If you’ve never been to Nashville, you might think I’m trying to pull a fast one on you when I tell you that in the center of Centennial Park (Nashville’s equivalent of New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park) sits a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. Constructed in 1897 as part of celebrations marking the 100-year anniversary of Tennessee’s official entry into the United States (one of Nashville’s monikers is “Athens of the South”), it was built to exactly mimic the original. From the decorative friezes depicting scenes from ancient battles and myths, to the glittering and gaudy 42-foot tall Athena Parthenos statue that stands inside the building’s sacred cella, every last detail of Nashville’s Parthenon has been lovingly restored. Accordingly, when you stand in its shadow and gaze up the smooth length of its columns, you see it not as you would the Parthenon in Greece today, but as the original once appeared over 2000 years ago. Just a five-minute walk from my doorstep, I spent a lot of time marveling at its majesty, and sometimes wondered whether I would ever really need to make the trip across the ocean to see the original.
But of course, no matter how beautiful and masterful the version of the Parthenon that sits in my erstwhile home, there is an undeniable allure to seeing things in the places where they began, the places they belong.
You won’t find the Parthenon (or even a replica) in Borneo, but it was in search of that same special magic that we headed deep into its jungles. With fingers crossed and bated breath, we trampled brush underfoot and glided down churning rivers, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the world’s rarest wildlife in its natural habitat, knowing that our previous encounters at zoos simply wouldn’t compare.
In particular, we were really hoping to see some orangutans while in Borneo, as it is one of only two places left in the world where you can still find wild ones. Alas, the likelihood of spotting wild orangutans in Malaysia is increasingly slim; if you read our last post about cruising the Kinabatangan river, you’ll know our quest was unsuccessful (at least on the orangutan front… when you get to see pygmy elephants twice, you can’t get too disappointed).
This being Borneo, of course there were plenty of alternate locations where we could potentially stumble upon these titian-haired apes, such as Danum Valley or the Maliau Basin. Both places sounded incredible, but having quite spectacularly—and with no regrets—blown our budget diving at Sipadan, we knew the high cost involved in visiting either location just wouldn’t be possible for us, especially since neither place offered any greater chance of orangutans than Sukau had.
Happily, the little town of Sepilok offered us another, more budget-friendly, opportunity to gaze upon these great apes. Focused on conservation, the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre sits on thousands of acres of rainforest and is a haven for orphaned orangutans that have lost their home to deforestation, lost mothers to hunting, or have been kept illegally as pets. The ultimate aim of the sanctuary is to raise the orangutans to be self-sufficient so that they can be released back into Borneo’s ever-dwindling jungle and thrive. Orangutans work with trained handlers and vets to learn the skills they need to survive in the big, bad, scary world, and it is due to these people’s hard work that some of the animals have been successfully returned to the place where they belong.
But not all of the stories end quite so triumphantly. There are a fair number of apes—often females and younger orangutans—who become dependent on the center and are reluctant to stray far from their adopted home. They become attached to the workers and the shelter of the center, and linger just in the fringes of the thick, leafy jungle that surrounds the grounds. When the rainy season descends on Borneo and the limbs of the trees grow heavy with fruit, visits from these forest dwellers become less frequent, but as nature’s bounty becomes more scarce, like a freshman returned from college to raid the parental fridge, the orangutans return to the center for daily fruit buffets.
Two feedings are offered per day and we arrived just in time for the morning one. Paying 40MYR each (~$13US), we walked down a long boardwalk that curved out before us like a wooden serpent, leading us into the untamed jungle. Within seconds, the trees lining the path grew so thick and dense, they dampened all noise save for the tread of our feet on the boards and the occasional flutter of leaves or cracking of a branch as unseen creatures rustled about in the forest’s hidden depths.
Our sense of solitude was not to last, however, as after about 10 minutes of power walking, we rounded a bend only to find a wall of fellow tourists eagerly awaiting the arrival of the orangutans on the viewing platform. The center is second only to Mount Kinabalu in popularity with visitors to the province, so the teeming mass wasn’t exactly a surprise, though it did detract a bit from the serenity of the situation and certainly dashed any (admittedly fanciful) illusions of this being a sacred and pure wildlife experience. Tony & I darted about, dodging elbows and trying to find a nook from which we could observe the feeding stations unobstructed by the peaks of Crocodile Dundee-style safari hats or the protuberant lengths of telephoto lenses. We managed to stake out a tiny, undisturbed corner close to the railing, where we crossed our fingers and waited.
With the placement of the first basket of fruit on the feeding platform, a hush fell over the crowd, the prospect of wild animals rendering everyone mute in anticipation. Almost immediately, a fierce rustling of branches echoed from the forest, and moments later, on spindly arms, the first orangutan swung into view.
We watched in rapt fascination as the creature bobbed like a pendulum towards the fruit. Upon reaching the platform, she maneuvered herself directly above the fruit basket and began to greedily snatch up fruit with one hand while the other clung steadfast to the length of rope. We may have a tendency to anthropomorphize and read extraordinary kindness and gentleness in the eyes of these creatures, glancing at the fierce grip of this ape’s hands, it was easy to see how effortlessly it could crush the life from anything it wrapped its fingers around.
Within minutes, there were five orangutans none-too-stealthily sneaking fruit from the platform. At no point were we human observers ever at risk of being outnumbered (there were about 10 people there for every orangutan), but it was still a real thrill to watch these creatures graze and gambol about, sometimes just a meter or two from us and unfettered by bars or glass. Because the majority of the simian scavengers that visit the center at feeding time are juvenile or adolescent apes, they seemed equally invested in glutting themselves as they were with socializing and romping about on the ropes and platforms set up in the area. There was a real joyfulness to their movements, and amidst the oohs and ahs of the crowd, there were plenty of smiles aping (pardon the pun) the ones on display.
However, once the fruit supplies were exhausted, in unison they all beat a steady retreat back into the brush, to rest and recuperate so that in a few hours they could do it all over again.
There are several hiking trails around the center for those hoping for a more organic orangutan encounter or the opportunity to escape the crowds, but the prime attraction at the center is undoubtedly the scheduled feeding times when sightings are all but guaranteed. Following the feedings, the center also shows a short documentary giving more in-depth background on the threats faced by orangutans in Borneo and the challenges involved in running the center. Although the outlook for these animals (and most of Borneo’s wildlife) is murky should deforestation and urbanization continue at the pace of recent years, the triumphs and small gains made by the center made me think the future is not without hope.
I can’t say that our encounter with wild orangutans was as electrifying or as transcendental as say, this experience in Sumatra, but it was a step up from a zoo. And though it may not be the slice of unbridled Borneo intrepid travelers dream about, it was a nice complement to our time on the Kinabatangan (which was very much the stuff of wilderness fantasies) and we felt good supporting an organization that is clearly invested in doing such important work. If the conditions for viewing orangutans in Borneo are less than ideal, this just highlights the need for change and conservation before these amazing creatures live on only in memory or in zoos. Hopefully if more people experience the wonder and joy of witnessing orangutans living free, the place where these animals began won’t also be the place where they end.
It is possible to base yourself in Sepilok, but the Centre is really the only attraction in the area so most people visit as a short day-trip as part of a tour package from Sandakan and bundle it with other attractions. If you are staunchly anti-tour, it might be possible to take a public bus or minivan from Sandakan.
Expect a crush of tourists around feeding times (10am and 3pm), and you should probably plan to arrive at least 20 minutes beforehand to secure a decent spot. You cannot bring anything other than a camera with you (no bags or purses) to the viewing platform, so if you do take the bus, ask about lockers or somewhere secure to leave your belongings.
Now it’s your turn: Have you ever seen orangutans in the wild? What’s the best wildlife encounter you have ever had?