Planet Of The Apes
- ( Malaysia )
SANDAKAN, the second largest city in the Malaysian state of Sabah, has been a historic busy outpost for enterprising voyagers, seafarers and traders from across the world
There is something magical about the stunning beauty of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia, which thrusts itself serenely above the green canopy of rainforest of Sabah in Borneo. As I peered out of the plane window, the view was dramatic! And then the aircraft descended towards the east coast town of Sandakan, after a 45-minute flight from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, and the skyline emerged with skyscrapers and rooftops.
The second largest city in the state of Sabah, East Malaysia, on the northeast coast of Borneo, Sandakan was a busy outpost for the enterprising voyagers, seafarers, and traders from the world. In days of yore wooden houses on stilts lined the coast and large barges floated down from the interior filled with large, precious hardwood logs and timber ready for processing and export to Europe.
In fact, it was said that Sandakan timber went into the building of Peking’s Temple of Heaven. Known for its fabled wealth, Sandakan in its heyday, used to boast of having the largest number of millionaires in the world! Now the pre-war capital is also
the launching pad for eco tourism destinations like Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, Turtle Islands Park, Kinabatangan River and Gomantong Caves.
Its intriguing history traces its roots back to the early 1870s when William Clarke Cowie, a Scottish adventurer and engineer traded in guns and ammunition with the Sultan of Sulu to protect his territories from the Spanish. Inreturn, the Sultan granted Cowie permission to establish a small trading base which he called Sandakan.
In local parlance it translates into ‘the place that was pawned’. Sandakan was the capital of British North Borneo until it was devastated by the Japanese invasion and Allied bombing in 1945. A year later the capital was moved to Jesselton, the present Kota Kinabalu.
From the airport it is a 15-minute drive to Sepilok, the site of the world’s largest and oldest orang-utan rehabilitation centre in a rainforest sprawling over an area of 43 sq. km. Here we chanced to sight the ‘Wild Man of Borneo’.
As we set out on a trail to the feeding platform along a plank walkway, we kept our eyes peeled for the star of the rainforest. As we waited in anticipation for the apes, the jungle came alive with a chirping of bird calls and hoots of primates. The apes with their young ones clinging to their backs were prancing from tree to tree to the table, a large wooden platform suspended by ropes from the branches of a towering tree.
Watching these shy, ginger-furred giants of Borneo during feeding time is a sheer delight. The apes arrived sliding down a rope tethered to trees just in front of us. Then it was entertainment galore for the tourists.
We were equally amused at the acrobatics and antics of the longtailed macaques that joined the apes during feeding times. After a hearty breakfast of bananas, sugarcane and milk, the orang-utans leapt onto the overhanging branch, and vanished
into the jungle.
After the feeding of the orangutans, we strolled back to the main rehabilitation centre to watch an interesting documentary that highlighted the habitats of these gentle primates and the efforts to integrate them back into their natural environment. The natural history museum at the centre is worth a peek.
From there we headed to the English Tea House, a mandatorystop for tourists, heading to see the orang-utans or turtles! Perched atop Red Hill and adjacent to the Agnes Keith Museum, the restaurant is reminiscent of the colonial era, when
one could have scones, clotted cream, delicious cakes, pastries, cream teas and a sport of croquet on the little patch of manicured lawn besides the main building. But the piece de resistance is the spectacular view of the town and islands around Sandakan Bay.
The menu comprises a wide a la carte selection of Asian and English specialities. But the staple fish and chips continue to be
the perennial favourite items. Some of the tourists tried their hand at croquet, an extremely popular lawn game in Sandakan
during the colonial times when we whiled away the afternoon downing cakes and sipping lemonade.
Just a hop away is Agnes Keith’s House, the first timber dwelling in Sandakan. Situated on a hill at Jalam Istana overlooking
Sandakan Bay, it was the home of Conservator of Forests, Harry Keith and his American wife, Agnes Keith, a writer who wrote her famous books on her life and experience in pre-war Sandakan in Borneo. Their two-storied wooden bungalow, built on a ridge overlooking the town, was destroyed during World War II.
The bungalow, restored by the Sabah Museum, is furnished with a reproduction of colonial furniture and antiques like a Remington typewriter, Bush radio, and a Vicker’s sewing machine. A gallery on the first floor tells the story of this remarkable
woman, her books and her family. An AV room has great video screenings of what it was like in Sandakan during the early 1900s.
There are plentiful treats and heritage trails to be explored in and around Sandakan town. For heritage buffs, there is the more than a century old Masjid Jamek, the town mosque which has served the Muslim community in Sandakan. The William Pryer Memorial, a granite structure erected to honour William Pryer, the founder of Sandakan is another interesting halt.
We also had a peek at the Heritage Museum which had on display traditional agricultural equipments, barter trade items and portraits of local leaders and photos of the development of Sandakan town.
From there we headed to the quaint Goddess of Mercy Temple ablaze with the glow of the luminous lamps and the fragrance
of burning incense. As we left the temple there was an air of meditative calm. The last halt in our Sandakan sojourn was
Kampong Buli Sim Sim, a large water village with wooden houses perched on stilts above the sea.
There are frequent flights from Kota Kinabalu
to Sandakan (45 minutes).
There are plenty of hotels of all ranges.