We have hiked uphill to visit an ancient burial site, but a sudden movement in the adjacent treetops catches my attention. Our guide, Adzal, gasps “Shhh – Bornean gibbons!”.
As he motions for us to sit, he explains that this shy and endangered species is normally only glimpsed swinging through the canopy. My family watches the gibbon family as they munch on wild figs, the mother cradling a fluffy baby. I glance at my own babies – aged seven, 11 and 13 – and each is completely engrossed in the gibbon action.
We are in spectacular Danum Valley, in Malaysian Sabah on the island of Borneo. This is one of several wildlife hotspots on our itinerary. Thankfully, great tour operators and comfortable hotels mean families do not need to rough it to learn about and experience Sabah’s precious wildlife.
After flying in to Kota Kinabalu, we jump on a flight to Sandakan and meet our Borneo Trails guide, Jame Marajan. We check in to Sepilok Nature Resort, constructed around lakes and trees, with an open-air restaurant twinkling with fairy lights. Over dinner, we are serenaded by frogs and crickets.
Early in the morning, we hit Rainforest Discovery Centre, and as we glimpse exotic birds from the canopy walkway, my kids excitedly spot a giant one-metre-tall squirrel.
Next stop is Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where animals rescued from the pet trade or agricultural conflict are rehabilitated. From an air-conditioned viewing room, our kids laugh with delight while young orangutans in their nursery tumble, wrestle and climb.
Next door is the fascinating Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, a care facility for the world’s smallest bears, all 42 of which in these forested enclosures were formerly pets.
Education Officer Risnayati Lammu explains that bears are hunted for claws and canine teeth, with cute babies being captured for pets. Inevitably, problems arise. “When you put a bear in your living room, they start climbing up and destroying your sofa, and hurting you,” she says. “They end up in a small cage and a terrible life begins.”
My kids wince when they learn that some bears are caged for the harvesting of gallbladder bile for use in Asian medicines. Risnayati identifies that sustainable tourism helps: “The pictures you share back home – that is spreading the word.”
A two-hour drive brings us to Kinabatangan River. Jame explains, “Here we have 10 species of primates, plus the chance to see Borneo pygmy elephants”. Excited kids jump into our small motorboat for the 10-minute up-river journey to Borneo Nature Lodge. The lodge has a green ethos, including stationary bikes that my kids peddle to generate power. A wildlife corridor allows elephants safe passage to the river, and the lodge organises tree planting, benefitting guests, animals and local communities alike.
Minutes in to our first boat tour from here, we spot a huge orangutan in a spindly tree. Puttering downriver, we encounter 12 nimble silvered leaf monkeys; upon seeing their bright orange babies, our kids reach cuteness overload. Next up is the proboscis monkey, famous for the male’s pendulous nose, and many family groups relax in the trees. Chugging down a tributary, we gasp as one family daringly leaps across the river between treetops. We are amazed by the animals here, despite the rare elephants eluding us.
Driving two hours south to Lahad Datu, we meet our driver from Borneo Nature Tours for a two-hour transfer to Danum Valley, which contains some of the best primary rainforest in Southeast Asia, 500 wild orangutans and a superb luxury lodge.
Borneo Rainforest Lodge is owned by the Sabah government, and profits help support disadvantaged communities. Rooms have passive ventilation and lighting, and our private spa overlooks the magnificent river valley, teeming with iridescent birds. Kids love the international buffet, especially the burger station, while the dessert bar ensures overindulgence.
In pre-dawn greyness, we grab our binoculars and sleepy kids and climb the treetop canopy walkway, becoming immersed in the local birds’ sunrise chorus. Our jaws drop as huge rhinoceros hornbills glide through misty forest. Guide Adzal’s radio crackles with orangutan news, and we hurry to meet research assistant Eddy observing a large male and collecting DNA.
“We want to know who is related, the mums and dads,” he explains. After an hour of fleeting glimpses, the orangutan shifts to a clearing. My daughter’s eyes widen. “He’s as big as a hippo!” she said.
Following our hike to the tribal burial cliff, we descend via the breathtaking Fairy Falls. Butterflies rest on my son, and Adzal laughs: “Welcome to my office!” Later, we all take a dip in a natural ‘jacuzzi pool’, squealing when fish come nibbling at our feet.
Adventure here continues after dark, when we pile in to the back of an open truck. Our guide spotlights a possum-size colugo clinging to a tree. Surprisingly, it takes flight, spreading its limbs to reveal gliding membranes. Next, we spot sambar deer and, fleetingly, a porcupine. On night walks, we discover enormous stick insects, chirping frogs and a gargantuan tarantula.
Reluctantly leaving the rainforest, we fly to Kota Kinabalu and join our 20-minute boat transfer to Bungaraya Island Resort on Gaya Island. Our two-bedroom villa is up a hill in the leafy canopy. Lazily, we travel in golf buggies, and our driver lets the kids have a turn of driving.
After a naturalist-guided tour of the canopy walkway, my junior adrenaline junkies try the zipline, yahooing through treetops. We snorkel with corals and Nemo fish and take a free boat ride to Gayana Marine Resort, where biologists are breeding endangered giant clams. Kids love patting starfish in the touch tank.
Like so much of Sabah, Gaya Island has amazing wildlife. Mischievous macaques, native bearded pigs and majestic hornbill birds entertain us, and the kids chat about the best ways to protect wildlife for the future. After all we have seen, it is impossible not to be inspired.
Need to know
Best time to visit
December and January are the wettest months (although rain in the rainforest is quite possible all year) in Sepilok, Kinabatangan and Danum Valley, so try to avoid this period. On Gaya Island, the driest time is December to August.
Best for kids aged
Adventures that include wildlife-spotting and jungle trekking are best for children aged five and over.
Various airlines fly from Australian capital cities to Kota Kinabalu, with a stop in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Malaysia Airlines has one direct flight weekly from Perth to Kota Kinabalu.