Sandakan is the stop-off town for people wanting to get to Sepilok to visit the various wildlife sanctuaries in the area. We had considered staying in Sepilok but there appeared to be nothing else to do there, so we opted for the main town instead. Checking in to the WinHo Lodge after a fairly comfortable bus ride from Semporna, we decided to look into the various attractions that made up the Sandakan Heritage Trail; a town-wide walk encompassing the best that Sandakan had to offer. The first on the list was The Agnes Keith House. This was the home of a relatively famous American non-fiction writer who settled in Borneo with her husband, who was a conservator in the area. The house had been restored and was available to wander around, using the same ticket that we’d used for the Sabah Museum in Kota Kinabalu. Our luck was out though, along with the electricity in the town. Something had knocked out the grid across the area, and so the place was closed. This also explained why we didn’t see any traffic lights when we arrived in town. We decided to make the most of it though, and since the weather was lovely we visited the English Tea House and Restaurant next door. A more English setting, you couldn’t have envisaged. Verandas looked out over the city, hedges were perfectly trimmed, there was a sizeable croquet lawn next to the restaurant, and what’s that? Tea and scones on the menu? Well, why not.
The scones were miles better than the ones in the Cameron Highlands, impressive since they arrived warm despite a lack of electricity. After high tea, we thought it would be rude not to partake of a game of croquet.
As you can tell by the way we held the mallets, neither of us had ever played before. A simple set of rules was nearby to give us a bit of help, and after some abysmal punts around the lawn, I emerged victorious and immediately affected a traditionally smug toff pose, just to keep in character with the place. Gilly was somewhat dejected.
Following our tea and games we visited the Chinese memorial and Japanese cemetery nearby.
Given the atrocities committed by the Japanese, it was surprising that such a large area was allowed to be dedicated to them. It was in need of some care, but it stretched out some way.
The next day we took the bus to Sepilok. This runs on the hour, and handily stops outside the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: our destination.
We arrived just in time for the first feeding of the orangutans. The centre is set on the edge of the jungle, so the orangutans are free to come and go as they please; some of them return for feeding each day whilst others who have been fully rehabilitated will live independently in the jungle, and may not return at all. The feeding platform is about 25 metres out from the viewing platform, allowing the apes to be observed without disturbing them. A number of them have babies, which they bring to "show off" to the public.
We also got the chance to see a Wagler's pit viper hiding in a tree, which took us a while to spot as she was pretty well camoflauged:
On the way back, both Gilly and I were lucky enough to get fairly close to one of the orangutans who was following the departing group along the walkway out of the park:
Since the centre is effectively their home, the orangutans have almost the run of the place. This was shown to full effect when one of them decided to take an interest in the backpack of some American students, and proceeded to open up a pack of crackers and a jar of peanut butter before helping herself. The students were not happy, but I thought it was hilarious; Schadenfraude at its best. I'm not sure what they were expecting by leaving their belongings unattended in a place where apes roamed free...you can't have your peanut butter crackers and eat them.
I'm not sure what I was expecting from SORC. Possibly not something as openly tourist-oriented as what we experienced, although the chance to observe the orangutans in their almost natural environment was obviously fantastic. However, I had this "Gorillas in the Mist" vision in my head, where it would be a tiny group observing them in nature (rather than being fed by humans). I can't say I was disappointed, but it was a much different experience to the one I had in my head and more in line with a (very) ethical safari park than a full-on encounter. I think when we return to Borneo I'd love to do more nature tours and see wild orangutans - something that our friends Carl and Caitlyn did before joining us on the diving rig.
After the feeding, we went to the Rainforest Discovery Centre, 1.5km down the road. We had lunch there, then scaled the various walkways in an attempt to see some of the colourful indigenous Bornean birds that live in the area. We failed miserably, not least because the weather was awful. It seems that the "rain" part of "rainforest" is apt. In fact, it had rained at some point every day we'd been in Borneo. Being English though, we were used to this, and it helped break up the heat of the day. The RDC was otherwise a large conservation area mainly dedicated to protecting various trees and plants.
We returned in the rain to SORC for the afternoon feeding (less orangutans this time, it seems they were fair weather feeders...) and caught the bus back to Sandakan, where we had a great dinner at Ba Lin restaurant. Very western, but oh-so-nice.
We ate at Ba Lin again for lunch the next day (the amazing fries never get old) before setting out on the Sandakan Heritage Trail once more. We finally got to see the Agnes Keith House which wasn't bad for a free entry but wouldn't have been worth paying for, before hitting the other sights on the tour which included - and I am not making this up - "Remains Of Old Staircase". It was thrilling to discover it. I was almost overwhelmed with excitement.
There's no detail about the staircase, it's just a half-complete set of stone steps on the side of the road. After some digging, I since found out that they were the remains of what were believed to be the Consulate building of the pre-war Chinese government. So, there you go. The rest of the points on the trail were fairly mundane: a clock tower, a church, a Chinese temple, and so on. But they killed the afternoon and there is really nothing else to do in Sandakan. Dinner was at the Harbour Bistro Cafe on the waterfront. My lemon fish was served in a polished bamboo pot and was excellent. Gilly had sizzling chicken hotpot, but it was fairly average.
The following day we took a bus from Sandakan back to Kota Kinabalu and stayed at the Lavender Lodge again. We knew it was good, so there was no point looking elsewhere for lodgings. Since the trip took most of the day, we got in mid-afternoon and went to the post office to send some postcards off, before having dinner at the Old Village seafood restaurant across the road from the hostel. I finally had my first decent crab since Kep, and was very happy. A great way to end Borneo on, before a flight to the Philippines early the next morning.