There’s a jungle out there!
After a very early morning alarm call, we left KK for the short flight to Sandakan and a 3 day 2 night tour with Borneo Experience. We were met by our charming guide Rudi at Sandakan airport and boarded the coach, excited for the adventure which lay ahead.
First stop was the orangutan sanctuary at Sepilok. It’s a well-managed reserve and provides tourists with the opportunity to observe these wonderful animals feeding and playing in a safe environment. With 96% of shared DNA, these are our closest relatives and their human characteristics are captivating, especially the younger animals. We witnessed first-hand toddler tantrums in the nursery area, where the staff had to break up a tussle over food and drag the culprit away from the scrum. His muscles frozen, this orangutan was not going to cooperate, and he was grumpy and rigid as he was pulled across the grass, like a naughty small child.
Later we learned more about why the Sepilok sanctuary is a safe haven for the endangered species of orangutans. Sadly, but not surprisingly, it is man who is the jungle predator of whom they need to be most afraid. The wholesale deforestation of thousands of acres of beautiful tropical trees has enabled the planting of vast commercial palm tree forests. This is a valuable industry for Borneo, but at the cost of natural resources and damage to the ecosystem. We were told that the industry is a joint venture between the Government and Proctor & Gamble to produce palm oil which of course is to be found in so many products – from shampoo to margarine. However did we manage before its discovery? And it’s a relentless never-ending manual harvest, with the fruit from the trees literally being knocked off each month by huge teams of men armed with sticks.
Meanwhile the orangutan sanctuary does all it can to protect the species, and we were privileged to see them at such close quarters, and happy to learn that they are gradually being released back into the remaining jungles, which are now thankfully designated National Parks and protected as such.
Hunting for an elephant
We left the sanctuary and headed across country to the Kinabatangan river and the jungle lodge which was to be our home for the next two nights. What a contrast to the Meridien!
Accommodation was in basic but adequate log cabins, with simple twin beds, a shower room and a ceiling fan. Air conditioning is available on request, but we got used to the heat and humidity quickly and didn’t need it. After all, when in Rome …
Meals were taken in a covered dining area – simple food served in metal canisters. Enough to feed hungry explorers but suffice to say, I’ve now eaten enough patchoi to last a lifetime.
Each day started with a 5.30am alarm call, and a quick walk down to the river to board the boat. The wonderful Rudi took us out at 5.45am sharp each morning on an expedition to seek out the wildlife. Normally reluctant teenagers who wouldn’t normally be seen out of bed before noon, were the first to rise each morning and were ready with life jackets on, eager to be the first boat away as the sun rose over the hills, and to catch the first sighting of an animal.
And we were rewarded for our early starts – a crocodile sliding into the water from its resting place and arcing through the water in front of our boat was a real gasp out loud moment. A family of Probiscus monkeys slumbering at the top of a tree, their characterful red noses distinguishing them from the many other monkey species we encountered. Mothers protecting their babies as they swung from branch to branch; acrobatic displays through the trees with jumps and twirls to rival Olympic gymnasts.
An ornithologist’s dream, we saw hornbills swooping in pairs in front of our boat; a kingfisher with its bright blue feathers shimmering past.
Our only disappointment was not to see an elephant in the flesh. Another guest at the nature reserve produced photographic evidence of mother and baby at the water’s edge, but despite our great efforts trawling up and down the river, it was not to be.
We did however find plenty of evidence of elephants in the vicinity on our day walk –namely elephant turds, huge and frequent. Rudi picked one up in his bare fingers, rubbing it between them in delight as he described the elephant’s diet and wafted the end-product under our noses so that we could share his enthusiasm for both scent and texture. A zoologist’s dream without a doubt – perhaps a little less welcome for the slightly more squeamish.
Rudi’s night walk brought with it mating stick insects, millipedes and other creepy crawlies. Head torches shining the way through the jungle, at one point he made us all switch them off and just listen to the animal noises. Away from WiFi and the endless selfies, Snapchat and Instagram, we all sat and just listened to Mother Nature – better than any therapy.
After three days in the jungle, we took off our not very flattering calf-height wellingtons, and made our way back across the river to rejoin the coach and take a visit to bat caves where the nests are harvested and sold for vast sums of money for medicinal purposes in China. The smell was unbearable and there is not an ounce of scientific proof of any medical benefit from the nests. Nonetheless the myth pervades, and it’s a good business that’s been built upon it.
Finally, we made a stop at the Sun Bear sanctuary. Like the orangutans, the palm oil industry has endangered these cute looking animals, and so it’s down to the work of (mainly) volunteers and charitable donations, to preserve their heritage. In the heat of the midday sun, the bears were, as you might expect, asleep and frankly who would blame them?
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia
Borneo Experience: Part 1 – Kota Kinabalu