The valley of the apes

Deep in the ancient rainforest of Borneo, Juliet Clough finds that eco-tourism is healing the ravages of decades of logging - and revealing a natural wonderland
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The Independent Travel

The sound of tortured wood still fractures my dreams. That, and the silence that followed. On a Danum Valley ridge, deep in the Borneo rainforest, I had stopped to admire a particularly fine tree, its buttress roots encrusted with ants' nests. The couple with me took photographs. According to the guide, the tree, a huge dipterocarp, would be some 150 years old.

The sound of tortured wood still fractures my dreams. That, and the silence that followed. On a Danum Valley ridge, deep in the Borneo rainforest, I had stopped to admire a particularly fine tree, its buttress roots encrusted with ants' nests. The couple with me took photographs. According to the guide, the tree, a huge dipterocarp, would be some 150 years old.

Moments later, the world changed; 20m down the path we froze, rooted in our tracks by the prolonged shriek of splitting timber. Some 80m overhead, the forest canopy shifted ominously as, in slow motion, a portion of sky grew wider. Uncertain about which way the tree would fall, none of us moved. The crash, when it came, snapped off trees and shook the ground under our feet. For a few seconds, the whistling, chatter and buzz of birds, monkeys and cicadas ceased.

We had seen a Danum Valley giant topple. Logging, the bane of the rainforest in Borneo and elsewhere, had had nothing to do with this fall. The tree's tumble was less a death than part of the regenerative cycle, a chance for fungi to flourish and for light-starved plants to fight their way upwards.

Looking at the blanched faces of my honeymooning companions, I knew it might be some time before we appreciated the privilege of what we had just witnessed. Later in the Borneo Forest Lodge bar, we drank a toast to not being squashed like ants, and to successfully navigating past the python that lay coiled on the decking between us and dinner.

The baggage carried by tourists in the tropics comes tagged with nagging questions. Just how much fossil fuel did it take to fly me to the rainforest? Does my comfortable accommodation divert water, uproot plants or annoy pythons? What about the impact visitors have on the people who live in such sensitive areas. Are they profitably involved, on their own terms; or sidelined as waiters or ethnic photo opportunities?

I found every shade of answer in Sabah, the Malaysian state which occupies the north-eastern quadrant of Borneo. Despite the unnerving quantity of logging lorries visible on the roads, the government believes that responsibly practised tourism allows for the protection of its biodiversity.

My guide in the 10,000-million-year-old forest of the Danum Valley was Engeri ("call me Stephen"). His people, the Orang Ulu, were until the late 1960s at home here in one of the oldest, richest lowland dipterocarp forests on earth. Stephen showed me the site of their village, long since reclaimed by the jungle.

The Danum Valley lies close to the eastern edge of Borneo, about five degrees north of the equator. It is designated as a conservation area, on an island that sorely needs some care. At the tail end of the 20th century, forest fires raged after land clearance slipped out of control in Borneo, and cities in South-east Asia were choked with smoke.

The surviving forest stunned me: its impenetrability, its fecundity, the slamming rain that, at night, silenced conversation and sent beetles the size of sparrows careering towards the lamplight to fall into the soup.

Stephen pointed out moss for coughs and asthma, syzgium for diabetes, trees whose bark and leaves can stop bleeding, kidney troubles and fever. I followed gingerly, my main concern to outflank the army of leeches looping purposefully towards my ankles across the forest floor.

More engaging creatures can be found a little north of here. The orang-utan is the only ape to have been put on the international "critically endangered" list. The Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, inland from the coastal town of Sandakan, occupies the front line in the battle for survival of one of our closest cousins.

The centre rescues orang-utans from forest-clearance schemes or from being kept as illegal pets, and retrains them for life in the wild. Visitors are not allowed into the nurseries, where orphans are taught to forage and climb. But from the viewing platform I could observe teenage apes defending bunches of bananas from macaques.

Several orders of magnitude larger, the 100 square kilometres of the lower Kinabatangan's forested floodplain offer one of the best wildlife viewing locations in South-east Asia. At dawn we watched the river at the centre of this wildlife sanctuary turn from oyster to apricot, its broad surface reflecting a dead tree laden with bushy crested hornbills; an oriental darter hanging out its wings. At night our boat slid under creepers thick as theatre curtains, its spotlight picking out a small green snake, or a sleeping kingfisher.

Sleeping in Sabah can be an adventure in itself. Near Kudat, I opted for the Longhouse Experience, courtesy of Maranjak Malarag's family. Maranjak had built his longhouse, he told me, not only as a home for his extended family, but as an insurance that their children, many of them now in urban jobs, would not forget traditional ways. Just under 25m long and set on stilts, the longhouse was divided in two, eight rooms running parallel to the communal area. The thatched roof covered walls and flooring of palm wood and bamboo, open-slatted to catch the breeze.

At dusk, the men returned from the fields. Eating in a big circle - hill rice served on banana-leaf plates, with Sabah greens and spiny little fish - involved much stretching, grabbing, laughter and satisfied belching. Touchingly, a tin of Spam - a great luxury whispered my Chinese guide, Betty - had been provided in my honour.

Sino Butang and Maranjak's wife Hellen unearthed their best clothes: fine weaving fringed with gold beads; the men produced nose flutes and complicated games involving string and pieces of stick.

Later the group split up: the men to drink rice wine, the women to their strap looms, the teenagers to their homework, the babies to hammocks.

Under the house, chickens murmured; after a few ritual scuffles the dogs settled down for the night. With the kerosene lamps extinguished, quiet fell, except for the cicadas and the snores of about 20 people.

The open walls and rafters let in moonlight and deliciously fresh night air. I lay awake in the room kindly vacated for me by one of the families, putting off the grim prospect of a trip to the outdoor loo.

Every step of my journey across the springy floor not only went off like a pistol shot but tossed the sleeper at the other end briefly in the air, like a pancake in a skillet. Ahead lay a steeply angled, tree-trunk ladder and an inky stretch of garden whose possible lurking menaces I resolved to blank from my imagination.

"That's nothing," said a Sabahan friend later when I recounted this experience. Her own stay in the Bavanggazo Longhouse had included two fighting cats falling through the roof on to her mosquito net, closely followed by a squirrel who tried to bite its way through the fabric. Sometimes the only answer is to lie back and enjoy it.

SURVIVAL KIT

GETTING THERE

Juliet Clough travelled with Audley Travel (01869 276222; www.audleytravel.com). A two-week, tailor-made itinerary of Borneo starts at around £1,785 including flights from Manchester or Heathrow on Malaysia Airlines, accommodation and some meals, private transfers and tours with an English-speaking guide. The next two-week Borneo Orang-utan Adventure group tour departs in April 2006. The price is likely to be around £2,000 per person; £500 from each booking goes to the Sepilok Orang-utan Appeal UK.

Travelling independently, Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; www.malaysiaairlineseurope.com) flies daily from Heathrow and four times a week from Manchester to Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) via Kuala Lumpur. It is possible to include this as a diversion en route to Australia. Royal Brunei (020-7584 6660; www.bruneiair.com) flies from Heathrow to Kota Kinabalu via Dubai and Brunei; again, you can visit on the way to Australia.

STAYING THERE

Sepilok Nature Resort (00 60 89 535 001; www.sepilok.com), Sandakan. Doubles from R200 (£30). Borneo Rainforest Lodge (001 618 529 8033; www.borneorainforestlodge.com), Danum Valley. Two-night packages start at R1,150 (£165) per person.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tourism Malaysia (020-7930 7932; www.malaysiatrulyasia.co.uk). Sabah Tourist Board (00 60 88 21 21 21; www.sabahtourism.com). Sepilok Orang-utan Appeal UK (07718 636022; www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk).

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