When I was a child, I always dreamed of becoming a vet or a zookeeper or ranger. Growing up in the Phoenix Park and virtually reared in Dublin Zoo, animals were my life. My mother will tell you that the house was a menagerie of rescued animals that needed overnight care. After my Leaving Cert, I spent the summer in quarantine in Dublin Zoo helping two baby lowland gorillas.
I ended up swapping animals for humans, studying nursing in Scotland before going on to do journalism at 23 years of age. The rest is history… Except that the frustrated animal fanatic in me is always yearning to escape.
In 1994, I was doing a PhD at the University of Wales and travelled with the academics to various conferences. When the Sultan of Brunei hosted a conference, I jumped at the chance. I was studying the map of east Malaysia and the sovereign state of Brunei and realised that it was on the island of Borneo. A favourite book from my younger days was about the Old Man of Borneo (the orangutan) and they always fascinated me.
I cajoled one of the interpreters to find me a travel agent who could book me flights to get to Sabah in the northern part of the island. I had to fly to Kuala Lumpur and then to a tiny airport called Sandakan. I had an address for an orangutan sanctuary called Sepilok, which was around 25km from there. So, at 5am - dressed in a skirt and white shirt, looking like I was about to give a lecture rather than head to the rainforest - I left the hotel without telling any of my colleagues. When I got to Sandakan, I hung around until a local agreed to take me to the rainforest for a fee. I met the ranger - the sole occupant of a hut at the entrance to the sanctuary. Spending time with these wonderful peaceful almost human-like apes, I was in heaven, and I lost all track of time.
As dusk was falling I headed back to the hut only to find that the ranger had gone home. I called out a few times with nothing but the orangutans answering back. I realised I might have a problem. I started walking along a dirt track - the light was fading fast and all kinds of alien noises were booming from the dense undergrowth. Only a few months previously, a British Army expedition had got lost in Sabah for a month. They survived but had made international headlines. Here was I in my skirt and heels - and no one in the world knowing about my little escapade except for a non-English speaking travel agent. I made a few bargains with God.
Then I heard the wonderful sound of an engine approaching; a forestry truck with a woman driver. In mainly sign language she said she would drop me at a crossroads where a bus would eventually come along. The relief at being rescued was temporary as I tried to work out whether I would make the two flights back.
Just as I had given up hope, we passed a bashed up sign of a Toucan - an old rusted Guinness ad and I pointed to it. She pointed at me and said: "You are Irish?" I nodded. She said: "You are Catholic?" I nodded again. She was now beaming instead of glaring at me. As she drove, she told me about the persecution of Catholics in Malaysia.
On the strength of our solidarity, she drove me all the way to the airport where she hugged me and grinned at the good fortune of meeting a fellow Catholic from Ireland. The luck was all mine - thank goodness for Guinness!