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Discovering the rainforest
Published on: Saturday, December 17, 2011
By: Anthea Phillipps
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MOST visitors to Sandakan and Sepilok go to see the orang-utans, but for those who have time to stay a bit longer, the Rainforest Discovery Centre at Sepilok is well worth a visit and should be included in every tour. This year it won the award for the Best Nature Tourist Attraction which it well deserves.

But it is not just for tourists.

Its educational programs have reached over 27,000 Sabah students since 1997, when the programme first started as well as youth groups from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and the UK, and it plays a valuable role in helping many young people discover the rainforest for themselves.

Centered around an old reservoir that is now a beautiful lake, on the edge of the Kabili - Sepilok Forest Reserve (where the orang-utans are), the Discovery Centre covers 200 hectares with trails winding through an arboretum of about 20 hectares of pristine dipterocarp forest as well as experimental trials of plantation trees.

It is possible to see the main attractions of the Rainforest Discovery Centre in a day, but to enjoy it fully and to walk some of the trails it is best to stay overnight, which is what we did.

In the early morning after watching hornbills breakfasting in a fig tree near our lodge, we followed one of the forest trails to Sepilok's "Giant", a large dipterocarp (Shorea acutissima), that is called 'giant' not so much for its height, (there are several taller trees), as for its girth.

The tree is about a half hour walk from the Visitor Centre, on top of a ridge from where it overlooks the surrounding forest, supported by massive buttress roots. Measurements taken by the Forestry Department give it a girth of 7m (22 feet), a giant indeed and big enough to give you some idea of what Borneo's dipterocarp forests must have been like, long ago.

On our way back to breakfast, another trail led us past a tree that may be Sepilok's oldest, an ancient 'belian' or Borneo Ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri).

This was much closer to the Visitor Centre, only about ten minutes walk, and with a diameter of around 120 cms it is certainly the largest 'belian' I have ever seen. Cut stumps of 'belian' trees in the Kubah National Park in Sarawak, measuring between 90 and 120 cms in diameter were estimated by carbon-dating to be more than 1000 years old!

So how old is the Sepilok 'belian' tree? No-one knows, but undoubtedly it has seen thousands of orang-utans come and go in the surrounding forests, and was there long before Borneo's colonial days.

Perhaps it was a seedling when the first trading junks of the Chinese Tang Dynasty sailed up the Kinabatangan river in search of bird's nests, 'gaharu' wood, and hornbill ivory.

After breakfast we explored the Visitor Centre, a mine of fascinating information on the history of Sepilok as well as the plants and animals that make up Borneo's forests.

This was followed by a visit to the Discovery Garden, which really is a "garden of discovery".

Did you know that, worldwide, more tea is drunk per year than any other drink?

Or that the yellow curry spice, turmeric, comes from a species of ginger?

The path winds through various spices and other edible plants down into a small valley, and up the other side past orchids and pitcher-plants, and back into the forest across a small suspension bridge.

But the main attraction at the RDC, as the Rainforest Discovery Centre is affectionately called, is the Canopy Walkway.

There are now several canopy walkways in Sabah, which allow visitors a glimpse into the tops of forest trees.

This is a very different world to the forest floor far below, but if the thought of walking on flimsy-looking planks swinging hundreds of feet up in the air does not inspire confidence, be reassured!

The Sepilok Canopy Walkway is a dream come true, with a base of steel mesh, wide and firm enough to drive a golf buggy on.

Purists may say that it is too broad, too stable, altogether too much, but for many people it is the only opportunity they have to see the canopy world.

Not only that, it is the perfect base for birdwatchers and photographers who flock to Sepilok, especially during the annual Borneo Bird Festival in search of the iconic endemic Bornean Bristlehead, a smart black bird with an orange head, hornbills and other birds.

And the Canopy Walkway is one of the few places in Sabah where the Giant Red Flying Squirrel can be seen regularly, so that evening we were there around 5.30pm.

The weather was clear, the sky touched with sunset in the distance, and we were lucky, for just before dusk, one large rusty-red shape, then another, swooped across our heads in a long low glide to another tree opposite, where they played around, nibbling bark and moss here and there as they climbed up to the highest branches and disappeared among the leaves as we watched - a wonderful end to a wonderful day.


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