Borneo is a special place for a whole number of reasons, but none more important than the endangered animals that it is home to, one of which is the orangutan. Borneo is one of the last places on Earth that offers a chance to still see orangutans in the wild, whilst contributing to conservation efforts being made to preserve their lives and habitats. Here's what we thought about our experience visiting both the Sepiloc Orangutan Center and the Kintabatangan River, how you can plan a visit too and some tips and things to know before your visit!
About Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center (SORC)
One place that provides care and rehabilitation to orphaned and injured orangutans is SORC. Established in 1964, they have been an integral organisation caring for and conserving the lives of these incredible, human-like creatures. Did you know that orangutans have 97% of the same DNA we humans do?!
SORC is located within a near 40 sq km of protected jungle about 25km west of Sandakan. This area of protected jungle is now home to 60-80 individual orangutans (although other sources say as many as 200), and offers them their natural habitat that is otherwise under threat from the development of palm oil plantations and logging companies. A lot of orangutans are also enslaved by the illegal pet trade!
Our Visit To The Center
After arriving at the center, we first had to pay the entrance and camera fees before being taken to the orangutan nursery by our private tour guide. Whilst walking along the raised, wooden boardwalk, we were lucky enough to spot two orangutans right there in the tree tops! It was a great first glimpse at the endangered animal in the flesh and in their natural habitat!
The nursery was a pretty nice building with plenty of space for watching the playful primates swing from rope to rope. It was basically an indoors, air-conditioned viewing area, with a big sheet of glass to separate us from our rehabilitating distant relatives. Here, we watched them for about 15 minutes before heading to the feeding platform.
The feeding platform was a stilted, square section of wood within the jungle. We were about 10 metres away on our own semi-sheltered, outdoors platform that was split into seating and standing ares. For a while, there were only a few other people waiting with us, but that soon changed as the scheduled feeding time of 10am drew closer. In the end, a substantial crowd flocked in to see the special moment that an orangutan would swoop down and binge on bananas and other fruits. To their disappointment, after 40 minutes of waiting, none came and almost everyone went for an early lunch of their own.
Our Thoughts On The Center
As we found out, there really is no guarantee to see orangutans at the feeding platform, which is actually a really good thing... It means the orangutans aren't relying on the humans for food and were learning to find it for themselves! We were also happy to see that there was no "call to eat" to encourage the orangutans to come out for us. Of course, you are almost certainly going to see the orangutans in the nursery, so there's no need to be disappointed by not seeing one - after all, that is why everyone visits.
Unfortunately, we couldn't help but think SORC felt a little bit like a zoo, because of the crowds, viewing platforms and other man-made structures. Of course, the center is in fact far from being a zoo and still provided us with a nice introduction to the orangutans without us having to support a cause that confines them to a life in captivity. The orangutans are free to move around the jungle just as the please and truly live in peace, hence the rehabilitation aspect.
Our visit to the center was included in a larger tour, which worked perfectly, as it meant that we weren't going to too much trouble to get there and we could easily include it in our itinerary, and therefore support the cause! We also thought that it was priced appropriately and, in this respect, totally worth the visit.
Adult tourist - RM30 (included in our tour)
Child tourist - RM15 (included in our tour)
Camera fee - RM10 (not included)
Public bus #14 - RM5 one way
Taxi - roughly RM40 one way
Grab/Uber - roughly RM20-30 one way
About Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River is the longest river in Borneo and runs from high in the mountains all the way out to the ocean! With jungle (albeit a very scarce amount now) sat either side of the surprisingly wide river, it provides an opportunity, if you're lucky, to see a whole range of endangered animals including orangutans, proboscis monkeys and even pygmy elephants!
We were staying at a lodge located on the bank of the river in Bilit, about a 2 hour journey away from SORC. The drive was fairly bumpy and the scenery was very saddening, with a sea of palm trees stretching endlessly across the landscape... That might not sound very sad, but the truth is that it was all at one point a very diverse rainforest, inhabited by all sorts of animals. The scale of the issue really hit home and showed us how large the demand for palm oil must be - food for thought you could say!
Our Visit To Kinabatangan River
We weren't particularly impressed with the our visit to the river. For the first hour of our first boat ride, we didn't really see any animals... Just some birds and a lot of trees lining the mud-brown river. However, about half way through, Harmony caught a quick glimpse at an orangutan nesting behind some bushes! We were also lucky enough to see some proboscis monkeys right at the end of the boat ride! It was amazing to watch them swing on branches and jump from tree to tree! They certainly gave us a good show!
As a bit of a bonus activity, after dinner, we were taken on a night-time jungle treck. It was a cool experience (especially when we all turned our lights off and stood in silence listening to the different jungle sounds), but it wasn't the most interesting part of the tour.
Before breakfast the next day, we headed out again on the river for our second boat ride. It was a lot more scenic at 6:00am, but there still wasn't much wildlife to be seen. We felt like we were spending a lot of time spotting birds, when everyone just wanted to see an orangutan, elephant or even a crocodile... It was only just over an hour as well!
Our Thoughts On The River Tour
Maybe our expectations were just too high for this trip, but we just didn't think that it was that special, especially for the money that we paid. It seemed like a bit of a money maker to the tour company and they didn't care enough about giving us the best experience possible. To them, this was everyday, but to us it was once in a lifetime. Of course, we don't expect to see more wildlife because we spent more money, but we do expect a great experience in general.
All of the lodges along the river seemed to be run very similarly with their boat trips, but our boat always seemed to be the latest to the sightings because it was so slow. The staff were really nice but, as guides and wildlife spotters, they were hopeless! There weren't even any binoculars in sight - come on, we're trying to spot wildlife here?! From what we saw on the water, we would recommend going with Nasalis Larvatus Tours/Nature Lodge Kinabatangan instead.
The accommodation at Natural Sukau Bilit Resort was absolutely awesome! There was a definite backpacker feel in the common area, but even the basic cottages were a little bit of luxury compared to what we have stayed in before!
The food definitely wasn't bad either and the breakfast was decent for sure. However, the dinner just wasn't very exciting for us vegans... No where near as exciting as we know it can be from our Turtle Island trip and TAO Philippines trip.
More About The Tour
Our tour was with Asia Green Travel and cost us 680 RM each, which we felt was very overpriced. we specifically chose Asia Green because they were supposedly "green" and "eco". However, other than a few recycling bins, we couldn't see any evidence of that, or any conservation efforts being made on their part. Our tour guide confirmed that nothing "specific" was being done to help the environment either.
On our second day of the tour, we were taken to Gomantong Cave by our personal, private guide. It felt a bit like it was just thrown in at the end, but it definitely sweetened the deal a bit. With shards of sunlight piercing through the ceiling, tall textured walls and lots of bats and birds flying about, it was really impressive! It might of smelt like bat poo and cockroaches, but we definitely finished the tour on a positive!