Getting to Sepilok from Kinabalu National Park involves sitting outside the park in the hope that some manner of transportation heading through to Sandakan has space for you. We flagged a bus which was full but we were happy to sit on the floor and they were happy to let us and about four hours later we were deposited at Sepilok Junction with a few more aches and pains than we started the journey with, where there were exactly zero cars waiting to take people the rest of the way. Bugger. In hindsight you probably need to walk a little bit down the road opposite the one that leads to Sepilok but it also turned out that Grab operates around these parts so we hailed a driver who dropped us at Sepilok Jungle Resort.
I always get a little bit excited when I stay somewhere they defines itself as a resort, I feel all grown up and fancy. We were to check in at Banana Cafe as opposed to the slightly intimidating air-conditioned front desk at the resort itself and we were in a fan-cooled quadruple room but we still had a stunning buffet breakfast included and full use of the pool. We celebrated being posh by drinking lots of wine. The staff seemed to think it was hilarious and chuckled every time we ordered another bottle. Look, you can take the girls out of England but you can’t take the desire to beat all of your basic motor functions into submission with grape based beverages out of the girl.
Anyway, Sepilok is where humans go to watch big orange monkeys eat stuff. Actually they’re not monkeys are they, they’re apes, the largest strictly arboreal apes in the world in fact. That means tree-dwelling. In case you needed that information for the pub quiz. So you’re meant to rock up for feeding time which is 10am then again at 3.30pm and we wanted prime position right at the front and we had elbows at the ready to make this happen. We got there for 9am when the ticket desk opens. It’s only RM30 each to get in, about £5, and apparently they’ve not increased their prices for twenty years. They haven’t even added on the extra RM1.80 for the 6% tax introduced a couple of years ago.
As soon as we were allowed in we were herded to the nursery where you sit in a room with a big glass window and wait for the juvenile orangutans show up for their feeding time. This feels very much like a zoo. These are the apes that haven’t been rehabilitated yet and sometimes show up holding the hand of a staff members. It’s nice to watch them but we were itching to get to the semi-wild apes, not that there’s any guarantee of seeing them. You might see an ape. You might see no apes. You might see a metric fuck tonne of apes. From the centre’s point of view the less apes you aee the better because that means they’re out finding their own food, being all orangutan-like, they’ve been successfully rehabilitated. Some apes come back most days for the easy food, some only come back every now and then. Some never come back at all and they’re the real success stories.
I got rapidly bored in the nursery, I wanted to get to the viewing area, we weren’t sure if we were allowed to just leave or not so as soon as one guide rallied his group we stood up and bolted, power striding to the feeding platforms, overtaking tourists like Lewis Hamilton on speed. We waited for quite a long time, we knew the orangutans were there, the ropes that were installed to help them get around were shaking and people were catching glimpses of them in the trees. A ranger showed up and dumped a huge basket of food on the platform and the second he left a massive pig-tailed macaque leapt onto the platform and inhaled several bananas in seconds. I was actually impressed. I mean, I eat quickly but this guy had peeled and scoffed his body weight in fruit before you could say “indigestion”.
He spent the next few minutes running onto the platform, gathering up as much fruit as he could then legging it before, finally, two orangutans slowly made their way down the ropes to help themselves to the free food. It’s pretty incredible. I mean, you do mainly end up with photos of big orange monkey bollocks. Back, sack and crack seem to be their favourite side to present to the tourists as they hang from ropes and branches, shovelling food into their chops. It’s still amazing to watch them though even though you do kind of feel like you’ll have to soak your eyeballs in bleach afterwards to get rid of the image of hairy arsehole that’s been etched into your vision.
We hung around long after the tour groups had been ushered away by their guides, there were still orangutans playing about in the trees. Then one came right down. Mate I’m not even shitting you, it was awesome, it just swung down to a bush right in front of us. I think we were within the five metre zone we were meant to give them but it came towards us, not vice versa. Of course we didn’t approach it, we just watched as it made itself comfortable in a small tree and munched on leaves. It was really rather incredible and we only very reluctantly left at 11am when we were asked to move on because the park was closing until the next feeding time.
Fun fact, though; your ticket is valid all day. That one entrance fee allows you to go back again at 3.30pm so we decided to just spend the whole day here. We did have plans to fill that time by walking the trail around the park but the trail was closed which was probably a good thing because it started absolutely pissing it down. We’d have been well and truly caught in that and it was the kind of rain that’d have you ankle-deep in mud in minutes if you were out hiking. Instead we checked out a gallery and a short documentary then just hung out in the cafe, applying food and beverages to our faceholes. This, as it turned out, was a much better idea.
There was commotion outside, people were jumping up and bolting to the door so of course we joined them because that’s what humans do. See a crowd? Follow it! An orangutan was strutting down the walkway like she owned the place with a staff member in tow, unable to stop her. They managed to guide her away from the door to the cafe, so she just climbed up a concrete beam to the roof and chilled there for a bit before heading over to the other side and helping herself to an empty five litre bottle of something or other. She hung around for a while, the rain started up again and she took shelter under an overhang on the roof. It was quite amazing. She carried on about her day as several humans just gawped at her like slack jawed imbeciles until she disappeared off back into the forest.
When the next feeding rolled around we were ready. We flounced in, waving our tickets, loudly announcing that we’d already seen the nursery and were heading straight to the feeding platform. There was no one else there as we watched a group of pig-tailed macaques playing on the ropes, occasionally harassed by a lone long-tailed macaque. They were so much fun to watch! They’d run at each other along the ropes before flinging themselves into the bushes below. Hours of fun until the ranger came along at feeding time. There were less tourists here at the afternoon feeding, but there were too many monkeys around for him to just dump the fruit and leave, they’d have it away quicker than a shoal of piranhas could strip a carcass.
He sat down surrounded by macaques, throwing fruit off the platform in an effort to try to get rid of them. They aren’t stupid, though. They knew he had a bucket load of food and they wanted it. We watched the drama unfold for a while until we started hearing shouts of, “Give way! Give way! Move out of the way!” An orangutan was walking along the railing that kept tourists back from the platform, just casually strolling, showing teeth every now and then. It walked right in front of us, the whole length of the railing, before making its way around to the platform where it stood in front of the basket like a human and helped itself to fruit, piece by piece.
The large pig-tailed macaques and the single long-tailed macaque were the biggest thugs, trying every trick in the book to get to the basket as the ranger tried to fend them off. At one point one of them managed to overturn the basket, and the only human in the mix got so frustrated he launched a banana directly at the big monkey, you could hear the thud from over here. We watched this for a while until the orangutan got bored and left and the ranger tipped the leftovers out for the monkeys to clear away.
Honestly though, best day ever! I know they’re not wild orangutans, they’re semi-wild, and we were hoping to see truly wild apes at Kinabatangan River, but this was still magical. They’re scarily human-like, we were told they’re basically 96.4% human when it comes to DNA and they only reason we’re stood here gawping at them having destroyed most of their habitat and not the other way around is brain size. In the wild orangutans learn their life skills from their mother over five or six years, but if their mum is killed or they’ve been stolen for the illegal pet trade that’s where the rehabilitation centre steps in. They teach them to find food, climb, build nests. Every evening a wild orangutan will build a new nest in trees to sleep in, they travel so far to find food every day that it’s necessary to have a new place to sleep every night.
I think the centre does important work for conservation, whether you want to get all up on your high horse about only wanting to see an orangutan in the real, proper wild or not, visiting the rehabilitation centre supports their work. Of course we all want to see one in the wild but this isn’t a zoo, they’re semi-wild here and the only reason they’re not completely wild is because some human somewhere ruined their life. We need to take responsibility for our own species and contributing to a genuine rehabilitation centre whose ultimate goal isn’t to keep the apes around for tourists to gawp at but to teach them the skills necessary to survive in the forest is a good thing. I really can’t see a problem with spending a day here.
Sepilok, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Stayed at: Sepilok Jungle Resort
Useful shit to know…
– According to signage at Restoran Panataran the bas ekspres comes by Kinabalu NP at 8.30am, 9.30am, 10.30am, 11.30am, 2pm, 3pm and 9.30pm.
– It was RM35 each from Kinabalu National Park to Sepilok Junction and took around four hours including a half hour break for food not long after we were picked up.
– Once you’re at the junction you could possibly arrange for your accommodation to collect you, or it’s RM8 in a Grab.
– Our Grab driver’s number is +60 (0) 13 550 3317. He’s local and you can just call him for all your taxi needs. Another couple gave us a number for another chap should our guy (whose name I forget) is unavailable: +60 (0) 12 284 2728.