Sabah, although in the same country as Sarawak, has many subtle differences to one another through the various cultures and way of life. I started my trip in Sandakan, which is at the heart of Sarawak’s wildlife. I only used Sandakan as a stop over to get to other areas of wildlife, although Sandakan is much more than just a stopover. There is more to offer in this town richly filled with history and culture. Check out the restaurants by the harbour, the memorial camp resurrected in remembrance for those who were present in the infamous death march, and the famous literate: Agnes Keith’s house. For my short stay, I stayed at Harbourside Backpackers, which is based in a popular square with clean dorm beds, AC, free internet and free reign over a DVD collection and TV for just 28 ringgit a night.
I headed to Sepilok the next day, to visit the most famous orang-utan sanctuary in the world. Visitor numbers soar even higher each year, and the head count is well into its millions. Excited tourists rush off local buses, air conditioned mini vans and speedy taxis- all in anticipation to catch a glimpse at the orange haired orang-utans. And it is pretty easy to do so with Sepilok’s regimented feeding times, meaning frequent free and easy access to food for these creatures in rehabilitation. Standing amongst tourists from all over the world on a board walk in the jungle, you watch orang-utans of all shapes and sizes swing and loop, jump and dive, play and eat, whilst constantly stopping to smile a huge cheeky grin. Seeing orang-utans with hands for feet and other remarkable human characteristics, was memorizing and made me squeal with excitement.
Time flies by fast and as the feeding time begins to come to a close, the most confident orang-utan looked at me with his brown tender eyes that seemed to ignite something within my soul, it was hard to say goodbye. However, human contact with these orang-utans must be kept to a bare minimum- otherwise some friendly poachers will take advantage of this relationship. Being shooed away, I moved to the baby orang-utan enclosure, which was even more amusing. Baby orang-utans chewed bananas up and spit them out in sheer delight and gluttony, or sent themselves somersaulting into springy patches of tarpaulin. A visit to Sepilok whilst in Borneo is a must do. Try check out one of the videos Sepilok shows highlighting the process of rehabilitation and conserving orang-utans for their welfare, it is both touching and endearing.
Nearby to Sepilok is the Kinabatangan River, where rainforest meets river, a tropical oasis of sights and smells. If you haven’t caught a glimpse of any Proboscis monkeys in Sarawak, or visited the Labuk Bay Proboscis monkey sanctuary in Sabah, (a place where numerous monkeys are cared for and given a diet of pancakes- in exchange for tourists to take pictures). Or you enjoy boating and exploring wildlife through another medium, then I recommend visiting this river. Although, make sure you book a trip from Sandakan, where boat trips are half price. Booking mine in Kota Kinabalu meant I had paid a large amount for a two day one night trip. I do recommend this time frame for seeing the wildlife as it is just pot luck, and after the boat cruise, things do become a little bit regular, as the same animals are spotted, (although not the tour guide’s fault or your fault-but the animals!) We saw an abundance of wildlife: horn bill birds calling for a mate, a sleepy croc, silver tail monkeys picking fleas out of each member of its family, proboscis monkeys mating, many lizards and a resting snake. Spotting wild animals on either side of you whilst floating along a peaceful lake was a highlight- not the animals itself.
I splashed out- the accommodation I stayed in: Bilit Lodge, was the reason behind the costly trip and was beautiful. Monkeys swung from chandeliers in the hallway and personal cabin esque rooms were given to us. I shared the lodge with a number of retired mature Australians, which made my time there enjoyable. Looking back, there are other ways I could have spent my money, however, the river is known for being a highlight to any naturist. After going on an afternoon boat cruise, as well as an early morning one- which seemed like an epic scene out of a fishing movie as fog began to roll off the water as we sped through clouds of mist, we planted trees which I thoroughly enjoyed- and if anyone is thinking about doing it ever- do so!
Another trip which you can do from Sandakan is a visit to Turtle Island. Here, you stay in the only accommodation on the island, sharing the place with a few others and the turtle conservation centre. You get the opportunity to see eggs in incubators hatching and being let out to sea. Although this process is not natural, it still helps push baby turtles towards a greater chance of survival. The trip is quite costly, the cheapest price I found was roughly 700 ringgit, so if you are happy to see turtles anywhere, than do so.