No-one can prepare for rain forest. Really dense rain forest that is. I’d travelled in several African countries pottering through patches of moist jungle areas, but it was a world away from Borneo. Here I found myself eyeball to nature in its rawest sense, even in my forest lodge, where I encountered a poisonous green snake crossing the path to my hut. I was brought up by my grandparents, Devon country folk who belonged in Victorian times. They told me that snakes can ‘kill you dead’ and that there are poisonous adders on Woodbury Common. This put the fear of God in me, and it never left.
The next morning, I found a snake trying to suffocate a toad on my doorstep. I watched, holding tight to my stomach, telling myself that it couldn’t be poisonous it was a constrictor, as moment by moment it’s grip on it’s dinner got tighter. A friend arrived and following my tense stare, grabbed a stick and thrust it onto the wooden deck startling the snake. The toad gained its freedom in the brief pause and the affronted creature slithered away.
We set off for the day, but it was a while before I could put aside my fear of the return. If there was a snake on my porch then how do I know there are not more in some giant pit underneath the stilted hut? I already searched corners and crevices for bugs whenever I came into the room and obsessively sprayed insecticide to keep lobster -sized ants off the toilet seat. Is there an anti -snake spray?
Our lodge was a ten minute walk from Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, so rather than being herded on a tour bus with a tight timetable, we could come and go at leisure. I was thrilled by the close proximity of the feeding platform where bananas and coconut milk were served as a halfway house for Orangs that were being treated and rehabilitated. Opportunist Macaques arrived for a chance handout and shortly there were thrashings and glimpses of ginger hair. But what’s this? Black blobs are appearing in my eyes. I felt like I was in some sort of roundabout lift crashing to the ground. I slunk from my prized pole position and squeezed through the crowd to reach a bench at the back. Unable to stay upright my head fell between my knees and time stopped. Eventually my body found some equilibrium. I raised my eyes to re-focus just as a tiny monkey peeked at me through the fence, the only primate encounter for me that morning; the Orangs had breakfasted and lumbered back into the forest.
Our up-country journey today was made smooth by the lucky find of Khaled, a taxi driver who had a boat and a boatman. He can also spot an orang-utan or proboscis monkey high in trees a hundred meters away. Khaled agreed to become ours for the length of our stay around the Kinabatangan River and Sepilok. The drive to the caves from the lodge began with promise, but the diverse greenery soon gave way to relentless palm oil plantations. I’ve learnt that the roads had only been constructed to transport the constant harvest of the red brown fruit, so desired as an ingredient on supermarket shelves in the western world. That same fruit is responsible for the destruction of the indigenous habitat of the orang-utans that I’d come to Borneo to see.
Gomantong caves are reputedly one of the highlights of any trip to Sabah and we emerged from our air conditioned taxi into the 100% humidity of the cave complex. Its only concession to tourism is a toilet block, sadly of the squatter type, and an interpretation area with photos of the limestone mounds. We walked a mile through forest that seemed like ten, as every stitch of fabric adhered to every inch of wet body.
I was aware that my own body odour rivalled and added to the array of smells, rather like a well fermented compost bin. As the forest gave way to a clearing in front of the cave we were advised to tuck trousers into socks before we climbed to the entrance. And now I’m here. And my body odour became that of a rose among a pile of rotting Durian. Wait . . . this is no romantic crystal cave, no Hall of the Mountain King. Fingal had well and truly disappeared, and in his place were a trillion cockroaches, some as long as your finger. Walking up a narrow board path that clung to the cave wall, I felt my stomach heave as the stench pervaded my body. It’s everywhere as if I have fallen into a maggoty dustbin.
I fought the urge to run back out but, spotting an older woman ahead of me inappropriately dressed in smart delicate sandals, I resolved that if she could do it so could I. The rickety boards were slimy, but both top and sides of the handrail were covered in a mix of guano and the date sized roaches. I struggled to maintain my balance with nothing to hold. Don’t cry Gilly, don’t make a fool of yourself, there are people further in the caves that are here every day. Khaled reached for my arm to stop me slipping into the mire. Instead of focussing on the five inch long queen roach that’s closer to my left ear than my pounding heart, I start to look around. The view up a hundred metres towards the cave roof was glorious with shafts of light illuminating what looked like a torn string vest with toy Star Wars figures tangled in it. Squinting, I realised that it’s the nest collectors scrambling on ladders made of rattan and rope that I could just about see in the distance.
Reaching the high point of the path I came across some of the workmen taking a break in their rest area. They were friendly and open to chat, seeming as interested in me as I was them.
Iqbal, middle aged and wiry, proudly introduced me to his son Abdul-Wajid. ‘His name mean Servant of the finder, he first term in cave and I last term also.’
The father has been working here since he was Wajid’s age and is now too old for such dangerous work. I resisted asking why he was sending his son to work here but he may have read my thoughts.
‘Is a tradition in our family and the best way to earn money, we are lucky to be small bodies.’ Wajid passed me a small stiff object and with a grin like a low slung crescent moon told me it’s his very first nest,
‘This is it? This is what the fuss is about?’ I find it hard to believe that people actually eat this and the Chinese believe it keeps them young.
I learnt that they will stay for ten weeks, hot bedding – to make sure work carries on for twenty four hours each day, and eating on a few shared pallets amongst the filth and squalor. A season’s salary is a mere £700, a lot of money for them but appalling when you know you can pay around £70 for just one bowl of the coagulated bird saliva, poo and feathers. After an hour in the cave I was lucky enough to be free to leave and couldn’t imagine sleeping there, much less eating anything at all in such a place.
Approaching sunset found us on the Kinabatangan. The river provides a corridor of pristine natural forest and there we were privileged to see a couple of really wild Orangs. These wild ones are a rich mahogany shade and I asked Khaled why.
‘Miss, you may see bright coloured ones in the rescue centre, but their fur becomes orange because the scientists choose their food. Like the people only few can survive, their food is also gone along with the forest’.
We agreed that tourists won’t come without the spectacular wildlife, but I questioned how ethical it is for us to take long haul flights anyway, can it be justified when it increases global warming?
I went to Borneo to see Attenborough’s brilliant floral forests with pristine waterfalls and clear azure skies. I wasn’t disappointed, but the reality was different; smiling orang-utans are there at present but for how long? In Gomantong the bats and swiftlets do not evacuate delicate guano onto designated mounds; they pelt it everywhere like an army of mechanical muck spreaders. Bats are not cute velvety creatures with gothic webbed wings soaring in synchronised flight for our pleasure like a mass of Red Arrows in an air display; they flit so quickly they are hard to see.