A Whirlwind Week in Borneo

Monica Henry

25 Jul 2019

Two NWS clients embark on a wildlife-filled journey through Southeast Asia

My friend Diane and I have travelled all over the world together, but still we were just a little unnerved with Borneo and our country’s travel advisories. We really weren’t sure what we were getting into when it came to the degree of civilisation (or lack thereof). In the end, we were pleasantly surprised at what we found.

After a rather convoluted flight course from West Papua, Indonesia to Sandakan in Malaysian Borneo over two days (even though they looked so close on a map!) we were met by Jeffrey, our first of three guides in Borneo. Jeffrey would later prove himself to be a veritable fount of knowledge gained over 25+ years of experience, and imbued with the patience of Job.

We had only seven days in Borneo so we wanted to make every minute count. Jeffrey drove us right from the airport to our first encounter with the orangutans at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, just in time for the late afternoon feeding… I can’t explain how excited we were to have our first sightings of these great apes, even if it was in a sanctuary and on a feeding platform.

Our viewing began with a short jaunt to the viewing of the nursery. While at the nursery we were behind glass for the benefit of the young orphaned orangutans, and had the opportunity to watch their various antics. It is in the nursery that younger orphaned orangutans are paired with more seasoned, older orangutans to “show them the ropes” – literally and figuratively – on how to survive. We saw at least seven or eight orangutans on a feeding platform, some swinging in on the ropes leading into the nursery from the local forest. It truly did seem like a playground set up for primates to develop skills they would need later on in the wild.

After the nursery viewing we made our way by boardwalk through the jungle to the feeding platform. Even the walk through the jungle was an experience, as we finally felt the full heat and humidity we had been spared thanks to our air-conditioned vehicle. You do not race around in this degree of heat and humidity or you will quickly find yourself light-headed. A good microfibre towel came in handy for wiping our faces… oh so much sweat! Now I must admit we are from Canada, so we might be more heat- and humidity-challenged than most!

For the orangutan feeding platforms we knew there were going to be many people vying for optimal positions, so I was quite happy to have my telephoto lens to peer through the 20 or so people. Despite the amount of people there, we did get a sense of awe and wonder when we saw our first mother and baby make their appearance from the forest to the platform.

Our guide told us that this mother’s name was Mimi and her little fella was about 9 months old. Mimi was a patient mother as we watched her baby crawl all over her, hang from her arms and occasionally try to steal food from her mouth. Mimi had broken down a coconut with her teeth and hands, which is no small feat, as anyone who has ever tried to get into a coconut without a machete will know. Orangutans are said to be nine times stronger than humans, and we witnessed it.

Before dusk fell we made our way from the orangutan sanctuary to the Rainforest Discovery Centre to wander around the grounds, viewing native plants and walking on the canopy walkways. It definitely would have been worth another day in Sepilok to take in all the area had to offer, including more of the Discovery Centre and perhaps a night walk or two.

Following the Discovery Centre our guide took us to our accommodation for the next two nights, Sepilok Forest Edge Lodge, a very comfortable setting about a 10-minute walk from the orangutan sanctuary. The food was excellent traditional fare with the wonderful Malaysian flavours we were hoping for. After dinner we were treated to a wonderful spectacle of the full moon casting its glow on the resort grounds. The morning brought the wonderful sounds of the jungle as we enjoyed our first cup of coffee of the day from our chalet deck.

After our coffee and breakfast at the lodge, we made our way back to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre to observe the youngsters in the nursery and another feeding-platform viewing. Again we were graced with another mother and baby as well as a juvenile female, apparently quite wild and not a graduate from the rehab centre. She would never touch the platfrom when she grabbed for the food, choosing instead to dangle from the ropes and stretch out her arms to claim her prize. She would grab as much food as her four limbs could carry and eat on the ropes, well out of reach of the other orangutans, remaining a respectful distance from the mum and baby who were still on the platform.

Part of the surprise of the trip was all the things we did not expect to see along the boardwalk in the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, like the the oriental hornbill and the various insects (from the rather alien-looking lanternfly to the crab spider), all spotted by our eagle-eyed guide Jeffrey.

We made our way to the nearby Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, home to 44 rescued Bornean sun bears, the world’s smallest bear species as well as one of the most endangered. They are named for the golden-beige crescent on their chest, and they looked to me to be the same size as a large Rottweiler… only cuter. Their long claws are used to climb trees, as well as tear open trunks and termite mounds to get to their preferred food of honey and termites. We observed them enjoying a good feeding of sugarcane, oblivious to all the onlookers.

We then made the 30-minute trip to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, entering a different landscape of mangrove forests. Apparently the 400 acres of land had been purchased for palm oil but the owner decided to use it for the conservation of the proboscis monkey instead. 60 of them now frequent the sanctuary. There are two platforms here, where the monkey’s diet from the forest is supplemented with daily fruits and vegetables.

Nothing could prepare me for the amazing experience with these eccentric-looking primates that are found only in Borneo. We spent most of the day witnessing their various behaviours. To be be able to have the time to watch the lead males, with their harems of females, vocalise threats to usurping young bachelors was a sight to behold. The bulbous noses of these males acted like a sounding board with a very nasal quality, carrying the noise for miles.

As the monkeys were quite calm and allowed us to get to a close but respectable distance from them, I so wanted to photograph all the various facial expressions and behaviours of these demonstrative primates. There were babies nursing and kids being kids.

From Labuk Bay we made our way back to Sepilok Forest Edge Lodge, but not without spotting a water monitor in a channel beside the road and a silver leaf langur on our drive back from the sanctuary.

The following day we went back to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre for a third viewing of the orangutan feeding platform. Jeffrey proved himself the gentleman when the whole time at the feeding platform I used my cellphone to take pictures rather than my camera with a telephoto lens – he had figured out that I had forgotten to charge my camera the night before, but he never said a word. We had the best laugh when I finally fessed up, despite feeling rather stupid for making such a neophyte mistake.

At the Sim Sim Jetty we boarded the motorboat to head to Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the Kinabatangan River. During the 2.5-hour boat ride up the Kinabatangan River we saw several wild orangutans, one a mother with her juvenile eating figs, and another a large male with developed flanges lounging in his nest. To see these three truly wild orangutans was very special.

When we arrived at Sukau Rainforest Lodge we met our next guide and were taken on a late-afternoon river safari. Having been on a number of African safaris, a river safari has a distinctly different feel. During the boat ride we saw a Storm’s stork (the rarest of all storks with only 500 left in the wild) and a plethora of long-tailed macaques, as well as pig-tail macaques in the midst of grooming.

The highlight of Sukau Rainforest Lodge was the night river safari. We had an amazing spotter who opened up the nightlife of Borneo to us. During our night safari we saw a number of sleeping birds, including a blue-eared kingfisher, a stork-billed kingfisher and the most colourful black-and-red broadbills, along with some young saltwater crocodiles.

Sukau did not disappoint in the variety of wildlife we saw just walking on the boardwalk, from the paradise flying tree snake I almost stepped on (flying and snake should not be words that go together) and a mother colugo (aka flying lemur) with her baby spotted on a tree behind the restaurant. I am sure we must have looked a sight with five or six people crammed behind the tea and coffee counter at the restaurant to get the best angle for our pictures. The baby colugo was so curious about all the tall one-eyed creatures clicking away at him.

While at Sukau Rainforest Lodge we met up with Jeffrey again and made the trip by land to Gomantong Caves. We were glad we did as the trip itself was more than just to view the cave. On the road to the caves, we “spotted” (excellent spotters that we are) the van of tourists parked by the side of the road with all heads tilted heavenwards… “Oh there must be something interesting up in the trees,” we said to Jeffrey. I am sure he has heard that one 1,000 times. Sure enough we saw a wild male orangutan eating the bark off the tree he was in.

I can’t say I was feeling particularly thrilled to go into the caves to see millions of bats or navigate through flesh-eating cockroaches… more due to health concerns from the bat guano than the actual bats themselves or the cockroaches. However I put aside my concerns (hopefully not to the detriment of my lungs) and decided to venture in partway to at least see the swiftlet nests, which for hundreds of years have been considered a delicacy by the Chinese – emperors and commoners alike. On our way through the jungle to the caves we saw wiry men carrying heavy sacks of rice to the caves. These same young men live in the caves during the months-long harvesting season, and will climb up sketchy rattan ladders to harvest the nests.

As we donned our hardhats that Jeffrey gave us, we made our way into the caves and ohhh, the smell of ammonia (like a hair salon exploded… it made our eyes water) from the metres of bat guano underneath the boardwalk we could fortunately walk on… metres and metres of bat guano, and did I mention flesh-eating cockroaches?! Despite the assault on my senses I was glad to have ventured in as I was able to see the swiftlet nests, something I had only seen in Chinese markets. The cave itself with its cathedral-high ceiling and the high-pitched vocalisations of the bats was wonderfully eerie.

Jeffrey proved himself the gentleman again, for as we looked upwards toward the ceiling of the cave to see the swiftlet nests, my hardhat (which I neglected to fasten) fell off, landed on the boardwalk and pirouetted towards the edge and promptly fell off the boardwalk into the bat guano. I looked back at Jeffrey who, with his best poker face (although I did detect a bit of a head shake and smirk), knelt down and reaching as far as he could, rescued my hardhat. No I did not put it back on!

While researching about our trip I had read that when one visits the Gomantong Caves, the highlight is the activity at dusk. We decided to hang around to see the bats exit. During this time we saw the rather striking Wallace’s hawk-eagle (one of the smallest eagles in the world) biding its time to hunt, bat hawks circling above waiting for the egress of the millions of bats from the cave, and rather unexpected behaviour from a number of bushy crested hornbills (the only hornbills that congregate together). Again and again we saw these hornbills swoop down and capture swiftlets, one after another. It was not for the squeamish but it was a part of the circle of life that I had not expected.

The next day we made the rather long but comfortable journey to Lahad Datu and onwards to Danum Valley. It was a trek well worth it to see and eventually walk through untouched primary forest. Our accommodation in this little piece of paradise was the world-renowned Borneo Rainforest Lodge. We were greeted by our last guide of the trip, Farah, a young guide who at 26 had already been working there as a guide for seven years, and through our stay we would come to appreciate her knowledge and her passion for the area. Apart from Farah we were also greeted by the local troop of red leaf langurs.

Soon after we checked in we met up with Farah to do a hike in the woods, as this was one of the reasons we had come to Danum Valley: to hike in the primary forest. It came with a cost... leech socks! When we reviewed our package from Natural World Safaris as to what was included, the very last item was a pair of leech socks. Being familiar with Canadian lakes and leeches, we wondered why we needed socks if we weren’t going swimming. We later discovered why the leech socks… for the land leeches! So with said leech socks we also packed salt… so many packets of salt, alcohol and clotting gauze. I am happy to say not one leech landed on me, although I was sort of looking forward to using what I had learned in leech extraction techniques (just not on myself). My friend Diane was not so lucky and did get a leech on her hand (not latched so no extraction practice) and her Samsung phone (my iPhone was spared).

Apart from the leeches there were a host of other creepy crawlies that I quite enjoyed seeing, like the flat-back millipede, which gives off the odour of marzipan when you rub its back. Now I would like to question the person who was the first to decide that rubbing the back of any insect that big was a good idea, let alone then bending down to smell it. Another favourite was the rhinoceros beetle… the stuff of nightmares, especially when I am able to get close enough to “fill the frame” with him. But my absolute favourite and much-requested insect to try and see was the stick insect. For all our attempts to see one while hiking we were not so lucky… until the last day when I went to pick up my hiking boots outside the restaurant and just below them was a stick insect.

On our first afternoon hike through the forest our guide Farah received word from the other guides that someone had spotted a pangolin… one of the rarest animals to see in the wild, as it is the most poached and trafficked animal in the world. This critically endangered animal is sought after in a number of markets in the world for its meat, organs and scales… scales that are made up of the same material as our fingernails and hair, and all of which have no proven medicinal value.

Farah had us running through the heat and humidity of the Borneo rainforest to get to the where the pangolin was last sighted, as she had only seen one other pangolin in the seven years of working at the lodge! We made it to the area just as dusk fell, which added to the surreal atmosphere of seeing this prehistoric-looking creature. It was actually much larger than I expected, likely measuring at least 5 ft from its nose to the tip of its tail.

The next day and a half were spent with walks through the forest and to the canopy walkway, part of which had unfortunately been damaged when a supporting pole was struck by lightning. There is a section still remaining that offers wonderful views of the canopy and a plethora of birds. One in particular caught my eye as it is a heavier, slower cousin, so to speak, of a hummingbird… a sunbird… possibly a ruby-cheeked sunbird.

The nights at Borneo Rainforest Lodge were equally interesting, as one night we did a night drive in a multi-passenger golf cart (replaced the 4x4 as they were less intrusive to the wildlife at night) and another favourite… the night walk. There were so many creatures to see that hide during the day. Some creatures like the scorpion we saw under a UV light that Farah brought with her; they can only be seen with this light at night.

Our guide was so excited after a period of rainfall earlier in the day (the only rain during our whole trip), which meant she could show us the bioluminescent fungus that glowed in the dark. Wrapping up the night walk was a trip to the frog pond where we saw a lichen huntsman spider (easily longer than the span of one’s splayed hand) and I am sure it saw me before I saw it, as it has four sets of eyes. One of the many amphibian crooners made its appearance to say goodnight… a uniquely patterned harlequin frog.

From Borneo Rainforest Lodge we made our way to Kota Kinabalu via road trip to Lahad Datu, then a flight from Lahad Datu. We had an overnight at the lovely Shangri La Tanjung Aru, which was fortunate as it was one of the closer hotels to the airport for our painfully early international flight in the morning. I was so impressed with the organisation of all the connections along the way, planned by our very knowledgeable Natural World Safaris specialist Nora, that even the 3:30am pick-up for transfer to the airport arrived without a hitch.

Although we came to Borneo to see the orangutans, we came away with memories of so much more. We have memories of wonderful and knowledgeable guides who opened up the world of Borneo to us with its fantastical creatures, the likes of which we will never see again… unless of course we go back to Borneo!

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