Borneo: Beautiful Borneo

Two posts in one day because it’s been such an exciting and wifi-less week here in Borneo!

Mr Aji possesses everything necessary to be the perfect jungle guide: a machete, finely tuned ears and eyes, a broad repertoire of whistles, grunts, clicks and calls, an encyclopedic knowledge of the local fauna, a camera with a very long lens and a maniacal laugh reserved for successful wildlife encounters! He also does his bit for eco-tourism, supporting local people, and is clearly passionate about nature and conservation in Borneo.

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It was a bit of a gamble signing up for his two nights, three days Kinabatangan River adventure on the basis of bumping into him in Sepilok, but we were very glad we did. He works independently and keeps things small; it was just the three of us meaning there was no one else making noise to scare off the animals or getting in the way of prime photo opportunities. Ideal!

Exploring nature, hunting for signs of animals, cameras in hand, is just the kind of adventure we love. Thanks to Adam and Claire Webster, Charlie Nicholson, James Ignotus and Dan Jamieson for the wedding gifts that made it possible.

The itinerary was as follows:
DAY ONE: 2 hour journey from Sepilok in Aji’s faux animal fur and photograph adorned car, 3.5 hour boat ride, dinner, 2 hour night trek.
DAY TWO: breakfast, 2.5 hour early morning trek, brunch, nap, lunch, 3.5 hour boat ride, dinner.
DAY THREE: breakfast, 2 hour road trek.

You’ll be pleased to hear that the weather perked up considerably; the only rain fell while we were inside. We stayed in the Evergreen Lodge right on the riverbank on the outskirts of the little village of Sukau. It was simple, clean and they supplied all our meals, even during a 7 hour powercut. [I realise I sound like a Trip Advisor review but they are an intrinsic part of our lives these days!] You can hear gibbons over breakfast, hornbills at lunchtime and grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas all through the night!

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of exercise but the buzz of the anticipation and reality of actually locating animals is more than sufficient motivation to keep walking regardless of deep mud, leeches, mosquitoes and the heat! Plus the treks were balanced out by the boat rides, a wonderfully lazy way to explore. Throughout each excursion, the pull to emulate the guide – meticulously scanning the trees and silently analysing every sound, hoping to spot something – was irresistible. Our amateur skills were nothing compared to Aji’s though, who would track down a mammal from its sound or spot a tiny bird in a high up tree from many metres away.

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Aji took us to different conservation zones of the forest for each outing. Although it’s nice for us tourists that all the wildlife is condensed into predictable areas, sadly it’s a consequence of the mass deforestation of their habitat in the quest for more palm tree plantations. Great efforts have been made in recent years to conserve the jungle that remains by halting intrusions by the big palm oil companies. According to Aji it is beginning to work and animal numbers are increasing.

So, ‘get to the point, what did you see?’ I hear you ask! Well, loads; everything we wanted to see except pygmy elephants because they move away from the area during the wet season. I took a huge number of photos, and deleted hundreds, but there are still lots so I’ll attempt to wrestle them into some manageable format.

If you have the option, I’d recommend turning your screen brightness up to maximise viewing pleasure because, as usual, these aren’t edited yet. The combination of cloudy days, a long camera lens at its longest focal length and moving subject matter mean lots of the daytime images need doctoring. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy the weird and wonderful Bornean wildlife.

Mini-beasts

A lot of these photographs were taken during the night walk using a torch and my 35mm prime lens. It’s much easier to take pictures of some of these things at night when they’re asleep! We’ve got butterflies and caterpillars; a curled up millipede as solid as a rock; a dragonfly; grasshoppers, crickets and I think the top right is a stick insect; possibly a diamond spider (sorry Sarah!); centipedes (for the record, I held it too!); and my favourite, the rhinoceros moth.

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Birds

You can pretty much hear hornbills from wherever you are and whatever the time of. Aji is a big bird-fan so he spotted loads for us. Apparently there are six species locally- white crowned, oriental pied, bushy crested, Asian black, wrinkled and rhinoceros – and we saw all of them. I couldn’t tell you which is which except bottom left on the first picture is the rhinoceros hornbill I think! These first three images are all hornbills. Then there are the birds of prey – bramhiny kites (left and bottom) and some kind of eagle; a black and red broadbill, kingfisher and some kind of sleeping bird during the night walk; a purple heron; again my favourite, a very flukey shot of an egret!

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Monkeys

We saw so many monkeys; it was amazing! The main attraction (first 6 pictures) was the proboscis monkeys which aren’t found anywhere but Borneo and are distinguished by their preposterously large noses. The adult males also seem to have almost patchwork fur. Red leaf monkeys (pictures 7 – 9) are also only native to Borneo. We also saw silver leaf monkeys which I didn’t get a good picture of but there were some a few posts ago. Then there were pig-tailed macaques (picture 10), long-tailed macaques (pictures 11-14). We’ve seen these in lots of other countries but this was the first time they were in a fully wild habitat, not dependent on stealing from tourists or emptying people’s bins. Both mornings we could hear noisy gibbons across the forest but we didn’t manage to find any.

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Reptiles

Three pictures of the same leaf snake and then bottom right is a mangrove snake who was very high up in a tree. Then quite a small water monitor lizard basking in the sun. It’s possible to see crocodiles but we didn’t.

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Rare sightings

These were two highlights. First, a well camouflaged flying squirrel who, being nocturnal, was asleep high up in a tree. Aji woke him up so I saw him fly to another tree which was a bizarre sight. It was all the more exciting because I found him and because they’re not often spotted! Also we were really fortunate to have our second wild elephant sighting (the first being in Khao Yai NP, Thailand in our first week) as most have migrated away from the rain. It was a lone bull with the characteristic straight tusks and small ears of Bornean elephants. Aji said the last time he saw one was June 24th! They’re such majestic beasts that every moment and movement is completely exhilerating to watch.

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Orangutans

And finally, the absolute best moment for me. Wild orangutans weren’t guaranteed as, living peaceful, solitary lives, they’re quite hard to spot, not to mention the limited number of them. But we were very lucky. On the first boat trip we saw two building nests (there’s an example in the bottom right of the first picture) far behind the clearing in which the elephant was standing and on the road trek we saw a mother and baby briefly. But best of all, on the second boat trip we saw a young one, about 5 or 6 Aji said, busy pottering about finding food. He was high up enough and perhaps knew we were stranded in our boat so he stayed around much longer than we’d expected. He was absolutely captivating to watch. I was torn between taking photographs and just staring at him, mesmerised! So amazing!

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We also saw a civet cat, a fruit bat and lots of black squirrels!

It was definitely the most fruitful jungle wildlife expedition we’ve done anywhere in the world but that’s beautiful Borneo for you!

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