out to see the turtles as they pulled themselves up onto the beach, dug holes and quickly laid their eggs. In the dark, I nearly stumbled across one five-foot-long giant as she laboriously maneuvered through the sand to get back in the ocean. The turtle we saw laid 94 eggs in 10 minutes, all of which are collected by rangers and reburied in the sand behind fences to increase their chances of survival during the 60 days of incubation. Then we saw a hundred or so newly born turtles — barely the size of the palm of my daughter’s hands — rush into the ocean. Since fewer than 1 percent of the turtles make it to adulthood, only one of the turtles could expect to return to the island a few decades from now to lay her eggs.

For our children, it was a sobering lesson in the raw odds of survival in the wild.

The Hills Are Alive

Deep in the jungles of Sarawak, the other Malaysian state we visited, there was another lesson — how animals work together to thwart danger.

Gunung Mulu National Park is largely inaccessible except by air or a long river trip and has some of the largest caves in the world. The Sarawak Chamber, for instance, supposedly could hold more than 10 Boeing 747 jets parked nose to tail. Accommodations are limited to simple lodgings in the park or a grand hotel known as Royal Mulu Resort. We chose the resort, which had huge rooms and, to the delight of our children, was built entirely on stilts.

Deer Cave is the home of a few million bats and offers the largest cave entrance in the world. We walked deep inside, then waited outside for the bats to begin searching for their evening meal. A gentle rain began to fall, which was a concern because the bats usually don’t like to venture out in wet weather. But we were patient, our eyes focused on the cave entrance.

Suddenly, in the gloaming, the bats swarmed out in groups of thousands, looking almost like black, swirling clouds, clustered tightly to thwart hawks eagerly looking for their own dinner. The hawks manage to pick off the occasional bat or two, but the rest escape intact, ready to gorge on 15 tons of insects every night.

As interesting as the animals were, we also wanted to experience some of Borneo’s culture, which led to one of the trip’s highlights.

In particular, we wanted to get close to the Borneo ethnic tribes known as the Iban and Orang Ulu, who live in longhouses — essentially a village under one roof — far from the coast. From Mulu, we flew to Sibu, an almost entirely Chinese city that serves as the gateway to the great Rajang River. This is where we planned to catch a speedboat to our hotel, the Regency Pelagus Resort, near the longhouses.

From our Sibu hotel room we watched thousands of tree trunks head down the river to wood mills, a depressing reminder of how demand for disposable chopsticks and other wood items is rapidly depleting the rainforests. After a three-hour trip on a high-speed, air-conditioned public ferry, we arrived at the tiny town of Kapit, where we were met by a small boat that took us an additional 45 minutes downstream.

Our stylishly decorated hotel was perched on a ledge high above some wild rapids, the only man-made structure for miles around. As the only guests at the 40-room resort, we had the hotel’s guide, Milang Jawing, all to ourselves, and he took us to the Iban longhouse where he lives with his family. The Ibans were once feared headhunters, but they are rapidly becoming urbanized. Many of the men, in fact, have difficult and dangerous jobs in the timber mills — a job Jawing had until he decided he would only die young if he didn’t quit.

The longhouse was being updated and expanded, so we had to walk over planks to get to his section. Each family’s section has a couple of rooms — a living/sleeping area and a kitchen area, plus a shared porch where everyone gathers to eat and gossip. Jawing’s wife served us copious amounts of tasty tuak (rice wine), and his father-in-law joined us to imbibe as well. His children scampered about with our kids, thrilled with the shiny pencils we had given them. Our boat driver particularly seemed to enjoy the tuak — he may have had a bottle all by himself — but it did not seem to affect his ability to traverse the dangerous rapids back to the hotel.

Our guide also took us for walks in the jungle at night and during the day. At night, the stars above were the most brilliant and intense I have ever seen. The insects and frogs chirped and buzzed in a mad cacophony.

The hills around the hotel were at times so steep that we had to hold onto ropes strung through the rainforest. We also had to wade through streams — by now we could easily spot the leeches trying to catch a ride on our bodies — and traverse paths that Jawing created with his machete. But after nearly three weeks, our children were seasoned jungle explorers.

As we boarded the plane home, all three excitedly asked variations of the same question: “Where are we going next year?”

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