Exploring Borneo's natural bounty

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Where I stayed
Lucy's Homestay Hostel

Flag of Malaysia  ,
Monday, August 29, 2005

With a slight hang-over from the beer and shisha-pipe excesses of the night before, we said a sad 'Selamat tinggal' (goodbye) to Tioman on Wednesday morning 24 August. We had, unknowingly, bought tickets for the slowest ferry service, so our 8am departure only arrived in Mersing at about 11am (the 9.30am speed-boats overtook us!). The day's mission was to get to Johor Bahru (JB) as quickly as possible to catch our flight to Kota Kinabalu at 6.20pm.

Another long and sweaty day in transit! We rattled along for hours on local buses - first from Mersing to Kuala Tinggi, from there to JB and then on to the airport. Rather interesing to travel with the locals, and cheap of course. Made our flight with plenty of time to spare - we needed it to repack our bags so that we could meet the AirAsia 15kg luggage limit!

We arrived in Kota Kinabalo, Sabah, after 9pm and managed to get fleeced on a trip into town.. a very helpful lad at the airport info counter told us that the local buses had stopped running, but he could give us a ride in his car. Rich thought he said 13 ringgit (the guidebook says a metered taxi should cost about 12-15, so that sounded reasonable), but when we arrived in the city centre he insisted that he had quoted us 30 ringit! Ah well, silly of us to accept a private ride in the first place!

We checked into Lucy's Homestay Hostel for the night, and the next day hopped on a 'bas ekspres' to Sandakan. We had read up a little about the Sungai Kinabatangan, Sabah's longest river at 560km. Despite logging and the encroachment of oil palm plantations, pockets of riverine forest have remained intact along its lower stretches... these pockets, now declared a protected area, provide a haven for a superb variety of wildlife, including orang utans, proboscis monkeys, many species of hornbills, elephants and crocodiles. Lucy, our hostess in KK, recommended a jungle camp called Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures... it all sounded fantastic to us.

So we arrived at the Uncle Tan base and B&B, very close to Sepilok and around 25km from Sandakan, at about 6pm in the evening. We were given a very warm welcome and a delicious dinner by the staff before bedding down in our own dorm for the night. The next morning, on Friday 26 August, we visited the famous Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre.

We were amazed to learn that the Centre has treated more than 700 orphaned, rescued and injured orang utans since its creation in the sixties. Most of these hapless young animals are saved from the illegal pet trade or a certain death after being orphaned. The Centre is located on the edge of a rather large reserve of undisturbed forest; after being nursed back to health and helped to adapt again to life in the wild, the animals are free to go their own way in the reserve. Many of them, however, return to the Centre regularly for a feed of bananas and milk, provided at three or four feeding stations to supplement their diet. The station closest to the Centre is open to public viewing, and it is here that the crowds gather daily at 10am and 3pm to see the lovable 'man of the forest' in the flesh.

We arrived a half hour or so before the morning feed and found a little spot in the crowded viewing area overlooking the feeding platform. The crowd was terribly noisy - babies crying, kids shrieking, groups talking aloud - really annoying considering we were waiting for the orang utans to come out of the forest towards the feeding platform. It had the air of a theatre with rowdy audience waiting for the performance to begin. We both cringed.... these poor 'rehabilitated' orang utans seem to be thought of as nothing more than zoo animals.

But finally they came: slowly and cautiously at first, swinging from the ropes by their hands and feet like first class acrobats. Watching them move is simply incredible - they're completely double-jointed and use their legs nad arms interchangeably, swinging along with speed and ease. About eight in all arrived, mostly juveniles. Two members of staff sat quietly with them on the platform as they tucked into the bananas and scooped the milk into their mouths with cupped hands. Absolutely adorable and very moving.

After our morning visit to Sepilok, we set off for Uncle Tan Jungle Camp - first by car to the road bridge over the Kinabatangan river, and then onto a boat for an hour's journey downstream. Along the way we got our first taste of the area's wildlife - we saw three species of hornbill and quite a few of the comical-looking proboscis monkeys which the river is known for. The males have large, bulbous noses, impressive pot bellies and strong, almost human-looking legs. The females and youngsters have cute upturned noses. They live in family groups and tend to stick by the riverside... lucky for us!

The jungle camp is literally in the middle of nowhere, beside the river and surrounded by forest. Facilities are pretty basic: matresses on the floors of wooden huts (but with mozzie net, thank goodness), 'long drop' loos and buckets for showering with. However, it all makes for a totally authentic bush experience, and the staff are incredibly welcoming and knowledgeable. The all inclusive rate included all our meals (delicious every time), a boat safari every morning and early evening, and guided jungle walks.

We loved every minute of it: just being out in the bush, surrounded by diverse animal and plant life and spending our time simply drinking in nature's bounty. And we were fortunate to see plenty of wildlife in the course of our three days there: all five the hornbill species found on the river, fish eagles, kingfishers and owls; quite a few large crocs, plenty of proboscis monkeys as well as the beautiful silver-leaf and red-leaf monkeys; plus a marvellous array of insects and reptiles. We found the night-time walk particularly fascinating, stomping through the marshes in wellingtons and finding hundreds of cute little tree frogs perched on branches and leaves.

Unfortunately we didn't spot any elephants, since they had already moved on to the mangrove forests about 100km downstream (the staff told us that two family groups passed through the area of the camp about two weeks earlier). And of course, first prize would have been to see an orang utan in the wild; they are seen from time to time, but being solitary animals, they are difficult to track down. Rich and I joined Lan, the camp leader, on the Sunday morning for a orang utan search on foot, but no luck. That afternoon we went walking on our own and scanned constantly the trees for signs of the primate... again, to no avail. Ah well, we tried!

In the end we stayed for three nights, and left on the Monday morning (29 August) for some diving off the coast of Semporna. We heard later from other Uncle Tan guests whom we bumped into in Semporna that a mature male orang utan was spotted in the camp just the day after we left....Murphy's Law!
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