Borneo Orangutans & Beaches Holiday Review

Richard Moore & Sue Jorgensen-Moore

20 Aug 2013

Borneo Safari Review by Richard & Sue

Arriving at Sandakan Airport we were through customs and had picked up baggage within minutes before being met by Ben Duncan, who would be our guide, on and off, for the next 7 days. Our first stop, Sepilok Nature Resort was about 30 minutes drive away and fairly typical of the quiet and simple resorts we used throughout our stay in Sabah We had chosen this one solely to visit the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre which is, literally, next door and which you reach by a 10 minute stroll along the road.

You can visit the centre at any time of day but there are two feeding sessions which are when you are most likely to have good animal viewing. Ours saw about 50 people congregate though we were told that the morning session is much busier, with some people even flying in from Kota Kinabalu for the day. Within the space of about 90 minutes we were lucky enough to see 9 orangutans, including 2 mothers nursing babies. Mostly they were about 20 feet away from our large viewing area on another platform where the Centre staff put out food. The orang-utans are clearly habituated to this arrangement (as are the large numbers of long-tailed macaques who did their best to muscle in) and were arriving up to 30 minutes before food was set out. After feeding, several animals came down to the boardwalk so that at times we were only a few feet away with centre staff preventing unwary onlookers from going too close.

Later that evening we returned for a guided night-walk with Ben and an experienced ranger from the Centre. Night viewing with an expert was fascinating and wild life was more prolific than one might have expected: amongst other things we saw several birds (Blue-eared Kingfisher, White-browed Shama and the rare Hooded Pitta), frogs, snakes, a moon rat and my wife had her first encounter with a leech.

Early the next morning we drove back to Sandakan to catch a boat for Lankayan Island, leaving Ben behind us for the next two days. This was an archetypal tropical island: white beaches, palm trees, turquoise seas, sunshine and lush tropical vegetation. It’s small enough to walk around in about 20 minutes and is a remarkably tranquil spot. Our interest lay in its turtles and on both nights of our stay we were privileged to be woken Up and taken to see large Green Turtles laying their eggs and return to the water.

The Reef Guardian’s team then uncovered the eggs again and took them to a hatchery where protection from natural and human predators means a higher survival rate is guaranteed. As evidence of this, another highlight of our time on Lankayan Island was witnessing the release of 76 baby turtles [featured image] which had just hatched - a frantic scrabbling race across the sand and into the Sulu Sea where they were quickly lost from our sight. 

Another 2-hour boat trip took us back to Sandakan where, meeting up with Ben again, we had a quick trip around the city; the fish and vegetable markets were fascinating and we could have easily spent more time there but we also took in a Chinese temple and the memorial to the Sandakan Death Marches of WWII: again had time allowed we would have liked to spend more time here. Our next boat left from the Floating Village - another glimpse into communal Sabah lives.

Crossing the harbour to the mouth of the Kinabatangan River we made our way upstream to Abai Jungle Lodge which is the only lodge in this area. Chalets here lead off a boardwalk and are within a short distance of the central reception. There are several viewing towers off the boardwalk but wild-life viewing within the lodge was mainly limited to smaller birds, attracted by the abundance of tropical flowers and vegetation. We did also spot a macaque on a neighbour’s balcony and had our first of many encounters with Junior the resident (not very) wild boar.

Our first afternoon cruise gave us one of the animal viewing highlights of our lives. After heading upriver for about 30 minutes we came upon a herd of about 30 Pygmy elephants, with several young ones amongst them. After some preliminary toes in the water they decided to swim across the river right in front of our boat, an incredible spectacle. We made our way back to the Lodge in growing darkness (the boats have no fixed lights) apart from huge sheets of lightning behind the distant clouds and a wonderful firefly display, lighting up a tree as if it were Christmas. Nothing else in our two days here quite matched this experience but we saw a phenomenal amount of wild life including proboscis monkeys, macaques, orang-utans, hornbills, eagles, kites, storks, crocodiles and a civet, to list just a few. Outside Africa it would be difficult to find such abundance and variety in such a short space of time. Apart from wild-life viewing, the lodge does its best to introduce visitors to the local community: we could hear the imam calling the faithful to prayer across the river and organised activities included a trip to Abai Village and tree-planting as part of a charitable venture.

Our next stop, Myne Resort, was a couple of hours upriver by boat and in a location (Bilit) where there were several other lodges and therefore more competition for the best viewing position. Elephants here were in short supply but there were plenty of primates around including red- and silver-leaf monkeys, long-tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys and orangutans.

Bird-watching was a highlight of our two days at Myne. We saw 4 of the 8 varieties of hornbill native to Sabah, kites, bee-eaters, kingfishers, swifts, egrets, purple herons, storks, fantails and, posing in front of our dinner table each evening, a handsome Buffy Fish Owl. A herd of wild boar also put in an appearance at dinner whilst at breakfast three large Monitor Lizards slipped off the jetty and into the water. The lodge also offered a short but interesting guided walk as well as a drive to the nearby Gomantong Caves to see the swifts (of birds’ nest soup fame) and a million bats emerging at sunset as well as the less appealing cockroaches and the piles of odorous guano.

Leaving Bilit by road we discovered just how much of the surrounding area has been lost to the ubiquitous palm oil plantations and we were very glad to drive from Lahad Datu deep into the rainforest to reach our final destination Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley. BRL is a very much more luxurious experience than the previous lodges visited and, having said goodbye to Ben in Lahad Datu, we were allocated a personal guide, Hendry, for our stay here. Because of the greater focus upon home comforts (private decks, outdoor jacuzzis, etc) we had expected the wildlife viewing to be poorer than on the river but thanks to Hendry it far exceeded our expectations. Each day he located Orang-utans for us which at times were every bit as visible as those we had seen in the more managed environment of Sepilok but more interesting because of their unpredictability. By the end of our 4d/3n stay we had seen 10 different individuals, ranging from 2-year old Acha through to Ali Baba, the 30-something (and very imposing) Alpha male. Viewing was generally very clear and always prolonged - a wonderful insight into the life of this fascinating animal.

Whilst our focus had been on orangutan viewing, there was plenty of other wildlife: bee-eaters and swifts darted about in front of our balcony; Sambar deer grazed in front of the lodge; a large wild tortoise crossed our path on one walk; fish nibbled our feet in the ‘jacuzzi’ pool. We were particularly lucky to witness the Great Argus Pheasant display one morning on the Hornbill Trail; the first time our guide had seen this himself. Overall, this was a wonderful holiday which delivered very much more than we had expected. (Don’t have unrealistic expectations: you won’t see the (virtually extinct) Borneo Sumatran Rhino and sightings of the Slow Loris, the Sun Bear and the Clouded Leopard are extremely rare.). The range of locations we sampled, however, ensured the best of viewing opportunities but special mention should be made of our guides Ben, George at Abai and Hendry at Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Having private guides was not an extravagance: it enabled us to choose what to see and to spend as much time doing so as we wished, ensuring that we got the most out of our holiday.

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