We began our travels in Malaysia in Kota Kinabula on Boreno Island. This city is a common jumping off point for travelers but not usually a primary destination. We arrived in the evening and found ourselves wandering through the streets of Kota Kinabula in a starving haze, looking for food but still suffering painful side effects from our very expensive final supper in Bali. Kota is known for their incredible market food stalls that offer a huge variety of meats and seafood for only a few dollars a meal but as soon as the scent of grilling meats and fresh fish hit my nose I was willing to pay any price NOT to eat there. Having an upset stomach just kills my (limited) desire for street food. In the end we devoured veggie fried rice at a simple restaurant not far from our guesthouse.
Kota Kinabula was a grey city with very little to do, outside of day trips to nearby islands. In lieu of activities or museums we rewarded ourselves with massages and it must have been just after lunchtime because the masseuses burped throughout the massages – classy! Kelsey and I stumbled into the cooler part of the city looking for a bookstore and found some interesting dining options. The heavens opened and we found Bella Italia Restaurant (in the Jesselton Hotel) that had a wine and pizza special. After a wine-less month in Bali and our bellies craving something familiar we were SOLD!
Early the next day we took a bus to Sepilok to experience the Sabah rainforest. We stayed at an amazing place, the Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat. It’s located on a hilltop within the Taman Jalil Alip park, overlooking the rainforest. We opted to stay in the near empty dorm, which is a longhouse on stilts with hammocks beneath for afternoon naps. The intimate retreat is in harmony with the surrounding environment and attracts seasoned travelers (or wannabes like us). It was funny to observe the other people staying there, most of whom looked ready to plunge into the jungle wearing head to toe beige outfits and sensible hiking shoes. Meals and drinks are served in a main open air building facing into the forest, so evenings are spent enjoying a simple dinner and swapping travel stories/advice with the other guests. Its not a party environment, the true focus is on the incredible scenery and wildlife around you. Watching the sunset with the birds flying around over the treetops was deeply moving. It was impossible for me to reconcile the beauty of that view against the endless Palm Tree plantations (palm oil industry) which has overtaken most of the Borneo rainforest.
After arriving at Paganakan Dii we hopped into the free shuttle van to the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center which is only a couple of miles away. Orphaned Orangutans are brought to the center to be raised and then released into the rainforest when/if they are able to live on their own in the wild. Twice daily the center puts out fresh fruit for freed Orangutans to eat from, directly in front of viewing platforms where tourists observe from. There is no fence or barriers; the Orangutans are free to come and go where they please. Though they can come on to the viewing platforms where people watch, they usually stay where the food is. The fruit is intended to supplement their diets and is especially helpful for Mother Orangutans who often struggle to collect enough food in the wild for themselves and their young.
It was a short walk to the viewing platform but we were already sweating buckets in the high afternoon heat. After only a few minutes (even before fruit was put out) a young Orangutan swung on to the food platform and began nibbling on morning leftovers. He playfully swung from rope to rope, occasionally hanging in funny contorted positions. Soon after more Orangutans arrived, one by one. In total 6 Orangutans came out for an afternoon snack, which included a Mother with her little fuzzy hair baby!! About 45 minutes into our National Geographic experience the sky clouded over and a massive rainstorm began. This was the type of rainfall that you could hear in the distance before it reaches you and we futilely tried to outrun it back to shelter. Lesson learned – these are forests that DEMAND you carry a rain poncho at all times.
Kelsey and I also visited the Rainforest Discovery Center (located next to Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center) for only a couple of hours but this is a great place to spend an entire day on one of the longer hikes.