Borneo: Where the wild things are

By Kate Wickers, September 19, 2008

We ogle the orangutans and other beasts in Borneo

I decided that my three small boys - Josh, seven, Ben, five, and Freddie, two -were far too fidgety (not to mention noisy) for a safari. But I liked the idea of a holiday that involved wildlife and adventure. Borneo, which instantly conjures up images of headhunting tribes, vast jungles shrouded in mist and, of course, the original wild man himself, the magnificent orangutan, was the obvious choice.

We got over jet lag in a brief stopover in the Malaysian capital, staying at Kuala Lumpur's fantastic Traders Hotel with views overlooking the spectacular Petronas Towers (the world's second highest buildings), before flying on to Sabah, Borneo's most northerly state.

Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort, an hour north of the capital Kota Kinabalu, lies between rainforest and sea. But I hadn't chosen the hotel just for its stunning location, but because it also has its very own nature reserve, home to eight young orangutan orphans.

The reserve is a half-way house for these waifs and strays, which roam freely during the day, playing amongst the vines and vegetation, but at night are housed and protected by the rangers. Their next residence is the famous Sepilok Sanctuary before, ultimately, they are reintroduced into the wild.

On our first visit to the reserve, Freddie found an instant buddy in Cute, who was also two years old and the same height. They spent a happy five-minutes exchanging "Oooo Ooooos" and sticking out their tongues at each other before a piece of sugarcane caught Cute's eye and he ambled off.

Twice daily the rangers bring food to a platform for the orangutans, who have no choice but to share their feast with troops of long-tailed macaques. As these bully-boys crash the party baring their teeth, they are a timely reminder of why the young orangutans need protection.

We could easily have idled away a week without ever setting foot outside of the Rasa Ria so taken were we with the horse rides along the beach, catamaran sailing, foot massages and visits to Cute and his friends. But most days we peeled ourselves away from the pool to go exploring.

The biggest tamu (market) in Sabah takes place on a Sunday in Kota Belud, an hour further north. We rubbed shoulders with the vendors and hagglers, gossipers and browsers, soaking up the lively atmosphere of what is most definitely as much a social gathering as a chance to do the weekly shop.

Although mainly a produce market, with mounds of hairy crimson rambutan, mangoes the size of melons, spiky, foul-smelling durian, piles of dried fish and seaweed and wobbly local buffalo cheese, there were local handicrafts to be snapped up, too.

Always on the look out for an off-the-beaten-track experience we hired a car and driver one day and asked him to drive us to the jetty where we could board a boat for Kampung Penambawan, a remote fishing village built on stilts above an ocean inlet. I had read it was one of the few remaining traditional villages in the area and was keen to show the boys what life would be like without TV, DVDs and PlayStations.

"Not a tourist place," our driver told us, looking worried. Exactly, I thought.

My sons, who spend much of their time pretending to be pirates, thought it a great adventure to be boarding the large canoe, which served as the local ferry. Kampung Penambawan has certainly survived the trappings of modern life - you'll find no TV aerials protruding from the traditional thatched roofs and there is one tiny shop where old women sat gossiping and weaving mats from pandanus leaf. Ben pegged his nose as we passed the fish laid out to dry on the boardwalks, while Josh looked longingly after the boys his age who paddled their own canoes and did star jumps in to the water.

Sandakan, on the East coast, where we were to base ourselves for three nights at the Sepilok Nature Resort, is a 45-minute flight from Sabah. Our wooden chalet nestled amongst rainforest foliage and the boys played hide and seek amidst the palms and giant ferns, while I indulged my senses in the fragrant wild orchid garden. The only thing that spoiled our little piece of paradise was our noisy neighbours - croaking toads, over-excited grasshoppers and rowdy indigo flycatchers. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was just a stroll away, and we spent two happy half-days marvelling at these energetic apes as they somersaulted and swung along the jungle vines. Josh and Ben studied them carefully before choosing to adopt Sen. Twenty-five pounds keeps a baby orangutan in food and shelter for a year and in return you get regular letters from your adopted primate.

For dinner with a difference we headed to the Ocean King Seafood Restaurant, a vast eatery built on stilts above the water in Sandakan.

"You're joking!" exclaimed Josh, when I broke it to him that the pools teeming with fish and crustaceans we were staring at were in fact the menu.

"I thought it was an aquarium," said Ben, visibly shocked by my revelation.

On offer were strange prehistoric creatures such as horseshoe crabs,sea cucumbers and spiky sea urchins. Once my poor children had recovered from the shock, they chose some sort of snapper. It was steamed to perfection with ginger and garlic and the boys gobbled it up with fried rice.

Next day's adventure was an uncomfortable three-hour drive to the Kinabangatan River. The kids thought being tossed around in a jeep was a hoot. I, however, was looking forward to the smooth tranquillity of a river cruise. We opted to explore by private boat so that if Freddie made loud "Oo-Oo" noises at the proboscis monkeys he wasn't in danger of upsetting keen wildlife enthusiasts. Not as obviously adorable as the orangutan, the proboscis monkeys with their enormous hooters, protruding pot-bellies and permanently erect penises are great fun fodder for small boys. Other diversions included brilliant stork-billed kingfishers, pig-tailed macaques and pied hornbills, which bellowed from the treetops for attention.

En route back to Sepilok we stopped at the Gomantong Forest Reserve, famous for its caves where swift's nests are harvested for the Chinese delicacy of bird's nest soup. We'd been told the caves were unsuitable for young children, as the floor was covered in a slippery concoction of bat and swift droppings. But we decided to risk it.

It was the smell of ammonia that hit us first. The cave was fetid and gloomy and we could see cockroaches and giant millipedes. Poor Ben began to cry but we soldiered on. We finally stumbled into daylight with the boys shouting "Yuk!" and "That was disgusting!" when Ben suddenly pointed to bamboo trees ahead. And there, in all her wild glory, was a large adult female orangutan, reaching up for bamboo leaves. It was a moment that I'm sure Josh, Ben and Freddie will remember all their lives and the essential moment of our trip - to see the original wild man of Borneo not on a feeding platform, but in a tree, feral and free.


Travel facts

Kate Wickers flew direct to Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines ( and to Sabah with Air Asia (, booked through Trailfinders (; 0845 0855858). Traders Hotel in Kuala Lumpur and the Rasa Ria Resort in Sabah ( also booked with Trailfinders. Sepilok Nature Resort ( The best time to visit is March to May.

Temperatures stay between the high 20s and low 30s. It can rain at any time but heaviest is November to March. Children should be up to date with routine vaccinations and will also need Hepatitis A and typhoid. Check with GP for up-to-date information on all vaccinations and anti-malarial advice.

Last updated: 4:07pm, March 11 2009



Fri, 09/19/2008 - 15:44

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Thanks for such a wonderful story!
I'd like to invite you and your readers to visit the Orangutan Outreach website to learn more about how to help orangutans. These precious, peaceful apes are critically endangered because of palm oil and deforestation-- and they will be extinct in the wild in less than five years if nothing is done to save them and their habitat!
Orangutan Outreach is a non-profit based in New York City.

Maybe you'd like to adopt a baby orangutan? :-)

Thanks for you time!

Richard Zimmerman
Director, Orangutan Outreach
Reach out and save the orangutans!