Dumbo in the jungle

Sunday Times
Published: 5th February 2012

The man in the other boat flaps his hands behind his ears and points downriver. “Elephant,” whispers our guide, with a jubilant grin, and swivels us into a sharp midstream U-turn. Minutes later, hearts trumpeting, we meet our pygmy jumbo, less than 7ft tall and twitching his shrunken trunk right beside the river bank.

Pygmy elephants are unique to Borneo, a subspecies of the Asian elephant, smaller and gentler, with bigger ears. They have rounder faces, longer tails. They’re Dumbo, basically. Baby pygmies can be just a few feet high, but this one is a full-grown male — the creature I had hoped against hope to see on my travels here. After brandishing his trunk for a bit, he backs into the undergrowth. Ah, well, I think, how lucky I am to catch even a glimpse of this rare and magical little animal.

The birds and beasts I’ve seen during my three days on the Kinabatangan River have dazzled me. The river flows through Sabah, in the north of the island, and cradles a head-turning array of wildlife. Only three miles of rainforest survives on each bank because of the encroaching palm-oil plantations, so the animals gather here. Look at the blue and orange of that pocket-sized kingfisher. Look at the size of that crocodile, with its craggy back. Look at those sleek otters, darting and squeaking to each other. Every two minutes, I find myself gasping.

Borneo is soul-restoring. As a child, I collected its stamps, bursting with beautiful flowers, animals and birds, in spite of my brother’s scorn. “Just because they’re colourful, doesn’t mean they’re worth collecting,” he’d say. The island’s roll call of plant and animal species is staggering. Here you'll find the endangered proboscis monkey, orang-utans, rhinoceros hornbills and my beloved pygmy elephants, of course. It really does feel like a lost world, and only the most adventurous tourists make it here, lured rather than deterred by tales of man-eating leeches (exaggerated) and intense humidity (sadly not).

I had arrived via a 12-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur and a further two-hour hop to the capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu. I slept off my jet lag at the luscious Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, then waded out from its two-mile stripe of sand into the South China Sea. Even as the water grew cooler, the sand burnt hot under my feet.

The Rasa Ria’s nature reserve is set in 64 acres, and is surprisingly impressive. Here, you can observe young orang-utans saved from poachers, loggers and plantation owners. In fact, the less adventurous could hole up in this heavenly place and go home with plenty of close-up snaps of cute orange apes, then pretend to have penetrated deep into the rainforest. Certainly, there is nowhere better to view young orang-utans quietly, with few people around. In the wild, they are shy and solitary, often lolling about in the treetops. At Borneo’s other famous reserve, Sepilok, in Sandakan, the thronging tourists clearly disturb the residents.

I hadn’t come here to idle around in the semi-wild. I moved on swiftly to the Proboscis Lodge, one of several that dip their toes into the Kinabatangan, offering guided tours afloat. The Proboscis features simple air-conditioned chalets right on the water’s edge, and gently courteous Malay staff. You never feel anything but safe in Borneo, and the people are unfailingly warm.

Floating around on the river, watching the pageant of wildlife, is immeasurably peaceful. The banks teem with birds, and in our boat we feel invisible, as though in another dimension. Look, there’s a python curled in the crook of that branch. A little further on, a movement high in the rainforest canopy, and a wild orang-utan stretches out for another leaf.

This russet ape, the man of the forest, is preposterously untidy, his matted fur like a 1960s shagpile that nobody got round to replacing. A few moments later, through binoculars, I spy a rhinoceros hornbill, almost excessively splendid with its huge orange horn and red beak.

Everywhere, there are monkeys by the river, even rare proboscis monkeys, again unique to Borneo. One squats comically in his tree, displaying his ugly floppy nose, portly stomach and startling red penis. He looks faintly Dickensian, like Mr Pumblechook in an X-rated Great Expectations.

Next morning, I take a walk in the jungle. Our guide picks up a tiger leech and puts it on his arm to show off. It moves prettily, like a Slinky, over his skin, every now and again raising its head, like a questing little snake, to sense the air around. “He’s looking for a warm place,” the guide says. “When he bites, he’ll put an anticoagulant into your skin so the blood flows nicely. It can bleed for days.”

He watches the slender little worm climb towards his armpit, but then it bites him. He looks sulky and plucks it away. That is the first and last leech I’ll meet in Borneo, and it seems quite likeable, biting only when seriously provoked. By now, everything feels dreamlike.

And, on that final evening, as we drift on the river, disappointed that our elephant has trundled off into the jungle, something happens that moves me to tears. The little pygmy elephant suddenly returns from the forest and begins to wade into the fast-flowing water. At first, he seems to think better of his escapade and turns back, then he just loiters in the shallows, then at last begins to swim. If the word “swim” suggests something smooth and graceful, this is anything but. It is a struggle. The elephant is too cumbersome to swim easily and he fights his way across the channel, every now and again sinking completely before surfacing to blow water out of his trunk, as though clearing a snorkel. We can see the texture of his thick skin and the size of his eyes. He is so determined to cross, and so very unsuited to swimming, that my mouth is dry. It would have been worth my long journey to Borneo for these last few moments alone.

Finally, he struggles onto the opposite bank and stands, drooping and clearly exhausted, among the trees. I am puzzled by how shaken I feel. It is said that the huge emotional intelligence of the elephant connects with our human intelligence, so we can feel closer to them even than to apes. - Whatever the reason, I am jubilant, and ridiculously grateful to be sharing the planet with my swimming hero. Nobody should ever touch palm oil again. Then there’d be hope that my little Swimbo’s miniature rainforest enclave might survive. 

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company.

The Ultimate Travel Company (020 7386 4646, theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) can tailor-make an 11-day journey in Borneo, with two nights at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, two at the Proboscis Lodge, and three at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, from £3,795pp, including Malaysian Airlines flights from Heathrow to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur, all transfers, all activities and most meals. Or try Reef & Rainforest (01803 866965, reefandrainforest.co.uk) or Cox & Kings (0845 527 9035, coxandkings.co.uk).