Monday, 23 June 2008

Hanging in the balance

Hanging in the balance

June 22, 2008 Sydney Morning Herald

Sandakan's wonders are under threat. See them while you can, writes Graham Simmons.

At first glance, it's hard to credit that Sandakan was once the capital of British North Borneo (now Sabah). A ramshackle jumble of rusting corrugated-iron huts overlooking the Sulu Sea, this gateway town of about 350,000 people is now in the throes of redevelopment. Its formal declaration as a city, scheduled for this year, is expected to put Sandakan firmly back on the South-East Asian map.

Long before the arrival of the British, Sandakan was a trading port of the Islamic sultanate of Sulu, based in the south of the Philippines. Then, after more than 90 per cent of Sandakan's buildings were razed by the Japanese in the last years of World War II, the British moved the capital to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), on the north-east coast of Sabah. Sandakan was rebuilt - more or less - and was then left to rot in the steamy equatorial heat for the next 50 years or so.

It is tourism that has revived Sandakan. To Australian visitors, the main place of interest is the Sandakan Memorial Park, commemorating the infamous Sandakan-Ranau death march of World War II.

On the 250-kilometre march, about 4000 Malays and Indonesians and more than 2000 Australian and British prisoners-of-war died on the way - and among the Allied troops, only six Australians lived to recount the horrors of the experience. Near the Memorial Park, the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary is about hope. At the sanctuary, orphaned orang-utans are cared for, nurtured and taught survival skills before being released into the wild. Perhaps as a result of this constant human contact, they are disarmingly friendly towards visitors.

More than 300 baby and juvenile orang-utans are in residence at Sepilok at any one time, spread out over about 4300 hectares. At feeding times large numbers of them converge at the feeding station - a series of raised tree-platforms connected by rope swings. At the time of my visit, many of the creatures appeared to be mocking the spectators - and given our voyeuristic demeanour, maybe they had reason to do so.

In Sandakan town, public spaces are undergoing a much-needed, major clean-up. A new fish market graces the waterfront, selling the finest produce of the Sulu Sea - super-fresh tuna, red snapper, garoupa, mackerel, rayfish, mangrove crabs and tiger prawns. The fish market forms part of the new Sandakan Harbour Square, which when completed will be home to a new central market, a town square, a mall and a convention centre. But the most atmospheric part of Sandakan is undoubtedly the Buli Sim-Sim Water Village. In neighbouring Brunei, the famous water village of Bandar Seri Begawan is home to more than 10,000 people, who live in stilt-houses perched over the Brunei River. Buli Sim-Sim is a little smaller, but is equally colourful.

Buli Sim-Sim consists of three sections - the original Malay section dating from 1879; the "new" Malay section established in the 1970s to provide cheap housing (neat and colourful rental houses go from as little as $20 a month); and the Chinese section.

The old Malay section is pretty much off-limits to visitors, however. The boardwalk timbers are rotting, rubbish is heaped up in large piles by the shoreline and it would appear that paint is unknown in this part of town.
Sandakan is also the gateway to the rainforest wonders of south-east Sabah, best reached by speedboat along the Kinabatangan River.

Several monkey species live along the Menanggul River (a tributary of the Kinabatangan) and some visitors are even lucky enough to spot the rare Borneo pygmy elephant. Among the monkeys is one of the most bizarre-looking creatures to come out of the jungle - the proboscis monkey, with a huge, bulbous nose, a giant belly and a long white tail.

On spotting one, I thought that nature had been taking lessons from Salvador Dali. After dark, the Menanggul River wears a different face again. The nocturnal animals of the rainforest are wide awake while others sleep. The colourful blue-eared kingfisher somehow manages to rest by turning totally blind at night-time, so you can go up and shine a torch in its face without evoking the slightest reaction.

But the forests of Sabah are severely under threat. Demand for palm oil has seen vast swathes of rainforest cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

The time to see Sandakan and the nature wonders of Sabah's south-east is now, before industry wreaks its inexorable havoc.

Getting there: Royal Brunei Airlines flies regularly to Kota Kinabalu; from there Malaysian Airlines and its subsidiary MASwings connect to Sandakan. Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary: about 23 kilometres from Sandakan. Return taxi about $30-$35 - or catch a bus from the Sandakan Council building.