For a few years I’ve been craving a rainforest adventure: hiking lush, green mountains, listening only to the sounds one of the oldest forests in the world and discovering plants and maybe even threatened animals in their natural habitat. My biggest hope was to see a wild Orang Utan swinging from one branch to another. When we found out that my partner would be moving again to Singapore for a few months, the destination was set: Borneo, the world’s third largest island.

Well, as my travel companion is not such a biologist and alpinist at heart as I like to consider myself, I found a perfect compromise: a four-day river safari along the Kinabatangan river and a half-day visit at Mount Kinabalu National Park in the Malaysian state of Sabah! The Indonesian part of Borneo was not considered for a visit as basically the whole Indonesian part was burnt for farming. While the international press only looked at the burnings at the Amazon, the consequences of these fires were also tangible on an international level: fume hit dangerous levels in Malaysia, other parts of Indonesia and also Singapore. For a week I barely went outside because of the haze when I visited the city state. Not only would travels to these areas be unsafe but the little left-over forests among the palm oil plantations would have been burnt. North-eastern Malaysia is not remote as I was thinking a first, but there was no shortage of green scenery and lots of animal activity!

The “big three” to look for there are crocodiles (ranging from tiny to large), Orang Utans and Pygmy elephants. We crossed off crocodiles quickly when we started our 2,5-hour boat tour to the lodge, but had to wait until the very last day to see wild Orang Utans. Our tour group was already quite disappointed, we finished our last river Safari already and were on our only car-based road trip to the Gomatong Caves. Suddenly Sandy, one of our Aussie group members, shouted that she saw one! We immediately stopped and there she was – hanging out in the canopy, eating, and later swinging between trees. The slope next to the street was quite deep, so the canopies were almost on our level, and thus she was easy to watch. We were all in awe, close to tears, and of course takings tons of photos. If there was a Champaign bottle, we would have opened it. Although we were at the Sepilok rescue and research center for Orang Utans and Sun Bears a few days earlier, it’s just not the same.

The visit to the Gomatong caves, famous for the formation of bats when they fly out and the collection of its edible swallow nests, was very rewarding. We stopped a few more times to see another two Orang Utans, a Read Leaf Monkey, boars and dozens of flying squirrels in action. They were super fun to watch gliding from one branch to another! For a moment I thought this must be Eden. We just were not lucky with the elephants. Arriving at the caves, its height was astounding. One need nerves of steel to enter the cave: the smell was terrible and literally everything (bottom, walls, even the handrails) was covered in huge cockroaches.

But let me get back to the river safari, the main activity of this trip. Especially wonderful were the boat trips when there was mist over the river or between trees and the motor was switched off. So peaceful and magical. Every early morning, late afternoon and at night we took off by boat with our guide and set travel group to watch a variety of beautiful big and small birds and of course many monkeys. Sabah is famous for the Proboscis monkeys. Just looking at photos I did not think they were beautiful animals, but all animals become beautiful to you once you see them in the wild, I think. See my photos below for my best “catches”.

I brought along my new camera and a new telephoto lens. It surely was not easy to photograph the animals in the forest. They were often far away up in the canopies, the animals were in the shadow of the canopies and then we often went on Safari at twilight – when the lighting situation is often difficult but the animals most active. Documenting the animals here surely also taught me a few new names of species and I actually feel a little more like a biologist now. Ha! (Text continous below)

On our way back from the River Safari to Singapore, we had a two-night layover at Kota Kinabalu. I was torn until last minute between either snorkeling or peeking at the Kinabalu mountain. The mountain it was! However, it was literally only a peak at the mountain since it was soon covered in clouds when we arrived. As we did not plan to hike the mountain (it takes at least two days and a timely application for a permit), we hiked a little bit at its foot in the National Park. There are a few hiking trails, perfect to get your feet going after sitting in a boat for days. It was good but to be honest, except spotting the gorgeous Whitehead’s Trogon it was not a spectacular. Clouds came in early, no view, and little new fauna to discover for me personally. I also felt tired quickly, if it was because of the sudden rise in altitude or my bad stamina remains a mystery. Before we flew out the next day, we relaxed at the perfect Dalit beach.

Sabah is for sure worth a second visit – next time I would love to hike Mount Kinabalu and trek in the heart of the jungle at Danum Valley or the Maliau Basin. More basic, surely exhausting but also a lot more secluded and rewarding. Hopefully I can also add a visit to an island at the northern tip or in the east of Sabah, once the political situation with the Philippines calms down – and my chances are zero to be kidnapped. This is where pirates are still around!

Who is up to join me for a camping and trekking version of my last trip? Hopefully the pictures inspire you…


Who did we travel with?

While I usually enjoy organizing my travels independently, for this specific area and in regards to a busy schedule before flying out, I chose to travel with a tour operator for the river safari. We booked the Orang Utan Search with Borneo Eco Tours. Borneo Eco Tours was easy to communicate with, perfectly organized and had friendly and knowledgeable staff. Booking with them you also invest at least a tiny bit into the NPO BEST that develops sustainable development and conversation projects. We stayed at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. It is gorgeous: the rooms are high quality and can compare with any other top-nudge hotel, the food is good (go for the amazing local food!) and the staff is friendly and – again! – knowledgeable. They captivate you with their Orang Utan research results and help you spot animals right at the lodge. The only suggestion for improvement I have is to exchange the loud and smelly motors with electrical motors. They would allow noise-free Safaris and would benefit both animals and travelers.

How to support the conservation of the rainforest?

Honestly, I also wanted to visit Borneo’s rainforest as quickly as possible because who knows for how much longer we can see the Orang Utan in the wild or have vast landscapes of rainforest at all there. There are several ways to support conserving the rainforest and its animal kingdom. Here I want to highlight the World Land Trust who collaborate with local organizations and help acquiring threatened areas and managing them, amongst other activities. Get informed and please consider supporting WLT or its partners.  

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