There are many reasons to visit Malaysia but for us there was one in particular: orangutans. James has been talking about seeing orangutans for years and seeing gorillas in Uganda a couple of years ago had only increased our desire to see more apes.
In order to reach Sepilok you are almost certainly going to go via Kota Kinabalu and from there you can either fly to Sandakan or get a cross country bus. The benefit of the bus is that you can stop at Mount Kinabalu on your way and take in the iconic sight. Somewhat controversially, we decided to give the volcano a miss. Our main reason was that it is bit of a mission to get to and really expensive once you get there even if you don’t choose to do the climb, which is even pricier. Some may say that it is worth every penny and we met people who didn’t climb but said it was worth going just to see it but, in the end, we decided against it.
With this decision made it was an easy choice to fly to Sandakan rather than get the bus, it was quicker, more comfortable and we had read that the journey is not a particularly nice one as it is largely through swathes of palm plantations and the accompanying armies of logging trucks. Also, Air Asia is dirt cheap and they kick off the safety briefing with the statement: “This is your seatbelt” at which point James has, without fail, on every single flight, gone all Full Metal Jacket and said “There are many like it but this one is mine”. He finds it highly entertaining every time.
We had decided that we would only transit through KK rather than making a stopover and the airport in KK did nothing to make us regret giving the city a miss. So the end result was quite a long day of travelling from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu and on to Sandakan, leaving plenty of time to collect our bags and re-check in in between. The minor inconvenience of not being able to check our bags through to our final destination aside, we have had very good experiences flying with Air Asia and for the peanuts they charge we cannot fault it.
Sandakan is the main port of entry to the famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. To visit you can stay in Sandakan and join a tour or get a taxi out to Sepilok for feeding time but we chose to stay in Sepilok itself, walking distance from the centre, and it was a great decision. We were in a dorm room for the first time in a while and that always takes a bit of adjustment but it was fine despite James’s fear of falling off the top bunk. Dorms always come with the risk of a snorer, but we really hit the jackpot this time with a guy whose snoring sounded like a very loud, choking frog.
The next morning we were up early to visit the rehabilitation centre for the morning feed. It was a 15-minute walk from our hostel, Sepilok Nature Lodge. You don’t need to buy tickets in advance, you show up just before 9am for the 10am feeding. We bought our tickets and when the gates opened made our way excitedly to the nursery. The nursery is where the rescued orangutans are rehabilitated and taught to live in the wider forest. The rangers brought out several animals and others appeared from the surrounding trees clearly not yet brave enough to venture too far in to the forest yet. It’s essentially a playground.
Unlike the main platform, the nursery viewing area is indoors, presumably to limit human contact with the young apes. You get a fair bit of glare off the glass but it’s still a great spot for a viewing.
The babies are just plain adorable and we watched the keepers cajole the two grumpy teens who preferred to stay on the floor than up on the ropes and platforms. Teaching the apes to climb is a huge part of the rehabilitation programme.
A quick note before we venture on to the main viewing platform: The ropes that the orangutans use to get to the feeding platforms are strung right in front of the viewing area so, if the apes do show up, you are likely to get a close look at them. However, the experience is improved a million times by a semi-decent pair of binoculars, even more so when you are looking for animals in the wild which we did later. Ours are an £100 Olympus pair and were worth every penny we spent on them as we watched the delicate movements of the apes peeling fruit and grooming one another, their gorgeous red hair each a slightly different shade and their expressions, which are incredibly human.
We moved on to the main feeding area and took up a prime spot. It was as just as busy as we had anticipated.
There were two orangutans, a mother and baby, waiting up in the trees behind us but it took them a while to make the decision to come down for some breakfast.
During the feeding they were joined by one other orangutan, who hovered on the edges waiting for them to finish up, mum and baby were in no rush though.
We had been there about 45 minutes and in that time people had gradually been moving away, we stayed and at one point we had the viewing platform entirely to ourselves.
It was certainly worth hanging around, the other orangutan eventually braved the platform and the baby decided to make friends with a spot of grooming, mum keeping a beedy eye from above.
A short while later another orangutan arrived carrying her tiny baby which the other youngster found fascinating.
It was amazing to watch. As they ate their fill they gradually moved away looking like a hairy Cirque De Soleil troop.
We had such an amazing morning and decided that we had to go back for the afternoon session and make the most of our tickets, which are valid for the full day. At the entrance to the centre there is a small exhibit of Borneo wildlife and conservation which is full of interesting information and has the benefit of having the AC set to arctic. A welcome and informative break from the heat.
Across the road from the centre is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and Caro was bursting to see them. Sun bears are the smallest bears in the world and are distinguished by the yellow patch across their chests, each bear has a unique marking. They are vulnerable species and the centre is obviously doing amazing work and had recently released some bears back in to the wild but we did feel that the enclosures could have been bigger. That being said, when you read the back stories of the bears it is a million times better than where they have been rescued from. You walk along a walkway above the enclosures and we got great views of the bears below.
The really little ones are kept in quite a small enclosure at first so they are easy to spot and fun to watch as they play with one another and their food.
After our fill of Sun Bears we retreated to the café for lunch and to wait until the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre opened for the afternoon feeding. Once again, we headed for the nursery first. When we arrived we could see movement in the surrounding trees but no orangutans. Slowly they started to appear and once the food was brought out numerous orangutans appeared, including a large male who had decided he fancied some bananas today and proceeded to eat as many as he could. He was quite mesmerising to watch and we were very lucky to see him as he only makes an appearance once or twice a month.
We made our way back to the viewing platform once again, which was much quieter than it had been in the morning and the orangutans were already there when we arrived. We recognised how far from wild some of the apes are as they traipsed along behind the keepers waiting for their food to be laid out. The atmosphere was decidedly casual.
The mother and tiny baby also put in another appearance.
We had another excellent viewing and waited for the crowds to clear out to enjoy the orangutans in peace, towards the end they were joined on the platform by some macaques and silvered leaf monkeys.
The benefit of not being on a tour is that you aren’t rushed through anything, we took as long as we wanted at both feedings and with the sun bears and ended up spending the whole day at the centre. We were certainly ready for the air-conditioned dorm at the end of it with Kermit’s dulcet tones to lull us to sleep.
We were being collected at 1pm the next day so we had the following morning to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre. We aren’t sure how often this features on itineraries but we thought it was well worth having the extra time to pay a visit. And you do have to devote some time to it because the animals here aren’t fed so if you are going to spot an orangutan it takes a lot of luck and little bit of patience. We didn’t see a huge amount on our first trip along the canopy walkway; trees and butterflies and towards the end, an eagle off in the distance.
We assume that there is a plan to extend the walkway to the far side but at the moment it stops abruptly in the middle of the jungle a long way off the ground.
We realised that we had practically sprinted along the walkway on the way out so on the way back we took our time and stopped for about half an hour in one spot. This made all the difference and soon we were spotting all manner of tiny brightly coloured birds as they flitted around us.
Whilst we were watching the birds we realised that none of the small number of other visitors had come back our way for half an hour and we hurried back along the walkway to where they were all leaning on the rails, cameras and binoculars raised. A baby orangutan, a wild one, was hanging off an enormous tree feeding.
We knew she must be around somewhere but it took us a little while to spot its mother as she was more concealed in the trees but she too seemed perfectly content munching away.
We stayed with the pair for about 20 minutes, watching them make slow progress through the trees before disappearing from sight. It was wonderful. On our way back to the entrance, on a tip from another guest, we stopped to glance in a bin where a small snake was curled up at the bottom.
We did pop in to the discovery centre itself on our way out, it has an enormous amount of information and much of it went way over our heads as it was incredibly detailed and scientific. We did discover that there is a species of flying snake found in Borneo which is a piece of information that James could have done without on the day we were venturing in to the jungle.
We had a simply amazing time in Sepilok and as a final thought, we are just going to leave this picture here for you to enjoy: