We arrived at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center around 9:30am and waited as the wooden observation deck filled up with tourists. Later that morning, the orphaned orangutans who currently call the center home as they are reintroduced to the wild and weened off human contact, would be served a modest meal of milk and bananas. The young apes seemed shy, but used the wires connecting trees with a series of platforms to swing their small muscular bodies over for breakfast and chow down with the numerous pig-tailed macaques around.
But the center’s main priority is certainly not tourism. The orangutans that used to roam freely around Borneo are now endangered, and many youngsters are found around palm oil plantations where the trees end — many times being orphaned by the murder of their mothers. The center cares for the scared babies and goes through a delicate process of rehabilitating them so that one day they may live on their own in the wild — a process that takes up to seven years. And they’ve had great success. While some orangutans never stray far from the center throughout their adult lives, many others go on to mate and raise their own babies.
Just down the road from the orangutan center is the Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center, which is sort of like a park with a variety of hiking trails, viewing towers, canopy walks, and a small information center. The beautiful and well-marked Plant Discovery Garden was especially impressive — Nate and I couldn’t stop photographing the lush orchids. And in the slideshow you’ll also come across some obligatory photos with “The Sepilok Giant.”
Whether you’re looking for a trek into steamy rainforests to see orang utans or a relaxing boat ride to spot the beautiful hornbill or oriental darter, you’ll find it in Borneo’s interior around the Kinabatangan River. But, if you hope for a “rocking” experience led by a group of local Malays, consider Uncle Tan’s Jungle Adventure. With five local guides rocking mohawks, highlights, and long hair, you might think you’re arriving for a concert in the jungle — not two days of nature watching. We soon discovered we would get both as the guitars would come out after each “expedition” and the very knowledgeable guides who were just reciting the scientific name of a bird, were now wailing their own rendition of Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours. When the sun goes down, the local rice wine comes out and the guests are welcomed to the jungle with swigs of the spirit.
Without a dull moment, we went on early morning, day, and night boat rides and treks, observing ginger orang utans watching us quietly from the safety of their high branches (look closely at the photos). The long tail macaques were too abundant to point out after a while, but were amazing to watch as families would sit together on a tree limb over the water, tails hanging as they patiently groomed each other and ate grass roots. We saw the agile gibbon whose long arms afford them the ability to swing quickly over tremendous distances from tree to tree. The very unusual and rare proboscis monkey (found only in Borneo), whose bulbous and droopy nose likens a Dr. Seuss character, sat in families as a mother craddled her baby in such a human manner.
Between our scans from one river bank to another, we also saw the unusual pied hornbill, the colorful kingfisher, massive serpent eagle, and storm stork among many birds. I can now see the allure of bird watching, thanks Uncle Tan’s. At night we quietly crept down the river to see some crocodiles, a civet, and many sleeping birds in the trees lining the river bank. There was so much wildlife about that even the bathrooms were like an insect zoo, with a five-inch millipede taking the prize. At the conclusion, our guides wrote down the wildlife we saw, reaching 69 species of life. I would have been happy with 15, honestly.
The adventure was exciting, but visiting this area highlighted some harsh realities. The 2-hour journey to the jungle camp ended with a solid 45-minute drive through a massive palm oil plantation, the industry that has deforested a large portion of the Borneon habitat. As we rode upstream in a little outboard motorboat the effects were visible. In spots where palm plantations nearly reach the river, a one-tree thick line of trees has been preserved to connect patches of reserve land so that apes can travel from one patch of jungle to another. These lines of trees are called “corridors of life” and without them, the orang utan and other tree dwelling creatures become isolated — not reproducing, and even starving. A sad reality to the booming industry of vegetable oil.
To get out to Uncle Tan’s Jungle Camp, we embarked on a 3 day/2 night tour from their base camp in Sepilok with about 16 other people. A 2-hour van ride brought us right to the grand, muddy Kinabatangan River, where we took a short boat ride to the camp.
Our accommodation was an open air hut hosting three mattress pads each with a mosquito net and a great view of a little swam from the porch. The aluminum roof overhead echoed the sounds of anything falling on it, and one night we woke to two monkeys fighting above us. Showers came in the form of big blue barrels from which river water could be scooped and poured from buckets. We passed on the shower. The food was great and the staff seemed to come from some sort of a punk rock Disney World — really hip but super friendly and accommodating, apologizing for their “jungle english,” which I thought was pretty good. The staff was friendly from the start: Welcome to the jungle! And Don’t be shy! You shy, you die. All the way to the last minute: as we left the entire staff gathered around the dock waving to us, strumming and singing/yelling the chorus to James Blunt’s Goodbye My Lover… goodbye my friend.