Travelogue: Borneo

“Travelogue” is a new series that details National Geographic staff member’s most recent travels throughout the world. Learn from their experiences to help you decide on your next awe-inspiring adventure.

Staff member Coral Keegan recently visited Borneo on an active adventure with National Geographic Expeditions. For 11 days, she cruised the waters of the Kinabatangan River, hiked through the pristine rain forest of Danum Valley, and snorkeled among the coral reefs of the South China Sea. Here’s what she had to say about her adventure...

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So this trip was primarily focused on wildlife viewing. Can you explain some of the different ways you saw wildlife?
By boat, by vehicle, and by foot! From our base on the Kinabatangan River, we cruised the waterways in motorized skiffs each morning and evening, looking for wildlife along the river bank. We rode in an open vehicle around Tabin Wildlife Reserve, watching for wildlife that would cross into the neighboring palm oil plantations in search of food. And in Danum Valley, we saw wildlife on various hikes – although some of our best sightings were right near our lodge! Regardless of our mode of transport, I found the nighttime activities to be the best. We saw such an amazing array of wildlife – flying squirrels, civets, various cat species – and all were more active during the cool evenings.

What were some of the highlights of the creatures you saw?
Seeing orangutans in the wild was certainly a highlight. During an early morning river cruise on the Kinabatangan River, we were fortunate enough to come across a handsome male orangutan, basking in the light of the rising sun. It was incredible to watch this ‘old man of the forest’ in the wild, happily feasting on figs. And to get such a lovely view – we all felt very lucky! Did you know that male orangutans only grow their massive cheek-pads if they are dominant breeding males? The unluckier fellas lack the testosterone needed to develop such impressive features.

Another memory that sticks out was from Danum Valley. While out on a night safari, we witnessed a confrontation between a Malay civet and a leopard cat. Such an interaction between species is rarely seen by humans—in fact our guide, who has lived and worked in Borneo for almost a decade, had never even encountered this before! That certainly felt very special.

Was there anyone on your trip that made it particularly special?
Our guides – Charles Ryan and Dean Jais – were phenomenal. Their energy and enthusiasm were contagious and their knowledge was boundless. They truly made the trip spectacular.

What was the most memorable moment from the trip?
In Tabin Wildlife Reserve, we learned about Sumatran rhinos during a private meeting with John Payne, the executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA). Sadly, there are only three of these beautiful creatures left in Malaysian Borneo. All are living in managed facilities at the reserve and being cared for by the members of BORA. The NGO’s goal is to save the species from extinction through advanced reproductive technology—removing the gametes and germ cells from the rhinos with the hopes of producing viable embryos in the laboratory (as these few remaining rhinos are physically unable to carry their own young). After meeting with John, we were fortunate enough to meet two of the three rhinos during their daily check-up and feeding. It was incredible to be in the presence of such a beautiful and rare creature. I could have stayed with them for hours.

Was there anything special about the places you stayed?
While exploring the Kinabatangan River, our base was Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World . This lodge blends into the rain forest while still offering guests a comfortable experience. It was built during the 1990s – a time when deforestation from palm oil plantations was at its peak. It was the first ecolodge established in the area, and the owners went through great lengths to minimize their impact on the environment and ensure that the local community was invested in the venture. Today, 80 percent of the lodge staff are from neighboring villages.

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Were there any local customs you adopted while on the trip?
Upon arrival at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, we were given a brief orientation as well as a sarong-tying lesson. Each guest room is stocked with sarongs and guests are asked to wear them to dinner each night, per local custom. It was fun to see everyone decked out in these colorful garments, particularly the men who had some trouble getting their sarongs to stay on for the length of each meal!

Did you pick up a souvenir along the way?
Upon arrival in the town of Sandakan you immediately notice hundreds of flags decorating buildings and fences. This is not actually the Malaysian flag, but rather the flag of Sabah. Malaysian Borneo is composed of two states – Sabah and Sarawak. The people of Sabah are very proud of their state, and so you see the Sabah flag flying everywhere (more so than the flag of Malaysia). During a stopover in the town of Lahad Datu, we found a small stationary store and bought one to hang in our apartment.

Are there any essential items to bring when traveling to Borneo?
While Borneo is teeming with wildlife, animals are often seen at a distance. If you want to take some quality photos, be sure to bring a good telephoto lens. I used a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. The extra stabilization in this lens was key since we were often shooting from a boat or vehicle and a tripod would simply not have been practical.