Finally managing an early start for a change, I resisted the Stupid O'Clock urge to beat the crowds and so headed instead for the 7.45am local bus out to Semenggoh. At least thats what the timetable promised. With no bus apparent I believed a rival van driver when he said that it was actually 7.30, and so together with a token English couple it was a redemption to plump for his more direct alternative at a still cheap as chips 4 Ringgit. From the park gate where I bagged a cheeky student discount costing all of 1 Ringgit 50, a race was assumed with the aloof Anglo duo in resistance to any distractions, we had an appointment at 9 and wanted to be early. The 20 minute tarmac trek brought us to a clearing adjacent to the park nerve centre, a jungle ringed haven which finally mustered perhaps 50 fellow itinerants as opposed to the 5 there had been at Bukit Lawang, Sumatra. That comparison was pertinent in the realisation of a second stab at a rare opportunity, the chance to get up close and personal with wild Orang Utans. As the prescribed feeding time arose, park wardens would let out a holler which was promptly answered by movement in the distant jungle canopy, and soon a juvenile male made himself centre stage courtesy of a network of elevated ropes. A second larger juvenile wasnt long in joining him, and this in itself was a new departure since at Bukit Lawang it had only been pregnant or mothering females who had materialised. One amazed at their dexterity and precision, always maintaining 3 points of contact as every good climber knew when manoeuvering, though first trick of the day was juvenile no.1 dangling upside down by his feet to catch an upwardly thrust banana.
The show was soon stolen though by Ritchie, a dramatic appearance provoking audible awe, ambling as he was on all fours along one of the paths. Ritchie was famous, an attraction I had particularly come to witness and it was superb to realise him showing up right on cue. Amongst a local population of perhaps 30 Ritchie was the Alpha Male, the King of the Swingers and a very contrasting soul to any I had hitherto encountered. As males matured they began to develop very striking physical attributes of dominance, displaying bizzare otherwise functionless cheek lobes making their face a rounder concave dinner plate. A throat pouch would also develop so that they might avail the forest with a booming croak to ward off competing males and attract females, and their coat would become a lengthened cloak of hanging dreadlocks. An amazing quirk of natural selection meant that such indulgences were partially supressed in less dominant males however in order to prevent needless confrontation, but Ritchie had risen from his introduction to the park in 1981 to subdue all contenders and display these incredible traits to the max. Somewhat intimidating, he promptly displayed his unparalleled prowess by mounting a feeding platform via a tree trunk with consummate ease despite his incredible bulk, it was reckoned that comparing like with like such males could muster 6 times the strength of a man. Further evidence of this was revealed upon him first biting off the husk of a coconut and then cracking it open with one strike against a branch, so that the milk ran down the tree trunk before grating off the internal flesh with his teeth. The juveniles had understandably made way but no.1 still stole centre stage momentarily as he deliciously peed over the carpet of camera clickers beneath him. Ritchie then had some of the tourists scarpering off frantically as he lumbered off unintimidated in their direction, he took no challenge from any quarter that was clear, and with the juveniles humorous rope walking departure the day trippers departed just as quick. I was left on my own then to take a more measured wander around the park's other neglected delights. After eyeing a trio of cage ensconced crocodiles, an interpretation centre rather overwroughtly tried to supersell the park's priority in dubiously claiming that Orang Utans are the only nest building apes (bollocks, gorillas make them too for sure), also that they were the only singularly tree dwelling apes, not too sure about that one either.
An introduction to Borneo's many varied frog species courtesy of a poster related such wonders as the Hole-in-the-Head Frog for example, and outside I also chanced for the first time upon another notable which had hitherto eluded me, bug digesting pitcher plants. A presentation gleaned such facts as the life expectancy of the "Men of the Forest" being upwards of 60 years, another characteristic revealing them to be closer to humans than one might expect. Of the 2 species worldwide, there is reckoned to be a world population of around 15,000, split between the "Pongo Pygmaeus" of Borneo and the "Pongo Abelii" of Sumatra. A roll call revealed how Ritchie is 27 years old and the oldest know ape present is a 37 year old female.
The cherrypickers had all but disappeared by now, but determined to make the most of nature's opportunity a site map illustrated that the grudge trudge back along the 20 minutes of tarmac to the bus stop would be much better rewarded with a walk through the parallel Arboretum instead. The Masing Trail as it was also dubbed proved to be a muddy kilometre long walk past many buttress rooted trees of very tall perfectly straight trunks, and though the full on screech of insects and whoop of Borneon Gibbons went unrewarded of any sightings, it was still an intimidating wonder in itself to be alone in the full on throes of the jungle. I had to exercise care since the rich tapestry of tree roots underfoot could well disguise snakes, scorpions or other such drawbacks, but in the end I only came across a predictable rustle as probably a disturbed lizard scuttled off, a crack which reminded me to look up in deference to the danger of falling branches, and a sizeable brown centipede cum caterpillar. The trail ended at a seed garden which betrayed the propagation of many weird floral species, and for my trouble I was rewarded with a traffic dodging walk and long wait in the infernal heat.
With transport conspicuous by its absence I was thankfully joined by an older Tamil couple on an indulgent short break from K.L., who helped negotiate a minivan and bus connection back to Kuching. Practicalities from there took me a hitherto unexplored quarter of the centre which rewarded me with a very rare small bottle of surgical spirit and underrated Tsingtao Chinese beer, and then en route back to the tourist office I endured the midday scorch to trace the series of pavement plaques along the Sarawak River waterfront I had previously spied. A friendly pharmacist lady had related bizzarely that insect repellant of any potency was illegal here, so not wanting to succumb to that inadequacy I then retraced a shopping plaza boasting another great rarity a camping shop and ridiculously contradictory 99% DEET solution. In deliberation as to whether it was practical to dilute it, lathering on lotion which would melt my skin still seemed preferable to getting eaten alive by life threatening bugs. The pavement plaques were a vagiary of unexpected importance in that after my disappointment of the local museums not relating a single reference to the 19th century dynastic heritage which had founded Sarawak as an entity, this was the only evidence to be had.
Kuching still presented the odd street name as unlikely as Jalan MacDougall, Jalan Crookshank and Bishopgate, and yet many more had obviously been altered out of nationalistic fervour. The fact that Malay was but a secondary tongue to the majority of the populace had detracted little from it. That night a rare indulgence in a trip out to a conventional bar was still qualified by sexy leeches, and the subsequent patronage of a trio of aging unlovely rednecks who promptly got latched onto further managed to scupper any illusions of normality. I told the chicks straight that they were wasting their time, paid lip service to the doubtless genuine Hokkien locals and eventually got the fuck out. In search of redemption, a stark overilluminated Chinese foodcourt offered more eyelash fluttering come to bed looking lady boys than peace, and I went to bed contemplating once again that like every country I had ever imagined, Borneo was a very contrary place from rainforest and little else. As I sat writing in objection to the prevalent culture of bullshit, a big bottle of Tsingtao was thrust at me courtesy of an unforeseen fellow indulgent. The wobbly manic teenager wouldnt take no for an answer, man if the locals didnt want to fuck you they wanted to get you shitfaced instead! As if I needed any encouragement! Upon ridiculously trying to "bless" me with a packet of cigarettes for good measure, I took my cue from a worried young stallminder and escaped into the night. Fucked up.