A three hour Boeing 737 Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur had us to our final destination of Borneo.
The island of Borneo (the world’s third largest) is shared with three countries; Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. We are staying in the Malaysian portion. Our itinerary includes two nights at a lodge near the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in Sepilok, two nights on the Kinabantangan River, and three nights at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley.
We are met at the Sandakan airport in the Sabah region on the northern tip of Borneo and driven to MY Nature Resort. It is, naturally, oppressively hot. They have a very nice pool and that is where we spend the afternoon. The rooms are nice, but the attraction here is the very close proximity to the Orangutan Sanctuary. At dinner they served a very tasty ginger fish and mango pudding for which I’d love the recipe.
On our first full day in Borneo we luckily are able to modify our original itinerary, and we hopped on an early morning visit to the Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary. These Wild Men of Borneo (Orang-utan translates to man of the wild) are what we traveled so far to see in their own habitat. The entrance fee is inexpensive, 30 Malaysian Ringgit, or about $7 US, and an additional 10 MYR for my camera ($2.50). Masks are required. A boardwalk winds through the tropical jungle of the rehabilitation center, which occupies 17 square miles. We began our Orangutan encounter with a stop at the outdoor nursery. The center takes in orphaned and injured animals, and eventually releases them to the wild. The area around the sanctuary is open, unfenced, and the great apes can come and go. They come back to the center at feeding times, if they wish. Today we are lucky. One of the largest male Orangutans has come back to the center. Sometimes they do not see him for months at a time. We see him at the nursery and again at the feeding station. They are fun to watch, and the morning visit is fairly crowded. Tour buses line the curb outside.
Right next door to the Orangutan center is the Sun Bear Conservation Center. These smallest of all bears are also fun to watch. All the bears at the center have been rescued. The aim is to release them back into the wild. Unfortunately for them, they are small and cute, which is why they are kept as pets. They are also kept in small cages and used for bile production, used in “traditional medicine”. It is horrible. Many have been rehabilitated and released. Our morning excursion lasted between 9 am and 11 am.
We returned to the resort in time for a quick plunge in the pool and lunch. We decided to tag along again on the afternoon tour. We returned at 2 pm to the same centers, using the same ticket. It was a different experience, and much less crowded. Our afternoon visit rewarded us with a private viewing of sun bears in the trees, as we were the only visitors. It was unbelievably hot and humid, and it was taking its toll. Our afternoon visit was shorter, 1 ½ hours.
Back at the resort we had just enough time to change and meet our guide for a 4 pm guided tour of the Rainforest Discovery Centre. This one guided tour was our only original tour scheduled for today. The RDC is just .6 km from the resort and has an incredible tree top canopy trail, but 4 pm is just about peak heat and humidity, and we had been going since early in the morning.
We enjoyed the canopy walk 100 feet in the air, but were seriously dragging. We had a good sighting of a giant red flying tree squirrel gliding between trees, two rhino hornbills, and a raptor. We also saw many of the black squirrels. Being near the tree tops afforded a small breeze at times, and a few towers reached even higher than the canopy trail, but it was all we could do to walk the hour and a half and then return to the lodge. Even a ten minute plunge in the pool was a welcome respite from the heat.
That night we got a good long soaking rain, and woke to rain the next day. Thank the gods, because it cooled everything down. We packed our bags and headed back to the Orangutan Center and Sun Bear Center, before our transfer to the next lodge. It was much cooler. Our guide today told us that the temperature yesterday had reached over 40 degrees C, and was unusually high for this area. So it was not our imagination and even the local people are saying it is very hot. I think it was the hottest temperatures I have ever experienced. Once again we watched the center staff bring out food to the platforms and saw the shaggy orange little men and women eat their snack. We were glad to have had the ability to visit the centers three times. At each visit we saw something a little different.
Our transfer to the Kinabatangan River lasted about two hours. Almost the entire time we were driving on roads flanked by palm oil plantations. Some of the plantations had taller, older trees, some were newly planted, and some areas were being cleared for new trees. These two titans of industry and economy, palm oil vs. tourism, seem to be on a collision course. But the palm oil people got here first. As that industry grows, it pushes the wildlife out. Tourists come to this part of Borneo to see the wildlife along the river. The palm plantations are supposed to leave a buffer zone along the river, but there too we saw plantations right up the river’s edge.
Upon arrival at the Kinabatnangan Riverside Lodge, we kicked off our shoes (required in all common areas) and had lunch. The common areas here are wide and open with hard wood floors throughout. They have a beautiful deck along the river with hammocks and tables. Our first wildlife boat safari began at 4 pm. Our fears of even hotter and more humid conditions dissipated as we climbed into our open boat. A cloud cover provided some relief and we found it pleasant. We checked off three big ticket sightings; pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, and a small crocodile. Traveling up and down the river we watched for wildlife, but for me the best part was sitting on the river and listening to elephants communicate with each other.
Back at the lodge we were instructed how to wear the sarongs provided in the rooms. It was, of course, our choice, and we wore them to dinner. We had musicians playing traditional music with drums and gongs during dinner. Being a majority Muslim country, alcohol is not widely consumed. At the last two lodges, the choice has been between a chardonnay or a merlot, neither one of which I am a fan. So this has been a good time to “cleanse.” We are eating steamed rice with fish and vegetables, and water.
After dinner we walked onto the deck by the river, under what looked to be a full moon, or nearly full. The un-retouched photo below was taken on my iPhone 13 Pro. The iPhone takes better low light pictures than my Nikon, and is easier to use.
It is all about the river here, so at 0630 we had our second wildlife boat safari. We had a better sighting of the pygmy elephants and quite a few proboscis monkeys.
We spent the midday in hammocks, and enjoyed slightly cooler temps. Everywhere you go, there seem to be hundreds of macaque monkeys. We saw a lot at the organgutan center and they run all over the resort. Many of the plants here I recognize and are used in Florida landscaping. I have seen giant elephant ears, hibiscus, alamanda, spider lilies, caladiums, and ixora.
Our third wildlife boat safari started at 4 pm. We had our first sighting of a wild orangutan in the trees along the river. We also saw the elephants again, but this time we had flashbacks of a leopard sighting in Botswana, where two dozen jeeps crowded around one leopard. There were 17 boats idling, watching the elephants feed along the edge of the river. It felt hypocritical to be on an “eco tourism” boat trip with engines idling. We are hoping that our tourist dollars will help conservation and have a positive effect on the preservation of the wildlife and wild areas. We can only hope.
Another dinner of steamed rice and vegetables, and water. Tomorrow we are up early for a transfer to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
Finally some images of your travel companion😊
You look lovely in the sarong dress and “the unretouched” photo is gorgeous. I do hope they will stop taking bile from the poor bears. It’s awful.
Thank you Hisae. My travel companion wishes to remain anonymous, so I comply! Ha ha.