Vince and I first arrived in Sandakan travel-weary after spending seven hours riding the local bus all the way from Semporna. Any sluggishness I may have felt melted away however, as we strolled through the grand entranceway of the Sabah Hotel. A huge mural depicting all of the iconic wildlife of the Bornean rainforest beckoned to us as we strode between tall pillars in an open-air reception area. We checked in, and then retreated to our room, but only for long enough to drop off our bags and change our clothes. It had been at least ten hours since our last meal and we were eager to get dinner as soon as possible.
Tina and Lisa, the German expats that we’d spent the past week diving with, had recommended we stop for a meal at the English Tea House, located on the grounds of Agnes Keith’s historical property. We took a Grab to the tea house and were promptly ushered to to a table in an opulent outdoor dining room. The space was filled with heavy wooden furniture and decorated to suit the sensibilities of the time of Keith’s tenure in Sabah during the Second World War. It was a fitting place to eat dinner because at that very moment, I was meant to be in London on business. Vince and I had started to plan our trip to Borneo when my London plans had unexpectedly fallen through, so it felt as though I were still getting a taste of London out in the middle of the rainforest.
A quick perusal of the menu caused us to order far more food than was strictly necessary, and I couldn’t contain my glee when our fanciful tea set arrived.
After dinner we returned to the Sabah Hotel and spent the evening swimming in its huge pool (complete with water slide) and sipping cocktails on the pool deck.
In the morning we checked out of the hotel early and were met by our guide, Fernando, who would be leading us on a jungle safari over the course of the next four days. Our tour was arranged by the outstanding team at Borneo Eco Tours, so all of the logistics were handled for us, leaving us with nothing to do but enjoy ourselves as we looked for wildlife.
Fernando made the most of our half hour drive from Sandakan to Sepilok by starting to teach us about many of the unique animals we’d be trying to spot over the next few days. The interior of the comfortable van we rode in was plastered with photographs that had been taken by the van’s driver who was also a talented wildlife photographer. All of the pictures and wildlife facts had me bursting with excitement by the time we arrived at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. The center rescues and rehabilitates orphaned orangutans with the goal of eventually releasing them back into the wild. Although the animals are fed and cared for, they have free roam of over 10,000 acres of forest where they learn survival skills until they are ready to be relocated into the jungle. Fernando explained that when the orans are released, they have to be transported by helicopter instead of by road because they are so intelligent that they are able to memorize how to get back to the center if they are taken by land.
I was more than ready to get out into the jungle and look for orangutans, but as we stepped out of the van, we immediately spotted another animal that we were hoping to see, a rhinoceros hornbill. The rhinoceros hornbill is a magnificent bird with a hefty, red and yellow beak; it is truly a sight to behold, and it’s one of the Big Five of Borneo, a list that also includes orangutans, pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, and saltwater crocodiles.
It felt like a good sign to have seen one of the coveted animals before our tour had even officially started, and I followed Fernando into the orangutan center wearing the silly grin that I can’t seem to control whenever I’ve just seen an amazing animal. I made a mental note to cool it with the smiling if we were to actually see an oran, since tooth-bearing is seen as a threat or a signal of stress among them.
We took a short walk on a forested boardwalk until we reached a viewing platform where the semi-wild orangutans are fed twice a day. There were already two young females swinging around on ropes and tree branches in anticipation of the morning feeding, and we waited along with them and a boisterous troop of pigtail macaques for a meal of fresh fruit to be delivered to a smaller platform near the boardwalk.
Sweat poured down my face as we waited and watched the two playful orans, but I barely noticed the oppressive heat in my excitement. Fernando had told us to be on the lookout for a large, male orangutan named Malim. He was known to come to the platform at feeding times to pilfer food and fraternize with females despite being fully wild, and never having been a resident of the rehabilitation center himself. Even though I knew to expect him, I couldn’t stop myself from feeling shocked as an impossibly large, orange mass of muscle and fur torpedoed towards us from the depths of the forest. He seemed to appear out of nowhere, swinging through the trees with the grace of a ballerina despite probably weighing about 200 pounds. I struggled to comprehend the sheer size of him, especially in comparison to the petite macaques who scattered as he dropped onto the platform and unceremoniously shoved an entire pineapple into his mouth.
We stayed at the viewing platform as long as Malim did, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky we were to see a male oran with such beautiful face plates. It’s rare enough to see a wild orangutan at all, let alone a dominant male like Malim. In fact, not all males develop these flanges, which correlate with higher levels of testosterone. When Malim disappeared back into the forest, Fernando led us further down the boardwalk, where we found one more orangutan before it was time to move next door to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center.
There was essentially no chance that we would be seeing sun bears in the wild on our safari, so it was nice to get to stop by the conservation center where we learned about these pint-sized bears while watching them from tall viewing platforms. Sun bears are the smallest bear species on earth, and they looked adorable and far less intimidating than the bears I’m used to seeing in the United States (bears might actually win the award for the animal I fear the most on earth, although I’m still always excited to see them from a distance or the safety of a vehicle). Very little is known about them in comparison to their relatives because they are the least-studied bear species on earth. They are named for the patches of light fur on their chests that are said to resemble the rising or setting sun, and have super long tongues which they use for digging insects out of trees. Watching them snuffle around on the forest floor and chomping on their breakfast of fresh fruits was a downright delight.
Upon leaving the Sun Bear Center, we traveled upriver by boat to the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, but I’m going to put a pin in writing about that and fast forward a few more days to our return trip tp Sepilok and Sandakan (Sukau adventures to come in my next post).
We arrived back in Sepilok after a magical experience on the Kinabatangan River, but we still had a few more hours until we had to be at the airport for our flight home, so Fernando took us to the Rainforest Discovery Center where we got to hike around on its extensive raised boardwalk with several viewing towers where we could climb all the way up to the forest canopy. The discovery center still has some towering primary trees that were never logged, and every layer of the forest held something different to see.
We bounced over a swinging bridge, had an encounter with one last cheeky orangutan that was balancing along the boardwalk’s railing, and saw a giant squirrel (aptly named).
But my favorite part was when we reached the top of the tallest tower. By now we were familiar with some of the more distinctive animal calls of the area, and we heard the rhinoceros hornbills before we saw them flying across a valley towards us. A gorgeous female hornbill landed landed in the closest tree to us and lingered at eye-level. This was the closest we’d been to a hornbill all week, and my only opportunity to get any good pictures of one, so we stayed and watched it for quite a while. Fernando was waiting for us at the base of the tower, but we knew that he had undoubtedly heard the bird’s call and would know exactly what was taking us so long to return.
When we finally met back up with him, sure enough, he greeted us by asking, “Did you see the hornbill?”
Once we had hiked back to the van, our trip was officially coming to an end. Fernando took us to the Sandakan airport, where we said our goodbyes, sad that it was time to leave. But that doesn’t mean I’ve finished telling the story of our trip yet. I’ll circle back next week to write one last post about our time in Borneo, and fill in the gaps between our two days in Sepilok!