Borneo: Land of the Orangutan: An Expedition Report

Jonathan Rossouw and Holly Faithfull, January 2004

"Borneo: Land of the Orangutan," factual statement and bold promise. As we watched the sun setting over the bustling Sarawak River waterfront in Kuching on our first evening of the expedition, the two of us were filled with a mixture of excitement and nervous anticipation. Would we manage to locate orangutansin the wild? Would Borneo be everything dreamed it would be?

We need never have worried. Indeed, our orangutan sightings were almost embarrassingly rich. Starting with a sub-adult male feeding relaxedly, at close quarters, on our first morning in Danum Valley, we moved on to a fruiting ebony tree seemingly festooned with red fur a female with her boisterous, two-year-old infant alongside a magnificent adult male. We were blessed with yet another male waltzing along the edge of the lodge clearing, eventually building his nocturnal nest directly above our bungalows. Incredible! Our ridiculous luck continued with further encounters along the Kinabatangan River and even above the boardwalk to Gomantong Caves. The final tally of nine photograph-range individuals surely set a benchmark for all future Borneo trips.

But this strange and exotic island offers so much more than the great red apes. An afternoon exploring the communal quarters of a longhouse offered a rare insight into the lifestyle of an authentic Iban clan. With handmade fishing nets and bags of ancient human skulls hanging on the inside, and television aerials on the outside, this is truly a community bridging the gap between the ages.

The next leg of our adventure brought us to the forested limestone mountains of Mulu National Park. We were rewarded with the sculpted beauty of Lang's Cave, the enormous magnitude of Deer Cave, and the spectacle of multitudes of wrinkle-lipped bats heading out in "conga lines" for their night's foraging. We completed our speleological explorations the following morning with visits to Wind and Clearwater Caves, although a profusion of butterflies, including the magnificent Rajah Brooke's birdwing, stole the show.

A late arrival at Mt. Kinabalu gave little indication of the presence of the mountain, but the following morning we awoke to the glistening granite of the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. The moss-encrusted forest boasts an incredible array of endemic plants, not least a variety of Nepenthes pitcher plants and a host of rare and valuable orchids. We came across a Rafflesia blooming in a roadside forest patch, in perfect condition and only two days into its brief, weeklong blossoming.

A short flight across the island brought us to the east coast town of Lahad Datu, near the heart of the legendary Danum Valley Conservation Area. It seemed the rain forest was smiling on our cause: orangutans aplenty, fiery-haired maroon leaf-monkeys posing for portraits at the edge of the clearing, and the ululations of the Bornean gibbon troops were the highlights of our diurnal activities. Nocturnal spotlighting sessions are an exciting part of any wildlife expedition, and our drives at Danum were no exception, with a host of scarce and elusive creatures encountered: a diminutive leopard cat skulking at the roadside, palm civets clambering about the treetops, and the thrill of that first (decidedly speedy!) slow loris climbing down a canopy vine.

Motorized canoe was our very comfortable mode of transportation on the Kinabatangan River, providing easy access both day and night to the quiet backwaters and oxbow lakes of the floodplain. Gangs of noisy proboscis monkeys launched themselves recklessly from branch to branch as they moved through the trees or settled down for the night. This endemic primate is surely one of the world's most peculiar mammals, with its portly frame, striking pelage, and almost grotesque nose.

The sightings continued to the last day spectacular plunges across the Menanggul backwater by long-tailed macaques, riverside fig trees supporting an impressive array of hornbills, most notably the rare helmeted and wondrous rhinoceros. Night cruises produced close-up views of roosting blue-eared and stork-billed kingfishers, buffy fish-owls, and two fine reticulated pythons, as well as glimpses of a Malay stink-badger and the rarely seen flat-headed cat. Our exploration of the world's third-largest island truly yielded a rich kaleidoscope of memories.

Jonathan and Holly will be leading two Borneo expeditions in 2004, the first departing 04 June, the second 18 June. Call or e-mail our office for more details.