The wild side of Sabah

After a rather urban eleven days in Kota Kinabalu, it was high time to go and explore Sabah’s praised wildlife. Sightings of monkeys, snakes, sun bears, crocodiles, pygmy elephants, birds galore and of course a chance to meet the old man of the forest were all possible here. Which ones would we get to see?

Creeping up the windy roads towards Kinabalu Nationalpark and down on the other side, hitting hundreds of potholes, sitting in several traffic jams and passing miles and miles of sad looking palm oil plantations, we were heading east to Sandakan. Eight hours for just over 300 kilometers! We were beginning to understand why most tourists fly from KK to Sandakan… in just 40 minutes;-).

In Sandakan, a city with a haunting charm, we spent a rather unspectacular, but by all means pleasant New Year’s Eve: We ate Roti at our local, created our own bingo set (playing bingo on New Year’s Eve is a sacrosanct tradition in my family) and then played for some desirable vouchers until late. And at midnight… nothing happened. Seeing that our hotel room had a superb view over the city, we were hoping to see some fireworks. But that’s definitely not what they do in Sandakan to start a New Year.

On New Year’s Day, we decided against paying for an ample brunch buffet (New Year’s brunch = also a sacrosanct tradition in my family) in the only posh hotel in town and visited the proboscis monkey sanctuary instead which was definitely more entertaining. . The characterful, big nosed monkeys, that can only be found in Borneo, put on a real show for us. They did not only pose, check us out and communicate with fascinating sounds, they also ran across the viewing platform and its roof like raving loonies. Real characters. It was brilliant. And then, whilst driving from one viewing platform to the other, an orangutan turned up out of the blue right at the side of the road. Shocked, excited and so overwhelmed, we didn’t even take a decent photograph.

On Lilly’s birthday, we were hoping for the sight of some more orangutans in the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. In this reserve, they do a morning and an afternoon feeding session to allure the wild apes out of the rainforest. We attended both sessions – with a chocolate cake break in between – and were duly rewarded. Only one orangutan appeared for breakfast, one for afternoon tea as they have more than enough to eat in the wild. But the best bit was watching them away from the feeding platform. We got really close to three young and wild ones having fun in the trees and an older one strolling on the visitor’s boardwalk. Extraordinary encounters that made it a special day for all of us, not just the birthday girl.

And we got even happier the following day, when a lady orangutan came to see us in the sun bear conservation center. She stayed for quite a while, consciously grabbing all the visitor’s attention. A proper diva.

After our exciting five days in the Sandakan / Sepilok area, the big question was: Could our trip to a lodge in the jungle on the Kinabatangan River top this? Would we get to see even more admirable, wild animals? Unfortunately, the answer is “not really”. Yes, we saw one more orangutan hiding in the trees, proboscis monkeys jumping from branch to branch, wild boars at the doorstep of our lodge, hornbills, kingfishers and eagles flying past, a baby crocodile (that got caught in a fish trap)… but after getting so close with the monkeys in the Sandakan / Sepilok area, observing them from far away definitely lost some of its magic. But… there’s a big BUT. While the wildlife, spotted during our river cruises on Kinabatangan river, didn’t achieve in blowing our socks off, the scenery certainly did. It was a very special and liberating feeling to sail on such a wide river lined with lush green rainforest. Even in the pouring rain!

Our first sight of Mt Kinabalu.
Lilly on the verge of loosing her tooth on our epic 8 hours drive from KK to Sandakan.
Roti maker at Zakaria restaurant.
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Loving it!
On the Sandakan heritage trail.


New Year’s concert Sandakan style: Heavy metal!


Waiting for the fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
Meeting the proboscis monkeys…


A walk through the touching memorial park. In memory of the near 2500 POW’s who lost their lives here in Sabah. Apart from the six Australians who managed to escape every single POW held here, died here.


A disturbing sight to us. Home to others.


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Buying the birthday cake…
… and eating it. Happy birthday, Lilly!
Cooling down.
In the rainforest.



Meeting the orangutans…


What a tongue!! Sun bear at the conservation center.
On the jungle trek.
Lilly inside the tree trunk.
Leeches along the track trying to catch us.
One succeeded.
River cruises on Kinabatang River.


Some of our highlights:

  • Eating roti at “Zakaria restauraan” again and again and again…
  • Getting entertained by the wild proboscis monkeys turning up for a snack at the feeding platforms of the proboscis monkey sanctuary.
  • Being enchanted by the red furred, intelligent and characterful orangutans. Tragic, that they are critically endangered (like so many other animal species).
  • Celebrating Lilly’s 7th birthday with – among other things – an interestingly tasting, but very elaborately decorated chocolate cake.
  • Cruising on Kinabatangan river – in reluctant sunshine and torrential rain.
  • Making new friends in the jungle: The girls loved playing hours non-stop with Lochlen and Miffi from Tasmania.

The learning curve:

  • Malaysian butter cream tastes salty. Though that didn’t stop us from polishing off Lilly’s chocolate butter cream birthday cake.
  • Local insect repellent doesn’t work. At least not on European skin. Borneo without mosquitoes would be so much nicer. In the jungle, those little monsters literally ate us alive.
  • Leeches – another creepy inhabitant of the jungle – can be taken off the skin by sprinkling salt over them. Tried and tested on John’s chest.


6 thoughts on “The wild side of Sabah

  1. So hat sich Lillys Geburtstagswunsch erfüllt und die Orang Utans haben sich gezeigt. Eindrücklich. Der Schnappschuss flying Monkey ist super gelungen. Danke für euren tollen Bilder, die uns etwas teilhaben lassen an eurer coolen Reise.
    Vom Schoggibirthdaycake hätte ich auch gerne geknabbert. Sieht sehr elegant aus, salzig? Kaum vorstellbar!

    Die Kehrseite, der ganze Abfall, stimmt uns sehr nachdenklich. Wir haben in Kambodscha hoffnungsvolle Fortschritte gesehen. Abfalltrennung in den Dörfern, durch die Schulkinder umgesetzt, die funktionierte. Die Kinder waren sehr stolz auf ihre sauberen Dörfer und ihre Englischkenntnisse, alles in der Schule gelernt!
    Vielleicht findet ihr auch ähnliche Projekte.
    Weithin gute Reise. Wir sind gespannt auf eure Eindrücke.
    Liebe Grüsse Nidwalden

    Christoph und Maria


  2. Certainly a birthday and new year to remember. Fab pics again guys… Safe travels.. Oh yes, you can leave the leeches behind when you return..


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