Sandakan and Sepilok

Trip Start Apr 30, 2004
Trip End Jan 28, 2005

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Mon Sep 6th - Day 124
A busy day of journal catch up and organising travel. We're hoping to visit a memorial park and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre on Tuesday, then the Turtle Islands on Wednesday.

Our hotel is in central Sandakan, just behind the fish market. The streets are made up of 4 storey high ancient looking concrete tenemant blocks, all set out in a grid. Upstairs is all housing, whereas at street level it's shop units which are mostly open right through, allowing access from two streets. Many are small restorans or coffee shops and seem to be either Chinese or Indian run.

Greasy garlic noodles and offal doesn't really do it for us, so it's curry houses every time. With a glass shelved cabinet upfront where the food is displayed, plastic seating and formica tables, it's very basic no frills dining. But it's cheap, cheerful and the food is delicious. It's prepared in the morning then sits in pots in the glass cabinet so it's usually served cold. Normally we have a large plate of rice each, 2 prawn curries which arrive on small saucers, a vegetable dish (green beans or cabbage), 1 egg roti, 1 plain roti (cooked fresh to order) and 2 or 3 curry dips which come with the roti. This is all washed down with a couple of cans of ice cold sprite.

This particular meal cost 13.20RM which is just less than 2 pound. A bargain, and these restorans are some of the few places where locals and foreigners are charged the same.

For the girls - Having spent most of the day on the internet I decided to take a break and go for a long overdue leg wax (I was at risk of being mistaken as one of the inmates at Sepilok, hairy is an understatement). How I wish I hadn't. Appearances can be deceptive and the Dermalogica salon looked like the one I go to at home. Unfortunately the two ladies (1 about 19 and the other in her early 40's) were nothing like the hot wax wielding women I'm used to. It wasn't a good as they both came through to the treatment table and started lengthy discussions in Malaysian (maybe they'd never seen legs that hairy). When the first strip was torn from my sensitive skin, in the wrong direction, hands free, I decided to intervene and give a little instruction. 90 minutes later (it usually take about 40) with my legs on fire and the job still not complete I hopped off the table and out of the salon, fearful that I couldn't contain my temper any longer. I think I'll opt for the European, au-naturel look from now on.

Expneses (7RM / Pound): Accom 45 Internet 16.50, taxi 4, Lunch 56.35, Dinner 13.20

Tue Sep 7 - Day 125
Sandakan's taxi fleet is made up of hundreds of 1970's toyotas, all painted in a fittingly Dukes of Hazard red and white. There's always at least five parked up outside the Mayfair so we have no problem commanderring one for the 10km drive t othe Sandakan Memorial Park.

The Park is adjacent to the site of the original Sandakan prisoner of war camp and is dedicated to the Australian and British POW's and local civilians who suffered and died at Sandakan and Ranau and during the infamous 'Death Marches' of World War 2.

It was a tragic and atrocious episode. The tragedy was the deaths between January and August 1945, within sight of the Allied victory in the Pacific War, of approximately 2400 Australian and British POW's held by the Japanese in the Sandakan POW camp. The atrocity was the manner of the death inflicted upon them by their captors - starvation, overwork, beatings, punishments and the forcing of over 1000 sick and weak POW's on 3 marches under brutal physical conditions.

In 1942 and 1943 the Japanese brought to Sandakan about 2700 Australian and British (RAF and Royal Artillery) POWs, the vast majority having been captured at the surrender of Singapore in February 1942. They were used as a labour force to build a military airstrip. In late 1944, as the Allies advanced in the Pacific, the airstrip was bombed and destroyed. Early in 1945 the Japanese decided to move the POWs 260km west into the mountains to the small settlement of Ranau. On three forced marches between January and June approximately 500 prisoners died. The remainder died at the Ranau and Sandakan camps.

Of the 2400 who had been alive in January 1945, by the end of August only six, all Australians, survived. Two of the six escaped into the jungle during the second march in June 1945, and assisted by local people, they were eventually picked up by allied units. Another four escaped from Ranau in July and again, with the help of locals, were fed and hidden fro mthe Japanese until the end of the war.

The bodies of those POWs recovered are buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetry at Labuan. Those who could not be identified or who have no known grave are commemorated on Memorials to the Missing at Labuan and Singapore.

The centre piece of the park, which with its two large lily covered ponds and wooded areas of towering tres, is peaceful and beautifully set out, is the commemorative pavillion. This chapel like, well constructed wooden building houses a superb exhibit containing the history of the camp and the marches, photographs and surviving prisoners accounts, all of which are incredibly moving. Of his jungle death march, suffering badly with bare ulcerated feet and the effects of starvation and having seen most of his comrades die, one of the six survivors had written:-

"10,000 leeches as big pencils crawling all over you. Off to sleep, sort of, sort of sleep anyhow. And big baboons (orangutans) screaming in the jungle of a night, and wild pigs making a noise and crocodiles...And I'd say, oh, this is it, I'm going...... You could feel yourself dying."

The whole park is a fitting memorial, encappsulated in the decorative gates at the end of the pavillion, depicting flowers representing people of the three nations who suffered at Sandakan during the Second World War and the words 'Lest we forget".

It was a sombre walk back towards the main road where we hoped to catch a bus to Sepilok. Before we reached the main road we were stopped by a man in a van. He wound down his window and asked - "Where you go?" as complete strangers do in this part of the pwrld, and having exorcised our cynical suspicion of such questions we told him Sepilok. "I take you", he answered. And he did. He seemed nice enough (so did Harold Shipman), as he cleared all the stuff off his front seat and told us to jump in, and as it turned out he was nice. He drove us 15km right to the door. Amazingly in four months of travel it was our first lift from an anglican christian chinese postman called Jonathon. He didn't want a penny for the lift and left us with his number in case we wanted to attend his church group in Sandakan.

The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is situated about 25km from Sandakan. Started in 1964 and covering an area of 40 square km it's one of only four orangutan sanctuaries in the world and one of Sabah's top tourist attractions.

The centre deal with injured, orphaned and translocated orangutans. When large areas are being logged or deforested often wildlife can become trapped or left in an unsustainable amount of forest, if the right people get to know the animlas can be translocated to Sepilok or other wildlife sanctuaries.

The idea is to rehabilitate the orangutans to return to the wild and so far Sepilok has handled about 100, of which only about 20 still return regularly to be fed. They are fed fruit twice a day as a supplement to their diet, if many trees are fruiting not many apes turn up.

Orphaned baby orangutans are hand reared by staff until old enough to enter the nursery, where they have to begin to learn all the things their mothers would have taught them such as climbing, swinging and what to eat. Eventually when the expert staff feel they are ready, they are released into the forest at Sepilok.

By this time we'd had a bit to eat and a look round the exhibits in the visitors centre (there an excellent exhibit on the critically endangered sumatran Rhino of which Sepilok has 2 whe were both translocated). It was 2pm, giving us an hour until afternoon fedding time. So we set off on one of the short (2km) boardwalk trails. 200 yards in, having just said 'we won't see much in this heat', we did. We saw 3 foot too much for Rene's liking of a 5 foot bright yellow snake. I still have to identify which breed.

It was crossing the boardwalk as we came round a tight bend. Rene had another distressing hyper ventilation dicky fit, but recovered quicker than last time. I escorted her back to safety before running back to get a phot. It was a beautiful snake, with quite a small head and a long black tip to its tail.

After that slithery episode we decided to give the trail a miss and head to the orangutan feeding area early. Only we weren't early as four of the ginger apes had already made an appearance. THere are 2 raised wooden viewing platforms in the forest, overlooking a stunning jungle backdrop. The main focus of the feeding is a huge tree with a wooden platform built around its circumference about 10 ft above the forest floor. From this tree ropes lead away in 2 directions to other towering trees, eventually disappearing from view. It's on these ropes that the orangutans emerge from the forest brachiating their way to and from the feeding platform.

If we had been anywhere else in the world I would have been on the next bus back to the hotel by now, but my love of orangutans is greater than my fear of snakes so thankfully I made it to the feeding platform alongside Lee.

How glad I was. The four hungry apes were soon joined by a mother with tiny baby clinging tightly to her. All the other orangs gathered round to admire the little orange ball of fur with Papa Lazaru eyes and electric shock hair. Theye were so tender as they let the baby clutch their fingers, kissed it and conveyed to the mother how beautiful they thought it was. It reminded me of work when a new mum brings her baby in for us all to see and we cluck round and coochy coo over it.

Then a less tender but amazing reminder of our baser instincts. A big male arrived and after acknowledging the mother and kissing and cooing over the baby (not sure if it was his) I noticed his less than obvious excitement at the free feat ahead. Unable to wait for the feeding he found himself a ginger maiden with whome he could share his amerous intentions. She wasn't the most enthusiastic of mates as she lay back playing with a banana skin, the others watched closely as lover boy danced La Vida Loca in a Ricky Martin stylee. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to escape (she was dragged back by her feet by the seated Ricky) she managed to break free. He decided against a replacement and took the job in hand on himself.

The food, when it arrived, was rambuttans (small round fruit in a soft shell) and milk. Two rangers dished it all out as fairly as possible as the number of guests swelled to about 15. There was only one young orangutan who wasn't quite brave enough to approach the platform. He watched intently from a nearby tree and when another orangutan swang by clutching fruit in his mouth and hands we were ready with our 'aaghs' in the hope he was about to share his hoard. No chance. He greedily peeled and ate the fruit while Mr Shy looked on, about 3 inches from his face. Heart renching.

We sat for over an hour until the last orange hair disappeared back into the forest. They had nests to build and supper to find and we had a bus to catch and the Penang Curry House.

We had a fascinating, close up encounter watching the behaviour and interactions of 15 orangutans, and it's not hard to believe that they share 96.4% of our genes.

Expenses: Taxi 10, brunch 13.50, ice cream 2.20, Sepilok 70, bus 3.60, dinner 13.80, Photos 40, accom 45, internet 4, laundry 13.
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