We watched as the orang-utan swiftly disappeared from sight, swinging gracefully and with ease from branch to branch. Lowering our cameras, we grinned widely at each other.

We couldn’t believe it; we’d seen a real, live, WILD orang-utan! What an incredible privilege.

Orang-utan hanging around, Borneo

A couple of days earlier, we had set off by boat from Sandakan, a small city in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. We travelled along the coast and into the mouth of the Kinabatangan River. The scenery changed from a wide river with settlements along it, to forest with smaller villages dotted along the riverbank, and finally to rainforest.

Village on Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo

Along the way, we were reminded of the ever-present threats to the last remaining rainforests of Borneo. Large sections of the riverbank had been cleared of rainforest, and were now lined by oil palm plantations stretching off into the horizon. We had seen the devastation from the air. Even where rainforest remained, it was often a thin strip along the river, just a few trees’ depth, before turning into oil palm plantations. It’s hard to believe that even in this day and age, we are allowing our world’s last remaining rainforests to be felled. I’ll get off my soapbox now, and leave that discussion for another day!

Borneo rainforest destruction with palm oil plantation

About half-way through our journey, the boat slowed down and stopped. Our guide Fernando started scanning the riverbank, explaining, “We sometimes see Borneo pygmy elephants here.” We waited silently, fingers crossed. Suddenly, he whispered excitedly, and pointed into the trees, “There! There! There they are!” Sure enough, there were two… three… ten elephants. It was a breeding herd, with five females, two adolescents and three baby elephants. The herd was grazing, moving slowly through the trees along the riverbank. I thought back to the oil palm plantations, which had destroyed much of these animals’ habitat. The elephants, hungry and with nowhere left to go, were coming into increasing conflict with humans. It was heartening seeing these elephants relaxed, in their natural environment… but for how much longer?

Borneo pygmy elephant

After our exciting boat ride into the jungle, we pulled up at our lodge, home for the next few days. Sukau Rainforest Lodge is a small, low-impact lodge, mimicking the traditional long-house living style of the indigenous people of Borneo. The rooms were simple but comfortable, and the elevated wooden walkways from the river to the rooms and into the jungle allowed for the jungle experience without tramping along the rainforest floor.

Borneo - Sukau Rainforest Lodge

Over the next few days, we went out to explore the rainforest aboard the safari boat with quiet electric motors, rather than the usual noisy four stroke motors. This is more environmentally friendly, better for getting close to animals without disturbing them, and a much more pleasant experience.

Boat safari on Kinabatangan River

If you travel quickly through a rainforest, it can feel like it is devoid of wildlife. However, wildlife watching in a rainforest can be more challenging; it needs patience, and being alert to the sounds, movements and signs of the forest, which will reveal the presence of animals. The sound of branches swishing might be a troop of monkeys in the trees; things dropping from the trees might be an orang-utan feeding; a splash may be a crocodile beating a hasty retreat into the water; a slight movement & flash of colour may be a mangrove snake gliding away.

Mangrove Snake, Sabah, Borneo

One of the most famous, and peculiar looking, residents of Borneo’s forests is the Proboscis monkey, endemic to Borneo. These monkeys have a large, pendulous nose that grows larger as they age. The larger a male’s nose, which can grow up to 7 inches, the more attractive it is to females!

Male proboscis monkey, Borneo

The best time to find these monkeys on a boat safari is in the late afternoon, when they return to the river’s edge to roost in the trees. When we finally came across our first troop, they were high up in the trees, so we craned our necks, binoculars glued to our eyes, trying to get a better look. We watched them jump from branch to branch, eating, playing, or simply dosing off.

Proboscis monkey in tree

Early morning is a wonderful time to be out on the river, when the mist is rising up, giving it an eerie, magical feel. We were greeted by a pair of beautiful Borneo Oriental hornbills calling from atop a tree. There are eight species of hornbills in Borneo, all of which can be found here if you stay long enough.

Borneo Oriental hornbills

On our cruises along the riverbanks, the more we looked, the more we saw. We spotted a monitor lizard sunning itself on a branch close to the water. It was hard to miss the troop of noisy macaques. Their pair of newborn twins, barely a week old, jumped around like bouncing beans, falling and playing.

Monitor lizard, Borneo

Instead of just cruising past yet another egret, we stopped to watch it as it stared into the water. It was so intent on fishing, that it allowed us to get very close. Getting a photo of an egret with a tiny fish in its beak from a bobbing boat was no mean feat, but here’s a sample!

Egret fishing, Sabah, Borneo

Our visit was an enlightening experience, seeing the beautiful, abundant rainforest, and at the same time, the ever-encroaching oil palm plantations.

We left feeling exhilarated having experienced the Borneo rainforest, and having been lucky enough to see some of its unique inhabitants. As we got on the boat one last time to head back to Sandakan, we were already planning to come back and spend more time in one place, exploring an even smaller area; the quieter you are, and the longer you look, the more you will discover.

To learn more about the plight of Borneo’s rainforests & wildlife, and to learn how you can make a difference, check out the following:

  • Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, which is dedicated to the survival of the Bornean orangutan, and its habitat, in cooperation with local communities and government organisations.
  • World Land Trust, which is working to secure strategically vital areas of forest to create wildlife corridors and to connect fragmented patches, ensuring that a continuous, protected habitat exists for wildlife and local communities.

Join us on a Borneo Adventure & discover the unique wildlife of this incredible, biodiverse rainforest.

Have you visited the Borneo rainforest – or any other rainforest?

We’d love to hear from you, so tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.