For You I Will

Anyone who is planning a trip to Sandakan will most likely read about Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center (SORC). It is often highlighted as one of the must-sees in this historical city of Sabah Borneo. Although the place now treats more than Orangutans — sun bears, gibbons, Sumatran rhinos and elephants — the star residents of the Center have always been the Men of the Forest.

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“Am I a great acrobat?” Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

My friend (Jason) and I certainly did not want to miss SORC while we were in this city known as the gateway to Borneo’s wildlife. We timed our visit to coincide with the morning feeding at 10AM. We arrived at the feeding platform slightly earlier and secured good spots that would allow us to have an excellent view of the Orangutans. 10AM arrived. No sight of Orangutans. The clock ticked further away from the appointed hour, still no sight of Orangutans. Perhaps the baboons could tell the plausible absence of the Orangutans for the entire period as several of them started to make an appearance on the feeding platform and unhesitatingly feasted on the buffet that was prepared for the great apes. What was supposed to be an Orangutan show had become a baboon show. The baboons did get polite and perfunctory attention from some curious members of the audience. With hesitation, people started to leave the site. Jason and I left but only to get some ice cream at the cafeteria. We returned to the site and continued to wait, still feeling hopeful that some Orangutans might just show up at the last possible instant. There was another woman who was also not willing to give up yet. As noon was approaching, the ranger finally, regretfully, requested us to leave and suggested that we come back for the afternoon feeding at 3PM. Alas, we were leaving for Kinabatangan River at 1.30PM. I was tremendously disappointed.

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I found myself laughing when I flashed on this baboons-taking-over-the-spotlight moment. I imagined they were saying “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that the Orangutans are not coming today. But, much to your delight, we will run the show. Cheers”.

Fast-forward 3 days after our Kinabatangan trip. We were supposed to leave for the airport directly from Sukau. I did not feel at ease about leaving Sandakan without seeing Orangutans. I started to connect details in my head. Besides, we would have about 5 hours at the airport before departure. Feeling unsure about my last-minute plan, I turned to Jason and suggested that we gave SORC another try. He was hesitant but upon persuasion, agreed to go along with my plan. The plan was to have a minor detour. Instead of leaving for the airport, we would get off at SORC. The journey would take about 2 hours. We left Sukau around 8AM so we should be able to get to SORC just in time for the morning feeding. Any unplanned stops or delays could pretty much jeopardize our last hope of laying eyes on the great apes. Unfortunately, the driver did make a couple of brief stops. It was such a nerve-wrecking moment to keep checking the time and calculating the possibility of making it to the morning feeding. We finally arrived at SORC, around 10.45AM. We hurriedly made our way to the ticket counter but, once again, we were hit by disappointment — they were closing the gate as the Orangutans had all left the feeding platform. And once again, we were told to return for the afternoon feeding. And once again, we did not have the luxury of time to do so as we would be flying back home just before the afternoon feeding. We had a few hours to kill prior to leaving for the airport so we decided to walk to the Rainforest Discovery Center (located about 2KM from SORC) and learn about rainforest, and, if we were lucky enough we might just spot some wildlife.

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Ancient, dominant trees of the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Still…I was haunted by the disappointment of not seeing any Orangutans. Various thoughts began to race through my mind…the most persistent one being this “since we are already here, we might as well try again at all costs”. Once again, I connected details and made a plan in my head. I looked back on similar situations encountered in some of my prior trips where we tried once again regardless of risk or expense. I silently asked myself if I ever regretted any of it. The answer has always been “it was well worth the risk”. I shared my thoughts with Jason. At first he was quite hesitant, but was once again convinced to go with the new plan which involved forgoing our 2.45PM flights, going back to SORC for the 3PM feeding session, and buying new tickets for a 6PM flight. This plan cost us a great deal of time and money, of course. Even with as much certainty as I could muster, there was this doubtful little voice that kept nagging at my mind, questioning “will it be worth it”?

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“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for our unexplained absence the other day. But all is well now. We are taking the show back from our baboon rivals”. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

3PM was coming near. We made our way back to SORC. The day was hot and sunny. We were mostly quiet, entertaining whatever thoughts that were flooding through our minds. We quickly treated ourselves to some much-needed ice cream upon arrival at SORC. This was our third attempt so we knew what to do like the backs of our hands. As we were approaching the final check point to the feeding platform, it was the same guy who greeted us the first time we came. He smiled at us and announced the greatest news of the day “You were here before. You are lucky this time as the Orangutans are already on the platform”. It was not even 3PM yet! We got to the platform, and there they were, two seemingly carefree Orangutans moving about in a manner that hugely wowed their Homo sapiens admirers — upright walking, four-limbed suspension from branches, and tree swaying. Two slightly bigger Orangutans came and joined in the fun. We watched them perform their acrobatic moves in amazement. We watched them feast on their luxurious buffet of bananas, coconuts and leafy greens. Ahhh we could now leave Sandakan feeling happy and content. Answering for myself…was it worth it? OH YES, WITHOUT THE SLIGHTEST BIT OF DOUBT! So, dear Orangutans, now you know that for you I will!

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What comes to your mind when you look at this picture? For me, I see freedom. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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