Saturday 17 September 2011

The Age: The awe of the jungle

Speedboats head upriver in search of wildlife (Roderick Eime)
Adventure cruiser Roderick Eime strikes a balance between savagery and civility as he island-hops on an expedition ship.

The very mention of Borneo is enough to conjure vivid images of dense jungle inhabited by strange, hairy creatures, a land penetrated only by brave, machete-wielding explorers fending off menacing headhunters, blow darts and pirates.

Modern, internet-connected Borneo may have lost some of its wild and untamed characteristics but it's still one of the most dramatic and exciting destinations left on our shrinking planet.

Read full story at Fairfax

The unedited version is as follows:

Going Wild in Borneo

Adventure cruiser, Roderick Eime, mixes it with apes and hornbills in Sabah’s last jungle hideout.

The very mention of Borneo is enough to conjure vivid images of dense jungle inhabited by bizarre hairy creatures. A land penetrated only by brave machete-wielding explorers fending off menacing head-hunters, blowdarts and pirates. Modern, Internet-connected Borneo may have lost some of its wild and untamed persona, but it’s still one of the most dramatic and exciting destinations left on our shrinking planet.

Today we travel in four-stroke outboard powered Zodiacs, put-putting quietly along the mangrove lined Kinabatangan River in the Eastern Borneo state of Sabah, comical hornbills swooping overhead while boisterous macaques play tag among the palm fronds.

“Look …. Quiet,” whispers Chris, our naturalist guide from Orion II, “it’s the Rhinoceros Hornbill. Just above the fork in the tree. Can you see it?”

Armed with powerful field glasses, large calibre telephoto lenses and packing Gigabytes of storage, we stalk these exotic species, ticking them off one-by-one as we progress silently within arms reach of the mangrove-lined banks.

Tales of the wild lands, animals and people of Borneo first reached European readers in 1522, when the straggling survivors of Magellan’s fleet limped back to Spain. Indian, Javanese and Chinese traders however had been visiting for centuries prior in search of timber, ivory, gold and spices. Later the Dutch and British colonial powers held sway, while the local Sultans played their own power games. The 20th Century was a dramatic chapter with a firm British grip until the Japanese took control briefly during WWII before liberation by Australian troops in 1945.

Sabah, on the farthest north-eastern tip, is now part of independent Malaysia and a source of much of the world’s palm oil, a crop that is unfortunately replacing the coastal and riparian (riverside) forests vital to many endangered species of birds and mammals. Driven by this urgency, eco-tourism is the new growth industry of Borneo, often colliding with the more established forestry and palm plantations.

Aboard Orion II, the Australian expedition cruise company’s latest vessel, we island-hop and port-pop around the ‘dog’s head’ of Sabah in search of these iconic creatures and the handsome Dusan and Bajau people who share the land. Kota Kinabalu, Kudat, Sandakan and Labuan plus the islands of Pulau Mantanani, Mataking and Pulau Tiga form just part of the 10-night ‘Secrets of Sabah’ itinerary. Apart from craning our necks to the top of trees and squinting into binoculars, we dive, snorkel, trek, dance and shop our way around the ears and snout of the canine-shaped peninsula.

One of the highlights is certainly our speedboat-powered incursion into the hinterland of Sandakan where we stay overnight at a jungle lodge in preparation for our dawn riverine expeditions. Despite torrential downpours – this is the rainforest after all – we observe every species of hornbill and monkey that still inhabits these parts. A lone male Orang Utan sits unruffled in a tall Acacia tree while further upstream, the hilarious proboscis monkeys cavort along the waterfront, their trademark nasal call giving them away. Lucky visitors often see the rare pygmy elephant, but this isn’t our day.

Orion II, while not the youngest vessel around, is still a glamorous pocket adventure cruise ship catering to just 100 fortunate guests. With a commitment to transport modern adventurers to the “less travelled” corners of the globe in comfort, Orion Expeditions upgraded the 1991-launched, 88m vessel to match the high standards set on the much newer Orion. Evening meals are swish degustation affairs, while lunch and breakfast is buffet, supplemented by a la carte fare. I’m certain Magellan or even the White Rajah of Borneo himself, Charles Vyner Brooke, rarely dined this well.

The staterooms (as distinct from plain cabins) are completely refurbished with fresh sofas, wall panelling and carpets to match Orion’s fleet-wide 5-star luxury theme. This may be soft, well-upholstered adventure, but Orion’s growing legion of fans just love it. The only concessions to “cruising” are the small boutique and salon, gym and Jacuzzi deck. Oh, and Glen the entertainer, belts out a few tunes each night on the piano in a convivial singalong.

As I mingle and mix over canap├ęs and drinkies, I discover that most passengers shun the big ship alternative. “I’m done standing in queues,” Wendy, a spritely and forthright 60-something from the Mornington Peninsula tells me, “and I don’t need poker machines or bingo to keep me amused, thank you.”

Adventure cruisers, to be general, fall well outside the typical ocean cruising social set. Mid-life professionals, retired executives, academics and erudite baby-boomers abound. There are no sequins or tuxedos or stuffy ceremonies. The expedition staff who guide us through this ecological nirvana conduct light-hearted yet informative lectures to entertain and enlighten us on our own little voyage of discovery.

Expedition cruising is a booming sub-set of the adventure travel market more so than the cruising scene which is expanding in its own right. Still feel the lust for hard-edged exploration? Want to wander in a primary forest in search of endangered species but relax with a crisp lager at day’s end. This might be just your ticket.

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