13-17 March 2020

Initially Don didn’t want to go at all.

As usual when we’re planning a trip he checks the relevant government websites for warnings, most of which we ignore. The Canadian government website cautioned against going to the northeast and east coast of Borneo because of pirates from the Philippines. We could be kidnapped by pirates! That was a new one! So that was the end of that. We made plans to visit other parts of Borneo and Malaysia, and hoped to see orangutans at the rehabilitation centre near Kuching.

Oh I do love how the universe takes care of us. A good friend, quite by chance, was in Sepilok two weeks before we were due to be in Borneo and her reports were so tempting that all caution fell away. We were going to Sepilok, via Sandakan on the northeast coast of Borneo, to see the orangutans. Never mind that by the time we were in Kuching we’d started getting emails from friends saying that perhaps we should consider cutting our trip short and come home. The corona virus was getting to be big news, but it didn’t feel that threatening. We knew there were no cases on Borneo. And anyway, no matter what, we were going to Sepilok to see the orangutans!

Flying to Sandakan over the majestic Mount Kinabalu

we’re excited by the idea that we might finally get to see these remarkable beings of the jungle, especially since we’d not been able to see any in Kuching.

Don fell in Bako, so our first stop in Sandakan is a medical clinic where he finally gets his wound dressed by a doctor, and then we take a Grab car (SE Asia’s Uber) to Sepilok. That’s another thing we have to thank our friend for – we’d never even heard of Grab until she told us about it. And she recommended a place to stay in Sepilok that turned out to be perfect.

We arrive at the Sepilok Jungle Resort to discover we have landed in paradise. The sprawling complex has comfortable rooms, a great restaurant, and a pool, but what really makes it is the lush tropical garden

surrounding a small central lake.

We settle in and start exploring. Birds sing, the moist heat caresses me, the earth breathes a rich fertile fragrance, and tropical jungle beauty embraces me. I am so happy to be here. So happy. It is the kind of environment I love most, and it’s the last thing I expected.

I also never expected to see a Red Junglefowl on my first visit to the restaurant, and would have missed it had one of the servers not pointed it out to me. I thought he was just showing me a rooster, but no, this wild bird is native to SE Asia, and the primary ancestor of the domestic chicken. I guess chickens had to come from somewhere.

Looking out over the lake from the open-sided restaurant, we see a Stork-billed Kingfisher, all red, gold and blue splendour,

and on a local walk an Asian Water Monitor darts by and disappears into the undergrowth.

It being the tropics we see geckos everywhere. They are our beloved insect-eating friends,

but hopefully they’re not tempted to eat this beauty.

We settle in. We remember to breathe. We are filled with love and gratitude. Beauty and kindness surround us. We have three full days, and it’s so slow and serene sometimes it feels like three weeks. We wish it could be. Corona what?

Borneo, an island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, is home to one the world’s only habitats for wild orangutans. The other is found on the neighbouring island of Sumatra. That’s it. Orangutans once ranged throughout SE Asia, but due to deforestation for palm oil plantations, and to a lesser extent hunting, they are now critically endangered. I’m just going to say right here that I hate the palm oil industry with a passion. It’s not just the orangutan habitat that’s been callously destroyed, but the habitat of all the other animals as well, not to mention the forest itself.

So as is always the case when a problem is recognised good people step in. One of a few rehabilitation centres in Malaysia and Indonesia, The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which adopts and nurtures injured, orphaned, or rescued animals in a protected environment, opened in 1964. In a process that can take years the young orangutans are trained to survive in the forest and eventually released. Since opening, Sepilok has successfully released over 100 orangutans to their natural habitat, although some continue to return for the twice-daily feedings. The food is deliberately bland to encourage them to forage for themselves in the forest, nevertheless each day there may be as many as five or six coming to the feeding platform for an easy meal.

Our first stop at the Centre is the nursery where we can watch the young from glass-panelled rooms overlooking their feeding and play area. (The following series of photos are a bit hazy since they were taken there.)

For two days we sit there for an hour or more morning and afternoon watching them, spellbound and smiling. They are so human! And indeed orangutans share 96.4% of their DNA with us, more than any of the other great apes. They are among the most intelligent of the primates, using a variety of quite sophisticated tools, and building elaborate nests high in the trees for sleeping each night. Their name comes from the Malay words orang, meaning man or person, and hutan, meaning forest – person of the forest.

I watch a mother slowly gently repetitively caress her new-born in a devoted meditation; I watch a couple of teenagers wrestling with each other, grabbing and biting and rolling around for a half hour or more in play that trains them for real life in the forest; and I watch these two kids, one playing with a stick, and the other determined to have it.

Some are content to just sit and eat,

some grab some food and swing away on the ropes,

and babies chase after their mamas, wanting some of whatever it is she has even if their mouths are already full.

From the nursery area we make our way on boardwalks through the jungle to the feeding platform. We arrive early and wait. The first sign is the shaking of leaves high in the forest canopy. Then we see the ropes starting to move, and then at last one comes into view.

And then more and more. Over the next hour or so we watch several orangutans come and go, grabbing food and swinging themselves up into the trees, or sitting on the platform feeding.

This one hangs by one hand with a banana in its other hand and each of its feet!

There are no table manners here. It’s boarding-house reach all the way. Get what you can and get it quick. This of course applies also to the squirrels that dive in at the end for leftovers,

and especially to the Pig-tailed Macaques.

When we arrived for the afternoon feeding we’re surprised, and a bit concerned to see the feeding platform entirely covered with the macaques, all waiting for food. Dozens of them.

And when the worker comes and climbs the ladder with a big bucket of food they all but attack him. He gets up there, throws the food at them and gets back down again in a hurry. They are very aggressive, so much so that even though the orangutans are bigger they will not go near them. We watch as one orangutan comes on a rope high above them. Gradually it moves lower and lower. No way it’s going to get on that platform with the macaques, especially not when there are big alpha males like this one,

but it does finally get close enough to reach one of its very long arms down and grab a bite.

Having completely commandeered the space the macaques hang around


and playing until eventually they’ve had their fill and head off back into the jungle.

The highlight of the day comes as we’re walking back along the boardwalk to the entrance. Suddenly, coming towards us on her way to roost for the night are a mama and her baby. We freeze and watch her as she passes by, unconcerned by us and intent on her direction. It’s a magical moment.

A bit later we see one in the trees far from the feeding platform.

The next day, at both morning and afternoon feedings there are no macaques to be seen so the orangutans come to eat and play. This mama grabs a coconut and hangs around for a while husking it,

and then swings her way back into the jungle with the coconut still clutched in her feet.

Sepilok has more to offer than orangutans. Right next door is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, providing care and rehabilitation for rescued sun bears. Founded in 2008 it’s the only sun bear conservation centre in the world.

The sun bear, found in the tropical forests of SE Asia, is the smallest, and most arboreal of the bears. Their name comes from their distinctive blond chest patch, which is unique to each animal like a fingerprint. We walk into the centre not knowing what to expect. We’ve heard of people who’ve not seen any bears there but the first thing we see is this:

S/he is sunbathing.

Over the next hour we see several bears on the forest floor.

They are endangered due to deforestation (the palm oil industry again!), illegal hunting for bear parts, and wildlife trade. I could do a rant about all this, but would rather stay with how wonderful it was to see these happy rescued bears enjoying their day as much as we were enjoying ours.

In this video Michelle Yeoh narrates a documentary about the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre:

A short National Geographic video about orangutans:

A short National Geographic video about the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre:

And a couple more photos, because orangutans.

Next post: We had one more excursion from the idyllic Sepilok Jungle Resort – a day trip to the Kinabatangan River. Many macaques, proboscis monkeys, and best of all a Bornean pygmy elephant!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.