Day 5 of David McGonigal’s Orion II “Faces in the Forest” cruise to Borneo

Orion Expedition Cruises and its founder Sarina Bratton have always tried to use some sensitivity in approaching the remote communities the ships visit. Wattam at the mouth of the Sepik in PNG was given about a year’s warning before the first visit and needed every minute of it. But when Orion first came to the Indonesian island of Pulau Setaih off the coast of Borneo in the South China Sea it found a more personal problem. One of the cheeky boys that enjoyed the ship’s visit had a very noticeable facial tumour that certainly wasn’t going to be treated locally. A staff-organised whip around among passengers produced enough funds for an operation.

On our voyage Rapay and his mother, along with a well-travelled village man whose first name was Chief, were returning from a visit to a specialist in Singapore. If the level of luxury on Orion II had been a surprise, the high-rise modernity of Singapore had left them stunned. The good news was that the tumour is operable and the operation will soon be performed in either Singapore or Bali. The whole village was on hand when we arrived and there was a lot of dancing and celebrations.

It was a tidy village built over water but three houses had clearly been recently burned down – almost to the waterline. It’s been a long dry summer and the men of the village had gone up to the hills to repair the town’s water pump. But a pump in the village had been left running and burned out. setting fire to a house and then its neighbours. That was three weeks ago but already the framing has been cut for the rebuild.

Rather than return to the ship, we had lunch on a deserted beach. Well, it would have been deserted if most of the village children hadn’t come across to join us. This was our last chance for snorkelling, too – there was a sharp drop off about 50 metres off the beach and some excellent coral to view. It was certainly made very exotic swim-up bar. And eating a burger while sitting on a palm log overlooking a scene of tropical bliss wasn’t bad either.

By mid afternoon it was time to head back to Orion II so we could sail for Borneo. I’d never given any consideration to the islands of the South China Sea before but they are beautiful coral-rimmed gems inhabited by some delightful people.

Words and photo: David McGonigal