Today is the day that we visit what is probably the biggest draw for many visitors to Borneo, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
The centre is one of only four of it’s kind in the world and since 1964 has been rescuing orphaned and threatened orangutans from the
deforested habitats of lowland Borneo or from the cruel situation of being kept in captivity.
The project is set amongst the rainforest near Sandakan and aims to rehabilitate its 60+ guests for survival in the wild.
The orangutans live free within the reserve and from a tender age are provided “pre-school” training to learn how to climb, use their limbs and develop basic skills.
The centre is open for both morning and afternoon visits, so we take the opportunity to spend an entire day at the reserve in the hope of seeing plenty of apes.
Arriving slightly previous to the 10am feed, we discover an already busy platform area and note that just a solitary adult female and her young are taking breakfast today. It’s a disappointment, but this is nature and sightings are unpredictable.
On the advice of a young German traveller we spent time with at both Labuk Bay and Turtle Island, we remain at the platforms once the numerous tour groups have departed. The crowd gently dwindles to around a dozen visitors and we patiently wait for another sighting.
There is plenty of rustling and rope jangling, but the only further feasting is to be done by monkeys. Disheartened and hungry we make our way towards the walkway exit after about twenty minutes.
Whilst supping on a diet coke (they are incredibly difficult to find in this part of Malaysia, and the dentistry of the locals pays testament to a high sugar diet) we chat with three English girls we had earlier met at Masada Backpackers in Kota Kinabalu. The girls had left the feeding with the tour groups, but then returned, five minutes before the walkway closed for the morning session.
They had received the good fortune of encountering an orangutan at close quarters in just the spot we had been a matter of minutes earlier. There is no accounting for luck.
With this in mind, we were determined to get a better sighting during the afternoon and chose to sacrifice the video presentation in order to get in to the walkway as early as possible.
The walkway provided us with a 20 minute long circuitous stroll amongst the towering trunks and their lofty canopies. There were a troop of monkeys and a rather threatening alpha male which intimidated a French guy into retreating, leaving me as the first person to test his temperament.
Fortunately he wasn’t overly interested in either “The Boy”, or myself and let us pass without incident.
We completed a circuit and looped round once more, this time finding a small band of our fellow visitors at the feeding platform, cameras at the ready, in clear indication of some great ape action.
This time there were already two orangutans present, and the feeding had not yet commenced. Over the course of the next 45 minutes
they were joined by several other adults and adolescents who we were able to take turns in passively observing whilst either the 0.5 or I attended to The Boy’s urge to climb, crawl and explore the entire length and breadth of the timber viewing platform.
During one of my shifts, we were almost accosted by a traditionally dressed family from the island of Labuan off the coast of Brunei.
Without even asking permission, they began snapping shots of “The Boy” who had become a bigger attraction for them than the orangutans just over their shoulders.
With a fine collection of both “point & shoot” and SLR formats, they must have pointed half a dozen lenses at “The Boy” at any given time, leading to him becoming unusually confused and slightly distressed.
Like the good father that I am, I stepped in to protect him, only to find that I too was now to be a subject for their facebook albums and iphoto slideshows.
Damn it! The hunter had become the hunted.
Many are the times and numerous are the places that I have zoomed in on an unsuspecting subject to deliver a candid portrait of a life different from mine. Today, at a world-class animal sanctuary I was to get a taste of my own medicinal concoctions and be treated like a zoo animal.
Ah well, it was a fair trade. They were sporting some eye-catching outfits and I wouldn’t wager on becoming too common an occurrence that “The Boy” gets to have his photo taken with a Muslim woman sheathed behind a letterbox burqa.
After the impromptu photoshoot (I should start charging, I really should), I made my way to the 0.5 to discuss plans. With the last bus departing fro Sandakan at 4pm we begrudgingly decided to leave to allow time to get our bag from the locker, feed “The Boy” his milk and grab another overpriced diet coke for ourselves.
It had been an incredible experience to see how these creatures mirror our own behavioural patterns in so many ways. From the way the adults played with the children flashing an occasional cheeky and teasing grin to how they clearly loved to stretch their limbs and scratch their bites. It was all reminiscent of how both I and other humans behave every day of our lives.
As I was about to place boy into buggy, one of the trio of girls quietly called me and pointed towards a leafy dell off the front of the platform.
As I walked over, a male orangutan was in the process of climbing the upright to join us on the viewing deck.
Showing little fear, he continued to settle himself in, peering occasionally to his left and then right before finally lounging in the afternoon sun and making it quite clear this was his territory and we were guests at his discretion.
It was amazing to get this close to an orangutan. I was no more than two or three metres away from him and got to stare lazily and deeply into his eyes as I sat motionless on the steps near him.
For once in my life, my camera wasn’t to be poked in someone or something’s face.
This moment was far too special for that.