Hand in Hand with Nature

She was really cute and about four years old. As orang utans can live to about 35 years, that made her about eight in human terms. I first saw her after a hectic party when a dozen tourists and an equal number of young orangs had met in the jungle sanctuary.

But became hyperactive and delinquent. They started going through people's pockets and snapping at anyone who tried to stop them. As they can use each of their four hands with equal dexterity, everyone but me had fled inside to the audio visual display.

I stayed, taking photographs of my juvenile lead as she meticulously swept leaves away from around the base of a tree. But she'd clearly had enough of visitors and began hiding her face from the lens. Rather than harass her, I capped my camera and started walking away

Only a few metres along the path, I felt a small leathery hand slide into mine. She had obviously forgiven me for my paparazzi breach of etiquette and was quite prepared to go for a companionable walk together. My heart melted.

Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre is like that. It's a tourist attraction created by necessity: Borneo's jungles have been cleared at a remarkable rate and the tree felling has left many orang utans orphaned and homeless. Sepilok, outside Sandakan in north eastern Sabah, is an orphanage for orangs aged between three and nine years.

Orangs are among our closest cousins and the young are no more able to survive in the wild than children. So at Sepilok rangers teach them how to be orangs. include how to find food and make sleeping nests in trees.

The rehabilitation program began in 1964 but until the late 1980s, it attracted only a few visitors. By the time I befriending my young orang in 1988, visitors were encouraged to mingle with the primates: it was more like a party than a trip to a wildlife park. At one stage I had one orang cavorting in front of my lens while another stood on my camera bag to look over my shoulder and direct the action.

My visit was a disaster for the following tourist group. While climbing on my bag one of them tore the top slightly, revealing the foam lining. The temptation proved universally irresistible to his firends. Although orang utans can eat berries that we'd find poisonous, they don't find synthetic foam any more palatable than we do. So the gang stood around with shredded foam sticking out of the corners of their mouths.

In my alarm at the despoliation of my camera bag I didn't notice the arrival of a new tour group. The visitors approached the orangs with some trepidation then pure fear when they saw many of my shaggy, red haired friends appeared to be dribbling foam.

And as the clan somersaulting, cavorting towards them, their enthusiasm did nothing to reassure the newcomers that they weren't rabid. En masse the tourists retreated.

Stories like these belong to the past. Today Sepilok often attracts crowds of 80 or more tourists who are restricted to a raised viewing platform that looks across to Station One, a platform where the orangs are fed. In effect, humans are in the enclosure while the wildlife roams free.

That has been necessary for the welfare of the orangs. Like children, young orangs cherish contact with people but they are also very susceptible to human illnesses.

At Sepilok, when rehabilitation is complete, the orangs are released back into the deep woods, as far away from the chainsaws as possible. A 30 minute rainforest walk takes you to Platform Two where orangs that are living back in the wild can return for food to supplement their own foraging.

You can visit Sepilok as a day excursion from an up-market beach side resort in Kota Kinabalu simply by taking the 50 minute Malaysia Airlines flight from KK to Sandakan. And explorers these days are likely to have Yamaha outboards on the back of their dugout canoes.

If you go

Avoid the wet season between November and February.

Malaysia Golden Holidays, which is part of Malaysia Airlines, has a five night package from Melbourne to Kota Kinabalu for $1700 per person, twin share. The trip includes a day excursion across to Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. From July 6, Malaysia Airlines has five direct flights a week from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur. For more information telephone (008) 269 998.

World Expeditions has a 19 day adventure holiday through Borneo that includes longhouses, mountain treks, turtle hatcheries, jungle walks and Sepilok's orangs. There are departures in June and September and the cost (ex Melbourne) is from $4396. Call World Expeditions on (03) 670 8400 or (008) 803688 for details.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd