We were now more than halfway through our Borneo road trip and so far we had marvelled at the nature and grandeur of Kinabalu National Park, drank tea on a plantation high in the mountains and got up close and personal with pygmy elephants and crocodiles on the Kinabatangan River. Just as I was thinking things couldn’t get any better we set off for the place I was most excited about – the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre.
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the most famous sanctuary in the country. A huge forest reserve, the centre has been running since 1964, rehabilitating injured or orphaned orangutans before releasing them back into the wild. Its top of the list for most visitors to Borneo, and for good reason – there are very few places where you can see orangutans in their natural habitat.
I could barely contain my excitement – I had wanted to visit this place for so long.
We turned up early for the 10am feeding and joined the crowds accumulating in the viewing area opposite the feeding platform. Viewings are not guaranteed and generally only 2 or 3 orangutans show up for feeding at any one time and only when they need a bit of variety to supplement their natural diet. But any worries I had about not seeing one were very quickly put to rest.
As the ranger walked out into the forest carrying a huge basket of fruit he was followed closely behind by a huge orangutan, his orange head just visible above the bushes. And as soon as the fruit was emptied onto the platform the orangutan swooped in to grab a piece before swinging off to find himself a perfect eating spot. He certainly wasn’t shy, staying there swinging in front of us and showing off the entire time.
In total we saw 3 orangutans and a group of macaque monkeys who spent a good while stalking the platform trying to steal food before ending up in an aggressive stand-off with one of the orangutans (they may have been small but they certainly weren’t scared).
Once the feeding was over we headed to the nursery – an enclosed area where young orangutans are taken until they are able to be released into the wider sanctuary. The viewing area overlooks an enclosed playground where orangutans swing around playfully on climbing frames and ropes. Arriving again for feeding time, I watched as one of the most heart-warming moments I have ever seen unfolded before my very eyes.
All the young orangutans were sat on the deck digging around in the fruit when I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. It was a tiny, very sick-looking orangutan with no hair whatsoever making his way slowly across to the food. Reaching the feeding platform, he was helped up by another healthier-looking orangutan who proceeded to put his arm around him, hand him food and, every now and then, kiss him on the forehead to comfort him. That moment in itself would have made the entire trip worth it for me.
Other Sepilok Highlights
Borneo Sun Bear Sanctuary
Right next to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the Borneo Sun Bear Sanctuary which is, in equal parts, amazing and heart breaking.
The Borneo Sun Bear Sanctuary was established in 2008 to rescue sun bears from poaching, deforestation and, most notably, the pet trade. The aim of the sanctuary being to rehabilitate the bears to a point where they can be released back into the wild.
And whilst they have managed to do this with a number of bears (you can read the stories of all the bears they have ever cared for at the sanctuary) it is no easy feat. They are dealing with bears who have often been kept in captivity, in tiny cages with barely enough space to move, for the majority of their life. And sadly, there are a few who have suffered so much psychological and physical damage during their time in captivity that they will never be able to be released into the wild. There were two that stuck in my mind in particular.
The first was Mary, a bear who had been kept in captivity for the majority of her life and spent the entire time trying to attract our attention by showing off and standing high on her back legs.
And then there was Fulong, who paced backwards and forwards over and over again. I spent quite some time wondering why he had two bald patches on his back until the owner came out and explained to us that Fulong had also been kept in captivity and was constantly trying to attract attention. Quite early on after being taken to the sanctuary he figured out that by self-harming (which he did by scratching himself), the vet would be called and he would get all the attention he wanted. As a result, the workers in the sanctuary now have to try and discourage the behaviour by ignoring him when he is trying to attract attention. Truly heartbreaking!
But whilst its sad to see what years of captivity have done to the bears, it is equally amazing to see the work that the Borneo Sun Bear Sanctuary has put in to rehabilitating them so definitely add this on to your visit if you have chance.
The English Tea House in Sandakan
Sandakan is approximately 25km further East from Sepilok. We made the detour for the sole reason of visiting The English Tea House. As I said in my previous post I had been very much starved of tea during my seven months of travel around Southeast Asia so I jumped at even the slightest promise of a good cup of English Breakfast tea.
The English Tea House is sat on top of a hill with a large outdoor garden area and spectacular views over the sea. We ordered traditional afternoon tea – sandwiches, cakes and proper scones washed down with tea and followed by Pimms and lemonade. I thought I might have died and gone to heaven.
The Drive from Kota Kinabatangan to Sepilok
Sepilok is about 100km away from Kota Kinabatangan, taking about 1 hour and 40 minutes to drive. There’s not a huge amount to say about this stretch of road. Its a pretty easy, well-signposted drive along a major highway with the occasional bit of nice scenery along the way. And luckily for us, we had none of the dramas we encountered on our other journeys – running out of petrol, getting lost, finding ourselves stranded on the opposite side of the river from our accommodation.
Where To Stay
We stayed at Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat on the outskirts of Sepilok. Situated on the top of a hill with beautiful views over the surrounding rainforest, Paganakan Dii has spacious bungalows with crisp white sheets and beautiful outdoor bathrooms (and dorm rooms for backpackers) and a restaurant that serves very good food.
Note: The drive up to the resort can be a little perilous as the road is ridiculously steep.
Stay tuned for the final instalment of my Borneo Road Trip Series – nearly running out of petrol on an isolated stretch of road, relaxing on the beach in Kudat, visiting the Northernmost tip of Borneo and dealing with a plethora of interesting wildlife in our room.
Other posts in this series
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