Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Call of the Wild in Sandakan, Borneo

I arrived in Sandakan after a rainy bus ride across the countryside. I had found out that most of the Sabah region was fully booked or unsafe for tourist travel. Since this was a last minute trip, I had not done any research, just booked an air line ticket and I was off. When I talked to Sharif and a few people in Kota Kinabalu, I found out that there were issues near Sapidan and I was advised not to go to the islands. I assumed that people were over reacting or trying to get me to stay in Kota Kinabalu. I checked the USA State Department and found out there was a warning due to a terrorist activity in Feb 2013 involving the Philippines. Huh! (Also found out they did not recommend US citizens travel overland from Thailand to Malaysia- did that too!) I assumed the US government was over reacting so I checked with Australia and UK governments. All of them advised not to travel to the east coast of Sabah and here I am! Oops! I decided to skip Sapidan rather than risk that area too much. The prices were really high for the islands and I was advised if I went to stay somewhere with good security. Security was high in the Sandakan area, as the bus arrived 30 km outside the city, it was searched by the police. Three police officers entered the bus with machine guns. Two of them stood guard at the front of the bus while the third went down the isle asking everyone to show their passport. I also had to show my visa stamp. It was a very uncomfortable situation but I don't like guns and really did not like that much ammunition so close to me. It made me very uneasy. I was ready to hit the floor of the bus if needed! Luckily, there were no issues. After this incident, I was happy to be staying 5 km outside of town. I had booked Borneo Cove Hotel which was cheap, had a pool and was a teaching school for hospitality. I thought my odds of terrorist activity was better staying with the locals. The staff at the hotel were fantastic and arranged all of the tours I wanted with reasonable prices. I was going to Sepilok first to see the orangutans and Probiscus monkey sanctuaries. The second day to the Kinabatangan Safari and a third day at Turtle Island snorkeling. That left me a few days to relax, explore town and rest before I head to China.   
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center's goal is to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back into the wild. There were currently 200 at the center but we were told that only a few will come into the feeding area because it was fruiting season. The orangutans that can find enough food will stay away and only those that need more food come to the feeding platforms. The center is in the forest and has beautiful walking trails through the jungle. The animals are free to roam in the jungle with no fences separating humans. 

The first wild animal I found was this little lizard. He was sitting below the viewing platform waiting to see the orangutans also!  
After a short wait, a worker arrived with a basket of melons. He shook the ropes and an 8 year old orangutan appeared. He was adorable! I fell in love immediately! The orangutans are the most endangered animal in Borneo. This is due to deforestation for palm trees (palm oil) and poaching. Many of these orangutans were pets which is illegal.

After taking a bite out of each piece of fruit, he decided to give us a little show of his swinging and hanging abilities. He liked hanging around. He decided to leave when the  long tailed macaques came too clean up the food.

One of the volunteers saw the macaques coming down the path and warned everyone to back away...they were mean! She said they bully the little orangutans for food.

When she said they were mean, she meant it! I was glad I did! Check out this angry guy! Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed!! I was standing right where this macaque wanted to take a rest. He came towards us and the volunteer yelled at us to all stand back. I know monkeys can be mean and followed directions.

My next stop was Labuk Bay to see the feeding of the Probiscus monkeys. I saw a few on the Klias River cruise but not up close. The Probiscus monkey is only found in Borneo. The males have a big, long, hanging nose where the females have a smaller pointy nose (like Pinocchio). The male calls are described as deep and nasal, strongly reminiscent of the bass viol. Supposedly, the females like to listen to it. The sanctuary is amongst a palm oil plantation to maintain the wildlife. They supplement food for the monkeys to ensure they continue to thrive in their habitat.

The male was more interested in the tourists and came up to check us out. He is a funny looking guy.

Silver Leaf monkeys are also at the sanctuary. They were very friendly and not afraid of tourists. The babies were playful and loved to entertain the crowd. I liked his mohawk!

When the monkeys were finished eating their bread and asparagus, they went back to the forest. I laughed as they swung through the trees. Several stopped to sit in a tree and watch the tourists.

My last stop of the day was the Rainforest Discovery Center. I walked through the forest on the tree-top canopy walk. It was amazing walking through the tree-tops and looking up to see large trees hovering.
 It was a peaceful and relaxing walk. I had time to search for monkeys and appreciate the calls of the local birds

The next afternoon I left for the Kinabatangun Safari. Our first stop was the Gomantong Cave. I arrived at the cave after a short walk through the jungle. My guide looked at me and told me he was not going into the cave. I asked why. He said it stinks to bad. I could smell the cave as we stood outside talking. It smelled awful...and only got worse! It is famous for the swiftlet birds edible nests which are harvested to make the bird's nest soup. The most valuable nests can sell for very high prices.

It is an amazing natural wonder ....of bird poop, bat poop and cockroaches EVERYWHERE! It was the most disgusting sight I have seen.  The bird, bat and rat poop is everywhere. I was walking very tentatively the whole way trying not to slip on it. The hand rail and walk paths are covered in poop which makes it slippery. I kept telling myself not to fall but I just wanted out. When I looked up I could see birds and bats but I freaked out a little as I saw 2 inch cockroaches on every step. This "wonder" is one I would have preferred to have stuck with as a vicarious experience. ICK!

We continued on to the Kinabatangun River for a safari. We boarded the boat and went searching for the monkeys, birds and pygmy elephants in the late afternoon. I expected to see monkeys but not an orangutan. We had been forewarned that it is rare to find them in the wild. And her was our first animal...a large orangutan in a durian tree.

There were numerous monkeys throughout the jungle.

And the Probiscus monkeys were around every corner. They swung from tree to tree. It was easy to find them if you just listened and watched for leaves moving.
Another successful trip down the river. Unfortunately, the closest I came to seeing the Borneo Pygmy Elephant was tracks next to the river. I was sad but you never know what will happen in the wild. The sun was setting on the river and it was time to drive back to Sandakan.

The next morning I left for Turtle Island, to spend the day relaxing on the beach and snorkeling. I was hoping to swim with a few sea turtles. As we arrived on the island we noticed the turtle tracks in the sand. They looked like tractor tire tracks.
The turtles crawl out of the ocean at night, dig holes and lay their eggs. The eggs are collected and placed in the hatchery. When the turtles hatch, they are released back to the sea in the early morning. I spent the afternoon on the beach reading, napping and snorkeling.

I returned to Sandakan and enjoyed a few days relaxing by the pool. My trip to Borneo was beautiful and filled with adorable monkeys and orangutans. I am happy I got to see this beautiful land.

I returned to Kuala Lumpur for overnight. I am leaving for China in a few hours. I am not certain I will be able to blog while I am in China. I will keep writing and upload everything when I get to Bali. Until then, peace and love to you all! 

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