Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
Sunday, December 28, 2015
Traversing numerous airports we provide comic relief to airport staff as we forget bags and boarding passes. Never mind that we are seasoned travellers, braving the jungles of central Mexico deep in Zapatista country when our bus broke down in the middle of the night, scaled the highest mountain in South-East Asia and the Andes in Peru, clambered across glaciers in a snowstorm in Patagonia, or driven through crazy places like Naples and Manila where road rules do not exist. All that pales in comparison when traveling with two children under the age of three. Never mind that you are an expert in logistics or a meticulous planner, throw in months of sleep deprivation and it has all the ingredients of an award-winning comedy sketch.
But miraculously we make it. As we board the plane and settle into our seats, Joaquín our four months old falls asleep immediately, exhausted from traveling over two consecutive days. I rub my weary eyes as the plane takes off and push back into my seat. It is a short 45-minute flight from Kota Kinabalu – just enough time to throw back a palm’s worth of salted nuts, chased by a cup of juice when the plane begins its descent. Sofia’s chatter as she makes a picnic over her tray table is interrupted by the pilot who announces we are approaching Mount Kinabalu. Luckily we’re on the right side of the plane and catch sight of its majestic crown peeking out over a band of clouds. It is glorious to see it from the air having climbed the behemoth almost a decade ago sans babies and toddlers. It almost seems like another lifetime ago when we were a small family of three, where we are now six having welcomed Nikki’s partner Llyam into the fold.
Arriving in Sandakan, we squeeze ourselves into a taxi and head for the Sepilok Forest Edge resort conveniently located next to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. It is late afternoon as we sip chilled ginger tea in squat glass tumblers more suited to whiskey as we wait to check-in. The sound of water trickling into a pond full of fat koi lulls me into a stupor, and I finally exhale. Before long our rooms are ready. It is a short hike up to our cabin as dusk arrives along with its squadron of mosquitos. We came prepared for we are traveling with an infant in a country where dengue fever and malaria are common. The cabins are dotted along a meandering path through the jungle, upon reaching ours I am delighted by its bucolic charm. The wooden cabins are basic but cozy. It also has an outdoor shower which I make a note to try out the next day.
Dinner is a priority, the children are beginning to wane so we head back out into a clear night sky awash with stars. We decide to eat at the restaurant attached to the hotel. As I slip my sandals off, the wooden floor feels powdery under my bare feet. Overhead colourful paper lanterns house opportune geckos. We are tired and dinner takes more than an hour but when it eventually arrives it does not disappoint. Our favourites are the kampung style fried rice salted through with crunchy ikan bilis, topped with a fried egg and eaten with a side of spicy chili sambal. The other is a piquant coconut fish curry bursting with fresh lime and chili. Fully satiated we waddle back to our cabins as our children fall asleep in our arms, lulled by the rhythm of the noisy jungle.
Morning greets us with mist laced through the trees, I push open the doors to the balcony and it begins to pour. Despite the rain, we are excited, I don’t mind the rainy day. I prefer it to the searing heat, and we amble down the wooden walkway of the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The main viewing areas are on Platform A where feeding happens twice a day and in the nursery where young orangutans learn essential skills so they can survive in the jungle. Nearing the main area we spy a solitary orangutan sitting on the platform holding a makeshift umbrella over its head, fashioned from nearby branches and leaves as it waits for breakfast. This generates some laughter and amusement from the growing crowd. The centre has been in existence since 1964 and focuses on returning orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back into the wild. One of the best things about this place is being able to see orangutans living, playing and feeding in this large reserve rather than in a zoo.
It is almost 10 am – the first feeding session of the day, hushed chatter ripples through the well-behaved crowd observing the signs that ask us politely to be quiet. The lone orangutan on the platform still has its back to us, refusing to play to the cameras until it has had breakfast – behaviour I thoroughly agree with. A rustling sound signals the arrival of said breakfast, born on the back of a burly keeper who scales a ladder up to the platform. Heaving the tall rattan basket off his shoulders he tips it over and bananas, langsat, sweet potato and leafy green plants pour out. Immediately the jungle comes alive with swinging furry bodies. The crowd gasps, clearly thrilled and the clicking of cameras and phones go into overdrive. An orangutan shows us its butt grinning through a mouthful of large teeth while others perform a graceful ballet as they swing effortlessly through the trees. It is still raining and the mist settles like a blanket amongst the branches.
Being up close to these marvelous creatures gives us a renewed respect for nature and the importance of safeguarding our planet. How long before they are extinct? Will our grandchildren be able to see animals like these in their lifetime? I resolve to stop buying products which have palm oil in them for Malaysia has cleared huge swathes of Borneo’s rainforest to build palm oil plantations. We decide to head on to the nursery a hundred meters or so away. I am surprised when we walk into a squat grey building with large viewing rooms. The two rooms are arranged theatre-style with tiered seating. The nursery looks like an obstacle course with monkey-bars, nets, tires, ropes and a series of smaller platforms – a perfect training area for younger orangutans.
There are only a couple today, and they are outnumbered by a herd of short and long-tailed macaques who lope in one by one, followed shortly by mothers carrying their babies. It’s not long before the alpha male swaggers in. We are told the macaques are troublemakers and the orangutans try to chase them away from the food but the macaques don’t give up. We overhear the guides saying that the two species don’t usually co-exist together in the wild, but in a sanctuary like this where food is abundant, they have been content to share and live in relative harmony. At 11 am the guides announce that the centre is closing, visiting time is over. As we walk out we notice a tight knot of excitable tourists at the front, a young orangutan has clambered across the roof. The guides try to coax him back over to the nursery but he hangs off the edge of the roof peering down with great interest at the sight of smartphones being waved in its face. Then it’s eyes stray to Joaquin who is strapped onto Peter via the baby pouch and it pauses for a moment regarding Joaquin with its intelligent eyes before bounding back over the roof.
The rain has eased so we decide to stop for lunch and head over to the Bornean Sunbear Conservation Centre next door. The brochure in my hand says these are the world’s smallest bears, and as we climb up a flight of stairs to the viewing platform we spot them immediately ambling around the forest floor. They are about the size of a golden retriever. With small shy faces, they look distinctive. Their black pelt is accented by a patch of yellow fur like a smiley crescent moon across its chest. We overhear a guide talking about the individual characteristics of each bear and the circumstances of their rescue. The softly spoken young woman points to one with open sores all over its back. This bear enjoys being rescued so much that he injures himself purposefully. He lives at the centre permanently now being too accustomed to human contact (and regular feeding times).
The guide points a telescope into the trees and finds a bear lazing about in the trees while another shimmies up a trunk with its long claws. More macaques bound into view and an alpha-male clambers up to the platform close by. The guide immediately tells us to step back and avoid engaging in any eye contact. This male is particularly aggressive and will take on any challenge so we decide it is a good time to head for home.
On our way out we encounter an orangutan walking along the railing of the walkway. It stops and watches as we walk cautiously by, this one looks like a younger orangutan. A guide trailing behind it warns tourists to watch their cameras and phones as many have whipped them out excited to be in such close proximity. But it’s not anything we have that interests the young orangutan, it’s the drink can in Llyam’s hand. Grabbing it, the orangutan makes away with the can and makes short shrift of it, ripping it apart with powerful teeth. It then clambers up a tree where its strong hands tear away branches until there is nothing left. The keeper tells us orangutans display this behaviour when they feel their territory is being encroached upon. It reminds me of the capuchin monkeys in the Amazon who pelt us with fruit and branches when our canoes get too close to their feeding ground. These orangutans have so little left of their natural home, it’s no wonder they need to remind humans to have some respect.
After a long day, we retire to the comfort of our air-conditioned cabin in the jungle. Within minutes there is complete silence, I look across the bed at the peaceful faces of our sleeping children, their little arms were thrown up over their heads, no doubt dreaming of orangutans and bears.