Borneo Part 1: Orangutans, Sunbears, and Turtles

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February 18th 2020
Published: May 16th 2020
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Mount KinabaluMount KinabaluMount Kinabalu

Panoramic view that we had on our way from Kota Kinabalu to Sepilok.
I left my hotel in Singapore early in the morning and caught the first MRT train to the airport to catch my flight to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo. I was going to meet Mizzi there, and we would spend two weeks travelling the state of Sabah in the north of Borneo. Despite the early hour, there were so many people on the train that there was no seat for me. This was unfortunate since I was unwell. I guess I had overdone it with my 20 km walk through the city of Singapore in the heat the day before. Or maybe it was the jetlag kicking in. Usually I do not suffer from jetlag too much, simply by getting into the rhythm of the time zone I am in straight away, but this time I had woken up in the middle of the night two nights in a row and had spent one and a half or two hours doing email before being able to go back to sleep. Anyway, I did not want to pass out because I am sure they would have taken me to hospital suspecting I might have caught the coronavirus, and then they would not have
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Mother with a very young baby.
let me leave the country for Malaysia. Therefore, I squatted on the floor, took deep breaths, and kept in motion. When arriving at the airport, I struggled my way through the terminals and sky train ride. It was a great relief to see my check in counter and drop off my backpack. After breakfast, I started feeling a bit better.

The rest of the journey was uneventful. There were few people on the plane, and the short flight from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu (only an hour and 50 minutes) passed quickly. I went through immigration within no time, and when I arrived at the baggage claim, my backpack was there already. Not even half an hour after landing I walked out into the arrival hall where Mizzi was waiting for me. She had arrived on a flight from Melbourne via Kuala Lumpur only half an hour before me. We had not seen each other for 1.5 years, and there was a huge big hug, lots of squeaking and loads of joy.

We picked up our rental car, a Perodua Axia, a small Malaysian car. It was full of scratches and dents and had done almost 170,000 km already,
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Mother breastfeeding her very young baby.
so we would not attract attention and the car would not be stolen. The drive into town did not take long, however, parking the car did. One needs to buy a certain type of parking tickets, which we heard was available in any Seven-Eleven or Orange store, but Mizzi had to walk into several different one before she could get them. Using them was really complicated, and we needed to ask someone for help. This, however, was not a problem at all, with Malaysians being one of the friendliest and most helpful people I have ever come across. Finally, we had parked the car and checked into our hostel. We walked into town for a drink and realised that there was not much to see. A few ugly and decaying buildings, a boardwalk along the coast that stank of fish, and nothing more. Thus, we did a bit of shopping for our drive east the next day, organised some more things, and then went to the night market for dinner.

Fishermen sold their catch of the day, all kinds of fish and seafood. The crabs were still alive and were kept in small basins. One crab fell out of
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Grumpy-looking orangutan walking on the handrails. (Picture: Mizzi)
the basin onto the floor, trying to escape. It was picked up and thrown back into the basin, though. Being vegetarian, this was not for us. We ordered veggies with fried rice and had fresh avocado and mango juice with our dinner. For sunset, we walked up to the observatory from where we had heard there would be a nice view of the city. We did get a good overview of the city, but there was not much to see. A few high rises were blocking the view of the bay, and in general there was nothing pretty that struck the eye. But the atmosphere was nice and quiet. The walk back to our hostel was not far, and we had an early night.

The next morning, we had an early breakfast at a nice café just around the corner from our hostel, Nook's Café, and then left for Sepilok, where we would spend two full days with orangutans and sun bears. The distance was only around 300 km, but the journey took us over six hours. The road has only two lanes and first winds up into the highlands around Mount Kinabalu and then back down into the
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I wonder who is observing whom here. (Picture: Mizzi)
lowlands. The first part of the drive was very scenic, we could see the undulating landscape covered in jungle, and there was mighty Mount Kinabalu, surrounded by white clouds. However, once we got back into the lowlands, jungle turned into palm oil plantations, the view got monotonous, and at times it took forever until we could overtake a lorry in front of us. The road also required a lot of attention since it was very damaged, and we did not want to drive into a pothole at full speed. We were glad when we arrived in our hotel, Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, within walking distance of the orangutan and sun bear rehabilitation centres.

The resort is located in the jungle, with small bungalows scattered across a few hills and hiding behind trees. Next to a small lake, there is a huge wooden terrace on stilts overlooking the lake and jungle where one can hang out. The restaurant is there as well. We settled into our bungalow, enjoyed our welcome drink on the terrace, put our feet up for a bit and read our books, and then proceeded straight to a lovely dinner and an early night.

The next
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Orangutan literally hanging on to a tree.
morning, Saturday, we went straight to the orangutan rehabilitation centre. Young orangutans are taken there when they have been separated from their mothers due to illegal pet trade, poaching, or loss of habitat. First, they need to recover physically. A lot of them are sick or malnourished. More importantly, however, they need to learn the skills they need to survive by themselves. Orangutans stay with their mothers for seven to ten years, and the mother teaches them what food to eat and where to find it, how to climb trees, and how to build nests. In contrast to smaller monkeys, orangutans are rather heavy and do not have a tail that helps them balance their weight. That is why they cannot simply sit in a tree while sleeping. Instead they build elaborate nests for the night by weaving together branches and twigs and by covering them with leaves. Sometimes they even make bunk beds by building several levels of the nest. Moreover, orangutans are the only kind of ape that stays in the trees all their lives. Unlike other apes, they never walk on the ground. Young orangutans will have to learn all that I just described, and they are
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The apes have incredibly flexible limbs. I cannot imagine this is a comfy pose, put the orangutan stayed in this position for quite some time.
being taught these skills by volunteers that work in the centre, but also by a buddy system in which an older ape mentors a younger one. At first, they spend time in a closed nursery where they are taken inside for the night. Once they are more experienced they are released into the open nursery and are then gradually taken further and further out into the jungle. The centre has no fence around it, so they can come to the feeding platform if they want, but they can also leave for the jungle and never come back. Some do, whereas others keep coming to the feeding platform for the rest of their lives. At the feeding platform, it is tried not to offer too varied and interesting of a diet so that the apes feel the urge to explore the jungle in search of food, but still, a few of them decide to always come back.

Mizzi and I watched the feedings at ten in the morning and at four in the evening. We saw orangutans of different ages, including two mothers with babies. We also spent considerable time in the outdoor nursery watching the young orangutans learning to
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Young orangutan. When one looks at them from not too far a distance one can see that they all look very unique.
climb. Often when they wanted to step on the ground or got close to it, a volunteer would run over and shake the rope to prevent the ape from stepping onto the ground. In the nursery, there are also some personality profiles of some of the orangutans. There was a picture and a description of the respective character, along with name, sex, and age. On the pictures, I could see that each ape is unique: They all look different, and so are their personalities. There is everything from shy to bold, from solitary to sociable, from friendly to aggressive.

When leaving the nursery, there was one mother with a very small baby, so small that it could not even hold its head up. There was a volunteer that made sure visitors would not get too close. There are no fences, so the apes will walk on the rails of the boardwalk that visitors walk on. Time flew, and we spent all day in the centre, apart from a two-hour lunch break during which the centre is closed. In the late afternoon and evening, we enjoyed the terrace and food in our resort once more.

The next day, Sunday,
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Young orangutan in the outdoor nursery.
we spent with the sun bears. They are the smallest kind of bear, they feed on fruit, small insects and honey, and they climb trees. They have a soft black fur and an individual yellow pattern on their chest that is distinct from bear to bear. They come to the rehabilitation centre for the same reasons as the orangutans: pet trade, poaching, and habitat loss. We spent the entire morning watching the bears feed, climb trees, haggle, sleep, and go about their business. Before heading back to our resort, we watched the orangutan documentary in the orangutan rehabilitation centre, which was great because it gave us some more background info. And then we enjoyed one last afternoon and evening in our beautiful resort before heading off for Libaran Island early the next morning.

Pulau Libaran, or Libaran Island, is one of three islands just off the coast of Sandakan that has turtle hatcheries. This means that scouts patrol the beaches and whenever they find a turtle laying eggs, they will collect the eggs and bury them again in sand in a safe spot surrounded by a fence. Once the young turtles have hatched, they are released into the sea
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Mother and baby on the feeding platform in the outdoor nursery.
at night. All this increases the chance for many of them to survive. Otherwise a lot of the eggs get eaten but predators, or even worse, are collected and sold by poachers. Moreover, getting into the sea can be dangerous for newly hatched turtles, that is why releasing them by night in a safe spot also increases their chance of survival. On Pulau Libaran, there are two species of turtles, Green Turtle and Hawksbill.

The drive from Sepilok to Sandakan took us about 45 minutes. We parked the car in a parking garage in a shopping mall and walked to the nearby yacht club. From there, our boat to Libaran Island departed. It was a 45-minute ride, and we had to pay 100 Ringgit surcharge per person for fuel because we were the only two people on the boat. Since the water around the island is very shallow, we had to transfer into a smaller boat that took us to the beach. From there, it was a five-minute walk to the camp. We were shown into the tent where we would sleep, and then had some time to rest in the hammocks on beach before lunch was served. After lunch, there was more time to relax, and after tea we set off for a walk into a village on the other side of the island. The remarkable thing about this village is that people there collect all the plastic bottles that are washed up on shore every day and turn them into little pieces of art: They paint them or fill them with painted water and then turn them into flowers, patterns, even whole gardens. At the same time, children learn how to deal with waste.

After dinner, our guide explained how the hatchery works, and then we went to release a group of baby turtles that had hatched this morning. We went to one of the beaches with the turtles in a bucket and spilled them onto the beach. However, they did not seem keen on going into the water. Rather, they stayed where they were, and we had to wait for quite some time until the first of them started moving. Once in the water, they kept coming back and were washed up onto the beach. We picked them up and took them back into the water. After quite a while it seemed that they were
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Feeding time. Mothers with babies were there as well. The man who had brought the food stayed around for a time, presumably to check whether all the apes were doing fine.
not coming back, and we made our way back to the camp, hoping that as many of them as possible would survive.

We watched a documentary on the conservation activities on Libaran Island, and while the film was running, it started raining heavily. There was a strong wind as well, and the night turned into quite a wild one, with pouring rain and strong and gusty wind. We would not have been allowed to enter the beach at night because the rangers keep them clear for turtle who come to lay their eggs. Had one come up the beach that night, our guide would have woken us. But it seems that none turned up, or maybe the weather was just too bad and he did not want to hang out on the beach with tourists. I have to confess though that in this kind of weather I was glad I could stay in the tent. I did not sleep much, restless weather like this always makes me somehow restless as well. When we left the camp after breakfast early the next morning, it was still windy and rainy, and it started pouring down with rain when we had just
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Someone is observing from above what is happening on the feeding platform...
boarded the small boat that took us to the big boat, and we got soaking wet. However, it was not too bad because it was warm, and only 45 minutes later we arrived back in Sandakan and set off for a drive to Kinabatangan, where we would spend three days in the jungle. But that will be another story.

Additional photos below
Photos: 32, Displayed: 31


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Sepilok Sunbear Sanctuary I

Sunbears climb trees and walk on branches.
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Sepilok Sunbear Sanctuary II

This bear must have found something in the hole in the branch.
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Sepilok Sunbear Sanctuary IV

Several sunbears just below the feeding platform.
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Sepilok Sunbear Sanctuary V

Here you can see the pattern on the sunbear's chest. Every pattern is unique.
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Sepilok Forest Edge Resort

The dining tables on Valentine's day.
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Pulau Libaran I

The tents that tourists sleep in, with nice hammocks on front of them.
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Pulau Libaran II

A closer look at the tents.

17th May 2020

Nice Blog Enjoyed reading it, it reminded me of my recent trip to Thailand. Please check out the link above about something similar to what to you saw, but with regards to Lions.
20th May 2020

Re: Nice Blog
Thank you. Thanks for sharing the link, did you visit the lion rehabilitation centre? Do you have a blog entry on your trip to Thailand?
20th May 2020

Wow! Wow! Wow!
So envious of your time at the rehabilitation centre. I had no idea that it wasn't fenced and the animals can come and go as they pleased. We visited a sunbear and moonbear sanctuary in Laos recently (just starting to write about it) and I don't think it was as well organised as this one seems to be. I love visiting and supporting these sort of sanctuaries, but they raise such a mixed bag of emotions too :(
20th May 2020

Re: Wow! Wow! Wow!
It was an amazing place to visit and it was great to see how many thoughts and how much effort people put into rehabilitating the apes and sunbears and releasing them into the wild. However, it also makes me sad because we humans are the reason why the animals are taken to these rehabilitaiton centres in the first place. I saw that you just published your blog entry, so I will read it now :-)
22nd May 2020
Pulau Libaran XII

House made of plastic bottles
What a wonderful project for using plastic bottles that wash up on the beach. Does anyone live inside? Are the walls sealed as it looks somewhat draughty?
23rd May 2020
Pulau Libaran XII

Re: House made of plastic bottles
A wonderful project indeed, especially because it is combined with educating children in school and creating awareness of the negative impact of littering on the environment. The walls are not sealed and there is nobody living inside. The owner of the camp we stayed in built it.
24th May 2020

Loved your blog
We want to go see the Orangutans. Thanks for taking us along. We love sea turtles and would have loved your experience. Wonderful.
24th May 2020

Re: Loved your blog
Thank you :-) It was amazing to see all these animals. The experience also comes with a grain of salt, though - it is saddening to see that all the effort would not be necessary if humans were a bit more mindful of how they treat the environment.
24th May 2020
Sepilok Sunbear Sanctuary II

Great experience.
24th May 2020
Sepilok Sunbear Sanctuary II

Re: Adorable
They are sooo incredibly cute and look so fluffy and soft...

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