Borneo – A Wildlife Photography Tour Extraordinaire by Dale Morris
Borneo is the world’s 3rd biggest island; an exotic and tropical destination where rainforests dominate. It’s split between three countries; Indonesia; Brunei, and Malaysia, but it is only in Sabah (Malaysia) where one can hope to find wildlife in abundance.
Much of Borneo’s wild spaces have sadly been converted into palm oil plantations. But in Sabah, there are jungle reserves; primary forests; and a history of nature conservation and wildlife rehabilitation. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation project, for example, has had a presence in the region for almost 60 years.
Having spent around 20 years of my own life working in rainforests, mostly with primates, I can honestly say that Sabah in Borneo is one of my all-time favourite destinations to run photographic expeditions to.
Forests can be challenging places for the keen nature photographer. The conditions can feel dark. Animals can sometimes be hidden at the top of the tree canopy, obscured by foliage and branches. But there is almost always a way to find an optimum shooting position and then come home with cards filled to the brim with tropical gold. If you know how to shoot in a rainforest, you will find that perfect gap in the vegetation, or if shooting a macro subject, you will know how to use special techniques for artificial lighting. And if you don’t know how to shoot in a rainforest? Well, no worries. That’s what I’m there for. To help you with settings, positions, sightings, and photographic concepts and compositions.
The sheer diversity of a tropical rainforest means that there is always something exciting to find. Tree frogs, bizarre caterpillars; beautiful orchids; tropical birds; insects and brightly coloured spiders. Lizards, landscapes and monkeys galore. These are all on the target list, as are hornbills, Bornean pygmy elephants, wild cats; civets; tarsiers; colugos; mushrooms; gibbons; and of course, shaggy haired orangutans: – an ape, so human in appearance and demeanour, that to encounter one is a very profound experience.
I’ve just come home from my 8th Borneo photography tour, where we had some absolutely draw dropping encounters with orangutan mothers and their dependent infants. We saw leopard cats, and gibbons. We saw Rhinoceros hornbills. And we saw various species of monkeys by the bucket load.
Ruminating on my previous experiences leading photo tours to Borneo, there are a few outstanding encounters I will always cherish.
For instance, whilst plying the waterways of the Kinabatangan River, my guests and I chanced upon a big male orangutan up a tree right there on the river bank. He was busy eating vine bark and fresh leaves, and we had him all to ourselves for as long as we wanted. In Borneo, orangutans are generally accustomed to humans and do not change their behaviour in our presence. He really didn’t care that we were there on our boat, snapping away with our oversized lenses.
The same river will often reward us with sightings of herds of Pygmy Elephants; a descendant of the Indian elephant and an extremely rare animal.
I recall one photo tour we undertook that required us to chase rumours of elephant sightings several hours away from the lodge. We cruised up and down the jungle lined waterways, and we putted slowly along narrow tributaries and into lakes filled with water lilies and hyacinths.
The day was drawing to a close, and we had not seen any elephants at all. And then the heavens opened up (it’s not called a rainforest for nothing) and we found ourselves drenched from head to foot.
We waited out the worst of the deluge, anchored on the forested bank, surrounded by huddles of monkeys who were also sheltering from the rain. And that’s when the herd appeared; as if by magic on the opposite side of the river. They revelled in the downpour. They played and splashed and rolled in mud. They swam, lifting their trunks like snorkels. And they feasted on thick stands of, aptly named, elephant grass.
“That was amazing luck” I recall one of my guests exclaiming as we made our way back to the lodge for dinner. But it wasn’t really luck. ORYX Photo Tours always uses the best local trackers who know the animals and the areas like the back of their hands.
“I expected them to be there” said our boat driver “Its where they like to go after heavy rains.”
We also always see the outlandish Proboscis Monkeys along the Kinabatangan river. Males of this species have enormous noses which, apparently, are irresistible to female monkeys.
I recall seeing this proven one morning when we found a troop of these beguiling primates clustered at the very top of a tall tree, next to a slow-moving tributary. On one side, a big male, with his troop of adoring females. On the other, was a rival male, alone, but sporting a noticeably larger nose. One by one, the ladies abandoned their own male by jumping directly into the river and then swimming across (despite the fact there are crocodiles!) The look of dejected sadness on the face of the male with the smaller nose was almost heart breaking.
I say ‘almost’ because the situation was so comical that we all burst out laughing. Poor chap!
In Tabin, the 2nd destination on our Borneo photography tour, we can often expect to encounter Oriental short clawed otters – a very cute animal that frequents the shallow forest river which flows past our chalets. My guests and I were charmed to the max when a family of these endearing creatures stopped by for a fishing lesson. Younger otters were being taught by the adults, but they weren’t very competent at it. Some fish were landed, only to flap themselves back into the water. Some fish just clean got away. The youngsters were frustrated and cried and had tantrums but eventually, under the guidance of elder otters, they all managed to eventually catch something.
It was also in Tabin, during one of our regular night drives, that I noticed a pair of eyes reflected in my spotting light, way high up in a very tall roadside tree. I almost ignored it, thinking it might just be a flying squirrel or a Palm civet (species that are easily encountered at night) but the colour seemed off, so we stopped and looked more carefully. That’s when my local guide almost jumped out of his seat with shock and excitement. “It’s a Marbled cat” he cried, peering into the dark canopy with his binoculars. A very rare species that he himself had never seen in more than 20 years of guiding. Tiny and patterned like a clouded leopard, this beautiful cat was certainly one of my favourite rainforest encounters of all time.
But nothing beats our regular Tabin treks into the forests to photograph Gibbons. They are a small, very long armed ape, that bonds with a partner for life, and sings in celebration every single morning. Their gorgeous melodies enhance the exotic ambience of Borneo’s steaming jungles. Typically hard to photograph, as they are flipping fast and normally stay up high, the families who live near to our chalets will, instead, frequently come down lower, and present themselves for photography.
Last, but certainly not least, we end our trip in the primary jungles of the Danum Valley- a beautiful untouched area where skyscraper trees and swirling mists set the stage for a whole heap of photography sessions. I love it when we take an early morning hike uphill to where we catch sunrise from a viewing platform.
Before dawn breaks, swirling mists flow through the canopy below us like ethereal rivers. The 6 ‘o clock cicada will whirr into action, announcing to all who live in the jungles that a new day is about to commence, and all of a sudden, a dawn chorus of exotic birds, insects and singing primates will fill the air with beautiful tunes. It’s a very special thing indeed, and the landscape photography opportunities from up there are a real treat as well.
Finally, I recall my favourite orangutan encounter was from the Danum.
A young 1st time mother and her tiny little infant had decided to hang around in the vicinity of the lodge, perhaps steering clear of a big male who had recently been seen in the nearby forests. Orangutans are predominantly solitary and don’t enjoy each other’s company, and in fact, males can sometimes be dangerous to babies.
Being intelligent, this agile and arboreal mom had worked out that he was a bit too nervous to hang out so near to the sometimes-noisy open-air lodge restaurant, and so that’s where she decided to be. My guests and I had the awesome privilege of being able to watch and photograph her from the comfort of our dining table. I’ve never before had the option to shoot a wild orangutan with my 200mm lens whilst, at the same time, being served a nice cold beer by a waiter.
A Borneo photography tour is always full of surprises; be it a weird gliding colugo, or the bright orange colour of a baby langur monkey.
I hope you will join me there some day, and we will venture the rainforests together, leaving nothing but footprints, but taking home a shed load of photos and a whole suitcase of awesome jungle memories.