Sandakan, Sepilok and Bilit Rainforest Lodge

Sandakan is a small seaside town which some say resembles Hong Kong in the 1950s (I wouldn’t know!). You could probably walk the entire place in a day, which admittedly I didn't do on this three-day trip in January 2017. I did however, visit the Australian War Memorial and peer at the Sam Sing Kung Temple through the locked gates (it was closed that day). 

Sandakan is a sleepy town with a decidedly retro feel

On this particular trip, we flew into Sandakan on an Air Asia flight out of Kuala Lumpur. Arriving in the evening, we stayed the night at the waterfront Four Points by Sheraton. This was a clean, comfortable hotel at a very reasonable price with sweeping views over the harbour which we enjoyed from both our room as well as the pool. 

What we did cover in detail was the local market – which was full of interesting foodstuffs, including this curious fruit that was somewhere in between a durian and jackfruit. 

We also had breakfast here on the cavernous top floor – tea with condensed milk (know as “teh”) and noodles.

That evening, I happened to have dinner with some local friends who heard that we planned to visit the Gomantong Caves. They recommended bringing an umbrella. More on this later!

Our foray into the rainforest was organised through Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure and we found both the driver and guide to be friendly and knowledgeable. 

Our first stop was the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary which didn’t take long by road – around an hour, passing thousands of oil palms. The sanctuary’s orang utan viewing platform had been upgraded since my last visit about five years prior, so observers weren't all squashed along the railing trying to get a close look at the poor primates.

There’s also a nice little “nursery” inside the compound, where the babies learn useful skills from older rangas.

After that, we headed off to a village by the Kinabatangan – Borneo’s second-longest river – for the start of our rainforest adventure.

At this point, we had our umbrella as we'd left the conveniences of modern civilisation behind. 

Bilit Rainforest Lodge is accessible only by boat and its location is surprisingly wild given there’s a village just across the river with a large mosque and another lodge whose compound you can see next door. 

The staff were friendly, and rooms basic but perfectly adequate, meaning they had comfortable beds, hot water showers and air conditioning. The was only one problem: the goddamn mosquitoes!

I slathered on repellent and even put on a long sleeved shirt in preparation for the feeding frenzy at dusk. But foolishly, I had knee length tights on. Form fitting. Black. So guess who donated half a litre of blood that evening? The buggers could only get at my lower body given I was sitting down so by nightfall, I l looked like I had contracted some exotic jungle pox on my hips and legs.

Despite the risk of another mosquito assault, after dinner I decided to embark on a night jungle walk as I certainly didn’t come here to play cards.

The lodge hired out tall gumboots and these were essential. Don’t cheap out. The mud was knee deep.

The walk was actually really interesting and quite adventurous. Put it this way, if you lost your guide, you’d be spending the night in the jungle. Also, there was mud. Lots of it. And it was surprisingly noisy. The humming and chirping of insects was near deafening and often you would hear some larger unknown animal crashing across the pitch black tree canopy overhead.

We saw a civet cat that night, who clambered across a vine right above us to stare. But the most interesting sights were sleeping birds. I don’t know what I expected them to do after dark. Maybe tuck themselves up in a nest?? They actually just get a good grip on a branch and go to sleep. In fact, they sleep so deeply that you can go right up to them and take a photo with flash. Of course, I only did this twice as I felt a bit bad for them!

The following morning, we went on a sunrise boat safari along the mighty Kinabatangan. The scenery was very pretty. The day before we happened to chance upon a wild orang utan high up in a tree on a riverbank. What would today bring?

Lots of birds, including several majestic types of hornbill. Also monkeys, monkeys and more monkeys. Eating, scratching, mating and doing the things they do. Apparently, Borneo has 7 species – we saw the long-tailed macaque (as plentiful and promiscuous as rabbits), pig-tailed macaque, orang utan and the proboscis. The latter I loved as their colouring made them look like pot-bellied men in undies. Also, the boys had very prominent ahem…male parts which the guides politely referred to as “lipsticks”.

Then, it was off to the Gomantong Caves which we had been warned about. Armed with our brollies, we entered its mouth and braced for the smell. However, it really wasn’t all that bad. 

Gomantong Caves are inhabited by white and black swiftlets, whose nests (made of their saliva) are considered a delicacy and collected by some very brave workers indeed. These guys climb really rickety looking, long bamboo ladders to make their harvest. 

Inside the cavern also lived bats, crabs, centipedes and about a million cockroaches. The smell comes from the huge mounds of guano created by the inhabitants of the cave’s dark, wet environment. And the umbrellas basically stop you from getting poo-ed on.

A word of warning: the walkway inside the cave is slick with god-knows-what. Also, you won't want to touch the handrails because they are covered in cockroaches. If you're sensitive to strong smells, bring something to cover your mouth and nose! 

The Gomantong Caves were our last stop before heading for the airport. While this was just a two-day jaunt, I felt like we’d experienced quite a lot in a very short time!