Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago, is unequally shared by the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the tiny nation of Brunei. It’s known for beaches and ancient, diverse rainforest, home to half of all the world’s plant and animal species, including the most famous of them all, the orang-utan.
Sabah has another slightly unenviable reputation. It produces 12% of the world’s total palm oil supply. With over a fifth of its land under oil palm plantation, Sabah also produces 30 percent of Malaysia’s palm oil. Malaysia and Indonesia collectively supply 85 percent of global needs. It is also the largest producer of palm oil seedlings. Kind of like going to the place where Alien was born, if you are an eco- yogi like me.
I wonder as we make the 3 hour flight into KK, how Sabah manages to balance its amazing biodiversity with the rampaging global thirst for palm oil.
Singapore to SABAH, Kota Kinabalu (KK)
The choices on what to do in this island are great. You can hike 4,095m-tall Mount Kinabalu, the island’s highest peak, or dive the famous Sipadan Island. Spend some time at the beach, visit the orangutans in a number of places, and of course go rainforest wild.
We chose the leisurely 5 day observation tourist style from the rainforest to the sea. Due to time and also because Mount Kinabalu is considered an extreme hike and Sipadan Island is ISIS territory with kidnappings of tourists a weekly occurrence (such they are no longer reported). Neither of which are covered by travel insurance.
The best time to travel here is between March and October when it is driest. We were there in February. It was hot (much hotter than Singapore), and the mosquitoes were very persistent.
From KK, you take one short plane ride to Sandakan and then a depressing 30 minute drive through some of that palm oil plantation you see on arrival to arrive at Sepilok.
We stop to pick up some coffee – this place does have great coffee – and find out that I am surrounded not by faceless, horrible multinational corporation palm oil, but palm oil plantations of the locals who pool their 10 hectare land entitlements.
In Sepilok, you are staying in rainforest, albeit with roads and corner stores in it. It was quietly noisy as only a rainforest can be. Birds call, the dripping of water from plants to the ground.
Our ‘resort’ room was small, dark smelt of mould, the towels bare threads. Fashion was 1970s meet Asian op shop, get the drift? Food was MSG central, breakfast was for carbotarians. My husband, a 5 star man, gives me this look, immediately checks for wi-fi and finds none. It was going to be a long 2 days.
We spent most of the time eating up the road at a gorgeous 3 star resort, that was full (my husband checked). Both our resorts had similar names, but completely different quality. Listen to TripAdvisor, and go with Number 1 or 2, OK?
We start our adventure with an evening river cruise near Sepilok, including dinner. Be warned, this is mangrove area, the river is muddy and there are those mosquitoes. Dinner was basic, the community super friendly, even the chain smoking kids playing skip.
Our resort had air con, so slept surprisingly well, and were up and ready to make the 10 minute walk to the Sepilok Orangutan Conservation Centre the next day.
You do not visit Sabah without seeing orang-utans. You used to have two to choose from. One is a public/private partnership in Kota Kinabalu – the Shangri La Rasa Ria Nature Reserve. Here they fostered young orangutans from infancy until they are old enough to be transferred to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center further north. However, thanks to the efforts of Malaysian conservationists, as at April, 2017, the last of the two orang-utans have now been sent to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre. You will need to check to see if it is open now or not, I would not recommend going to it.
And the second and most prominent is Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre, opened in 1964, by an English woman Barbara Harrison, rescuing orphaned baby orang-utans from logging sites, plantations, illegal hunting or kept as pets. The orphaned orang-utans learn living skills with humans and other orangutans and once they reach a certain age, the choice is given to them to stay near the centre or move into Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve which is about 4,294 ha (10,610 acres) of mostly virgin rainforest. Today around 60 to 80 orangutans have chosen to live free in the reserve.
We chose the second option, hence staying in Sepilok.
The Rehab Centre also has a nursery area where younger Orangutans first learn to be outside and play on a large climbing frame. The viewing area consists of 2 large indoor seating areas (one with air conditioning and one with fans only) with a large window that overlooks the play area. Great for the kids and kids at heart.
This is not Iphone camera territory – you need a 400mm lens and a good camera to get the best nature shots. The viewing platform is some distance away from the orang-utans. You can pay about $300 USD a day to use a bigger lens inside the Centre, I would not recommend it. They have a tendency to look like guns – orang-utans have long memories, even longer arms, and are very strong. There have been a few stories about tourists losing their cameras to a seriously pissed orang-utan.
There are two open feedings every day – 10 am and 3 pm. These are the only feedings where orang-utans outside rehab can receive a free feed. 10 am is jampacked with tourists who have flown in from KK, or are driven up from Sandakan in their bus. They depart for other adventures soon after the 10 am feeding. Your ticket is for the whole day so we went back for the 3 pm session, where we were able to quietly enjoy the orang-utans, and where without a large audience, became braver, approaching quite closely.
Across the road is the SunBear Conservation Centre, open since 2014. Home to about 44 rescued ex-captive sun bears. Sunbears are the smallest bears in the world, found only in South East Asia. The biggest threat to these bears is illegal hunting of them for body parts considered to provide strength in certain countries, and their apparent cuteness making them attractive as pets. Apparent cuteness, they are very territorial.
Their long claws are used for hunting for ants, and to inflict nasty wounds on other bears that wander too close. We saw two sun bears involved in a nasty fight over a tree stump. I have a picture of a woman from a Lao conservation centre with one arm, thanks to a sunbear.
This river is starts high in the Crocker Range in Sabah, and travels 560 km down to its mangrove swamp estuary into the Sulu Sea. It is also one of the most easily accessible rainforest estuaries in the world. A 2 hour drive north from Sepilok through those damn palm oil plantations and we are there.
WWF (World Wildlife Fund) states that the Kinabatangan is one of only two known places on Earth where 10 primate species can be found. This includes the Bornean Orang Utan, the Proboscis Monkey, Macaques, Caped Langurs (called the Beckham monkey by locals due to the punk hair cut on the top of their heads) and Bornean Gibbon.
You can also expect to see Crocodiles, Hawks, Eagles, at least 3 varieties of Hornbills, Kingfishers, and more. If you are very lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the recently discovered Bornean ‘Pygmy’ Elephant feeding on the edge of the Kinabatangan River. We did – a mother and her baby, swimming across one of the river offshoots.
It is eerily quiet, broken only by the hootings of orang-utans and gibbons in the distance.
A reminder here – outside urban areas, and more so in the conservative Muslim north, women should dress respectfully, covering shoulders and legs. The ideal is baggy clothing; loose trousers with a modest long-sleeved tunic or baggy shirt. Some Ukranian tourists in our resort, sported bare bellies and short shorts, besides being eaten alive by mosquitoes, there was an obvious, but unspoken, degree of discomfort from the staff.
Evening river cruises are usually busy and you will be competing for photo angles with boats full of Japanese serious photographers all dressed with matching camera protection gear on their incredibly expensive professional Canons. But that is when you will see the most orang-utan, gibbon and monkeys heading to spaces to sleep.
Orangutans build a new bed every night, as they are one of the few primates that do not have automatic grip with their feet. They use their arms and hands to swing from tree to tree, unlike other primates which jump using their feet and tails grip as they fall through branches.
Morning cruises are less tourist busy, and the time for birds, eagles, egrets, hornbills, and some good shots of monkeys quietly sleeping in their trees.
On our last night, we take a walk in the pouring rain, which being dark had no idea where we were going, but it appeared to be around our resort. Listening to the sounds of nearer my god to thee from a community chapel (it was Sunday, and one of the few Christian communities lived nearby), we spotted a mouse deer, a rare marbled cat that looks a little like an Aussie possum dressed in cat clothes, any number of sleeping baby kingfishers, parrots. We took home some leeches, so bring some matches and salt with you.
Kota Kinabalu and its Island resorts
Heading back to KK from the River took the better part of one day, but we arrived in our island resort in time for a sunset tipple. There are two resorts quite close to KK, Gaya and Bunga Raya. Resorts are both owned by the same people.
Gaya is home to an onsite marine ecology centre. Pluses: Morning fish feeding of giant trevalley, their food and location is 5 star, with ocean stilt villas and on beach accommodation. Minuses: bare thread bath towels, bad muzak throughout the whole resort (example: ‘I don’t like Mondays’ sung by a Korean woman, as a love ballad).
We stay at Gaya, visiting the Bunga Raya, a short private boat ride away (there is a regular service between the two). Pluses: a beautiful beach to swim in, mini pools in some of the villas, good muzak, Great beach side bar and dining area. Minuses: Not enough options for plant based eaters.
We take a 3 hour hike across Gaya Island, where we lost 2.5 kgs and 4.5 litres of water from our bodies. I will never look at rattan the same way ever again.
We dive the national park where we were rewarded with turtles and loads of water life, and experienced the uncomfortable sensation of reef dynamiting.
It is over too soon, the next day, a short 15 minute private boat ride to KK, back in Singapore in the afternoon.
Just at our doorstep, we have one of the most unusual world eco systems. Go visit it, come back, and together let’s work to have it around for our children’s children.
ECO POST NOTE: In 2015, Sabah and the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan announced a program to introduce sustainable palm oil production. A 10 year jurisdictional program, it aims to bring everyone from MNC to small grower (of which Sabah has a large number) on board with a program to curb destructive practices, such as illegal forest felling, slash and burn and encroachment of their biodiversity. They hope that with environmentally conscious consumers are increasingly concerned with the impact of their purchases, Sabah-produced palm oil will become an attractive commodity for foreign buyers. I hope they do something about their reef dynamiting.