Any holiday to see wildlife should be premised on the adage that getting there is half the fun. After all, a ten-minute encounter with a hairy, orange primate has to be worth the ordeal of actually getting there. In our case, seeing an orangutan at home in the wilds of Borneo involved a series of plane, car and boat journeys.
The two-hour late afternoon flight to Kota Kinabalu, or KK, capital of Borneo’s northern state Sabah, passes quickly because of our anticipation of what’s ahead. Thankfully, the Gaya Centre Hotel is only 10 minutes from the airport, and as the name suggests it’s in the centre of town. The clean, spacious and well-priced rooms ($100 per night) easily accommodate a family of four in two queen-sized beds.
In search of local food, we find the seafood night market just around the corner. Colourful wooden trawlers are tied up to the dock, and large plastic awnings cover makeshift kitchens that turn their catch into dinner. It doesn’t get any fresher than this.
Our party of eight – four tired adults and four noisy kids – gives the locals something to chuckle about as we order by pointing at the coloured food pictures printed on large canvas posters. For just a couple of dollars, the vendors whip up a quick meal of fried rice, satay straight from smoky coals, fried squid, steamed fish and watermelon juice.
We take an unplanned walk through the Sunday Market the following morning. Sprawling down Jalan Gaya are stalls offering plants, live frogs, food, souvenirs, pets, electronic goods, clothes and even the delectable hibiscus flowers that we like to put in our Champagne flutes (but these are fresh, not the preserved type purchased in glass jars). After one round of the crowded street, we’ve managed not to lose anyone, or buy anything, and retreat from the chaos for decent Italian coffee and milkshakes at the Jesselton Hotel. Turns out Jesselton was the former name of the city, which was razed in World War II, rebuilt, and is now, thanks to immigration, home to a melting pot of cultures.
AirAsia and Malaysian Airlines fly the 45-minute route to Sandakan which, on a cloudless day, has impressive views of the 4,000-metre Mount Kinabalu. On the ground by midday, we’re met by ever-smiling guide, Noridan; he’ll be leading our three-day tour, organised through local company STW.
It’s possible to stay in Sandakan, but there are five or six accommodation options at the village of Sepilok, about 30 minutes out of town, which are closer to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Some accommodation is better than others, but for us it’s about a clean bed, decent food and a pool for the kids. There’s a surprise in store for us that afternoon though: we spot the legendary Goodie, Bill Oddie, who is an avid bird-watcher.
One of only four orangutan centres in the world, Sepilok was set up to rehabilitate orphaned or injured animals and return them to the wild. Sadly, the majority of the animals have been taken from people keeping them illegally; often, they’re taken from their mothers, as babies, to become household pets. Staying close to the centre means you can visit for the morning feeding times (with the busloads) and return in the afternoon when it’s cooler and quieter.
There’s a large wooden viewing platform from which to watch the structured feeding session, but take time to linger after the crowds have gone. Amongst the dense foliage you may have a personal encounter like we did, when an inquisitive orangutan literally hung around. We were looking into his eyes while he swung as close as two metres from us, an encounter that none of us will forget.
Also worth a visit is the nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre, best done in the morning or late afternoon rather than in the heat of the day. There are kilometres of trails through lush rainforest, a newly completed canopy walk, educational gardens, a visitors’ centre and a good café.
It’s a sociable 9am start for the two-hour drive from Sepilok to the tiny village of Bilit, where we will start our Kinabatangan River adventure. First stop is the Gomantong Caves, which are about halfway there. We all get an unexpected treat along the boardwalk to the caves when we see a family of orangutans high up in the forest canopy, our second encounter in as many days.
Although it’s not the season for harvesting bird nests, there are plenty of swiftlets going about their business: flying in and out of the large, dim Black Cave. It’s here that Mother Nature shows us she can be revolting, too. The only boy in the group delights in enthusiastically following the lead of Noridan, spitting on the ground to encourage the cockroaches, caterpillars, centipedes and creepy crawlies to move. A word of advice: don’t touch the handrail, it’s literally moving. Unpleasant is the only way to describe the entire experience, and one wonders how the guards, paid RM20 a night to sleep in a makeshift shelter, can wash the smell out of their clothes after a shift. That said, the caves are heartily recommended for boys of all ages.
Accommodation in different styles is spread along the river at Bilit, and the Bilit Adventure Lodge suits our group. Each of the bungalows, well spaced in the rainforest, has four air-conditioned, ensuite bedrooms. The package includes all meals: a Western breakfast, and simple Malay and Chinese dishes served buffet-style for lunch and dinner.
Two dawn and one twilight cruise, about 90 minutes each, are ample to experience the river and its abundant wildlife. It largely depends on the season, but we saw hundreds of very promiscuous proboscis monkeys, an orangutan family, thousands of macaques (monkeys), three kingfishers, two crocodiles, one snake, two hornbills and lots more. The guides and boat drivers know where the wildlife is, and do their best to show it off. Only the pygmy elephant remained elusive for our party, despite having made an appearance the previous day. Don’t forget to bring a couple of sets of binoculars and a zoom lens.
Also recommended is a day or nighttime nature walk through the mangroves and rainforest. They’ll kit you out in leech-proof socks and knee-high rubber boots for a hike to the pretty Oxbow Lakes during the day or, if you are not scared of the dark, to find nocturnal creatures.
Your visit matters!
There is no missing the palm oil plantations that cut a swathe through great chunks of Borneo. Since the 50s, this monocrop has played havoc with the island’s fragile and once-pristine ecosystem. While there are arguments for and against the oil industry, there’s no doubt that increasing numbers of visitors interested in wildlife will boost the tourism industry. Given the money tourism yields, it’s to be hoped that this will encourage even greater efforts towards environmental conservation and protection.
The next morning it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Sandakan, which sits on the coastline. There’s not much other than palm oil plantations to be seen, so it’s a good chance for a snooze after two early mornings. In Sandakan, a city of half a million people, there’s time to stop for morning tea and a look around Agnes Keith House, the residence of an American woman who lived here during the 40s and wrote about her experiences in the book Land Below the Wind. This phrase, which adorns souvenir T-shirts, was historically used by mariners to refer to Sabah, a safe haven from the prevailing winds off the north Borneo coast.
As Australians, a stop at the Sandakan Memorial Park was high on our agenda, and for anyone interested in history it’s a sobering reminder of the horrors of World War II. It’s located on the site of the prisoner of war camp where the Japanese interned around 1800 Australian and 600 British soldiers, many of whom were transported from Changi Prison in Singapore. The excellent, well-maintained visitors’ pavilion gives riveting accounts of the war and the “death marches” that began here. Only six men survived.
That afternoon we say goodbye to the ever-helpful Noridan and take a flight back to Kota Kinabalu. In four days, we’ve only seen a tiny part of what Borneo has to offer. Still, it’s a great insight into a remarkable part of Malaysia, and has whettted our appetite for another trip.
Extend the trip
From Sandakan, add on a visit to Turtle Island to see the sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach, or head to Lankayan Island for diving. To delve further into nature, visit the acclaimed Danum Valley, further inland.
How to support the orangutans
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