Borneo: Clouded Dreams and Other Nocturnal Mammals

Quest for the Clouded Leopard and other nocturnal denizens of Sundaland’s best forests


This is an Enigmatic Wildlife Tour (EWT). While most birding and wildlife tours focus on seeing as much as possible, very few focus on quality encounters with the least known and most charismatic wildlife the planet has. Tropical Birding’s new EWTs focus on encounters with Earth’s most desirable and poorly-known wildlife, and we shall use our time to make sure we maximize our chances of encounters with the unforgettable. While we do so we shall certainly enjoy all the other wildlife around us, and so while we are focused, we are not neglecting all the other surrounding beauty. It’s important to mention that while we will do everything we can to find these rare animals, nothing is guaranteed.

Borneo is a mainstream wildlife-watching destination for good reason. It is probably the very best place in Asia to see rainforest mammals, including many charismatic species such as the red and woolly Orang-utan, stunning large-nosed Proboscis Monkey and Pygmy Elephants. But Borneo also has a stunning array of wildlife that ventures out only at night, and most wildlife watching tours tend to spend a limited amount of time attempting to find them. This tour is different. Completely different. We will be spending 5-8 hours out at night, almost every night, looking for Borneo’s enigmas of darkness. One cannot think of time out at night in Borneo without thinking of rare cats. Undoubtedly a key highlight would be an encounter with a Clouded Leopard, and we will do everything in our power to maximize our chances of that. But there is also down-side to single-minded focus in that an encounter is not guaranteed, leading to potential major disappointment. And so, we intend to make sure we enjoy everything we can see at night, because although a Clouded Leopard would be absolutely mega, it’s not the only mega beast out there. And we have great chances of stunners like Sunda Leopard Cat, Bornean Colugo, the ‘bearcat’ Binturong, Banded Palm Civet and that absolutely amazing Otter Civet as well as an assortment of flying-squirrels. Other rare, but regular critters of the dark are Marbled Cat and Sun Bear, but much luck would be needed for those too. But hold onto your seats, this journey to one of the wildest places remaining in Asia, with some of the finest wildlife, promises to be riveting!

Clouded Leopard is the ultimate big cat Enigma. Rare, never guaranteed
Clouded Leopard is the ultimate big cat Enigma. Rare, never guaranteed (Mike Gordon)

Day 1: Sepilok. We arrive in Sandakan and transfer through to Sepilok. The area hosts one of the finest canopy walkways in the world at the Rainforest Discovery Centre, a 347m-long (1140ft), 25m-high (85ft) steel structure. There are two well placed observation towers on this too, allowing great chances to find canopy birds at eye level, such as Black and Bushy-crested Hornbills, green-pigeons, Blue-crowned Hanging-Parrot, and raptors like Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle and Oriental Honey-Buzzard. There are also easy trails at ground level to explore too, and between birding the forest trails, spending time watching from the observation towers on the walkway and birding the secondary habitats just outside of the forest, a long list of wildlife awaits. A healthy list of woodpeckers occurs, with Asia’s largest, Great Slaty, as well as Orange-backed, Rufous, Gray-and-buff, Buff-necked, and Banded Woodpeckers. The flowering shrubs at the forest, when in bloom, attract spiderhunters and sunbirds, including Coppery-throated and Crimson Sunbirds, and Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker. Black-crowned Pitta, Rufous-collared and Rufous-backed Dwarf-Kingfishers, Rufous-winged Philentoma, are all found along the forest trails. On this night, we’ll undertake a night walk within the reserve to look for mammals like flying squirrels, civets, or if we are lucky a Philippine Loris or tarsier.

Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds can be seen around Sepilok
Ruby-cheeked Sunbirds can be seen around Sepilok (Ken Behrens)

Day 2: Sepilok to Deramakot. This morning we have time for a little light walk and adventure before breakfast. Then we transfer the 4 hours to Deramakot Forest Reserve. This is a wild and incredibly exciting new wildlife watching zone, and it includes some of the best chances for encountering the wildest of Borneo’s wildlife. it has become particularly renowned for delivering super encounters with some of the best nocturnal wildlife in Asia. Of course, it goes without saying that many of these creatures are rare, but we will be spending most of our nights up late into the night in an attempt to give us the best chance of seeing these scarce and skulking rainforest denizens. Dermakot regularly produces Clouded Leopard, and the arboreal Marbled Cat. Neither are anywhere close to guaranteed, but there is nowhere else on Earth that produces these gems more regularly! But other scarce but potential mammals that get the juices going include: Sunda Pangolin, Otter Civet, Sun Bear and Banded Linsang. More regular species include Banded Palm-Civet, Island and Striped Palm-civets, Malay civet, Philippine Slow Loris, Bornean Colugo, Binturong, Red Giant Flying-Squirrel, Thomas’ Giant Flying-Squirrel, Hose’s Flying-Squirrel, and stunning herps such as Green Vine Snake, some pit-vipers, Wallace’s Flying-Frog, and many other amphibians. Night trips can also reveal Sunda and Large Frogmouths, Brown Wood Owl and other nightbirds.

We would be absolutely elated to see a Marbled Cat, but it is maybe even rarer than Clouded Leopard
We would be absolutely elated to see a Marbled Cat, but it is maybe even rarer than Clouded Leopard (Keith Barnes)

Days 3-14: Deramakot Forest Reserve. We have 12 magical nights to explore this amazing place. Each day’s activities will differ, depending on what has happened the day/night before and how we are doing with the various enigmas we seek. The basic modus operandi is to eat dinner at around 7 pm, and then we begin our nocturnal forays at around 8 pm. We generally return to the lodge sometime between 2 am and 3 am, depending on the conditions and success we have with the wildlife. We then sleep till 10 or 11 am, do some local birding and activities around the lodge during the afternoon, where we can find Black-crowned Pitta, White-fronted Falconet and some small day-time mammals like treeshrews and squirrels. It promises to be a mammal-and-bird fest of epic proportions! We will spend every waking hour looking for beasts hairy, feathery, scaly and slimy. If we have good success with the nocturnal mammals, we can spend more time doing diurnal activities, and stake out fruiting trees looking for hornbills, Bornean Orangutans and Bornean Gibbon, all of which are common here, or go birding. There are a few trails here that we can explore for lowland forest birds, including Blue-headed and Bornean Banded Pitta, stunning Black-and-red, Black-and-yellow, and Banded Broadbills, Diard’s, Scarlet-rumped, and Red-naped Trogons, and the forest dwelling Banded Kingfisher. The garden of the lodge sometimes attracts Bearded Pigs and civets, and more regularly holds frugivorous birds like the endemic Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker. No matter what we do on any given day we can expect it to be phenomenal.

An Island Palm Civet sneaks across the road
An Island Palm Civet sneaks across the road (Keith Barnes)

Blue-banded Pitta is a rare and seldom seen endemic at Deramakot.
Blue-banded Pitta is a rare and seldom seen endemic at Deramakot. (Keith Barnes)

Bornean Gibbon is one of the more elusive of the many primates possible on this tour
Bornean Gibbon is one of the more elusive of the many primates possible on this tour (Ken Behrens)

Sunda Leopard Cat can be seen on the night drives
Sunda Leopard Cat can be seen on the night drives (Sam Woods)

A Malay Civet in the headlights
A Malay Civet in the headlights (Keith Barnes)

Red-bearded Bee-eater can be found around the accommodation
Red-bearded Bee-eater can be found around the accommodation (Keith Barnes)

The gremlin-like Western Tarsier
The gremlin-like Western Tarsier (Sam Woods)

Day 15: Deramakot to Sandakan. After breakfast we return to Sandakan where the tour draws to a close.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Spending 5-7 hours a night on bumpy roads in a vehicle with bench seats can be tiring itself, even though not much physical exertion is required. A typical “day” starts with a 7 pm dinner, and then heading out at 8 pm on the vehicle. We generally return between 1-3 am depending on what’s happening. We tend to sleep through the early morning and have breakfast at 10 am, and then make a plan for the afternoon’s activities, which is either a short drive and / or a forest walk for 2-3 hours before we return to the accommodation and prepare for the evening session. The middle of the day is hot and humid, and we generally do not do much during the heat of the day. White at Deramakot, all meals will be taken at the field station. The drive from Sepilok to Deramakot is around 3 hours on rough, unpaved roads (days 2 and 15).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the night we will be sitting on the back of the trucks specially modified for night drives. There will be a few short, moderate 1 mile or so walks in the forest during the day. Most of the trails are not difficult, but the trails can often be slippery and muddy (a walking stick helps a lot).

CLIMATE: Hot and very humid in Sepilok and Deramakot, with temperatures typically ranging from about 75°F(24°C) at night to about 90°F(32°C) in the middle of the day. Borneo has a wet tropical climate, with rainfall possible at all sites. Typically, this falls in short, heavy downpours in the afternoons. It is worth noting that once we leave the field station on the truck we will be at the mercy of the elements, and if we get stuck in a downpour, we essentially have to ‘sit it out’, and by that we mean, ‘sit in the rain till it stops’, so come prepared with excellent rain gear for both you and any camera gear you want to carry with you.

ACCOMMODATION: Somewhat basic, but clean and comfortable; despite the rustic nature, all rooms do have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24-hour electricity. Wi-Fi is not available at Deramakot. You can buy a prepaid sim card at Sandakan, but even that has limited signal at Deramakot. This place is truly wild!

WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year-round. We often run the set-departure tour in December because mammals are especially excellent then, but this is definitely not the only time you can go. Custom tours can be run anytime from June-December.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Photography is very tough on this tour in general. Night photography from a moving vehicle is not easy. In addition we discourage the use of flash with certain sensitive species on this trip, and therefore chances of getting lots of good photos are slim. If you are happy with record shots of incredibly rare things, then by all means bring a camera. There will also be chances to indulge in macro photography of reptiles and amphibians that we find at night.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas are not currently required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, EU, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Visas are currently required only of a few nationalities, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; it’s always a good idea to double check a few weeks before the tour, or ask our office for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 14; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 15; lodges will include at least safe drinking water and some include tea/coffee; when eating at restaurants that include no drinks, reasonable non-alcoholic drinks will be provided for that meal; safe drinking water only between meals (usually available at a designated spot in the lodge – if not it will be provided for you); Tropical Birding tour leader with thermal scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the morning of day 15; local dedicated professional spot-lighting guide at Deramakot; one arrival and one departure airport transfer on the arrival and departure days respectively, per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle; multiple 5-7 hour night drives at Deramakot for our own dedicated private group; entrance fees to all sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters in city hotels or Deramakot (if you require their services); flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned above.