The trip to Borneo really couldn’t have had a better start, we had been away from the chaos of Dubai for a week, escaping into the deep blue of the Sulu Sea to dive Sipadan, one of the world’s best dive sites, and I was devastated to leave. My mood immediately started to lift however when we were greeted at Sandakan airport by big smiling faces after a painless 45 minute flight, and were driven to the nearby Sabah Hotel.
The hotel is five-star and apparently the only one in Sandakan with a pool so it was a shame we arrived so late in the evening and were leaving early the next morning, although it was definitely nice to have a few creature comforts! Despite the brevity of the pit stop, we certainly had an interesting evening with two big Malaysian groups booked in for karaoke parties on either side of the hotel (but audible throughout) – definitely unique entertainment!
Our first day on the mainland was out of this world, and set the bar for the rest of the trip. We started the day early with a trip to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which was not at all as I had imagined. I had pictured a wildlife rescue centre where you see the animals being picked up, cuddled and fed, what I hadn’t realised is that this is the final stage of the rehabilitation process and as such there are no cages or handlers, simply a boardwalk through the forest which leads to a viewing platform. Twice a day, rangers put food on the platform for the more recently released or less confident orangutans who are not yet fully rehabilitated or confident to go deeper into the jungle. As visitors, we were shown a short video about the work of the centre before being allowed to wander along the boardwalk and into the rainforest. We were not allowed to take bags through as all of the monkeys tend to be mischievous, and we were warned to stay away from them, even if they approached us.
We were waiting at the viewing platform for only a few minutes, no sooner had the food appeared so did the orangutans, some swinging majestically through the trees, others ambling along the floor and clambering awkwardly up the stairs. We were even lucky enough to see a mother with her four-month old baby! I found it difficult to tear myself away from them, which meant we were one of the last people to walk back after the crowd had dispersed. Taking advantage of the lack of rangers, we were hijacked first by a lone monkey (he looked really cute till he bared his teeth), then by an incredibly confident orangutan who made his way towards us, swinging down onto the boardwalk amongst us to cause havoc and chase each one of us! More of an intimidating than an intimate experience actually, but it didn’t deter me from going ahead and adopting one of the newest babies they have received and I am now the proud adoptive mother of a shy 18 month old orangutan called Gelison!
It was a long drive from Sepilok to our jungle retreat, around 2.5 hours by minibus, but the view from the window provided some interesting contrasts between the natural (diminishing) rainforest and the growing palm plantations. On first glance to the tired traveller the changes to landscape may not be too noticeable, the roads being continually lined with green either way, but reality dawns when vast brown deforested areas of mud are glimpsed through the trees, and the implications of a thriving trade in palm oil become apparent – destroying the habitats of thousands of creatures and forcing the likes of my little Gelison to become orphans at a young age. I’m not going to dwell on the doom and gloom, but I would encourage people to think about their choices as consumers and avoid products using palm oil (check out the list) to help give our hairy ginger cousins a chance.
On reaching our jungle destination, I was delighted to see that it lived up to the travel agent’s pictures, located right on the banks of the Kinabatangan River in the heart of the rainforest. The minute we stepped off the bus we were greeted to a cacophony of bird songs and insect noises, the likes of which I have never heard before. Although without getting lost in the romance of the moment, I do feel I should point out that noises weren’t the only thing that greeted us – despite my liberal dousing of DEET, I was instant mosquito food (for the rest of the stay I made sure my arms and legs were covered!)
We only spent two days at the tranquil Borneo Nature Lodge, but the magical experiences we had with nature made it felt like so much longer. Activity at the lodge focuses on wildlife spotting trips, mostly from a small boat which cruises slowly and quietly up the banks of the huge river and its smaller tributaries, from this vantage point, we saw hundreds of the rare Proboscis monkey, found only in Borneo and impossible to miss with such an unusual nose! We were also lucky enough to see orangutans in the wild, as well as a host of other primates, some of whom are usually very shy. Although the monkeys were the star attraction, I loved seeing so many different types of hornbill – to me these are what personify the jungle – and the sight of them siting on a lone tall white tree over the top of the thick green jungle canopy cloaked in mist took me right back to images shared with my little brother whilst sitting on our living room floor on Sunday afternoons watching nature programmes, never dreaming that one day I’d be there. We saw crocodiles lurking in shallow waters beneath trees groaning under the weight of monkeys, sleepy snakes coiled in the trees above our heads, and even pygmy elephants perfectly hidden in the tall grass.
We left the relative safety of the boat on one of the mornings to get closer to nature by trekking through part of the jungle. This was a real experience, although it was only a 45 minute walk, it wasn’t without its challenges, and I was incredibly grateful for the leech socks (resembling little sacks which go over each shoe, foot and leg, and are tied around the knee), even with these plus Wellington boots and a variety of other layers, the slippery suckers were persistent, and made it through the obstacle course of fabric to my friend’s bare back! My leeches thankfully only got as far as the wellies, although I was plagued by more mosquitos, whose giant jungle size enabled them to bite through the fabric of my trousers!
The other excursion from the eco lodge was a trip to Gomantong Cave where swift nests are harvested for bird’s nest soup. The walk to the cave was incredible as we spotted flying lizards and yet more wild orangutans in plain sight, and the destination itself was… different! The smell hit us before anything else, despite being able to see the hundreds of swifts and bats that live side by side in the cave, it is quite incredible to think that they produce so much waste!! There was literally a mountain of guano in the centre of the cave, which was crawling with thousands of big yellow cockroaches. As we tried to move rapidly along the boardwalk around the cave’s interior, shaking off the cockroaches that scuttled over our shoes, we flashed our torches to the sides, only to discover even less delightful critters crawling up the walls. There were all sorts of centipedes and millipedes – apparently caves like this were the inspiration for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and I can quite believe it! Once outside again and we were back in the land of beautiful flowers and giant butterflies and trying to forget about the dark side of the jungle!
We took advantage of what appeared to be clear skies on our first night to go for an evening boat cruise, and despite the torrential downpour that struck once we were in the centre of the river and soaked us through, we definitely made the right choice as the following nights the rain was so bad no one could go out. Our shower didn’t last long and once it eased, the night was mesmerising, the stuff of every explorer’s fantasies. The wide river gurgled slowly and when our boat driver noiselessly swung the spotlight over the brown water, red eyes shone back at us from a number of saltwater crocodiles, while the owls, kingfishers and other birds let us drift unbelievably close to them. At one point all torches were turned off for us to sit back and watch the dance of the fireflies, and to admire the blanket of stars above. I am fortunate enough to have been to some beautiful places with amazing nightscapes, but this has to be the best I’ve seen – stars seemed to shine from every inch of the dark sky, clustered together along the Milky Way. Definitely another of those moments in Borneo that took my breath away and left me speechless in awe of the natural beauty.
Unfortunately those moments didn’t last forever though and before we knew it we were packing up for the last time to head home. We weren’t flying until later in the evening so we spent a day being shown the sights and heritage of Sandakan, from the colonial house of American writer Agnes Keith to the water villages used by the sea gypsies and finally the increasing Chinese influences, particularly from the temple on the hill.
It was another equally long journey home, although this time it didn’t seem so bad as our heads were full of memories to be processed and cameras full of pictures to edit (a personal best for me of around 2,500!) Those memories have already got me longing to go back there, even as I type these words, so watch this space as I think a trip to Kinabalu will be on the cards next (better keep those leech socks handy!)