Wild heart of… Borneo
It’s 4.30 in the morning and I am woken up by what sounds like a troop of Borneo pygmy elephants trampling the corridors outside my room. In actual fact, it’s fellow masochists springing into life at this ungodly hour to see some Borneo beasties at their very best.
And soon, as the longboat probes the mangroved estuaries and water hyacinth-dabbed oxbow lakes of the Lower Kinabatangan river, we get to spot several of Borneo’s most awe-inspiring species, including those most under threat. The Kinabatangan is the longest river flowing through Sabah (and the second longest in Malaysia), and is one of the easiest way to access wildlife watching in the country.
A dozen beer-bellied, big-nosed, proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) sit timidly, high in the trees. While a shaggy orange haired, gregarious orang utan hangs from his perch: fists full of fruit, he has what could easily be taken as a grin on his face. We also hear, though don’t see, an agile gibbon, whose whooping song is one of the most evocative of the forest, audible up to 2km away. The other sound that thrills is that of the hornbills swooshing overhead, the powerful birds earn their name from their large casque-topped colourful beaks.
Swinging orang utan
The 200 plus bird species in the Kinabatangan floodplain include all eight of Borneo’s hornbill species: from the white-crowned and bushy-crested to the wreathed, wrinkled and oriental pied varieties, and the two largest kinds: the helmeted (Buceros vigil) and rhinoceros hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros). The rareness of such sightings heightens the intensely magical mood of these wildlife watching trips on the oxbow lakes: the tranquil, disconnected river bends distended in immense pools, teeming with insect and bird life. As the sun rises, we make our way through pleats of rising mist, swerving between swathes of mauve hyacinths.
The 560km-long Sungai Kinabatangan is Malaysia’s second longest river. The journey to reach it starts in a speedboat, from Sabah’s north coast city of Sandakan, whose creaky water villages throw rich hues and reflections over Sandakan Bay, dotted with old world fishing vessels and islands.
Over the next 40 minutes, we teeter on our seats as we whizz along the coast before darting up the Lower Kinabatangan. There’s a sense of leaving this planet and journeying to a uniquely special place, as we swerve around the huge serpentine bends of the Kinabatangan’s widening floodplain. Occasionally the boat grinds to a halt, as our eagle-eyed guides spot crocodiles, orang utans and even a luminous green pit viper.
The mangrove and freshwater swamp environments of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary are not just home to monkeys and apes, but also an important habitat for pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinoceroses, Wallace’s hawk-eagles, kingfishers and Storm’s storks. WWF reports it one of only two places in the world where 10 primate species can be found; you have to stay at least a night to fully wallow in its wonders and maximise your chance of sightings.
Towards sunset we board longboats for further wildlife excursions through the fig-, orchid- and rattan-entwined riverine environment. On a late night sortie, the mangrove trees are lit up like Christmas trees, as male fireflies turn on a glittering love display: using their enzyme-altered, luminous green-yellow abdomens to attract mates.
I leave without having seen a top-of-the-wish-list critter – a pygmy elephant – but vowing to return for another go.
Pygmy elephant bathing
From Sukau in the Kinabatangan area, we travel south to another of Borneo’s biodiversity hotspots, the Danum Valley Conservation Area. This 438 sq km zone is home to one of the largest remaining areas of old growth rainforest. Also to 4,000 orang utans: the world’s largest population of the primate, which only live in Borneo and Sumatra.
A stay at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge offers an impressive inventory of possible wildlife sightings: gibbons, slow lorises, ET-eyed western tarsiers, bearded pigs, sambar deer, rhinoceros hornbills, clouded leopards and a wondrous diversity of birds. One morning while eating breakfast, there is a cacophony as a huge mob of red leaf monkeys (also known as maroon langurs) invade the surrounding walkways and trees. Their punk rocker, fiery orange hairstyle and nimbleness make them natural naughty little monkeys.
Red Leaf monkey
The following day I get the most unexpected buzz. Returning from a solo trek through the spectacular Canopy Walk – a 26-metre-high forest trapeze through the tips of the towering silvery grey mengaris, or honeybee, trees - I stumble upon an orang utan grazing in the lower branches of a tree. The whole rain forest is alive with natural wonders.
Mother orang utan and baby
Leaving Danum, we narrowly miss seeing a pygmy elephant – the flash of a tail and cushion-sized paw print at the side of the road is the only evidence of its passage, but it is enough to feel some of the wonder of its endangered existence. Hunted for their tusks, there remain just a few hundred of these unique durian-loving creatures.
From Lahad Datu, we fly to Kuching, capital of Malaysian Borneo’s southern state of Sarawak. With its airs of an old Chinese trading town, the city’s charm emanates from the Sungai Sarawak River. Little peak-capped tambang boats ply the river, sporting Lipton Tea and other faded signs on their wooden roofs. We climb aboard to visit the downstream markets, dine in restaurants of the Malay kampung – the villages on the opposite river bank – and float downstream past the golden cupolas of the old mosque, Masjid Lama, a perfect piece of Arabia on the Kuching skyline.
Masjid Negara mosque, Kuching
A day trip to the Taman Bako National Park north of Kuching turns into yet another moving, mystical voyage, as we speed along the Sungai Tabo to arrive in this mangrove and peat swamp-filled haven for pendulous nosed proboscises. Even with only a few hours on our hands, we manage to complete the return trek to Telok Pandan Kecil, take a dip, and spot the famous cobra-headed rock formation, the Sea Stack off the coast.
Sunset along the river in Kuching
The next day we head south, towards the Indonesian border. The Sri Aman district is the heartland of Sarawak’s most populous tribe, the Iban, and some of the most remote spellbinding river journeys into former head-hunting territory. Along the way, we make a pit stop at Serian, a small market town distinguished by its Big Durian statue and undercover tamu (market). Here we buy fruit and delicious pisang goring – fried banana.
Soon we come to the jetty on the Batang Ai dam. This is the launch pad for many remote longhouse communities deep within the park.
The Iban are the most incredibly boat savvy people, manoeuvring their way up river, whatever the conditions, during the wet season’s rising waters and currents, or as now, the dry season’s low water. On outings with Iban trekkers and guides – Nam, Apau and Apong – we go foraging for fish and edible plants, barbecuing them in hollowed bamboo.
Though we get only to hear, not see, orang utans, there isn’t any room for disappointment: on deep forest walks and two to four-hour longboat journeys, I feel I have come as close as modernly possible to reliving a slice of Redmond O’Hanlon’s 1983 classic Into the Heart of Borneo adventure.
You cannot expect to experience all Borneo’s natural treasures in one trip, and so on a more recent visit in October, I venture back to the Kinabatangan. The optimism of a pygmy elephant sighting is high at this time of year. Sure enough, on one late afternoon cruise, we encounter a large herd of adults and babies, grazing, bathing and swilling ebulliently on the muddy riverbanks. The charismatic creatures seem unfazed by our presence and I get to take photos from within an arm’s reach.
As the fight continues to preserve what the WWF calls ‘the least-understood elephants in the world’ – and their habitat – this encounter, along with so many unique Borneo memories, continues to stay with me.
Most tours of Borneo will finish in Kota Kinabalu, and when there Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort & Spa is a perfect place to relax. It's a complete contrast to the jungle, set alongside the spectacular Sabah coast and surrounded by 160 hectares of tropical gardens. With luxurious accommodation and numerous dining options, it's an experience of a different kind – though no less spectacular.
You can see the wilds of Borneo on Cox & Kings' Splendours of Borneo tour >