Few destinations are as shrouded in mystery as Borneo. Ever since the first colonists crossed its steamy jungles, tales of narrow escapes, “wild and woolly men”, and the fearsome Dyaks, who brought the heads of their enemies back to their longhouses, have emanated from this island and filtered through to the west.
The good news is that the head-hunting fad is long over, but in Borneo birders still might lose their minds! There is no doubt that Borneo supports some of the richest ecosystems on earth. Tropical rainforests once covered the entire island, and the tracts that remain support an exotic profusion of flora and fauna. The birdlife is rich and sensationally gaudy, with many endemic species ranging from trogons and broadbills to black-eyes and bristleheads.
During this exhilarating trip we explore the island’s most pristine recesses such as Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea, where many of the island’s most sought-after endemics await. While birding we also have a great chance of locating some outlandish wildlife such as the magnificent Bornean Gibbon, Proboscis Monkey, and the king of the Bornean jungle, Bornean Orangutan.
*Please note: Sometimes it may be necessary to switch the order that we visit sites, due to availability at some of the lodges/hotels.
Day 1: Kota Kinabalu
We arrive at Kota Kinabalu International Airport, and transfer to a hotel in Sabah’s small capital.
Days 2-5: Danum Valley
After a morning flight to Lahad Datu on day 2, we drive into the luxuriant Danum Valley conservation area. This is no doubt one of Borneo’s finest naturalist hideaways, nestled in pristine lowland dipterocarp forest. A mind-blowing checklist looms, with the dazzling endemic Blue-headed Pitta the major headline. However, there are a further five pittas, including the substantial Giant and fiery-glowing Black-crowned. Backing up the merry pitta band is the endemic and eagerly-sought Bornean Bristlehead, which will hopefully appear during one of the morning searches.
While we look, we will surely come across other fabulous species including Great Argus, and Rhinoceros, Helmeted, Bushy-crested, and Wreathed Hornbills amongst a host of forest passerines that make Danum Valley one of the best birding sites in Asia. Birds are not the only attraction; this area is one of the best in the world to see the giant Orang-utan, as well as Bearded Pig, Slow Loris, Flying Lemur, Red Giant Flying Squirrel, and many other fantastic creatures. Four nights will be spent in one of the finest lodges in all of Asia, Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
Day 6: Danum Valley to Sepilok
After a final morning in Danum’s jungle, we’ll hit the road after lunch for another area of lowland forest, near Sepilok, birding our way there. A single night will be spent in Sepilok.
Day 7: Sepilok to Sukau
During the morning we’ll visit the fantastic facilities of the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok, which includes their centerpiece, a 347m-long (1140ft), 25m-high (85ft) canopy walkway. There are two well placed observation towers on this too, allowing great chances to find some of the rainforest birds at eye level, like Black and Rhinoceros Hornbills, Red-naped Trogon, and a variety of woodpeckers, cuckoos, and perhaps too, Borneo’s most wanted species and family, the Bornean Bristlehead.
After a morning on site, and lunch, we’ll take a boat trip to our next stop, Sukau, searching for Proboscis Monkeys as we go. Three nights will be spent in a comfortable riverside lodge in Sukau, on the banks of the vast Kinabatangan River.
Days 8-9: Sukau
We will have two full days to explore this magical area, which is comprised of flooded forests, ox-bow lakes, and even bat caves. During this time we’ll traverse the main river, the Kinabatangan, and its tributaries by way of motorized canoes, making this a very relaxing part of the tour, with less leg work than the other parts. While birds will be at the fore, so will mammals too, as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is especially famed for its species richness of mammals, and primates in particular.
Proboscis Monkey, Red and Silvered Leaf-Monkeys, Pig-tailed and Crab-eating Macaques, Bornean Gibbon, and Orang-Utan, are all found here, and some trips see them all! Our local guides will also have their fingers on the pulse of any local sightings; if a troop of Bornean Pygmy-Elephants comes to forage at the river’s edge, we’ll speed our way straight there. On the avian front, there is also plenty to look for. Sukau is the richest area in Borneo for hornbills, with all 8 Bornean species found there, offers the best chances at seeing some of the scarcer species, like Helmeted and White-crowned Hornbills, among the more regular ones, like Oriental Pied and Rhinoceros.
The forests lining the banks of the rivers also provide the best chance for the rare and endangered Storm’s Stork, and the giant Lesser Adjutant also frequently features too. As we cruise the river, side creeks and lakes, we’re sure to see kingfishers, with Stork-billed and Blue-eared Kingfishers both regular, and should also pick up fish-eagles too, as both Lesser and the larger Gray-headed are both found there too. Black-and-red Broadbills nest overhanging the rivers, while electrically colored Hooded Pittas stalk the forest floor, as does the very rare Bornean Ground-Cuckoo, for which this is the best site available.
On one afternoon we’ll visit the Gomantong Caves, which will give us a chance to stretch our legs off the water, and visit this strange location, where the nests of the swiftlets are sustainably harvested for Bird’s Nest Soup. Edible-nest, Black-nest, and Mossy-nest Swiftlets nest in the caves, and can only be safely identified by their markedly different nests. While at the caves we’ll also linger after dark to watch the funnel of bats emerge, and their attendant predators: Bat Hawks and Peregrine Falcons.
Day 10: Sukau to Kota Kinabalu
Having come into Sukau by boat, on this day we’ll choose to leave by vehicle overland, giving us a chance to stop and bird in the jungles around Gomantong Caves, where species like Green Broadbill, Asian Paradise-Flycatcher, and Banded Broadbill all occur. As this will be our final shot at lowland species, we can focus on whatever we are still looking for. After some time at the caves we’ll head into the coastal city of Sandakan, where we’ll lunch before taking an afternoon flight back to Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu. The night will be spent in “KK”.
Day 11: Departure from Kota Kinabalu
A transfer will be provided to take you to the airport for departures, if you are not joining the Highland Borneo Extension.
*PLEASE NOTE: In 2017, we are running two separate tours on the same dates; one group will run the itinerary in this order, and the other group will have the Highlands of Borneo Extension scheduled BEFORE the main tour, not after, like the other group.
Highlands of Borneo: Mount Kinabalu Extension (6 days)
While the main tour focuses on the lowland jungles of Borneo, where Orang-Utans, and a multitude of mammals, primates, and pittas roam, this extension exclusively visits the highlands, which is where the lion’s share of Bornean endemic birds are found. Around 50 endemic species are recognised in Borneo, and some 30 of them are confined to the highlands.
We’ll visit the epicenter of endemics in Sabah Mount Kinabalu, where species such as Bornean Stubtail, Bornean Treepie, Bornean Whistling-Thrush, Mountain Black-eye, and Whitehead’s Trogon occur; and also visit Tambunan, for a trio of endemic barbets and Bornean Leafbird. A side trip to the lower elevations around Poring may also be made, and could produce not only incredible birds like Banded and Rufous-collared Kingfishers, but may lead to views of one of the world’s largest flowers, the Rafflesia, too.
Day 1: Kota Kinabalu to Tambunan and Mount Kinabalu
An early start will see us leave Sabah’s capital behind, and climb up into the foothills in Tambunan, the first stop of the extension. This site is known as the place for barbets in Borneo, with all three endemic species offered here: Bornean, Golden-naped, and Mountain. The areas also holds Fruit-hunter, Whitehead’s Spiderhunter, Bornean Bulbul, and, sometimes too, the rare Pygmy White-eye. After lunch at a local restaurant, which may provide Bornean Swiftlet too, we’ll higher still to Mount Kinabalu, the focus of our activities over the coming days. The night will be spent in a pleasant resort near the park.
Days 2-5: Mount Kinabalu National Park, Poring or Tambunan
Our base in the mountains in Kundasang, means we are in easy reach of the three key birding sites in the area: Mount Kinabalu, Poring and Tambunan. The precise daily plan will unfold, based on what we have seen as we go along. All of these sites will be visited, although the order in which this will occur will be dictated by the local weather at the time, and progress with our bird list.
The forests on Mount Kinabalu (13,500ft/4100m) support most of Borneo’s montane endemics, including the amazing trio of Whitehead’s Trogon, Whitehead’s Broadbill, and Whitehead’s Spiderhunter. We’ll explore the wide diversity of trails that stem off from the headquarters in search of endemics such as Golden-naped Barbet, Bornean Whistler, Eyebrowed Jungle-Flycatcher, Bornean Stubtail, Chestnut-crested Yuhina, Bornean Whistling-Thrush, Bornean Green Magpie, Bornean Treepie, Bare-headed Laughingthrush, Mountain Black-eye, and Black-sided Flowerpecker.
While searching for these we may encounter other special forest denizens such as Indigo Flycatchers, Black-capped White-eyes, Sunda Laughingthrushes, Checker-throated Woodpeckers, Blyth’s Shrike-Babblers, Black-and-crimson Orioles, and White-browed Shortwings.
Day 6: Mount Kinabalu to Kota Kinabalu for Departure
We will still have most of this day to explore whichever of the three above areas still deserves further attention, before returning to Kota Kinabalu in time for late afternoon/evening departures.
PACE: Moderate. Early starts are required (breakfast will typically start at 5:00am or 5:30am), as the best birding activity is often early in the morning. On some (but not all) days there will be some downtime to relax after lunch. No field meals are required on this tour. The drives are not bad on this tour, with the longest being about five hours on day 6, but with birding stops on the way. A few hours of the tour will be spent traveling on rough, unpaved roads coming in and out of Borneo Rainforest Lodge. There is also a three-hour boat trip on day 7.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate to difficult. There is a lot of trail walking required on this tour. Most of the trails are not difficult, but the trails can often be slippery and muddy (a walking stick helps a lot). There are two more difficult hikes of approximately 4 miles (6.4 km) roundtrip, one is on the main tour and the other is on the extension. All of the main tour is at low elevations. On the extension, most of the birding is between about 5000-7000 ft (1500-2100 m.), and the highest accommodation is about 5000 ft (1500 m).
CLIMATE: Hot and very humid on the main tour, with temperatures typically ranging from about 75°F(24°C) at night to about 90°F(32°C) in the middle of the day. On the extension the climate is much more pleasant; at Mount Kinabalu daytime temperatures are usually around 20°C/68°F, but can drop to as low as 15°C/60°F at night. Borneo has a wet tropical climate, with rainfall possible at all sites, especially on the extension. Typically this falls in short, heavy downpours.
ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent; all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, 24-hour electricity, and Wi-fi (though it may only work in designated spots in the lodge/hotel). Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley is one of the best lodges in Asia. Air-conditioning is not available for the four nights at Borneo Rainforest Lodge and for the three nights at Sukau, however these are excellent lodges and the rooms have good fans.
WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year round. We often run the set-departure tour in early July because resident birds are very vocal and most endemics are easy to find, but this is definitely not the only time you can go. We might recommend some tweaks to the itinerary if you want to run a custom tour at different times of the year.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Bird photography is quite tough on the main tour due to the amount of rainforest birding (and there is often little time to linger to try for better shots), but Orangutans are adorable, and you are going to want to show everyone that you saw one (even a small camera can work well for them). In the mountains on the extension, some birds are quite habituated and you can get some good shots. If you are a serious about photography, please check out the Borneo Photo Journey.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid 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, the UK, Europe, 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 six 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 10, and if taking the extension, to the night of day 5 of the extension, if also joining the extension; one-way air ticket from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu; one-way air ticket from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu; meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 11, and if taking the extension, to lunch on day 6 of the extension; 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 scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 10, and if taking the extension, to the evening of day 5 of the extension; local guide at Sukau and Danum Valley; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight; if taking the extension, the departure airport transfer is not necessary and thus not included); group airport transfer to Kota Kinabalu airport on day 2, and group airport transfer to our Kota Kinabalu hotel on day 10; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle with driver; one night drive at Borneo Rainforest Lodge (shared with other guests); boat transport between Sandakan and Sukau on day 7 (may be shared with other lodge guests); private daytime boat transport in motorized canoes for the group while at Sukau; one private night boat cruise at Sukau; entrance fees to all birding 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 tour leader; tips for luggage porters in city hotels (if you require their services); flights other than the two one way flights listed above as being included; 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 as being included.