Just Back: Borneo

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National Geographic’s Andrew Coleman (on Instagram @andywcoleman) recently traveled to Borneo to explore one of the oldest rain forests in the world.

Hoping to spy an orangutan in its natural habitat, Andrew was quickly blown away by the biodiversity he encountered on this unique island, the planet’s third largest, in maritime Southeast Asia.

Here are some of the high points of his trip, in his own words:

Biggest selling point: The World Wildlife Fund estimates that some 44 mammals are endemic to Borneo, including the large-nosed Proboscis monkey and the Sunda flying lemur. The spectacular bird life on the island is also worth noting; more than 400 species can be found there.

The key to ensuring a great wildlife-viewing experience is to stay where the animals are. That’s why my wife and I chose to spend the first part of our trip in Sabah, one of two Malaysian states on the island, at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. (Borneo is divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia to the south.)

The resort, one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, is surrounded by rain forest on the banks of the Kinabatangan River, prime wildlife spotting habitat. On one occasion, we were lucky enough to spend an afternoon with a herd of rare pygmy elephants.

A mother orangutan and her son swing on vines in Sabah. (Photograph by Andrew Coleman)
A mother orangutan and her son swing on vines in Sabah. (Photograph by Andrew Coleman)

Memorable moment: Upon returning from a wildlife river cruise, my wife and I heard reports that a mother orangutan and her two-year-old son had been spotted in a tree right next to our lodge.

We spent the rest of the afternoon watching them swing in the treetops. We had come to Borneo to see wild orangutans; this experience was a dream come true.

Doable day-trip: The gateway to the rain forest in Sabah is the city of Sandakan.

While there, make sure to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Sepilok provides medical care for orphaned and confiscated orangutans with the goal of rehabilitating them and returning them to the wild.

Authentic souvenir: We saw many wonderful wooden carvings across Borneo and ultimately bought one, a colorful hornbill (there are eight distinct species to be found on the island), at a market in Kuching—the capital of Sarawak, Malaysia’s other state on Borneo—as a reminder of our wonderful experience on the island.

Tip: If you are in Kuching, day tours are available to Bako National Park, the oldest national park in Malaysia. This is a great place to see wildlife, including the proboscis monkey and the unique bearded pig.

Best place ever: The remote Tanjung Puting National Park, located to the far south of the island, in Indonesian Borneo. You can hire a klotok, a wooden traditional boat, to explore the Sekonyer River and get up close and personal with wildlife. Two prized sightings: the proboscis monkey and the orangutan.

Standout adventure: We spent one afternoon at the Gomantong Caves, a feature known for its nightly exodus of millions of bats from the cave as well as the swiftlets that roost there. The nests, constructed from the birds’ dried saliva, are collected—after the eggs have hatched—and used to make bird’s nest soup, a delicacy in Chinese culture.

Our visit to the caves happened to coincide with harvest time. We watched as locals climbed hundreds of feet to the roof of the cave to retrieve the nests using a rudimentary system of ropes, rattan ladders, and bamboo poles. Another plus: This is one of the best places in the area to see the rare red leaf monkey, another of Borneo’s endemic mammals.

Practical tip: Most of Borneo is rain forest, which means the potential for rain at any time. In addition to ponchos, we carried plastic garbage bags with us to use as makeshift covers for our camera gear. We also treated our clothing with permethrin, which seemed to help with the insects.

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