Amazing Borneo Wildlife Safari

Imagine your working day starts with an early morning breakfast along a large often misty river. You can watch the participants of morning boat cruises getting ready for their adventure as the sun rises from behind the forest. You may even see some of the school kids walk past, giggling and waving to you, as you get ready for your departure to your work site which will be a plot not far from the village of Sukau, accessible only by boat. Sounds good? Then the Borneo Wildlife Safari might just be what you are looking for.

The Kinabatangan River

When I began exploring Borneo, starting in Sabah, the majestic Kinabatangan river captivated me from the very first moment. I have since gone back many times visiting different areas enjoying many amazing wildlife encounters. It’s a thrill when a herd of pygmy elephants appear on the river bank; a wild orangutan comes into vision; and hornbills fly across the river, announcing their presence long before they come into sight. Cruising down the river is calming and leaves you in awe of the natural beauty which surrounds you. Whether it be during the early morning when the often-present mist is starting to lift or during the late afternoon when the river changes its face with sometimes spectacular sun sets; it’s a magical place.

On my first trip, I came as a tourist, my family in tow, and spent a couple of nights in Sukau like most visitors. A Kinabatangan River Adventure should be part of every first time visit to Sabah. Ever since then, I always head to the river and in the back of my mind I started to feel the urge to spend a bit longer in the village and somehow get involved with some sort of local activity while enjoying the river. I became interested in the people and curious about the conservation of the remaining forest along the river banks.

In my search for holiday and volunteer experiences that are that little bit different to what most people do when coming to Borneo, I came across the Bornean Wildlife Safari and it felt like I hit the jackpot. It was made for me: ample time by the river; meeting some of the friendly Orang Sungai (River People) and learn about their way of life; volunteer work on the reforestation site along the river; and of course plenty of time on the river searching for wildlife.

At the time I had no idea when I would be able to participate in this project but I could not stop thinking about it. In February 2017, I travelled to Sandakan to volunteer at the Bornean Sunbear Centre (BSBCC) and I was very excited when I found out that APE Malaysia who runs the volunteer project at the Sun Bear Centre is also behind the Bornean Wildlife Safari. It was clearly meant to be. A few months later I returned to the Kinabatangan river only to fall in love with this place even more.

A Hands-on Experience

The Bornean Wildlife Safari is a hands-on experience. Your work day will begin as described earlier with an early breakfast at the accommodation near the river and it usually finishes by lunch time when the heat starts getting to you. The work that volunteers are involved in focuses on the reforestation along the river banks of the Lower Kinabatangan area. The aim is to join fragmented forest patches and allow the local wildlife to once again move freely up and down the river.

If this is your first time in the region you will quickly understand why the reforestation work is so vital. Once you start to see the wildlife that lives here you will not hesitate to give it all you got for the few days that you are working in the field.

You may not realise it but while being at work but you are always mixing with the local wildlife, even if they are not visible to you. Elephant dung is often a reminder that a herd could be near by and at times you may find a spectator in the surrounding trees as you get to work. After all you are in orangutan territory.

Conditions are generally hot and humid and there is no room for being precious. You will sweat here no matter what you do and a cold shower will soon become the luxury you crave.

I wasn’t really too sure what to expect when heading to our designated plot on our first working day. Just like you cannot rescue a sun bear and send it straight to the forest, you cannot plant a tree and expect it to survive. Regular maintenance is needed until the trees reach a certain height and strength to survive in this rough terrain.

The APE Malaysia team carries out work on different plots, all of which are allocated to them by the Sabah Wildlife Department. Different plots are at various stages and requires different work to be carried out by the volunteers. The schedule will differ depending on the weather and requirements. For us it started with a 2-day Search & Rescue mission. The machete will be your best friend during this task which seems simple:

  1. Search for a tree that was planted around 4 months ago by previous groups of volunteers.
  2. Rescue it from overgrown grasses and vines.

Tree or no tree?

Rescued tree

Mission accomplished

Looking at the plot that was allocated to our group, it crossed my mind that it was going to be an impossible task. I couldn’t see a tree anywhere, just overgrowth. However, we quickly learned how to locate the small trees and as always when you work in a team, the progress was quickly evident.

After the Search & Rescue mission, we got to open up a new plot. Plot K! It’s a morning of sheer destruction as there is no need to watch out for small trees, just your fellow volunteers. There is nothing quite like slicing through some invasive bamboo. It’s all about the technique according to Mark, our coordinator. Everyone can decide for themselves. Looking around the large cleared area, drenched in sweat, a profound sense of achievement sets in and a bunch of strangers all of a sudden become a team.

The heat and humidity can drain your body and mind and by Lunch time all you can think about is that cold shower. Your reward awaits you on most afternoons when the group embarks on the wildlife monitoring cruises on different parts of the river. I love being on the Kinabatangan and have done many cruises. The ones I did as part of this project were some of the best. They are like private excursions with the purpose of monitoring the local wildlife and creating a record of what species were spotted. And with Mark we had one of the best guides all to ourselves.

Customs and Culture

It’s not all about the forest and the river on this well thought through itinerary. As part of the project you are expected to participate in some activities within the community. For some groups, this means visiting the local school for an afternoon and run the extra-curricular English class. The preparation itself was a whole lot of fun and really brought us volunteers together as a group.

Cultural experiences during the 10 days within the local community will introduce you to art & crafts and to the traditional music and dancing of the River people. Getting into the groove turned out to be a lot of fun but I must admit I was glad that karaoke is not something the locals seem to engage in.

Those interested in this much loved pastime can do so upon the return to Sandakan town while enjoying a cold beer which some may crave as there is no alcohol consumption while on the project.

Local Food

We have to talk about the food during the stay in the village.

Most Lunches and Dinners are provided in local homestays giving you an insight of local customs and enjoying food the way the locals do. If you are left handed you will need to concentrate a little harder than others if you want to eat like the villagers do. The left hand is taboo for eating. You will get your little lesson on local customs and you should take note.

If you like white rice then you have come to the right place. There will be rice for most breakfasts, and for every Lunch and Dinner. Dishes will have generally chicken or fish and there will local vegetables and fruits that are in season. If you can’t go without milk in your coffee or tea, make sure you buy some and take it with you as milk and dairy products are not available.

Why did I choose to come on this project?

The Borneo Wildlife Safari was the perfect fit for me. I got the opportunity to spend an amazing amount of time on the river spotting wildlife, got involved in the tree planting project that is so vital for the local wildlife and the project also pushed me outside my comfort zone by having to get involved within the local community.

During my frequent visits to the area, I’ve met some truly inspirational people who try and link their passion for the protection of local wildlife and its habitat with some form of tourism activities that benefit the local communities. Being able to spend an extended amount of time in one village and fully immerse in local culture and nature was something I wanted to do for a while and will do again whenever the opportunity arises.

What I also immensely enjoy is the fact that projects like this one bring generations together. Students, solo travellers of different ages, retirees… it really is for everyone.

I know I will be a regular participant and return to plot K to monitor the progress. And after participating in two volunteer projects myself, I am thrilled to be a preferred agent with APE Malaysia here in Australia. Being able to support organisations such as these is one of the highlights for me as a travel agent and business owner and I can’t recommend it highly enough to those wanting to make a difference while experiencing the beautiful Kinabatangan region.

Jumpa Lagi Sukau! (See you again soon)

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Barbara Katsifolis

Author Barbara Katsifolis

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