Tailor made Wildlife Holidays in Borneo

Chris Osborn’s photo

Borneo is a centre of biological richness for the Indo-Malayan region and a hot spot of world biodiversity. Ten hectares of rainforest in Borneo can support a greater number of tree species than occur in the whole of North America. The island is home to more bird species than are found in Europe and as many mammals as live on the island continent of Australia.

Superficially Borneo might seem rather flat as over 50% is lowland areas (less than 150 metres elevation) covered in rainforests and swamp forests. Yet there are also significant mountain ranges, which run through the island’s interior from south-west to north-east. At the very north-western corner of the island, is Borneo’s summit, Mount Kinabalu, with its peak at 4095 metres it is the highest mountain in South East Asia (between the Himalayas and New Guinea).

Almost all of our passengers visiting Borneo fly in on Malaysian Airlines – they are one of the world’s best airlines. There are daily services from the UK and they seem to have virtually limitless connections internally. Of course Borneo and Malaysia are half-way to Australia and New Zealand (and we have great deals on Malaysian all the way through) so a wildlife holiday in Borneo could be the first part of a more comprehensive holiday break.

Sabah

Without question Sabah has some of the richest, most diverse and best developed parks and reserves in Borneo. This coupled with relatively easy access, good infrastructure and quality tourist facilities, makes Sabah the obvious first choice for visitors. Sites like Kinabalu National Park, Danum Valley and the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary are world-renowned and offer an easy window for those wishing to experience Borneo’s natural wonders.

Kinabalu Park

Kinabalu stands like a citadel above the lowlands of northern Borneo. In a modern world of shrinking boundaries and perspectives, the mountain still encapsulates all that is mystical and untamed. Its power is enhanced by its isolation. It is not surrounded by other high peaks that would dilute its splendour; instead it rises with menacing darkness, straight out of verdant green tropical forest to a multi-peaked summit of stark, bare rock.

Kinabalu National Park which is easily reached from Kota Kinabalu in about two hours drive, harbours remarkable botanical diversity, perhaps as many as 6000 plant species occur on the mountain. These include more than 1000 species of orchid and more than one third of all the islands’ pitcher plants (genus Nepenthes). Superlatives aren’t restricted to plants; there are over 600 species of butterflies and some 320 species of birds. Diversity of species is greatest on the lower slopes, whereas the greatest numbers of endemic species are found high on the mountain.

Nepenthese Villas – Located close to the park headquarters, Nepenthese Villas are a convenient base from which to explore the network of trails leading through the forest on the middle slopes. The villas offer all the comforts one could require and are adjacent to the Park restaurant. The open areas and forest edges around the villas are productive places to look for birds, and groups of effusive Chestnut-capped Laughing Thrushes and ebullient Bornean Treepies are common. After dark look out for the beautiful endemic Kinabalu Forest Gecko on nearby trails as well as a variety of frogs.

Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve

The Rafflesia Rain Forest Reserve near the village of Tambunan is less than two hours drive from Kota Kinabalu and is undoubtedly one of the best places in Borneo to see one of the world’s floral wonders – Rafflesia. The slightly cooler upland forests of the Crocker Ranges provide an ideal habitat for this botanical oddity. (The species seen in this reserve is Rafflesia pricei.) Remarkable not only for being the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia is also parasitic – it grows from the stems and roots of a climbing vine. The flower buds take months to develop before opening into a bloom, sometimes approaching a metre in diameter. Near the Park, the Rafflesia Information Centre provides visitors with a wealth of information about the plant and there is an extensive network of forest trails to explore in order to see the flower itself.

Sepilok Forest Reserve & Orang-utan Sanctuary

Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary about 30 minutes by road from Sandekan is renowned the world over for its work in rehabilitating orphaned Orang-utans. Visitors can enjoy close encounters with these charismatic apes at the twice-daily feeding sessions in the forest, where individuals not fully capable of self-sufficiency return for a free meal. However, set amongst 43 square kilometres of primary lowland rainforest, the reserve has much more to offer besides. Boardwalks through the forest are excellent places to wander at leisure – the birdwatching here is excellent and there is also a variety of snakes and frogs to look out for.

Sepilok Nature Lodge situated by the park entrance and next to the forest offers spacious and comfortable accommodation. The air-conditioned wooden chalets are well appointed and connected by boardwalks to the main lodge and restaurant area that is set beside an artificial lake.

Turtle Islands Marine Park

Part of the Turtle Islands Marine Park, Selingan (reached by boat from Sandakan) is a tiny sandy island 40 kilometres off the north-east coast of Sabah. Along with neighbouring islands, it constitutes one the regions major turtle breeding sites. Throughout the year, and particularly between April and October, large numbers of Green Turtles and to a lesser extent, Hawksbill Turtles, haul themselves ashore most nights to dig nests on the beach and lay their eggs. Each night wardens patrol the beaches and collect all the eggs that are laid. These are then incubated in fenced enclosures free from the risk of predation. Each night newly hatched baby turtles are then released back into the sea. Visitors staying on the island for a night have the opportunity to watch (by torchlight) turtles excavating their nests and laying their clutches, and to observe the hatchlings being released.

Park Chalets on the island provide simple but comfortable accommodation and are perfectly adequate for a single night stay.

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary

The Kinabatangan River snakes its way, through the interior and coastal lowlands for 560 kilometres, until it reaches the Sulu Sea. It is Sabah’s longest river and in its lower reaches forms a flood plain ecosystem of unparalleled richness. A mosaic of riparian forest, oxbow lakes, nipah swamp and mangroves support the most diverse concentrations of wildlife in Sabah, including Orang-utans, Proboscis Monkeys, Bornean Pygmy Elephants and a vast array of birds, including several species of hornbill, reptiles and amphibians. Sukau, about 80 kilometres up river from the coast, is the centre for wildlife tourism. Here the wildlife experiences are amongst the most memorable in Borneo. The majority of wildlife watching within Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is from boats and it is so good because most of the wildlife has become so tolerant. Boat journeys up a small tributary, the Mananggol River, are particularly intimate as the river narrows and forest encroaches. Passing under overhanging boughs and skirting fallen trees, it is possible to peer into the tangled vegetation at the margins where Water Monitors bask on half sunken trunks and Mangrove Snakes, young Reticulated Pythons and Wagler’s Pit Vipers lay concealed and motionless. There are also troops of Proboscis Monkeys, macaques, langurs and even the occasional Orang-utan and Bornean Gibbon. Sukau is easily accessible by road taking about three hours from Sandakan. However, the most enjoyable way to reach the area is on a four hour boat journey from Sandakan, travelling up the Kinabatangan River from its estuary.

Sukau River Lodge is situated in the prime location at the confluence between the Kinabatangan and smaller Menanggol River. It provides a convenient base from which to explore the area. The intimate lodge and restaurant look out over the main river, while the chalets on stilts stretch behind into the forest. There is much wildlife to see in the immediate vicinity, with Long-tailed Macaques, Water Monitors, Buffy Fish Owls and a variety of smaller reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates often being seen within the lodge grounds.

Gomantong Caves & Forest Reserve

This is the largest cave system in Sabah and provides a home for tens of thousands of bats and cave swiftlets. The swiftlet nests are sustainably harvested three times each year for the Chinese soup trade, and the nest collectors live permanently on site to protect their valuable quarry. It is fascinating to see the lengths and intricacy these people go to when collecting this valuable commodity. There is a board walk inside and around the most accessible cave that allows for easy exploration. The forests around the caves are home to a wide variety of wildlife and macaques, langurs and Orang-utans are regularly seen. The caves are easily reached by road and are usually visited when driving to or from Sukau.

Danum Valley

The pristine lowland rainforests of Danum Valley are arguably Borneo’s premier wildlife location as they harbour some of the richest concentrations of species anywhere on the island. Wildlife here includes Sabah’s ten species of primate (including Orang-utan), Asian Elephant, Banteng, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Clouded Leopard, Marbled Cat, Flat-headed Cat and Malay Sun Bear. More common species include Bearded Pig, Lesser, and Greater Mouse-deer, the endemic Bornean Yellow, and Bornean Red Muntjac, and Sambar. From a viewpoint overlooking the area it is possible experience the true atmosphere of the rainforest. After a clear night, mist hangs in the valleys and clings to the crowns of trees; only the tallest emergents standing proud above the swirling white cloak. As the sun breaks through, the canopy is briefly set on fire in a golden blaze of light beams. With gibbons calling, and hornbills flying by, few more evocative experiences are imaginable. Early mornings are also perhaps the best time to enjoy the canopy walkway. Here a tree-top view of the forest provides a spectacular alternative perspective and great birdwatching opportunities: various hornbills, barbets and broadbills may be seen as well as the enigmatic and endemic Bornean Bristlehead.

Danum offers perhaps the best chance of seeing a wild Orang-utan, especially when one of the large wild durian trees is in fruit. This attracts Orang-utan from a wide area and it is possible to see several in proximity. Fruiting trees also attract other primates like Red Leaf Monkeys and Bornean Gibbons as well as Rhinoceros Hornbills and perhaps even a Binturong. After dark, night walks and vehicle rides offer a window into the secretive world of the forests nocturnal creatures – Greater Mouse Deer, Giant Flying Squirrels and Culugo are often seen. There is also a reasonable chance of seeing both Slow Loris and Western Tarsier. Frogs too are common and the resonant honk of the Bornean Horned Frog is always a feature, although tracking one down is a tough proposition. Danum Valley is a three hour drive from Lahad Datu or a six hour drive from Sandakan.

Borneo Rainforest Lodge lies at the heart of Danum Valley, some 80 kilometres off the main road from Lahad Datu. It is located on the banks of the Danum River, and facing the lodge on the opposite bank is a huge swathe of pristine forest. This is ones of the best rainforest vistas you could wish for. The main lodge and its very comfortable chalets are built on stilts and connected by raised board walks. Each chalet has a balcony, from which the sights and sounds of the forest can be enjoyed. Within the vicinity of the lodge there is a network of well laid out trails that follow the course of the river and forest interior. These allow easy access to most of the valley and provide ample opportunity to start discovering some of the forests amazing biodiversity.

Sarawak

Bako National Park

Bako which is only 40 kilometres from Kuching offers an intoxicating mixture of stunning coastal scenery, teeming rainforests and abundant wildlife. This, in combination with its proximity to Kuching and easy access, make it Sarawak’s premiere wildlife location for the first-time visitor. This is one of the best places in Borneo to see Proboscis Monkeys and they are regularly encountered in the mangrove forests often right by the raised boardwalks. They can also be seen at times foraging on the mud flats in the mangroves at low tide. The other monkeys often seen include, Long-tailed Macaques and Silvered Langurs. Other mammals that may be seen on night walks include Colugos, Slow Loris and mouse deer. With such a variety of habitats, the Park’s flora is correspondingly rich and diverse. Of particular note is the heath forest as this is where large numbers of pitcher plants can be seen.

Park Chalets provide modest but adequate facilities and there is an adjacent canteen serving tasty Malay food where all meals are taken.

Gunung Mulu National Park

Gunung Mulu is Sarawak’s largest national park and is dominated by three mountains; Gunung Mulu, Gunung Api and Gunung Benarat that are surrounded by rainforest. However, what lies beneath is the Park’s major claim to fame; one of the largest limestone cave systems in the world. The scale of these caves is bewildering. They include; the world’s largest cave passage, the world’s largest natural chamber (capable of ‘housing’ 47 jumbo jets!) and at 108 kilomtres, the longest cave in South East Asia. To date over 300 kilometres of underground cave passages have been surveyed. Visiting the mouth of Deer Cave at dusk is to witness one of the natural world’s most amazing spectacles as in excess of three million bats pour out of the entrance like a giant plume of black smoke. The wildlife is diverse with around 75 species of mammals, over 260 species of birds, 170 species of wild orchids and 10 species of pitcher plants having been recorded. Many can be a challenge to see, but those who take the time to look carefully will be rewarded.

For the visitor, Mulu offers much more than simply wildlife; there is rock climbing, adventurous jungle trekking, kayaking, mountain biking, and interaction with fascinating local people, including Iban, Berawan and Penan, Sarawak’s last nomadic tribe. Mulu can be reached by air from Miri, Limbang and Kota Kinabalu or by a combination of motor boat and longboat via Marundi or Kuala Baram.

Royal Mulu Resort – Styled like an ethnic longhouse and built on stilts, Royal Mulu Resort offers high quality and comfort amidst natural splendour. All rooms are air-conditioned and have verandas with either views to the rainforest or to Melinau River.

Go to our Suggested Wildlife Holiday Itineraries for Borneo

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