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Sepilok and Kinabatangan River 25-29 December

From Poring Hot Springs, we were due to move further east to Sepilok for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre on Christmas Day.  The previous day, we'd stopped in the nearby town of Ranau and booked seats in a minibus at a very reasonable price for the 3 and a half hour drive.  The driver was supposed to pick us up at Poring Hot Springs at 3 p.m. but the bastard never showed up.  Another driver said he'd seen him that morning.  He was already heading east for Sandakan and wouldn't be back until the next day.  So we took a taxi into Ranau and looked for another minibus.   Unfortunately, the last public bus left at 2 p.m.  That's why we'd booked the minibus to have more time at Poring.  It seemed no one wanted to travel east in the afternoon, so we had to charter a whole minibus for ourselves.

By the time we left Ranau it was 4.20 pm, so only about half the journey was in daylight.  We passed through several rain storms on the way and the road was pitted with pot holes.   It was a hell of a job for the young driver, and by the time we arrived safely at Sepilok Jungle Resort we all agreed that the US$ 70 we paid him was well earnt.  What is more, the poor devil was going to have to drive back that night to Ranau.

Sepilok Jungle Resort is a lovely place, set out in a beautiful garden.   The whole place was designed by the owner, a Chinese man called John.  He proudly showed us the award he'd received for the tidiest and cleanest resort in Sabah province.  Unlike Mt. Kinabalu and Poring, it was off season here, as the Malaysians are not very interested in wild life and the number of western tourists had decreased dramatically since 11 September.  We were given a discount for our comfortable room and Ray got an even better deal.  He was prepared to stay in a dormitory, but since there was no one else there, he got a family room of 4 beds to himself for 22 Ringitts (about 6 dollars!). The food there was excellent and they even had a respectable rice wine for the same price per bottle as a large beer.

It was pouring with rain on our arrival and it was still raining the next morning.  We enjoyed a bit of a lie-in for a change as our first activity of the day was only at 10 a.m. - feeding time at the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, just 5 minutes' walk away.  (The Centre looks after orphaned orangutans and gradually weans them off human care as they grow up.  The feeding platform is one of the final stages of sending them back to the wild to fend for themselves).  Since it was still raining, only 2 of the apes showed up.  We decided to return for the 3 p.m. feed.  By that time the rain had stopped and it was an entirely different story.  About 4 of them followed us as we headed along the wooden walkway towards the feeding platform.   We had been warned to cling onto our cameras as curious orangutans have been known to grab them.  At one point they got a bit too close for comfort and we had to shoo them away. At the platform we were greeted by the incredible sight of several orangutans having to compete with a whole load of long-tailed macaques for the sugar cane sticks that had been put out for them.  The macaques were a naughty lot, fighting between themselves for the choice pieces.  They also approached us and we were surrounded by several of them as we fiddled with our cameras,  hoping they would not take us unawares and snatch them away.

Next morning we were picked up from the Sepilok Jungle Resort by a guide and driver from Wildlife Expeditions to take us to the Gomantong caves and on to Sukau Lodge on the Kinabatangan river.  The caves were an interesting but quite repulsive experience.  It is from these caves that  swiflet nests are extracted to make birds nest soup - highly sought after by the Chinese in particular to make them potent and give them clear skin.  It is the bird saliva from the nests that goes into the soup.   The nests are boiled for several hours to get all the "goodness" out of them.  An expensive treat - again, bon appetit!

We entered the smelly caves along a wooden walkway that was covered in a mixture of bat and swiftlet guano.  We were afraid of slipping and falling flat on our faces into the muck but couldn't hold on to the railing as it was alive with cockroaches.  The little buggers were everywhere!  In the end we only saw a few small birds nests as they had just been "harvested" a few days before.  Then we spotted the guardian asleep under a tarpaulin inside the cave.  To guard against thieves, his job is to stay in the cave day and night, only leaving it for brief periods to grab a bite to eat.   It's apparently quite well paid, but I'd prefer the stress of working at IOM any day!  As we thankfully left the caves, we noticed a sign at the entrance which said "Please do not litter"!!

We continued along a bumpy, unpaved road past plantation after plantation of palm trees, cultivated for the palm oil that is extracted from the fruit, until we came to the Kinabatangan river.  There we boarded a motor boat for a two-minute ride to Sukau Lodge.  It felt as if we were stepping back into one of the luxury lodges in Tanzania.  The place was attractively designed with a deck over the river where we could enjoy sundowner's drinks from cushy settees.  Our room was reached along a wooden walkway.  On the way, we had to pass under the branch of a tree where a large snake was curled up asleep, probably digesting a large meal of a bird.  We were mildy relieved to be told it was considered semi-poisonous.  It could give you a nasty bite but wouldn't kill you.

After lunch we were taken on a boat tour to see the wild life, together with our (girl) guide Wang and the chief guide, a larger-than-life guy called Terence.   He delighted in telling juicy stories to scare us all and we nicknamed him Terrible Terence.  First we motored along a narrow tributary where it was easiest to spot fauna.  There was not nearly as much wild life as in Kenya or Tanzania, but we were impressed how the boatman and guides managed to spot what there was, such as snakes the colour of wood coiled up tightly at the axis of two branches of a tree.  It was Ray who was the first to spot a proboscis monkey high up in a tree.  Then we spotted another one, a large male, nearby. We also saw the rare silver langur (another breed of monkey with a triangular looking head) looking at us shyly through the foliage.  Our guide Wang had spotted another rare one - the maroon langur - on our way to the lodge.  Before returning to the lodge, we finished the tour on the wider river where we spotted some hornbills, both the black and rhino varieties.

The next morning we went on another river excursion to Oxbow Lake.   This time we were lucky enough to spot a baby crocodile lying on a log that was floating in the water.  It was a rare sight at this time of year.  Since it's the rainy season, the water level is high and we were told the crocs tend to stay under the water. Terrible Terence took us on a jungle walk and had fun telling us what to do if we saw an elephant.  There are some elephants in the jungle but they are pretty rare.   Actually the only wild life we saw in the jungle were different species of millipede and centipede... and lots of leeches.  But they didn't attack us as we'd taken the precaution of spraying ourselves well with insecticide before tucking our trousers into our socks.

We'd planned on spending the last night in Sandakan before taking the bus back to Kota Kinabalu, but seeing what a dump the town was, Flemming and I decided to spend another night at the lovely Sepilok Jungle Resort.  Ray, on the other hand, wanted to see something of Sandakan so he stayed there.  We met in the bus the following morning which we hailed at the junction with the road to Sepilok.  It was a long bus ride of 7 and a half hours to Kota Kinabalu.  I hadn't expected it to be more than 6 hours.  We would have done better to take the airline back to KK as it was only 3 times the bus ticket price.  Or better still, we should have returned to KK after Poring Hot Springs and then flown our own plane to Sandakan.  Ah well - one can't get it right all the time.  We were entertained on board by an amusing Indian musical which helped pass the time.

Back in KK, we dined  with a Danish family (Søren, Nina, Mads and Mette) whose parents are friends of Flemming's Uncle John.  It was thanks to them signing the guestbook  that we discovered they were on holiday in KK.

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The garden of Sepilok Jungle Resort

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Feeding at Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Easy to eat sugar cane with 4 hands!

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Mother and daughter

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Jetty at Sukau Lodge, Kinabatangan river

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Spot the snake in the tree!

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Dominant male of proboscis harem: big nose and big pot belly

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Ray, Terrible Terence, and Flemming at Sukau lodge

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