Mr Aji’s Flying Proboscis

The third and final leg of my Bornean adventure began with the most uncomfortable flight I have ever had the displeasure of taking. Following a fifteen-hour un-air-conditioned bus from the Bruneian capital to Kota Kinabalu the day before, I foolishly believed the worst of my transport woes were behind me. No, I was wrong. The plan this morning was to catch a short flight across the region of Sabah to the city of Sandakan, a popular gateway to the Bornean rainforest. From there I was to meet Mr Aji, a local guide who cut me a good deal on a couple of nights in his arboraceous shack (with a trip along the Kinabatangan River and night tour of the rainforest included). However, as my Malaysia Airlines (nothing to worry about there) plane descended towards Sandakan Airport, it entered a shroud of fog which did not want to budge. Having seen how close we were to the ground not five minutes prior, the fact that we were continuing to blindly descend did slowly start to trouble me (as you may already know I am not a comfortable flyer).

Then, seconds before we must have been due to hit the tarmac, the pilot slammed the thrusters back on and into the stratosphere we headed once more. There was an audible gasp in the fuselage as we gained altitude before the co-pilot ‘calmly’ informed us that we needed to head all the way back to Kota and wait there until the mist had cleared. Fantastic. The only positive to take from having to fly the same route twice was the view of Mount Kinabalu we were treated to as we cruised past, the peak I had summited earlier in the week. The second attempted landing went without a hitch, although Mr Aji (not knowing of my aerial woes) had long since left for his jungle retreat, some sixty-minutes drive away. With few other options, I hailed a taxi, pointed at a spot in the jungle where I thought my guide was located and off we went. What a disastrous start.

Having miraculously found Mr Aji’s shack in the back arse of nowhere (the taxi driver may or may not have been a relative), I had a few seconds respite before heading out onto the nearby alligator-infested river in an open-topped boat which had clearly seen better days. As we progressed upstream, my stern-faced guide called for complete silence as he peered through his military-grade binoculars at the forested barricade on either side of the Kinabatangan. I was rather sceptical at his supposed ability to be able to hear the infamous Bornean elephants from several miles away, that was until we pulled up right next to a herd of them – poking their pygmy trunks through the trees. Within feet of our ramshackle vessel, this was about as remarkable a creature one could ever wish to see in its natural habitat, without a fence or a zookeeper in sight. Having grown up on the river, Mr Aji knew each elephant by name (chosen himself) and they genuinely appeared rather pleased to see him, it was quite the Mowgli story.

This was not all he had up his sleeve though. We also caught a glimpse of the peculiar proboscis monkey, making a racket high up in the canopy, as well as several long-tailed macaques, an orangutan building a nest and a group of giant hornbills roosting in a nearby tree. My utter disbelief at the sheer number of wild animals carving a life for themselves by this unremarkable river was quickly explained away by Mr Aji, who informed me that they simply had nowhere else to go – palm oil plantations had penned them into this small sanctuary, and this was all they had left. Come nightfall, we were back in the rainforest (this time on foot) as my machete-wielding guide did his best to point-out the nocturnal critters who called this part of the jungle their home. Unfortunately, it had been raining most of the day (as is the norm in a rainforest) and, as such, most of the wildlife was either drying off or in shelter – not wanting to be seen by an earnest Welshman.

Come dawn, it was back to Sandakan, and a visit to two adjoining conservation centres: one for orangutans and the other for sun bears. Before my trip to Malaysia, I thought a sun bear was merely a grizzly who enjoyed a beach. Turns out, they are an extremely rare species that has also felt the full effects of recent deforestation of their natural habitat. Being the smallest of all bears, they are easily poachable and are commonly caught in honey traps – no not by other attractive sun bears trying to lead them astray but with traps filled with honey, their favourite food. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre stands right next door, another valiant attempt by local organisations to save an endangered animal. Wandering the site was another heartening experience, but left me wondering why on earth the government doesn’t do more to prevent deforestation in the first instance? The answer, I was informed, was simple: palm oil = money. Big money.

My flight back to Kota was as uneventful as I had hoped, and it just so happened that the date of my return was the 31st of December, and I was in party central. I took a real disliking to the city upon my arrival a week ago, but I now discovered what the place was all about: drinking and fireworks. With a small task force from the brothel/hostel, we headed deep down the Kota Strip and drank the night away. The city’s abundant coastline is lined from end-to-end with bars, nightclubs and marquees, with every venue full to the brim for the festivities. I barely recall the countdown and subsequent pyrotechnics (the sign of any good night) and my head was still vibrating upon my landing in Daegu, South Korea, the following afternoon. Borneo, what a week it has been. From the very summit of Malaysia to the depths of the fragile rainforest, this is a place that needs urgent conservation or some of its unique wildlife and habitats will be lost to the world forever. As for me, it’s back to school…

J

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