Spice Islands cruise shore excursion: Hopping off in Malaysia to see bears and orangutans

At first glance, from the top deck of the small luxury cruise ship the Caledonian Sky, Malaysia's Sandakan is a bit of a letdown. After all, this is a name that looms large in Australian folklore; the place that launched the death marches on which so many Australian soldiers died during World War II.

But after a few hours of gliding past your cliched golden, palm-fringed beaches it finally looks like we're sailing in to … Terrigal. Not that there's anything wrong with Terrigal – it's just that a  NSW Central Coast seaside suburb isn't what you expect to find in tropical Borneo.

Of course, the Allies and the Japanese between them bombed Sandakan pretty much into dust towards the end of the war so it's hardly surprising the waterfront isn't picturesque.

So it's just as well we're not here for the architecture; we're here to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, the Sun Bear Conservation Centre and to lay a wreath at the Sandakan War Memorial.

I had spent part of the morning watching some of the passengers on APT's Spice Islands and Beyond cruise engaging in something called 'shipilates' in the panorama lounge on deck 6. This is essentially pilates done while sitting in a chair and while, as cultural experiences go, it leaves something to be desired it does come to mind later when we're told that orangutans share 98 per cent  of our DNA. Shipilates, you can only hope for their sake, is in the other 2 per cent.

At just 4200 tonnes, 90.6 metres long and a mere 15.3 metres wide APT's luxurious MS Caledonian Sky is small but perfectly formed.

At that size, it's nimble enough to worm its way into the unsung harbours and secret, shallow reefs that are beyond the reach of larger ships. That's where the real adventure lies.

It also means that the onboard experience is more intimate, relaxed and informal. On the Spice Islands cruise there were 87 passengers but even at full capacity there's only room for 110 guests in its 55 balcony suites. And with a staff complement of 75 that's a pretty good passenger/crew ratio.

Refurbished in 2012, the ship has two dining rooms (one al fresco), two lounges, a library, sun deck, hairdressing salon and possibly the world's smallest working gym for those determined to work off that buffet breakfast.

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After the usual port-side welcome from a group of indigenous drummers and dancers we clamber on to coaches and drive 40 minutes to the Sun Bear rehab centre for orphaned or illegally captured bears.

The sun bear was once hunted locally for its meat and other body parts. These were used for 'medicine' (bile from the gall bladder) and for 'decorative' purposes (claws, teeth and skin). Today it is illegal to hunt them but the trade in parts, particularly for Asian traditional medicine, continues. They are also at risk from a loss of habitat due to logging.

There are currently 37 bears at the centre but you'd be hard-pressed to see more than one or two at a time from the viewing platforms and walkways that wind their way high above the rainforest floor. The bears are, explains our guide, "very lazy apart from feeding time" and like to sleep a lot – he, sadly, didn't know what proportion of DNA they share with human teenage males.

We do see several bears, including one wedged so motionless in the V of two branches that at first we think it's dead, or a koala.

Following a meandering exit through the gift shop, where you can watch a documentary and buy everything sun bear related, we re-cross the car park to the orangutan centre next door.

Here the walkways are close to the ground and lead to a specially-built viewing area about 20 metres from the platform where feeding takes place twice a day at 10am and 3pm. Even before we reach it we spot a young orangutan swinging blithely along a rope stretched above us. It's like watching a large hairy baby perform tricks in the Big Top.

The area here covers 43 square kilometres and sits on the edge of the Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. There are about 25 young orphaned orangutans housed in the nurseries for essentially the same reasons as the sun bears 

However, today is all about those that have already been freed into the reserve. Two rangers place fruit and sugar cane on the feeding platform and then hang around to make sure there's no contact between the wild orangutans (if they turn up at all) and the visitors.

Our guide tells us that we will be very lucky to see an alpha male as they can take care of themselves in the forest and don't need to come in for a free feed. He also points out that they are mostly very gentle animals and don't usually attack humans: "They might urine [sic] at you or throw shit at you, which is not so good an experience, but they don't really attack you," he explains.

And he's right. Six of these gentle-looking, slow moving giants arrive and begin to pick through the food with practiced nonchalance. They take very little notice of the oohs and ahs and camera clicks around them until one cheeky monkey, hanging insouciantly from a rope, decides to 'urine' on the crowd below, much to everyone's delight – even those getting peed upon.

It's a terrific experience, to see these magnificently majestic animals close up and we spend a lot of time  just watching them eat and clamber about the trees above. Most of us have to be dragged away, still clicking furiously.

After our earlier adventures, the Sandakan War Memorial is a sobering experience. We troop through the ghastly facts and artefacts of the exhibition centre and then make our way to the memorial itself.

We gather in a subdued circle as a wreath is laid, the Last Post played and tour leader Dean Opie haltingly recites the Ode of Remembrance as the sun starts to set.

"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old …"

It is a moving experience and that final, mass repetition of Lest we forget keeps us in a sombre mood until, on the way back to the ship, the guide tells us that a beach we are passing is called White Sandy Beach and some wag shouts out "Why?"

There's always one ...

The writer was a guest of APT.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.aptouring.com.au

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines has daily flights to Manila from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. See www.singaporeair.com.

CRUISING THERE 

APT small ship cruises in 2016 include the 17-day Southeast Asia Adventure (June 14-30) from $11,995 a person, twin share. Save $500 per couple when you book by  October 31.  

Manila, Coron, Puerto Princesa and Sandakan are among the destinations. Visas are required for Indonesia and can be arranged on arrival. Phone 1300 196 420; see www.aptouring.com.au.

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