If a destination award for wilderness travel were to be handed out, Borneo would be a top contender.
This mostly untamed island—the third-largest in the world—has enchanted adventurers since the days of the great Victorian explorers. And this is still the spot to find one of the globe’s greatest rainforests, bone-through-the-nose tribes, and the largest population of orangutans in the world, who keep company with other indigenous species such as pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and sun bears. All are at home in a wonderland of extraordinary biodiversity embracing half of all the known plant and animal species.
It’s not hard to understand why such attractions are pulling adventure-seeking and nature-loving travelers to exotic Borneo, whose territory is divided among three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. The major tourism action takes place in Malaysian Borneo, whose entry gateways are Kuching, capital of the state of Sarawak, and Kota Kinabalu, capital of the state of Sabah.
natural habitat adventures
Kuching is the city launch pad for what is perhaps the island’s most in-depth, wildlife-intensive experience in the U.S. market, the 14-day The Wilds of Borneo: Orangutans & Beyond, offered by Natural Habitat Adventures (NHA), experts in nature travel and standard-setters in eco-travel. “We cater to nature-loving people who are dedicated to signing on to the most unusual wildlife experiences,” reports NHA’s Ted Martens, who has no doubt that clients will “see more of Borneo’s natural wonders when traveling with NHA.” Martens, incidentally, is not only the company’s director of marketing, but also the director of sustainability, and he helped establish NHA as the world’s first 100 percent carbon-neutral travel company. He also notes that NHA—a Virtuoso supplier, among a few other consortiums—also caters to its travel agent partners, “who are definitely an important part of our business. We have a full-time staff member dedicated to working with agencies, and he travels the globe doing trainings and spreading the good word about adventure travel with NHA.”
Pointing out that travelers choosing a Borneo experience are most likely to be those who have been to the Galapagos Island and on safari in Kenya and Botswana, company v.p. Rick Guthke points of that “we are among the few tour operators who do Borneo, a destination really on the cusp of discovery. And those discoveries are best experienced by small groups of travelers, in the case Natural Habitat Adventures, 12 people.”
The 2-week Borneo tour starts in Kuching and ends in Kota Kinabalu, and in-between travels around Malaysian Borneo by land vehicle, riverboat and air, staying at the best eco-lodges available. Highlights of the itinerary include:
Kuching, with visits to the excellent archaeological and ethnological Sarawak Museum, the Sarawak Cultural Village, showcasing the region’s vibrant ethnic heritage in its cuisine, crafts and dance performances.
Bako National Park, a short boat ride from Kuching, to explore the rainforest, jungle streams, waterfalls and beaches, spotting proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, and silvered leaf monkeys, as well as hairy-nosed otters and Bornean bearded pigs.
Gunung Mulu National Park, a majestic and thrilling nature destination and UNESCO World Heritage site, whose vegetation zones harbor 3,500 different plant species—109 varieties of palms alone. A visit to the spectacular Deer Cave, the world’s largest single cavern-passage—about two miles long and 300 ft. wide. The cave shelters millions of bats, to be observed as they exit the cave en masse around sundown. Lang’s Cave has the park’s most magnificent limestone formations.
Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, home of the endangered orangutan and the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.
Selingan Turtle Island in the Sulu Sea. This is one of the three main turtle nesting sites in Borneo; its long beaches and coastal mangroves protect the endangered green sea turtles. Guests stay at the only chalets on the island, and in the evening view turtles swimming ashore to lay their eggs, and/or hatchlings returning to the sea.
Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, mangrove forests in the state of Sabah, and home to one of the highest wildlife concentrations in Southeast Asia—orangutan, proboscis and silvered leaf monkeys, gibbon, pygmy elephant, wild boar, otter, river crocodile and hundreds of bird species.
Danum Valley Conservation Area, with more than 200 species of trees that tower to 160 ft. It’s home to an astoundingly diverse array of flora and fauna, and hosts wildlife including clouded leopard, pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino, orangutan and proboscis monkeys. Birdwatching on a canopy walkway includes spotting the great slaty woodpecker, black-and-red broadbills and giant pittas, among many others.
Six departures are scheduled May through September for 2015, priced at $8,695 pp dbl.
Borneo is packaged another way by Goway Travel, with two 9-day programs, one taking off from Sabah and the other from Sarawak. The 9-day Essential Borneo ex Kota Kinabalu starts in the Sabah capital, combining city sights such as the Buddhist temple, the State Museum and the State Mosque with time at one of the fine beaches. From Kota Kinabalu, clients travel to Kinabalu National Park, for a guided nature walk and a visit to the exhibition hall for a nature slide show. The park, famous for its 170 species of wild orchids, spreads around the base of Mt. Kinabalu, the highest in Southeast Asia. Next, they fly off to Mulu National Park, a natural world of canyons, rainforests, rivers and limestone peaks, hopping on a boat for a ride through the park and a day visiting the park’s dramatic caves in a 37-mile cave system. Also here, there’s a visit to the Penan Tribe Longhouse at Batu Bungan, and then it’s on to Kuching by air to tour the temples and museums. And from Kuching, they’ll travel to the Semenggok Nature Reserve and its Wildlife Center, one of the best places to see semi-wild orangutans, followed by the tour’s grand finale: an overnight at the Iban Tribe Longhouse to see how the original headhunters now live. Dinner here includes traditional dancing and locally made rice wine. The tour starts at $1,665 pp dbl.
Goway’s 9-day Essential Borneo ex Kuching ($1,665 pp dbl) operates its Malaysian Borneo itinerary in reverse, first staying for two nights in Kuching and ending with one night in Kota Kinabalu. Both programs can be custom-designed to include many other Goway packages, such as a 3-day Mount Kinabalu expedition, including a climb up Borneo’s highest peak; or a 5-day Sandakan Wildlife Safari. ●
Spotlight on Bears
The world’s first sun bear sanctuary, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, opened to the public in January 2014. From a boardwalk and observation platform, visitors can now get close to the world’s smallest bear at the center, located next to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, 14 miles from Sandakan town.
Looking into Longhouses
The pleasures of Borneo are also cultural, and there’s no better way to get a sense of indigenous tribal culture than to visit a longhouse—or better yet, stay over. A longhouse—the traditional dwelling of many of the natives here such as the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu—is basically a terraced street of separate dwellings covered by one roof. Every family has its own separate room (bilk), and communal activities are carried out on the verandah (ruai). Male visitors will spend a night on the verandah, while female guests are invited to stay in the family room. Tour groups are normally greeted with a glass of rice wine (tuak) and a welcome dance. Next, there’s a tour of the longhouses and various cultural performances, with visitors usually invited to join in the dancing. Three Dayak longhouses are part of the seven traditional houses collection on view at the Sarawak Cultural Village near Kuching.
Twice a day, the village puts on a cultural show showcasing traditional music and dance.
Goway Travel: (800) 557-2841; goway.com or gowayagent.com
Natural Habitat Adventures: (800) 543-8917; nathab.com