It was a hot, humid morning, and I was surrounded on all sides by seemingly impenetrable rain forest – jungle so thick that, in places, the tropical foliage obscured anything more than a few feet away. From the canopy above, birds chirped and a million insects buzzed, creating a cacophony that, in its own way, was as dense as the forest.
As I stood there, the black-and-white photos that I had seen the day before at the state museum played in the back of my mind – images of severed heads on wooden pikes or hanging from rough ropes, over signs explaining that, not so very long ago, headhunting was a common practice in this very place.
And then, behind me, a sound: Soft, padding, small hands and feet, the noise coming not from the moist ground but from above. I turned to see an orangutan, his mess of reddish fur contrasted against the greenery, swinging effortlessly along a line strung in the trees toward the raised platform in front of me. As he passed high over my right shoulder, he turned his head to take me in, his lively eyes flicking up and down my frame before proceeding to the meal that awaited him ahead.
I was on Borneo, one of the world's largest and wildest islands. I was seeking adventure in Sabah, on Malaysia's side of Borneo (the other is part of Indonesia), looking to get lost in a land that, in many places, remains largely untamed. But I was to find that, like the rest of Southeast Asia, even far-flung Sabah is clinging to its traditions as it hurtles inexorably into a modernized future.
My first stop was Sepilok, the world's pre-eminent orangutan reserve. Part conservation area and part rehabilitation centre, it allows about 200 of these endangered apes to roam 43 square kilometres of protected territory. About 60 of the animals are in Sepilok's rehab program. It can take as many as 10 years for the experts here to equip these animals – orphaned and rescued from plantations or private homes where they were kept as pets – with the skills necessary to survive in the wild. During Sepilok's daily morning feeding, orangutans emerged from the jungle and swung down to grab tubers left for them by guides, often carrying them back up the ropes to comically recline and munch away while taking in the sight of the people below.
Afterward, I chatted with Tracy Brookshaw, a liaison officer for Orangutan Appeal UK, a non-profit organization that works with state authorities to fund Sepilok's facilities and programming. Orangutan literally means "man of the forest" in the Malay language, and Brookshaw explained that these creatures share as much as 98 per cent of their DNA with their human cousins – they're smart enough to steal purses or cameras, unscrew water bottles and take a drink, and genetically close enough to us that we can pass diseases back and forth, which has led to strict rules on what guests can carry into the reserve.
They're also adorable, with big brown eyes and the mannerisms of small children. "I've seen them huddle under big leaves when it's raining – in a lot of situations, they do just what we would," Brookshaw observed. "We see ourselves reflected in them. Coming here is a very special experience for people."
There's more to Sabah than apes, including fascinating places that preserve that other thing that made Borneo famous – headhunting. I visited the Monsopiad Cultural Village near Kota Kinabalu (often shortened to "KK"), the state capital. There, I visited traditional bamboo houses of 11 local tribes, learned about traditional tattoos, drank rice wine, and shot a dart out of a blowgun. Headhunting – which was used to prove one's manhood before marriage, or to ward off thieves or attackers from neighbouring villages – is no longer practised anywhere on Borneo.
The tour culminated in a show in which young men and women in costume performed traditional dances. A guide named Helen told me that, while people still dance like that at weddings, parties and festivals – pretty much any event that involves alcohol – karaoke is becoming more common. "Give people a couple glasses of beer, and all of a sudden it turns into American Idol," she said.
A local acquaintance named Clay Lievs accompanied me on a scenic drive through Kinabalu Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, up the flanks of Mount Kinabalu, at 4,095 metres the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. After a number of other adventures – motoring up the Kinabatangan River to see giant crocodiles and pygmy elephants, piloting a personal watercraft past floating villages on the South China Sea, riding the old steam-powered North Borneo Railway – I headed to the airport with guide Dean Nexter.
When the topic turned to traditional practices and their slow demise, as it often does here, he proudly told me that he was a member of Dusun, one of the headhunting tribes from the island's interior. "My great, great grandfather hung the skulls outside his longhouse. Many skulls meant a strong soul and a strong household," he said with a smile. "I still have the big, curved sword that he used for it."
As I said goodbye and boarded my plane, I reflected on the fact that, in Borneo, the past may be passing away. But it's still within reach. You can meet headhunters (sort of), interact with endangered apes, hear first-hand stories of an ancient life and get lost in a wild forest that still abounds with secrets and treasures.
IF YOU GO
Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, is serviced by international carriers such as Cathay Pacific, with connections on Malaysian Airways to both Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan.
What to see
Sepilok: A short flight or a long drive (about eight hours) from Kota Kinabalu, this world-famous orangutan preserve is located near the city of Sandakan. The preserve operators offer several daily tours, which are preceded by a short informational lecture, provided by Orangutan Appeal UK (orangutan-appeal.org.uk).
Where to stay
Shangri-La: This luxury hotelier operates two resorts around Kota Kinabalu. The Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort is home to an orangutan reserve that raises, in co-operation with Sepilok, orphaned baby and juvenile apes. And the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort, near the centre of town, features a spa set on a secluded island and a newly opened marina, where you can rent personal watercraft and go on snorkelling adventures.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia. It did not review or approve this article.
Special to The Globe and Mail