How to see orangutans in Borneo

We arrived in Sepilok in Borneo, the world’s third largest island, famed for its wildlife. We saw orangutans at play in the afternoon sun, spent a night in a rainforest lodge, made a jungle night-walk and sailed to an island of white sand and crystal-clear waters where turtles laid their eggs in the light of the moon.

Sepilok | Sabah Province | Borneo | Malaysia

We spent 2 days enjoying Kuala Lumpur, visiting its famed mosques, walking its markets and enjoying the views from its Petronas sky-scrapers. From there, it was a two hour flight to Borneo, an island shared by three countries, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

I was expecting to see expanses of jungle from the flight, unbroken broccoli-heads of tree canopies, dense and separated only by looping, muddy rivers. How wrong I was. Sure there was green as far as the eye could see, but it was the perfect lines of palm-oil plantations, ubiquitous and unceasing to the horizon.

Over the last 40 years Malaysia has chopped down much of its forests for this cash crop; although Borneo is still over 50% forest, from the plane I must have seen the other half.

We spent a couple of nights in the port of Kota Kinabalu where it rained incessantly on the first night. So what were we to do?

We got rid of our plastic capes (we always thought they made us look like walking condoms), bought umbrellas and walked to Little Italy Pizzas. (Now after 10 weeks of travel, I feel a lot less shame about not always going local when it comes to food).

The next day the rain had cleared and we took a tour bus past the magnificent Mount Kinabalu, with its jagged top of teeth, grounded in rainforests and capped with clouds and took a forest canopy walk along swinging walkways.

Sepilok and the orangutans

We flew to the eastern port of Sandakan, and took a short taxi ride to stay for three nights at a forest lodge in Sepilok, set around a manicured lake of palms and plants where humming birds hovered from flower to flower and the rooms had an old jungle feel with varnished wooden panels.

Sepilok is world famous for its Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, set up in 1964 to help rear orphaned orangutans who would normally stay with their mothers for 6 years. Here they’re nurtured in love, attention and lots of bananas.

We went to two viewings for visitors at 10am and 3pm when the apes get fed.

We waited in a viewing gallery of tiered seating with a floor to ceiling window of one-way glass, that overlooked a play area of wooden platforms (filled with bananas, coconuts and other fruits), and ladders and ropes where the orangutans come to eat and play.

Suddenly a few minutes after ten, about fifteen orangutans came knuckle-walking in to view. They climbed on the platform, peeled bananas and ate them with some style. It wasn’t a mad rush for the food, like in the office canteen at about 1pm, but they appeared to have some order and restraint They’d peel husks, eat oranges, eat and then play on the lawns, doing roly-polies, make random runs, climb, hang upside down, swing along ropes. They looked genuinely happy.

It was quite a show of lots of activities, each personality showboating and frolicking in the sun; the gallery was treated to regular laughs, all unbeknownst to the primates beyond the one-way glass.

This exuberance was a joy to behold, made more poignant because each of these orangutans playing before us had started life as an orphan, with a personal tragedy and a struggle. These were ones that fended for themselves, the ones their mothers had left behind.

Don’t steal my coconut

Orangutans have an impressively effortless athleticism. They can swing off ropes with a coconut in each foot in a very casual manner; they can lift themselves up on a platform using just their fingertips without even showing off; they can hang off a rope with one foot, yawn, hold a banana in one hand and scratch their armpits in another. Now that’s multi-tasking.

One thing they don’t have is dinner table etiquette. We noticed a little episode where an orangutan was being chased by another who wanted to steal his coconut. Here’s the video of that little sketch …

A lusty male gets jilted

For a while, two orangutans had been wrestling on the lawn. One appeared to have the upper hand in the duel. The smaller one was trying to push the other away, and there were little nips and slaps.

As they came closer an uncomfortable truth dawned on the viewers in the gallery. They weren’t actually wrestling. They were mating.

Or put more accurately, he was trying to mate. She was trying to ‘unmate‘ herself.

She was having none of it, pushing him away, trying to prise herself from his hairy fingered clutches, trying to make her escape but he would bite once again and try to mount her. The whole thing went on for ten awkward minutes and people in the viewing area giggled like they were watching a ‘Carry On’ film.

It all became quite graphic and everyone in the viewing gallery became a voyeur. How quickly an atmosphere can change. This had changed in a matter of minutes from Attenborough to ape porn.

Some awkward child to parent questioning took place in the gallery. What were the two apes actually doing? All answers were blatant lies.

The female, with some remarkable, super-orangutan feat of strength, lifted herself plus him clinging on to her rear, up on to the viewing platform with just her fingertips, and there, with fatigue set in to her sunken eyes, there on those high wooden planks meant for eating bananas not acts of desperate copulating, she was somehow able to prise herself away from the lusty young male and jump away to freedom and to a new life of avowed chastity.

Her departure created a round of applause and yelps resounded throughout the voyeuristic peeping Toms in the viewing gallery.

Forlorn and dejected, the young male, exhausted from his failed amorous attempt, lay on his front, limbs splayed on the lawn, head on the ground; he checked that his tackle was still there (it was but it was quite hard to tell) and then he settled for the next best thing: he ate an apple.

There the jilted one lay for some time, contemplative, wondering what might have been; occasionally his attention drifted from his apple and he cast longing glances to his escapee sat at a comfortable distance across the lawn.

By then she was safely with her girlfriends. ‘Tried it once, it was shit,’ she must have been telling them.


Getting close to the orangutans

Thankfully we’re getting in to an era of more responsible tourism (as we’d find out with the turtles later) where tourists’ presence is low-key and therefore less unsettling for the animals, and I was glad that no one was allowed to get too close to them or hold them.

Although you’re not allowed to get close to the orangutans, they can get close to you; we walked along the wooden walkways through the forest that hosts the rehabilitation centre and an orangutan just walked passed us on a handrail, just walking along on all fours, with the nonchalance of a creature very much at ease at its surroundings. Later that day we visited the Forest Discovery Centre, where on its high-up walkways, walking at the height of the canopies, we saw another orangutan making its nest for the evening.

Making ape nests high up in the branches. Now, that might be a more successful way to woo an ape lady.


This post is part of the series called ’90 Days in South East Asia’ about our travels in India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia in March to June 2019, and was written on-the-road mainly on buses, boats and planes.


All the links to blog posts in the series are as follows:

1) I’m backpacking around Southeast Asia for 90 days

2) Packing for backpacking: 16 useful things to take on your travels

3) How to sleep on a flight (aches on a plane)

4) Flying past Mount Everest

5) A storm in an Assamese teacup

6) On the lazy man’s road: the story of Dhodar Ali

7) Digboi, the oil town in the rainforest

8) To Sivasagar: home of the Assamese kings

9) Things to see in Majuli, the world’s largest river island

10) An unexpected treat on the river Brahmaputra

11) Helpful hints on how to climb a 17 foot elephant on your wedding day

12) Where the rhinos roam

13) The Assamese Bihu: a time of unbridled joy

14) A tale of a dry day in India

15) Kalimpong and a magical Himalayan wedding

16) Chiang Mai, a pretty little temple town

17) Replanning our route, re-routing our plan

18) Luang Prabang in Laos: the jewel on the Mekong River

19) A slow and unintended minibus to Vang Vieng

20) In the laid-back city of Vientiane

21) Laos: Caves, a jungle trek and the mysterious turquoise lake

22) On our way down south in Laos

23) Goodbye Laos, you beauty

24) Friday night at the Saigon Opera House

25) Getting over a fever

26) Vietnam days: Hoi An, Hue and Hanoi

27) Landing in the sea at Halong Bay, Vietnam

28) Mandalay Days

29) Bagan, the jewel of Myanmar

30) Three nights on Lake Inle in Myanmar

31) Finding a perfect perfume in Singapore

32) In Borneo, watching the orangutans at play

33) Watching turtles at Selingan Island



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