Kuching lies on the southwest coast of Borneo, the flight took an hour and 45 minutes from KL and as we flew over the coastline, we could see the threadlike arteries of rivers carving their way through huge palm plantations and while the loss of the indigenous forest is undoubtedly a tragedy, from 25,000 feet it still looked extraordinarily beautiful.
Kuching itself is set on a river and many of the attractions are located close to the tree-lined promenade that runs along the riverbank.
In town, there's not much to see, a couple of Chinese temples, the extravagant looking assembly building and Fort Margherita. The cool stuff lays out of town in the national parks and protected forests.
We headed to Semenggoh nature reserve, around 25 kms out of town, the reserve is home to 27 orang utans that are free to roam the dense rainforest. The reserve was originally set up almost 40 years ago to rehabilitate orang utans that had been injured or been kept in captivity, today, the centre is used as a research facility that gathers data on the animals' behaviour and biology. As we walked toward the main gate of the park, a small crowd of people had already gathered, cameras at faces. As we turned the slight bend, 3 metres above us was a (semi) wild orang utan. She was gorgeous, auburn hair that lightened to fiery orange and then bright yellow over her eyes. She was holding on with one hand and a foot, the other foot held a mango or two and her other hand was shovelling bananas in to her face. Seeing an orang so close was more than we had hoped for, it was overwhelming.
Sitting a little further away was Richie, the alpha male, twice or three times the size of the female, he was only interested in the food in front of him, we were told that just the day before he had slapped a visitor not quick enough to get out of his way, at 180kg we imagined he'd give quite a swipe. Today, he seemed pretty placid, his huge, flat platter-shaped face rarely gazed up from the fruit.
After a safety briefing ("if we say run, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!") we were take in to the reserve. A 10 minute walk along a jungle path found us at a platform that overlooked a small opening in the forest. In the opening a couple of orangs sat picking over the variety of fruit and veggies before them. A mother with a tiny orange baby selected a hand of bananas, then another, then another and began her climb to the canopy. As she swung round we could see that the baby had had a banana shoved in its mouth, like a dummy, very very cute indeed.
A few more young males swung in from the dense forest top and a painfully slow game of chase ensued as one would grab a coconut or mango and then was pursued in graceful slo-mo around the various vines and ropes until the thinnest tree tops would only support one of them at which point the other realised he was beaten, went back down and got his own snack.
Another mother swung onto the scene and as she sat in the upper reaches with her tiny wrinkly baby, the boisterous males slowly made their way up to her. The 6 or so fellas surrounded the female and sat quietly, and calmly as if on their bestest behaviour, while she fed the little one.
We watched them for over an hour, they played, they huddled, they seemed to actually be enjoying themselves, as experiences go, this will take some beating.
Our other wildlife encounter came on a day trip to Bako national park. The park is located on a peninsular a little way down river. During the 20 minute speedboat ride along the river we were able to take in the incredible scenery, mountains, mangroves and colourful riverside villages that looked like they'd barely changed since inception. We were told that the colour on the homes also served for directional purposes instead of house numbers ("come over for dinner, it's the red house").
The low tide meant that the boat couldn't dock at the landing so we had to wade a few metres to shore. The mud coloured sand was fine and soft and teeming with minuscule crabs. The ripples made by the outgoing tide caught the early morning sun which led to sandstone outcrops and in turn craggy yellow cliff faces. It was prehistoric, it was nature at its peak, it was perfect.
Our small tour group had a brief tour around the grounds by the park headquarters during which we saw a viper, bearded pigs, flying squirrels and from a distance the odd looking proboscis monkeys. It struck us as odd that 4 of the 'small 5' were present in the immediate area but we didn't think too much more about it.
Our trek took us just a few kilometres through the park, the guide pointed out a few interesting plants, galangal, pitcher plants and a variety of medicinal flora. It was hot and humid but the going wasn't too tough and in fact as trails go, it was quite vanilla, no birds or animals were spotted though we could hear them ever-presently throughout the walk.
It was en route back to the boat to return to Kuching that we had our best encounter of the day, a big male proboscis was sitting in a tree picking at the young leaves, he was care-free and in the prime of his life. We stayed an extra 15 minutes watching him before we had to catch the boat.
We saw such a small fraction of what Borneo has to offer and yet it gave us so much. The only way to do it justice is to come back and see more.
We're headed back to the mainland and on to Ipoh.