Photo by Coral Keegan
Photo by Coral Keegan

Borneo: Where the Wild Things Are

The third largest island in the world, Borneo is known for its pristine rainforests, incredible wildlife, and traditional cultures. Staff member Coral Keegan experienced all of this—and much more—on an 11-day adventure with National Geographic Expeditions. We asked her to share some highlights from the trip.

This trip is primarily focused on wildlife viewing. How did you search for wildlife?

By boat, by vehicle, and by foot! While staying on the Kinabatangan River, we cruised the waterways in motorized skiffs, looking for wildlife along the riverbank. In Tabin Wildlife Reserve, we explored in an open vehicle on the lookout for animals that would cross into the neighboring palm oil plantations in search of food. And in Danum Valley, we saw wildlife on various nature hikes—a although some of our best sightings were right near our lodge! Regardless of the mode of transport, I found the nighttime activities to be the best. We saw an amazing array of wildlife—flying squirrels, civets, various cat species—and all were more active during the evenings.

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What were some of your favorite sightings?

Seeing orangutans in the wild was certainly a highlight. During an early morning cruise on the Kinabatangan River, we were fortunate to come across a handsome male orangutan basking in the light of the rising sun. It was incredible to watch this “person of the forest”—as the name “orangutan” means in Malay—as he happily feasted on figs. We all felt very lucky!

Another memorable wildlife sighting was in the 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!

Describe your most memorable moment.

In Tabin Wildlife Reserve, we learned about Sumatran rhinos during a private meeting with the executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA). Sadly, there are only a few of these beautiful creatures left in Malaysian Borneo. All are living in managed facilities at the reserve and are 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 (these few remaining rhinos are physically unable to carry their own young). Later, we were able to meet two of the rhinos during their daily check-up and feeding. It was incredible to be in the presence of such beautiful and rare creatures. I could have stayed with them for hours.

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Tell us about an interesting hotel or lodge where you stayed.

Our base while exploring the Kinabatangan River was Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World. This lodge blends into the rainforest while 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 to great lengths to minimize its impact on the environment and ensure that the local community was invested in the venture. Today, 80 percent of the lodge's staff members are from neighboring villages.

Were there any local customs you adopted during the trip?

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!

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Sukau Rainforest Lodge is set on the banks of the Kinabatangan River.

Did you pick up any unique souvenirs along the way?

Upon arrival in the town of Sandakan, we immediately noticed 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 you see the Sabah flag flying everywhere (more so than the flag of Malaysia). During a stopover in the town of Lahad Datu, I found a small stationary store and bought one to hang in my apartment.

Are there any essential items to pack 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.