Ever since I was a young girl I’ve wanted to visit the Bornean rainforests. I was fascinated by an exhibit at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo called Tropic World, which consisted of three rainforest habitats where different types of monkeys live. One was Malaysia, and there were gibbons and orangutans swinging from ropes and trees. They had misters creating “tropical rain” and I remember thinking it was so exciting. At 8 years old or so I said to myself, “One day I’ll get to see this in person.”
So you can imagine my excitement when I planned this trip, finally getting to see what I’d dreamed about since a little girl. Most young girls dream of their weddings, I dreamed of orangutans! Of course, the devastating effects of deforestation and globalization, more specifically, cutting down the Bornean rainforests to create palm plantations are in full force, quite possibly to the extent that if I one day I have a little girl who dreams of seeing the Bornean rainforest, she won’t be able to, because it won’t exist.
So I hope this post will be not only a trip report but also a wakeup call for all of us to consider what we need to do to protect these special spaces and species that are in danger of being lost for good.
Back to my trip. We landed in the Sandakan airport and headed directly to Uncle Tans Ops Base in Sepilok which sits of the edge of the rainforest. This would be our starting off point for our wildlife adventure. We spent one night at the ops base in a VERY basic cabin preparing for our jungle trek. The next morning, we started off at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, which is a wonderful organization responsible for rescuing orphaned orangutans and releasing them into the wild once they are ready. This center is responsible for rescuing and sending hundreds of orangutans back into the jungle, ensuring that this species, which is rapidly nearing extinction due to loss of habitat, continues to thrive. As it is, there are only 10,000-20,000 orangutans left in the wild, and the species can only be found in this particular island and part of Malaysia.
Visitors are able to see the nursery, where the babies and children are trained to climb, swing and jump, as well as find food, ensuring their survival later on when released into the wild. The babies were so naughty and cute, and it was hysterical watching them tumble about. They’re only assisted by monitors if they walk on the jungle floor, as they need to learn how to avoid the jungle floor. This is because wild orangutans almost never visit the jungle floor and mainly live high up in trees. Did you know they also make nests? Considering the size of orangutans, these nests are huge!
The really neat part about this center is that it’s very different that a zoo in a sense that when the orangutans they are adults are simply released about into the wild. So this center is placed in the jungle, meaning if you hike around a bit, you are in the jungle, and the orangutans just roam about.
Only the nursery is caged so the other animals simply roam about in the jungle. They can return to the center if they want food but most choose to stay out in the rainforest. One came so close to me I could touch it and was very special to be near these animals in a setting where they aren’t caged.
During feeding time, food is placed on a platform and left out. The orangutans and come if they want, and we were able to see a cute little family eating their bananas here.
After this, we headed back to the ops base for a briefing on our jungle wildlife adventure. We hopped in a 4 X 4 with another couple and headed about 1.5 hours into the jungle. We were dropped off at a small jetty, where locals helped us throw our backpacks into a small boat which was to take us about 45 minutes upstream the Kinabatangan River where we’d stay for two nights at Uncle Tan’s wildlife camp.
The boat ride was amazing.
We were able to see a ton of proboscis monkeys dangling from tree branches, and the most exciting was our first real orangutan spotting. It was a giant male perched in a treetop, and WOW. He was enormous. I would later realize we were extremely lucky, as many don’t even get to spot an orangutan in the wild during their tour. In fact, it was the only one we saw, but that’s cool, I was just so happy to have seen one really far out in the wild, plus the few I’d seen in the jungle rehabilitation center area.
We docked at the camp and were given our cabin assignments. We’d be in the first cabin along with one Dutch couple and two Dutch girls, for a total of six. We got really lucky that our cabin mates were super cool (honestly, I just love Dutch people) and we ended up having a great time with them.
The cabins…they were beyond basic. No doors, no windows, made of creaky old wood. There were three mattresses on the ground with mosquito nets and a sheet covering each – no pillows.
Each cabin came with a plastic bin to place any food, toiletries or medicines in. This is because monkeys and jungle rats (yes, RATS, EW) can unzip bags and bite through fabric, and apparently are especially partial to toothpaste and aspirin!
There was a wooden plank that led to the cabins, which were perched upon stilts and rightfully so, as the rainwater made the area below swampy and gross.
It was especially scary at night in the pitch black, so it was essential to carry your flashlight, because if you tripped and fell off the wooden walkway, you’d tumble down into the swamp, eek! Who knows what creepy crawlers were living down there.
The bathrooms were insane. Four toilets and a few giant tubs of brown water for a “rinse.” I went without a shower, and instead did a quick rinse on day two in the river, despite warnings of crocodiles.
We settled into a camp and got ready for our first night safari boat ride. I could believe how dark it was on the river. Literally pitch black…I don’t think I’ve ever seen darkness so black! I didn’t realize the extent to which light pollution plagues even the most rural of spots in the US and Europe. Even in Arizona where my parents live, I’ve never experienced darkness like this. It was terrifying and extremely exciting all at the same time to be out in a boat in the middle of nowhere in total darkness. Luckily, the boat driver has a spotlight and we all had our trusty headlamps and flashlights, though it’s rather annoying because once you turn them on, the bugs are drawn to the light and let me tell you, these mosquitoes are unlike any other. Even covered in Deet, they attack hard! Don’t worry though, I’ve been faithfully taking my malaria pills, and Zika doesn’t seem to be an issue here, at least not yet. Plus all sorts of flying bugs and creatures…even night bees! Ummm what, night bees! Yes, they are real. The guide smacked my back in the middle of the ride, killing a giant night bee on the back of my life jacket. Just you know, surviving the jungle!
Despite the bugs, the night safari was super awesome. We were able to spot monkeys of all kinds asleep in trees, several kingfishers, an owl and crocodiles.
Seeing the crocs was creepy too. I don’t have a photo, but it’s scary–you can see the reds of their eyes creeping above the water in the darkness!
We came back to camp afterward and ate dinner.
The food each day and night was buffet style, with a solid selection of meats, veggies, curries and rice, with fruit for dessert.
The vibe at the camp was happy go lucky and chill. The guides would play the guitar and everyone would hang out and sing and have beers and hang out. All the people we met were pretty cool.
I think in order to do something like this, you have to be a pretty awesome person, so we had a lot of fun meeting the other guests, who hailed from all over the world, of all ages, nationalities etc. We had families, singles, couples and groups of friends. Nature is for everyone, after all!
The electricity was only turned on from 7 pm-midnight, allowing us to charge our camera batteries mainly, as there was no internet, TV or phone service of any kind! Of course, the highlight was heading back to the cabins and finding a giant snake asleep inside. Apparently this breed, a mangrove snake, is only poisonous when it spits, but the bite won’t kill you. Seeing the guides run over to it with a golf club and a broom, chasing it into the swamp, was priceless. The whole camp came out to enjoy the spectacle.
At midnight, the lights would click off and boom, plunged into darkness! Wakeup calls were at 5:30 am and I definitely didn’t get much sleep that first night. The sounds in the jungle are like nothing I’ve ever heard in my life. Shrill screeches, chirping, scattering, pattering, a surprise rainstorm, honestly, it’s like a full on pop concert of wildlife out there. Made me long for the comforting city sounds of my upstairs neighbors stamping about or drunks shouting from the bar downstairs, horns honking, car alarms etc. I of course awoke to every noise, not to mention the intense heat and humidity. Thankfully, the mosquito net did its job and I awoke without bites at our 5:30 am wakeup call. Also, waking up in the middle of the night to pee was scary! I stumbled out of the net, threw on my flip flops and cautiously excited the hut for the long walk to the bathrooms. In a moment of panic, I saw something slowly creeping towards me, but it was just the camp cat. Whew.
Back to the wakeup call. I exited the comfort of my floor mattress in the pitch black to get dressed and heard a yell. There was an ENORMOUS spider on the mosquito next (the outside, thank goodness) of the girls bed next to ours. Jorge chased it away with the top of the plastic cube and it scuttled into the darkness (probably into one of my socks or something). After a quick coffee, we started out for our morning safari.
As you might figure out, the morning safaris are done early because that’s when you see the most wildlife.
However, we didn’t have much luck this time, only spotting some monkeys and eagles.
Following this, we went on a morning jungle trek, where we were able to spot giant forest millipedes, giant forest centipedes, some birds and learned a ton about plants and trees.
Heading back to the camp after this, we had lunch and I headed over to my hammock for a solid three-hour nap, an ideal activity in the strong heat of the day.
During this time, Jorge went fishing, and caught several catfish and some eel.
I woke up just in time for the evening boat safari which was awesome as we managed to see tons of new monkey species, as well as a flying lemur, and some other cool birds.
We also saw flying foxes, which are some of the world’s largest bats.
Once it got dark, we headed into the jungle for our night jungle trek, which was exciting.
Head lamp in tow, galoshes on, we stomped through swamps, discovering several frogs and birds and even a special species of small monkeys who only come out at night. I wasn’t able to get a photo, but I’ll never forget their red eyes glowing in the dark. Apparently, spotting these monkeys are quite rare so we were really lucky. I think the species is called Western Tarsier.
We also saw a giant scorpion and several spiders.
The night trek was super cool and I’ll happily remember the feeling of stomping through the jungle in the pitch black!
After an evening of rice wine and guitar songs (yes, I’ve heard enough “In the Jungle” to last me a lifetime) I found I was so tuckered out that I slept much better, despite the sounds of the jungle. Or maybe I’m just becoming at home in the wilderness? Ha. We awoke at 5:30 for our final morning safari which was deemed “the crocodile hunt.”
Here we saw a couple baby crocs, a monitor lizard, several monkeys (some jumping super far tree to tree, it was really neat) and more birds: several toucans (officially called hornbills), eagles, egrets and Kingfisher species.
After this we packed up our stuff (finding our spider friend at the bottom of someone’s backpack!), had lunch and got ready to head back to civilization. Before leaving, we sat down with one of the guides, Teo, who made a list of all the species we saw and I found this to be super cool.
I now know so much more about jungle wildlife! All of the guides were really helpful and it’s amazing how they can spot things. You’re just going along in the boat and all the sudden they stop the boat, pull it over to the side and tell you to look. You can’t see a thing! And the suddenly, something comes into focus. Monkeys, an owl, a croc…I don’t know how they spot it from so far away. And then they tell you the breed or species and if it’s a monkey, if it’s a male or female, etc. They have so much knowledge and it makes you realize that no matter how much you know about the world, there’s always so much more to learn!
I can’t say enough nice things about Uncle Tans Wildlife Adventures. It’s super basic and the sleeping arrangements are far from luxury, but this place is special. The focus is on nature and I honestly can’t believe I went three days in jungle heat and humidity without a shower and with all of natures comforts like bugs, bees, snakes, rats and more (and loved it).
I can certainly cross this one off my list! I strongly encourage anyone who doesn’t mind roughing it and who loves nature to do something like this once in their lives. It’s an experience I’ll never forget! Ok but now, onto a nice, high-end hotel with white fluffy sheets please!
After the camp, we headed to the Four Points Sheraton Sandakan, where were given a room upgrade and had a gorgeous view overlooking the city and harbor. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a nicer shower in my life than this one. Washing off the DEET, the sunblock, the blood, sweat and tears of the jungle felt incredible, and I couldn’t be happier for a soft, warm bed with no bugs!
Sandakan is a weird little city.
There really isn’t much to do, but that was fine, as we wanted to relax and recover from our jungle adventures – honestly, it’s exhausting being out in the heat and humidity wildlife hunting!
The hotel had a great infinity rooftop pool which we enjoyed immensely and we also had a nice time savoring the fresh fish purchased at the markets or on the street.
One evening we headed over to the Sim Sim fishing village, which is an area of town that features houses on stilts over the water. The area was kinda gross, with rats running around the muddy area below the houses, but it was a really unique spot and interesting to see how these people live.
Peeking into the houses, I saw many altars of worship and the inside of the homes were actually clean and well cared for.
We ate some incredible seafood at a famous restaurant near here, Sim Sim 88.
The other highlight of Sandakan was the Central Market which is open in the mornings.
Selling all sorts of things, we especially enjoyed the fish section with all the fresh catches of the day, including sharks and stingrays.
We also walked down to the docks to see them unloading all the fresh fish which was busy and interesting.
The last night, we did something very original.
We had the hotel call the Sandakan Fishing Association, which I discovered by reading obscure blogs online to reserve us a spot.
They put a few tables out of their office/kitchen and cook dinner serving the fresh catch of the day. No menus and no English!
We went and were served the most delicious crab I had ever tasted! Total bill for two for soup, two giant crabs, and a whole grouper? 12 euros. Not bad!
And that’s all folks!
My headlamp is officially packed away at the bottom of my backpack, most likely to never be used again. My galoshes have been passed down to another enthusiastic jungle trekker. My mosquito bites have since ceased to itch…did all of this really happen? Oh but it did! I leave you now with a pleathora of wildlife photos, hopefully a thirst for adventure and exploration and this quote:
There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. ”
– Theodore Roosevelt
President of the United States
Now we’re heading to Penang, so stay tuned for plenty of street art and street food!!!