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A Night Walk in Danum Valley

Tropical rainforest is my natural habitat. I first experienced its delights during a student expedition to Borneo in 1988 and consequently I’ve had a particular affinity with the island ever since. Returning to Borneo is always exciting. There are few finer incarnations of tropical rainforest than those of Danum Valley in Sabah. Exploring these forests can be particularly exciting at night – it’s perfectly safe to wander around and you simply never know what might show up. It’s the thrill of the unknown.

{img_alt} Recently I was back at Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the heart of Danum with a group of clients, with everyone eager to experience these same thrills. BRL has to be one of the best rainforest lodges anywhere – its location is superb, a vast array of wildlife can be seen close by and its standard of hospitality is top drawer.

Discoveries on night walks often begin before leaving the lodge, as all manner of insects and other invertebrates are attracted in by the lights; giant moon moths, peculiar mandolin beetles and even the occasional Herculean rhino beetle (males are the size of mobile phones). But it’s once you set foot in the forest that the real excitements begins.

Just a few paces into the forest and we discovered a sleeping short-crested forest dragon (a type of agama lizard), gripping precariously to the extremity of a fine branch (they often choose to sleep at the ends of twigs as it reduces the likelihood of predation from snakes). Moments later I spotted the tell-tale faint glow of a frog's eyes in my torch beam. It was a delightful harlequin frog sitting boldly on a large leaf at waist height. There had been late afternoon heavy rain and the frog was probably out hoping to find a mate. Harlequin frogs are one of several species in Borneo that are able to ‘glide’ down from the canopy on enormous parachute-like feet and regularly descend after rain when temporary pools form.

{img_alt} The highlight, however, came half an hour later. After a tip off from another lodge guide, we had gone to a particular place, only a few hundred metres from the lodge. Our guide Calixtus was immediately on the case, wafting the sticky night air into his nostrils. “Can you smell it?” he enquired, but no one was particularly sure what to smell for. Most smells in a rainforest at night are unfamiliar. Nasal detection proved unnecessary, “there it is,” came the call as several torch beams fell on the animal in question. It was a western tarsier, Borneo’s smallest, and one of only two nocturnal primates (the other being slow loris). If you’ve ever wondered where Steven Spielberg gained inspiration for his gremlin characters, then look no further.

With its enormous eyes following our every movement, we were able to quietly and patiently move closer to get a good view. Capable of bounding off into the night in a single leap, the tarsier was remarkably un-phased by the excitement and all the attention it was receiving. It just sat there, slowly rotating its head watching us in a very owl-like way. Over an hour passed (although it seemed like ten minutes) as we all watched the enchanting creature and spent time photographing it.

There were many other highlights and spectacular photo opportunities during this recent tour. It proved to be perhaps my best ever for wild orang-utan sightings, which were almost daily in Danum Valley, including mothers and infants, although the best encounter came at Gomantong Caves, where a mother and youngster sat in full view barely five metres away. There was also a giant rafflesia on Mount Kinabalu, proboscis monkeys and numerous hornbills along the Kinabatangan River and an informative, educational and at times heart-wrenching visit to the recently opened Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.

Borneo is clearly one of my favourite destinations and it will remain a core trip in the programme of photography tours. 

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Why not join Nick on his next trip to photograph wildlife in the rainforests of Borneo?