Sepilok, Sandakan & the Kinabatagan River, Sabah, Borneo

We got into the Sandakan airport and immediately hopped in a cab to Sepilok, home of only 1 of 4 orangutan rehabilitation centers in the world. Of the four, the one in Sepilok is the most famous/popular. At the centers, orangutans are rescued from the wild (usually babies whose parents have died) and are taught to trust humans, then after they are taught how to survive on their own in the wild, they are set free again. Without these centers, most of the baby orangutans would die in the wild from starvation. For the first few years of their lives at the centers, they stay in a confined area so they can learn how to climb and then they are released into the jungle around the center where there are various feeding stations set up. The orangutans can go to the feeding stations if they need to (and some continue to use them for their whole lives), but some never return again.

There are feedings twice a day and we were planning to make the afternoon session at 3pm. We had some time to kill when we first arrived, but luckily, our new friends we’d come with (who we met while scuba diving) were staying at a jungle lodge right down the street from the center. They invited us over to hang at their pool for an hour or so while we waited to see the orangutans.

At around 1pm, we all started to head over to the rehabilitation center, on the way stopping at a local food stand for lunch. Dave and I had come to check out the food/orangutan situation when we’d first gotten in. At the time, this lady’s husband told us she had gone to town for Hari Raya, but maybe she’d be back by 1pm. Luckily, she was and we were her only customers. She was very funny and was literally spoon feeding us samples of all of her dishes so we could decide what we wanted to eat. We ended up with some of our favorite Indonesian dishes, nasi goreng, mie goreng, and nasi campur (we had heard that in Malaysia we would find Indian, Chinese, and Malay food, but no one ever told us how much Indonesian food we’d come across – we were not upset about this in the least). It was a great lunch and we finished in perfect timing to go see some orangutans.

As soon as we walked in, we saw a group of people crowded around the cafeteria. We ran over to find an adorable orangutan just chilling on the roof, trying to drink a soda. As soon as we got up close, we could immediately see how amazing and special these animals are. They are actually 96% human, which was very obvious as soon as you looked closely at their eyes or hands. We got very lucky as not everyone gets such a close encounter – we were able to follow this guy around for 15 or 20 minutes, all over the parking lot and entrance area to the feeding center. It was pretty amazing, and much like our scuba diving experience in Sipadan a few days before where we saw giant sea turtles even before we jumped in the water, we were joking that we didn’t even need to go into the center (and pay the fee) because we saw one of the orangutans in the parking lot before we even entered the center.

Once our new friend made his way back into the jungle (we hoped we’d see him again later), we bought our tickets, checked our bags, watched a great video about orangutans, and then headed into the jungle to see the feeding. Once again, we got very lucky. As soon as we got close to the feeding station (and about 30 minutes before the feeding actually began), we saw an orangutan hanging from one of the trees, close enough to touch. We walked over by him to take some photos. Dave went first and as soon as he got close the orangutan reached out his hand for Dave. It was so cool for me to see this interaction between them. As soon as their fingers touched, of course a guard yelled at Dave not to touch them. But how could he help it?? After all, the orangutan was the one who reached out. Then, I went in for a picture with the same orangutan. I turned my back on him for a second to look at the camera, and as soon as I did, he grabbed my pony tail and tried to take me away into the jungle! In the end, I got my ponytail back and he settled for just stealing my map.

For the next hour or so, we watched the feeding and various orangutans coming to the platform to eat and play. Nothing was as cool as the interactions we’d had with them before the feeding even began, so all in all, we were very lucky to have such an unforgettable experience with these remarkable animals.

After the feeding, we parted ways with out friends and Dave and I started to make our way to Sandakan, the second largest city in Sabah (about 20 km from Sepilok), where we were staying for the night. Because it was Hari Raya, there were no public buses running from the rehab center to Sandakan (there are usually several per day). We thought we’d be able to find some other people to share a taxi with, but when there were no other people headed to Sandakan and also no taxis at the center, we were forced to walk about 2km to the main road. Luckily, just as we were walking up we saw a bus going to Sandakan and we jumped on.

When we arrived in the city, we saw that pretty much everything was shut down (also because of Hari Raya). We checked into our guesthouse, took a quick walk around the town and then went to one of the only restaurants that was open – McDonald’s. I won’t lie, even though I don’t think we’ve ever eaten McDonald’s for anything other than their ice cream or maybe their breakfast, it was a nice treat for dinner! The only other places that were open were a couple of Indonesian places, and since we already had Indonesian for lunch, McDonald’s won out.

We woke up early the next morning and went for a nice run around the town, stopped in to see the Central Market and then got ready to leave for our activity for the next two days – an overnight stay in the jungle at the Kinabatangan Nature Lodge on the Kinabatangan river, the longest river in Sabah. Originally, we had only planned to trek Kinabalu and dive Sipadan while in Borneo, but there was no way we could leave here without doing the thing that Borneo is most famous for – seeing the wildlife. We got a lot of the sea life at Sipadan and a little bit of wildlife at the orangutan sanctuary, but we wanted to see animals actually in the wild, and staying at a lodge on this river was supposedly the best way to do that. Our overnight stay included included two river cruises (one in the afternoon and another in the morning) and a jungle night walk.

After a three hour bus ride and then a two minute boat ride across the river to our lodge, we checked in – with some difficulty – our guesthouse in Sandakan that we booked the tour through must have forgotten to actually tell them we were coming. The lodge was left scrambling to find a room for us. Luckily, it ended up being to our advantage. We had booked a dorm room but ended up getting a private room to ourselves, AND we had our own private river cruise while everyone else was in a boat with 10-15 other people (many of which were little kids). For both river cruises!

Anyway, we checked in and immediately got onto our first of two cruises down the river. Our guide, Felix, was great and it was awesome to have the boat all to ourselves. As we were cruising, he was telling us about all the animals we could see and then all the sudden we turned the corner to find about 100 pygmy elephants hanging on the river bank. We’ve seen a lot of elephants in Thailand, but I’ve never seen them in the wild before (Dave did when he was in Africa but not this many at once). It was incredible and our guide kept telling us how lucky we were to see so many of them – usually they see groups of 4 or 5, but hardly ever do they see packs like this.

After a good 15 minutes staring at these guys and taking probably 20 pictures, we moved on. It was so cool riding down this river, which literally looks like you’re gliding through chocolate milk (that’s the color of the water). When we were in the Amazon in Peru last summer, we boated down the Amazon River, but mostly just for transportation, never just for animal spotting. This was definitely more fun! And, it was gorgeous. The cruise lasted from about 4-6:30pm so we got to be on the water for sunset. After the elephant spotting, we also saw lots of monkeys (including the Probiscus monkey, with its huge nose, which can only be found in Borneo), a monitor lizard (very large lizard, like an iguana), and some very cool birds. We had just arrived at the river two hours earlier and we were already so happy we’d been able to fit this activity into our itinerary. This was basically why we decided to fly (on what we thought would be a Malaysian Airlines flight) last minute the day before instead of waiting around in Semporna for Hari Raya to end and then taking a bus the next day.

After the cruise, we had a great buffet dinner and then went on a night jungle walk. After about 40 minutes on the 45 minute walk, we hadn’t seen much other than some big spiders, a frog, and lots of other bugs. Then, all of the sudden we hear one of the guides yell, “Come, come come! Come, come, come!” Everyone went running and there in the trees was a tarcier, the smallest mammal on Earth, with its huge yellow eyes staring right at us. Before we’d left for the walk, we were asking the guide what we could see. He said maybe snakes, maybe some birds, but if we were very lucky, we’d see a tarcier, though he rarely spots them. Once again, we’d gotten very lucky. We’ve been so lucky with our animal spottings ever since Robin visited. She must have been our lucky charm. Thank you Robin!

The next morning we were up at 5:30am for our second river cruise. There was one animal left that we wanted to see and Felix, our guide, promised to do his best to find it. He said that crocodiles usually come out in the morning when the tide is lower so we’d have a good chance of spotting one. After just a couple of minutes on the water, he pulled over to the side and pointed to the very edge of the river bank. There, lurking in the water was probably a 9 ft. croc. He was mostly underwater, but he came out just enough for us to see how massive he was. This was the animal that I’d been most hoping to see, so I was very excited! After that, we saw some more monkeys and birds, but we were thrilled that we’d gotten to see every single animal we wanted to see.

We came back to the lodge for breakfast and then it was time for us to check out. Now, we have a long day and a half of traveling (bus to another bus to a ferry) to reach our final destination in Borneo – Brunei.

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