After getting married at the courthouse, Kevin and I embarked on three and a half week honeymoon adventure with the first destination being a National Geographic Expedition in Borneo. But first, we had a long way to get there. Our flight left on Wednesday, April 5, at 1:45am to Hong Kong and after a short layover we continued on to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia.
Day 1 — Arrive Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
We arrived in Sabah’s capital city, Kota Kinabalu—known locally as KK (also very apropos for us Kayla and Kevin newlyweds)—on the northwestern coast of Malaysian Borneo. We stayed at Hyatt Regency Kota Kinabalu in the heart of the city and met our guide for the trip, a native of Borneo, Bedley. We didn’t have much of an agenda on our day of arrival but Kev and I ventured out to a local Chinese spot for some authentic rice noodles in spicy coconut broth with tofu. I also had calamansi juice for the first time. For dinner Bedley took us to another local vegetarian spot for a four course meal.
Day 2 — Arrive Gunung Mulu National Park
The next morning we caught a flight to Gunung Mulu National Park, home to an astonishing network of underground caves set amid jungle-clad mountains, deep canyons, and rivers. “Named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its biodiversity and karst features, the park is dominated by the peaks of Gunung Mulu and Gunung Api.” We walked through one of the largest-known cave passages in the world to explore the enormous Deer Cave and ventured into nearby caves adorned with unusual subterranean flora and limestone formations. At dusk we sat in a viewing area to watch the spectacle of over a million bats exiting the cave in swirling black clouds that kind of looked like giant black strands of DNA.
It was dark and rainy on the walk back but luckily we had headlamps and ponchos/rain jackets and we still spotted critters on the way back including a spiderhunter, an oriental dwarf kingfisher, and two giant walking sticks.
In Mulu we stayed at the Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa which is a super nice resort especially when you consider that you’re literally in the jungle. Our room there was super nice.
Day 3 — Gunung Mulu National Park
We returned to the park the next morning to explore Clearwater Cave and the Cave of the Winds. Instead of walking on a boardwalk in the national park though we hopped on long, thin river boats and cruised down the river to our destination. The Cave of the Winds was given its name based on the fact that there are three openings and you can feel the draft of the wind in certain places. My favorite was Clearwater Cave though because it is amazingly huge. The whole time I couldn’t stop thinking how amazing that it is a natural formation. It kind of felt like Dracula’s cave if Dracula lived in a mansion.
Later, we visited a village of the forest-dwelling Penan people—one of the last surviving hunter-gatherer tribes in Malaysia. We learned about the Penan’s ancient way of life, which is under threat from commercial logging and deforestation.
Days 4 & 5 — Sandakan/Sepilok/Kinabatangan River
Sunday was our last morning in Mulu before continuing on our Nat Geo expedition in Boreno. Although we didn’t have a morning activity scheduled, we convinced Bedley to take us out for a morning hike. We went back to the Mulu National Park entrance and walked the Botanical trail for two hours.
After lunch we flew to the city of Sandakan on Borneo’s eastern coast for the night and the next morning we headed to the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. First we took a behind-the-scenes tour of the nearby Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center and saw the cute little sun bears being released to forage in designated areas. We had a pretty good view, especially with our binoculars. After we visited the orangutan rehabilitation center where orangutans rescued from captivity are reintroduced to the wild. That was also amazing and we got really close to a few of them. They are quite cheeky. Kev even got some footage of a man almost getting pantsed by a large orangutan.
After the conservation center and rehabilitation center we boarded a local boat for a two-hour ride along the Kinabatangan River to our next lodge. We stayed at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a National Geographic Unique Lodge built by native Borneans to celebrate—and help protect—the riverine rain forest and the communities that depend upon it. At dusk we hoped on an electric-motored boat to look for orangutans, pygmy elephants, and proboscis monkeys and boy were we lucky–we saw all of them! It was literally a dream come true to see a whole herd of pygmy elephants by the edge of the river eating bamboo. We got like twenty feet away, it was so incredible.
Day 6 — Kinabatangan River
We woke up early the next morning for a wildlife sun set cruise where we spotted more proboscis monkeys (the Dutch man looking money with no pantaloones) and long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques. Then we went to Gomantong Caves, home to thousands of bats and swiftlets. It was interesting but the smell of bat/bird dung was a bit overpowering and I was kind of terrified of the millions of cockroaches and giant centipedes scurrying around. eeek!
That afternoon we had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with the lodge’s in-house orangutan expert which was really informative; I love what the eco lodge is doing in terms of education and preservation. At dusk we embarked on another river safari to search for monkeys, owls, and crocodiles. We got the see the pygmy elephants again, a baby crocodile, and a buffy fish owl (with one eye! Bedley said another animal likely spit poison in it’s other eye when the owl was trying to catch it).
Days 7 & 8 — Danum Valley Conservation Area
After Sukau Rainforest, we traveled (plane then car) to the valley of the Danum River, known for its 169 square miles of virtually undisturbed primary rain forest—which offers exceptional wildlife viewing. Bird life is equally diverse, with some 275 recorded species. We stayed at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge which was really nice.
We went on a canopy bridge walk in the late afternoon which was a lot of fun and prepped us for the next day (we also learned that Kevin is kind of afraid of heights tehe).
Day 9 — Danum Valley Conservation Area
The next morning we went on a somewhat strenuous hike but the view was rewarding. On the way our guide also shared that as a punishment, long ago felons used to have to carry wooden tombs of the dead up the mountain and stacked in holes within the limestone. It was super humid and we were sweating profusely, so we stopped on the way down by a waterfall to splash around in a rock-sculpted pool.
That afternoon we went on the canopy bridge for another walk. We were super fortunate to spot a male orangutan climbing high in the trees to a nearby female and we also come across a group of red leaf langurs which are my new fav primates. On the way back from our hike, Bedley and Borneo Rainforest Lodge had a nice surprise for us. We had a romantic snack of fruit and dessert and beer overlooking the river.
We ended the day with an evening hike where we saw a deer, snakes, and a bunch of frogs.
Day 10, April 15 — Kota Kinabalu/Depart
We woke up super early the next morning to see the sun rise over Danum Valley which was a really nice way to end our trip. After a light breakfast we caught a flight back to Kota Kinabalu for the night before catching another flight to continue on to Bali.
Borneo is a beautiful country and being able to go with National Geographic Expeditions was super special. I feel so lucky that we saw almost all of the critters I was hoping to see during the trip including the pygmy elephants, sun bears, proboscis monkeys, and red leaf langurs. The rainforest lodges we stayed at were also all really nice and I felt at peace being out in the wilderness. Lastly, I love the itinerary Nat Geo put together and I’m glad we had an amazing guide that we enjoyed spending an entire week with. I would love to go back to Borneo someday and I definitely plan on going on another trip with National Geographic.
Also, here is a link if you’re interested in adopting an orangutan and supporting the effort to sustain the endangered species.