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Wild child

Borneo's orangutans capture the imagination of young and old alike

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Daily feedings of fruit attract young orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysian Borneo.

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Daily feedings of fruit attract young orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysian Borneo.

Standing in the jungle in Borneo, wilting on a humid 40 C afternoon, the simple act of breathing can drench you completely. So my husband, three-year-old son and I try to move as little as possible on the viewing platform, chins perched on the wooden railing that separates us from the deep verdant jungle -- giant trees stretching to the sky, dense low-level vegetation dripping with moisture and thick vines zigzagging among the branches.

Then, high up in the canopy, the leaves start to move. Every one of us in the small crowd on the boardwalk looks up, eager for a first sighting. My toddler, meanwhile, has already had enough. "I'm hot. Can we go now?"

"No, we can't leave just yet, little man. The orangutans are coming."

I point up to the trees just as a young female swings into sight with a baby clinging to her chest. My son follows the trajectory of my outstretched finger and smiles with surprise. The heat is forgotten. His complaints of being tired and hungry fade away before they can even be voiced. He is hooked.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is nestled in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, a stretch of virgin forest in Malaysian Borneo protected by the government since 1964. Rangers at the centre care for orangutans that are orphaned, abused or abandoned and gradually reintroduce them to the wild in an effort to increase their now dwindling population.

And so, anywhere from 200 to 800 tourists a day pay the roughly $10 per adult ($5 per child) to visit the centre to get as close a view as possible of these shy and gentle primates.

On the afternoon we visit, our son is entranced by the human-like movements of these creatures. He is the only child in the small crowd so we are given prime viewing access, the adult tourists smiling at him as they open a path for us at the front of the platform, some even tousling his strawberry-blond hair as we pass. It is the kind of attention he will grow used to during our stay in Borneo, which doesn't get as many young tourists.

Once the orangutans arrive, there is silence from everyone including, surprisingly, the little man. For this is what we all had come here to see: Wild orangutans playing in the trees, beautiful and graceful, before disappearing into the seemingly impenetrable vegetation so quickly, you wonder for a moment if it even happened at all.

But jungles and orangutans aren't the only reasons we come to Borneo and after a few days of mainland heat and humidity, we are ready for a trip to the ocean. From the marina in Sandakan, we catch our 90-minute speedboat to Selingan Island, one of a handful of annual birthing areas for giant sea turtles. Only a small number of tourists is allowed on Selingan every night and we are keen to reach the 7.2-hectare island in the Sulu Sea near the Philippine border.

Every night, anywhere from five to 50, 450-pound turtles scramble out of the water and flap their way through the sand to deposit their eggs on the island where they were born. Even though the females may spend their first 30 to 40 years swimming the oceans before they return, tiny crystals in their skulls tune them in to the magnetic field of the island and, year after year, beckon them back to their birthplace.

Our little guy sits patiently with us and the 30 or so other visitors as we wait for the ranger's call, which comes at 9:30 p.m. Then he is right beside us as we take off, jogging as much as we can in our flip-flops through the sand toward a point where rangers spot the first enormous turtle who has come to lay her eggs that evening.

The excitement of the sprint across the dark beach is the highlight for him; the thrill of running headlong into the warm night under the watchful eye of a graciously bright moon and twinkling stars makes him giddy.

By the time we reach the "Mama turtle," he can't stop talking and asking questions. We are offered spots at the front of the group as the turtle lays her 120 small white eggs in a deep hole in the sand, and again when the rangers collect and bury the eggs in a special fenced-in incubation area, protected from predators, until ready to hatch.

The last treat of the night is to watch the rangers release a bucketful of newly hatched baby turtles into the ocean. We thought because of its remoteness Borneo might be the one destination during our month-long trip that would prove problematic travelling with a toddler. The opposite is true. Sometimes little adventurers can open your trip to more opportunities and bring you closer to your dreams than you ever thought possible.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 2, 2013 E5

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