Travel Story 

Yes we have no bananas

Face to face with the orangutans of Northern Borneo

We gazed at each other for several minutes, curious, watching and barely breathing in case we disturbed the moment. Once in a while his eyes gave way to another distraction but always, they came back. Then, quite unexpectedly, his elastic lips blew me a kiss. And when I returned the compliment, he flashed a toothy grin, threw his head back in seeming delight and swung a rope closer.

We continued our flirtatious dance until he was barely five feet away and there we stayed, suspended in time while we decided the fate of our relationship.

I had never before experienced such intimacy with a wild orangutan, but at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, anything seems possible. Set amidst Sabah's steamy rainforest in Northern Borneo, Sepilok is the world's largest orangutan sanctuary.

It covers more than 4,500 hectares of virgin jungle, and is reserved solely for the rehabilitation of orangutans which have been rescued from captivity, orphaned, or abandoned by their mothers.

Upon arrival, the baby orangutans are placed in a nursery where humans ensure their health while teaching them basic survival skills such as nest building, food gathering and even climbing. Later, the infants are introduced to the forest where, twice daily, they and their older companions emerge from the trees for rations of bananas and milk.

For some of these "wild men of Borneo" it must feel like the life of Riley with two square meals a day, the forest below their feet and human companionship when needed. But for most (more than 320 since Sepilok started the rehabilitation program in 1964) it's a life to coax them back to the wild.

The key ingredient to Sepilok's success is boredom, founded on nothing more than a two-item menu. After a while, the diet becomes so tedious that within a few months, the desire for tastier treats encourages the orangutans to forage the forest floor for themselves. And once they've discovered the epicurean delights of the jungle, they gradually drift deeper into the wild – confident, self sufficient and returned to the wild.

But this group of orangutans were still at the mashed banana stage, providing much entertainment to onlookers.

It is a rare delight to be so up front and personal with such captivating creatures; to watch them tease, play, and scorn with such visible personality that the bond is instant.

This is how it was between me and my new found friend. Mesmerized by our courtship, a lump came to my throat as he raised his hand and uncurled his long, long fingers towards me. It was just like a scene from the movie ET.

But this was real life and suddenly, I realized his outstretched arm wasn't an invitation to dance in the trees. It was another request. And when he witnessed my answer, the corners of his lips curled down, the furrows of his brow deepened and his eyes widened with dismay. The communication was as instant as it was profound.

"Nice try," I thought to myself as I removed my sunglasses and put them in my pocket. And he was gone.

If you go:

Airlines: Malaysia Airlines offers direct flights to Kuala Lumpur from several major North American cities, as well as connecting to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Northern Borneo.

Where to Stay: Sutera Harbour Resort (www.suteraharbour.com) in Kota Kinabalu is a good home base to explore Sepilok and other Borneo adventures.

Health Concerns: Although malaria is widely controlled, medication is always advisable especially if jungle treks are on your agenda. A strong insect repellent is a must. Water is safe at most resorts. Stick to the bottled variety further afield.

Entry Requirements: Canadian travellers need only a current passport valid for at least six months.

For more information: Tourism Malaysia 604-689-8899

For more great adventures see www.greatestgetaways.com

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