In October 2014, we went on a family holiday that took us to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. I had wanted to go here for a very long time. A friend of mine visited here over 15 years ago and my sister visited last year with her husband. I have always been interested in the plight of orangutans and really wanted to provide the kids with an opportunity to see the orangutans before it’s just too late. I was pleased to see that a lot of work and money is going into ensuring that this is not going to become a reality.
I took the opportunity, while we were in Kota Kinabalu for 5 days, to book a flight over to Sandakan with Air Asia. I had looked at doing a day tour but the best price I could find was $2600AUD for the 5 of us for a day tour to Sepilok. I looked into doing it ourselves and while it was manageable, I was concerned about a travel warning for the area for terrorism and kidnappings on the Australian Government website, smartraveller.gov.au. I was informed that the warning had been released some years ago for issues off the coast of Sandakan. I was not planning on hitting the high seas whilst during this visit.
Regardless, I decided to book the flights, hell they were only AU$248 return for the 5 of us with Air Asia. Next was the ground transport, a friend of mine had recently been to Malaysia and had used a company called Journey Malaysia, she said they had been very reliable. I contacted them via email and enquired as to whether they could organise a private driver for the day and I received a prompt reply ‘yes, that can be arranged’. At approx. AU$150, this meant that my quoted day tour costing AU$2600 had only cost us AU$400. A pretty good saving if you ask me!
As per usual, not all ‘well thought out’ plans run smoothly. Our original flights were to return on a flight at 7pm at night. This flight was cancelled and we were re-allocated a flight that departed Sandakan at 2.30pm. Now in light of the travel warning, I wasn’t to upset about this. It gave us enough time to get to Sepilok see the orangutans and to see the new Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. This had only opened 5 days before our arrival and it is located straight across the road from the orangutans. There was also a small communication breakdown and our driver was 1 hour late picking us up but that was no big drama. The flight cancellation did mean that we had to scrap the Proboscis Monkey Rehabilitation Centre, another time. Also another lesson learnt, request English speaking drivers in the future but that’s another blog post!
We arrived at Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre about 9am and we went straight into an information session/video movie of the work and history of what is being done at Sepilok. There were about 15 visitors in the room viewing the video. It also provided us with information about the orangutan adoption options provided by Orangutan Appeal UK. The kids were quite interested in the video, it went for approx. 30mins. At the end the video explained what we were required to do next.
I went straight out and purchased our tickets to enter the centre and attended the feeding session at 10am. It cost approx. AU$35 ($10 per adult & $5 per child), we also had to pay $3 for each camera we wanted to take in. You are not allowed to take anything in with you other than electronic filming devices.
We walked out to the feeding platform and waited for the orangutans to arrive. Not long after the rangers arrived with the food, you start to see branches rustle and climbing ropes start to move. Everyone’s heads were swinging side to side hoping to be the first to spot the orangutans. Then they swing into view, it’s an awesome sight and they were watching us as much as we were watching them. They slowly approach the feeding platform almost as though there was a pecking order on who eats first. There were a couple of youngish orangutans that looked no more than a few years old. I got some wonderful shots, although the cheeky devils were good at swinging with their backs to us. There were approx. 40 tourists there on this day but it didn’t feel cramped as the feeding platform was quite large with plenty of room to move around and with different vantage points for people to get good photos.
I was overwhelmed with the 3 that we had been watching, when a larger male arrived at the platform. He sat there and helped himself to the fruit. I thought all my Christmases had come at once but then I heard someone say the mother and baby were there. I was almost falling over people to get a good view. They were right, there she was, mum holding her 3 week old baby! I couldn’t believe my luck, I felt like a paparazzi I took a heap of photos and I could have stayed there all day watching her cradle that oh so cute baby in her hands. She was so gentle and would gaze down with beautiful loving eyes at the baby looked up at her.
After peeling myself away from the feeding platform to let others have a look, we head to the new nursery that opened recently within Sepilok. There are currently 4 young orangutans in the nursery and you can sit for also long as you like watching them climb around the equipment, swinging from ropes and interacting with each other. The nursery is very similar to the enclosure we have here at Melbourne Zoo for our orangutans. There are a few nature walks that you can do while in the centre but we choose not to do these as we were unsure how we would be placed for time.
We then headed out to the gift shop were we bought the kids a t shirt each, which when we got home, realised were pyjamas! Craig and I had discussed without the kids hearing that instead of purchasing toys we would adopt an orangutan for a year. It costs approx. AU$65 and we know that the money is going towards the upkeep of our chosen orangutan. There were 4 orangutans to choose from and the kids decided that we would adopt Bidu-Bidu. He’s the youngest of the 4 and also the cheekiest, perfect fit for our family. After we had paid and were walking away, Keira asked when we would be picking up Bidu-Bidu! I then had to sit down, wipe away the tears and explain that Bidu-Bidu would not be living at our house and we would receive regular updates on his progress through the mail. She didn’t take this news too well, but an ice block diverted her attention from her disappointment!
We were lucky enough to arrive 5 days after the opening of the new Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, recently built but Malaysian and Scottish Scout Groups. The plaque interested us as both our girls are Scouts here in Australia and Caelan will be joining Joey Scouts next year. The Sun Bears were moving around and you can see them from the viewing platform. We were not there for any feeding times so we just observed them doing what they usually do. There were approx. 6 Sun Bears that I counted in the Conservation Centre. On the timber walkways there are signs with information about the plight of the Sun Bears and their habitat and general information about conservation efforts being implemented in Borneo to protect them. The kids were hot and bothered so I took photos of the signs to read when I got home. We didn’t spend much time at all at the Sun Bear Conservation Centre, they weren’t doing enough to keep the kids interested but it was nice to have seen them. Admission fees were the same as Sepilok, $35AUD ($10 adults & $5 child), this is probably a bit steep for what you see but it’s all for a good cause.
We noticed on the way in that there was also a Rainforest Discovery Centre not far up the road. We had an hour to kill before we needed to be at the airport so we told the driver we would stop there for a little bit. He nodded and said yes but then he drove straight past the centre and went straight to the airport! Hence my earlier instruction to request an English speaking driver! This also meant that we had 2 hours to kill at the airport that is no bigger than Avalon airport in Melbourne (very small with nothing to entertain the kids for this amount of time).
So while the day did not go exactly to plan I am still happy that we did it as I was over the moon to have the opportunity to see the orangutans and the mum and bub was just the icing on the cake! It is something I will never forget and something the kids still regularly talk about when telling people about our holiday.
While in Kota Kinabalu we stayed at the Shangri La Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa and found it to be absolutely perfect for families. The kids loved it and they cater for kids with the water splash zone and a great kids club.