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Full Circle

Day 106: Sandakan

Sadakan, Malaysia 
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Sepilok Orang-utan sanctuary, Sadakan.
Michael Palin - Full CircleThis morning, we pass by their huge, gaudy villas on our way to see a rare environmentalist's victory. Fifteen miles outside the town are ten thousand acres of lowland rain forest and two thousand five hundred acres of mangrove forest which became a jungle reserve in 1984. It contains 220 bird species, 450 separate tree species, 90 different mammals, and an extraordinary enterprise called the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre.

One of the by-products of deforestation was the removal of baby orang-utans for domestic pets. The Sepilok Sanctuary was set up in 1964 to try and reverse the process and save the orangs from extinction.

The heavy rain has flooded most of the paths into the forest, and we have been issued with rubber boots and advised to wear shorts. This has not been a sensible strategy. The flood-level is now well over the duckboards and warm muddy water rises quickly to the rim of my boots and starts to trickle down the inside. By this time Sylvia, our guide, is warning us that snakes and scorpions do sometimes come to the surface at this time of year. My boots are full of water and my knees feel wretchedly vulnerable. To make matters worse an immaculately overalled, bone-dry party of Japanese is following close behind.

We emerge, dripping and squelching, onto a wooden platform at the base of a lofty, smooth-barked belian or ironwood. These are graceful, slow-growing trees, providing one of the most durable timbers in the world, the only one known to be resistant to termites.

There is a theatrical pause as we gather on our platforms to await the arrival of the orang-utans for 9.30 feeding time. We have been advised not to wear anything red or display any jewellery, both of which they're attracted to, and, because the orang-utan is highly susceptible to human diseases, those of us with colds at the running and sneezing stage have already been weeded out and left behind at the visitor centre.

It's nearer ten o'clock when the great spreading leaves below us begin to move and the first orang-utan appears. 'Obviously, they don't like the rain,' says Sylvia, checking her watch.
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  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 106
  • Country/sea: Malaysia
  • Place: Sandakan
  • Book page no: 150

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