Forests, Rivers and Beaches of Borneo

Margaret Atkin

28 Sep 2017

Day 1

There are many reasons why you should choose this holiday company or that holiday company and, of course, it is sensible to do some research, but sometimes you have to go with your gut feeling. 

For us it was NWS. We read their suggestions, spoke to the staff and tinkered with example itineraries until we had designed our tailor-made Borneo holiday.

It’s a long way – don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise!  Two flights with a three hour stop-over in between.  Drinking a much needed cold beer at Kuala Lumpur -  at 10 o’clock at night our time, bizarrely 6 o’clock in the morning KL time – and a missed night’s sleep.  Arrival at Sandakan around lunch time and great excitement (and relief) to find our lovely driver waiting to greet us.  After a quick run down of the itinerary it was off to My Nature Resort and the adventure begins!

Our itinerary for the next two days included visits to the rehabilitation centres for orangutans and sun bears in Sepilok and the proboscis monkey sanctuary at Labuk Bay. We knew, therefore, that we would get to see the orangutans, but all harboured the hope that we might be lucky enough to see one in their natural, wild environment.

On arriving at My Nature we were welcomed warmly by the lovely team handing out delicious welcome drinks and the much-appreciated cold towel that would become a regular treat over the next two weeks. We were shown to our bungalows – very nicely appointed and spotlessly clean – where we had a brief freshen up before heading out to explore our surroundings. Leaving our bungalow (and by this time, operating on pure adrenaline!) we walked up the hill to the restaurant and on to the squirrel viewing platform which looked out into the forest. 

It was so beautiful just to stand and soak up the sights and the incredible sounds of the forest which seemed to seep into our very bones, displacing any lingering feelings of travel weariness. We watched black squirrels scurry around the trees and a water monitor strolling lazily along below us. Spotting a board walk leading into the forest we decided to investigate. We were barely into the cover of the trees when there was a sudden commotion and a thrashing of branches.

As we watched, two orangutans came swinging into sight – we couldn’t believe our eyes! We had barely been in the country a couple of hours and here was our first sighting of wild orangutan!

It was almost too good to be true, we couldn’t believe our luck! This was setting the bar high, the remainder of the holiday would have a lot to live up to.

The same can be said for the lodge itself.  It is quite a new resort and is staffed by a lovely team of young people.  If their purpose is to make you feel welcome and well looked after, then they are high achievers.  Although the majority of them are young and just learning the industry, they are attentive, polite and endlessly smiling. The accommodation is in bungalows running down the hill from the main public areas of reception, bar, restaurant and, of course, the squirrel viewing platform.  The bungalows are spacious and well equipped with a lovely en suite shower room, aircon, hairdryer, tea and coffee making facilities and bottles of drinking water. The open air restaurant looks out into the forest and in our experience the food was very good and the service friendly and attentive. Only the fussiest of eaters could find cause for complaint. 

The squirrel viewing platform was definitely a ‘6 o’clock’ venue.  It became our habit to rise early and take a cup of tea up to the decked viewing platform and watch as the early morning sunlight first created, and then banished, the mist that clung to the forest canopy.  By the time our mugs were empty the staff had the tea point uncovered in the bar and we helped ourselves to refills. 

At the day’s second 6 o’clock the platform was once again the place to be.  As regular as clockwork, this is squirrel viewing time. As the sun fades and the evening gathers, the giant flying squirrels leave their holes in the surrounding trees and come out to hunt.  They are fabulous creatures.  Quite large (as the name would suggest), they scale the trees and head out towards the end of the branches and on finding themselves an appropriate spot, launch skyward and drift elegantly through the gathering dusk before alighting in a neighbouring tree.  We were amazed at the distance they travel. 

Day 2

Today we had visits to the sun bear rescue centre, the proboscis monkey sanctuary and orangutan rehabilitation centre. Our guide, Rose, saw us at breakfast to confirm our itinerary of orangutan, sun bear and then proboscis visits. We explained that that was not the way we were doing it, our itinerary was for sun bear, proboscis then orangutan (‘what’s the difference?’ you may ask,  but as we had two orangutan visits scheduled on consecutive days we wanted to do one in the afternoon and one the following morning, rather than both morning visits. We had read you can a have a different experience at different times of the day).  Rose explained this was unusual as the sun bears and orangutans are actually on the same site but there was no argument, she simply phoned the office and popped an extra guide on our mini bus so he could take the four of us to the sun bears whilst she took another group to the orangs. 

It turned out to be a great arrangement. We all arrived at the centre, Rose took the others one way and we had the benefit of the lovely Vinus taking us to see the sun bears. It was early morning and so quiet that we almost had the place to ourselves. Vinus gave us lots of information about the bears and the centre and plenty of time to just stand and watch them. There were lots of bears about, basking in the sunshine or climbing trees and we all enjoyed watching them in the lovely, peaceful surroundings - including Vinus, who obviously had great respect and affection for the creatures. 

We watched as one bear scaled a tree, struggled to find a comfortable position then made a hasty and comical descent.

Another bear was settled high up in a tall tree and a member of staff let us view her through his spotting scope, taking pictures on our cameras through his scope for us. So when viewing the bears, don’t forget to look up! The bears are fenced in for their own protection and unfortunately rehabilitation has not been very successful for these lovely endangered animals –  apparently there is still a big market for skins, claws, gall bladders and other body parts. Very sad.

We then met another driver who took us half an hour away to Labuk Bay, where a palm oil farmer has created a sanctuary for the proboscis monkeys that have been displaced by the palm plantations. I was very enthusiastic about both the orangutans and the sun bears but had thought of the proboscis monkeys as a bit of an ‘add-on’, but I enjoyed them immensely.

Although the male has a very strange dangly nose, his body markings are striking, lending him the appearance of wearing a waistcoat and trousers. They are actually quite appealing little creatures and not as ugly as I first thought. The females have a sharp, pointy nose and there were several mothers with very small babies. One mother with what appeared to be a very new baby, sat on the hand rail nursing and dozing all the time we were there, totally unfazed by the visitors.  They are not fenced in and are free to come and go as they please, but they obviously know where there’s always a free meal and there were dozens of monkeys on and around the viewing area. A further feeding brought silver langurs from the trees and onto the viewing platform amongst the visitors.  They are beautiful creatures with long silver-grey hair.  

They stormed the viewing area, ate as if it was their last meal then crashed out for an afternoon siesta, sleeping wherever they fell!

Back at the My Nature Resort for lunch, we met up again with Vinus and he accompanied us back to Sepilok to see the orangutans.  What amazing creatures!  At Sepilok the staff work tirelessly to rescue, care for, protect and hopefully rehabilitate the orangutans back into the wild. The youngsters can only be viewed through glass – with the visitors inside and the orangutans outside – to minimize their contact with people. The older orangs, however, are free to wander as they choose – occasionally with chaotic results! Lockers are available to visitors who are encouraged to leave all bags, hats, etc. behind, taking only cameras around their necks. As Vinus explained to us, not only are orangutans four times stronger than a man, they also have four hands! If they want something, they will probably take it. 

The afternoon visit was a great success. We watched the youngsters feeding first and were entertained by their antics as they squabbled and played together – a baby orang has to be one of the cutest creatures on this planet with its huge round eyes and spiky punk hair-do. The older ones were equally entertaining. We moved on to the outdoor viewing area and, as food was put out by a member of staff, gradually the orangs came in to eat. This area of the centre is open to the forest and the animals are free to come and go as they please. They are fed a relatively bland diet to encourage them to go out into the forest and forage independently, but still have the safety net of the feeding station should they feel the need. A crowd gathered as we watched but there was plenty of space at the viewing area and a completely uninhibited view of the orangutans. All in all, a great experience.

Both the orangutan centre and the sun bear centre exited either through or close to the shop but the only pressure to buy, donate or adopt came from your own conscience, not from the centre.

Day 3

This morning we packed our bags and were taken again by mini bus to our second visit to the orangutans, picking up some other people along the way. 

Even after such a short stay it was sad to say goodbye to the lovely staff at My Nature, who all waved us off fondly like long lost friends.

During a chat with Vinus we discussed our sightings and joked about hoping to see a clouded leopard next. He said so far we had been very lucky with our sightings and there was every chance if our luck held. Yesterday he had complimented us on the planning of our holiday, saying we had got everything exactly right – and I have to agree. I am so happy we didn’t do ‘the norm’ and go with the orangs and sun bears yesterday morning. Our visit to the sun bears was so quiet we almost had the place to ourselves and it wasn’t busy at the orangs in the afternoon. 

Not so this morning. Although it was nice to go again it was not the experience we had yesterday. We saw another group of youngsters who were very entertaining but on leaving the building the board walks were crowded with people, and although we had a very close encounter with a large orangutan strolling along the hand rail, we were stuck at the back of a crowd and couldn’t get a clear view of him. Likewise, the feeding platform was packed with people and although there was plenty of orang activity – and we were well entertained by them – it was much busier and therefore, less enjoyable than yesterday afternoon’s visit. With some time to spare our new guide, Yayah suggested we have another look at the sun bears. I think this was the first visit for the other people we had collected and again, it was nothing like the experience we had previously had. So pleased we did it the way we did.

Back in the mini bus the next stop was Sim Sim water village where we were to board a boat taking us out to the Sulu sea and then into the Kinabatangan River. Sim Sim was a wonderful place with stilted houses tumbling from the shore into the water and spreading along the coastline. As we waited on the jetty we heard loud squeaks and, looking out into the shallow water, saw a pair of sea otters swimming into shore.
 

We boarded our boat along with six others and our new guide, Shirou, and headed out on an exhilarating hour and a half’s journey.  As we moved into the river our pace slowed a little and we studied the forest reaching down to the water’s edge, looking for birds and other wildlife. 

The Abai River Lodge was to become our new home for just one night and as we arrived we received the usual warm welcome (and cold towel!).  As our luggage was being organized we were ushered to the dining room to eat. The jetty steps up to a lovely decked sitting area which in turn leads to a covered dining area. Despite the fact that this is open to the elements, and therefore barely indoors, shoes are always removed before entering. It is a lovely tradition and one that somehow makes you feel immediately ‘at home’.

After a lovely lunch we were led along the raised board walks criss-crossing the jungle floor to our stilted bungalows. The accommodation here is definitely more rustic. Clean rooms with en suite bathroom, ceiling fan, coffee and tea making facilities and bottled drinking water but the rooms have a slightly fusty damp smell. Hardly surprising as below the board walks the ground is saturated with standing water in many places. This, of course, made it ideal for our new neighbours, a family of bearded forest pigs and the occasional water monitor who wallowed happily in the mud beneath the bungalows.

Most importantly, the beds were clean and very comfortable and the ceiling fans coupled with the netted windows were effective. By only unpacking the clothes we would wear that day we minimised the chance of our luggage picking up the smell of damp. The public areas had lovely riverside decking with comfortable swinging chairs and relaxation areas. 

After an afternoon of relaxation and exploring the maze of boardwallks, we thoroughly enjoyed our first boat safari in the late afternoon (a group of 9 of us spread between two boats), with sightings of proboscis monkeys, long tailed macaques and dozens of birds including kingfishers, hornbills and, much to Shirou’s excitement, the black morph of the changeable hawk eagle. This was his first sighting of the black morph and he was very excited, demanding of Mike, ‘Quick, get a picture! The best picture ever!’. The pressure was on! In his several years of guiding he was seeing this bird for the first time and couldn’t stress enough how lucky we were – hold on, we’ve heard that before somewhere. Hmm.  

As we drifted lazily on from our sighting of this unusual, but not particularly stunning bird, peering into the surrounding forest there was suddenly a cry of “elephant!!!” and there, right in front of the boat was a lone elephant bathing in the river. We had been told we were unlikely to see elephant as the herds had moved off to the Danum valley but, against the odds, there she was.  We watched her as she bathed, dipping her head below the surface then spraying water from her trunk, then followed her as she swam the width of the river, cutting effortlessly across the strong current and finally scrambling up the bank on the other side.  

What a sighting!  Lucky, lucky, lucky!

As dusk fell and the moon rose we headed back towards the lodge, spotting a kingfisher sleeping precariously on an overhanging branch.  As the darkness gathered the river banks began to illuminate with fire flies, blinking on and off and festooning the trees like Christmas fairy lights – they were beautiful. Shirou explained they are in fact beetles, not flies, and when he caught one to show us it was tiny.

On returning to the lodge we sacrificed the opportunity to wash and change and headed instead to the bar to enjoy a cold drink at the water’s edge and watch the lights along the river before heading for our buffet dinner. 

Shirou met us again after dinner and led us along the maze of wooden pathways through the forest. Armed with a torch it was easy to spot the reflected eye-shine of dozens of tiny night creatures – mostly of the ‘bug’ variety and many of them spiders – eek! The cutest had to be a tiny yellow sunbird tucked into the centre of a large palm leaf, fast asleep. As we headed back to the river’s edge the family of forest pigs were snuggled up by one of the bungalows in a big snoozy pig pile. 

Day 4

An early start this morning – up at 5.45 to meet at the jetty for a 6.30 boat ride into the oxbow lake. As we headed out into the gentle morning sunshine we turned into a narrow tributary of the river and drifted through a tunnel of green, as the lush foliage leaned into the light and met over our heads, and lilac water hyacinth reached out from the river banks to carpet the water’s surface. Everyone fell silent as we floated through a world of soft light and birdsong with playful monkeys and brilliantly coloured kingfishers punctuating the magical scene before us – an unforgettable moment. The spell was broken as we came out into the lush bowl of the oxbow lake where we enjoyed an early pre-breakfast of coffee and biscuits whilst Shirou told us the legend of the white crocodile – an explanation as to why locals are never killed by the saltwater crocodiles that frequent these waters. Little comfort to the tourists!
 

Breakfast was a little different today as upon returning to the lodge we made our way not to the dining area but along the board walks into the forest, where the staff had set up an al fresco kitchen. So we took breakfast in the jungle, competing for our food with the local monkey population. 

Although the staff made a heroic effort to fend off the forest foragers, they were not always successful and several folk lost toast, butter and sugar sachets to the crafty little opportunists!

Somewhat larger and very much slower was Junior, the forest pig who was no less the opportunist. He presented himself at the edge of the boardwalk, enjoying the crusts that he was obviously used to begging from staff and guests alike. 

There followed a wonderful hour of relaxation on the riverside decking, before hopping back into the boat to cross the river to Abai Village. The village has a population of around 200, sadly diminished from its original 500, and the Abai Lodge works closely with its people, offering support in return for the village’s tolerance of the tourists. The Abai tree planting project is part of this support. On arrival, we were each given a numbered identity tag made from recycled tin cans, then collected and tagged our small trees. The idea is that the saplings are then planted in an area of the jungle but, due to fact that elephant tracks had been spotted in that area, it was thought best that we plant them in a holding area to be relocated at a later date. Our saplings were umbrella trees, a beautiful tree when mature which provides a great habitat for many rainforest species. It would be wonderful to be able to return one day and see it, but if that is not possible at least we can track its progress online by means of the identity tag. 

As we returned to the the jetty shelter, the heavens opened and the trees were indeed ‘watered in’!  Shirou entertained us with stories of the river people and how the Abai village came to be established whilst the ladies of the village prepared us a wonderful hot lunch of curry, sticky rice, spicy aubergines, pak choi, green beans and chillis, all served up on banana leaves – delicious! As the rain abated we collected our certificate, complete with our names, tree ID numbers and email and Facebook addresses – typed out by one of the village ladies on a typewriter worthy of a museum place! What an incredible fusion of cultures! 

When we returned to the lodge it was time to collect our bags again, say our goodbyes and board the boat with our new guide, Lat, who would take us on to the Kinabatangan River Lodge.

So it was just the four of us that settled into our new boat with Lat and the driver and an hour’s journey ahead of us.  Lat explained that, should we see anything exciting, we would stop the boat but monkeys no longer rated as exciting – we had all seen plenty of them! As the boat slowed we were intrigued to see why we might be stopping – we had all been watching the river banks sliding by but none of us had seen anything unusual. I had been in the process of pointing out a particularly attractive tree to Mike but other than that..? As the boat stopped Lat pointed to aforementioned ‘particularly attractive tree’ and there amongst the branches a mother orangutan sat with her small baby, feasting on clusters of figs that hung from the branches! Oh the excitement! 

No points for my wildlife spotting skills – ah, the advantages of having a guide – priceless!

We watched as they casually grazed the fruits moving with such ease from one bunch to the next, always with one hand in contact with a branch as if ever ready for a hasty retreat. The baby was so cute – huge eyes and a shock of spiky orange hair standing on end.  Not as close as we had seen them at Sepilok but somehow so much more exciting.  There really is no substitute for seeing such a beautiful creature so at ease in its natural environment.  What a sighting!  Definitely one of the holiday’s highlights – so, so lucky!

The River Lodge did not disappoint either. On arrival we were greeted by the now expected cold towel and warm welcome but this time also by some local ladies playing traditional music on an array of gong-like instruments. As we relaxed and enjoyed the cool welcome drinks we had been handed, Lat gave us an entertaining demonstration of how to wear a sarong. We were then told that everyone would have a sarong in their rooms – ladies and gentlemen alike - and was encouraged to wear them to dinner. A source of amusement but also a lovely touch, as well as being very cool and comfortable, and it was lovely to see almost everyone wearing them at dinner later that night. Once again, lovely, clean, spacious rooms accessed along raised board walks through lovely gardens, but a warning this time to close the windows against the marauding monkeys!
 

Our time at the Kinabatangan River Lodge was not shared with others so we had Lat and our driver all to ourselves for the duration of our stay. Our first adventure was a late afternoon boat ride. We turned into the narrower and very pretty Menanggul River where the trees towered on huge, heavy buttress roots and sent tangles of smaller roots curling out into the water. A great environment for viewing birds, so numerous I can’t recall all their names! The mangrove-like riverside also provided great playgrounds for the monkeys and we spent a long time watching troupes of long tailed macaques at rest (optimistic adults) and at play (more successful youngsters)!  While the adults constantly groomed each other the babies and youngsters seemed to be everywhere, climbing and leaping from branches and swinging, Tarzan-like, from the vines and adults’ tails. Such fun to watch. It was a good start to this next stage of our holiday and on returning to our lodge, having almost mastered the art of tying a sarong, we enjoyed a hot buffet meal before taking a swift night cap and heading to bed, ready for another early start and a 6.30 morning river cruise. 

Day 5

Following a decent night’s sleep we met Lat for a quiet cuppa before heading out on the same route we took yesterday.  Along with a water monitor, the usual macaques and proboscis monkeys were in evidence and the bird sightings were very good – beautiful kingfishers, brightly coloured fly catchers, huge hornbills and, much to Lat’s excitement, a Bornean bristlehead.  A beautiful, brightly coloured bird, the emblem of the Bornean Birdwatching Society and apparently the ‘five star’ bird that all the birdwatchers want to see but very few do. 

It had been two years since Lat had seen one and our captain had never seen one – he couldn’t get over how lucky we were!

We returned to the lodge for breakfast on the riverside deck. Despite it being the busy season, the lodge seems very quiet and as we enjoyed our morning at leisure we barely saw other guests, and we were the only people to use the sunbeds overlooking the river. Here the wildlife sightings continued as we watched the black squirrels and brightly coloured sun birds and spider hunters busy in the trees, and spotted a small snake slither across the walk way. 

The lunch gong called us in for the now familiar buffet lunch of rice, curry and spiced vegetables, after which we went to the library to watch a short film on the orangutan and proboscis monkey. It was interesting and informative and the photography was lovely but I must confess, after the morning’s early start I did find myself nodding! Whilst in the library we could hear thunder and before we could re-take our relaxing spot on the decking the heavens opened and we had another torrential downpour which sent us running to our rooms. We sat on the bench under the covered porch between our two rooms and used the time to upload and review our photographs so far. 

It was still raining when our next boat ride was due so we met Lat at the dining area, where he suggested we take advantage of the freshly made banana fritters and a cup of tea to give the rain a chance to stop.  We did - it didn’t, so it was with satisfied tummies that we donned our ponchos and set out into the rain for our final river adventure. 

We expected our last boat ride to be something of an anti-climax given the weather conditions but it was not the case. It is definitely more difficult to spot things in the rain as your senses have become tuned to tiny movements or sounds within the canopy. Unfortunately the dripping rain has every leaf trembling and masks the sounds of movement, but it still proved to be a successful trip. We set off down the widest arc of the river in driving rain, but as we turned into the smaller tributaries the rain eased. The first sighting was of a very soggy bat-eared fish owl, followed by a rather bedraggled kigfisher, hornbills, purple herons, fish eagles and kites to name but a few. The grand finale was along a small tributary where Lat spotted the nose and eye bumps of a crocodile. A long tailed macaque stood on the river bank opposite calling the alarm to a troop in the tree above. From the size of the head, Lat judged the crocodile to be around 3 to 3 ½ meters long – that was a little unnerving given the size of our boat!  

As we looked from monkey to croc and back again from croc to monkey we glanced back and saw the croc had disappeared below the surface – our captain started the engine and we made a hasty retreat!

Back at the lodge we donned our sarongs for dinner one last time before retiring to one of our rooms for a night cap. The bar stock is limited and whilst a cold beer is always available there is a distinct absence of tonic water, so our duty free gin was coupled with lemonade! If buying duty free to take out my advice would be take something that mixes with coke or lemonade!

Day 6

Great excitement today as we say goodbye to the river and head for the Danum Valley! 

After bidding goodbye to Lat, our driver collected us for the journey to Lahad Datu, where the Borneo Rainforest Lodge office is situated. On arrival at the office you had the feeling you were heading somewhere special. We were greeted with coffee and biscuits and a chance to use the facilities whilst our luggage was transferred to the waiting air conditioned vehicle ready to take us to the Rainforest Lodge. Whilst enjoying our coffee we were presented with the lovely gift of a stainless steel water bottle (ready filled), bearing the picture of an orangutan or an elephant – a nice touch and lovely souvenir. As we headed into the valley it wasn’t long before the tarmac road gave way to a gravel track. As the town was left behind we were soon plunged into first secondary, then primary rainforest. As we drew closer to the lodge the scenery was very impressive, and there were signs of elephant in the trampled roadside grass and the droppings which were strewn across the road. The driver told us a herd had passed through the night before.

Finally, we came upon the lodge and were greeted with the now expected cold towel but also with a lovely palm leaf necklace. The lodge was stunning. We were whisked upstairs to enjoy their signature welcome drink – a delicious cocktail of lemon grass and ginger, among other things – in the bar. Throughout the holiday we had been very happy with the standard of accommodation. Not knowing what to expect, I think we had prepared for the worst and had been pleasantly surprised. The rainforest lodge certainly did not disappoint. The bar area was beautifully furnished with a central bar and high vaulted ceiling, open on all sides to take in views of the surrounding rainforest then stepping down to the dining room area which overlooked the river beyond the gardens and the steeply sloped forest beyond that. 

And the food – wow! After the tasty but rather repetitive diet of the previous days we were in for a treat. Again the meals were buffet style but the choices were many and all of a very high standard, with chefs standing by to cook fresh dishes to order. The well-stocked bar included a cocktail menu and a selection of beers and wines along with the usual spirits and the staff were beautifully presented, polite and attentive displaying the warm efficiency we had come to expect.  Again, the ‘bare feet’ policy was the order of the day with shoe racks positioned at the entrances of the public areas and guests going bare-foot from there. It is somehow very relaxing and makes you feel instantly at home. I would have happily stayed there for the duration of the holiday.

After a delicious lunch we were shown to our bungalows. From a small entrance area having shoe racks shelves, coat pegs and the safe, a now familiar polished wooden floor ran into the main area, this time with a single and double bed, sofa, coffee table and cupboard with tea and coffee making facilities. An electric diffuser filled the room with fragrant citronella to combat any invading mosquitos, whilst a small fridge chilled the complimentary soft drinks, (and the remainder of the duty free gin!). Sliding bamboo doors gave access to the bathroom, his and hers basins, WC and shower and, not least of all, a hairdryer! Whilst this particular item should not be of great importance on this sort of a holiday, it would be nice to combat the ‘Farrah Fawcett do’ the ever-present humidity seemed to insist I wear!

After settling in we made our way to the presentation room where we met our fellow guests and were given a brief introduction, including a slide show and short film, by Darryn who would be our guide for the duration of our stay. 

Then the long-awaited moment came for us to don our leech socks and set out for our first walk in the world’s oldest primary rainforest.

In the highest humidity I have ever experienced we set off in long trousers, long sleeves, boots, socks and leech socks. I know men should perspire and ladies should glow but we sweated! This, of course, was all to avoid ‘getting leeched’ and it worked – mostly! Whilst we remained leech-free our companions were not so lucky. A shirt not tucked into trousers and a blouse with a slight gape at the buttons was all the access they needed. 

Darryn proved to be another superb guide, very knowledgeable and easy company.  Our first foray into the forest was more about the flora than the fauna. Far from a stroll through the beautiful forest, it became an expedition through a hostile and menacing environment where every innocent-looking plant or shrub was potentially out to get you. Darryn gave us a fascinating insight into just how much of the forest’s vegetation has nasty ways of protecting itself – and spoiling your day. From huge thorns that can pierce thick layers of clothing to smaller ones that work their way deeper into your flesh. Some excrete poisons, which in the past have been put to good use by hunters who have used the to coat arrow and spear heads. Of course, others are far less threatening and have been used by man to make medicines, dyes, food flavourings and, in the case of the huge buttress roots of the dipterocarps, as hiding places from elephants. As Darryn pointed out, it is perhaps the plants that are more dangerous than the animals. Mostly the animals will avoid human contact if possible, plants on the other hand will not run away. They can either cure your ailments or give you a very bad day!

We also learned a little more about the history of Borneo’s people. Unlike our previous guides who had been river people, Darryn hailed from a head hunter tribe, although he was a self-proclaimed ‘city boy’. Shockingly, the tradition of head hunting was practised as recently as the 1950s, with human heads being collected as a testimony to one’s strength and bravery. Often used as part of a dowry, the presentation of a head to the bride’s family was proof of a man’s worth (if the man was found acceptable and the wedding took place this would be a long affair, lasting at least a week and including the entire village).

Unfortunately the river people, being peaceful fishermen, were easy targets for the head hunters and Shirou had told us previously that this was how the Abai village came to be established. The river people had been forced to move on to escape persecution by the head hunters. The word ‘Abai’ means ‘I have found it’, although in a different tribal language it can also mean ‘abandoned’.

After a lovely dinner back at the lodge we climbed aboard the truck and set off on our night safari. Darryn was at the front firing the search light at great speed through the canopy and along the roadside. Our first sighting was samba deer at the roadside, which quickly disappeared into the undergrowth, then a flying squirrel was spotted scurrying around a tree before taking fight. The sky was clear, the moon was full and the forest was enchanting. 

Suddenly, the truck stopped and backed up a little. We all gazed around excitedly, straining to see through the darkness whatever it was our sharp-eyed guide had spotted. Darryn aimed the spotight at a tall straight tree. There was a slight bump on one side of the trunk.  

As the spotlight focused on the ‘bump’ a beautiful spotted coat was revealed – it was a marbled cat. 

Not the clouded leopard every visitor hopes to see but apparently even more rare and equally beautiful. Pinned under the light he turned his head to look at us and gave us a perfect view of his beautiful face before he shimmied backwards down the tree, showing off his exquisitely spotted coat and long thick tail before disappearing from sight.  What a treat and what a way to end our first day in the Danum Valley. How lucky are we!

Day 7

We took breakfast at 7, ready to meet Darryn and head out along the coffin trail and up to the viewpoint overlooking the valley. From the dining room you can see the railings at the viewpoint – and it looks incredibly high up! Once again togged up in all our leech-evading gear and ready for our 4-5 hour trek we set off into the forest (just the four of us with our guide). We soon came to two suspended bridges which took us over the river. From there the path began to climb steadily through the forest. Although the heat and humidity saps your strength the climb was not difficult. Steps were cut into many parts of the path and in other parts nature provided her own, with tree roots criss-crossing the path and providing purchase in the damp undergrowth.  

We had all collected sticks from the lodge before setting off and they were certainly helpful when it grew slippery underfoot. As the heat and humidity grew we all found ourselves ‘glowing’ profusely. Thankfully there is always an interesting plant/fungus/view to stop and admire and take a sip of water whilst getting your breath back.  As we reached the limestone cliff face at the top of the coffin trail, steps led up to a small wooden platform that stood against the rock. The limestone is perforated with holes into which the local tribes inserted the coffins of their dead. Some remains can still be seen.

The next part of the climb was a little more taxing. By this time the heat had really begun to sap our strength and the trail became steeper and more uneven. There are ropes alongside the path in some places but I was always a little afraid to lay my hands on them as they were frequented by ants and heaven knows what other sorts of beasties in several places. After a final scramble over some large rocks we reached the viewing platform and yes, the view was worth the climb. We stood overlooking the valley with spectacular views over forest and river. Our lodge nestled below us in the river’s bend and forest stretched as far as the eye could see to the hills beyond. We rested for a while at the platform, getting our breath back and soaking up the incredible views.

The descent wasn’t too bad, just a little hard on middle-aged knees!  We dropped down to a beautiful stretch of river with a small waterfall – and wished we had our swimwear. A big mistake, although Darryn did say we were only 10 minutes from the lodge if we wanted to go in wearing our clothes. We probably couldn’t have got much wetter than we already were, it was just the footwear that stopped us. The thought of having to dry our walking boots in time for the next walk or going in barefoot whilst in leech territory kept us on dry land! We took a lovely route back to the lodge along the river bank and had our first and only sightings of a gibbon and a rhinocerous hornbill in the trees on the opposite bank. It was only as the hornbill alighted on the same branch as the gibbon giving a sense of scale that we realised just how enormous these birds really are. We returned to the lodge for a cool shower and a cold beer. It turned out our companion had once again brought a little blood-sucking hitch-hiker back with her!

As my husband had developed a slightly unreliable stomach we decided not to partake in the afternoon’s activity of tubing down the river. Instead we enjoyed a leisurely lunch watching the beautiful birds. Bee eaters, kingfishers, spider hunters and flowerpeckers frequent the gardens around the restaurant. A large water monitor is a regular visitor to the gardens and the whole area, indoor and out, plays host to dozens of geckos. After lunch we returned to our balcony to sunbathe, relax and watch the beautiful jewel-coloured flowerpeckers in the gardens behind our bungalow. 

However, as we settled onto our balcony the heavens opened and the thunder rolled in. The balconies are sheltered and even with the rain there is no drop in temperature so there was no need to change our position or even our clothing. We just enjoyed a spectacular storm instead of the sunshine!  Our friends had gone tubing and been caught in the storm. Whilst they said it was great fun, the guides had a little concern about the possibility of flash flooding and whilst I am sure they would have fetched them in had there been any serious threat, being somewhat water shy I found I was not disappointed to have missed the experience!

The rain stopped and after dinner we headed out for a night walk, joined by two other ladies.  It was rather muddy underfoot and as we left the track and cut into the forest the trees were dripping all around us. With just the torch light it was incredibly atmospheric although we did have to keep stopping for a quick leech check! The first thing we saw were tiny scorpions which shone bright green in the beam of Darryn’s UV light. He told us although they were tiny, one bite could make you sleep for a week! Coming back out into the open, samba deer were grazing and a large forest pig was routing nearby. Darryn pointed out a huge centipede on a tree trunk and picked up a trilobyte beetle, apparently pre-historic, for us to examine.  

Back on the forest path again we turned out the torches and stood in the darkness listening to the incredible night sounds of the forest all around us. The darkness was not total as a misty full moon floated above the canopy. Further along the path a huge moth alighted in front of us as we made our way to the small bridge that crossed what we came to call ‘the frog pond’. The frogs were in fine voice, singing at the top of their lungs and as we stood on the bridge overlooking the water several frogs could be seen in the foliage. There were harlequin frogs and the more rare cinnamon frog. A small brown snake gliding through the water at the pond’s edge concluded our sightings for the day. 

A night cap on our balcony, enveloped by the jungle’s sound whilst updating my journal with the day’s events was a wonderful way to end the evening.

Day 8

An early start again today, meeting Darryn at 6.30 to walk up to the suspended bridges. The mist was thick and hung heavily over the river, but as the sun began to rise shafts of light cut through the mist, creating an ethereal fairy tale forest. It was so beautiful, filling the senses with light and sound as the mist slowly dissipated to reveal the full splendour of the forest.  Gazing up at the majesty of the trees that surround you makes you feel in one way small and insignificant, yet so immersed by the forest itself, a part of something enormous and wonderful.

As the canopy was slowly revealed to us a troop of red leaf monkeys, or langurs, were busy gathering breakfast in the dappled sunlight above. They are beautiful creatures, bright coppery red in the sun and they put on a great display for us, leaping from tree to tree, literally throwing themselves from one tree and cartwheeling through the air before dropping into a lower one. Forest acrobats!

Arriving at the canopy walk we ascended a network of suspended bridges that led us gradually higher into the canopy. By now the sun had risen and only small pockets of mist remained trapped between the trees. As we reached the highest point, 30 metres, we could stand on the viewing platform and look down at the canopy below us, as well as looking up into the canopy of those trees which still, even at this height, towered above us. We had no more wildlife encounters but the views were magical.

Back from the wilderness to the luxury of the lodge’s dining room and we enjoyed a superb breakfast, all the better for having worked up an appetite, before once again reaching for the leech socks and heading out into the forest. Darryn was on a mission to find us orangutan. It was the last day of the holiday for the two ladies who had joined us on our night walk and they had yet to see orangutan in the wild, so hopes were high. 

We followed the path for a little way before Darryn told us we were leaving the path and we headed ‘off road’, picking our way through the undergrowth with an increasing sense of anticipation – of seeing orangutan or impending leech attack, I’m not sure which! Finally, Darryn called a halt and pointed up into a tree telling us there was an orangutan. Gathered around the buttress roots of a huge tree we all searched desperately with our binoculars, senses straining to pick up movement in the canopy above but we could see nothing. Then, as the breeze parted the leaves, the sun illuminated a tantalizing flash of orange hair – it was barely more than a tiny blob and we would never have spotted it on our own. With our target now in our sites all we could do was wait and hope that it revealed itself to us in more detail...

Sure enough, our patience was rewarded. A rustle in the canopy alerted us to movement and the bright furry body of a large female appeared along a branch, closely followed by that of her offspring.

They swung effortlessly down through the canopy giving us a wonderful view, before heading off deeper into the forest. We were able to track their progress for a short distance but they quickly outpaced us, moving far more efficiently through the forest than we could ever dream of. Returning to the lodge for lunch, the lure of a cold beer in the bar proved too much to resist and we met and shared lunch with the other two members of our group, who were celebrating having managed a wild orangutan sighting on their last day. 

The rest of the afternoon passed in sociable relaxation and although there was an opportunity for a final night walk, I’m afraid to say given the choice of getting back into walking boots and heading out again or celebrating our last night here with a cocktail and relaxed last dinner at this lovely lodge, the decision was unanimous. The tenderest beef with peanuts, delicious fragrant spiced rice and vegetables in coconut gravy followed by the most succulent pineapple ever tasted was a fitting way to end our stay at this luxurious rainforest lodge. The thunderous rain that bucketed down in the night was a firm reminder that, despite luxurious surroundings we were still in the middle of the rainforest! 

Day 9

We chose to rise early again today to walk up to the suspended bridges by ourselves.  Stopping to watch the langurs the previous day had delayed us enough to miss seeing the sunrise from the bridges, so we set off early and climbed up into the canopy to watch the mists dissolve slowly into the forest. We met a group of four at the high point but apart from that we were completely alone – just the two of us and the forest stretching out for miles around. We could have been the only people on earth. As the sun gained height and the mist burned away all that could be heard was the now familiar sounds of the forest inhabitants and the constant clicking of our cameras!

Unfortunately, the euphoric mood was shattered upon returning for breakfast as we were told that today’s onward flight to Kota Kinabalu had been cancelled, but we still had to check out of the lodge and return to Lahad Datu, where we would re-book a flight for the following morning and be found accommodation for the night. Not the news we wanted to hear but another reminder of where we were and how everyone here is at the mercy of the weather.  In such a situation there is no point in complaining, just put on a brave face and make the most of it. So it was again with sadness and this time a little disappointment that we left the lodge, with the wonderful staff gathered to wave us off. However, on arrival at the airport our driver told us to stay put whilst he went to find out what the situation was. After a few minutes he reappeared and pulled our bags from the back of the vehicle – the flight was reinstated! That was lucky!  A short wait at the tiny airport (with somewhat relaxed security), and we were on a small turbo prop plane on the last leg of our adventure – the relaxing part!

A small hitch at KK airport when there was no one there to meet us – presumably they were still under the impression the flight was cancelled. A phone call to the tour operator soon sorted things out and our driver was there in no time. By now it was fully dark so we were unable to get a good look at KK, but it left the impression of being a busy, vibrant town. 

Around an hour’s drive from the airport brought us into the long, lamp-lit drive that wound through the manicured grounds leading up to the Rasa Ria’s garden wing, where a beautifully attired bell boy took our bags and announced our arrival in traditional fashion by striking the large gong in the entrance. We swapped our passports for a cool welcome drink and relaxed, taking in our new surroundings as a member of staff took our documents and checked us in. The hotel looked impressive – a huge open lobby area, clean, shining marble floors, enormous rugs, soft sofas. So far, so good. Andrew then returned with our passports and registration forms and told us of a special offer to upgrade to the hotel’s Ocean Wing.  For a small extra payment the Ocean Wing offered superior rooms, larger balconies, free a la carte breakfast in a restaurant exclusive to Ocean Wing residents, free mini bar, free cocktail and canapes between 5.30 and 6.30, free choice of pillow from the “pillow menu”, free choice of bath from the “bath menu” and the wing’s own swimming pool and outdoor jacuzzi for the exclusive use of Ocean Wing residents. We were in celebratory mood – we said yes! 

So it was back in the car and heading up the drive again to the Ocean Wing. Had we made the right decision?  Oh yes! The rooms were lovely, beautifully furnished, spacious, well-stocked mini bar, fresh fruit bowl and biscuits. A huge picture window gave views over the grounds to the beach beyond, which could be enjoyed whilst lying in bed. Double patio doors opened out onto the balcony where coffee table and chairs, a huge day bed and an enormous tiled jacuzzi bath awaited us. The balcony overlooked the swimming pool, the outdoor jacuzzi which was the size of a swimming pool, and the perfectly maintained gardens, beyond which lay the wide, sandy beach. 

We had begun the day in our wonderful rustic, stilted bungalow in primary rainforest and ended it in a luxurious ocean-side hotel – it felt a little surreal.

Hot, tired and lacking enthusiasm to shower, change and head out to the restaurants, we dumped our luggage and settled on the balcony to watch the thunder storm that was rumbling out to sea whilst satisfying our hunger with beer, crisps, fruit and biscuits from the mini bar, before heading to bed. 

Day 10

Waking at 6 a.m., we stepped out onto the balcony to see the sun rising in an almost cloudless sky. It was already incredibly warm and we enjoyed a coffee on the balcony watching a small army of gardeners sweeping, pruning and tidying the gardens whilst on the beach beyond the sand was being neatly groomed. Such a contrast to the wonderful spontaneous, unregimented disarray of the rain forest.

We took a table on the terrace of the Oceano Restaurant, which looked out over the beautiful gardens. The grounds were buzzing with little birds, the bravest of which did not miss an opportunity to snatch a wayward crumb from the dining area. The waiter brought coffee and the a la carte menu. My choice was eggs benedict – delicious. We were then offered the ‘smoothie of the day’ – today’s being dragon fruit – and the opportunity to select from the astonishing array of breakfast dishes on offer. There was everything I could possibly have imagined and probably more. From cornflakes to curry, dim sum to doughnuts, several cooking stations with immaculate chefs cooking up omelettes, pancakes, noodles to name but a few. There were piles of fresh fruit waiting to be freshly squeezed and for the less health conscious a table positively groaning with breads, cakes and pastries. Mind boggling!

A stroll along the beach to the water’s edge did little to burn off our early morning calorie intake but it did reveal a huge expanse of wide, clean, sandy beach. Unfortunately, the tide line revealed evidence of a sea populated by jellyfish so any swimming would definitely take place in the pool. 

After the busy schedule of the previous days it was very relaxing to stretch out on a sun bed.  There are plenty of sunbeds arranged around the pool and gardens with attentive staff handing out towels and bottles of cold water which are presented in cool boxes. It was so quiet, there seemed to be very few guests and we chose a couple of sun beds under one of the huge parasols. A word of warning – just because you are under the shade of a parasol does not mean you are safe from sunburn! A member of staff approached us to ask if we were happy with our rooms and breakfast. Our only complaints were that we had no matches with which to light the mosquito coils provided on our balcony, and the slight niggle that although our mini bar was well stocked and replenished daily, there was only beer or soft drinks with nothing alcoholic for the ladies. On returning to our room later that morning we found an ice bucket with a bottle of white wine and two wine glasses awaiting us!

As with every place we have stayed on this trip, the staff are wonderful. They are friendly and attentive and you feel it is genuinely important to them that you are happy.

Every staff member in the restaurants make a point of saying thank you and goodbye, be they chefs or waiters, whether they have served your or not.  Their traditional greeting is to place the right hand over the heart to give meaning – ‘from the heart’ - to the words. It is somehow very touching.

Following our breakfast we needed little else to eat during the day and nibbled on the lovely fresh and dried fruit assortment and peanuts from the mini bar to see us through to 5.30, when we headed down for our cocktail and canapes. They were served in a lovely cocktail bar overlooking a beautiful courtyard, and what we had understood to be a free cocktail at some time between 5.30pm and 6.30pm turned out to be a choice of drinks from the menu served continuously between 5.30pm and 6.30pm! Us girls chose gin and tonic and the first question was ‘would you like a single or a double?’ At this point we still believed we were only entitled to one free drink so of course we chose a double! The boys had a glass of wine and the drinks arrived with a plate of delicate, delicious canapes. It was only when a waiter passed and topped up their half empty (no, half full I think!) glasses that we realised our mistake. The G&Ts kept coming and the boys didn’t see the bottom of their wine gasses for a whole hour. At 6.25pm we were told ‘the bar will be closing in 5 minutes, may we get you a last drink?’

Following a lovely meal at the Oceano we returned to our rooms to find our bath had been filled and mineral scented water steamed invitingly from the balcony. We climbed into the lovely soothing waters and reflected on how lucky we had been to have the opportunity to upgrade. The free mini bar, free drinks and free mineral/rose petal baths alone had gone a long way to making up for the extra amount paid. Yes, we’d definitely been lucky.

Day 11

We woke at 3 a.m. to a terrific thunderstorm. A press of the button sent the electronic blind sliding up so we could lay in bed and watch the flashes of lightning illuminating the sky. The morning dawned with cloudy skies but still very warm. We had an early breakfast then took our cameras and walked through the gardens to explore the Garden Wing. There is a good choice of restaurants at this end of the hotel and we had decided we would eat at the Indian that night. Unfortunately it was the only day of the week it was closed. There was an interesting street food restaurant which consisted of several ‘shacks’ surrounding a central area of outdoor tables, each serving a different style of street food, so that became our second choice. Our friends had booked a table at the coffee bar for that night but as we walked through it we weren’t really inspired.

There is no doubt this hotel is very nice but as people began to emerge from their rooms it became obvious that this end of the complex was so much busier than ours. The balconies are much smaller with just room for a small table and two chairs, the pool area is so much busier and there was a very noisy game of water polo taking place. Quite a contrast to our quiet, lazy end. It was with a feeling of smug satisfaction that we headed back to our peaceful sunbeds and enjoyed our books, a cool-box of chilled water and beer and fruit, cashew nuts and Pringles from the mini bar! A small water monitor and the beautiful little zebra doves only added to the sense of tranquillity. 

Later at the cocktail bar we enjoyed the cocktail of the day - white rum, mango, lime and soda - before heading out for our evening meal (a quick dash back to the room was required for a reapplication of insect repellent as there seemed to be a sudden invasion of some sort of flying ant – the first insect problem we had experienced all holiday).  When asking reception to book us a table for dinner earlier in the day, we discovered that the street food restaurant was fully booked. Our friends had second thoughts about the coffee bar so we ended up taking the only tables that were still free – at the Japanese Tepanyaki restaurant. It was a small restaurant, comfortably busy with just enough people to provide atmosphere. 

The seating was arranged around three cooking stations where the chefs prepared the food in front of you and a range of set menus were offered. Having chosen our menu we were wonderfully entertained as we watched our chefs preparing the food for us. The chefs are also great entertainers, showing off their skills with a comic twist, building egg towers, drawing pictures on the hot plates with egg whites and juggling spatulas and condiments reminiscent of a scene from ‘Cocktail’. On top of that, the food was absolutely delicious! It was  good food and entertainment all rolled into one and the perfect way to spend the last evening of our holiday. Lucky for us the street food restaurant was fully booked otherwise we would have missed this great experience. 

Returning to the balcony we enjoyed our cold wine in a hot rose petal bath as the rain began, the thunder rolled and lightning illuminated the gardens below us.

Day 12

Our last day. We woke around 6 and took a cup of tea out on the balcony for the last time, watching the munias gathering nesting material amongst the palms and trying to burn the scene into our memories, to be replayed during the cold English days ahead! With packing done we headed to the jacuzzi for a pre-breakfast dip. If the word jacuzzi conjures up the image of a hot tub, think again! This is actually the size of a swimming pool, with water jets along a shallow shelf looking out towards the beach – and we had it all to ourselves. It was blissful! 

Bags packed and check-out completed we waited in the huge lobby for our transport to collect us and take us to the airport. The staff were busy. Trays of cold welcome drinks were positioned on tables and piles of cold towels were ready to be handed out to new arrivals. As we watched, mini buses arrived, one after the other, disgorging small groups of passengers, two, three, four at a time. The staff scurried through the lobby handing out drinks, towels, taking bags and cases and the welcome gong went into overdrive! Very soon the huge lobby area was buzzing with new arrivals. As we watched the lobby fill with bodies we could only imagine the scene around the pool and in the Oceano in the following days. If this was the day we were arriving instead of the day we were leaving our experience at the Rasa Ria would have been very different. We had been so lucky!

When our transport arrived we collected our bags and climbed aboard, having already said our goodbyes. We could see the staff were already very busy with the influx of new arrivals so it was to our great surprise and pleasure that as we settled into our seats the new arrivals were suddenly abandoned as the staff appeared from between them and lined up along the curb to wave us goodbye! It was the simplest, sincerest and most touching send off we could have wished for. 

So that was Borneo: forest, river and beach. It has been a wonderful holiday and a great adventure. We have done and seen so much with a wonderful variety of activities, accommodation, wildlife and weather. We knew we would love the wildlife, expected to love the country but never imagined how much we would love the people and what a great impression they would leave.  

It is, without doubt, an experience I will never forget. Thank you NWS!

BOOK YOUR BORNEO SAFARI

Contact our destination specialist to start planning your journey.

Contact Us

Add your comment

You are being redirected. Click here if this takes longer than a few seconds.