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Borneo in spring 2015

Our tour to Borneo in March 2015 exceeded everybody’s wildest expectations.  Not only was the tour filled with exciting sightings of birds, but we also saw an overwhelming diversity of mammals (23 species), amphibians and reptiles (14 species), invertebrates (91 species, including 46 butterflies and 28 dragonflies/damselflies) and profusion of exotic plants, of which 107 were identified.  The success of seeing so much in such a short period of time was due to the fact that we covered the best birding and wildlife hot-spots in the country, which were confined to the Malaysian state of Sabah. Needles to say, the food and accommodation were impeccable and provided the most deserved comfort after our daily trips and continuous perspiration!

We began our tour at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Kinabalu National Park, where we were able to admire stunning views of the 4,095 metres high Mount Kinabalu from our own balconies of the lodge.   The scenery here was astonishing and so were the colourful and fascinating birds.  But, perhaps the limelight here was stolen by rare plants species – we saw three species of carnivorous pitcher plant, the Nepenthes burbidgeae, Nepenthes tentaculata, and the most famous of them all, the giant Nepenthes rajah; the world’s smallest orchids of the genus Podochilus and two species of the most bizarre Rafflesia, which produces the world’s largest flowers.   The latter in particular intrigued us with its unusual life-cycle and parasitic nature; the single flower that has no leaves, stems or roots, lasts only a few days, during which it has to be pollinated by only two species of flies; Blue Bottles and Carrion Flies are attracted by the sight of this enormous bloom and its smell, which resembles rotting flesh!   

From here, we descended to the world-famous Kabili-Sepilok Reserve, precious home of the last wild Orangu-tans of Borneo.  Indeed, we had very close encounters with them here and the walk on the impressive canopy walk-away 28 m above the ground gave us a rare insight into the forest, with the birdlife all around.

The location of our next lodge in the heart of the Sabah's largest protected area of lowland forest at Lahad Datu was a highlight for many of us. Our wildlife watching here was confined to daily boat rides on the Kinabatangan River and its tributories.  It was a peaceful and relaxing way to watch birds and animals lurking by the water or swinging through the trees.  There was a lot to look for but perhaps the highlights included a pair of Black-and-red Broadbills busily attending their nest suspended on the branches above the water, an equally busy Pied Fantail putting the last touches to its new nest, a White-fronted Falconet tearing off pieces of its prey on the top of a tree, a food pass between two spectacular Rhinoceros Hornbills almost within touching distance from us, an Oriental Darter foraging in the water in back-light a few metres from the boat, and a bundle of colours from Hooded Pitta, Rufous-backed, Stork-billed, Ruddy and Blue-eared Kingfishers, to name just a few.   The boat rides facilitated close encounters with Borneo's rarest wildlife, whether a big male Orang-utan, with its spectacular cheek pads, suspended on a tree, a Gibbon moving fast in the thick foliage, baby Proboscis Monkeys hanging to their mum’s bellies or playing in the branches of the mangrove trees, a precious Pygmy Elephant foraging at the edge of the river bank, an Otter-civet hiding in the dark of the night or Long-tailed Macaques playing on the bank of the river.  The night rides were very tranquil and particularly rewarding with sightings of several owl species, including Buffy Fish, Oriental Bay and Brown Wood. 

For some though, the highlight was a visit to the Gomantong Caves, a huge limestone cavern, home to one million swiftlets and two million bats.  The latter take to the air every evening while being pursued by a number of birds of prey such as Wallace’s Hawk-eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Blyth’s Hawk-eagle, Bat Hawk and Brahminy Kite. It was an incredible sight and we stood there and watched as the bats, in a coordinated stream, kept coming endlessly out of the cave in wavy movements trying to confuse hungry predators.  A breath-taking spectacle!

The best was kept to the last and our three-night stay at one of the most delightful lodges in Asia in the heart of pristine rainforest in the Danum Valley, was most memorable and delightful. The virgin lowland rainforest itself, with trees of gigantic proportions and evergreen lianas hanging down the branches was truly impressive.  Equally striking was a robust tree canopy walkway, with several viewing platforms, suspended 40 metres above the ground, allowing access to the forest and close views of wildlife that otherwise we would not have seen.  A dazzling cast of trogons, barbets, broadbills, hornbills and pittas entertained us everyday while undertaking walks in the forest.  A Crested Serpent Eagle scoffing a newly-caught snake, an exotic looking Whiskered Treeswift perching on a tree in front of our dining table, a gorgeous Asian Paradise Flycatcher showing off its long tail and contrasting dark head against its white body, a Lesser Fish Eagle hunting over a stream, colourful Blue-throated Bee-eaters busily attending their nests in the ground, and the rarest of the endemic birds on the island, a Bornean Bristlehead flittering in the top of the canopy of the trees, are just a few birding encounters which will stay with us for ever. 

Night walks and drives were outstanding with sightings of oversized nocturnal insects, owls, frogs, lizards and the most bizarre creature of the rainforest, a Colugo or a Flying Lemur.  The breath-taking sighting though for the majority of us was seeing a Red Giant Flying Squirrel in its full glory as it suddenly took a leap to a tree below revealing a gliding membrane, which spread out like an umbrella, allowing a smooth glide.  It was so spectacular and unexpected that we all sighed with amazement as the squirrel descended through the air.

Apart from seeing a plethora of colourful and rare wildlife, we had a great introduction to the local cuisine.  The majority of our meals were a buffet-type lunches and dinners, with a great selection of dishes from both Malay and Chinese cuisine.  Dining on the deck overlooking the river or in touching distance from pristine rainforest where wildlife simply buzzes, added an extra dimension to our experience of this fabulous island. 

So, in retrospect, the overall memories that we took home with us from this tour were the astonishing variety of wildlife, scenic landscape, stunning trees, delicious food, good guides and friendly people!   An experience not to be missed!

For more pictures from the trip please look at the Gallery; for more details of the tour please look at the Tour Details; a Trip Report is also availble. 

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Mount Kinabalu Sabah

On the boat in Sabah

Raflesia in Borneo

Orangutan in Sepilok

Little Spiderhunter in Borneo

Blue-eared Kingfisher in Borneo

Ruddy Kingfisher

Long-tailed Broadbill in Borneo

Walkaway in Borneo

Proboscis Monkey in Sabah