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Monkey business in Borneo

Usually I find small talk with strangers difficult. Not so when I attended a tourism conference in Borneo.

Usually I find small talk with strangers difficult. Not so when I attended a tourism conference in Borneo.

When the fellow to my left started his small talk with the statement, “My grandfather used to be a headhunter,” my eyes widened and he had my full attention.

He was not talking about executive recruiting but cannibalism, which was once practised on the world’s third largest island. “He gave it up; the old ways have been left behind,” he explained. I was relieved as I was headed to the village of Sukau in the Malaysian rainforest the next day and did not want to end up as a meatball in someone’s soup!

Borneo is a land not well known to Canadians. This is partly because it is far away (count on at least 25 hours in the air to reach it), but also because Alberta gets little marketing from this special destination.

If you think of Borneo at all, it is probably because you have heard of the Wild Man of Borneo or seen a David Attenborough film. He claims Borneo is “one of the world’s richest treasure-houses.”

So when I had the chance to explore Borneo, I approached it with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, but I soon left the anxiety behind and focused on the thrills.

Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a recipient of the British Airways’ Tourism For Tomorrow award, is a great place to watch wildlife. Travellers can reach Sukau with a bone-jarring two-hour road trip or a river cruise through some of the world’s highest orangutan concentrations. Sane people take the river cruise, I took the road for research purposes, but regardless of how you get there, it is worth the trip.

Where else can you find an elephant-crossing cut into a hotel boardwalk? Pygmy elephants share this environment with tourists and the walkways have been modified accordingly. A subspecies of the Asian elephants, the elephants are pygmies only when compared to other elephant species, and can cause major damage when they venture onto hotel property.

Albert Teo, the founder of Sukau Rainforest Lodge, left room along the river for animals to pass and built crossings into the boardwalk. “Without that, the elephants would cause more damage,” Albert says.

In addition to elephant spotting, Borneo is a fantastic place to watch monkeys and apes. Before breakfast on my first day in Sukau, I heard gibbons hooting to their mates and watched Silver Langurs passing through the forest directly over my room.

Like all guests, I had a choice of touring on foot or by boat. Wanting to avoid the omnipresent leeches, I opted for the boat ride. I got wonderful photos, but the guests who chose the walk, got orang poop in their ears, a tourism experience I have yet to match!

Apparently the people found a mother and baby orangutan high in a tree, and while standing below the primates for a better look, gravity delivered some unexpected souvenirs!

My monkey watching was much easier on the wardrobe. Every day around sunset, the most visible of Sukau’s monkeys, the proboscis, make their way to the trees lining the river. This location gives them security from snakes or jaguars; if threatened while they sleep, they jump into the river and swim to safety. I never saw the nighttime drama, but their daily squabbles over the best roosts put reality shows to shame.

In addition to very human-like behaviours, these monkeys look like people. As I joked to my guide, if I squint my eyes just right, some of the males with their large noses, or proboscis, remind me of someone I once met in a poorly lit nightclub!

I was happy to learn that these unusual monkeys would benefit from my presence in Borneo. Albert Teo has a special fund for Sukau Rainforest Lodge, donating a fee to conservation projects for every guest who visits. Last year, over $200,000 went towards conservation in Borneo. Now, that is something to talk about!

If you go:

• May and October are best months to spot pygmy elephants.

• Borneo EcoTours can arrange visits to Sukau Rainforest Lodge and hotels and tours for other parts of Borneo.

Carol Patterson of Kalahari Management Inc. has been speaking and writing about nature tourism and emerging destinations for two decades. When she isn’t travelling for work, she is travelling for fun. More of Carol’s adventures can be found at