- Beautiful mystic view of Danum Valley at sunrise
Borneo. Just the name sounds so exotic, but like all of Asia it’s both nostalgically exotic and yet super modern. We got there in our usual way, using EVA to Taiwan and then AirAsia to Kota Kinabulu. We love EVA – it’s super safe, has good seat pitch even in coach, and the flight attendants are very nice. They wake you up all the time for food and snacks, and they have great movie options. You’ll be spending a lot of time on these flights (14 hours to Taiwan from California) and these things are important. Be advised, however, their food is more Asian than Western. We like it that way.
There are several pieces of Borneo, and the first thing you must do is decide what you want to see. There is Malaysian Borneo – the states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Indonesian side of Borneo – Since we are usually interested in wildlife, we chose the north-eastern state of Sabah, with just one venture into the western state of Sarawak. Proboscis monkeys, pitcher plants and hornbills were big draws, and I had read about the ” lost world” of the Maliau Basin which drew me like a magnet.
For those who speak some Indonesian, the language is quite similar, and there are lots of immigrants from Indonesia in the Malaysian part. Most people speak some English in the touristy areas, but if you get out in the country, you will need a guide or a translator. To get to all the places that I wanted, I decided to use a local tour company called Absolute Borneo, but not sure they are still in business. At the time, I checked Chai Chierong out on the net and found several listings with birding groups that recommended him or mentioned him in conjunction with benefit events. Generally, it is much cheaper to arrange tours once you are on the ground in an area, but we Americans have such short vacations that it is best to plan ahead. There were lots of places we wanted to see in Sabah, some of them difficult to access, so I pre-arranged a tour to the Maliau Basin and the Danum Valley. This involved both a bank transfer and handing over a wad of cash once we had boots on the ground, but it turned out to be well worth it, if a little nerve racking. They arranged the Maliau Basin Trek, a few nights in the Danum Valley at reasonable prices, and time on the Kinabatangan River. All of these can be arranged on site, but getting around can be a challenge, so we booked ahead.
Chai arranged for us to be guided by a couple of avid birders, so our trip over the Crocker Range in a car driven by Ben Duncan (he sounds like a Scot, but he’s a Kadazandusun) included a stop by the sea for shorebirds and sighting a rare white-fronted falconet at the summit. The park guides were also most knowledgeable, although it was really frustrating to know that another rhinoceros hornbill had just flown over without being able to see it! The sound of a hornbill flying over is quite distinctively pterodactylish – whup-whup-whup – but one of the disadvantages of pristine jungle is that all that foliage interferes with your view.
The majority of our time was spent with one Lee Teck Seng. We called him Lee, even though, being of Chinese origin, that was actually his family name. He was the guide who took us to the Danum Valley, and then we arranged for his services on the Kinabatangan River. Lee was all that a good guide should be: funny, flexible, knowledgeable, not too intrusive with what we call “lbb’s” (little brown birds), but always able to interrupt with a good spot. In our experience, birders make the best guides since they usually know all the flora and fauna in addition to the birds. They also can look in the right places when they hear a call. So, for instance, if they hear a hornbill, they can tell you which hornbill it is and where it is likely to be. This makes spotting wildlife much more productive, and we saw a lot. The Danum Valley Field Centre (the cheapest option, as the Lodge is quite pricey) was good for spotting our first orangutan (and several more) and lots of red leaf monkeys and Crested Firebacks. We saw giant flying squirrel and colugo on the night drives, along with lots of civet cats , (although nothing could beat the beautiful little civet that hung around hoping for treats at the Nepenthes Camp in Maliau.) But the Kinabatangan was the best. River spotting is usually good since you are both quiet and, being on the water, essentially invisible to your quarry. Plus, it’s a lot cooler than hiking.
Trees full of proboscis monkeys lined the banks of the river, and one tree held 14 hornbills at one time. River otters loped along the banks, avoiding the macaques, monitor lizards and crocodiles, while chattering at us to go away! This part of our trip was arranged on the ground with the help of Lee, and it was a much cushier (and pricier) place than we usually stay, but we definitely enjoyed it very much. Since we had a guide, he arranged for private boat tours so we could stop and look as much as we wanted with no one announcing that they were bored. The Kinabatangan is such a destination that once you stopped, other boats cruising along zoomed over to see what you were looking at (a phenomenon well-known to African safari adventurers). Of course, since we were often looking at some little colorful bird like a Pygmy Kingfisher or a blue bee-eater, it may have been a disappointment to those joining our party. They were mostly on a very tight time table, so only stayed a little, which was fine with us! We sat and watched for an hour while a troupe of bachelor proboscis monkeys challenged two stable harems – lots of yelling and posturing, jumping from branch to branch, great excitement!
We visited many other parts of Borneo – hiked Mt. Kinabulu, snorkeled in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, hiked to the Niah caves, (site of a 40,000 year old human habitation and currently harvested for swift nests (birds nest soup – you really don’t want to know what goes in that!), flew (twice!) to Bario and trekked on a trail that we shared with water buffalo, and spent a night at the Lambir Hills Park close to Miri. Due to the weather, we had to spend several nights in Miri, a coastal town in Northern Sarawak, a different State. If anyone is going or has friends there, please send us the recipe for the butter crab that is served in a small food court at the corner of Jalan Brook and Jalan Setia Raja … stall #3. Terry thinks it might be the best thing he’s ever had and can’t seem to replicate it at home.
If you have any questions, please let me know. This is a great place to visit and I would love for you to get there.