Wild nights in Borneo

This story first appeared in Escape section of Sunday Telegraph on 8 October 2017

wildlife watching in borneo

Philippine slow loris

The moonless tropical night is perfectly still, as we cruise along Borneo’s Kinabatangan River in search of nocturnal wildlife. The beam of our spotlight dances across the curtain of the ghostly dark forest on the river bank. The only sounds that break the silence are the rhythmic puffing of the boat engine and the occasional squeaks of the Flying foxes gorging themselves on fruit high up in the dark canopy.

With me in the boat are my two companions: Jo from the U.K. and Jens from Sweden; as well as our two guides: Mike, who is guiding us for our entire two weeks in Borneo and Osman, our host on the river for the next two nights. Both of them, we come to believe, poses superhuman vision when it comes to finding wildlife.

Soon Osman spots something on the bank and the mood in the boat changes dramatically. Now five pairs of eyes are glued to the centre of the spotlight beam. Mike sees the animal immediately. ‘It’s a Philippine slow loris. Very low in the tree’, he whispers excitedly pointing out the animal’s location. We see it too now. What was just a pair of bright dots at first (loris’s eyes reflecting in the spotlight beam), now transforms into the cutest face imaginable.

Looking down at us with its cartoonishly large eyes, the loris appears as surprised to see us as we are to see it. We stare at each other in mute amazement.

Of all the wildlife watching hotspots in Borneo, lower Kinabatangan river in the Malaysian state of Sabah is where you are most likely to experience wildlife up close. Sadly, the reason for this abundance is that the wildlife has nowhere else to go. Pushed by the encroaching oil palm plantations, the animals are trapped in the narrow stretch of forest on the river bank. If more land is cleared, we will lose this unexpected wildlife heaven for good. But for now, the loris is safe.

We leave the loris to its nightly exploits and surprise a Buffy fish owl that has just landed on a weathered tree stump rising out of the water in the middle of the river. With its massive wings outstretched, it follows us with a piercing gaze of its huge yellow eyes, that give its face a perpetually baffled expression.

wildlife watching in borneo

Buffy fish owl

The only creature that is not surprised by our appearance is the tiny and incredibly bright Blue-eared kingfisher. Perched on a thin branch overhanging the river, it lifts its head towards the dark sky and pretends not to see us drifting slowly with the current right underneath it.

wildlife watching in borneo

Blue-eared kingfisher

Overnight we stay at Osman’s homestay. It is a large wooden house with a spacious veranda lifted on stilts over the bank of the river. Above the TV, in between Islamic calligraphy art, hang photographs of Osman with Sir David Attenborough.

The next afternoon we return to Menanggul and find ourselves in a completely different world. By day the river is bursting with life. Noisy hornbills fly overhead, Proboscis monkeys crash through the canopy and Pig-tailed macaques squabble on the river bank while keeping a watchful eye for the crocodiles.

wildlife watching in borneo

Pig-tailed macaque young

‘Jens, here is something for you’, calls out Mike. ‘There is a snake in the branches up ahead’. We stare at the tree he is pointing at, but unsurprisingly see nothing.  ‘No, two snakes’, pitches in Osman. ‘No wait, four snakes!’

Jens has been dying to see a snake ever since missing one a few days earlier, but four together seems like a bit of a stretch. Yet as we approach the tree, we are able to make out four bright yellow coiled shapes.

‘Grey-tailed racers’, explains Mike, as we watch the snakes wake up one by one and move languidly through the branches. None of us has seen anything like this before and in Mike’s and Osman’s cases that’s saying a lot. Are we witnessing some kind of unknown reptilian behaviour?

wildlife watching in borneo

Grey-tailed racer

wildlife watching in borneo

Grey-tailed racers

At night, we find another rarity – an Oriental Bay owl – a bird so rare that even Mike has never seen one before. At first, we hear its call coming from the thick jungle. Mike mimics its call, tricking the bird into believing it’s being challenged by another owl. Outraged, the bird comes to investigate, eventually landing in a reasonably open spot where we can finally see it. It is tiny and looks like most other Barn owls, yet by playing ‘hard to get’ with the bird watchers it elevates itself to the top of their bucket lists.  

wildlife watching in borneo

Oriental Bay owl

The last encounter we have on the river is with a Western tarsier. A distant relative of all the other primates on the river, this animal is so strange, you would think it is made out of spare parts. Its enormous eyes take up most of its face. In fact, each of its eyeballs is as big as its entire brain. Its fingers are so long that some of them reach the length of its entire upper arm. It is a little gremlin out of children’s fairy tales, and an impossibly cute one at that. I see its big-eyed face in my mind long after we leave the river bank.

wildlife watching in borneo

Western tarsier

On my last morning at Osman’s, I discover yet another face of Kinabatangan when I find the river shrouded in thick morning mist. It is an eerie scene of vague shadows concealed by the ghostly white haze – a haunting farewell from the river.

Morning mist lifting off Kinabatangan River

Escape Route

Getting there:

Fly from Sydney to Sandakan with AirAsia from $680 return.

Touring there:

Adventure Alternative Borneo offers a range of tour options starting from $300 for two nights for simple river homestay to $600 for an upscale lodge. Prices include all food and drink, accommodation and transfers from Sandakan. www.adventurealternativeborneo.com

Further reading:

The best source of information on the mammals encountered on the river is the “Mammals of Borneo and their ecology” book by Phillipps & Phillipps available through Booktopia

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