Horse riding, bat caves and a million monkeys... There are adventures galore in this tropical paradise, including a close encounter with an elusive great ape
The first glimpse of fluffy auburn hair and we were all besotted, especially with the aptly named “Cute”, who came close to check out two-year-old Freddie, who is of similar height. Freddie greeted him with a well-rehearsed “Oo-Oo” and Cute, we all thought, looked pretty impressed.
With some free time available during the Christmas holidays, I had decided I wanted to take my three sons, Freddie, two, Ben, five, and Josh, seven, to see the orang-utans. So after doing my research, I settled on Sabah, Borneo’s most northerly state and the easiest to explore with three frisky boys in tow.
With the orang-utans as our central theme, we began our trip in Kota Kinabalu, or to be more precise, an hour north of the capital at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort. In case you haven’t heard, fancy spas are so over.
These days, anyone who’s anyone insists on an orang-utan sanctuary. And, as well as being beautifully positioned on a stretch of remote beach, the Rasa Ria has just that. In its nature reserve reside eight young orang-utan orphans, who delight visitors twice daily by swinging through the vines to a feeding platform. As we enjoyed the spectacle, however, we were quickly reminded that we were out in the jungle and not in a zoo when a troop of long-tailed macaques came thrashing through the trees, baring their teeth, to steal titbits.
The jet lag had been dealt with during two days in Kuala Lumpur at The Traders Hotel, with its fantastic views of Petronas Towers, so we were soon relaxed and luxuriating in the resort’s various delights: for my husband, Neil, it was catamaran sailing; Josh and I enjoyed horse rides along the beach; Freddie loved the pool; while Ben had discovered the chocolate fountain at the beach-side buffet. And there were surprises round every corner – a porcupine waddled up to us at dinner on Christmas Eve and monitor lizards often strolled nonchalantly past the pool. We could have easily whiled away a week there (did I mention the reflexology and massage available on the beach?), but we peeled the children away from the pool most days to explore the area.
The biggest tamu (market) in Sabah takes place on a Sunday in Kota Belud, an hour further north. We mingled amongst the hawkers and hagglers, soaking up the atmosphere of what was obviously just as much a social gathering as a chance to stock up on supplies. Although mainly a produce market (Ben kept his nose firmly pegged passing the mounds of dried fish causing much mirth among the good-natured traders), there were local handicrafts to be bartered over, too. We came away with a gong for me to bash at teatime and tiny conical hats for each of the boy’s teddies.
Another day, we visited Kampung Penambawan, a fishing village built on stilts above an ocean inlet. The taxi driver reluctantly dropped us at the jetty. “No tourists,” he said. “Exactly,” I replied. There’s an ad hoc ferry service by large dugout canoe, which we boarded with uncertain whoops and wobbles. The locals thought we were mad, an impression only confirmed by Freddie, who, since his encounter with Cute, was regularly practising his monkey impersonations. They must have thought we were even crazier when the heavens opened (December is the rainy season) and it became apparent that we weren’t prepared. Everyone quickly rallied round and we were soon given shelter under three umbrellas – with three spokes between them.
Once on not-so-dry land, a lady, who had taken a shine to Freddie during our cruise up river, invited us into her home, where she, reluctantly, let other villagers in to stare and giggle at us. After half an hour, Ben began to look worried. “We’ll be here forever, Mummy,” he said, staring at the pouring rain. Meanwhile, Freddie had snoozed off sitting on our host’s lap, while Josh looked longingly out of the window at a group of boys his age doing star jumps into the water and paddling their own canoes.
We made a break for it eventually, Ben didn’t want to miss out on Christmas. And what was Christmas day like in Borneo? Well, Father Christmas still kept his appointment and arrived in, what else, but a helicopter! Our sons couldn’t believe their eyes and will never, ever buy the sleigh-and-reindeer story again.
It’s just a 45-minute flight to Sandakan on the east coast, where we based ourselves at the Sepilok Nature Resort. I didn’t think it was possible to manicure a jungle but that’s what it looked like: a perfectly tailored clearing that our wooden chalet nestled in. We shared our home with a mysterious toad we could hear, though we never caught a glimpse of him, as well as four geckos and a nest of boisterous indigo flycatchers. The Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre was a five-minute walk from our accommodation and we were told that, as we were travelling with such young children, this was the closest encounter with the orang-utans we could hope for.
Twice a day, the rangers leave fruit and sugar cane on a feeding platform and visitors can watch the acrobatic apes as they cartwheel and sway along ropes to get to their feast. Of course, we had to adopt one. Twenty-five pounds keeps a baby orang-utan in food and shelter for a year, and in return you get regular letters from your surrogate primate. It was a sad moment when I had to explain to Josh that Sen wouldn’t actually be coming home with us.
At the Rainforest Interpretation Centre, we followed the one-kilometre track, which was perfect for little boys who fancy themselves as the next Indiana Jones. The trail took us across wobbly rope bridges over lakes and into thick, fragrant forest. Actually, it was quite a sedate stroll, but then again I wasn’t fleeing from cannibals.
We dined that evening at The Ocean King seafood restaurant, a vast eatery built on stilts above the water in Sandakan. At first, the boys thought we’d brought them to an aquarium as we peered into pool after pool teeming with fish and crustaceans, but this was in fact the menu. On offer were strange creatures such as horseshoe crabs; spiky sea urchins; sea cucumbers; ‘lobsters’ that turned out to be giant prawns (the lobsters were even bigger); and iridescent blue-striped fish, which were far too pretty to eat. Once my poor children had recovered from the shock, they giggled nervously as they chose some sort of snapper for their tea, which they gobbled up with fried rice and declared to be “delicious”. With sign language as our only means of communication, it was difficult to discover the price of anything, so we threw caution to the refreshing sea wind and opted for a decadent feast of crab and langoustine steamed with ginger. Thankfully, we didn’t need to do the washing up because our bill came to just £17.
It’s a bumpy three-hour drive to the Kinabangatan River, where we paid extra to explore by private boat. This was no more decadent than the standard shared river safaris, but at least if Freddie got bored and started making loud “Oo-Oo” noises at the proboscis monkeys, he wasn’t in danger of annoying any keen wildlife enthusiasts. Not as obviously adorable as the orang-utan, the proboscis monkeys, with their enormous great hooters, protruding pot bellies and permanently erect penises, are great fun fodder for small boys (and forty-something husbands), and the boys got quite adept at mimicking their call. Other diversions included brilliant blue stork-billed kingfishers and pied hornbills, which bellowed for attention from the treetops. We laughed our heads off when a pig-tailed macaque tried to jump across the river but missed and emerged looking very bedraggled and rather embarrassed on the other side.
Back exploring by four-wheel drive, we also stopped at the Gomantong Forest Reserve, famous for its caves where swifts’ nests are harvested for the Chinese delicacy of bird’s nest soup. Every guidebook had warned us the caves weren’t child-friendly but, as we were passing, it seemed foolish not to pop in. It’s the smell of strong ammonia that hits you first. It definitely wasn’t Ben’s idea of a good time: the floor of the cave was covered in slippery, wet bat and swift droppings and crawling with cockroaches and giant millipedes. “Whose idea was this?” he demanded.
“Daddy’s,” I lied. We soldiered on. “Breathe through your mouth,” I instructed. But as we emerged into the daylight again, there was an unexpected movement in the bamboo trees at the mouth of the cave and an adult orang-utan came into view. She was magnificent, but what’s more, she was wild and she stared at us for what felt like hours. In reality, it was only a few minutes. We were riveted to the spot. Even Freddie was lost for “Oo-Oos”. Our search for the orang-utan was complete and I’m sure Josh, Ben and Freddie will remember this encounter all their lives. That and the fact their new trainers got covered in bat poo.
- www.airasia.com For internal flights.
- www.trailfinders.com Flights with Malaysian Airlines direct to Borneo. Tel: 0845 058 5858.
Where to stay
- www.sepilok.com Prices from £32 per chalet, per night.
- www.shangri-la.com Traders Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, from £55, and Rasa Ria in Sabah, £68, both based on a double room per night. Or you can book through Trailfinders (see above).
- Lonely Planet: Borneo by Chris Rowthorn, China Williams, and Muhammad Cohen (Lonely Planet Publications, £14.99).
- Sabah Insight Pocket Guide by Wendy Hutton (APA Publications, £7.99).