How to see Borneo’s orangutans – while you still can

    24 January 2020

    It’s near three o’clock on a hot and heavy afternoon. I am staring at a black blob in a tree. It is crunching something 10 metres above my head. I wait.

    Minutes later, the silhouette turns. A fuzzy ginger head peers down with dark, doubtful eyes.

    Orangutans share 96.4 per cent of their DNA with humans. If your eyes meet theirs it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit. Their arms may be longer and their bodies smaller and furrier but their mannerisms are astonishingly humane.

    Borneo is home to 100,000 of the world’s remaining orangutans. Another 7,500 live on Sumatra.

    In the UK, the orangutan and its home have become a popular portrait of humanity’s encroachment on nature. The supermarket Iceland used an automated orangutan to advertise its no palm oil campaign, Judi Dench went and nursed them in rehabilitation.

    We have come to Borneo not only to see and smell the abundant biodiversity of the world’s third largest island – or its Malaysian part at least – but to grasp how orangutans live in their fast shrinking habitats. My ginger boyfriend also wants to see his clan in the wild.

    When our guide John was young, he says that thunderstorms were rare on Borneo, if they came at all. Now they are near daily. “Climate change,” he shrugs.

    The storms provide a dramatic backdrop as we trek around Borneo’s oldest national park at Bako in Sarawak. Established in 1957, there are no orangutans here, but it is a good place to familiarise with the vegetation that this fragile island’s ecosystems rely on. It is also – sweat and mosquito repellent aside – a stunning place to walk.

    Bako means mangrove in Malay. Seven types of vegetation make up the park from crone-like mangroves to lofty dipterocarp forest. It is majestically prehistoric.

    Baby orangutan, Borneo

    Hidden in the undergrowth at the otherwise pristine beach we find old shampoo bottles, bags, even an old motorcycle helmet. John merely shakes his head. Schemes where visitors bring bags to clear the beaches are becoming more common but he says more needs to be done to keep the delicate landscape clean.

    In the days of Alfred Russell Wallace – an explorer and scientist narrowly pipped to greater fame on the theory of evolution by Charles Darwin – you could see wild orangutans just 60 km from Sarawak’s capital, Kuching. Now you have to travel 200km.

    Closer, thankfully, is Semenggoh. One of only three sanctuaries that works to release orangutans back into the wild, it has a number of semi-wild dwellers who come to feast on sweet potatoes and smelly durian fruit each morning. Most were kept illegally as pets. From viewing platforms installed in the trees we watch them artfully peel bananas for their young – a sneaky teenager nicking the fruit before it is ready from a mother’s unattended back foot.

    In Kuching, perhaps Borneo’s most engaging city, the residents are more concerned with cats than orangutans. There are doubtful myths about why this city was named after cats (for which Kuching is the Malay word) but the city revels in its name with kitschy cat monuments and even a cat museum.

    Kuching, Malaysia

    Kuching, Malaysia

    It’s worth taking a day to walk around the tiny capital, dominated by the gold-topped parliament building that no one ever seems to enter or leave. In the main bazaar we discover a local treat: coffee laced with butter that was once intended to soothe the throats of opium smoking sailors after a night in the dens.

    Late at night we join hoards of families heading to the top of a multi-storey car park to load up on local fish at Top Spot, Kuching’s answer to our ritzy food halls. It is fresh, tasty, very messy.

    It is not until dusk two days later in Sabah, the northern half of Malaysian Borneo, that it hits me how poundingly alive the rainforest is. The place is louder than a south London street at rush hour. Wooping frogs, a pinging cicada, insects that sound like a child learning to roll their ‘r’s, tens of tutting birds. Three lizards and a tiny rodent run beneath my propped up feet.

    Sabah is home to Sepilok, Borneo’s most famous orangutan sanctuary, popularised by Dame Judi and others. Founded in 1964 by Barbara Harrison, the wife of the curator of a local museum who has an astounding back story herself (too long for here), it was the first sanctuary of its kind. It works to rehabilitate orphaned orangutans, the smallest of which pinch each others ears and fight for bananas in the nursery area.

    To see its older inhabitants you have to wander the boardwalks, eyes fixed on the trees. That is where I have my close encounter with the teenager in the tree.

    There is also a wealth of macaques and proboscis monkeys (with their comically cartoon noses). But we have yet to see a ‘jungle man’, as orang-u-tan means in local languages, wild.

    The Kinabatangan river, Borneo’s richest source of wildlife watching, is our last hope. Pygmy elephants roam the banks and malevolent crocs glide by at night. At Sukau Rainforest Lodge, which has its own mini nature walk and resident civets, chat about the day’s sightings is not a little competitive.

    We see a bull pygmy elephant hauling himself out of the mud, a croaking rhinocerous hornbill feeding his chick, a thrashing crocodile whose wake shook our boat, a rainforest encircled by double rainbows and a plethora of electric coloured birds and butterflies.

    Search as we do – and our guide Stephen is persistent in his efforts piloting the boat around the Kinabatangan’s tributaries – we fail to see a ginger face. In many ways it’s a salutary lesson.

     “They are wild!” laughs Justin Juhun, resident naturalist at Gaya Island Resort – the last stop on our Borneon peregrination.

    Gaya is a 70 acres conservation area on an island just off Sabah’s coastal capital, Kota Kinabalu. Set around lodges wedged into the hillside, the resort is a place to flop. A 40m lap pool, copious tropical fruits and fish, and meticulous staff don’t make it hard. But Justin is on an almost one man mission to make Gaya a case study for wannabe eco resorts.

    Scenic View of Bohey dulang in Tun Sakaran Marine Park tropical islands Semporna, Sabah Borneo Malaysia

    Scenic View of Bohey dulang in Tun Sakaran Marine Park tropical islands Semporna, Sabah Borneo Malaysia

    He soothes our bruised tourist egos and reminds us how important visitor income is to Borneon conservation efforts. I was beginning to feel a level of guilt for hunting out these creatures as if I were wandering a zoo.

    Unlike us, Justin rarely takes a holiday. He talks about getting electric vehicles on the resort and starting visitor recycling points. On his days off, he does enforcement work, not long ago raiding a restaurant in Kota Kinabalu where they were preparing proboscis, pangolin and porcupine to eat. Not only the orangutans are endangered.

    A visit to Borneo is in equal parts astounding and sobering. Justin’s words as we leave this colourful island hum in my ears: “If I rest now, they are gone”.

    A 14 night wildlife trip costs from £3,500 per person and includes four nights in Kuching, one night in Bako, two nights in Sepilok, two nights at Kinabatangan River and three nights at Gaya Island. The price includes all flights, transfers and accommodation on a B&B basis (full board basis at jungle lodges) and specialist wildlife guiding throughout. For more information please visit  or call 01993 838120.