A Wild Adventure in Borneo

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 “So which country produces the best hikers?” I asked. “Slovenia!” replied Ryan, our guide, as he nonchalantly spun his index finger around his belly button to dislodge a tiger leech embedded there. We were in the Danum Valley Conservation Area in Borneo, dressed from top to toe in leech-proof hiking gear (although it seems one snuck through), in one of the world’s most remote rainforests and best places for viewing wildlife.

As the third largest island in the world, Borneo is shared by three countries: Indonesia, Brunei, and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. While much of it has been tamed by logging and palm oil plantations, it remains one of the most dramatic and exciting destinations. It is an island of dense prime growth rainforest, indigenous tribes, and abundant birdlife and mammals including pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, gibbons, orang-utans, and proboscis monkeys.

On the Trail of Orang-utans

I had persuaded my 17-year-old daughter Nicky to come with me on a journey to search for orang-utans that began in Kota Kinabalu. At the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort we discovered three well cared-for baby orang-utans who would swing down from the jungle canopy of the resort’s expansive nature reserve for their daily feeding. In collaboration with the State Wildlife Department, the resort facilitates rehabilitation programs for endangered species.

Our next move was a six-hour bus ride that took us past majestic Mount Kinabalu before depositing us in Sandakan, a bustling, vibrant city where we stocked up on leech socks. During World War II over 2,600 Australian and British POWs were interned here by the Japanese. Forced to walk through dense jungle, only six Australians survived, and a memorial honours those who died.

Next morning, we visited the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, a 4,500-hectare reserve for rescued orang-utans. The orang-utan gets its name from the Malay words for “man” (orang) and “jungle” (utan). Found only on Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, orphaned orang-utans rescued from illegal hunting or found at logging sites are taught survival skills and eventually returned to a protected rainforest habitat.

After our encounter, we met our guide, Mirawan, and travelled by speedboat from Sandakan to Sukau upstream along the mangrove-lined Kinabatangan River – at 560km, it is Sabah’s longest – and past lowland rainforest. We paused only to view sunning crocodiles, and proboscis and macaque monkeys; the area is renowned as having the largest concentration of wildlife in Malaysia.

Lodge Living

The amiable manager and head chef at Sukau Rainforest Lodge was Brett, an Aussie who arrived on holiday three years ago and never left.  With no time to unpack, we enjoyed hot banana fritters before a late afternoon cruise in a small wooden boat to view more wildlife. We saw many proboscis monkeys, distinguished by their long droopy noses and white tails, scampering along branches in the treetops, a female orang-utan with her baby, plenty of mischievous macaques, and then the most amazing sight: at least 30 pygmy elephants, grazing along the river edge only a metre or so away. The pygmy elephant is, as the name suggest, quite small, with large ears and straight tusks and is genetically distinct from other Asian elephants. Hornbills and egrets flew across the sky in front of us as the light faded under the thick forest cover.


After a splendid dinner overlooking the river, we retired, with Brett suggesting that a visit by the elephants during the night was possible. “They like to look through the windows,” he said merrily, “I think they are just curious!”

Another Day in Wildlife Paradise

Alas, no nighttime visitors disturbed our sleep, and the next morning we entered the Gomantong Caves – the largest in Sabah – to hear the instruction, “Don’t look up while you are talking.” The ground was covered with a thick carpet of guano – the spongy, smelly, moist droppings left by the estimated 100,000 bats that call these caves home. Flying rapidly in and out of the cave’s entrance were the tiny swiftlets whose nests bring high prices for bird’s nest soup.

“Do you want to walk across the ground,” asked Mirawan, “or up on the boardwalk?” I pointed my flashlight; the ground surface appeared to be a mass of moving cockroaches. “Look at this,” said Mirawan, and he spat. Thousands of creepy crawlies converged on the spot. I felt goose bumps and was relieved to leave.

After driving past various palm oil plantations, we arrived next at Lahad Datu, where our driver deposited us at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge office for our three-hour four-wheel drive journey through the rainforest.

Into the Forest

Spanning 438 square km of primary lowland dipterocarp rainforest, Danum Valley Conservation Area is recognised as one of the world’s most complex ecosystems, and is a sanctuary for rare and endangered flora and fauna. Far removed from human habitation, it is renowned for its rich variety of plants and wildlife, with over 275 species of birds and 110 mammals, including the rare Sumatran rhinoceros, pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, and orang-utans.

Ryan met us on arrival and invited us to join him on a walk through the rainforest. The next two days were damp and cool, and Ryan guided us on walks to waterfalls for refreshing swims, to viewing platforms in the tree top canopy, and along high escarpments for amazing views of the river and rainforest below.

Ryan studied Mechanical Engineering at university, but upon graduation found that he missed the rainforest, as his father had often taken him there when he was a young boy. Under Ryan’s guidance, we saw many species of orchids, pitcher plants, ferns, begonias, and plants used by indigenous tribesmen for medicinal purposes. We saw flying lemurs, gibbons, proboscis monkeys, and orang-utans including Abu, a large male who lives near the lodge high up in the tree canopy.

Ryan talked optimistically of the survival of Borneo’s endangered species. The Sabah Wildlife Department works in collaboration with industry groups to find opportunities to create more wildlife corridors, improve the enforcement against poaching, and improve the efforts to conserve the forests.


Seeing orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, and pygmy elephants up close in their native habitat was one of the most amazing travel experiences I’ve ever had.

We ended our Borneo stay on Mataking Island, located close to one of the ten top dive sites in the world, and after a day of snorkelling with turtles and multicoloured fish, we returned to find a monitor lizard lying in our jacuzzi.

It was a wildlife experience I will never forget.


Getting there

Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia both fly from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan or Tawau.

Travel between Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan, Lahad Datu, and Tawau by flight or express bus. Dyana has regular services to Lahad Datu.

Where to stay

The Shangri La’s Rasa Ria Resort provides a cocooned stay in paradise with impressive service and attention to detail. The resort has a comprehensive program of activities with an environmental focus that includes meeting orang-utans undergoing rehabilitation. Tel: 08.8792 888. Email: [email protected]. Web:

The Swiss Inn Waterfront Hotel in Sandakan is centrally located with comfortable rooms. Web:

The 20-room Sukau Rainforest Lodge is managed by Borneo Eco Tours and built in a traditional architectural style with a spacious open lobby and restaurant overlooking the river. Borneo Eco Tours offer ecologically sustainable tours. Tel: 08.8438 300. Email: [email protected]. Website:

Borneo Rainforest Lodge provides a unique rainforest experience. The all-inclusive tariff includes guided walks, bird watching, and night safaris in an open jeep. Tel: 08. 8267 637. Email: [email protected]. Web:

The Reef Dive Resort, Mataking has 20 rooms and a range of different rates for the different suites. Tel: 08.9786 044. Email:[email protected]. Web:

Sabah Tourism:
Tourism Malaysia:

This article was written by Petra O’Neil for Senses of Malaysia.
Source: Senses of Malaysia July-Augt 2012
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