Borneo is a nature photographer’s dream; a large island with steamy jungles and waterways which play host to some of the strangest creatures on Earth. From the “Old Man of the Forest”, or Orangutan, to the portly, bulbous-nosed, Proboscis Monkey, to large flashy hornbills with bright orange casques; Borneo has plenty to offer the intrepid nature photographers that explore the island. This tour visits the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo, which comes loaded with a circuit of of high quality eco-lodges, and which rightly prides itself on its substantial ecotourism potential and excellent facilities.
Day 1: Kota Kinabalu (Borneo). After arrival in Sabah’s capital, the sleepy city of Kota Kinabalu, you will be transferred to a local hotel for the night. The tour starts with a welcome dinner on this night.
Day 2: Kota Kinabalu to Mount Kinabalu. The first destination of the tour will be the distinctively shaped Mount Kinabalu, which can even dominate the skyline of the capital on clear days. Macro opportunities will be to the fore, as we walk the misty mountain trails and visit some areas for two notable botanical subjects: the huge Rafflesia, which produces one of the largest blooms of any flower in the World; and we will check mossy banks for the presence of wild pitcher plants growing within the floristically diverse cloudforest.This night will be spent close to the park entrance.
Days 3-4: Mount Kinabalu. These days will be spent on this scenic mountain, taking in the macro opportunities provided by the fascinating plants that feature on the mountain, as well as as using our longer lenses on larger subjects like the squirrels and birds that inhabit the mountain. Early mornings around the start of the Summit Trail in particular, can be good for large, photogenic birds like treepies, whistling-thrushes and drongos as they feed on insects attracted to the lights during the night.The first night of these days will be spent just outside the park, within view of the mountain, while the night of day four will be spent back in Kota Kinabalu.
Day 5: Kota Kinabalu to Borneo Rainforest Lodge (Danum Valley).
On this day we’ll take a flight south in order to visit the Danum Valley Conservation Area, where we will stay in one of the best lodges in all of Asia, the famous Borneo Rainforest Lodge, perched on the edge of the Danum River, and surrounded by tall, pristine primary rainforest. We will be hoping that some of the large fig trees are bearing fruit at this time, as they can attract some of Borneo’s most famous residents, notably the Red Ape, or Orangutan, as well as an array of fruit-eating birds, such as the dramatic Rhinoceros Hornbill. Three nights will be spent within this fantastic lodge, giving us plenty of time to shoot a variety of subjects in this large conservation area.
Days 6-7: Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Early mornings right around the lodge can be good to take in the resident group of Crested Firebacks (a beautiful pheasant species), as they patrol the grounds at this time. At night there will be options to take nightwalks and put your macro to use, as a myriad of rainforest bugs and frogs, such as Wallace’s Flying-Frog, can be found by prowling the jungle with our experienced naturalist guide. There will also be opportunities to take part in one of the famous night drives out of the lodge for larger subjects, such as Thomas’s and Red Giant Flying Squirrels, “Flying Lemur” (Malayan Colugo), or Bearded Pig. During the daytime, your local guide will also use playback to attract in some of the more flashy rainforest birds like Black-and-yellow and Black-and-red Broadbills, trogons, or one of the attractive blue-and-red flycatchers that occur in the area, to name but a few.These two nights will be spent at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge again.
Day 8: Danum to Sepilok. From Danum we will travel north, by road, to Sepilok, a tourist center, with great lodges which serve the main tourist attraction nearby, the famous Orangutan rehabilitation center. However, our focus will be the ground-breaking Rainforest Discovery Centre, which comes with wide open trails for easy access to the rainforest for photographers, even with a tripod in tow; and a world-class canopy walkway. The latter is the centerpiece of this reserve, which allows eye level views of birds such as hornbills, trogons, kingfishers, woodpeckers, and broadbills. The quality construction of the walkway means that there is plenty of space for photographers, and tripods, with the sturdiness of it having already allowed many keen professional photographers to walk away with some great photos of normally difficult canopy birds. We will be hoping for some fruiting trees to be present in the area, as these can attract a procession of frugivorous birds, as well as animals like squirrels. The night will be spent in Sepilok, just a few minutes drive from the Rainforest Discovery Centre.
Day 9: Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre. A full day will be spent at the centre so that we have plenty of time to explore the many easy trails, and the canopy walkway, which is the reserve’s most heralded facility. The walls of the restaurant on site are decorated with many fantastic images taken right within the reserve, and illustrates the enormous potential of the place. Another night will be spent in Sepilok.
Day 10: Sepilok to Sukau (Kinabatangan River). The finale to the tour is perhaps the best part of all; a visit to the primate and bird-rich Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. The Kinabantangan River is flanked by lowland rainforest, interspersed with ox-bow lakes, mangroves and swamps, and is home to some of the most desirable photo subjects of the tour: Orangutan, Proboscis Monkeys,and Crab-eating and Pig-tailed Macaques, as well as all 8 species of Bornean hornbills. This is also the best area on the island for the amazing and rare Bornean Pygmy-Elephant. We will be staying at a high-end lodge in Sukau, right on the banks of this enormous river. The choice of lodge has been made not only for the comfort of the lodge, which has won a number of eco-tourism awards, but also for the transport available. We will be mostly traveling around by motorised canoe to traverse the various waterways in the sanctuary. The canoes crucially though, come equipped with smaller electronic motors to allow a quiet approach when needed, vital when on a photography tour to get those incredible, intimate close-ups of subjects such as Proboscis Monkey families, a Blue-eared Kingfisher fishing along the river bank, or a fish-eagle standing sentry above. At night, there will also be the option to take a night cruise to search for roosting birds such as Stork-billed Kingfishers, and photograph the local Buffy Fish-Owls, which are surprisingly abundant and approachable near the lodge. We will travel into the lodge by speedboat.
Days 11-12: Sukau and Gomantong Caves (Kinabatangan River). Two full days will be spent coasting the waterways of within the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, tracking down both the many avian, and mammalian, targets in the area.There will be options to go out at night too for further night cruises.
On one afternoon we shall visit the Gomantong Caves, home to millions of bats, and thousands of nesting swiftlets, which use echolocation, like bats, in order to navigate within the dark recesses of the caves. We will wait until dusk on this day to ensure we take in the awesome sight of the emerging “funnel” of bats, which often fall prey in these photogenic moments to a handful of waiting Bat Hawks.
Day 13: Sukau to Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu. Although we will have come in to Sukau by boat, for the exit from there we shall drive out, passing again by Gomantong Caves, which shall give us another chance for a final shoot there, without the hindrance of being confined to a boat, so that we can try to shoot the various hornbills, barbets, broadbills, and other birds, as well as animals such as Red Leaf-Monkey and Pig-tailed Macaque. After our final photo session of the tour we shall pack up and drive to the city of Sandakan, to connect with a short domestic flight west across Borneo back to Kota Kinabalu on the west coast, where you can then connect with international flights out.
Fraser’s Hill Extension (6 days)
Running before the main tour, this tour starts and ends in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, on Peninsula Malaysia, which connects directly with Kota Kinabalu in Borneo for the main tour. Being based on the Peninsula and visiting one of the best mountain birding areas in all of Southeast Asia, this extension offers some very different bird species to photograph than on the main tour, with many of these species only possible on the extension. Similarly, many of the birds and animals on Borneo are only possible or likely on the main tour (e.g. Orang-Utan, Proboscis Monkey, Red Leaf-Monkey, Crested Fireback), making these sections perfect compliments to one another.
Day 1: Kuala Lumpur. After arrival in Malaysia’s capital, we will transfer you to a hotel near the airport for the night.
Day 2: Kuala Lumpur to Fraser’s Hill. An early start will see us drive out of the hustle and bustle of the city, up into the hills of Pahang, and the tranquil setting of Fraser’s Hill. This area has been a long-favoured hang out for both birders and keen photographers alike. It is common at weekends to meet a handful of Malaysian photographers perusing the area, on the hunt for the latest photo opps; a growing community of which exist within the country. By lunchtime we will check into the wonderful Smokehouse Inn, the most comfortable lodgings on the mountain, which are akin to an old English inn, an which comes equipped with a garden full of blooming shrubs that my just attract some of the birds we are hoping to shoot. Four nights well be spent on the mountain.
Days 3-5: Fraser’s Hill and The Gap. A good road network both on the top of the hill itself, and at the bottom around “The Gap” allows easy access to forest birds right from the road. The roads on the hill weave their way past gardens which attract birds like Streaked Spiderhunters, Chestnut-capped Laughingthrushes,and Fire-tufted Barbets. There are plenty of avian subjects to keep us busy on the hill, including exciting possibilities such as Red-headed Trogon, Silver-eared Mesia, Orange-bellied Leafbird, Black-throated Sunbird, Red-bearded Bee-eater, and Golden Babbler. Cruising the road down to The Gap offers chances at hornbills like Rhinoceros and Great, as well as a chance to bump into flocks that could hold exciting birds like Sultan Tit and Long-tailed Sibia. Down at The Gap itself, the nature of the forest changes, as it becomes wetter and more humid and birds like Rufous Piculet, Black-crested Bulbul, and a series of barbets become possible, especially if one of the large figs is in fruit.
Day 6: Fraser’s Hill to Kuala Selangor and Kuala Lumpur; fly to Borneo.
We will depart from Fraser’s Hill, but ensure we visit Kuala Selangor, before we head off to Kuala Lumpur airport to connect with flights to Borneo, for the main tour. A short stop at Kuala Selangor is necessary so we can spend time shooting the habituated troop of Silvered Leaf-monkeys which have long taken up residence in the area. If we are lucky we may also spot a young monkey, as they are vibrant orange colored, in stark contrast to the silvery-gray adults. Being a lowland site, there are plenty of other lowland birds we may track down here too including Ruby-cheeked Sunbird, Oriental Magpie-Robin, or Collared Kingfisher. In the afternoon we shall take a flight out of Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah, in northern Borneo, where we will connect with the participants of the main tour.
PACE: Fairly relaxed. Early starts are necessary (typically around 6:00 am) on most days since we need to take advantage of the best light and bird activity, and we also will be using the late evening light where possible, however there is almost always a lot of downtime in the middle of the day (when it is often hot, the light is bad, and the birds are less active). There is relatively little travel on this itinerary and only one day of long driving on day 8 (about 5.5 hours broken up by a lunch stop).
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. At Mt. Kinabalu and Danum Valley there is a lot of walking involved, on roads and hilly forest trails – you should be prepared to walk 1-2 miles (1.6-3.2 km) on some days (with your camera gear). Along the Kinabatangan, we will be in boats much of the time where the photography does not require much physical exertion. On the extension it is a bit easier as we will spend a lot of time at feeders or using the vehicle to look for fruiting trees and other good locations.
CLIMATE: Hot and humid at Sepilok, Sukau and Danum (mostly 74°-88°F, 23°-31°C) and very humid, but cool on Mount Kinabalu and on the extension at Fraser’s Hill (mostly 50°-68°F, 10°-20°C). Rain is likely, often in the afternoons in the form of thunderstorms, but one can also have tropical systems that create rain for longer periods.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent. Sabah is one of the best-developed areas is Asia for eco-tourism. All accommodations have private, en-suite bathrooms, full time hot water, and 24-hour electricity. Air-conditioning is not available for the four nights at Borneo Rainforest Lodge and for the three nights at Sukau, however these are both top-notch lodges and the rooms have good fans.
WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year round. We often run it in early July because that is when mammal viewing is at its best and the birds are at their peak and in breeding condition. However, just about any time of year can be good, although we might recommend some tweaks to the itinerary if you want to organize a custom tour at different times of the year.
PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: There will be quite a lot of walking on this tour, with forest trails being unavoidable. We will be hoping to bump into good mammals and birds and take advantage of those opportunities. At Sukau, however we will be exploring the riverine systems by boat, and that will be both relaxing and productive. Birds, mammals, people and some great Asian jungle scenery are all interesting subjects. There are not a lot of setups, but where those occur we will use them. Where they do not we will rely on the knowledge and skills of the tour leader, and in some areas will have the help of a local guide.
GEAR: A long lens that can be hand-held (300-500 mm) will be essential. A prime lens that can handle lower light conditions such as an f2.8 or f4 is recommended. However, a smaller 70-300 or 100-400 zoom lens can also come in very handy, especially for mammals. A tripod is optional (and in some areas a hindrance); a bean bag can be useful on the boat and for use on canopy walkways.
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 and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 12 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 5 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 13 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee are available at mealtimes; Tropical Birding/Capturing Nature tour leader from the morning of day 1 to the afternoon of day 15 if taking only the main tour, if taking the extension please request more info from our office regarding guiding arrangements; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person on arrival and departure day respectively (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 from day 1 to day 13 (and to day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle; entrance fees to birding sites, parks and reserves mentioned in the itinerary; one night drive at Danum; several boat trips on the Kinabatangan River at Sukau; domestic flights from Koto Kinabalu – Lahad Datu (Day 5).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters (if you require their services); international flights; domestic flight between Peninsula Malaysia and Borneo (if you are joining the extension); 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; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.