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Friday 9 Aug 2013
Sandakan, Malaysia

Orang utans and bat hunting geckos

We left Uncle Chang’s after breakfast and got drenched on our way back to Semporna.  We all ended up huddled in the centre of the boat to try and avoid the rain.  We then settled into a surprisingly comfortable coach for the 7-hour ride up to Sandarkan and learned from last time by getting a taxi to the Harbourside Backpackers hostel.  After 4 days of salt-water showers from a bucket in Mabul, it was bliss to get under a full hot shower again.

The next morning we headed over to the Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary.  This is a rehabilitation centre that rescues abandoned or mistreated orang-utans and nurses them back to health.  They are paired with older or more out-going orang-utans and gradually reintroduced to the jungle environment.  After they’ve adjusted enough to feed and look after themselves, they’re released into the protected jungles of the Kinabatangan river reserve. 

There are a number of jungle boardwalk trails through the sanctuary, but unfortunately all but the feeding trail were closed for renovation.  This meant there was little else to do there, so we made sure we got in early and got a good place on the viewing deck.

In the middle of the clearing, several platforms had been built around a couple of strong trees.  There were ropes coming in from all sides and ladders up from the jungle floor.  Waiting for the orang-utans to appear was a bit like the scene in Jurassic Park where they watch the goat and wonder which direction the T-Rex is going to come from. At first there was nothing, then one rope began to twitch and eventually a skinny, almost hairless orang-utan swung into view.  He made his way lazily across to the main tree, then clambered higher up out of sight and waited.

Eventually, one of the rangers appeared with a huge basket of fruit and sugar cane, which he dumped out onto the two platforms.  After that, it didn’t take long for the orang-utans to swing out of the trees or appear from the jungle floor.  There were several mums with babies too, which was very heartening to see.  We watched for nearly an hour while they ate their fill before being ambushed by the macaque mafia (both pig-tailed and grey macaque monkeys) who darted in and out to steal what they could.  Their babies were learning fast – one mum looked away for a second, only for her tiny baby to scamper out a few feet along the rope, before losing his balance and dangling off the bottom.  He was rescued and scolded and tucked firmly back in around her tummy.

I adopted a baby orang-utan named Gelison for my three nephews – they’ll receive photos and updates about his progress for a year.  He was found abandoned in the forest and brought to the centre a few months ago.

We were picked up from Sepilok by our tour and driven out to the Kinabatangan Nature lodge.  Well, to be exact we were taken to the river, where the lodge sent a boat across to pick us up.  We got chatting to an American guy named Mike, who was teaching in Japan.  It’s almost tempting to look into teaching abroad again after this year.

After a welcome drink and settling in to our dorms, we were taken out for our first river cruise.  There are lots of lodges and camps along the river, all offering more or less the same thing.  As a result, there must have been 10 boats on the river, all looking for monkeys, orang-utans, birds and other wildlife in the trees.  I’m surprised there was anything left after the noise of 10 engines going past, but we actually saw quite a lot on our first cruise.  We were lucky enough to see a family of wild orang-utans right up in the top of the trees, something our guide said he only saw about once a month.  We also saw gangs of macaques, Sipadan monkeys and a harem of proboscis monkeys – so named for their huge noses.  There is only one male in each group and he is ‘ready for action’ almost constantly.  He was quite easy to spot!  We also saw a mango tree snake curled up in the low branches and a huge monitor lizard basking on a tree trunk, looking more like a crocodile.  There are crocodiles in the river, but they generally appear in the mornings rather than the evenings.

After dinner, we were taken out for a night walk in the jungle.  After the excellent night walk in Java, I was really looking forward to this, but unfortunately it turned out to be more like the one in the Danetree Rainforest – wet and unproductive.  We were given wellies to wear, as most of the walk became a slippery trudge through liquid mud, but with several groups stomping about ahead of us, any wildlife there might have been was long gone before we arrived.  The only thing we saw was a sleeping Kingfisher, a brightly coloured bird with his head tucked under his wing.  How he didn’t wale up with so many torches and camera flashes going off, I have no idea!

The best sight of the night was actually right outside my door.  The eves of the dorm roof overhung the deck around the building.  I came out of the room to find two girls staring up at one of the rafters.  There was a gecko staying deadly still on the inside of the rafter, while a small bat hung nearby.  At first we were unsure who was stalking whom, but then the bat began to clean its wings, seemingly oblivious of the gecko’s presence.  A few others joined us and watched the gecko inch closer.  Suddenly, it pounced and grabbed the bat.  It went so fast we didn’t even see it happen – one minute it was a foot away, then it was hanging off the ceiling with the bat’s wing in its mouth while the bat struggled furiously to get away.  For a moment it looked like the gecko might win, but then the bat broke free and was gone.  Now that’s not something you see every day!


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