We arranged for a guide, Sahar, for the following day and were driven to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. After a long drive out of town we turned into a private dirt road shared by several palm oil plantations. We bumped our way past trucks laden with clusters of the brown palm fruit, destined to be crushed in the oil factories. We arrived at the sanctuary which is in a swampy area with tall mangroves and swamp trees. There was a small house with a wooden deck jutting into the swamp. Around the deck were several feeding stations. Apple pieces were placed at four of the feeding stations including a spot just meters in front of the deck. Three different family groups and a bachelor group of Proboscis monkeys appeared. We delighted in their humanoid appearance and antics. The dominant male of a group has a particularly large nose and pot belly and sits watching the other groups, especially the bachelors. If any approach too close he opens his mouth and glares fiercely or grunts and postures. No wonder the locals nicknamed them "Dutchmen". We were so lucky. There were only 2 other people there so we had great views and were able to approach the monkeys very closely.
After the sanctuary, Sahar took us on a long drive to the small town of Sukau. Just outside of town we met a local boatman with a small skiff
. The four of us boarded, with Sahar and the boatman and we set off up the Sungai Kinabatangan. This long river has been logged and now most of the area is surrounded by palm oil plantations. However, along the banks of the river is a thin stretch of regenerating jungle that attracts a huge density of wildlife. We travelled up a little tributary of the river used by all the other tour groups too and passed larger boats some with huge crowds of people on board. We saw elephant trace, where the elephants and climbed down the bank into the river. There was a lot of wildlife including a water monitor, a mangrove snake asleep in a tree, wild boars, several large birds, parakeets and smaller colourful kingfishers (brilliant red, or blue and green). In the evening as we returned downstream large troops of proboscis monkeys and macaques filled the trees. We were able to quietly cruise under overhanging branches and get quite close. The density of wildlife was impressive.
Christine met an interesting Australian couple in the Sandakan hotel who suggested that we visit them at St Michael's church. We walked along the back of town through a quiet area and then followed a path up a hill to the St Michael's school. As we walked up, dozens of school kids were walking home and we were greeted with "hellos" and handshakes or high fives. It was overwhelming. We entered the school and found the church
. Neil, the Australian, showed us through the church where the old windows were being replaced with beautiful stained glass. We met the elderly artist, also an Australian, who was justifiably proud of his colourful windows. That afternoon we went to the famous Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. Here orang-utans with unfortunate histories are rehabilitated and where possible released into conservation areas such as Tabin. We followed the boardwalk to the feeding station and were absolutely delighted by the antics of the 12 orang-utans who arrived for their afternoon feeding. There were ropes leading from the trees to a raised stage and it was incredible to watch the orang-utans swinging along, sometimes using their feet, doing cartwheels or otherwise showing off. We had taken a taxi to Sepilok and as we left the driver was waiting to ferry us back to Sandakan (for no extra other than the standard fare) which was great as, bizarrely, there was very limited transport to and from the top tourist site in the region!
On our final day in Sandakan we tried to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) but the taxi drivers had no idea where it was. Luckily the excellent tourist information centre had provided us with brochures and so we could guide the taxi to the approximate location. The RDC was a nicely laid out park, with a lake in the centre and walks around the lake through carefully planted thematic zones such as local commercially grown plants, an orchid garden, pitcher plants and so on
. There was a rainforest discovery walk and even the beginnings of a huge canopy walk from which we spotted a troop of macaques moving through the jungle. We had to walk about a km out to the main road so that the taxi could find us again and then we returned back to town. This time we went into the hills above Sandakan township to the English Tea House, a touch of the town's colonial heritage - complete with croquet court. We had a nice meal sitting in a gazebo overlooking the town centre and the harbour and islands beyond. From there we walked to the Agnes Keith House, a beautifully restored two-story colonial homestead. Agnes Keith was an author who lived in the house before WWII and then after being released from a Japanese Internment Camp returned to the house for a number of years. She wrote books about Sabah such as "The Land Below the Wind" and about her brutal four years as a POW.
From Sandakan we went our separate ways with Christine, Louise and Abi heading to the Rosa Ria Resort just out of Kota Kinabalu and Franz backtracking to Semporna for diving.
We arrived in Sandakan and were a bit surprised by the down-at-heel feel of the town. The central part of town is a narrow strip of flat land with the harbour on one side and a wooded hill on the other. The town is divided into a grid with long narrow blocks of 4-5 stories in height. The town was flattened in WWII and it looks like these buildings were constructed just after that and not maintained since. Lots of men hang about the street corners and the town's demeanour is similar to Phnom Penh. There are just a few hotels scattered about the town and despite the proximity of some major tourist attractions no effort has been made to cater to tourists. We stayed at the Mayfair Hotel, a very basic guesthouse run by an efficient Chinese gentleman with a penchant for action movies. He supplied each room with a DVD player and gave access to his collection. Christine and Abi arrived in town and stayed at the nearby Sandakan Hotel (i.e. a real hotel). They were shocked when we showed them our room and also found the town a bit overwhelming.