Borneo Traveller Part 3 of 3

Avid travellers Graeme and Sue share their adventures through Borneo.

The Sandakan Experience +  home

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was set up 63 years ago in a far-sighted move to look after orphan orangutans and eventually return them to the wild. Besides its wonderful ‘mission’, Sepilok is a lovely place to visit, run by park rangers that take their job incredibly seriously … they are positioned everywhere along the walkways to not only spot the orangutans in the 40 km2 dipterocarp jungle habitat (orangutans favourite), but also protect the public if the orangutans become overly inquisitive. Just to clarify, there are no fences, just two observation areas, one a designated infant or nursery area with training ‘vines’ and ‘wobbly pole trees’ with food hidden on high platforms, and the other a forest platform, unfortunately shared with overly aggressive pig-tailed macaques. The rangers allow all the ‘nasty’ interactions with the macaques during feeding time as it is realistic and like human ‘kids’, the young orangutans have to learn that it can be a tough world out there. It does however set up some wonderful interactive  behaviours to watch. One youngster was about to be attacked (over its banana) by the largest of the male macaques, when a slightly older male orangutan spontaneously ‘ran to its aid’, pulled it up by one hand trapeze artist-style and carried it up a vine and away. Next stop was 40 minutes drive away out by the coast at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, a large privately-owned area of prime coastal (neighbouring mangroves) forest. Surrounding it, however, are the ever-present oil palm plantations. Learnt a lot en route about the logistics of harvesting the bunches of oil palm fruit and how the carefully mounded dead palm leaves have created an amazing habitat for rats and the extremely dangerous black spitting cobras. The workers all have to wear very thick yellow gumboots as protection while they inspect the palms and work. Then … out of nowhere … a medium sized cobra on the road side. We had to stop and photograph (inside the minibus) before it very quickly became invisible in the short grass. Prior to this I would have had no fears as a pedestrian just walking along the roadside … apparently not next to oil palm plantations… must render a lot of Borneo and Indonesia inaccessible to sane walkers.

The proboscis monkeys were incredible to watch as they swung and jumped prodigious distances from tree to tree, ran along branches and shimmied down large trunks, to get to the three feeding platforms set up only a couple of metres from the observation areas …. There were two, possibly three large troups came to feed, each commanded by one large (very large) buffed male, pink penis at the ready. They all used different feeding areas, and the males ruled. Females in each male’s harem, with clinging infants, were favoured and allowed to feed close by, but young males were definitely wary and had to sneak in, snatch some cut cucumber and escape to a nearby tree stump. The males fed gutsily, using their peripheral vision to spot the young males. A subtle shift of position or glance seemed to be enough to warn. A real surprise when one of the females clutching her baby suddenly leapt up onto the observation platform, scattering the observors. She ‘knew’ the routine, and one of the keepers gave her some more cucumber. Apparently, it was her ‘trick’ and happens every time now.

Back to see the Bornean Sun Bears in a conservation area continuous with the Sepilok jungle. So much so, that the first animal we saw was a young male orangnutan, naughtily sitting on a picnic table (in the Sun Bear area) eating a chicken drumstick. Despite a ranger appearing and talking to him, he was intent on finishing his ‘discovery’. Apparently, he escapes quite often and has to be carried back. An intermediate step to building the confidence needed to return the wild? The Sun Bears were actually fenced, in a huge area of their normal tall forest habitat, so couldn’t enter the orangutan area or be a danger to the public. Orangutans can still climb in though. Not a lot of behavior to observe other than a cute sunbear asleep wedged high in the tree canopy.

Went for a swim in the infinity pool and bumped into Bob and Grace, a young couple we enjoyed the company of in Mulu. While it rained overhead they told us of their 30 hour delay in Mulu because flights couldn’t get in because of torrential rain (two hours after we left!). They then climbed Mt Kinabalu and reported that it ‘wasn’t easy!’.

Saturday morning’s 55 minute boat trip to Selingan Turtle Island was fast, bumpy and uneventful. The island is miles away on the border with the Phillipines maritime border with Borneo. Beautiful hot white sand, comfortable chalets and giant monitor lizards everywhere. The largest was docile, sunning itself and about 1.5 metres long. Apparently they are tolerated and fed to stop them plundering turtle nests. The conservation operation on the island is impressive; four beach zones where the Green Sea Turtles and Hawksbill turtles (very rare though) come up onto the beach at night and lay eggs. One ranger patrols each zone. The beaches have lovely coral reefs so we spent the remainder of the morning snorkeling. Bloody hot … about 35 degrees, no clouds, no wind. Simply rested in the afternoon as all the activity happens at night.

Went down to the western part of the beach to watch the rather spectacular sunset, but were careful to be off the beach by 6pm as ordered. From 7pm onwards the four rangers patrol for landing sea turtles. In the meantime we have an AV presentation and life history lesson on green sea turtles and their conservation, followed by dinner. Then we simply wait. After only a short time we were urgently called to file quietly down to number 2 beach to watch a ‘larger than I expected’ green sea turtle lay 52 eggs. The huge cavity she had excavated for herself was impressive and easy to fall into in the dark… they are literally everywhere! Once all the eggs were collected in a bucket, we headed back to the conservation area to watch the eggs get buried in a lizard-proof area. This is also impressive as although we only were allowed to observe one turtle laying, overnight there were a total of 17 turtles and 1540 eggs. Each clutch of eggs is buried in what looks like a military cemetery with rows and rows of stakes outlining date, beach number, no. of eggs. All in all, in the enclosed area there were approximately 95 rows of 20 staked areas. The final part of the evening was very heart-warming as we all went down to the beach in the dark (moonlight only) and about 80 young hatchlings were released. A fantastic sight. Next morning we found one hatchling near the egg zone, and I was lucky enough to have the honour of carrying it down to the water’s edge to set it on its way.

After returning from Turtle Island we had another visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. This time we were greeted by a young escapee, enjoying entertaining the people who were just arriving at reception. The nursery area again was entertaining, this time we watched a young male trying to open his first coconut assisted by slightly younger, eager to learn, males. A shambles, but very entertaining. Again, it is all about the young ones learning off the older ones, not the rangers. Having told a couple of fellow travelers about the gang of pig-tailed macaques who attacked the second viewing platform last time, we relaxed and waited for the show … nothing … after about 20 minutes one female turned up … glad we went the first day … in fact it is a good sign, as the orangutans were apparently nowhere in the immediate area, so were truly exercising their wild status… great … knowing that there were 45 non-nursery orangutans in the 4500 Ha, and only one came for free food is a reassuring sign for the programme. We were told that the diet is the same every day, deliberately, and the orangutans quickly get bored with the same old thing… After two hours driving from Sepilok we arrived at the Bilit Village on the Kinabatangan river. A five minute boat ride downstream was the Bilit Rainforest Lodge. Our room happens to be massive, a VIP chalet … We had a terrific two hour river cruise at 4pm. A great opportunity to see wild long-tailed macaque troupes on branches quite close to the ground, and a highlight was the multiple grooming sessions (three or more in a line). Then there was the smell of the urine of the proboscis monkey troupes, before you saw them. Again, the large, buffed male in charge, but we did see some bachelor groups of ousted males. As the light started to go we could see many outlines of family groups of mainly macaque monkeys high in the trees roosting for the night. Apart from the monkeys, the major surprise was the birdlife … not small birds (lots of those), but the biggies … hornbills. We saw (not close up … they inhabit the very tops of trees and don’t like being looked at!) the very rare, white-crested hornbills (the biggest species …about a metre long), the beautiful and endangered rhinoceros hornbill (its huge orange and red casque, the beak adornment, is highly prized by the Chinese, like rhino horn) and the black hornbill. All were visible on the skyline, then took off in breeding pairs. On female black hornbill ‘screeched’ for ages, for her male mate to return …. eventually he did…wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. Also, a Wallace’s hawk eagle that swooped down and dramatically grabbed something small out of a tree. Lastly, the lovely, almost iridescent, broad-billed kingfisher. The two hours flew by and was one of the best animal-spotting ‘activities’ we did. The hope was that we would finally see some pygmy elephants, but apparently they are not in the region at present… not surprised given the huge amount of oil palm plantation planting going on along the banks of the Kinabartangan river. We do know what sound they make is, having heard the T-Rex-like roar coming from a hungry, demanding orphan elephant being rehabilitated at Sepilok, earlier today.

Finished the day with a lovely meal with Peter, a retired, well-traveled, thoracic surgeon from Frankfurt, and Ian and Linda from Wigan. Had to buy eight cans of ice-cold Carlsberg, as they had no change at all for my RM100 note. Off home tomorrow…..  Bilit Rainforest Resort is a nice place to visit.

Tomorrow is our last day in Borneo. We stop off at the Gomangtong Cave, famous for its massive population of swiflets  (bird’s nest soup, again), before we fly home from Sandakan and Kuala Lumpur. We are expecting a similar cave to one of the four we trekked through in Mulu, but apparently the bat and bird guano is less well ‘contained’ and may rain down a little. We could probably do without that.

As it turned out the walk in to the Gomantong Cave was eventful. A significant disturbance in the forest next to the walkway plus lots of screeching turned out not to be the peaceful Red leaf Monkey (yet unseen) but an entire troupe of evil pig-tailed macaques led by its aggressive male. He hopped up onto the boardwalk rail and walked towards us, blocking our way to the cave. Our guide was quite upset about this, beseeching us not to make eye contact. The rest of the troupe then followed him including mother and young baby … again, not a good sign. The next 15 minutes involved retreat … standoff … retreat etc. Eventually, close to the carpark, the ranger came with his catapult, and a few well-aimed stones sent them into the forest again … The cave was huge, ‘cavernous’, but only about 150 metres long. A ceiling hole allowed some light to spill in and illuminate the cave bats circling below it. As predicted there was a steady rain of only bat guano, with the swiftlets out hunting. Most of our small group were upset by the seething mass of common American cockroaches including completely covering the handrail. They were surprised that Sue and I were comfortable with cockroaches and could not believe we both showed students how to dissect them in class. The biggest fear on the circular boardwalk in the cave was slipping over, and being covered by the bat guano we were walking on.

Outside the cave were the huts and basic, but perilous, equipment used by the bird’s nest harvesters. Only an average of one death and one serious injury per year (our guide informed us).

The Borneo adventure has been great.    

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