Number 22 – Hug an Orang-utan (the Nine of Hearts) – Thursday 16th February 2017
Full disclaimer – Technically I failed this one because I didn’t actually hug an orang-utan. However, knowing now how strong they are and how vicious they can be, I’m happy that I got close enough!
I SAW ORANG-UTANS!!!!!!!!! This for me was a dream come true, and to be honest it was something I had actually planned on missing out for the moment. Let’s step back a few months…
When I first started my Apocalyst and started planning for Japan, things were a lot different. The list was in its infancy, some things hadn’t been thought through properly (such as hugging a creature that can literally rip your arms out of their sockets) and I had a pretty strict budget. I had looked into Thailand and Cambodia, even Vietnam, but when looking at Borneo, it just seemed too expensive given the budget I had. And so, with a heavy heart, I crossed Borneo off the list, and carried on planning. Every now and again I would look again, but to go on any of the tours etc. was just too expensive. The current trip had to miss the orangs.
Skip forward a few months, and I was sat in my hostel in Phnom Penh ready to book my flights to Japan. I don’t know why, but I decided to check just one more time at flights from Cambodia to Borneo, and then to Japan. To my surprise the difference in price was only around £40. I sat there for a while and did some calculations, worked out I had a little more money than expected, so decided to go for it. The booking process however wasn’t pretty. For some reason neither of my cards would work when I tried to pay for the flights and then the websites went down and I couldn’t use my cards for anything. I thought I was stuck, and unfortunately Sarah had to deal with the fallout of my near breakdown (she might say it was more of a full on breakdown – apologies) from the other side of the world. Eventually though, I managed to pay and my Borneo trip was on, albeit with no plans after arriving in Kota Kinabalu.
I arrived late on Tuesday night/Weds morning and headed straight to bed. The next morning I set out to find some prices for tours to see the Orang-utans. There is a separate post coming about how to do this on a super small budget, but basically all of the tours were super expensive so I decided to book it on my own, saving myself a small fortune in the process! Thursday morning I got a 30 minute flight to Sandakan and headed straight for Sepilok Orang-utan rehabilitation centre.
From here on in, this post might get a little erratic as I get more and more excitable; this was seriously one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The centre isn’t necessarily an enclosure; the apes are free to roam wherever they please whenever they please, apart from the youngsters, who are still being rehabilitated. There are no cages and the site is huge. At 9am the centre opened and I headed inside. I was unsure of what to expect from the centre but within 5 minutes I was starting to get an idea. Around 70m in front of me, a lone orang-utan wandered out of the trees and onto the walkway in front of me. I was surprised at how free these animals were to truly roam wherever they please. I only got a short glimpse of him before he disappeared back into the forest, but I had officially begun the nine of hearts.
From here I headed to the nursery, which is where they train the youngsters to survive in the wild. This was great and from the moment I arrived there were orang-utans everywhere. You couldn’t enter the outdoor nursery but were free to observe them as they went about their day to day life, eating, swinging on ropes and branches and play fighting with each other. Within a few minutes, a few of the adults had arrived and were asserting their dominance and taking over the area a little. I stayed here for around an hour just watching them play and interact with each other before heading to the feeding area to see if I could see any more adults. This was a good choice, as although none turned up for the feeding, what did happen was a once in a lifetime experience. I was walking to the feeding area when a guard shouted from up ahead to stand still at the side of the walkway. I followed his instructions, not entirely sure why, when around the corner walked not one but two orang-utans. One was on the railing, but the male was on the same walkway as me, heading straight for me. He nonchalantly strolled straight past me, literally within touching distance, looking up briefly to size me up before continuing on his way. It was breath-taking and the short video on my Facebook page is just a clip of my encounter. I was speechless; this was pretty much 2 wild orang-utan mere inches from me! It was crazy!
As I said there were no apes at the feeding station but that doesn’t mean there was no action. Whilst standing there, there was a scream from the walkway to the left of me. A few people, including myself headed down to see what the fuss was, and by this point the guards had arrived and cleared up what had been going on. There was a small lady looking very scared and relieved running towards us, and when someone asked, we found out that one of the orang-utans had grabbed her hand, which she thought was a friendly thing. I guess in a way it was; he proceeded to attempt to mount her and wouldn’t let her go! Luckily the guards were quick to the scene and broke up the drama! Hence the no longer wanting to actually hug one!
After lunch I headed back into the centre for round two. Again I headed to the nursery, and after a few minutes there was able to witness a great sight when a mother turned up with her young baby wrapped around her. Once on a platform, the baby got down from his mum and explored the area a little, eating some food and practising his swing. It was super cute, and one of the employees later pointed out how lucky we were as that mother normally doesn’t turn up to feeding. After another 40 minutes at the nursery in which one of the smaller orang-utans tried continually to escape and then sulk when the guards wouldn’t let him, I went back to the feeding station. This time I was rewarded as two orang-utan turned up to feed, although one was definitely more dominant than the other and would not let him eat! From here it was time to leave and head back to my accommodation.
I have no idea how many wild orang-utan I saw, but it was a lot. The work they are doing at Sepilok is incredible, and they work tirelessly to support orphaned orang-utans, those that have been mistreated or abused and those kept as pets. Each orang-utan is carefully looked after and rehabilitated to the point they can be reintroduced safely to the wild. The work they do there is seriously brilliant, and I feel privileged to have been able to see the outcome of the work they do. And let’s be honest, I SAW ORANG-UTANS!!!!!
From here I didn’t actually head back to Kota Kinabalu; instead I booked myself onto a 3 day 2 night river cruise in the hope of seeing more wild orang-utans. Unfortunately we only saw a fresh nest, meaning there was one nearby , but we didn’t actually see it. But it was still worth it; I got to see a plethora of Borneo’s other wildlife, take part in many river cruises, a trek through the rainforest, and a night walk in which I saw Civet cats and the elusive Slow Loris. So overall it was great. My other post will go into more detail about the logistics and how you can actually do this very cheaply, but that’s not important here. My week in Borneo has been fantastic and I not only managed to cross something else off the list, but also experienced some new and exciting things. Tomorrow I will land in Tokyo and the 6 of clubs begins. However, let me give you fair warning: I already know that I am going to fail the 6 of clubs. For all the right reasons!
Carpe that Diem