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Borneo Tour 2020 [Trip Report]

Eric Kimmel

This 14-day tour in February 2020 focused on the birds and wildlife of Borneo. The Trip Leader was Steve Robertson and this report was written by tour participant, Eric A. Kimmel.

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To see photos from this tour, click HERE

Steve gave us a sense of what Borneo was like before we left. Borneo is hot, buggy, and humid.

It’s also beautiful, challenging, and exciting.

What do I remember most about our trip?

The birds. That’s why we came. They more than lived up to any expectations we might have had.

The hornbills were endlessly fascinating. Watching them in flight made it easy to imagine pterodactyls in prehistoric times making their way across the sky. They even made us laugh—especially those of us who saw them in a family group. The younger bird fell out of the tree with its parents squawking and scolding:

“Why do we waste our time talking to you? Why can’t you pay attention!”

It was a thrill to finally see the White-crowned Hornbill, the last of Borneo’s 8 species hornbills on our list to, especially when we learned about its habits. It’s the only carnivorous hornbill in Borneo, feeding on bats. Steve described how bats often sleep during the day in rooftop gutters. Along comes the hornbill, looks in a gutter, and has a snack: tossing the sleeping bats up in the air like popcorn!

Sometimes we looked and looked for a bird and couldn’t get a view of it. That was the case of the pittas. I wonder if they did that on purpose, coming out into the open and sharing a good laugh after we’d moved on. How many times did we hear them calling in the vegetation? They were so close. Yet we just couldn’t see them. On occasion they led us on a merry chase, up and down the road, back and forth, until finally disappearing, leaving us with a final call.

But persistence pays off. I believe it was Ann who sighted the pitta on our last day at Danum. Please, please, please stay in one place until we can get the spotting scopes set. And there it was. A living jewel.

Sometimes the birds seemed to pose just for us. Like when group of us were walking with Steve down the main road in Danum. Doris saw something hanging from a branch up ahead. She thought it might be a nest and went further down the road to investigate. It was a nest, still in the process of being constructed.

Steve suddenly stopped and called our attention to a major sighting. A Dusky Broadbill, sitting in a tree. Steve got very excited. That was a target bird of his!

The broadbill was not excited at all. It perched for a long time, watching us watching it, taking photos, studying it through binoculars and spotting scope. A major sighting! And it was so easy. Sometimes the birds do all the work.

When we looked closer we saw that the broadbills were building a nest. Ingeniously constructed, it hung down from the branch. Steve explained that this was a way of protecting the eggs and young birds from snakes. The eggs literally hatch in midair.

Sadly, a big rainstorm the next day swept the nest away. It was gone when we walked by the site. But it was early in the season so the birds had time to build another.

Steve pointed out a hole in a tree : “a tarantula lives there.” Steve attempted to make it emerge by gently putting a grass stem into the hold. The spider will sometimes grab hold of the stem so it can be pulled out far enough for us to have a look. No luck this time. The spider held onto the stem, but it wasn’t coming out.

However, that night on the night ride, we checked the spot as we drove by. The spider was resting outside the hole. Another adventure that evening was spotting a Slow Loris on a branch high up in the treetop. That was a thrill.

We also had another thrill; this one unexpected. Steve suggested turning off the motor and the lights of the truck so we could truly see the stars overhead without any light pollution. That truly was a memorable sight. The sky was alive with stars, millions upon millions, shining above the jungle as they had done since time immemorial.

We had another adventure that evening—this one unexpected. We had finished watching the stars and were ready to drive on. Surprise! The truck’s motor wouldn’t start! And we were a long hike back to the dormitories!

Leave it to Steve to take charge. He’s a graduate of the Automotive Program at Benson High School. We all got out of the truck. Steve told the driver to put the truck in second gear. Then we all pushed. And pushed. And pushed!

What a relief! The engine caught and began running. We could finish out night birding ride and didn’t have to walk back after all.

Steve takes care of everything!

On the other hand, a walk back in the dark might not have been so bad. What’s one more adventure when we’ve had so many? And who knows what we might have seen?

One creature we saw plenty of were the leeches. We’d read about them, but nothing could have prepared us for our actual encounter in Danum. Charlie gave us each a pair of leech socks before we arrived there. Steve explained the biology of leeches.

“They’re not dangerous. They don’t carry disease. You don’t have to burn them to make them release or take extreme measures. You can flick them off with a finger. Or they’ll drop off when they’ve had their fill”.

Leeches feed by injecting the site with an anticoagulant and an anesthetic. You don’t feel them and it keeps the blood flowing. The problem is the blood keeps flowing for about 20 minutes after the leech drops off or is removed.

Dave picked up a huge tiger leech. Or better, a huge tiger leech picked him. He brought it around to show us. Scary and impressive! The leech was the size of a substantial slug. Steve’s medical kit—our portable emergency room—contained a styptic pencil which stopped the blood flow.

Ruthann had her own personal encounter with a leech. She can tell you about that herself if she chooses to.

Danum Valley was a special place. The rain, the heat, the bugs, the leeches, the humidity, the bony chicken and rice every day!

And then there was the Mud March! The plan was for Charlie to lead us on a trail to do some forest birding. It rained before we set out—a real monsoon downpour that turned the trails to mud. The original plan was to go down the road and cross over a bridge to the other side of the river.

Bridge? I use that term loosely. It was an Indiana Jones kind of bridge; a precarious walkway swinging between two cables. Charlie and a few others went over first. Charlie decided that the trail didn’t look good so he led us back to try going another way.

This second choice wasn’t much of an improvement. The path was muddy and super-slick. It also sloped. Few of us had the right shoes, so we were slipping and sliding all over the place. There were plenty of vines and branches to grab onto. The problem was that we had learned early in our trip not to grab or sit on or touch anything until we looked to see what was there. Snakes, spiders, stinging ants, poisonous spines—yet by the time you had checked out your hand-hold, you were out-of-balance and sliding down the hill. Ken nearly took a nasty fall right in front of me. He caught himself in time. I reached to grab him and nearly went over myself. Lucky for me that Mohammed was close by. He literally dragged me along.

Chalk up another adventure. As Steve said in the beginning, it wasn’t going to be Club Med. However, our adventures always gave us something to talk about, and even more important, laugh about. But our encounters with Orangutans, spectacular birds, Bearded Pigs made it more than worthwhile. There was an adventure everywhere we went.

Two highlights for me came at the beginning of our adventure. Visiting the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in Sepilok was not to be missed. We could get closer to the animals and observe them more fully than we could in the forest. The interaction of the older and younger individuals at the feeding station was not to be missed. The big male clearly felt that the entire menu belonged to him. The younger and faster orangutans didn’t let that stop them from challenging him.

Our visit to the Sun Bear Reserve was equally special. We learned so much about the ecology of the forest and the important role these bears play. They’re extremely strong, have extremely long claws, and are extremely destructive. Tearing up the soil for roots to eat allows other plants to grow. Climbing high up in a tree to rip out a stingless bee honeycomb creates nesting holes for hornbills. Every creature in the forest plays its part and the forest cannot function without them.

That’s why it saddened us to learn that the bears are endangered by foolish people wanting pets—or scarier—people wanting body parts for “medical” and “culinary” purposes. Apparently there’s enough money in Asia to create a market for sun bear body parts.

But why would anyone want one as a pet? A cub may be cute, but sooner or later it grows into a bad-tempered, dangerous, and extremely strong beast. Also, to get the cub, the hunter has to kill the mother. The bears in the reserve have all been rescued. One shudders to think about what happened to the ones who were not.

My favorite part of the trip was when we were in boats on the Kinabatangan River. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness came rushing through my head. If you’ve never read it, it’s an account of steamer captain Marlowe’s journey up the Congo River to make contact with Mr. Kurtz. Like Dr. Livingstone, no one has had contact with Kurtz for awhile. It’s a hellish journey—only to find at the end that Kurtz has gone mad and become the savage ruler of his own primitive fief, complete with severed heads on stakes in front of his house. Francis Coppola moved the story to Vietnam when he made Apocalypse Now. Marlon Brando was the Kurtz character.

The refrain of the story, Kurtz’s dying words, is, “The horror. The horror.”

Uh huh. Well, the truth was that the jungle river was one of the most pleasant parts of the trip. The cool breeze brought relief from the humidity. Every yard of the journey brought something interesting to see. Crocodiles, Orangutans, loads of Macaques, Pig-tailed and Long-tailed. And wonderful birds, especially hornbills.

I loved watching the Proboscis Monkeys. Their big bellies reminded me of the guys who hung out around the neighborhood social clubs when I was a kid. All they needed were cigars and polyester shirts to complete the picture.

We watched the monkey families in the trees: the mothers and their babies, the patriarch watching over his clan. Charlie explained that the younger males travel in bachelor groups. One might challenge the patriarch if he feels strong enough. If he wins the fight, he takes over the harem. The deposed monkey goes off on his own. Charlie said he probably wouldn’t last long. A python will get him. Seems like having a harem is more trouble than it’s worth.

Our nighttime boat trip was just as interesting. We didn’t see many animals or birds. Didn’t matter. The mystery of Charlie’s flashlight piercing the dark shadows and the singing of frogs and insects was all I needed.

Getting back to Heart of Darkness, I discovered that the jungle wasn’t a scary place at all. The animals, birds, and people who live there don’t find it terrifying. It’s home. I noted again, that while Charlie had leech socks for all of us, he didn’t wear any. He went along the trails in flip-flops. If a leech got on him, he flicked it off. No big deal.

And that made me think of the leech scene in The African Queen where Humphrey Bogart has a nervous breakdown when he finds leeches on him. For Pete’s sake, I don’t think he could have lasted long in any jungle with a phobia like that. Which is probably the most important insight I came away with: a Hollywood jungle is a movie set. It has nothing to do with a real tropical forest.

However, what I did find really and truly awful and nasty was our visit to the caves at Gomantong. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we went. Now I know where birds nest soup comes from. I’m glad people can make a living harvesting the swiftlet nets. Will I ever eat it—even if I wanted to spend the money! Are you mad! Definitely not!

Think about it. That pile of bat guano that looked like a mini-glacier! I later read in our Animals of Borneo book that Sambar Deer come into these caves to eat it for the minerals. YOW! DOUBLE YUCK!

And that rickety, slippery walkway alive with some of the biggest cockroaches I ever saw! (I mentioned to John that it reminded me of my first apartment on East 14th Street in New York.) I took a photo of our group going up the walkway. No one is holding on to the handrail. Of course not! Who would? It was alive with cockroaches!

I prefer the leeches any day!

It took awhile to acclimate ourselves to being on Mount Kinabalu after the Danum Valley. Charlie hit the ground running. I don’t know how he does it. I was out-of-breath trying to keep up. I didn’t realize that we needed to get used to the altitude as well. Doris and Lynn gave up. They found stones to sit on and waited by the side of the road until we came back. It wasn’t time wasted. A British lepidopterist came by and chatted with them. They learned all about the butterflies in the area while they waited for us.

It felt SOOO GOOOOOD to have a hot shower after Danum (where the water was cold and the lights went off and the bugs came out at 11:00.)

A good night’s sleep was what we needed. Birding the next morning up on the mountain by the trail leading to the peak was a great experience. The wire fence along the road was a great place to watch birds. We could get good looks and great photos of them as they sat on the wire. That was so much easier than trying to pick them out from between the leaves and branches of trees. I must say, however, that John and Ken had a remarkable ability to spot birds. They helped me so much. So did Steve. I got some great views through the spotting scope if the bird sat still long enough.

Lynn, Doris, Ruthann, Ray, and myself went off in the afternoon to explore the botanical garden. What a find that was! Orchids grew wild in abundance, along with pitcher plants and enormous ferns. We took lots of photos. (Plants don’t flit around!)

Little did we know that our fabulous trip was drawing to a close. As we were having dinner that night we received text messages telling us that our flight to Taipei had been canceled. The virus was having its effect. Steve and Charlie had to scramble to figure out an alternative way of getting us back to Kota Kinabalu in time to catch our flights home.

Because we had to depart a day early, our last morning on Mt. Kinabalu was disappointing, as we had hoped to get in one more birding walk before we left. Unfortunately, it rained hard during the night and looked as if more rain was on its way. That meant the birds would be down. Instead, we packed up, boarded the bus, and headed back to Kota Kinabalu.

By then Steve had worked out an alternate plan. We wouldn’t be spending the night at the Hotel; only a few hours: we would have our rooms for the day instead to rest, recover, and pack up to head home.

But even our journey home turned out to be an exciting adventure. Those of us in Taipei hired a guide—Crystal—and went for a tour of the city. We saw Chiang Kai-Shek’s tomb, the Grand Hotel, and the memorial to those who fell in China’s war of independence. My two favorite parts of the day were our visits to the Taoist temple and the hour we spent at the National Museum. The museum visit was way too short. I could have spent a week there. It’s the Chinese equivalent of the Louvre, the Metropolitan, Uffizi Gallery, and the British Museum. Chiang shipped the treasures of the Chinese emperors to Taiwan when he feared that he might lose the Civil War. The greatest artifacts from Chinese history—ceramics, calligraphy, bronzes, sculpture, painting—are all here.

What a wonderful way to end a wonderful journey—from jungle trails to Chinese emperors!

Bravo Steve, Charlie, and Mohammed! Thanks so much for a Bornean adventure we’ll never forget.

Photos by Trip Leader Steve as well as photos by tour participants

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