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Belated Borneo Bemusings


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Hi all


This is my first trip report on Safaritalk, and its somewhat late, given our Borneo trip was in March 2019.  But so much of the success of our trip was due to advice and reports here on Safaritalk (for example I'd never even heard or Deramakot before I stumbled onto this page) so I wanted to pay it back.  Plus I just love reading other's trip reports on here too.  


Travelling was myself and my husband, both Australians in our 40s/50s.  We love all wildlife - mammals, birds (although I admit we pay more attention to the colourful flamboyant ones), herps and curious looking insects.  We are not list keepers though, so what you will find here is what comes from memory (particularly in terms of identification) so feel free to chip in if you can id something I can't or I get it wrong B)


I am a photographer, hubbie is not.  I will admit the one disappointing thing about this trip is the quality of the images I brought home.  I expected the photography to be tough, but it was crazy tough.  Everything seemed to be way at the top of dense trees, backlit, in deep shade or at night.  I did get some keepers though.  I will also be adding some to this report that I consider no more than record shots as I suspect the readers here are just as interested in seeing the diversity of what we found as they are in image quality.  Sorry if that's not you :P


So the  itinerary 

2 nights Sepilok

3 nights Deramakot

2 nights Kinabatangan

3 nights Danum Valley

3 nights Pulau Mabul (to dive Sipidan Is)

1 night Semporna (only because we had to)


I usually book everything direct, but because the transfers between these areas seems a bit complex I used Adventure Alternatives Borneo (thanks to a tip on here) to organise everything from the pick up leaving Sepilok to the drop off in Semporna prior to going to Pulau Mabul.  Everything went smoothly.  


So let's get started

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Our first day was filled with travel - we flew Darwin to Singapore, Singapore to KL, KL to Sandakan.  Nothing particularly notable except that I could not get any of the ATMs at KL airport to work - luckily I had a bit of cash so could get enough ringgit for a feed at the airport and a taxi at the end.  On arrival in  Sandakan it was easy to catch a taxi to Sepilok Nature Resort.  We couldn't see much of the hotel arriving at night, but this turned out to be a good choice in a great location (sorry I didn't take any hotel shots this trip).  


I had read that the afternoon session at the orangutan centre was less crowded, so next morning started with a walk to  and in the Rainforest Discovery Centre.  I really enjoyed the walking tracks and suspended walkways here, but expected to see a lot more birds that we did (we arrived around 8.30 am I think).  In fact we saw very few birds at all and I only have one to share.


Black and Yellow Broadbill with something stuck in its beak



Plus a funky lizard 



We then headed back to a little roadside stall for lunch near the entrance to our hotel.  Despite a menu several pages long it turns out that the only thing available was chicken fried rice - so guess what we had.  It was ok but LOTS of garlic - not a first date meal!


Next stop was the Sun Bear Sanctuary.  On arrival we saw our first Prevost Squirrel (no good photos though).  At first the bears could only be seen at a distance but it turned out we happened to be there at feeding time, so we ended up getting some great views.  




This one looks a bit angry but was really just scratching to get rid of all of those flies





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Glad you decided to share this, even if it’s been a while since your trip.  Looking forward to more!

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I always wonder this myself so I will let you know now what camera gear I was using:

2 x Canon 5D Mark IV

Canon 24-105mm lens

Canon 70-300mm L series lens

Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens


Our last stop of the day was the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.  On arrival I found out that they charge an exorbitant fee (RM1000 - that's like AUD$350) to take in a long lens so unfortunately the 150-600mm had to go into a locker.  We headed down to the inside nursery area but it was pretty crowded and I don't like photographing through glass so we didn't stay long and headed around to the feeding platform.  After a bit a female orangutan with a baby came down - backlit of course (this was to be the start of a pattern).


This one gives you a bit of an idea of what the setup looks like.





Cute baby orangutan shots





At one point a male came wandering along the handrail of the viewing area - he had a staff member following along to keep people at a distance (which was needed)




We stayed until the female had decided she had had enough and wandered away with her baby on the back - then the staff told us it was time to go. 


See ya



Cicada on the way out



Back at the hotel we enjoyed a cold beverage or two looking over the lake.  There were a few birds around, including a distant glance at our first hornbill of the trip, but I only have a photo of this cute jumping spider.


1E1A9659 flat high res.jpg

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Sorry not sure how that last baby orangutan photo snuck in there :huh:


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The next morning we had a bit of time before our pick up for Deramakot so we went for a wander along the road in the direction of the rainforest centre.  


We found the nests of some type of weaver bird (Mr Google indicates it is likely a Baya Weaver). 



There was also another bird (didn't get a good look but maybe some sort of swallow or martin) that kept flying in and sort of swooping or landing on the nests.  I have no idea what this behaviour was all about (sorry - fuzzy image).



We also found this Green Crested Lizard





and a Crimson Sunbird



Our driver, arranged by Adventure Alternatives, arrived on time and in style.  What looked like a mild mannered taxi outside was full of bling on the inside - padded and studded with giant fake diamonds (I have an iphone video I'm happy to share if anyone can tell me how to upload it - its a MOV file).  Our driver took us for the two(ish) hour drive to Telupid where we had lunch, stocked up on snacks and beer for Deramakot and met up with our Adventure Alternatives driver and guide (Henry I think - I really need to start writing these things down).


The drive to Deramakot was bumpy but worth the effort.  Just as we came towards the end of the miles (and miles and miles) of palm oil plantations we also saw our only Pygmy Elephants of the trip (there were two). 



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40 minutes ago, shazdwn said:

Sorry not sure how that last baby orangutan photo snuck in there :huh:



It should have been in from the start I think. A very cute picture. 


It'll really interesting reading this alongside Jo's report, as it'll be two different perspectives on the same places and two different approaches. Both will be/ are fascinating and I hope you'll continue to share everything, including your frustration with the light. Very informative. The RM 1000 fee for long lenses! How do they define "long"? 


I really like the B&W sun bear... the colour shot shows how well that worked.





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I will put our Deramakot days and photos into a single post.  The basic plan was a three hour drive each morning and afternoon (including the afternoon of arrival) with time to chill around the camp during the day.  Meals were cooked by an Adventure Alternative cook and were basic but tasty, no complaints here.  We were lucky enough for the first half of our stay to be the only people there, which allowed us to use a roomy open air vehicle with four individual seats and our guide and driver all to ourselves.  Our last day 6 more Alternative Adventure guests arrived and this meant a change of vehicle to one which was still open air, but had three bench seats.  Given the number of hours you spend sitting on these seats on bumpy roads this was much less comfortable, but still ok.  


Of course weather in a rainforest means the plan can not always go to plan.  Henry was very conscious, however, of making sure we had our six ours of game driving (if that's what its called in Borneo) each day.  So much so that when the evening drive on our last day was rained out, he offered to pick us up at 3am to get in our last drive prior to our 7am pick up - which all 8 or us were crazy enough to agree to even though the other 6 were staying another night.  


After hanging around Safaritalk for a while I had secretly hoped we would get lucky and have the famous Mike as our guide - but as we booked relatively late and there was only the two of us I didn't think we had the option of requesting a specific guide.  As it turned our Henry was great and was a crack spotter so all was well.  


Here are some images from our drives at Deramakot, roughly in chronological order.


Colugo - we were lucky enough to have two of these glide right over our heads on the first night - Henry said it was fairly unusual as he often saw the flying squirrels flying, but not so much the colugo



Buffy Fish Owl



Sleeping bird of some description



Philippine Slow Loris 



Boobook Owl



Whiskered Treeswift






Pig -tailed Macaque



Big male Orangutan



We were lucky enough to see a Biturong in late afternoon light - but it was up high and on the move so this is the best I got (great sighting though)



Female Orangutan eating



Wasp/bee nest high up in a tree



Oriental Pied Hornbill



Once he spotted it, Henry seemed determined that we see this next bird - although it was tiny, up high and backlit so that was something of a challenge (I couldn't even see the colours until I edited this image).  Is this a target species for twitchers?  Velvet-fronted Nuthatch (sorry about the grainy image).




Red Giant Flying Squirrel





Small-toothed Palm Civet



Thomas's Giant Flying Squirrel






Ok this post is getting really long so I'm going to break it here.

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1E1A0239 layers.jpg

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20 minutes ago, pault said:


It should have been in from the start I think. A very cute picture. 


It'll really interesting reading this alongside Jo's report, as it'll be two different perspectives on the same places and two different approaches. Both will be/ are fascinating and I hope you'll continue to share everything, including your frustration with the light. Very informative. The RM 1000 fee for long lenses! How do they define "long"? 


I really like the B&W sun bear... the colour shot shows how well that worked.



Thanks @pault


How do they define long?  Seemed to be pretty arbitrary as the entry staff are not photographers, but I would say any decent long prime or large telephoto.  I had my 150-500mm out when I arrived so it was pretty obvious I had it, but my 70-300mm was in my backpack so I didn't pull that out until I was well inside (although I suspect that one would have been ok anyway). 


Yes @kittykat23uk's trip seems a lot more intrepid than ours was.  I'm really enjoying her report.  

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Ok back to Deramakot - let me know if I'm putting up too many photos


One evening drive we had just started out when it began pouring with rain.  We stopped and sheltered a bit in what looked like staff quarters of some kind just down the road.  The stop gave us a chance to see our first Pygmy Squirrel and this crazy blue scorpion



The rain let up for a bit and we tried to go on, but as soon as we left it poured down again so we had to call it quits for the night.


The next day

Mother and baby Orangutan.  As @pault has given me permission to do so I will complain a bit more about the light :lol:.  Seriously, I think every good sighting we had during the day at Deramakot was on the backlit side of the road.  Now that can be creative and fun at times, but not ALL the time.  



See what I mean (different baby Orangutan sighting by the way)



For the first couple of days I kept seeing this amazing looking bird with a long tail flit quickly past - never pausing long enough for a photo.  I became my nemesis bird for a bit but I finally got it - Asian Paradise Flycatcher



Malay Civet on the road



Another Small-toothed Civet eating fruit - we saw lots of civets



Sambar Deer


Don't know what this is - we stopped because Henry thought he spotted a pitta.


Greater Racquet-tailed Drongo



Rhinoceros Hornbill in the mist




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Between drives at Deramakot there are a couple of walking tracks you can do.  We took one and spotted an amazing Blue-Headed Pitta - which took off a soon as my hubby who was in front said "pitta" so all I got was a not very good photo of its back.  Stunning bird though.  Other than that you can wander the grounds a bit - I saw a few birds this way but not as many as I thought I would (but it did rain a bit so that didn't help) - but there is not much else to do so remember to bring a good book.


Here are some images from around the grounds

Red-Bearded Bee-eater



Swallows in the rain (taken from our balcony)



Leaf bird






I'm excited just to be alive!


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So much for Deramakot being one post.  But a couple more thoughts before I move on.


Night photography - although I do very little flash photography I brought a speedlight and Magmod extender with me for the night drives.  It got a little bit of use but I found that for the most part the animals were too high in the trees for it to work.  Henry has a very powerful spotlight so I ended up putting my settings on auto ISO and just using that - it gave me record shots but with a frighteningly high ISO (mostly 32000) and it shows.  I'm not sure if there is any other way though unless the wildlife cooperates by being closer.  


Other groups - there has been a bit of chatter on @kittykat23uk's report about whether Adventure Alternatives have exclusive use of Deramakot.  The last night we were there there was a large group that were clearly not with AA.  I think they might have been students but I can't confirm.  They were driving in "normal" 4WD vehicles which must have been terrible for trying to see anything - although they did stay dry when we were far from it on occasion.  They gave me a laugh as we were waiting for our transfer out by excitingly taking photos with their iphones outside the dining room of a maroon langur - which through my 600mm I could clearly see was actually a large dead leaf.  


An a bit of creative licence inspired by the beauty of some of the trees in the area


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1 hour ago, shazdwn said:


Thanks @pault


How do they define long?  Seemed to be pretty arbitrary as the entry staff are not photographers, but I would say any decent long prime or large telephoto.  I had my 150-500mm out when I arrived so it was pretty obvious I had it, but my 70-300mm was in my backpack so I didn't pull that out until I was well inside (although I suspect that one would have been ok anyway). 



I happened to come across the answer to my question (I have booked flights to Sabah in April and so am researching guide (and more likely on my own) tour options once there. Basically your suspicions were correct, although I could try arguing  that technically my 100 - 400 is a 100 - 387 and bring along the article to prove it!  Or change the 400 to a 300 with a marker pen.


 For any camera (fixed-lens - 400mm and above ) or any film-making equipment are chargeable at RM1,000.00 per unit.

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24 minutes ago, pault said:


I happened to come across the answer to my question (I have booked flights to Sabah in April and so am researching guide (and more likely on my own) tour options once there. Basically your suspicions were correct, although I could try arguing  that technically my 100 - 400 is a 100 - 387 and bring along the article to prove it!  Or change the 400 to a 300 with a marker pen.


Or you could just scratch out the 400 and call it a 100mm :ph34r:


I'm sure there are more on here more knowledgeable than I on the area but if you have any questions I'd be happy to see if I can answer them.  You will love it though, its and incredible place.  

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Question - is there something about posting photos directly on Safaritalk that makes them look soft?  I promise mine aren't all out of focus like they seem to appear on my screen (or maybe it is just the way the low res image presents on a large monitor?).  Anyway...


We left Deramakot at about 7am with an AAB driver who took us as far as the main road.  There we were met by our bling bling taxi and driver for the trip to the Kinabatangan River.  I can't remember the exact travel time but with a stop for lunch and about 45mins at Gomantong Cave, we arrived in time to check in and have a quick break before out 3pm boat trip.  


Gomantong Cave was definitely worth the stop - despite the bat droppings making it smelly and slippery.  However, I wouldn't recommend going in the middle of the day like we did - if I was to do it again I would plan a sunset visit when you can see the bats leaving the cave. 


Gomantong Cave





Bats flying around the cave


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Beautiful photos, great to get another Borneo report. Particularyl like the Red-Bearded Bee-Eater, stunning bird!

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Thanks very much for sharing. Deramakot is clearly becoming too popular :unsure:. Tell me about the frustration of photography in rainforests.  You must have very strong arms and shoulder muscles to have that Sigma sports 150-600 aimed at the high canopy all the time.  I also feel that ST photos appear to be  a little more noisy than the original ones, probably due to downsizing. Glad that you were happy with Henry's guiding.   I was also offered Henry in place of Mike. Mike is in huge demand nowadays  !

Just curious about something that AA Borneo was strongly recommending to me : Imbak canyon. Did  they mention that to you and if so did you consider that at all ? 

Looking forward to the next section. 

Edited by Chakra
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Wow, sounds  like  you did well @shazdwn.


Thanks for taking  the  time to post your narrative  and photos, they are  much appreciated.   Borneo seems to be rising on my bucket list as a result of the enticing trip reports Safaritalkers have been posting the last couple of years.  


I am jealous of your Colugo encounter - what marvelous camouflage they have.  And wow - Binturong, multiple giant flying squirrel species, Slow Loris, Orangutans, etc. - sounds like a wonderful time.  Whiskered Tree Swifts have captured my imagination for some time.  


Question: do you have any advice on rainproofing your camera rig while having it accessible?   Did you put it in and out of a dry bag or did you have a cover or hood arrangement?

Your "LBJ" bird seems to be a Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) presumably the malaccensis subspecies. 



Velvet-fronted Nuthatch is a charmer.  Beautiful creatures.  This is what a couple of resources have to say about it:


Wikipedia:   The velvet-fronted nuthatch is a small passerine bird in the nuthatch family Sittidae found in southern Asia from Nepal, India, Sri Lanka ‍and Bangladesh east to south China and Indonesia.


eBird:   One of the few nuthatches to break the general neutral color scheme of the family, this stunner can be quite common in lowland and foothill evergreen forests. Aquamarine upperparts, crimson bill, and black patch on the forehead make this active little species unmistakable. Forages by creeping along trunks and branches, often upside down. Follows mixed-species flocks.

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@shazdwn what a great trip, fantastic photos and already quite a contrast to what we saw in Deramakot. @Chakra yes I do not recommend anyone else gets the idea to visit Deramakot, it is getting way too busy now 😜 

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I am really enjoying the story and photos. Borneo sounds wonderful, with amazing wildlife and I would love to go there sometime. Hopefully the wildlife will be preserved for the future, what are your thoughts about it now that you visited?

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Great report so far. Thanks for going forward with it. 

Rainforest photography is just about the most challenging thing there is. If you can come home with a few photos you are happy with, you are doing well. To get a good portfolio, you just have to go back, again and again, I’m afraid. 

Downsizing requirements on ST can impact image quality, but your photos do not all look soft on my end. Well done, and looking forward to more. 

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3 hours ago, kittykat23uk said:

yes I do not recommend anyone else gets the idea to visit Deramakot, it is getting way too busy now 😜 

But 20 years ago, I have had no clue it even exists! Kinabatangan River yes, Danum Valley yes (but was over-the-top pricey even back then) but nobody discussed Deramakot. However, I have had no knowledge about existance of Safaritalk either :D.


@shazdwn, I was a bit worried after your initial statement about poor quality of your photos; luckily you were overreacting, most of them are very good. And Canon 5D IV is a low light monster. About apparent softness, there was a long discussion some time ago how much the downsizing of photos applied by ST software harms the quality. At that time, it was said that if a photo is uploaded at 1000 pix long end, it is not automatically downsized (and /or compressed). Maybe try a couple of tests by uploading a smaller size of what you are uploading right now.


Yet do not be distracted by those technicalities; your photos are great, and keep on with your trip report!

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I think Deramakot only really started to get attention in 2013 when the first reports of rare nocturnal mammals started to appear on mammalwatching.com By 2014/15 tours were starting up. I first went in 2017 and again last year. Now all the big companies offer it as an option focusing on the mammals. Some companies run specialised nocturnal tours now, like naturetrek and others do tailor made. 

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@michael-ibk, @Chakra, @offshorebirder, @kittykat23uk, @xyz99, @Alexander33 and @xelas thanks for following along


@Chakra AAB didn't suggest Imbak Canyon to me - in fact they didn't make any suggestions on my itinerary at all.  I'm not used to dealing with travel agents and have learnt from this trip that I really need to ask more questions.  That said AAB booked everything I asked them too, arranged transfers and had good communication so I have no complaints.  I would recommend Henry, but let him know up front what you are interested in.  At first he didn't really identify the birds we were seeing, but after I had asked a couple of times he quickly picked up that we were interested in birds as well as mammals and did from then on.  I guess I just figured that all guides would assume we were interested in everything - but I have now learnt that in reality I think most guides assume you are only interested in the highlight animals/birds unless you tell them otherwise.  He was very conscientious about making sure we got our seven hours a day (I said 6 earlier but that was a memory failure - it was typically 4 hours morning drive and 3 hours afternoon drive), on the first day we had to have a shortened drive (I can't remember why) and that night he was very clear that he 'owed' us an hour which he added to the morning drive the next day. We were extremely lucky to be the only tourists at Deramakot for our first two days - so had Henry as a private guide without paying the premium :D


@offshorebirder thanks for the id (I thought it looked like a sparrow of some sort) and the nuthatch notes - it was certainly creeping around the trunk.  As for waterproofing the camera - I did use just a cheap rainsleeve like this https://www.cameraelectronic.com.au/optech-rainsleeve-clear-flash-14-inches-pack-of-2 which actually worked pretty well, I also had a light drybag handy that I could put the camera in quickly if the rain got too heavy.  The 5DIV is pretty well weatherproofed as well so I wasn't too worried. 


@kittykat23uk  while I am waiting with baited breath to find out what you actually say at Dermakot this time (especially did you get the elusive feline - you seriously deserved to for the effort put in!) it does seem like our experiences were quite different.  There was only one drive where we saw another tourist vehicle - and that was the students that I mentioned earlier, other than that we pretty much had the place to ourselves.  We had great sightings, but mostly at quite a distance (even at 600mm almost all of my photos are also cropped).  I was disappointed not to see any cats, I didn't expect a clouded leopard (but would have loved it) but was expecting to at least spot a leopard cat - both Henry and I thought we did at one point but it turned out to be a Malay Civet.  But that's wildlife watching right.  Although I can see from your report that going on a specialist mammal watching trip is quite a different beast to just being a general wildlife tourist like we were.  


@xyz99 I would recommend Borneo to any wildlife watcher - I absolutely loved it.  Also I like the fact that as well as fully protected nature reserves there are places like Deramakot which is a logging area - but managed to also preserve the wildlife.  There are some serious lessons other countries (including Australia) could learn from that.  So despite all the palm oil (and there is soooo much) I am optimistic about the future of Borneo's wildlife (not that I have done a lot of research into the matter so that is not a particularly scholarly opinion!).  


@Alexander33 you are not wrong about rainforest photography.  I'd like to go back but I'm not sure I could convince my hubby that a repeat visit is needed to get a better orangutan shot (he's not a photographer so doesn't always understand my motivations!).  


@xelas thanks for the tip (and the compliments :)), I'll try that.  Yes low light capability is one of the reasons I upgraded from my Canon 7D to the 5DIV.  



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