An article written in the eyes of our Naturalist on what to expect and see in Deramakot Forest Reserve. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Off the beaten tracks, a myriad of wildlife and lush tropical rainforest awaits to feed your inner explorer’s spirit.
Before visiting Deramakot Forest Reserve, I’ve always heard about how this place has a lot of things to offer, especially if you’re a wildlife enthusiast and all under that category. It’s home to 75% of this island’s mammals and the key habitat for some of the threatened large mammals such as the Bornean Orangutan, Sunda Pygmy Elephant and Sunda Clouded Leopard.
This means chances is always there to see one of those large creatures and of course if luck in your side.
When the trip plan was announced a month earlier, there was nothing that excited me more than exploring a new place and gaining a new experience from there. I’ll try to get myself compose even though Deramakot as it’s one of those places on my travel list for quite a long time.
Back to my explorer mode, I’ll start to get myself ready by doing some research before and here’s a bit of something that is worth to be share.
It’s a reserve known to be a model forest for the best forest management practices, certified by a Forest Stewardship Council, back in the year 1997 up until 2019. This certification has made DFR hold the longest-certified tropical rainforest in the world, covering an area of 55,507 hectares of Mixed Dipterocarp forest.
It’s also the first tropical rainforest in the world to be certified as a “ Well Managed” forest under the Forest Stewardship Council, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting responsible management of the world’s forest.
Anyway, early calls in the morning and, the day started off extremely well. Sun proudly show herself today and it’s really quite surprising for all of us as the weather seems to stay on our side today, even though the notorious Northeast Monsoon just knocking on the door, especially at this end of the year.
We really couldn’t ask for better than this. We hop on our 4WD after all gears and equipment are all set and start our journey out from the concrete jungle to the real jungle.
With excitement and a bit of expectation unfolding, we’re off to the heart of Borneo.
The Journey to Deramakot
The 200km journey from the capital city to the district of Telupid gives us a stunning view of the interior of the state landscapes, thanks to the great weather that accompanies us along the drive. We started our drive along the concrete jungle and bustling road, within less than an hour, the road that we ride gradually picked up higher elevations, and the view becoming more better.
Endless ranges decorate this highlands ground, pushing the majestic Mount Kinabalu to the center of the stage for the people around to see. In a couple of hours, the journey starts to descend down to the lowland, and the mosaic of agricultural sites starts to dominate the landscape throughout the journey. The transition is genuinely uncanny.
After lunch, we continue our journey. From paved to gravel road, the drive gets more adventurous as we get closer to our destination. Soon after a few stops at a number of checkpoints for registration and documentation purposes, we do the last stop to prepare for entering the reserved main entrance.
My friend Jason and I hopped on behind our 4WD truck converted makeshift safari vehicle, got our binoculars and camera ready, and started our wildlife spotter mode.
Less than five minutes after the journey continues, our first wildlife shows up, a wild Orangutan. Not one but two, a mother with her offspring. It really took us by surprise as we never thought to see any large mammals at the early stages of our trip.
After a brief moment, we decided to continue our drive and this time with low expectations. Not long after the first sighting, another wild Orangutan was sighted, meeting three individual in less than an hour. We really thought to ourselves, “not bad for the first day, right.”
Just when we thought we couldn’t be more luckier, only a few kilometers before we reach the base camp, a small band of an elephant spotted foraging next to the main road and start to venture inside as our vehicle marched close to where they are.
We were extremely shocked and at the same time excited, as we never thought to see any of these particular large mammals yet, as these elephants consider elusive like Orangutans, therefore seeing them in the wild is just special.
Well, I guess luck really on our side today.
Reaching the Base Camp
We arrived late in the afternoon, the morning sun that had been escorting us today just sunk behind the horizon, welcoming the dark of the night to start her shift. These are the time when we all finally felt the tension in our bodies, after almost the whole day on the road. But it doesn’t stop us to get ourselves ready for our next adventure.
There’s one thing that amazed me, not just myself but also the rest. When reaching the base camp, never cross our mind that the facilities are looking more than a “base camp.” Most probably our initial impression of the word “base camp” itself put our expectations low and only focus on seeing as much as wildlife we can within a short period.
The accommodation conditions are basic yet comfortable and clean. All rooms are equipped with an a/c and attached bathroom and toilet, quite surprising for accommodation in that so-called “base camp.”
After a quick unpacking and dinner, it’s about time for another trip back to the road, in search of the nocturnal ’s. This time, the spotlight is one of the essential gear needed for this night trip.
A Thrilling Quest For The Nocturnal ’s
The portable spotlight was checked, the camera checked and all the gears ready, it was time to hit the road again. Night safari drives are the highlight of this trip, as this reserve is home to five Bornean Cats, which are most of which are extremely rare and elusive like the Sunda Clouded Leopard, Bornean Cat, and Marbled Cat.
Even though I do put a little hope into seeing one of those wild cats tonight, I know, it’s wild out there and it all depends on luck. With lower expectations, my eyes start to scan every nook and cranny of the forest, aid with the spotlight in hand.
We started the night well. Only a few minutes after, our first nocturnal creature shows up. Buffy Fish-Owl on sight, perched close only a few meters from our rooms. We continue our night trip on the same road where the elephant was sighted in the afternoon.
Yes, we did encounter them again this time we know there are three individuals at least in this band and they still foraging just next to the spot where we had seen them before. We decided not to spend more time around, since we don’t want our presence to disturb or put any stress on this giant activity, therefore we continue our drive and see what was next store for us.
There are a few nocturnal mammals spotted during this night trip, from Flying squirrels and Civets. Yet the highlight is none other than seeing weird-looking rat-like mammals called Moon Rat, scurrying in front of our vehicle before vanishing inside the bush. This creature which turns out is not a rodent. Even though look like one but it is close to Hedgehog than a rat. That’s probably the highlight of tonight’s trip.
After four hours on road, it’s time to call it a day. We headed back to the base camp for a rest before our next day adventure.
The Early Birds Catches the Worms
Misty morning with a pleasant temperature. We start at four in the morning for this drive. Just as most nocturnal animals gradually cease their activities within the last few hours before the morning sun catches the horizon.
This early start really gives us a breathtaking view of the transitions from night to day. As we drive further inside the reserve, the mist gradually disappears, letting the morning blue light penetrate the dense canopy, before it is gone and letting the light start to absorb the whole sphere.
The nocturnal seem more elusive today, most probably because they ceasing their routines just before our drive. Along the way, there are a few sightings of sleeping birds that are worth stopping and observing. Our stop this morning is at a site where rocks are mining for road repairing and upgrading. A great place for coffee and some light breakfast while enjoying our graceful morning.
En route back to the lodge, we encountered a large wild orangutan for a distance, but just briefly, before this hairy-elusive red ape made his retreat and hid inside dense vegetation, sheltering himself from us.
Just when we thought we were done today, another orangutan was sighted. It’s only a few meters from our stop and that makes it our fifth sighting for this trip so far, not bad right? Those sightings wrapped our morning and we’re back to the base camp for breakfast and to get our well-deserved rest before our next adventure in the afternoon.
An Absolute Pouring Along the Tracks
Weather quite gloomy since this morning and we do expect a bit of rain. As we’re in the monsoon season now, we’re in the rainforest. Less than a few minutes after we start, what we had thought was only a drizzle turns out to be a proper downpour.
Extremely pleased we’re making the right decision before starting by putting all our equipment inside the vehicle. All the equipment stays safe and dry, except me and my friend Jason at the back. As we’re both soaking wet, enduring, and enjoying the warm tropical rain.
The rain stops and we end our drive at the edge of the reserve. Next to the longest waterway in Sabah, the Kinabatangan river lies a place called Balat. It’s a station belonging to the Forestry Department of Sabah, named after a small village nearby. We stop for a cup of coffee while waiting for the night.
The night starts to unfold and it’s time to get back to the road again for our night safari. The sky looks clear with trillions of sparkling stars and bright moons assuring us that the weather is going to be much better than in previous hours. Soon after getting our equipment ready, we’re back and start to search for any night crawlers.
Just when we thought we couldn’t score more luck, another highlight for this evening trip was presented. Elusive nocturnal primates turn up. The Philippine Slow Loris is seen foraging and dwelling back and forth on the lower part of the tree.
We spend more than half an hour, observing and taking photos of these rare primates before the Loris get enough of us and start to retreat into the darkness. It was indeed a great spot by my friend Shafil, thanks to his sharp eagle-eye vision.
We head back to the Base Camp for a nice warm meal before we call it day.
Another Early Call Before Call it a Day
Our trip nearly come to an end today and there’s no other way to end it than with another safari drive, searching for more wildlife, just before the sun rises.
We’re head back to the same road yesterday, free from any expectations at all, just wanted to enjoy the tropical morning breeze and take some landscape photography for documentation purposes. Come to notice, this morning compared to yesterday, Gibbon calls are more lively and getting more louder. We wonder about any possibility of more than one family nearby singing their territorial “war cry.”
We’re getting more excited as the calls get louder as we drive further and just when trying to get our compass right to locate those loud calls. We finally catch a glimpse of these fastest moving primates in the canopy.
Lo and behold, the North Borneo Gibbon.
We really couldn’t hold our excitement, not just a pair but a family of three swinging frantically back and forth in front of us. There’s also we believe a pair or a family behind us, which we don’t have any sight of it, but the calls are just crystal clear from where we stood. But we decided to set our focus on the one we can see clearly.
We observe this gibbon family, swinging around and don’t show any sign of stress with our presence as the family is still close to our vicinity. Most probably this family only bothers with the other gibbon next door from them rather than us. Observing this family of gibbons marked the end of this trip and showed how successful this trip is.
It’s time to bid farewell to this little piece of heaven.
A Few Final Thought
Deramakot Forest Reserve is without a doubt one of the prime wildlife spots in Sabah. With an area size of 55,000 hectares, this reserve is home to some of the island’s most elusive creatures. Estimated over one thousand wild orangutans recorded in this reserve.
One will notice the density of nests that can be observed along the road more interesting is, most of these nests are located in almost specific tree species. Worth to mention, during this three days two-night trip six wild orangutans were recorded, basically one or two orangutans per trip!
Choosing the time for a safari drive is crucial. Yes, indeed there’s almost no specific time for all this wildlife, but we do know when they are normally active. The key point for the safari drive is to see as much as wildlife, but how when you have a target list for certain species?
For example; Sunda Clouded Leopard, the largest wild cat on this island. We all know this big cat is typically active at night and chances to spot will be high if you do a safari drive at the night. Even though there are a few sightings that occur in the daytime, chances are probably more in the evening, but still who knows right?!
To summaries, one needs to think out of the box, and put one inside this creature’s shoes, since the human presence active at certain hours of the day and night. Most probably it would be more sensible for this creature active when humans are inactive. The best time to do it is probably not in a routine way.
We concluded our trip here as a success. Even though there are no target sightings (Sunda Clouded Leopard), a great encounter with large and elusive mammals such as the Bornean Elephant, Bornean Orangutan, North Borneo Gibbon, and others gives us the right impression of how impressive Deramakot as one of the prime wildlife watching spot in Sabah.
Thanks for reading! If I had to add anything else it would be, I regretted not going to Deramakot Forest Reserve earlier on. Get your tour on and I’ll see you this coming 2023.
Here’s a collection of photo taken during this trip.