In nature's lap at Malaysia's Borneo rainforest

Oct 20, 2013, 08:00 IST | C Gangadharan Menon

Play hide and seek with orangutans, catch a glimpse of the world's largest flower and be humbled by the towering presence of 200-feet-tall trees. At the Borneo rainforest in Malaysia, nature is in its full splendour

The rainforests of Borneo in Malaysia may look similar to the ones in Southern India, more specifically the rainforests of Silent Valley in Kerala. But take a closer look. The flora and fauna are spectacularly different. These are more akin to those of Arunachal Pradesh, which at some point in the history of our universe, must have been contiguous with the forests of Borneo. In Borneo, at each turn of the kaleidoscope, the greenscape changes dramatically.

Orangutan reserve My first glimpse of Ritchie, the oldest Orangutan here, is of him swinging on the Tarzan Vine like a consummate trapeze artist, his orange fur lit up by the sunlight peeping through the morning mist. He then plunges headlong through the branches, bringing a huge branch down with him. Ritchie is five feet tall, weighs 100 kilos, and has an arm span of eight feet! The guides ask us to make way for the king, and warn us of his lethal ‘love bite’. We all quickly move aside, but not before I manage a shot of his captivating face, up close and personal.

The Proboscis monkey is hailed as the clown of the Malaysian forest

Orangutan in Malay means ‘people of the forest’. The tribals here believe that once upon a time the orangutans lived with the humans. But being non-communicative and solitary in nature, they preferred to be left alone. And one day they eventually moved deep into the forest, thereby earning the sobriquet of ‘people of the forest’. But the tribals never let them go completely out of sight. Because it’s the orangutans who teach them all about the ways of the forest, including telling them which fruits to eat and which ones to avoid.

Ritchie, the alpha male of orangutans, is the oldest animal at Semenggoh 

On our return, we see a cluster of pitcher plants. Slender and elegant, with a beautiful lid that’s perennially open, it looks like anything but a carnivorous plant. This open pitcher emanates a smell that’s a fatal attraction for insects. And once the unsuspecting insects (it’s been happening for millennia; and at least by now they should have caught on!) land on the slimy insides of the pitcher, they become totally immobile. The plant then closes the lid to make doubly sure there’s no escape route. The insects are slowly dissolved by enzymes and sucked into the digestive tracts of the plant.

Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, is endemic and endangered

Bako National Park
The oldest National Park in Malaysia is also one of South Asia’s smallest. It takes us a mere 30-minute drive and a 30-minute boat-ride to reach here from the city of Kutching. En route we see some awesome paintings done by nature on volcanic rocks: in blue, brown, red, yellow, green and white (did I leave out any colour?). And a few sculptures floating in the ultramarine sea to match. It is God’s own art gallery.

The green pit viper camouflages itself with green foliage 

On our way to the guest house, we are welcomed by a strange-looking creature: a bearded pig loitering on the beach! After freshening up, we head to one of the 18 colour-coded trails. These colours are marked on the trees that line the paths that are paved with wooden planks all along. The idea is to prevent the uninitiated from walking into the lurking dangers of the unknown. And right enough, even our trained eyes cannot spot the venom of the perfectly camouflaged green pit viper that is just an arm’s length away. Sometimes in nature, it makes sense to walk the trodden path.

The mass exodus of bats inhabit the Deer Cave inside the Mulu National Park
The mass exodus of bats inhabit the Deer Cave inside the Mulu National Park

On one of the trees nearby, we spot the clown of the Malaysian forest: the proboscis monkey. With an over-sized nose, it looks as if it has just walked out of the Pinocchio comics. Close by are silver leaf monkeys with their silvery fur glistening in the sun. Though both these monkeys are leaf-eating, they don’t get into a territorial fight. Simply because their choice of trees is completely different from each other. To each his own leaf!

National Park
Here’s where you pray you find the largest flower in the world: the Rafflesia. It’s rare, endemic, and endangered. It takes all of nine months for the bud to blossom, but the flower lasts for only seven days. At the park gate we are told that our prayers have been answered, and just the previous day, one has bloomed very close to the jungle path. The flower is blood red in colour. And it has the smell of rotten flesh to match. This is only to attract the attention of the blow-ants that pollinate them. Despite these desperate measures, pollination is rare, and that makes this plant endangered. The reason is that a male flower and a female flower have to blossom in close proximity for the tiny blow-ant to pollinate them in one go. And nature being whimsical, such synchronisation is few and far between. The Rafflesia we see, is small: just two feet in diameter. Compared to the largest one recorded here that’s close to four feet in diametre.

As a double delight we also see the tallest flower in the world: the Amorphophallus. It is about two feet in height, whereas the bigger ones are known to grow up to about eight feet.
Mulu National Park Our first foray into Mulu, the following day, is the lovely trek to the Deer Cave. Part of the humungous network of caves that traverse the mystical mountains of Mulu, Deer Cave has the largest cave opening in the world. Inside are millions of wrinkle-lipped bat. At precisely 5.30 pm, we see the spectacular sight of waves after endless waves of bats coming out of the cave. There are, we are told, 30 lakh of them, give or take a few. They stream out of the cave every evening in a nonstop flow that lasts for all of three hours. It is said to  be the largest exodus of bats witnessed anywhere in the world.
The next day, at the end of a two-km walk we see a breathtaking sight that’ll stay with us till our last breath. At a height of around 70 feet  from the forest floor is a ropeway that extends for almost half a kilometre into the forest, giving us a hornbill’s view of this mysterious forest. And as we look up from the skywalk, we realise that almost two-third of the tree is still growing into the blue sky. Which means that each of these trees were at least 200 feet tall.
Surrounded by these towering trees reaching into the heavens, I remember Wordsworth: ‘There is no poem as beautiful as a tree.’ 

Make it happen
the destination: Borneo is the third largest island in the world, spanning an area that is almost 745,000 hectares in size. The Northern region is divided into Sabah and Sarawak under Malaysia with Brunei smack between the two, and Kalimantan in the South which is under Indonesia. Although the name ‘Borneo’ is often used to interchangeably describe any of those countries, it is really a misnomer as it was a title given by the Dutch during the colonial period and is no longer officially used.

Getting there: Travelling by air is the primary way to reach Borneo from Kuching airport in Malaysia. There are regular flights from Mumbai to Kuching. Within Borneo a major highway links the towns and cities. However, there are no proper railways, with only one in Sabah which is more of a scenic ride. To reach rural areas inland, boats and ferries are used to ply river routes.

To get to Borneo from Kuala Lumpur or Kuching, there are two airline companies that fly to Sabah and Sarawak. when to go: It enjoys a warm equatorial climate, with temperatures that climb to the low 30s. Hot and humid throughout the year, the prosperous emirate has a tropical weather system — it rains (average annual rainfall is 3295mm) even outside the official wet season (between November and February). That being said, visitors don’t really have to worry about the weather — rain showers may be sudden but they’re short lived; so it’s best if you pack an umbrella. Alternatively, when the sun is shining, be sure to use sun block — the higher the SPF, the better. 

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