Dear Readers, as the time for our departure from Borneo drew nearer, we were all anxious about whether we were going to make it home. Every day brought news of lockdowns and transport cancellations, and we had to take three flights to get back to London. As we left each lodge, it was closed behind us. We knew that there were roadblocks in place. But I was determined to try to enjoy the last days of the trip, in spite of everything.
“Whatever the future holds, at this precise moment I am standing in woodland looking up to the top of a tree and listening to the call of the gibbons”, I told myself.
The lodge at Tabin is home to a small family group of Bornean grey gibbons – a mother, father, baby and adolescent. They have been resident for years, and every morning they sing from the treetops. The male and female harmonise so closely that you’d almost think it was one animal, and the youngster joins in, somewhat haphazardly at the moment. No doubt at some point he’ll get in the swing of things. Literally.
The song of the gibbon every morning announces that the territory is occupied, but I wondered if it had another social function. The distant calls of other families echoed in the stillness. Our guide explained that these were the children and grandchildren of the pair that we were watching. I wonder if there is some comfort for all these creatures in knowing that their offspring are still alive and thriving, that their parents are still there, even if they never see them? I know that I would take great joy in that situation, even if I was unable to actually meet my loved ones. And when a territory goes silent, another male gibbon will try his luck, much as if a blackbird doesn’t sing from the rooftops for more than a week, another male will move in. Simply stating ‘I’m still here’ can be a way of asserting that the normal order of things is maintained, for another day at least.
Gibbons are very faithful to their home range, even in times when the fruit that they eat is very scarce. This can make it very difficult for young males (who leave ‘home’ when they are about eight years old) to find a territory of their own, especially when the forests are as fragmented as those in Borneo. The North Bornean grey gibbon is listed as endangered, but how endangered isn’t clear, because very little is known about them. What is known is that there are four species of gibbon in Borneo, all found nowhere else on earth, and all confined to their own little patch of the island.
On the very last morning, we awoke to the calls of the gibbon family, who were sitting in a tree just above our lodge. As we bundled into the minibuses that took us to the airport for the first of our flights, I thought back on what a remarkable trip it had been, and how lucky I had been with the timing of it all. Another week later, and we would not have been able to go. We had a scary moment at a roadblock outside Lahad Datu, where it looked as if we would be turned back, but once we were able to prove that we were heading to the airport they were delighted to see the back of us. We had our temperatures taken several times during the trip back, but we arrived at Heathrow with nothing to indicate that there was a crisis going on except for a couple of bottles of hand sanitizer and a few notices. And no sooner had I got home and started unpacking than I got the news that Dad had been admitted to hospital. And we all know how that ended.
I look back on the holiday now as if it were a dream, a remarkable interlude in the middle of a strange, upsetting and disorientating time. It raised my spirits to see so many iconic species in the wild, and cast me down to see how delicate their situation was. I could weep for what we are doing to our planet, and yet the dedication of the people at the many conservation organisations and sanctuaries gave me a tiny bit of hope.We are capable of so much goodness and courage, and yet so often what we are told about is the wickedness. It feels better to me to concentrate on what we can do to help, because while the human capacity for stupidity and cupidity is pretty much endless, so is the power of community.
I am very grateful to the other members of our group who provided me with some wonderful photographs. John Tomsett, one of the people featured most frequently, has a Flickr account with some particularly fine photos, and you can view it here.
Going forward, I will be posting a little something everyday during lockdown. I have been noticing some very fine goings-on through my window, and on my daily walks, and I think we could all do with a bit of perspective during these tricky times. Meanwhile, thank you for following on my Bornean adventures, and for sticking with me through my personal Odyssey over these past few years. Who knows where we shall go next?