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Borneo

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Borneo, it was top of my bucket list of places left to go for as long as I can remember. The second largest island in the world Borneo is divvied up politically into Brunei, Sarawak (Malaysia) Sabah (Malaysia) and the bulk to the south, Kalimantan (Indonesia).

I had made a quick foray into the southern end of Kalimantan once before and from a house boat had waded waist deep though a swamp in a tropical downpour to finally get to see my first wild orangutans – a mother and a baby. A special moment indeed, more Zen-like and I took no images. This trip was to be different. A group of California friends, knowing I had never been asked me to set up and lead them on a wildlife trip to Sabah in the north east of the island. I was thrilled with the opportunity. It was to be an expedition for all of us!

Arriving at Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, or simply KK it was surprisingly modern and ordered. Our high-rise hotel gave us a spectacular vantage point overlooking the South China Sea and the frenetic activity of boats plying to and from the market docks.

Out trip was to take us in a more or less circular route hitting the primary highlights on the way.

Sacred Mount Kinabalu – Sabah’s highest summit – put us in the realm of a wealth of montane species not to be found at lower elevations. The scenery was spectacular as Mt. Kinabalu changed its mood throughout. Everything was new to me, despite having travelled widely, birds were omnipresent and included Sunda and chestnut-hooded laughing thrushes, chestnut crested yuhinas, a Whitehead’s broadbill and the spectacular Bornean crested fireback. Mammals were mostly diminutive, the big stuff was yet to come but included giant squirrel, mountain tree shrews and Jentink’s squirrel. Eventually we headed south past the Poring hot springs to look at my first Rafflesia flowers, a totally incredible flower but a truly tacky ‘pay-to-see’ set up. 

We threw ourselves at the place investing inordinate time and effort to maximize on possible sightings. Certainly, it became my highest diversity of mammals ever seen in such a short-time. Twenty-five species in a mere four days? Highlights were too numerous to mention but number one was a clouded leopard that walked for more than a kilometer in our company making an approach to 5 meters from our vehicle! 

Then there were the eerily haunting calls of northern Bornean gibbon, leopard cats, four civet species including the rare and spectacular banded civet, a small-clawed otter, slow Loris, Borneo pygmy elephants and on and on.

Rhinoceros hornbills were spectacular, tiny Borneo falconets, the world’s smallest bird of prey hung around camp as did blue-throated bee-eaters. It was overwhelming. Another cherry on top was a magnificent look at a Borneo keeled viper – a big tick in my book! Thanks, Mike for your expert guiding.

Mentally and physically exhausted we moved out, heading to Sepilok. Renown for the orangutan sanctuary we spent our time also with a behind-the-scenes tour of the sun bear rehabilitation center which captivated us both in the proximity of these beautiful animals and of learning of their plight in the wild. We each donated $100.00 to the cause. Apart from stunning looks at bushy-crested hornbills the highlight had to have been our spectacularly lucky view of a western tarsier. – So much more impressive ‘in person’ than the countless photos I had already seen.

Experiences began to merge as sensory overload kicked in and we were only half way through. The wide and lazy Kinabatangan River filled in more gaps with silver leaf monkeys, and the hugely anticipated proboscis monkeys, the males with that unbelievable long and swollen nose. We saw scores of them, plus big crocs, fish eagles, kingfishers, some great snakes, bizarre pitcher plants of several species and great looks at more elephants feeding peacefully on the riverbank.

Darum Valley – our last stop was indeed a gem of a place to end. Such a pleasure to see my second ever binturong, flying squirrels and more of those enigmatic colugo – wow! We came for orangutans, we saw them in Deramakot, Kinabalangan and again in Danum. There was no way however that I expected to see them so well and so close as we saw them here. They were giving us a full show – lots of them at different sightings. It was just so humbling, the sense of privilege I felt at being so close to something for so long that was suffering so badly at the hand of man. Will they be around for the next few generations? Not if we do not act together now! 

All said and done a personal goal that I really, really wanted to see was a bearded pig. Boy did I get a good look at one of those! Borneo, I fell in love with you – thank you!