Updated on February 20th, 2020
“We stopped & turned around to be greeted by the face of an old jowly male, boldly staring out from a tree.”
Borneo is one of the few places to see orangutans in the wild but also has great opportunities to get up close & personal on a visit to Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. I had just been through a personal tragedy (if you’re interested, read more in the About Me section ) when my friend called & asked me if I’d like to join her on a trip here – of course, I said yes immediately!
What do you need to know?
There are many ways to see orangutans in either the sanctuary or the wild in Borneo. Wherever you go you will be advised that there are no guarantees but we were lucky enough to see them in all 3!
Located in the Sabah District of North Borneo, the Rehabilitation Centre is made up of 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Their role is to rehabilitate orphaned (due to logging & deforestation) & confiscated orangutans (illegally caught & kept as pets). The rehabilitation process takes up to 7 years & today up to 80 orangutans live free within the reserve.
Our visit started with a trip to the nursery where they house the younger orangutans and you can view these beautiful creatures from behind glass (to add a level of protection from disease & human contact). It is just like watching the interactions of children in a playground, including aggressive play fights & showing off to the audience by posing precariously while swinging on a rope.
Having been lucky enough to observe gorillas (Rwanda) & chimpanzees (Burundi) from close quarters before, it never fails to strike me how you can see the intelligence of these species their eyes & the human quality in their demeanour & behaviour.
After some time with the youngsters, we went to the main viewing area to observe the feeding platform. They have 2 feeding times at Sepilok (10am & 3pm) but basically, there is no guarantee that you will see any orangutans. The animals are free to roam throughout the forest but learn where & when they need to be to get a ‘free meal’ should they need it. Apart from this they are encouraged & taught how to forage for themselves which is an essential part of the rehabilitation process. Be aware that if you visit during the fruiting season (April – October) you may be less lucky with your sightings. Also, it is important to note that if you don’t see any orangutans, it means they can fend for themselves which is the whole purpose of the centre (but very disappointing for us tourists!). If you plan to visit during morning feeding time, this gives you the option of returning later if you haven’t been fortunate the first time around.
Make sure you head to the observation area early to jostle for a good position with your camera at the ready. The feeding platform is about 60 ft away. One of the rangers arrives at the platform with a basket full of fruit & sugar cane and makes sounds to ‘call’ the orangutans.
The next thing we knew the trees were swaying & we heard & saw a couple of beautiful orangutans crashing through the forest towards us.
We were lucky enough to see 2 orangutans on the morning we were there – eating, sitting, swinging on the ropes & interacting with the ranger. It was a very special experience & one I will never forget.
As Sepilok is effectively a forest & national park it’s not just orangutans you see. While we were at the viewing platform we were thoroughly entertained by a family of long-tailed macaques. The male was being groomed by his ladies & I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything with such a blissful look on their face! There was also a baby who was running around, playing & eating, which kept us amused.
Sepilok is also home to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) which rehabilitates ex-captive bears (due to forest degradation, hunting & poaching). The Sun Bear is the world’s smallest bear & the 2nd rarest after the giant panda. No visit to Sepilok is complete without a trip here (walking distance from the Orangutan Centre). There are currently 43 Sun Bears at the BSBCC. We were treated with a good view of several – including one high up a tree (they have huge claws which enable them to climb, & very long tongues so they can extract the honey from the beehives).
It is possible to visit Sepilok for a tour in the evening which we did & were treated to an entertaining meander along the boardwalks of the park. Basically, we had a guide who was a bit rubbish & not brilliant at spotting wildlife (generally a prerequisite for a wildlife guide but what do I know?!).
To be fair, he was excellent at spotting flying squirrels (which I loved – they literally launch into the air & glide to their destination), but missed an orangutan nesting for the night in a tree. He only spotted it when we were all questioning why there were so many lights (from the other guides) pointing at the position!
What are the details?
The Orangutan Centre is open between 8.45am – 4pm with the feeding times at 10am & 3pm. The nursery is accessible from 9-11am and 2.30-4pm. A ticket is valid for the whole day & costs 30RM (Malaysian Ringgit) with an extra 10RM for taking a camera.
The suggested arrival times to make the most of your visit are 8.45am or 1.45pm so you can take advantage of the presentation & video which are also available (at 9am & 2pm for 30 mins).
The Sun Bear Centre is open from 9am – 3.30pm & for Non-Malays there is a charge of 31.80RM for adults.
Overall I would thoroughly recommend Sepilok & don’t think it is possible to visit Borneo & miss out on this amazing opportunity to see orangutans in the (almost) wild.
But if you do want to see proper wild orangutans…..
Kinabatangan River Safari
During my trip to Borneo, we spent 3 days, 2 nights on a safari on the Kinabatangan River. The safari boats hold around 10 people plus the guide & driver. For the purposes of our visit, my friend & I were adopted by a lovely multi-generation British family who we shared the experience with. We were picked up from the dock at Sandakan & got transport to & from our accommodation (a different lodge each night), as well as numerous safaris during day & night and a night walk!
It was a packed agenda but well worth it for the wealth of wildlife we saw (macaques, crocodiles, proboscis monkeys (my favourite!), Pygmy elephants, an otter the size of a dog and a tree full of fireflies).
As per usual they couldn’t guarantee we would see anything but we had an excellent if slightly annoying guide for this one, Zali. Throughout the trip, along with all the treats detailed above, we had 3 sightings of wild orangutans – amazing!
Our first sighting was in the trees, all we could see was a dark shadow close to the top & the leaves & branches moving to indicate there was something there. It felt triumphant to see an orangutan in the wild but it was hard to view & impossible to get photographic evidence.
On our second day, we were far luckier…except when I realised that after charging the battery for my camera overnight, I’d forgotten to put it back in! Luckily, my friend was more organised & I had my trusty phone to capture all the important moments.
We hadn’t been on the boat for long when one of the group called out that she’d seen an orangutan. We stopped & turned around to be greeted by the face of an old jowly male, boldly staring out from a tree. As we excitedly moved closer & cameras went crazy, we were astonished to hear our guide start shouting really loudly to get the attention of his friend who was taking another group scouring the other side of the river.
As the boat hurried at full speed towards us, somehow (?!) the orangutan became alerted to our presence & decided it was time to go. It had disappeared from sight by the time the 2nd boat arrived. Needless to say, we were all very frustrated & annoyed by Zalis’ actions but we did manage to get a few shots in our cameras before he disappeared.
Thankfully, Zali redeemed himself later that day by, literally, “smelling” elephants from the other side of the river & giving us a very close encounter with a herd of Pygmy elephants and a baby – priceless!
Our final orangutan sighting came a little later that day when we saw a young one (estimated around 5 years old), very high up in the trees. He was making his way across the branches by precariously balancing before moving onto the next tree. Apparently, he would have been heading to join his mother but she kept cunningly out of view.
The whole trip to Kinabatangan was unmissable in terms of wildlife viewing & I would definitely spend a few days here if you are planning a trip to Borneo. The jungle is a very small strip along the river (unfortunately, much has been lost to the palm oil plantations), which means for us tourists, the wildlife is never too far from the water’s edge.
In Borneo, we also treated ourselves to a couple of nights in the beautiful Borneo Rainforest Lodge located in the primary rainforest of Danum Valley.
Here we were put in a group of 6 with our excellent guide – Farah. Before leaving home, we were told to be aware that there are a lot of leeches in this part of the world, due to it being a rainforest. On our packing list, we were told to bring leech socks but although neither of us knew what they were, we managed to find & order them through Amazon. Effectively they go over your socks & trousers and up to your knees to protect you from the hazards of leeches. We also collected salt packets along the way just in case. I am pleased to say we both remained leech free for the duration of our time around Danum Valley!
We spent 3 days in total in the rainforest, during which we went on several walks but apart from a few (exciting) sightings of red leaf monkeys & hearing lots of animals it was mainly birds we spotted for the most part.
After our final day trek in the sweltering & humid heat, we had returned to the lodge, removed our boots, socks, leech socks, rolled up our trousers & were enjoying a barefoot beer in the bar (shoes aren’t allowed inside the rooms within the lodge).
We were just reflecting on a great day over a cold beer, when one of the employees came running in to tell us they had seen an orangutan, just outside the lodge. Everyone left, we grabbed our flip-flops on the way & ran through puddles to the area indicated.
For our efforts, we were treated to the sight of a mother orangutan making a nest for the night, high in a tree, with her very young baby attached. This was our closest encounter yet & beautiful to watch as the 2 interacted above us while they got themselves settled for the night.
It was an amazing end to our time in the rainforest & interesting to reflect that despite all the fuss about leech socks & long walks to see wildlife, we still didn’t have issues with leeches despite standing for 30minutes in the mud & running through puddles in our flip flops to see the orangutans! In addition, the other best sighting from the rainforest was a tarsier we saw on a night hike, again just outside the lodge door!
Danum Valley is not a cheap option to stay but if you’re going to splash out on one part of your accommodation I would recommend it – not necessarily for the wildlife but for the experience, the beautiful location & the outdoor bath on the veranda overlooking the rainforest!
What next time?
It is possible to volunteer with the orangutans at Sepilok & other centres across Borneo which I intend to do in the future. The Great Projects offers to volunteer in other centres & watch this space for my experiences with them on an upcoming trip to Namibia
Our trip to Borneo was tailor-made and put together for us by Naturalis. It included private transfers between destinations for the most part but ran like clockwork. We were booking at short notice so we were pleased to pay more on this occasion to maximise our time in Borneo & cover everything on our wish list. Our contact also came highly recommended by a friend. I plan to share more details from my travels in Borneo so please keep your eyes peeled!
What do you think?
Where would you recommend for up close & personal wildlife encounters?
What do you feel is a ‘must do’ in Borneo?
You can see more of my photos from Borneo on my Gallery page!