Monkey Business

A slight movement on the rope above our heads and a wave of excitement went through the eager group of Orangutan watchers. Something was coming … Like the distant whisper on the train track which heralds the approach of the train we knew that a few minutes later we would see our distant relatives, the Orangutans. The tension was mounting.

Three or four ropes looped from the forest to a huge tree close to the viewing platform. Beyond the tree the rainforest was dark, dense and vibrating with the calls of insects, birds and frogs, but all eyes were on the ropes and the gentle vibrations gave way to distinct swaying. Cameras were focused on the area where the rope emerged from the forest and I was faced once more with my eternal dilemma: watch and store the images in my brain or attempt to capture the images with my camera? Well it has to be business before pleasure but I thought of how superbly my partner, Mark, would be capturing the coming images. ‘f-stops’ and exposure times being second nature to him and he would make a few final adjustments before holding that huge lens perfectly still to catch the swift movements in the low light of the forest. So I made sure my small compact camera was set on ‘automatic’ and watched for action through the view-finder (yes, I know I am not a natural photographer!). At last a young Orangutan came down the rope, looping and swinging from one arm to the next. Then came another and another until three, orange, hairy young primates met on the feeding platform and began to enjoy bananas and a long drink of fresh milk.

Here we were in the ‘land below the wind’ on the first morning of our Borneo Wildlife Adventure. The sun was shining and the weather beautifully hot. We had flown in on the wonderful Singapore Airlines as far as Kota Kinabalu then we took a short flight to Sandakan with Malaysia Airlines. After our long journey it was re-assuring to see our names displayed on a board held by our super guide, Jame. Jame’s command of English was excellent and he remained with us for the rest of our tour. His local knowledge was very good and he was happy to answer all my questions about the wildlife, his family and general questions about Borneo (How many children did he have? Did his wife wear the veil? What kind of kingfisher is that?– you know how we ‘girls’ love to know about these things). A short ride of around 15 minutes through Sandakan and we arrived at the Sabah Hotel. The hotel is comfortable and clean with air conditioned rooms and very pleasant modern bathrooms. There is a café with bakery, a Chinese restaurant, the Amadeus bar and a barbeque with poolside bar. But a welcome dip in the lovely swimming pool and a cold beer was all we needed before dinner in the Chinese restaurant and crashing out in a clean, comfortable beds with crisp white sheets …

The next morning was our exciting Orangutan encounter at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, then after a two hour ride through small villages and oil palm plantations we drew up at a wooden landing stage where our bags were loaded into a motorized canoe and we set off on the final stage of our journey to our lodge in the rainforest. I’ve always thought it would be romantic to arrive at a lodge in a canoe – and it is! We drew up to the landing stage at Bukit Melapi and our bags were off loaded and taken to our rooms. The lodge is very comfortable, immaculately clean and the bathrooms modern. Just flick the water heater on for five minutes and there will be loads of hot water for your shower. Even shower gel, shampoo and body lotion are provided. The rooms are spacious with sliding glass doors leading to a private balcony with chairs and a table. Our rooms looked out across the Kinabatangan River and across to the dense rainforest on the other side. The individual wooden bungalows are spread throughout pleasant grounds. It is possible to see wild elephants from the lodge, though we were not as fortunate as our next clients who had great views.

Two river cruises are offered each day: one at 0630, returning in time for breakfast, and the other at 1630. Each cruise lasts around 2 hours and the boat men and guides are experts at spotting wildlife and getting the boat as close as possible as well as lining up so that the light is good for photographers. We had fabulous sightings of Long-tailed Macaque, the amazing Proboscis Monkey and Pig-tailed Macaque. Large families of these primates come down to the river both in the early morning and the late afternoon so the chances of seeing them are very high. Other wildlife highlights included some huge water monitors (close relatives of the Komodo Dragon), Gold-ringed Catsnake, Estuarine Crocodile, some incredible birds (Blue-eared Kingfisher was voted the most beautiful), oh yes, and some wild pigs which scurried off in to the undergrowth. Binoculars are an asset if you want to get the best out of the trip and a sunhat is essential as there is no shade (or shelter) on the boat. The lodge provides umbrellas which can be very useful and better than a rainjacket in the heat. It may be sunny when you set off, but the rain can come out of nowhere and the showers can be very, very heavy – after all this is the rainforest! You may also like to take water (bottled water is provided in your lodge room).

Meals at the lodge are served buffet-style with good choices. The dishes are local in character. Beef, chicken and fish with rice and noodles being the usual fare. Some dishes are quite spicy too! There is usually some fresh fruit on offer for desert. Look out for the pale green jelly-like desert ‘chendol’, which is a local delicacy and is made from grated coconut and ground green beans. Once tasted, we avoided it like the plague! The bar was well stocked with a choice of canned beers and wine. Most guests gather in the bar for a drink before supper for a chat and it’s fun comparing notes with others.

Our intrepid Borneo Rainforest Adventure was not over yet. After a morning spent inspecting other lodges to make sure we are offering the best, we traveled first by river and then by road to the Gomantong Caves, an area of limestone deep in the rainforest. A vast labyrinth of caverns is home to over a million swiftlets, whose nests are collected for the manufacture of the Chinese delicacy of bird’s nest soup, and over a million bats. The birds fly out in the day time and the bats fly out at night. Fortunately, there is a wooden walkway from the entrance/ticket office through the rainforest and round the first cave so one is ‘saved’ from having to walk through the many layers of guano left by birds and bats over many years. The guano is infested with millions of insects including some spectacularly hairy creatures on the walls. I am still not sure how I managed to fall in to this dark, smelly concoction, but my boots and trousers needed a good wash when I returned! As we made our way home our eagle-eyed guide and driver suddenly pulled up at the side of the road. A family of wild Orangutans were high up in a tree close to the road. Dad, mum and small baby looked down on us as we looked up to them. Seeing the creatures in the wild was a truly fantastic encounter and we felt really lucky to have experienced such great views.

Our recommended itinerary would include one night on arrival at Sabah Hotel, Sandakan, morning visit to the Orangutan Sanctuary and 2 nights at Bukit Malapi rainforest lodge. Added to diving at any of the Sipadan dive resorts, Lankayan or Layang Layang, this extra adventure makes a fabulous, exciting holiday in Borneo.

Landscape (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Orang Utan (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

A gleam of light (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Orang Utan (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Just chilling (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

On top of the tree (Rachel Lee Horsfield)

Playground (Hilary Lee)

Searching for the best motive (Hilary Lee)

Black Macaque (Hilary Lee)

Website handcrafted by the Accent Design Group.

Many of the flights and flight-inclusive holidays on this website are financially protected by the ATOL scheme. But ATOL protection does not apply to all holiday and travel services listed on this website. Please ask us to confirm what protection may apply to your booking. If you do not receive an ATOL Certificate then the booking will not be ATOL protected. If you do receive an ATOL Certificate but all the parts of your trip are not listed on it, those parts will not be ATOL protected. Please see our booking conditions for information, or for more for more information about financial protection and the ATOL Certificate go to: Certificate

Divequest is a division of Birdquest Ltd, which is Registered in England, Company No. 01568270. The address of our registered office is Two Jays, Kemple End, Stonyhurst, Clitheroe, Lancashire BB7 9QY.