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Published: October 20th 2016
Our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan in Borneo was scheduled for 1.20pm. We had to be at the airport by about noon and it's about four hours between Bukit Fraser and the airport, so we didn't have to leave until 8am - which meant we could still avail ourselves of Puncak Inn's free breakfast which starts at 7.30am. Mr. Andy's sickness over the last two days had left him contemplating just giving up on the trip altogether and flying home - he'd even been on my laptop checking flights - but we got the taxi driver to stop at a doctor's clinic and once he had some antibiotics he started feeling better about things.
It doesn't cost much to fly between KL and Sabah (NZ$62 for this particular flight with Air Asia) and it doesn't take too long either. We landed in Sandakan at 4.10pm and after clearing immigration in about three minutes we headed to Sepilok.
To get from Sandakan airport to Sepilok you can walk out onto the road and catch a bus into Sandakan, and from there catch a second bus to Sepilok (which basically heads back along the same road you just came in on). This way is really cheap - a couple of dollars - but also really time-consuming. We probably wouldn't have reached Sepilok until 7pm. So instead we took a taxi straight there, which costs 40 Ringgits (about NZ$13) and takes about 40 minutes. I wouldn't have done that if I was by myself, but split in two it was fine.
I've been to Sepilok twice before (in 2009 and 2014) but Mr. Andy hasn't, and his primary interest here was to try and see a tarsier. We don't really have a lot of time overall, but we alloted two nights for Sepilok (which means we literally only had one day for birding there) and hoped that would work out.
Most tourists visit Sepilok solely for the orangutan sanctuary, and so they stay in Sandakan and make a day-trip, but there is lots of accommodation around the Sepilok area. No need to book ahead because I doubt anywhere is ever full. We were at the Sepilok B&B which is where I stayed on both my previous visits. It is about twenty minutes walk away from the orangutan sanctuary but only 400 metres from the Rainforest Discovery Centre, so much better sited for us. The orangutan sanctuary (where people go to see “wild orangutans” on their holiday to Borneo) is open just twice a day when the free-ranging ex-pet orangutans are fed, and it costs about 40 Ringgits entry. In contrast the Rainforest Discovery Centre (henceforth abbreviated to RDC) costs 15 Ringgits and while officially open between 8am and 5pm can in practice be visited at literally any time – there are no gates and you simply pay on the way out if you entered before opening time. There are lots of trails at the RDC, ranging from paved roads through gravel paths to rough leaf-covered tracks, and in addition there is a fabulous Canopy Walkway ten metres off the ground with viewing towers up to 36 metres tall.
Finding wildlife at the RDC is jolly hard work. It is ridiculously hot, so within an hour of the sun coming up the birds have mostly disappeared already. To see more than a handful of birds you need to be out early. The night is just as hot, and has the added complication that you can only see what is in your torch beam. We went out spotlighting after dinner without any luck at all. There was plenty of noise all around from insects and probably really cool mammals, but nothing showed itself to us unfortunately. The second night went only slightly better, with a pair of red giant flying squirrels just on dusk (still light enough to see their colour as they glided between the trees), a tree full of giant flying foxes feeding on figs, and a whip-scorpion which was the best find because I'd never seen one before. No tarsiers or slow lorises for Mr. Andy.
Early on our first morning there was a large troop of southern pig-tailed macaques playing in the trees on the far side of the entrance lake, with several of them on the swing-bridge. This was one of the monkey species we missed at Bukit Fraser, and a lifer for Mr. Andy. In fact all the mammals we saw that morning were lifers for him, namely Prevost's, plantain, ear-spot, and giant squirrels. On our second morning we saw a Low's squirrel which was also a lifer for him. The giant squirrels we saw on the first morning were a pair with a drey which I think must have contained some babies. The female had swollen teats and after she had entered and left the nest, the male disappeared in there and never reappeared. The RDC is a squirrel paradise - on one of my earlier visits I saw seven species in one day.
The birding went okay with 31 species seen over two mornings. Birding is not the easiest here and I wasn't expecting to see any lifers. However on our second morning a flock of five hornbills passed over as we were on the canopy walkway. I thought they were Malayan black hornbills but we caught up with them a while later and they turned out to be bushy-crested hornbills, a pair with three juveniles.
Sepilok wasn't a great success, given that the main reason it was included was for trying to find nocturnal primates, but I got a really good life bird and Mr. Andy got seven new mammals and about thirty new birds so he was happy enough.
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