Borneo Explorer, Malaysia

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 13750A, International


  • Hike, bird, and marvel in the dramatic and lush Mount Kinabalu Park World Heritage site
  • Cruise jungle rivers looking for monkeys, gibbons, hornbills, and the elusive Borneo pygmy elephant
  • Snorkel in warm waters amongst brilliant coral reefs and rainbow-colored fish


  • Delicious Malay and continental meals and comfortable hotels and jungle lodges
  • Expert on-trip naturalist, transportation in a private coach, and one in-country flight
  • All admissions, excursions, and gratuities


DatesOct 27–Nov 7, 2013
StaffKath Giel

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Trip Overview

The Trip

Borneo is one of the world’s last wild places with its dense rainforests, tropical coastal islands, and mysterious jungle valleys. As such, it has become a rare place on this planet today -- somewhere you can still encounter a rich variety of colorful and endangered wildlife amidst amazing natural scenery. Borneo is part of Malaysia and is the third-largest island in the world. It is considered one of the most bio-diverse places, having over 15,000 species of plants, 221 species of terrestrial mammals, and 420 species of birds.

This trip is designed for active people with a sense of adventure. We will explore many parts of the incredible island, from coral reefs to the lower elevations of the 14,000-foot Mt. Kinabalu, searching for wildlife and birds and unique plant life. We’ll see unique birds with names such as spiderhunters, flowerpeckers, bee-eaters, trillers, and sunbirds. The Borneo rainforest is one of the only remaining habitats for the Borneo Orangutan and Pygmy elephant, and we hope to experience these wild mammals firsthand. We stay at several jungle lodges; an added special highlight is two nights at a first-class rainforest lodge in the pristine Danum Valley. At these remote lodges we go in search of the many birds and mammals found during the day, as well as those during the night, such as civets, flying squirrels, sambar deer, and slow loris. We hike to and explore Gomantong Cave, a spacious limestone cavern where locals sustainably harvest nests on tall bamboo ladders to make the authentic "birds nest soup." The trip also explores the rich cultural diversity in Borneo and visit sites of historical interest, particularly those of World War II.

We travel comfortably by private tourist bus with our own driver and naturalist, and enjoy spectacular scenery along the way, feasting on tropical fruits and healthy, fresh, local cuisine. The trip includes one in-country flight and a number of jungle boat cruises. Venture to the wild!


Note: The following day-to-day itinerary may vary according current conditions.

Day 1: Arrive at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport and transfer to our luxurious hotel via our hotel van. In the evening, we meet each other over a welcome dinner and get a preview of the adventure ahead.
Day 2: After breakfast we embark on a short boat ride to several islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. We tour the islands by boat and stop at Manukan Island to explore a trail and snorkel amongst brain and staghorn coral reefs and encounter brilliantly colored fish. We enjoy a barbeque lunch on the beach. We return to town in the afternoon to relax at our hotel before going to a wonderful traditional Malaysian restaurant for dinner.
Day 3: We depart in the early morning for a two-hour journey through breathtaking scenery to Mt. Kinabalu Park, a World Heritage site, with a short stop at Nabalu village to savor the local fruits and to bargain prices for the handicrafts sold by villagers. Upon arrival at Mt. Kinabalu Park, we embark on a guided nature walk with a Park naturalist. After lunch, there is free time to visit the Mountain Garden and Education center -- home to various species of flowering rhododendrons, carnivorous pitcher plants, orchids, ferns, oak trees, and birds -- hike on another trail, bird-watch, or simply relax. The park is a beautiful spot and many locals visit here to escape the heat and humidity of the lowlands. We spend the night in the Park at a cozy lodge.
Day 4: An early morning start may reward us with a view of the 14,000-foot jagged granite summit of Mt. Kinabalu and some new colorful birds, like the black-sided flowerpecker or the beautiful short-tailed green magpie. After breakfast we’ll travel to the Timpohon Gate and hike for several hours. The trail is well-maintained and crosses several streams. In the afternoon we travel to the Kundasang Memorial Park to learn about the role that Borneo played during World War II and the Sandakan Death March. Our evening is spent at a lodge with a commanding view of Mt. Kinabalu.
Day 5: This morning we continue overland toward Poring Hot Springs, stopping to walk three miles on jungle trails to access treetop canopy walkways more than one hundred feet above the forest floor. If we are lucky, we may see the streaky-breasted spiderhunter. We also may find the flowering Raffelesia, or "corpse flower," that can have a blossom more than three feet in diameter! In the late afternoon we transfer overland to Sandakan in our private bus to our peaceful jungle lodge near the Sepilok Orangutan Center for the next two nights.
Day 6: After a hearty breakfast, we walk a half-mile to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center to view an informational video and then walk through the rainforest to experience the orangutan feedings. In the afternoon we travel less than two miles to the The Rainforest Discovery Centre, a fantastic center educating visitors about the Borneo rainforest. We traverse several steel canopy walk ways on our walk, learning about plants, jungle birds and other animals and hoping to see the legendary Borneo bristlehead. We have a light snack and then go on a night walk at the center, experiencing the deep black of the night as well as all the amazing creatures that are active at this time. Back at our jungle lodge we have dinner and recount the day’s adventures.
Day 7: We leave our jungle lodge in the morning for a quick tour of Sandakan. We visit a Buddhist temple built above the city, the charming home and gardens of a famous naturalist, and the bustling downtown area. In the late morning we head for the jetty for our boat journey to our lodge on Sabah’s longest river, the Kinabatangan. There are many opportunities to view birds and wildlife in virgin mangrove, wetland, and rainforest habitats along the way. After settling in at our riverside lodge, we set off in the late-afternoon and take a river cruise on a motorized boat to look for some of the 10 primate species that live in the area. A highlight will be spotting proboscis monkeys, often seen on the treetops along the river. Wild orangutans, long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques, monitor lizards, and various species of hornbills and kingfishers may be seen. If we are lucky, we may even sight the wild Borneo pygmy elephant. We return to our lodge for a solar-heated hot shower, a candlelit dinner, and a slide show conducted by our resident naturalist.

Day 8: We wake up to the jungle calls of the gibbons and hornbills. An early river cruise up the Kinabatangan River gives us a chance to view more birds and wildlife, and perhaps see the blue-banded kingfisher. We then proceed to the Kelenanap oxbow lake for a short flat jungle walk of about a mile. Here we really get to experience the wilderness of Borneo. In the afternoon we enjoy another river boat ride in the search for more wildlife. After dinner we will enjoy a night safari cruise, which gives us a chance to spot some of the many nocturnal species of animals that inhabit the area such as civits and sambar deer.
Day 9: This morning we travel overland to Gomantong Caves. We’ll walk just under a mile through the rainforest to get to the cave entrance. We learn about the balance of ecology with the cave bat, swift, and crab inhabitants. We then drive through some selectively logged forests, cocoa and softwood plantations, and massive palm plantations to reach our next lodge, located on the Danum River at the edge of 438 square kilometers of undisturbed lowland rainforest. This area is home to an incredible diversity of wildlife of more than 275 species of birds and 110 species of mammals, not to mention abundant plant life. We will be staying at a first-class nature resort, complete with all the usual luxuries for the next two nights. After hiking about four miles along the relatively level Riverside Trail in the afternoon, we enjoy a wonderful dinner. After dinner we view a presentation on the Danum Valley area before taking a night drive through the rainforest; if we are lucky, we may see nocturnal species such as civet, flying squirrel, porcupine, sambar deer, leopard cat, and slow loris.
Day 10: Today we hike about six miles in this wild paradise. First we will take an early-morning bird walk of about a mile before breakfast, crossing gorges on the hanging walkways. Afterward, we will look for sunbirds, bee-eaters, and mammals in other parts of the park. We hike a half-mile uphill to Coffin Cliff, an escarpment lined with ancient burial coffins. We then trek to a waterfall and enjoy a cool dip in a rock-lined pool. After lunch we enjoy a canopy walkway for more birding. We take another night drive this evening, weather permitting to look for nocturnal animals and for the Borneo frog-mouthed owl.
Day 11: We’ll take another morning hike of several miles in search of new species to add to our list. Later we board our bus or four-wheel drive vehicles to Lahad Datu, a small town with plenty of character. This area has many palm oil and cacao plantations, and we learn how these operations affect the indigenous wildlife and how conservation efforts are developing to protect remaining habitat. In the afternoon we fly back to Kota Kinabalu for a last night and farewell dinner together.
Day 12: Sadly, our trip comes to an end after breakfast. Our photos and memories will keep alive all that we experience in this wild country.



Getting There

The trip starts and ends in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. While Kota Kinabalu is a relatively small city in Asia, it is served by a number of regular flights out of Singapore, Seoul, Korea, Bangkok, Thailand, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The leader can assist you with flight suggestions. You will be met at the airport and transferred to our hotel. The leader will be happy to assist you if you wish to extend your stay on either end of the trip.


Accommodations and Food

No special equipment is needed. However, binoculars and a camera are highly recommended. Your leader will provide a comprehensive packing list well in advance of the trip.We will stay in charming lodges, modern hotels, and first-class jungle lodges. All of our accommodations have air conditioning or room fans. Rooms are double-occupancy; if you come alone we'll give you a roommate. A single supplement may be available for additional cost; please contact the leader. The food will be delicious -- a mix of local and typical Asian dishes, with a variety of tropical fruits and vegetables. Vegetarians can be accommodated. We'll travel by comfortable, private, air-conditioned bus. There will be a few long drives, but the scenery along the way is spectacular.


Trip Difficulty

This trip is suitable for individuals who are in good health, get regular exercise, enjoy nature, and have a good-humored approach to traveling in Asia -- where things might not go as predictably as they do at home. Our trip is not strenuous, and can be considered leisurely-to-moderate most days. Elevation gains and losses on most hikes are minimal. Although October is considered the end of the dry season, rain can fall at any time in the jungle. Rain will not restrict our movements or our enjoyment of the forests or coast. We can expect sometimes hot and humid conditions when we are hiking or wildlife viewing, but dressing properly and hydrating well will increase your comfort level.


Equipment and Clothing

No special equipment is needed. However, binoculars and a camera are highly recommended. Your leader will provide a comprehensive packing list well in advance of the trip.




  • Garbutt, Nick, Wild Borneo: The Wildlife and Scenery of Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei, and Kalimantan. Excellent overview of natural history and current preservation efforts. Published in association with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.
  • Myers, Susan, Birds of Borneo: Brunei, Sabah, Sarawak, and Kalimantan (Princeton Field Guides). Full field guide.
  • McNamee, Brian Row, Wild Pythons & Head-Hunters in Borneo. A classic travel narrative.
  • Galdikas, Birute, Reflections of Eden: My Years With the Orangutans of Borneo.Primatologist recruited by Leakey to study orangutans.
  • Payne, Junaidi, Wild Malaysia: The Wildlife and Landscapes of Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak, and Sabah. Great inspirational overview with photos.


  • Overview information:



The Sierra Club is an environmentally focused entity. We are concerned about conservation and sustainability of resources both locally and globally. Our work is accomplished by volunteers and aided by a salaried staff, and encourages grassroots involvement. Our outings hope to guide participants toward understanding the environmental parallels between home and abroad.

In Borneo, we will get an up-close look at conservation in action. The country is struggling with protecting indigenous animals and plants while striving for economic development. Borneo historically had extensive rainforest cover, but the Malaysian plywood industry has had a detrimental effect. Half of the annual global tropical timber comes from Borneo. Tracts of fast-growing tropical trees have been planted on formerly logged and deforested areas to supplement the timber production pressure on the native species. Malaysia is the second-largest world producer and largest exporter of palm oil. These palm oil plantations are rapidly encroaching on the last remnants of primary rainforest. The rainforest was also greatly destroyed from the forest fires of 1997 to 1998, which were started by the locals to clear the forests for crops. Further deforestation and destruction of the biodiversity are anticipated in the wake of logging commissions, hydroelectric dams, and other mining of minerals and resources.

We will have many opportunities to discuss these issues with naturalists and rangers as we travel this amazing country on the brink of critical decisions for future preservation.



Kath Giel

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