Sandakan and Sepilok, Malaysian Borneo

Sandakan

Another sleepy seaside gateway town with visitors who are passing through on their way to more interesting parts of Sabah. We reached Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu by taking a short 45 minute flight. The only way into town from the airport is by taxi, which will set you back 30 RM.

There isn’t a lot to do here, but as we had spent the last few days admiring wildlife, we decided to walk the Sandakan Heritage Trail which visits 11 sites, from Chinese temples to Australian war memorials, and takes a couple of hours to complete. Sandakan is Sabah’s most historical town.

Prepare to be underwhelmed. The sites include overgrown cemeteries, tiny concrete churches and a staircase. It is a great walk, however, and will take you to parts of town you would otherwise have no reason to visit.

We enjoyed bumping into to local school kids who wanted to practice their English with us. They repeatedly told Ed that they loved him. We sat down at a little cafe and learnt a few words of Malay while we waited for our banana (pisang) fritters to be cooked. The chef was more amused than impressed by our pronunciation.

We also went to the central wet market and bought two bunches of the world’s smallest bananas and a weird looking, strong smelling fruit called marang. It’s complex taste is hard to describe, like a phenolic mix of pears, bananas, durian, jackfruit and mango rolled into one slippery mouthful.

We ate mee goreng at My Harbour restaurant and roti canai at Buhari curry house. We only found one place to grab a drink: Best Brew at the Sheraton – where we rendezvoused with two of our bestfriends (who happened to stop in Sandakan for a night on their elaborate, envy-inducing honeymoon) and sang along with the band until late.

Sepilok

A short distance away from Sandakan, Sepilok is synonymous with its famous orangutan rehabilitation centre.  It is one of the best places to see these flame-haired primates. At the centre you are able to get up close without disturbing them too much. There is also a sun bear conservation centre next door, which, for the same price, offers a much less satisfying experience. This was probably the only place we visited in Borneo that fell slightly short of our expectations.

We took the 14 minibus from the bus terminal down by the seafront in Sandakan (6 RM one way). The first bus is at 9.00am and should get you there in time for the first feed at 10.00am. The journey is about 45 minutes, with stops to pick up other passengers on the way. Bear with it though as it is the only bus that will take you straight to the entrance.

Entry is 30 RM plus 10 RM camera fee. They will ask you to leave your belongings in a locker to stop inquisitive apes from nabbing them. Make sure you apply repellent and sunscreen before you go in, and drink as much water as you can manage as it is suffocatingly hot and humid once you are in the forest.

Despite what the Trip Advisor reviews say, for us, feeding time was actually the least interesting part of the day. The viewing platform was heaving with sticky visitors and it was hard to see the orangutans, who were quite far and had their backs to us most of the time. Persevere though. We stuck around until the last of the visitors were gone and were rewarded with good views as the orangs hang around eating for a 40 minutes.

Better yet, watch the young orangs mess around in the nursery. They are much more active, pulling at each other and play fighting. You can watch it from the comfort of an air-conditioned room, a nice break from the steaming heat.

We also did the bird trail. This takes you into the forest itself, towards a birdwatching tower about a kilometre in. It took us a bit of time as we got distracted by the wildlife – sharma birds, long-tailed macaques, provosts squirrels, enormous ants and skinks. The trail isn’t strenuous, I saw people doing it in flip flops, but it’s thirsty work.

We wandered back to the centre after an hour or so of trail waking to find almost all the visitors gone and the centre closed for lunch. Only one or two rangers remained waiting for stragglers to finish up.

Here’s the best bit.

Noon is witching hour for the orangutans. Slowly, and almost out of nowhere, they descend from the tree tops, shaking branches in their wake. First a hairless one named Salamat, looking like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, gently slipped down next to us as we stood, stupefied, at the end of the bird trail. He nonchalantly sauntered past. We couldn’t believe our eyes. The rangers didn’t seem perturbed as more and more orangs arrived to walk on the trail or sit around scratching their backs.

The orangutans took advantage of the peace and quiet to survey their domain.  They ambled around, mostly ignoring us. The rangers knew them by name and spent time saying a few words to them in Malay.

We left after over an hour of quiet observation. It was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life.

The afternoon was not without drama. On our way out, following two sauntering orangutans, one of them, Lamut, decided to sprawl out across the path. Trapped. We had to turn back to ask a ranger (armed with a reedy twig) to escort us past the writhing orang.

If you ever go to Sepilok, hang on until everybody leaves. You may be rewarded with an extraordinarily exhilarating encounter with these astounding apes.

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