Borneo – Cheeky Monkeys

Pig-tailed macaque (Macaca nemestrina) picking figs (Photo by Jan Young)

Dear Readers, macaques might not be the rarest of the primates in Borneo, but they are fascinating animals to watch. There are two species: the pig-tailed macaque, which is pretty much ubiquitous across southern Asia, and the long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis) (also known as the crab-eating macaque) which is equally wide-spread. Both species have a troubled relationship with humans: as their forest homes are destroyed they venture into towns and cities and, with their intelligence and highly-evolved social structures, can wreak havoc on households, agricultural land and food markets. We have retaliated by culling them, and by using them as experimental animals: indeed, the population increase in Malaysia happened after a ban on exporting the macaques for drug and cosmetic research in 1982 (previously 10,000 animals were sent into captivity every year). One could argue that if we hadn’t cut down their homes they wouldn’t be being a nuisance in ours of course.

Long-tailed macaques (Photo by John Tomsett)

I loved watching the macaques: their lives are so complex, their interactions mirror ours, and they are so agile. Plus, generally, they seemed completely indifferent to our presence, and had no desire whatsoever to interact, apart from an alpha male occasionally blinking at us or bearing his teeth half-heartedly if our boat drifted too close (we would immediately withdraw). Macaques have a very complicated dominance hierarchy: the males protect ‘their’ females but the females determine pretty much everything else, from where to feed to how long to linger. The youngsters are just youngsters, playing, running, getting into scrapes and generally being a nuisance. Anyone locked down with small children can relate, I’m sure.

Photo by John Tomsett

Mother macaque with baby

We were stunned into silence by the appearance of the young macaque pictured below, however. It took us a second or so to realise that he had lost both his hand and his foot on the right hand side. Was this from a close encounter with a crocodile or other predator? Was he injured by another macaque? Was this even the result of a snare? We will never know but what was remarkable was that the wounds seemed to have healed, the monkey seemed alert, and that s/he was hopping along with the rest of his troop without obvious distress. Of course, s/he will always be more vulnerable to predators than her companions, but she will also benefit from their group cohesion when it comes to finding food and identifying predators. A lot of good things accrue from being part of a community, as many of us are finding during the current crisis.

Macaques are interwoven into the ecology of the rainforests in which they live in many different ways. Other mammals such as bearded pigs and mouse deer will follow the sounds of macaques as they search for food, and may be able to identify the different calls that the monkeys make when they find a fruiting tree. Indigenous hunters of the Penan people have learned to copy these calls to lure pigs, and apparently the contented ‘mmm’ of a macaque feeding on fruit is enough to bring the unsuspecting prey within reach of a spear. Macaques also store fruit in their cheek pouches to eat later, and will spit out the seeds a good way away from the parent plant, hence helping with dispersal. Macaques have also taken to hunting the rats that live in the oil-palm plantations, and, being creatures of broad taste, will also eat the oil palms themselves. In the mangroves the long-tailed macaques will find and eat crabs and shellfish. Macaques will eat the fruit of up to 90% of the trees in the forest, and seem to be immune to some of the defences of the plants – they can tolerate some the highly-corrosive sap of some members of the mango family, for example. However, they cannot survive ingestion of the calcium oxalate crystals, or rhapides, produced by some palms and other plants (I talked about them in my post on Virginia creeper).

 

We had the good fortune to catch up with some macaques again at the Mud Volcano in Tabin – an area of salt-rich minerals which are visited by many animals. On the morning that we visited, the macaques were dominating the area – an unfortunate bearded pig who popped in for a chance to get some mud therapy took one look at all the monkeys and ran off. Very sensible too. These guys might argue amongst themselves, but they are a formidable force when they band together.

Pig-tailed macaques at the mud volcano. Notice the alpha male keeping watch.

Macaque drinking the therapeutic muddy waters

Young macaque considering his options

We witnessed some very interesting behaviour while we were at the mud volcano, including a female who, while happy to mate with one male, saw another off most determinedly when he attempted to get friendly. Macaques have been the centre of many long-term studies of primate behaviour and I have no doubt that once individuals were identified, it would become as fascinating as any soap opera, though trudging through the hot, humid rainforest while being pestered by a wide range of bitey little critters would dampen the enthusiasm of all but the most determined scientists. Secretly, though, I envy those who’ve had the chance to do such things: my short stints of observing primates have filled me with an urge to understand more about our cousins, who are so like us in some ways and so completely different in others. Long may they play, unhindered, in the forests of Asia.

 

 

 

 

Sunday Lockdown Report

Horse chestnut leaves unfurling

Dear Readers, how are we all doing? What a bittersweet week it has been for me: I got out more than most, all the way to Dorset and to the nursing home where my dear old Dad died on Tuesday, but mostly it’s been four walls. It has been day after day of perfect spring weather here in London, and so we have been going out for an early morning walk to the cemetery every day. I can see this too being curtailed at some point in the near future, as people seem to be unable to resist gathering and meeting their friends, but for the moment it’s a sanity-saver. There’s something about walking (and writing) that helps to ‘right’ things: there’s a lot of evidence that it re-wires our brains, and mine could certainly do with some help at the moment.

I have been getting on with the practical things that have to be done after a bereavement. The cremation will be, of necessity, a very low-key event: just immediate family, which means me, my brother and our respective partners. Social distancing is going to be observed, which means I can’t even hug my brother, or get a lift to the station, as we come from separate households. Sad but necessary, and I know how incredibly lucky I’ve been, when you think that lots of people are saying goodbye to their loved ones via I Pads. The cremation is going to be webcast, which makes for a very strange situation – I will watch with interest to see how it affects the whole thing. The vicar who gave the service for Mum is able to conduct the ceremony, and as I love her this is a great thing. And how I’m looking forward to being able to see Dad off properly, when all this is over and things get back to whatever we decide is normal.

It’s hard telling people that Dad has gone too, but I have had great solace from what people have said. Dad retreated in his mind to the days when he was a boy, and his cousin Derek was his substitute brother – he often mistook my brother for him. When I chatted to the real Derek, he sounded so like Dad that I choked up. There is a certain East End accent that is disappearing from the world, and the world will be worse off without it. I once stayed on a bus past my stop because the lady in front was talking to her friend in exactly the same way as Mum talked, the same accent and the same cadence.

And I have been thinking a lot about Dad’s passing on Tuesday, how it seemed to be such a struggle, and yet was then so utterly peaceful. Death is a mystery, and nothing in my life has felt so profound. I was moved to tears by this blog by Radical Honey, who is a blessing at the best and worst of times. I too felt that Dad was intensely in dialogue with something beyond my comprehension during his last days, and that when he died it was because he’d made some kind of peace. With Mum it was even more explicit: she told me, several days before she died, that ‘someone is helping me’, although she wasn’t sure who. With both of my parents, I felt that death seemed like hard work, but that my role was as a witness: they had moved beyond earthly concerns, and were engaged with something else. May that give those of us who aren’t able to be at our loved ones’ bedsides in their final hours some solace.

And in another not-so-profound statement, I have decided to let my hair go grey. Partly it’s because at the moment I have no choice, but also because I want to mark all these rites of passage physically – Mum and Dad’s death, my sixtieth birthday. I feel an urge to move into elderhood, to accept the changes that are happening rather than cover them up. In this time of strangeness I feel a sense of letting go: what really is important? And how can I express myself fully?

I wonder what the new normal will be? It would be wonderful to think that some good things will have come out of this: new networks of community, new respect for the nurses and doctors, the bin men, the teachers, the supermarket workers, the postmen who have gone about their business in spite of personal risk, a new resilience which tells us that we didn’t need a lot of the things that we thought we did. I suspect that all of us will be touched by the tragedy of this situation, and that the meaning that we make of it will determine how our society functions going forward. Will we look after one another, or will we fall to blaming others? Will we hold our government to account? We live in interesting times, and I suspect that future generations will judge us on how we manage this crisis, and how we apply what we learn to the bigger challenge of climate change. Let’s see how it all comes out.

And on Tuesday I have some of the cutest photos I’ve ever seen, when we go back to Borneo to suss out the macaques. Stay tuned….

Borneo – Glossy Swiftlet

Glossy swiftlet (Collocalia esculenta). Photo by Toni Burnley

Dear Readers, it isn’t always the big, charismatic animals that move me when I’m on a trip: sometimes it’s the little creatures that make my heart race. When we were coming back from seeing the mother orangutan and her baby, our guide Hazwan gently manoeuvred the boat close to a rocky outcrop. In a small cave just above the water’s edge we could see small brown shapes clinging to the walls. At first I thought they were roosting bats, but as we got closer I could see that each shape was a beautifully-constructed nest. Glossy swiftlets use their own saliva to make the main construction, but then camouflage it with grass, although they have been spotted using other materials, according to what’s available – lichen, straw and moss have all been included, making me think that birds are not just adaptable, but may have personal preference when it comes to making a ‘home’.

 The parent birds had been zipping around our heads since our first arrival in Borneo, and they flit in and out of the cave with mouthfuls of insects. I dread to think what the insect population of Borneo would be without all these insectivorous birds and bats.

Glossy swiftlets at the nest site (Photo by John Tomsett)

Glossy swiftlets really are little creatures: at only 10 cm long they are half the size of a European swift. Like all of the swift family, they have tiny feet, which are only really useful for clinging onto the side of their nests, and are useless for walking. They have a large gape, for capturing all those bugs, and enormous eyes. Those long wings make them supremely flexible in the air, and they change their flight pattern according to where their prey is: this in turn depends on the air pressure. Sometimes the swiftlets were so high that they looked like tiny specks of dust, other times they swept just above the surface of the water. I could watch them all day.

Photo by John Tomsett

These swiftlets are not the ones whose nests are harvested for birds’ nest soup (the intermingling of grass with the saliva means they can’t be eaten), but they are closely related to that species, and there has been some talk of using glossy swiftlets as foster parents for abandoned eggs and fledglings of their more ‘valuable’ cousins. We saw several ‘swift houses’ in Borneo – these buildings are constructed to encourage the wild edible-nest swiftlets (Aerodramus fuciphagus) to build their nests inside. The humans protect the swiftlets from all persecution, in return for harvesting their nests once they’ve finished with them. What I couldn’t find out is whether the swiftlets would normally return to an existing nest, or if they made a new one every year. If the latter then it seems to me that very little harm is done, but if It means that the birds have to rebuild every year, it must surely add to their stress (imagine coming home after six months away to find that someone had eaten your house).

Incidentally, can I recommend a most fascinating book on the subject of human/animal interactions of this kind? ‘Harvest: The Hidden History of Seven Natural Objects‘ by Edward Posnett covers eiderdown, civet coffee and, yes, birds’ nest soup, and there was something to muse about in every chapter.

Onwards! For once, it is nice to report on a species which is ‘least concern’ as far as conservation goes. Glossy swiftlets can be found not just in Borneo but all over this part of Asia, from India in the west as far as the Solomon Islands. It is an adaptable little bird, nesting in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur as happily as in a cave in Borneo. How happy they made me feel as they rocketed in and out of their colony, oblivious to the snap-happy crew on our little boat. There is something about being lost in a moment in the company of animals that can wash away everything else.

Photo by John Tomsett

Borneo – Hornbills!

Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) (Photo by John Tomsett)

Dear Readers, I know that you are not supposed to have favourites, but I adore hornbills. The first one I ever met was an elderly, blind bird concave-casqued hornbill called Aasha who lived in Toronto Zoo. She would hop onto her keeper’s shoulder and gently nibble his ear, and the love was obviously mutual: the keeper explained that hornbills mate for life, and that although those beaks look terrifying, they can also be very gentle – the birds mostly eat fruit. He was so proud of his little friend, and she would fall asleep in his arms. She died at the age of 51 in 2019, and you can read a bit more about her here.

How magnificent they are when seen in their natural surroundings, though! We saw several species of hornbill, but there is something awe-inspiring about the rhinoceros hornbill. It is the national bird of Malaysia, and is considered to be the King of Worldly Birds by the Dayak people.  With their stature, brightly-coloured bills and general air of superiority this comes as no surprise.

Just before flying, the male utters a deep ‘gronk’ (our guide Hazwan was expert at imitating the call, and he and the bird would often call back and forth as they flew overhead). The female joins in with a slightly higher-pitched sound. As they fly, it becomes call and response, getting faster and faster in pace. We saw them fly overhead several times and it never failed to give me goosepimples. They have a very distinctive flap-flap-flap-glide flight pattern too and, if it’s quiet, you can hear their wingbeats. You can hear the call here, and the wingbeats here.

Rhinoceros hornbill in flight (Photo by Caroline Hooper)

Male and female rhinoceros hornbills look similar, but the female is slightly smaller and, conveniently, has different coloured eyes – the male’s eyes are red, and the females are white. 

Male on the left, female on the right – Photo by Jan Young

Female rhinoceros hornbills are totally reliant on their partners during the breeding season – they lay their eggs in a nesting hole, and the male then seals the female in, using mud, which dries to a hard layer. This is probably to protect the eggs and fledglings from the snakes that are their main predators. Food is delivered to her by the male through the tiny opening that is left: if something happens to prevent the male from bringing sustenance, the  whole family will die. Once the chicks are ready to leave the nest, the parents work together to chip away at the mud so that they can all escape. I imagine that at this point the female is desperate for a bath.  

We were lucky enough to see several species of hornbill while we were in Borneo, and another bird that was frequently sighted was the oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris). These are relatively small, unshowy birds, although they looked very exotic to us when we first saw them! Like the rhinoceros hornbills they are mainly fruit-eaters, with a side-line in birds eggs, small reptiles, spiders and other large insects. They are important dispersers of seeds in the rainforest – plants such as the wild nutmeg have tough seeds which the bird swallows whole and regurgitates later, hopefully somewhere a good distance from the parent plant.

Male oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) (Photo by Toni Burnley)

That very fine casque on top of the head is actually hollow, which does the bird something of a favour. We were lucky enough, just once, to see a helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) in flight . Although the headgear of this species is not as fine as that of some other hornbills, it is solid, and the bird has been extensively hunted for this reason: hornbill ‘ivory’ is used extensively for carving, and was once used for the exquisite Japanese netsuke. Pity the poor creature who is the source of some luxury for humans, be it the perfume gland of the musk deer or the beaver, the tusks of the elephant or the exquisite feathers of the snowy egret. How we can ever think that these trivial status-symbols are worth the life of a creature I have no idea. I see with some anguish that bear gall is being touted as a cure for coronavirus in some parts of Asia, and it’s all I can do not to despair.

The bird has a unique call, and you can experience it here.

You can read a very interesting article about the helmeted hornbill, and what can be done to save it here.

Helmeted Hornbill by Credit: ©Morten Strange/Thailand Hornbill Project.

But one of my very favourite sightings were these chaps. Wrinkled hornbills (Rhabdotorrhinus corogatus) have splendid Picassoesque faces, and are rarely seen. This one  popped over into a fruiting tree and sat there obligingly for ages, while the shyer female lurked in the leaves.

Wrinkled hornbill (male). Photo by John Tomsett

Photo by Toni Burnley

 

I loved this bird because I had never even heard of it prior to my trip, and yet look how splendid he is! He is, of course, endangered due to deforestation. It doesn’t, of course know this, as no creature knows (apart from us) when forces outside our control or understanding are busting in, disrupting a delicately-balanced ecosystem that has been in existence for millenia.

And here, just to transport you to the rainforests of Borneo, is the call of the wrinkled hornbill, followed by the sound of him flying away. And you can enjoy all this from your computer without the smallest risk of being punctured by a mosquito. Truly the world is full of wonders.

Borneo – Baby Pic!

Hi Readers,

I just received a lovely image of the mother orangutan that I was telling you about earlier today, taken by John Tomsett, so I thought I’d share it. We need all the loveliness we can get at the moment I think!

Photo by John Tomsett

Borneo – A Mother

Mother orang-utan and baby

Dear Readers, my trip to Borneo feels as if it was about a thousand years ago, what with everything that’s happened since I got home. But it was such a special time that I thought I’d carry on sharing it with you, especially as it might be quite a while before any of us can go anywhere exciting again. The natural world is still out there, making babies and eating and sleeping and getting on quite nicely without us, thank you very much.

We were miles away from this orangutan, sitting in a boat watching some macaques,  when our guide got a call that the mother and baby had been spotted.

‘She’s about 25 minutes away, and she might move on. What do you want to do?’ our guide Hazwan asked us.

Well, you can imagine the answer to that question. The boat did a U-turn and off we went up the main channel, holding onto our hats and keeping our fingers crossed. When we turned a bend on the river, Hazwan breathed an audible sigh of relief.

‘She’s still there’, he said. And there, in the tree in front of us, sat a mother orangutan, calmly plucking the leaves from a nearby tree and watching us with an expression of mild interest.

Since we were in Sepilok we had only seen one orangutan, in a tree in the distance. As there were so few other tourists we could sit there in our boat, engine off, and enjoy watching this one going about her business.

Photo by John Tomsett

As you can imagine, the whole question of parents and children is particularly sensitive for me at the moment, but looking at these photos, taken by some of my fellow travellers, I love the way that the mother is so matter-of-fact, dangling from the trees and trusting that her baby will hang on. She is both tender and pragmatic, and she has the confidence of someone who has maybe done this before, or who had a good mother herself. So many of the babies that we saw at Sepilok were literally ripped from their mothers breasts. They have lost everything, and will have to learn all that they need to know from peers and from humans.

Photo by Toni Burnley

Mother orangutans have only one baby every 8-9 years – the longest birth interval of any mammal. The babies are in constant physical contact with their mother’s body for the first five years of their lives. When mother orangutans wander into palm oil plantations, they are often targeted for their babies which fetch a high price on the lucrative international pet market. A mother orangutan will fight to the death to protect her baby. It’s no wonder that these extraordinary creatures are on the critically-endangered list.

Female orangutans are much smaller than males, and can therefore access food on the spindlier branches of the trees. They also require less food, even when lactating. Males, on the other hand, can use their strong jaws to crack into sturdier fruits such as those of the Mezzetia tree, the seeds of which require a pressure of 6000 newtons to break them (this is equivalent to the weight of about six humans).

Photo One from https://seedsofborneo.com/2018/12/11/mezzetia-macrocarpa-drift-seed/

Seed of the Mezzetia tree (Photo One)

For preference, orangutans eat fruit – it seems that the energy content of the food, in the form of sugar, is more important than the protein content. The next favourite food is unripe seeds, which is unfortunate for the plant: ripe seeds pass through the body of the orangutan and are dispersed, but unripe seeds will not germinate. We have already noted several times that the fruiting of trees in the dipterocarp forest occurs only for a three-month period every three to four years, and during the rest of the time animals must make do with whatever is available. Our mother orangutan was eating the youngest leaves that she could find, probably because the older leaves have a higher tannin and toxin content. Figs, bark, palm hearts (which obviously increases conflict with humans) and even flowers are also eaten, plus orangutans have been seen to munch on the  occasional slow-moving small mammal such as the appropriately named slow loris.

Orangutans are extremely intelligent animals: I remember seeing a captive orangutan pick up a traffic cone, walk over to the moat of their enclosure, fill the traffic cone with water and drink from it. Clearly, tool use comes naturally to these animals, and in the wild they have been seen using twigs to extract the seeds from the fruit of the  Neesia synandra  tree. These seeds have evolved to be dispersed by hornbills, and the fruit is covered with irritant hairs, which the orangutan can avoid by poking them out with a twig.

Photo Two from http://www.tfbc.frim.gov.my/newsletter/Neesia%20synandra%20-%20Mature%20fruit.asp

Neesia synandra seed showing those irritating little white hairs (Photo Two)

Watching this mother as she plucked each leaf from the tree, inspected it closely and then popped it into her mouth felt like such a privilege. When she moved from one tree to another she would sway the tree that she was in until it was near enough for her to grab the one next to it, and then gradually ease herself onto it. Orangutans are not as agile as gibbons or as graceful as langurs, but they have a kind of purposefulness that is intriguing to watch. I felt as if an orangutan would never do anything accidentally – they are at home in the trees, but they know their limitations.

Photo by Sue Burnley

 

There are less than 62,000 orang utans left in Borneo, and there is such pressure on their habitat that it is very difficult to find suitable places to release those who are being rehabilitated. It is true that you can buy ‘sustainable palm oil’, but most conservationists believe that there is no such thing, because the stuff is basically untraceable. I am not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I check packaging obsessively to see if what I’m buying contains palm oil, and if it does I put it back on the shelf. Maybe the answer is for people in the West to buy tracts of land and pay people to preserve it, as has been tried in places like Ecuador. All I do know is that if these animals are allowed to vanish from the earth, we will have lost something precious and rare, a window into another way of being.

Photo by Toni Burnley

Afterwards

Dad’s Christmas drawing from 2018 – ‘Robin in a Tree’

Dear Readers, thank you so much for the support and love that you sent me over the past few days. I am so grateful, and it helps so much to know that people who didn’t even know Dad are sad at his passing. I will respond to you individually over the next few days and weeks, but for now, I wanted to just make a few comments on the things that I’ve learned from Mum and Dad’s passing, in case they are helpful for anyone going through the same things in the future.

Firstly, a book recommendation: Martha Jo Atkins’ book ‘Signposts of Dying‘ was my companion for the past few years, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it. It is compassionate, non-judgemental, and full of very useful information. It helped me to understand exactly what was happening with Mum and Dad, and with Mum it helped me to judge how close she was to dying. It also helped me not to be afraid when the so-called ‘death rattle’ started with both Mum and Dad. In fact, after these two experiences of being with someone when they passed I have become less, not more, afraid of dying. It seems to me that both Mum and Dad just walked through a door between this world and the next, and in my minds eye I can see them eagerly shuffling along the path, getting younger as they go.

Secondly, I was lucky to be with Mum and Dad when they died, but I do believe that people choose when to go. My Mum, for example, was extremely close to my younger brother. He had been sitting with her for hours, and when he got up to hand over to me and to get a few hours sleep Mum opened her eyes and looked at him, the first time that she’d done such a thing in days. My brother squeezed her hand and told her that he loved her. Less than twenty minutes after he’d left, Mum passed away, and I believe that she wanted to say goodbye to him, and to spare him her actual passing. So many times I hear of people saying that they just missed their loved one’s departure from this earth, but the dying have their reasons, and it doesn’t mean that they don’t love us.

Thirdly, if there is something that you want to do during this time, do it, or ask if it’s possible. I suddenly had the strong feeling that I wanted to help to wash and dress Mum after her passing, but wasn’t sure if this would be allowed by the staff at the nursing home. Of course it was, and I was able to do this for Mum and for Dad. It isn’t the right thing for everybody, but it is a time to rely on instinct, and if you feel drawn to something, don’t second guess yourself. I believe that giving Dad a head massage helped in his passing, and once Dad had died I spent a good hour cuddling him and talking to him. In this, I was helped by the staff nurse at the home, who said that it was important to just take some time, rather than rushing on to all the practical things that need to be done, and she was absolutely right.

Fourthly, don’t beat yourself up if things don’t go according to plan, and don’t sweat the small stuff. You cannot have too regimented an idea about what you want to happen, because you are not in control. Cock ups will occur, and most of them won’t matter. For example, when we got the death certificate back for Mum, cause of death was given as ‘dementia’, which it most certainly was not. I was furious, but, after reflection, realised that if we contested it, we would end up needing a coroner’s report and an autopsy, and Mum had had quite enough medical interventions during her life without being messed around with after her death, thank you very much. And so we swallowed it down, for everyone’s sake, including Mum’s.

Dad’s 2019 Christmas picture. He asked for a red pen for some of the baubles, because ‘it isn’t Christmas without red’.

Fifthly, do keep a sense of humour. The nurses and I were swapping tales of Dad’s naughtiness yesterday. For example, he managed to set off the fire alarms at the home not once, but twice, which means that all the secure doors fly open. I had visions of residents heading off in all directions. Dad was always scrupulously honest about having done it: when asked why, he said

‘Well, it says ‘break glass’, so I did’.

Dad’s favourite phrase, when telling me about the latest incident at the home (which could be, for him, a cruise liner, a hotel or an army staging post where they were all waiting about for their next deployment) was always

‘It’s chaos! Utter chaos!’

I didn’t realise that he’d caused most of it, though.

And finally, a personal bugbear. Ever since Dad was diagnosed with dementia,well-meaning people, some of whom I love dearly, have commiserated with me and told me that they hope that Dad won’t ‘hang on for too long’. Please, don’t expect me to be relieved that my dad is gone. Dementia does not mean that someone’s life was worthless, or that they are better off dead. I understand that the disease is progressive, and that Dad would have gotten worse with time. But somehow, I sense that he would always have been the pragmatic, laid-back soul that he was when he died, however ill he became. I was not the only one crying at the home yesterday: my Dad was much loved by many people who worked with him, and a stream of people came in to say goodbye to him as he lay ‘in state’ in his best linen jacket. I would have given anything for one more summer with him, and I know that he was enjoying his life immensely. It is heart-breaking that he didn’t have the opportunity for a few more adventures.

One of the carers told me that some family and friends don’t visit once a loved one has dementia, because they want to remember them as they were. I know that I was lucky with Dad, inasmuch as he wasn’t aggressive or unkind, and I know that some people do become very challenging once they have the disease. But I got to know the real, unfiltered Dad much more once he went into the home, and that this was a real delight, something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Last spring, the home held a memorial service for all the people who had past away during the year, including my Mum. I attended it with Dad, and he held my hand tight right the way through. At the end, he turned to me.

‘We should do more of this’, he said, squeezing my hand, ‘But of course I’ve got to go away on the ship’. Dad was in the grips of ‘cruise-world’ at the time.

‘We will do more of it, Dad’, I said, and made sure that I held his hand or cuddled him at every available opportunity. It is a comfort to me, now, to know that I showed Dad how much I loved him, and that I spent time with him. My final, final piece of advice is, don’t leave it till later if you want to tell someone that you love them, or to give them a hug. Treat each opportunity as if it was the last one, because one day, it will be.

From tomorrow, I am going to go back to my Borneo trip because I have lots more lovely photos to share with you, and I want to write about while I can still remember. But a question that remains for me is this: what to do with all the love and time and care that I used to spend looking after Mum and Dad? What is going to give me a sense of purpose and fulfilment going forward? Let’s see.

Captain Tom with an alpaca

Dad aka Captain Tom.