Get up close and personal with Borneo's wildlife. Then discover Sandakan's fascinating history
We watched in awe as the giant green turtle laid her eggs in a hole on the beach, scooped sand over them, prepared a decoy birth site to confuse predators and lumbered back to the sea. Of all our encounters with creatures in Borneo this was the most magical and the most privileged.
Sandakan, once the capital of the former British North Borneo, is the ideal tourist hub from which you can not only see turtles, but have close encounters with orangutans and proboscis monkeys.
It is located on the east coast of Sabah, a 40-minute flight away from its capital Kota Kinabalu. Air Asia, the budget airline (www.asia.com ) flies direct from Kuala Lumpur and also from the capital.
Turtle Island Marine Park
Turtles are amazing creatures in that they return from huge distances, many years later, to lay eggs in their original birthplace.
Tours to the Turtle Island Marine Island Park are heavily booked in advance but it is worth checking at Crystal Quest, the franchise operator, (Jalan Buli Sim Sim; 60 89 212711) in case there are cancellations. We were fortunate in securing places and at 9am we left by speedboat for the exhilarating 40 minute voyage to Selingan Island. (Transfers, accommodation, meals and guide came to 570RM for two; £1=4.87 Malay ringett).
The rest of the day passed with swimming, snorkelling and exploring the island. After dinner there was an informative film about the turtles and the conservation work of the centre.
At 9pm we received the call to follow a ranger to witness the birth. Our group of fifteen was manageable and we saw the eggs transferred to the hatchery. The final phase in the operation was watching the release of recent hatchlings as they scurried under moonlight to the sea and a new life.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Orangutans are the poster boys of Borneo. One place that you are guaranteed to see them is Sepilok (60 89 531180; email email@example.com). To avoid the crowds it is worth getting there early, before the official feeding times, to appreciate the marvellous gymnastic ability of these animals. The success of the rehabilitation programme for these orphaned babies from logging sites is reinforced in a video shown at the Centre.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
In many ways these intriguing but less publicized creatures create an even more stunning impact than orangutans. The day trip, leaving at 9.30 and returning at 5.30pm, (15RM ) was excellent value and allowed us to see two feeding times, experiencing close contact with the proboscis monkeys (Bandar Sibuga Jaya; 6 0 89 672133; www.proboscis.cc ). Tours to the Sanctuary are organized by Hotel Sandakan.
Agnes Keith House
Sometimes a book inspires you to visit a location. In this instance, a visit to the Agnes Keith House in the city (6 0 89 221140; firstname.lastname@example.org ) encouraged us to read her autobiographies ‘Land Below The Wind’ (Michael Joseph) and ‘Three Came Home’ (Mermaid Books). The beautifully restored house, once the headquarters of the British Colonial government, is furnished with reproduction colonial furniture and antiques.
A gallery on the first floor celebrates the life of this remarkable authoress who was married to a Conservator of Forests and managed to survive imprisonment during the war. The admission price of 15RM might seem high but it did also give entry to the Sabah museums in Kota Kinabalu.
Sandakan Memorial Park
On a more sobering note, we took a bus to Mile 7 by the Taman Rimba sign, where a Memorial Park (60 906 822 1616) is close to the original P.O.W. camp. Several interpretive stations and relics commemorate the atrocities suffered by both the Australian and British soldiers held by the Japanese during the Second World War. The story of how only six men survived out of 2400 is a reminder of Sandakan’s violent past.
The very friendly woman in the Tourism Information Centre (Wisma Warisan Centre; 60 89 222679) gave us helpful advice about the city’s attractions. There is a heritage trail which starts at the adjacent museum which has striking photographs of Sandakan’s pre-war world and continues with several significant temples and churches.
Where to stay
To select accommodation called Nak Hotel on Jalan Pelabuhan Lama requires a leap of faith. We need not have been concerned. There we found, a friendly welcome, clean spacious rooms with a view of the bay and vouchers for free drinks in the rooftop bar.
Where to eat
Many of the most attractive restaurants are in the Waterfront area. As you would expect, there were many seafood delicacies available. We chose Harbour Bistro (Harbour Square; 60 89 235315) where we had sizzling prawns as well as tasty chicken satay. With beers it came to a very reasonable 33RM.
Habeeb Restaurant (Third Avenue) had scrumptious biriani whilst Hawaii Restaurant (23 Lebuh Tiga; 6 089 273107) had succulent lamb cooked in a claypot and prawns in sesame seeds.
Next to the Agnes Keith House was an English Tea House and Restaurant (Jalan Istana 60 89 222 544; www.englishteahouse.org) complete with a croquet lawn. We felt compelled to recapture the colonial experience and take tea with the obligatory scones, cream and jam, elegantly presented on a two- tiered cake stand.
If time is at a premium, select Sandakan over city rivals like Kuching and Kota Kinabalu. From here it is possible to get guaranteed sightings of Borneo’s fascinating wildlife and to discover a city steeped in history.