Fresh out of the restricted movement order imposed by the Malaysian government, Charlie and I decided that there is no better time than now to jump back into our traveling shoes, and see what the forests hold after an extended period of tourism lull. We packed our bags and fitted the Jeep with mud tires, and off we went in search of the elusive clouded leopard in Deramakot Forest Reserve.
Over the past few years, Deramakot Forest Reserve made its mark onto many wildlife enthusiast’s lips, spurring a demand from general and niche visitors traveling through Malaysian Borneo. In a nutshell, Deramakot is a forest area of a little over 55,000 hectares managed by the Forestry Department of Sabah, located about 6-7 hours drive from Kota Kinabalu. In 1997, with technical support from German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), the Forestry Department pursued a sustainable commercial logging concept in managing the area’s timber harvest. The result is a sustainable harvesting system that focuses on low volume, high quality and high priced timber.
Over time, with the availability of basic infrastructure at the forestry headquarters, wildlife enthusiasts started exploring the forest with very promising wildlife sightings – high count of mammal species including consistent sightings of elusive wild cats that are rarely seen elsewhere. This is what really sparked the birth of tourism in Deramakot.
Five nights and 40 hours of safari later, we were rewarded with 26 species of mammals. Our exciting daily drives (or ghastly towards the end of a 7 hour drive!) guaranteed us a medley of flying squirrels, civets, slow lorises, leopard cats, hornbills, orangutans and many more. Our target species of clouded leopard and marble cat eluded us despite the relentless efforts of our expert spotters, but such is the search for rare wildlife. A full mammal species seen is available here.
We still left elated as there is nothing quite like the amazing outdoors to soothe one’s quarantine blues. Exploring our own backyard for inspiration and reflection seem like the most natural thing to do in preparation for when travel returns.
Deramakot is definitely high up there on the wildlife hotspot list particularly for those with niche interest in photography and seeing rare mammals. Learning about sustainable long-term timber harvesting is also interesting although I did not leave thinking about logging as a business diversification. Quite the contrary, I left thinking that tourism has such untapped potential in the area. While it will never rival what logs can be auctioned off for, if done the right way, it can provide a solid diversification of income for the forestry department and create quality jobs for communities in the heart of Sabah.
Below is an overall observation of our trip to Deramakot Forest Reserve.
Abundance of species both diurnal and nocturnal, and chances of spotting rare wild cats on safari drives. With the exception of wild cats and in particular the clouded leopard and marble cat, most species at Deramakot also occur at other well-established wildlife hotspots such as Danum Valley, Kinabatangan Floodplains, and Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Highly recommended for those wanting to try their luck with wild cats including photographers.
Lodging in private rooms with ensuite (a/c or fan) and hostel with shared bathroom. Conditions basic yet comfortable and clean. As long as you do not expect the standard tourist lodge set-up and hospitality, you will not be disappointed. Your accompanying guide will be your gracious host, and any needs or issues should be addressed to the guide. The facility is not set-up for tourism, maybe this will change in the future or maybe it won’t. Internet connection is limited to 1 provider (Maxis), ebbs and flows including non-existent in a lot of areas. Food can be served by your guide or staff at the forestry department depending on the operator, and consist of staple rice with meat and/or vegetable dishes.
The focus is safari drives with a minimum of 2 – 2.5 hours and maximum of 7-8 hours, safe to say that an average of 4 hours per drive is the standard for those with a focus on finding wild cats and/or photography. Some night drives can run until early hours of the morning for eg. 10pm to 2 or 3am, depending on the guide’s suggestions. Safari drives are in well-modified 4WDs fitted with padded benches with backrests but still, do not expect swanky African safari seats. Depending on pricing and tour operator, some seats may not be padded at all and without backrest. Worth checking the quality of 4WD, familiarity of driver and guide with the area, and recovery plans for unforeseen circumstances. Very limited walking trails so there is little focus on hiking. Visitors must be prepared to sit on the back of a 4WD for an extended period of time. It is not unusual for the guide to suggest resting during daytime and run the majority of the drives towards afternoon, night and early mornings before dawn.
Varies greatly between operators – specialised operators focusing on delivering niche and photography trips charge a premium for the services delivered (quality of guide, vehicles, recovery plan) whereas more general operators offer it on the lower end of the price spectrum..
With its remote location of being away from other travel flow routes and high price-point, Deramakot is only highly recommended to those with specialised interests rather than a general traveler discovering Borneo for the first time. For a first-time traveler who is interested in seeing wildlife and experiencing the jungle, the areas and travel flow of Kinabatangan-Tabin-Danum Valley or vice versa is hard to beat, not to mention promises an abundance of sightings of mammals and birds. Most of these areas are also better set-up in terms of tourism standards and services.
Deramakot Dreaming is one of the four-part series of me and Charlie’s post quarantine adventures, a travel diary made for those who want to see what is happening in some of the best destinations in Borneo. If you are interested in visiting these places, we welcome you as we are traveling again. Watch this space for the next featured destination!
Sambar, lesser mouse deer, greater mouse deer, yellow Muntjac
Malay, small-toothed, island palm, masked
Thomas’, giant red, black
Prevost, plantain, giant
Orangutan, slow loris, western tarsier, pig tailed macaques, long tailed macaques, red leaf langur