If you’ve always dreamt of whiling away the hours spotting wildlife in its natural habitat, then the state of Sabah in Borneo should be right at the top of your travel wish list. As always, there are no guarantees, but there’s a high chance you’ll see orangutans feeding just a few metres away thanks to the tireless conservation work at the renowned Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.
From Sepilok, drift down the Kinabatangan River in a longboat, keeping your eyes on the banks for glimpses of pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys. Continue deep into the rainforest of the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, observing many diverse and colourful birds and animals getting their mineral fix at the small mud volcanoes. Complete your wildlife spotting extravaganza with a few days on a beach close to the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Marine Park, where snorkelers and divers can explore coral reefs teeming with an array of graceful marine life.
As a starting point, it’s difficult to beat a night or two close to the world-renowned Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. Set in 19 square miles of dense rainforest, with (almost!) guaranteed sightings of Borneo’s most famous residents, this is a great introduction to the country’s diverse habitats and fascinating creatures. The Sanctuary is rightly famous for its work with very young orphaned and injured orangutans, some of whom you can observe from behind one way glass at the outdoor nursery.
Head out to the special feeding platforms, where rangers spread food for the area’s older wild residents twice a day, and scan the forest for those tell-tale splashes of orange fur. Sepilok’s reputation inevitably draws a large number of visitors, which can occasionally make it feel a little crowded, but keep in mind that every visitor provides added exposure and funding for the sanctuary’s vital work. Having filled your head with everything orangutan, you can shift your wildlife focus with a visit to the nearby Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which is devoted to raising awareness of the plight of the endangered Malayan Sun Bear, before making a stop at the informative Rainforest Discovery Centre.
Logically, it might seem like the deepest rainforest should be the ultimate place in Borneo to spot wildlife, but the dense foliage and dizzying height of the canopy can sometimes make this difficult for all but the most practised eye. Instead, why not take to the waters of the Kinabatangan River and its tributaries in a longboat? Drifting through freshwater swamp forest, lowland rainforest and mangroves, waiting patiently for the birds and animals who forage along the riverbanks to come to you, is both rewarding and relaxing.
Keep your eyes peeled for gibbons, orangutans, pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos, proboscis monkeys, langurs, and even river sharks. Your expert guide will help you identify what you see, and at dusk you can enjoy a beautiful display of fireflies and (hopefully) glimpse of some of the area's nocturnal wildlife. If you’re fortunate, you might also get the opportunity to meet members of the Orang Sungai tribe, or ‘people of the river’, who live along Sabah’s waterways. Although one night by the river will allow you to fit in a couple of boat trips, two nights will really help you make the most of your time. You can even split your stay between two different, simple lodges to maximise how much of the riverbank you experience.
Unlike the better known Danum Valley, the Tabin Wildlife Reserve is largely made up of secondary rainforest - in this case, much of it was felled in the 1970s and has since grown back - but that certainly doesn’t make it second best. In fact, although the trees themselves are not quite as towering, Tabin’s 460 square miles of lowland rainforest offers some of the best wildlife spotting in the country. It’s home to a huge diversity of animals, some of which, sadly, are highly endangered.
Amongst the reserve’s larger inhabitants are the Bornean pygmy elephant, Sunda clouded leopard, Tembadau (or Banteng - large horned cattle), around nine species of primate (including small numbers of orangutans and proboscis monkeys), and a huge number of bird species. Tabin is characterised by its mineral-rich mud volcanoes, which are much smaller than other volcanoes you might have seen and bubble with hot mud instead of lava. With many birds and animals dependent on these for their mineral content, they make excellent spots for sightings. Stay at the fairly basic Tabin Wildlife Resort, where knowledgeable guides wait to accompany you on treks through the forest, wildlife spotting expeditions, bird watching wanders, waterfall visits, and nocturnal safaris.
Having enjoyed some of the best land-based wildlife spotting that Borneo has to offer, change the pace a bit with some serious R&R. Opt for a few days on a sweeping mainland beach close to Kota Kinabalu, or perhaps head for the picturesque shores of nearby Gaya Island. Sit back and relax, drink in hand, and take in the views over the South China Sea, or don a snorkel and fins and cast your eyes downwards into the ocean. With the abundant coral reefs of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Marine Park providing a home to a colourful array of marine life, the underwater world is another enchanting string to Borneo’s bow.
The guide price of £2,990US$3,490 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Sepilok, 2 nights on the Kinabatangan River, 2 nights at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve and 3 nights on Gaya Island; staying in a blend of our favourite mid-to-top range hotels & lodges.
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Explore an untamed habitat concealing endangered animals, rare birds and plants with mysterious medicinal properties; all before steeling away for a remote island retreat.