A lush and vibrant ecosystem, bursting at the seams with multitudes of wildlife, the rainforests of Borneo are a must-visit destination for any wildlife enthusiast. Our Asia specialist Chloe tells us about her recent trip to this vibrant island and how it utterly blew her away.
Borneo’s rainforests are hailed as the best place in Southeast Asia to experience nature’s great works of art, so I was eager to discover this wild and wonderful destination. I began my much-awaited adventure through Sabah in Sandakan, where the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is located. Although everyone dreams of spotting orangutans in the wild, these sightings can never be guaranteed. A visit to Sepilok is definitely the next best thing. The centre rehabilitates orangutans that have been victims of the illegal pet trade, or who have lost their homes as a result of deforestation triggered by palm oil plantations. Today around 60 to 80 orangutans are roaming freely in the reserve. For the best viewing opportunities I recommend heading there in the morning when they are feeding, as they come close enough for you to see their cheeky little faces munching on delicious fruit.
My journey then took me to the waters of the Kinabatangan River, where Attenborough famously filmed some Borneo footage a few years ago. During this part of my trip I had my binoculars permanently at the ready, as the wildlife sightings were the most frequent here. I split my time here between Abai Jungle Lodge and Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge, which I would highly recommend. Both properties are located on the river and offer exciting cruises where you can get up close and personal with a fantastic array of wildlife in its natural habitat, including wild orangutans, proboscis monkeys, hornbills and pygmy elephants, just to name a few! Travelling between the lodges is done by boat (they are about an hour from one another), which means you have plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife as you journey from one to the next. All of the lodges along the Kinabatangan River are naturally quite basic given their remote location, but the experience that accompanies them far exceeds any misgivings about fine dining or silk sheets.
My next stop was the Danum Valley conservation area – a vast, undisturbed swathe of primary rainforest with one of the richest and most complex ecosystems in the world. A variety of endangered species roam freely in this protected area, making it a true paradise for wildlife lovers. The only property in the entire valley is Borneo Rainforest Lodge, which is built on the site of an old tribal village that was abandoned years ago. Staying here was a real treat; the true wonder of this hidden gem is the incredible luxury that it somehow manages to offer its guests, despite being in a totally isolated location. The rooms were lovely, nothing was too much trouble for the friendly staff, and the meals were by far the best that I had throughout my Borneo trip – a pure delight, especially after a few days getting back to basics in Sabah! Our nature guide took us on some very interesting trails; we visited the Kadazan-Dusan ancient tribal burial site, where the coffins of chiefs and warriors are still tucked into crevasses in the cliff, stopped at a waterfall, and climbed up to a breath-taking viewpoint to admire the beauty of Danum Valley from above.
For real wildlife enthusiasts wanting to make the most of their rainforest adventure, I recommend adding a two-night stay at Tabin Wildlife Reserve before heading to Danum Valley. The lodge is basic but offers comfortable bungalows located either along the river or on the hillside overlooking the rainforest. A bird-watching paradise, Tabin has gained popularity as one of the best places in Sabah to observe the rich bio-diversity of nature. This is due to a number of mud volcanoes and salt-water springs in the area that are high in minerals, which attract a variety of wildlife seeking these nutrients (they make a great face mask too!). It was in Tabin Wildlife Reserve that I spotted my first orangutan in the wild. On my last day there, as we were driving back from a swim in a hidden waterfall, our vehicle gently came to a halt and our guide Sharon smiled and slowly pointed towards one of the treetops, where an orangutan was hanging from the branches. It was a truly magical moment!
It’s right what people say… Borneo really does offer the most enriching wildlife adventures in all of Southeast Asia. I have been fortunate to travel to much of the continent and have never had experiences quite like these. One thing that really hit home during my travels in Borneo was how important it is to preserve the rainforest. Whilst I was there, I was told a sad story about one of Malaysia’s last three remaining Sumatran rhinos, who died of cancer in June. With only two Sumatran rhinos left in the country, it is unlikely this rare species will survive in Malaysia much longer. Travelling to Borneo’s rainforests is a truly humbling experience, and is a delight which future generations may not be able to experience if we do not concentrate on protecting the species that are left. Tourism produces much-needed money for conservation projects, but only if it is done responsibly. I urge people to go and explore this unique ecosystem while they still can.