Arriving in Sandakan late afternoon we headed to the harbour for some street food which was cheap and nice. The next day it was Rob's birthday so when it turned midnight he opened his present (some snake wine from Vietnam which leaked EVERYWHERE and smelt like potato peelings) and card (which I'd been lugging around since HCMC). The next day, he wanted to spend his birthday at nearby Sepilok, visiting the Rainforest Discovery Centre and the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
We had booked to do a tour which also took us to Sepilok (more on this to follow) but knew that we would not be bored going twice and it ended up being an amazing way to celebrate Rob turning 24. Both are located about 40 minutes away from Sandakan so we took a taxi to the more rural location. The Rainforest Discover Centre is an educational facility which hosts a large rainforest with a wide array of flora and fauna, and it explains the uses of plants which can be found in the rainforest.
Walking through, it was very tropical and beautiful and you could see and hear the many sights and sounds of the jungle. We saw some huge lizards, flowers, fruits, trees, insects and birds along the way and with it being low season had the whole place pretty much to ourselves. The place where you could see the flowers and plants was the plant discovery garden and there were signs explaining the uses of each of them. Here are some of the things we saw...
After this there was a suspension bridge over a small stream followed by a huge canopy walkway which was a over the trees allowing you to look over the rainforest. We were really lucky to spy a wild orangutan in the tree canopy in the distance (we were apparently some of the first guests to achieve this) and we were even luckier when it started moving further down the trees and towards us. We were able to observe it from a fairly close distance for at least an hour, again almost completely alone. It sat and ate fruit from the trees, swung between branches and even relieved itself directly above us (thankfully we moved out of the way).
We dragged ourselves away eventually as the afternoon feeding time at the orangutan rehabilitation centre was approaching and we knew this would offer the opportunity to see more of these rare apes. The centre rescues younger orangutans and tries to rehabilitate them back into the wild. The rangers provide food twice a day for any orangutans who want to come back if food is scarce in the forest but it isn't a zoo and it's completely up to them. Some days none come and this is the risk you take when visiting, although if none arrive it is actually a sign that the apes can feed themselves and this is obviously preferable.
Upon arrival we put our bags into lockers as apparently orangutans have a fondness for technology and have been known to grab and run. We walked along the boardwalk to the feeding platform and saw a large number of long-tailed macaques who obviously also try to grab some of the free food. They were funny to watch as they constantly fight each other, even for the smallest of scraps. We were really lucky, as after a few minutes, 6 orangutans including a mother with a baby, turned up and hung around for about the next hour, giving us ample opportunity to take photos and observe their behaviours. As well as the mother and baby, there was also a large male and a small juvenile who obviously needed feeding.
Orangutans share about 96% of their genes with humans so it's really easy for them to catch human diseases. For this reason, and also to discourage over-familiarity with humans, there is a fair distance between the boardwalk and the feeding platform. There was a lot swinging on ropes over our heads and one even ended up coming down a tree near us and walking along the railing, although the rangers prevented anyone from getting too close. We could have stayed and watched all day, but for the reasons mentioned above time is limited to 60 minutes and then the park closes.
We took a public bus back to Sandakan which was funny as the driver was only about 20 and he'd covered it in football memorabilia, band posters and other merchandise and he played incredibly loud dance music for the whole 40 minute journey. We arrived back and after a quick change, we headed out to a local rooftop restaurant for Rob's birthday meal (a sausage platter and a Weiss beer) and a couple of drinks. Sandakan isn't the liveliest of towns in the evening so it wasn't a late one, however we still managed to have a huge lie in the next day (this was to be the last for a while). In preparation for the rigorous tour we had booked for the next four days, this day was very chilled basically consisting of cooking some pasta in the hostel and watching the Hunger Games on DVD...