Imitating Nature

Day 6 of David McGonigal’s Orion II “Faces in the Forest” cruise to Borneo

“Does this museum still have a preserved specimen of the Borneo rhinoceros’ barbed penis?” I asked our guide as we approached the Sarawak Museum in Kuching and he replied I’d find it on the first floor. So up the stairs we went.

I’ve been to Borneo and Kuching once before – in 1987. My three clear memories of the trip are of the accuracy of blowguns, close encounters with orang-utans and of the display around the aforementioned penis. Would it remain as memorable? Well, I’m here to say the exhibit has been expanded and improved.

The simple story is that the rhino “palang” served as an inspiration to Iban men who would insert brass nails through their own penises to emulate their horny neighbour. An array of insertions (collected in 1965) was on display. But, better yet was the Katip Utek that, as its label explains was the “instrument for compressing the gland penis whilst it is being perforated by a brass nail driven into it with a stone.” I appreciated the formality of the “whilst”. Travel certainly does broaden the mind (and creates recurring nightmares).

Orion II docked in Kuching early this morning. We all boarded coaches to the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centre, rather like Sabah’s Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre that I’d visited so many years ago. These are places where orang-utans are trained for re-release into the wild so getting too close is no longer permitted, besides they can catch human colds and flu. The cloud had burned off by the time we arrived and we stood under a blazing sun to listen to the ranger brief us about just how bad an orang experience can become – the 130kg alpha male equates tripods with guns, and a baby’s cry leads him to think it’s being abused.

Some food like coconuts had been left on a wooden platform just across the creek but no primates had turned up, other than us. So we stood in the sun. And waited. The rangers called repeatedly into the forest and piled the platform with more succulent treats like mangos and bananas. Just before they got to the chocolate cake and cream the trees shook and four bright red orang-utan males arrived, full of attitude. They quickly grabbed the food and hung out together, ignoring our presence. Still, they leapt from branch to branch, hung from ropes to reach down for the food and showed their great dexterity in moving across the jungle canopy. It was our first encounter with orang-utans on this voyage and, while they were not very close, it was good to see them in their native environment again.

Words and photo: David McGonigal