The Perfect Trip: Borneo

A member of the Iban tribe paddles down the Jelia River in Sarawak; tattoos are significant in Iban culture and represent a person’s journey through life, with each new marking denoting an event, skill, or lesson learnt
Photographer: Matt Munro

From unique wildlife to untouched jungle, few destinations can match the natural drama of Malaysian Borneo. Visit hill tribes, explore tropical islands and conquer its highest mountain on this unforgettable adventure

WORDS OLIVER BERRY
PHOTOGRAPHS MATT MUNRO

SEMENGGOH WILDLIFE CENTRE
Best for orangutans

It’s feeding time at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, but today’s diners seem to be late for their lunch reservation. Bunches of bananas, coconuts and jackfruit are piled on the feeding platform, ripening slowly in the steamy forest air, but so far the only animals showing interest are a few squirrels and songbirds in the nearby trees.

The quiet doesn’t last long. Soon the sound of snapping saplings crackles from the undergrowth, and a face pokes from the treeline: two chocolate eyes, a pair of puffed-out cheeks and a wrinkled muzzle, framed by a mantle of cinnamon fur.

“Here comes Ritchie,” explains John Wen, who’s been working as a wildlife assistant at the Semenggoh reserve for nine years. “He’s the big man of the orangutan family here. Usually we just call him the King.”

He watches as Ritchie lumbers out from the forest, balancing on balled fists at the end of two bushy arms. “He has a bad temper, so the rest of the family usually lets him eat first. We’ve all learned it’s not a good idea to get in between the King and his lunch!” John laughs, as Ritchie scoops up an armful of fruit and disappears back into the forest murk. As soon as he leaves, the other family members swing down to claim their lunch, cartwheeling lazily through the trees to gather heaps of fruit in their rangy limbs.

Of all Borneo’s wild inhabitants, none have the totemic status of the orangutan. Asia’s only endemic great ape, the orangutan (whose name derives from the Malay words for ‘man of the forest’) lives wild only on Sumatra and Borneo. Orangutans are descended from the same hominid ancestor as all the world’s other great apes – gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and human beings – and have been a resident of Borneo’s rainforests for several million years. But their natural habitat is under threat due to deforestation and palm-oil plantations, which makes wildlife sanctuaries such as Semenggoh, along with sister reserves at Sepilok and Matang, all the more vital.

Surrounded by 740 hectares of protected rainforest, Semenggoh is the largest wildlife reserve in Sarawak. It’s home to a permanent population of 20-something orangutans, many rescued from captivity, which roam the jungle and return to the reserve at meal times. “Some animals are social, and stay close to the reserve,” explains John. “But others we may see only once a month – especially during fruiting season, when they can find most of the food they need in the forest. They’re all different. That’s what makes them fascinating to work with.”

A mother orangutan emerges from the brush and splits open a coconut, tipping the stream of milk into her mouth while her baby tugs at her mane. “We still know little about how they think and communicate,” he adds, as mother and baby do somersaults. “They’re like us in so many ways, but they’re still wild creatures. Our work here is about making sure they can stay that way.”

Travel on a longboat to a remote tribal village, climb the island’s highest peak, discover a natural park fringed by beautiful beaches… our ideal itinerary has it all! Find out how to make this trip happen in our February 2017 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.