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The Island of Borneo: Orangutans and the Jungle

Written on: Wednesday October 29th, 2008

Sepilok and the Jungle:

Leaving KK, we hopped an eastbound bus for the town of Sandakan. We had to spend one night here before beginning the jungle phase. The hostel we stayed in was fine enough, with free internet and breakfast, but the town itself was a complete dump. We explored a bit, and literally saw more rats than people. There were cockroaches scurrying around every corner, and the smell was unbearable. Eventually we found a cafe that was open and ordered the same thing we've been eating everywhere else: mee goreng with seafood. It can be difficult to eat in a place that is filthy, where you half expect to see roaches in your food. But on the other hand, this is Borneo...if I wanted a five star dining experience I would have gone to Paris; as long as I don't get sick, I suppose all is fine.

We awoke early the next day, as excited as children on Christmas morning: all of us were looking forward to seeing the orangutans. We took a taxi to Uncle Tan's B&B, the adventure operator that we hired for the jungle trip. As part of their service, they provided free transport to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, just a mile down the road. Despite the heaps of people at the center, we managed to get a front row spot to view the 10:00am daily feeding. There were two platforms built around trees, approximately fifteen feet off the ground. Between them and extending a bit into the jungle were ropes that served as orangutan highways for getting to and from the platforms. The crowd patiently waited until, suddenly, we heard some thrashing about in the bush. A flash of orange was seen through the perma-green background, and soon the first orangutan made his appearance. He swung hand over hand across the rope to the far platform. A few minutes later another one followed the same procedure. Soon there were half a dozen orangutans waiting for their morning meal. One animal in particular seemed anxious...he would gingererly swing from hand to foot to hand again, performing sort of upside-down cartwheels along the rope, until he got to the location where the rangers arrive with the food. Here he would stop and strike a pose, bending into positions that humans couldn't even consider achieving. After a quick inspection he realized the food had yet to arrive, so he would head back to the platform in the same unusual yet elegant manner.

Eventaully the rangers did arrive with sacks of bananas and what appeared to be a vitamin-enhanced water drink. They came to the near platform and the orangutans followed. There appeared to be no pecking order when it came to eating...all of the animnals ate without conflict. In fact, it seemed quite social, as several of the orangutans held hands or had their arms around another member of the troop. They ate until they had their fill and simply meandered back into the jungle or to the far platfrom for a nap. By no means were they gluttons, as many bananas remained on the platfrom after they left, much to the delight of the local long-tailed maquaques, who ate with haste as they finished up the leftovers.

The Center housed a small museum where we learned about the history of the orangutans on Borneo, as well as their current survival challenges. There was also a movie detailing the ecology of the area. We took in both and it rounded out a full morning.

After a quick lunch back at Uncle Tan's, we loaded into the van for the 1.5 hour drive to the Kinabatangan River. Here we set off down the river via motorboat to the jungle camp. It didn't take long to start seeing wildlife, as we spotted proboscis monkeys, long tailed maquaques, otters and hornbills throughout the entire journey. After arriving at the camp dock we had a short trek across the mud-laden trails to the huts. The accommodations were ok: there was a main kitchen and common area, six four-person huts and a few huts for the workers, all connected with an elevated walkway. Timing was such that we were part of a large group staying at the lodge. There were twenty of us. So we broke into three smaller groups and the guides gave us a briefing of what to expect over the next few days.

Our first activity was a jungle trek that evening. Well, wait a second...the first activity could be considered eating our tremendously delicious dinner. The local guys went to the river that afternoon and caught heaps of fresh prawns and baby catfish, which were fried with tasty spices. There was a shrimp ceviche dish, grilled chicken, beef and ten other side/vegetarian dishes to sample. The chef would even invite us around the table as he prepared each dish, answering any questions and allowing small samples along the way. With our bellies content, we donned our headlamps and proceeded into the jungle. Although it was evening, it was still hot and steamy. We trekked away from camp and soon began spotting critters, including scorpions, wolf spiders and cricket frogs. One interesting aspect of the jungle is watching certain birds sleep. Kingfishers are brilliantly colored and fly with speed and grace during the day; however, at night they cannot see and simply wait out the darkness sleeping on a lone branch less than ten feet off the ground. Their eyesight at night is so bad that, when one was inadvertantly awakened, it flew from it's perch and smacked directly into a six foot diameter tree just five feet away. That night after lights out, we sat in the common area hoping to see a civet that supposedly appears in camp after darkness sets. We didn't see him, but were instead entertained by the dozens of jungle rats that attacked the kitchen as soon as the generator shut off. Fortunately, the kitchen (as well as the rooms) are rat and monkey proof, with chicken wire blocking every possible entrance.

The next morning's 6:00am wake up call proved a bit difficult, as we struggled all night to sleep on the damp mattresses. But we got up and scarfed some breaky before adjourning to the boat for a wildlife river cruise. The point at which the jungle meets the water was beautiful and teeming with animals. We saw loads of proboscis monkeys, long tailed maquaques, and monitor lizards, and even caught a few fish eagles hunting for their breakfast. The river reminded me a bit of the Amazon, but on a much smaller scale. The murkiness of the water and the muddy shores brought back fine memories of time spent cruising the tributaries in Peru.

After a couple hours of downtime, we set off into the jungle by foot one more time. At this time of day we didn't expect to see much, but we were rewarded with sightings of orangutan nests and the remnants of elephant tracks from when they roamed through camp over four months ago! We found an elusive baby frog, scorpions and skinks, as well as a pink flying stick insect. Rob and Jo would be happy to know that there were praying mantises right in the camp.

Returning to camp we were rewarded with another gut-busting meal for lunch. The afternoon was at our leisure, so we played a few games of Poi Tak Noi before hopping into the camp's small rowboat to explore the two nearby lakes on our own. Ironically, this time proved to be the most rewarding of all. I suppose it partly had to do with the quietness...there were no other people and no motors. We just took turns paddling across the lakes and spotting wildlife, including wild pigs and a pack of ten very large monitor lizards who were inching ever closer to the pigs. One even made a play for porky, but came up short as the pig squeeled and left the scene. We saw many maquaques, kingfishers, heron, and otters, and even followed the trail of two fish eagles and a snake bird as they hunted for food.

Arriving back at camp, the locals were enjoying the sunshiny day with a game of football. They coerced the guests to form teams and play them, and even offered a prize of fifteen beers if anybody beat them. The teams were only three person teams, as the goals were small and the field challenging to say the least. Having never played before, I was fortunate to have good teammates, especially John, who led the way against the locals and the other team of tourists. Each game was decided after the first goal. At the end of play, my team came out on top with a record of 4-2, and sure enough, the beers were awarded later that evening as we had yet another session of cards.

Following the football and a 'shower', we enjoyed our last dinner and once again boarded the boat for a night river cruise. Spotlights were powered off of car batteries as we patroled the coastline for anything that might be there. What we located included large saltwater crocs and a few smaller ones (freshies), owls hunting for mice (one of which made the kill and ate right in front of us), a civet, kingfishers sleeping and a five meter python waiting for prey on the banks of the river. Returning to camp we drank our victory beers until the generator's daily routine was complete, and this time we saw the civet in camp, strolling around until he found something edible.

The next morning we left camp and headed back to Sepilok and eventually Sandakan. Along the way the wildlife was as prevelant as ever, making the journey that much more enjoyable. Now we just had to spend one last night in shittown before getting ready for our next adventure: diving off Sipidan.