|Feeding time for orangutans at the sanctuary. Photograph: Alamy|
Megan Conner, The Guardian, May 5, 2014
The rainforest is still, when suddenly, a branch snaps. The crowd gasps. It's 10.12am, and feeding time at Sepilok rehabilitation centre in Borneo. On a wooden platform, a jungle breakfast of banana, papaya and bamboo shoots has been laid out. And our first auburn-haired visitor, round-bellied Gellison, is about to enter from the forest, stage right.
Aged four, Gellison is still a child. When he first came to the sanctuary, the largest in the world for orphaned orangutans (rescued from plantations, or homes where they were kept as pets), he preferred rolling in the mud to climbing. Now he is discovering how to fend for himself in the 45 sq km reserve, with the fallback of one guaranteed meal a day. The rangers hope he'll eventually stop coming for food, and will be ready to be released into the wild.
And at this centre in Borneo, one of two remaining natural habitats in the world for orangutans (the other is in Sumatra), there's a guarantee for humans, too: a rare sighting of the little orange man. With a daily human audience, there's naturally a bit of showmanship (Chiquita, the resident diva, is said to blow kisses at her admirers) but the centre is much more than a glorified zoo. As our guide explains, our three-day wildlife tour of Borneo has started here because this may be the closest encounter we get with an uncaged orangutan.
But I'm hoping it won't be the only one. For the rest of our trip we're staying by the Kinabatangan river, with a 560km floodplain that's estimated to have the largest concentration of wildlife in Malaysia (of which this corner of Borneo is part). The area is only accessible by boat, a bumpy two-hour trip from Sandakan on Borneo's east coast to the village of Sukau and its Rainforest Lodge – as good an example of rustic luxury as I've seen.
It's no secret David Attenborough stayed here in 2011 – there are photos everywhere and a room named after him – but still, nothing quite prepares me for seeing the man himself turn up that night for dinner (served by candlelight on communal tables on the jetty). Attenborough is back in Borneo to film a documentary for the Discovery Channel, and while the lodge can't accommodate him because it's fully booked, he's a big fan of the food.
Earlier that afternoon, we'd taken a river cruise in one of the lodge's green fibreglass boats. The shallow vessels felt like they would not be much defence from the crocs in these swampy waters, but our guide, Jumanji, assured us he'd only ever seen a monkey eaten (and that was in 2007). On the 90-minute trip we spotted packs of mischievous macaques, comical-looking proboscis monkeys – unique to Borneo – and our first wild orangutan, a blur in the distance that became clearer with binoculars. There were also monitor lizards up to three metres long, tree snakes and birds from rhinocerous hornbills to purple herons.
The next day, we spot a mother and baby orangutan pair dozing in a tree and some pygmy elephants grazing just metres from our room. This species, only found in north-east Borneo, has larger ears, a bigger belly and a longer tail than a standard nelly, making it incredibly cute. And when I hear that Attenborough has missed the pygmys every time he's visited Borneo so far, I know we got lucky.
• The trip was provided by Borneo Eco Tours (+60 88 438300, borneoecotours.com) which has three-day Kinabatangan safaris at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, from £284pp, including full-board and transfers from Sandakan. Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) flies from Heathrow to Borneo's capital, Kota Kinabalu, via Kuala Lumpur, from £621 rtn. Air Asia (airasia.com) flies from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan from £33 rtn
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk