Evolution. It is as real as gravity; as certain as death and taxes. And on Borneo, if you visit Semenggoh near Kuching, you can see into your own evolutionary past. Because when you look at the orang utan you’re really looking at yourself in deep, distant history. Not your direct ancestor, but a creature who’s also evolved from the same ancient great ape swinging from a tree. Meet the orang utan: your long lost cousin, twice removed.
“To be tramping under the stars toward a great mountain is always an adventure; now we were adventuring for the first time in a new mountain country which still held in store for us all its surprises and almost all its beauties.”*
George Leigh-Mallory wrote that in 1922 after his first reconnaissance of Mt Everest. He would die on its high and unforgiving peak two years later, just below the summit, to lie there frozen and unfound until the famous expedition of 1999 discovered his corpse, pale as alabaster, somewhere below 8,200 meters.
I wasn’t thinking of this as we climbed the considerably lower rock slopes of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu – I just happened on that passage reading Leigh-Mallory’s book on the plane to Kota Kinabalu. But his words describe perfectly the feeling we had that morning, at 3,900 meters and still short of the summit, with a big moon directly overhead and the Southern Cross low on our left side. Pale clouds filled the sky below us, surrounding our little rocky island in the night sky.
Borneo charmed us with orang utans, night climbing, beautiful beaches and remote highlands. I even learned to enjoy – well, not to hate – durian. But one of the loveliest sides to Malaysia – something I hadn’t expected – is the wonderful way they speak English. In Kuching, we asked some Chinese-Malaysians the way to the waterfront. After a bit of debate between them about precisely which statue of cats to turn at (yes, there is more than one), they told us the way. Was there food down there, Yon asked? “Yes!”, the lady said with a huge warm smile. “Everything got!”
Yon, Moo-sha and Golda
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a poor wretch like me…”
The strains of that beautiful hymn, no words, just the tune, came from the hillside deep in the tropical forest on a hot day in Borneo. I looked ahead, but could not see. The music continued, right on tune, sung, not hummed, with a joy and peace I could feel just from listening to it. As I got closer, a small man, seemingly as old as the trees, made his way down the steep hillside toward me. I waved. He cleared the ditch and stuck out his hand.
We shook. With a toothless grin, he looked up from under his straw hat, touched his heart and said “Moo-sha”. I touched mine, and gave my name in return. Golda arrived, and the introductions were repeated, as they were again when we all caught up to Yon. All the while holding his spear-tipped blowpipe, he laughed and smiled and shared his small English vocabulary, a little collection of words like “good” and “please”, said with a hand gesture that meant “welcome”.
Welcome to the Kelabit Highlands.