Inspired by a growing number of inquiries for wildlife viewing in Borneo, I recently visited Sabah state, located in the northwest of the island. The island of Borneo is shared by Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. Sabah is part of Malaysian Borneo and it boasts pristine rainforests with a variety of exotic fauna, river adventures and offshore beach resorts. My only complaint is that I wish I’d had more time there!

For most people, the highlight of a trip to Borneo is the opportunity to see orangutans in their natural habitat. Wild orangutans can only be found in only two places in the entire world; on Borneo and on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Having already seen orangutans in Sumatra, as well as in both Central and Eastern Kalimantan (Kalimantan is the name for Indonesian Borneo), I was particularly curious to see how orangutan viewing in Sabah, Malaysia might differ from my visits to Kalimantan and Sumatra. Surprisingly, there are notable differences. And, though the Indonesian locales (especially Central Kalimantan and Sumatra) are very worthwhile, what gives Sabah an edge is that there’s a quite a variety of other wildlife to be seen in addition to orangutans. And, after spending time in the jungle, visitors can easily spend a few nights on Gaya Island, which is about 15-20 minutes by boat from Sabah’s main city of Kota Kinabalu. Gaya Island is a place where the sea abuts the rainforest, so your jungle adventure can continue even while winding down at the beach.

Most Malaysians, and visitors from other countries in the region, venture only as far as Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, where rescued orangutans can be viewed at feeding stations in the rainforest. For my taste, Sepilok is much too jam-packed with tourists, so I suggest just a quick stop there on the way from Sandakan airport to the jetty, where the real adventure begins. Travel from Sandakan’s Sulu Sea to the Lower Kinabatangan River Sanctuary. As you cruise the river, on the way to your Abai Jungle Lodge, you’ll see the Mangrove Forest. Later in the afternoon you’ll travel via a small open-air motorized boat to look for animals in the trees and along the river banks. After dark you’ll visit “Christmas” tree, which is alight with fireflies. You can also join a local nature guide for a night walk along the boardwalk that meanders along the edge of the Lodge. I saw such nighttime creatures as a civet cat and kingfishers asleep on tree branches. I was amazed that they didn’t wake up when the guide shined his flashlight on them.

The next day’s exploration included a visit to the otherworldly Pitas Oxbow Lake. If you like you can visit Abai village for lunch with the locals. And, of course you’ll continue searching the riverbanks for more wildlife. During my short time at Abai Jungle Lodge I saw a herd of pygmy elephants, orangutans, various species of monkeys, crocodiles, wild boar and a wonderful variety of birds. There are eight different species of colorful kingfishers in this area. And, I got a close-up look at some magnificent hornbills when they flew by and perched in a tree just outside my room.

Departing Abai I continued further along the river to Sukau, for a short overnight stay at Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge. In the late afternoon I traveled by boat into a small tributary to see what animals might be  out and about at sunset. There were monkeys and orangutans in the trees and even down at the river’s edge. As the darkness moved in, I could see silhouettes of white egrets perched high in the trees. And, I was lucky enough to see a full grown crocodile along the riverbank – less than ten feet away from the boat. My guide estimated its length at four meters.

The next part of my adventure started with a couple hours drive through an area of palm plantations to the town of Lahad Datu. After a short briefing and registration at the Borneo Nature Tour office I climbed into a safari vehicle for a two & a half hour drive along a gravel road to Danum Valley. Now I was traveling deeper into the jungle. Danum Valley is area of thick, untouched dipterocarp rainforest covering 43,800 hectares (over 108,000 acres). My destination was Borneo Rainforest Lodge, a true oasis in the jungle. Accommodations run from very comfortable rustic cabins to freestanding high-end villas with plunge pools or outdoor tubs and superb views of the river. The food is fresh and plentiful and there are a variety of activities including (weather permitting) tubing, trekking to the Kadazandusun burial site “Coffin Cliff” and the Canopy Walkway which is 300 meters in length and 26 meters at its highest point. For me, the best activities at Borneo Rainforest Lodge were the nature walks and especially the night walk and night drive. The darkness alone is something to experience. During the day there were orangutans and various species of monkeys and birds. There were also a variety of beautiful large butterflies and lots of dragonflies, which I happen to love.

Two extremely lucky visitors at Borneo Rainforest Lodge saw a rare cloud leopard with her kitten. My guide and I searched for it, but cloud leopards are elusive and we never found them. But, it was exciting just to know they were in the area. At night there are civet cats, sambar deer, flying squirrels, a variety of frogs and other nocturnal wildlife. I saw an adorable mouse deer, which is one of the smallest hoofed animals in the world. There are leeches in the jungle and all the tourists wear leech socks which they spray with repellent. Leech socks are big, clumsy looking garments that fit over one’s shoes and tie at the knee. (The guides don’t wear leech socks; I guess they don’t mind the leeches.)

After returning to Kota Kinabalu, I took a couple of days to inspect hotels in the city and also on Gaya Island which is just offshore from the city. A short boat ride away, Gaya Island has several resorts – my favorite of which was Bunga Raya Island Resort. The resort’s individual villas and suites are built where the rainforest meets the sea. The exteriors of the accommodations blend very nicely into the jungle environment and the interior décor is a tasteful mix of local wood and wonderfully vibrant paintings that were commissioned from local artists.  The resort’s spa is reached by way of a short wooden and rope bridge. The treatment rooms are surrounded by lush jungle. Bunga Raya even has its own zip line located in the rainforest just behind the resort.

I came away from Sabah thinking that this part of Borneo is a destination that I can highly recommend – and one that I hope to return to some day.

Diane Embree
April 8, 2018