Borneo was the last leg of our travels. We spent 7 days there before the big flight to Sydney. There was a huge sense of relief as we got our flights from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan, mostly because now, everything was already paid for. The whole week was essentially a private, organised tour that we’d booked months and months ago. With funds getting steadily lower, it was brilliant to not have to worry about things like airport transfers, meals and day trips.
It was a very relaxing way to end our adventures. After hiking through Sri Lanka, trekking in Thailand and motor-biking down Vietnam it was great to not have to make any decisions and let someone else (literally) take the steering wheel.
I think I mentioned in an earlier post that Tom and I are both massive animal lovers. In fact, I’m pretty sure that throughout our travels we made more friends with the wildlife than with any actual human beings.
That’s why Borneo was the perfect choice for us – it’s an absolute haven for anyone who loves animals and we had the best time there.
I was very excited about the first stop of our big wildlife adventure: a night at the Turtle Islands Conservation Sanctuary. There are three islands in total, which are collectively known as the Selingan Islands, and they’re a 40 minute speed boat journey away from the Sandakan. The islands are home to the Turtle Conservation Park, which was established in 1966 and aims to protect endangered species from both natural and man-made predators.
It was a lot like being on a school trip. A fantastic school trip, where you get to see hundreds of baby turtles hatching, but a school trip all the same. The Conservation Park run a meticulous program. We were given printed itineraries which had our daily activities, our leisure time and our meals timed down to the last minute. I was half expecting a bedtime curfew and designated hallway monitors making sure that everyone’s lights were out!
However, this didn’t spoil the program in the slightest, and as you learn all about everything the park do to help protect the turtles, you begin to understand why they’re so organised.
Turtles have extremely sensitive eyesight, therefore their nesting and hatching almost always happens at night-time. Because of this, most of the daytime was scheduled leisure time, and we spent the day walking around the island, sunbathing and animal spotting. The educational parts of the tour took place after dinner.
First, we were taken by the rangers to see a first-time mother turtle laying her eggs. We then helped to lay these in the hatchery, which was constructed by the workers and designed to keep away predators such as birds, crabs and lizards, who eat Turtle eggs. The final, and most exciting part of the program was seeing the baby turtles hatching and being released into the sea for the very first time. Seeing a baby turtle the size of a walnut scrambling over the sand is one of those things that you can watch and it’ll immediately put you in a good mood, no matter how angry or upset you might be. It makes me smile every time.
The Turtle Islands tour was so informative and you can tell the staff absolutely love and care about their job. They’re excited to tell you about the species they dedicate their work to and their passion is infectious. There are two main species of turtle that the park protects; the green turtle and the hawksbill turtle. As well as the practical elements of the tour, you also learn all about the lifecycle of the animals as well as the predators that endanger them. You see how the staff tag and keep track of the turtles that return to the island and how they carefully record how many eggs are laid and hatched each day. It was a brilliant experience and one of the highlights of our trip.
The Bilit Rainforest
The following day we took our speedboat back to Sandakan and headed for the Rainforest.
We were staying the night at the Bilit Rainforest Lodge, in the very heart of the jungle- we even had to canoe down the river to get there! The accommodation was fantastic – luxury but eco-friendly, and surrounded by plants and animals. It really felt like we were living in the trees!
The main attraction of the Bilit Rainforest Lodge is the daily cruise they offer down the Kinabatangan River. From oxbow lakes to mangrove swamps, the river plays host to array of habitats for diverse wildlife.
With the help of our knowledgeable tour guide and the keen eyes of the skipper, we saw troupes of wild Orangutans, Proboscis Monkeys and Red Leaf Monkeys swinging from the branches of the trees. We saw pairs of Rhinoceros Hornbills, large black birds known for their bright yellow beaks and large orange horns (which actually look more like ginger quiffs!). We even saw a couple of crocodiles lurking just under the surface of the water near the banks of the river. They were absolutely ginormous, and suddenly our little boat didn’t seem so secure!
Luckily, we survived the perils of the crocodile cruise, and we made it back to our little rainforest chalet unscathed, and on a high from how lucky we’d been with our animal-spotting.
We spent the evening wondering whether it was monkeys, birds or dogs making a racquet outside our window (all part of the experience!) and in the morning rowed back down the river and hopped into the jeep that was waiting to take us away.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
We were catching a flight later that day, but on our way to the airport we stopped off for a few hours at one of Borneo’s prime attractions: Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Sepilok is nothing like a zoo- and quite rightly so. The animals aren’t trained or domesticated and there is absolutely nothing that resembles a cage. Sepilok is simply part of the rainforest, and the animals are free to come and go as they please.
We started off by walking through the forest, spotting the Orangutans in the trees and on the boardwalk. In the centre of the park there are feeding platforms. Visitors aren’t allowed to go up, but you get a brilliant view from the walkways of the hordes of animals- not just orangutans but monkeys, lizards and birds- that come to enjoy the feast that the volunteers bring.
The highlight of the tour, though, is the trip to the nursery. The nursery is essentially a huge playground for the baby/adolescent Orangutans who are in their last stages of rehabilitation. The babies that Sepilok houses are generally orphans whose parents have been hunted, or are rescued from people who illegally poach baby Orangutans to keep them as pets. Sepilok provides them with any necessary medical treatment, food, love and affection. They are paired with an older Orangutan through a ‘buddy system’ to help them learn the skills that they need to survive in the wild.
In the nursery, the Orangutans spend their time swinging from ropes, climbing in the trees and interacting with one another. I could have spent hours just watching them play – it’s adorable and fascinating in equal measure and I was really struck by how human these animals are.
You simply cannot go to Borneo without visiting Sepilok. I’d happily go back again and again and again, if only to while away the hours watching baby Orangutans playing in their jungle gym.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay at Sepilok all day. That very evening, we caught a flight to the capital city of Kota Kinabalu, where we planned to spend a couple of days in a beach-side hotel.
If you find yourself ever in Kota Kinabalu, I would definitely recommend a trip to the city centre in the evening for a wander around their night market. I’d been to lots of countries and countless markets by this stage, but there really was something spectacular about the covered market in KK. It’s a dream for anyone who (like me) LOVES fruit and vegetables. I thought I’d seen it all in Thailand but the Borneo fruit and veg selection was really something else! They also have a large section selling hot and spicy Laksa, savoury pancakes and banana fritters. The smells are incredible and Tom and I spent a good hour deciding what we wanted to eat!
Borneo was one of my very favourite countries. Everyone is so friendly; the food is amazing and the wildlife is just incredible. Our last few days were spent enjoying the sunshine, meanwhile getting very excited that our new life in Sydney was getting steadily closer.
It was a very nerve-wracking feeling packing up our backpacks for the last time. After two months, six countries, about 25 cities and many, many passport stamps it was time to board our final flight.