The bus leaves at 8AM, so I’m up by 6:20AM and put my bag out and have breakfast at 7AM. These early starts to the day are killing me, but at least the breakfast in our hotel is very nice, and they have cappuccino! Lemon takes over as our guide since Sarawak is his home turf.
Our first stop is the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, which is only about a half hour’s drive south of Kuching. This sanctuary for Orangutans is only open for an hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon. The morning feeding, although crowded with people is very rewarding photographically. The camera angles are better than the wildlife sanctuary in Sabah, and two Orangutan mothers show up with their babies clinging to them. I’m very happy with my photos of these fascinating creatures!
We then spend several hours in the bus – another endurance contest. We stop twice: once for a rest break and a visit to the local market in Serian, and a second stop for lunch at a Chinese-run local restaurant beside the road in Lachau. We all order fried rice and at Lemon’s suggestion, buy some exercise books and pencils as gifts for the Iban villagers we will be visiting tomorrow.
We end up at a jetty on an artificial lake created by a hydro electric dam, and take a launch to the Aiman Batang Ai Resort, which is located across the lake. We are now only 1°24’ north of the Equator. Temperatures are in the high 30s C and the humidity is right up there as well, so everyone is feeling the heat as we get settled into our rooms.
I am up at 6AM and put my bag out to be picked up before I leave to have breakfast. The hotel has a self-serve super-automatic espresso machine, so I have two cappuccinos along with some fruit, yogurt, and pastries. I check out and board the bus by 8AM.
Everyone is onboard ahead of time, so we leave at 7:50AM for the one hour drive to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in time for the first feeding at 9:30AM. This is a private sanctuary for the monkeys operated by a palm plantation owner. Everyone in the group take fantastic photos and video of the monkeys, since they are only a few metres away from us. The monkeys are well-behaved, not aggressive at all.
After we have lunch in the highlands at the classic English Tea House & Garden, we drive to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, arriving in time to see the afternoon feeding. As always, our guides are well-organized and ensure everyone is at the feeding platforms ahead of the crowds, so our group all take some wonderful photos and video.
We then check in at the nearby MY Nature Resort. This is another resort run by the same company as our last lodge on the river. This travel company also supplies the guides and boats we have been using. This is a very nice resort, and thankfully the chalets are very roomy and have air conditioning, so it is much more comfortable to sleep at night.
Our guides conduct another night walk at the nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre, but again I pass on the opportunity since leeches are a very real risk at that location.
April 14, 2018 Saturday – Sepilok Orangutans and Sun Bears
After breakfast, we spend the full day at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, seeing both the morning and afternoon feeding of the organgutans. We also see the nursery, where young orphan orangutans are socialized, taught how to forage and build nests, and build up their strength. They are encouraged to explore the adjacent rainforest sanctuary, since there are no fences or barriers. For their own safety, they are housed in a nursery building at night. After about four years, they are released to a protected area if the staff are convinced they have the skills to survive in the wild.
We also visit the adjacent Sun Bear Conservation Centre. These small, cute bears encounter the same issues as orangutans – encroachment of human settlements on their rainforest habitat, poaching, and locals keeping them as pets. The CEO and Founder of the Centre is Dr. Wong Siew Te, who gives us a personalized tour. We are fortunate to see three of the Sun Bears come out of the bush and literally pose for us on a stump right in front of the viewing platform.
Today we trade our posh Le Meridien hotel in Kota Kinabalu for a wilderness lodge in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. We fly to Sandakan in East Sabah this morning, drive along the Kinabatangan River (Sabah’s longest at over 500 kilometres) to Sukau and the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge.
Along the way we pass through many kilometres of oil-palm plantations, and arrive in time for lunch (served buffet-style). When one of the staff takes my bag to my cabin, he is attacked by a troupe of Macaque monkeys and is bitten. Not an impressive start to my stay!
Late this afternoon we take our first river cruise in search of Pygmy Elephants, but our guide Junior only finds fresh elephant dung, since they appear to be on the move. We do see a large group of Proboscis monkeys high in the trees beside the river, Silver Langur monkeys, and the Borneo Civet after dark as we return for a late dinner.
The cabins at the lodge are pretty basic, with no air conditioning, just fans and screens on the windows. There are bugs in the room and especially the bathroom. I started taking my Malarone anti-malarial medicine a couple of days ago in preparation for this segment of our travels, however despite the lodge being located right on the river, I see no mosquitos.
April 11, 2018 Wednesday – Kinabatangan in East Sabah, Malaysia
We leave the lodge by boat at 6:30AM for a 2.5 hour trip along the Kinabatangan River. We spot a beautiful Stork-billed Kingfisher soon after we leave the dock. Unlike yesterday evening, today I have my full camera kit with me for the boat trip, I take some good photos of a female Proboscis monkey with a baby in a tree, some Hornbills, a Black and Red Broadbill, a male Blue-eared Kingfisher, a Chestnut-breasted Malkoha, an Oriental Darter, some Silver Langur monkeys, a Wrinkled Hornbill, and a small Monitor Lizard. This is my most productive day for wildlife photography!
Our guide Junior gives a presentation on how he started out as a waiter in a resort, becoming a guide 35 years ago, and had the opportunity to work with David Attenborough on The Living Planet series. The biodiversity on Borneo is very concentrated, lending itself to feature films about the rainforest, such as the National Geographic Great Migration series. Junior tells us he is self-taught as a guide, but he is licensed by the government. Same goes for our other guides, which includes his son.
On the afternoon boat trip, we go up a tributary of the main river, where we spot: a Stork-billed Kingfisher (again), a Roller Broadbill (aka Dollar Bird), and an Oriental Darter bird. We see a couple of wildlife bridges built by the government wildlife service to help the Orangutans cross the river channel (since they don’t swim). Our guide tells us the wildlife bridges are mainly used by the monkeys.
I skip the night cruise, since photography is pretty well out of the question, and I really don’t want to be bitten by bugs, pick up any leeches, or attempt to photograph bugs by flashlight.
April 12, 2018 Thursday – Kinabatangan to Sandakan in East Sabah, Malaysia
On our morning boat trip, we see: Proboscis monkeys feeding (including a male), a Cattle Egret in breeding plumage, a pair of Hornbills, a male Black and Red Broadbill guarding its nest, and a young Crocodile on the muddy shore.
After lunch, it is time to leave the lodge by taking a 2.5 hour boat trip down the river to the jetty at Sandakan. This turns out to be an endurance contest, despite having a rest stop half way at Abai Jungle Restaurant and Lodge, a lodge on the lower river run by the same company (S I Tours) as where we were staying. The boats are going about 40 knots and when we are in exposed sea water in the Sulu Sea, the ride is very rough and noisy. I wear my noise-cancelling earbuds to reduce my stress level.
Once we arrive at the jetty in Sandakan, our bags are taken by hand carts to the bus waiting for us, and we are driven a short distance to the only deluxe hotel to be found in Sandakan, the Four Points by Sheraton. It has an infinity pool, gym, 2-level lobby with a piano, and is over 20 stories high. It’s quite pretentious, however I’m happy to have an American-style room with air conditioning, hot water and comfy bed after the last few nights spent in the river lodge!