Page: Sandakan's Many Charm

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July 29, 2011

Sandakan’s many charms

By Aida Ahmad

THE one question most people asked me when I returned from my familiarisation trip to Sandakan was, “How many orang utans did you see?”

Granted, that was one of the highlights during the tour of Sabah’s second largest town. However, Sandakan has more to offer than just primates.

Located on the north-eastern coast of Borneo facing the Sulu Sea, Sandakan is home to the famous Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, Kinabatangan River and Sandakan War Memorial Park.

A few media members were taken on this trip organised by Firefly. From the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), it takes two hours and 40 minutes to reach Sandakan.

Popular cruise: The lower Kinabatangan area is a hotspot to bird-watch.
As of Aug 1, Firefly will launch a new route to Sandakan with two daily flights.

With a population of about 500,000, comprising mostly indigenous people such as the Bajau, Orang Sungai, Bugis and Malay-Brunei, Sandakan used to be Sabah’s capital before World War II broke out.

“When the war ended, Sandakan was totally destroyed, partly from the Allied bombings. When the British North Borneo Company could not afford to rebuild the city, the capital was shifted to Jesselton, now known as Kota Kinabalu,” revealed Borneo Trails operations executive Jame Marajan.

Borneo Trails offers guided city, adventure as well as tailor-made tour packages, conventions and hotel arrangements around Sabah.

After landing at Sandakan Airport, we piled up in a van and took a two-hour drive to Sukau — a small village with less than 600 inhabitants located in the southern part of Sandakan.

We hopped on a five-minute boat ride at the Sukau jetty along the Kinabatangan River to head to the Proboscis Lodge Bukit Melapi where we stayed.

Chilling out: Resident orang utan Brit and her baby Charley at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Kinabatangan River

According to Jame, early contacts between the local and Chinese traders along the river, date back to as early as 631 AD.

“The traders from China used to exchanged goods such as porcelain, jugs and spoons for forest products which included bird nests,” he added.

The lower Kinabatangan area is home to at least 200 different species of birds including eight species of hornbills.

While partaking in the river cruise, you will notice ropes tied on the trees linking them on each side of the river. This is to allow the wild orang utans to cross the river to other parts of the jungle.

“The Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary consists of a gazetted area of 26,000ha which is a habitat for the Borneo Pygmy elephants and orang utans,” added Jame.

For nature enthusiasts, you can opt for basic accommodation at the Borneo Nature Lodge, Proboscis Lodge Bukit Melapi, Sukau Rainforest Lodge, Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge and Sukau River Lodge.

The two-hour river cruise also took us to one of the Kinabatangan tributaries — Menanggul River.

We were told this was one of the best small tributaries in the lower Kinabatangan area to spot kingfishers, egrets and eagles as well as to embark on jungle trekking.

Look up in the trees and if you are lucky, you will see the famous Proboscis monkey perched on one of the branches.

We were up at 6am the next day to go to the Kelelanap Oxbow Lake.

The thick blanket of morning mist over the river provided a mysterious ambience as you trail further into the wilderness.

About 20 oxbow lakes form part of the lower regions of the river. Created over time and separated from the main river by erosion, oxbow lakes are paradise for bird watchers and photographers.

After breakfast, it was another boat ride back to Sukau followed by a 30-minute drive to Gomantong Caves.

Gomantong Caves

This is one of the renowned caves for bird nest harvesting in Borneo. It consists of two cave complexes — Black Cave (Simud Hitam) which produces the black swiftlet nests and White Cave (Simud Putih) for the white swiftlet nests.

Bird nests from Gomantong can fetch a hefty price of between RM1,500 to RM2,500 per kg.

Harvesting season takes place three times a year from March/April, August/September and December. The harvesters have learnt a dangerous skill to collect the nests. They climb up rattan ladders with the assistance of ropes (minus harnesses) while others wait below to help steer the bamboo platform.

To get to the cave entrance, you will need to pass a wooden platform above the rainforest floor.

This is an interesting walk as one may be able to spot various species of monkeys and other wild animals along the way. Imagine our surprise (and horror) when we came across a venomous Bamboo Pitviper lurking in the trees.

As you get closer to the cave, you will get the first whiff of the pungent ammonia — that is from the piles of guano deposited by resident cave bats.

One piece of advice — bring a small torchlight, wear good hiking shoes (with proper traction), a hat and slather yourself with copious amount of insect repellent before entering.

You will see there is a wooden walkway with hand railings which goes around the cave. Avoid touching the railing unless you want to get acquainted with the other cave dwellers — giant red cockroaches and centipedes.

Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre

A boardwalk leads you to a viewing gallery and feeding platform where the orang utans are fed milk and bananas twice a day at 10am and 3pm by rangers.

The centre was set up in 1964 to rehabilitate orphaned baby orang utans. Set in the lush 4,300ha Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, the centre attracts tourists and researchers alike, giving them the opportunity to watch orang utans up close in their natural habitat.

Briton Ann Birtwell who is a warden at the centre said it takes seven years for a baby orang utan to know the skills of the forest.

“It is very emotional to see the tenderness the mother gives to the baby orang utan,” she said.

The primate residents here are Brit, which is 18 years old and has a three-month old baby called Charley. Mimi is the dominant female here and has a seven-year-old son called Ronny.

After breakfast the next day, we were taken on a city tour to visit some of the major attractions including the Sandakan Memorial Park.

One of the atrocities of World War II was the Sandakan Death Marches when Japanese soldiers decided to move about 2,400 prisoners of war 260km inland to the town of Ranau.

The Australian and British prisoners who did not die en-route to Ranau were crammed into unsanitary huts where most either died of dysentery or killed by prison guards.

The tour later covered Sandakan Central Market, Puu Jih Shih Buddhist Temple, Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Agnes Keith House, Buli Sim Sim Water Village, and the English Tea House and Restaurant.

For enquiries, call 089-213 799 or visit

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