By Michael Robotham. First published in Escape Travel. Reproduced with permission by Michael Robotham and News Ltd.
The brief was simple: a family holiday, somewhere unusual, somewhere memorable.
"It has to be outside Australia," said my eldest princess, a teenage travel snob. "And somewhere warm," announced the middle princess, who is 12. "Where we can ski," added the littlest princess, 9.
That's why parents should never consult their offspring about anything other than whether their teeth are clean.
Having discussed it with my true love we settled on Malaysian Borneo, the fabled home of head-hunters (I don't mean the corporate kind) and the current home of the orang-utan, the world's most intelligent primate (after man, of course, although you don't see orang-utans starting wars in the Middle East or watching The Biggest Loser.)
Borneo would be different, I thought. An experience. An adventure. We'd take them on a jungle safari and to a beach resort and to animal sanctuaries.
My true love began making the plans, which involved various jabs, prescriptions, malaria tablets, insect repellent, walking shoes and binoculars.
"Will I be able to update my Facebook page?" asked the middle princess.
"Are there any malls?"
"Will there be leeches?"
(NB. I was wrong on all three counts).
Land Below the Wind
Borneo, the world's third biggest island, lies just above the equator and just below the cyclone belt, which is why the name means, "Land Below the Wind."
Malaysian Borneo, otherwise known as Sabah and Sarawak, makes up the northern third of the island and is quite sparsely populated compared with many Asian destinations. The traffic is light, the roads are good (ish) and you can self-drive or take a package tour. We chose the latter and flew into Kota Kinabalu, a modern city, rebuilt after being devastated in World War II.
KK is a strange mix of traditional markets full of handicrafts and exotic fruits, which exist alongside iconic Western outlets such as Starbucks and McDonald's. The princesses were particularly impressed when they discovered Converse trainers for a third of the price they are at home.
When it came to restaurants, we were spoilt for choice. Wandering through an open-air restaurant emporium, we peered into tanks full of weird and wonderful sea creatures, which could have been alien or turned inside out. Chilli crab is a local speciality – a meal to savour because it takes so long to eat – but the whole steamed fish in ginger and garlic was equally impressive.
Our next introduction to all things native was at the Mari Mari Cultural Village, 25 minutes' drive from KK. Normally I'm not one for reenactments, but this three-hour tour was infectious because the performers were obviously having so much fun dressing up as head-hunters and giving us lessons in bamboo-pot cooking, fire starting, rope making, stick dancing and hunting with a blowpipe.
A fatwa on squat toilets
Among the traditional delicacies we sampled was the rice wine, which tastes a little like watered-down Scotch. The problem with drinking liquids, of course, is that this ultimately leads to bathroom stops. My princesses had already declared a fatwa on squat toilets and I had visions of spending nine days hunting out Western-style commodes.
Fear not – they adapted. By day four, princess No.1 announced, "I'm getting really good at squatting. I can even aim." I did wonder what was happening before this, but didn't go there.
After leaving KK we travelled to the tip of Borneo where the South China Sea meets the Sula Sea. That night we stayed in a traditional Rungan longhouse with a thatched roof and bamboo slat floors set on poles above the ground. We slept under mosquito nets and were woken at dawn by roosters crowing and chickens scratching at the earth beneath us.
The landscape slowly altered as we headed south. Oil palm plantations and groves of rubber trees gave way to rice paddies and then virgin forest.
Something from Land of the Giants
Dominating the skyline was Mt Kinabalu, a stunning granite massif rising to 4095m. This is the highest peak in South-East Asia and the centrepiece of Kinabalu Park, a World Heritage site and home to some of the most unusual and beautiful plants in the world. Now I'm not a flower person (my idea of gardening is to wield the weed killer like Dirty Harry), but when I set eyes on the world's largest flower, Rafflesia, I was seriously impressed. The huge red bloom, a metre across, has tentacles and a gaping mouth like something from Land of the Giants.
Rafflesias are so rare that local farmers keep an eye on each bud, watching them grow for 12 months. They bloom for less than 48 hours, which is when the landowners cut a path through the jungle and charge visitors 20 ringgit ($6) to view the event.
We had a long drive to the east coast through vast oil palm plantations that seemed to stretch for as far as the eye could see. Here was evidence of why Borneo's primates need protecting. For the past 500 years their habitat has been under threat – first from logging and now from cash crops such as rubber, cocoa and oil palms.
Perhaps the most unusual of Borneo's mammals is the proboscis monkey – particularly the male. When God gave these guys a nose, he just kept giving. We managed to see feeding time at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Sanctuary, which was like a convention of Jimmy Durante look-alikes.
Next morning we visited the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre outside Sandakan. Established in 1964, the centre takes care of up to 3000 baby orang-utans orphaned by logging, land clearing and hunting. Most of the primates are eventually released into the wild, but some never make the transition.
Feeding time is twice a day. We chose the morning and watched as six orang-utans and dozens of the smaller macaque monkeys swung through the trees and shimmied down cables to where handlers were waiting with bananas and milk.
The orang-utans seemed to almost change colour as they emerged from the shadows, turning from a dark brown to orange. With four fingers and an opposable thumb, their movements, mannerisms and behaviour are incredibly similar to our own – perhaps too much so. Obviously orang-utans don't limit their swinging to the trees, but I did feel as though we'd stepped on to the set of a jungle porn movie.
Now we were ready for a proper safari. Our base for the final three days was Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the Kinabatangan River, situated in a 26,000ha wildlife sanctuary that has 10 species of primate, as well as pygmy elephants and more than 200 birds. Designed along the same lines as African safari lodges, Sukau has comfortable accommodation and buffet-style meals.
The various activities revolve around early-morning and late afternoon wildlife cruises on the river and its tributaries.
"What are these?" asked the middle princess.
"Why do I need leech socks?"
"We're going for a trek in the jungle."
She was not impressed. Even my true love looked askance.
By the time we set off, I was accompanying four women in full purdah who were surrounded by a toxic cloud of insect repellent. Only one leech made it through their defences.
Princess No.1 had a small panic attack, but later complained that the leech bite was fading too quickly and she wouldn't be able to show her "war wound" to her friends back home.
In case you're wondering, we did get to see orang-utans in the wild – three of them. Two of them were "cuddling" or they could have been "wrestling".
I also discovered that "in the wild" does mean farther away.
This story first appeared in Escape Travel and is reproduced with permission by Michael Robotham and News Ltd.
See the full details of our 10-day Orang-utan-go tour.