We arrived in the fairly non-descript port of Sandakan, which is chiefly famous for being one of the main ports that ships out all the timber from Borneo's ever-diminishing rainforests, and for being almost totally destroyed in the Second World War. So, the concrete urban jungle of Sandakan was not the main interest here – it was to get out into what's left of the island's tropical jungle to see what's left of its endangered wildlife.
First, we drove to the Sepilok Wildlife Reserve – a section of protected rainforest where injured or orphaned orang-utans are rehabilitated and made ready for reintroduction to the wild. There's around 200 orang-utans living in the semi-wild here, within the confines of the reserve.
Our trip was scheduled to fit in with the feeding time for the orang-utans, but our guide was careful to lower our expectations of wildlife-spotting opportunities – the better adapted these shy apes are to living in the wild, so the less reliant they are on handouts from the rangers, who keep the food they give them deliberately boring, to encourage them to fend for themselves.
So, before the 10am feeding slot, there was a fair amount of staring into the dense jungle, trying to get our first glimpse of these wonderful creatures. As the allotted hour drew close, we began to see trees shaking in the distance and the anticipation rose, then we got the odd view of something ginger moving in the distance.
All of a sudden, 2 orang-utans swung down gracefully from the trees, their long arms effortlessly swinging them across the ropes that led them to the feeding platform. There was a real thrill to see these soulful creatures so close up (about 15 metres away), and to observe their incredibly human characteristics – they share 97% of their DNA with humans after all.
I was surprised how little they interacted with each other – even when they were on the platform together, they'd get their food, and go to opposite corners turning their backs on each other furtively. Occasionally, a couple of the younger ones would try to annoy each other playfully, and would chase after each other – great to watch.
So, exhilarated by the chance to see at least 7 different orang-utans close up (when we told we might not see any!), we got on the bus to drive to the proboscis monkey sanctuary. As we drove along the completely straight road, our driver inexplicably veered off the road and smashed the side of the bus into a stationary tree – maybe he felt that seeing the orang-utans hadn't been exciting enough for us! Fortunately, it was only a glancing blow and we weren't going very fast, so no-one was hurt; however, the windscreen had been smashed up, and the window in the door was knocked out, so we had to wait for an alternative bus to take us to our next stop.
We arrived just in time for proboscis monkey feeding time, and we had the chance to get extremely close to some of the most extraordinary-looking creatures on God's earth. The males have that big bulbous drooping nose and a big pot belly (they look like they must drink a bottle of port every evening), while the smaller females have a distinctly un-cute upturned nose. But, the most startling thing about the male monkeys is that they are in a permanent state of readiness for mating (if you know what I mean). It was like a convention of ugly Viagra salesmen.
As they grunted their way around, bad-temperedly steeling food off each other, we saw a couple of examples of exactly why they have permanent erections – they will take any opportunity to get up to some monkey business with any monkey that's passing and not looking. In one disconcerting example, I saw one of the larger males pick up a passing juvenile and clamp its mouth onto his ever-ready nether regions – I think I will be scarred for life! It was disgusting behaviour, but strangely compelling viewing.
So, Borneo gave us some unforgettable sights – some of them I wish that I could forget, but I can't! Our drive back to the ship passed though vast plantations of palm trees – it was incredibly sad to think that this land would once have contained dense rainforests before all the wood was cut down and the palms planted. As a result of their natural habitat being so relentlessly destroyed, the orang-utan and proboscis monkey are both in real danger of extinction in the wild – I just hope that they're around in 50 years time for future generations to enjoy as much as we did.