First Time Seeing An Orangutan – Sepilok – Borneo
If you ask anyone to tell you everything they know about Borneo, they will almost certainly mention one thing. The Orangutan. They may, if they’re a patron of Greenpeace, mention palm oil and the incredible damage that is doing to Borneo’s biomes. But there is one main reason that they would know about that. The Orangutan. They may, if they’re a bit of a nature nerd, talk about the fact that Borneo contains some of the oldest rainforest in the world, containing many species that cannot be found outside of Borneo. Including the Bornean Orangutan.
Basically, you can’t get far into a conversation about visiting Borneo without people asking if you’re going to see the Orangutan. And after a little over a week in Borneo, we were finally going to see them for ourselves.
After a surprisingly short flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan – about 40 minutes – incurring a surprisingly low cost – about £20 each – we headed straight to Sepilok. Sepilok is a small town about half an hour outside Sandakan which contains the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Rainforest Discovery Centre, as well as a number of other rainforest-themed food-based, hostel-based or general tourism-based establishments.
Arriving at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, we were pleased to see that they had lockers to stash our bags, as we were carrying our full rucksacks. The Centre doesn’t allow you to take anything other than a camera into the forest area, and we were more than happy to oblige.
We paid up – about £5 each – and headed inside. The jungle itself wasn’t particularly dense around the elevated walkway, and we were able to see through to the canopy at the top. It was here that we were treated to our first (and sadly only) sight of Borneo’s most famous bird – the hornbill. We managed to see a couple of them flying into their nests high up in the canopies, and were surprised at how large they were. We thundered down the walkway towards the Orangutan feeding platform and were there within a couple of minutes – only stopping to look at some of the more impressive trees.
The area overlooking the feeding platform was crowded with people, although whilst we were a little bit late, we were still able to find a position to allow us to see a single Orangutan quietly munching on some of the fruit laid out for it, pretty much unconcerned about the huge crowd gathered to watch and document its meal through the format of Instagram.
Soon enough, another Orangutan came to join it, and after it too ate its fill, they both shuffled off. Fortunately quite a large section of the audience shuffled off with them, and we were able to take a more prime view of the feeding table.
What happened next was the highlight, a family of Orangutan -complete with a baby – came swinging into view. The baby was adorable, testing out its climbing abilities whilst its mother snacked, and making attempts to bite its father. Humans share 97% of their DNA with Orangutans, and behaviourally, this child’s ability to frustrate and annoy its parents felt very similar – complete with their looks of vexed affection.
The family unit remained for a good 20 minutes or so before slinking back off from where they came, and the spellbound audience headed their separate ways. After our rush to the feeding platform, we decided to go and check out some other sections of the Centre.
Walking around the boardwalks a while we came across a group of people who had stopped on the walkway and were staring into the trees. It was here that we were given another view of the family in their more natural habitat – the mother and baby sleeping in a nest-like section of the tree, and the father climbing an adjacent tree, as if for the entertainment of his progeny. It was a cute sight to see the tenderness extended beyond the dinner table.
This illusion of the tenderness and humanity of the orangutan was broken as we rounded the next corner, as we were given a reminder that despite appearances, they are still wild animals. Coming out into an open, grass covered area surrounding the Orangutan Rehabilitation building, a member of staff told us – in a voice both firm and urgent – to get back. We watched as an adolescent orangutan lumbered through the undergrowth and mounted the rail along the walkway. Apparently this particular orangutan had a reputation as a trouble maker, and we had no intention of seeing how he had received this reputation, particularly with expensive cameras in tow.
Before we had an opportunity to really appreciate this part of the centre, we found ourselves being ushered out, as the orangutan centre closed for lunch. Coming across various lingerers on the way back, the employees had an unenviable task of getting everyone out of the centre. Shortly before the exit, we stopped as the staff member behind us pointed out a snake – which was the first that we’d seen of the trip. With this extra bonus topping off a fantastic morning, we headed out into their cafe and had some snacks and a drink while we waited for the centre to reopen.
Soon enough, the doors were open, and our ticket from earlier was fortunately still valid. We went straight to the centre where we’d finished the mornings pursuits. There we witnessed a sex pest orangutan attempting to mate with virtually every female it could lay its hands on. Still quite human, just not as cute.
Our day came to an end and we managed to secure an Uber out of the centre, and up towards our accommodation for the night. After spending some time trying to find it, we managed to check in and settle down after a long and interesting day.