After an hour of watching furry pig-tailed macaques swing through the trees, and getting pelted by sheets of on-and-off-again rain, we were about to pack up our plastic ponchos and turn the boat around.
But then, our guide received the signal: elephant ears.
On the Kinabatangan River, a 560 km stretch that connects the mountains of southwest Sabah in Malaysia to the Sulu Sea, the boatmen who steer river safaris – a leading mode of tourism in the region – have a special way of communicating whenever rare animals are spotted along the banks of Borneo’s jungle.
Like third-base coaches who pull their earlobes to discretely communicate plays to baserunners, guides will exchange hand signals that mimic local wildlife as a way of alerting each other of what’s ahead.
Chomping hands for crocodiles, pointed index fingers on the head for deer, wiggling fingers under the armpits for orangutans.
It’s a game of animal charades that plays out all over the mud-and-soil filled Kinabatangan, Malaysia’s second-longest river, where speedboats, carrying wide-eyed tourists, zip back and forth, at sunrise and sunset, in search of wildlife gold.
Animals in these dense, remote parts decide for themselves when to make an appearance, so it serves local operators, even if competitors, to help each other whenever luck strikes. Especially if it means amplifying the experience for guests.
As PAX learned with Canadian travel advisors during a journey through Borneo’s East Sabah state with G Adventures last month, it’s an I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine system that works.
So just imagine our curiosity when a passing boatman waved down our speedboat, cupping one hand to the side of his head, motioning a floppy ear.
Elephants. A rare herd had been spotted along a river bank nearby.
We didn’t know this at first, however, having not yet learned the sign language of the Kinabatangan. But Ronald, our Chief Experience Officer (CEO) – G’s term for tour leaders, who are the backbone of the company – knew exactly what floppy ears meant.
Ronald, a wildlife expert in his own right, sat up straight and darted his eyes towards the guide who was steering our boat, as if to subtly direct him to fire up the motor and Go, Go, Go.
Buzz and excitement filled the air as we rapidly ripped down the brown, crocodile-infested river. Other tour boats swerved into our wake. Floppy ear signals were everywhere. The word was out.
We didn’t know what was coming, but whatever it was, it had to be big.
Finally, as our boat slowed, the secret that Ronald was enthusiastically keeping from us appeared: wild pygmy elephants, an endangered subspecies in Asia, wading in fresh water, dining on jungle foliage, peeking out at us from behind the lush leaves of a mangrove.
One of the travel advisors in our group, Go Travel’s Lindsey Bell of Winnipeg, MB, armed with a powerful camera and telephoto lens, sprung from her seat to snap pictures of the majestic beasts.
Others in the boat just looked on, with dropped jaws, mesmerized. Some wept.
The monkeys we’d seen earlier were cute (and incredible), but it was fair to say the elephant show, stole the show.
It was the capper none of us were expecting from our river safari – the first of three that week.
Later that night, as we giddily recounted our exciting day on the river over a homecooked meal at Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort, which organized the safari, only three words came to mind: Bring On Borneo.
Bring On The World!
That same rally cry graced the front of branded t-shirts that G Adventures mailed out to agents ahead of the trip – one of four FAMs the made-in-Canada tour operator organized for the trade this year.
“Bring On Borneo” is play on G’s latest campaign, “Bring On the World,” which aims to inspire travellers to welcome all forms of adventure, placing value on unforgettable experiences, deep connections and a world-changing ethos.
To say Borneo, a rugged island in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, encapsulates G’s campaign would be an understatement.
The destination, with its tropical rainforests, colourful villages and exotic wildlife, including orangutans, hornbills, sun bears and long-nosed proboscis monkeys, is bursting with wide-eyed discovery, at every turn.
But why showcase Borneo?
G Adventures, for one, wanted this year’s FAMs to cover a wide footprint, and include Asia, “now that the world has opened up again,” said David Green, global VP of sales and customer operations and managing director for Canada at G Adventures, speaking to PAX, which covered the Borneo trip exclusively.
Green also noted how there’s “been a lot of questions” lately about responsible tourism – and its role in protecting animals and children – ever since the release of the G-produced documentary, The Last Tourist, which explores tourism’s dark side (but shares a message of hope).
Borneo, with its precious villages and wildlife, “obviously fits the bill” for exploring these topics more closely, Green said.
Our eight-day East Sabah journey – the Borneo trip we were on, from July 21-28 – is notably part of G’s Jane Goodall Collection.
These trips, endorsed by world-renowned ethologist, Dr. Jane Goodall, allow guests to step deeper into the animal kingdom (while respecting the boundaries of its subjects).
Leave your comfort zone
For the nine lucky travel advisors who qualified for the coveted trip, it was G Adventures training in the highest, purest form.
And it takes a certain kind of travel professional to get on the guest list.
“We're not looking for top achievers,” said Green. “We're looking for people who we believe are going to get the most out of the experience.”
To qualify, agents had to fill out a questionnaire in advance that asked them about their interest in G Adventures, a pioneer in community tourism, and their expectations.
Of the ones who made the cut for Borneo, more than half in the group had never sold G (or had maybe sold just one trip), whereas others were regular producers.
“There’s a balance,” Green said. “Which helps, because when you listen to agents talk along the way, those that have sold and travelled with G share their experiences.”
The common thread is that all participants want to sell G Adventures, and learn, so they can sell it to their clients.
The FAMs (which are not free, but subsidized by G) also aim to take travel advisors “out of their natural comfort zones,” Green added.
“Especially the agents that sell all-inclusives or cruises,” Green said. “A lot of those sales are based around amenities. We're the complete opposite.”
With G Adventures, you can forget about lazy rivers, surfing simulators and thread counts in sheets.
The company’s trips aim to connect guests with global communities, in unscripted and authentic ways, and turn tourists into travellers.
The itineraries aren’t just about going somewhere, but growing somewhere. Destinations are the stars, not the hotels (although, some G accommodations, depending on the location, can be fascinating!)
Tours run in small groups – the average size is 12 to 16 people. And departures are guaranteed (regardless of how many people sign up).
Customers can also make lifetime deposits ($350) in case plans change, and there’s no pressure to participate in everything on the itinerary. The culture revolves around freedom and flexibility.
There’s also incentives for the trade – for every $10,000 of sales production, agents get 500 “G Dollars,” which can go towards a future trip.
Preferred Agents get a 50 per cent discount on trips, as well as 25 per cent off for their companions.
As for the trips themselves, CEOs (the tour leaders) come prepared with extensive knowledge of their destinations, as well as a rolodex full of local recommendations (which adds a lot).
They’ll orchestrate in-the-moment plans and handle all the logistics, from assisting with food orders at restaurants to organizing transfers to reviewing each day’s activities ahead of time.
Unlocking the “Ripple Score”
But community tourism is the beating heart of a G Adventures trip.
Guided by the belief that travel can be the greatest form of wealth distribution in the world, G strives to provide direct economic benefits to the destinations it visits.
The company uses a “Ripple Score” to show guests the percentage of money it spends locally on hotels, restaurants and transportation.
This tool brings some transparency to the local impact of a tour (it does not reflect the quality of the actual trip).
A ripple score of 100, for example, means all of the services G used to create a tour are locally owned – which is how Borneo ranks.
Cooking in Tambatuon
During our tour, which started and ended in Kota Kinabalu, travel advisors witnessed firsthand how tourism can benefit communities.
By Day Two, we were already driving through a mountainous jungle valley, arriving in an "eco village" called Tambatuon, where we checked into a cozy homestay, called D’Dandau, for the night.
Our wise host, the 76-year-old Mr. Pang, walked us his through his butterfly and papaya tree-filled community of paddy (rice) fields, which lie in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu.
G has been bringing guests here since 2017, solidifying tourism as a main economic driver.
With the help of Mr. Pang’s family and friends, we cooked pineapple curry, tapioca leaves with torched ginger and mango salad for dinner, and enjoyed a mountain sunset for dessert.
Camping at a turtle hatchery
Then there was our time spent on Libaran Island, which is about 20 km off the coast of Borneo, where we camped, glamping style, at Walai Penyu, which supports a hatchery that, since 2013, has released more than 37,000 turtles into the wild.
As luck would have it, a fresh batch of eggs hatched prior to our arrival, and our group, under the moonlight, got to release some 20 newborn turtles to the sea.
This camp site supports this conservation effort, which protects turtle eggs from poachers and predators, and creates jobs for villagers on the island.
G Adventures’ non-for-profit foundation, Planeterra, also supports local entrepreneurship – two businesses, which agents had a chance to visit.
We met Rhiana, a woman who, alongside her mother, weaves mats made from screwpine, using age-old methods. Then it was off to a crafting enterprise that upcycles discarded plastic bottles into colourful flowers.
Both experiences served as a reminder of how tourism, with the right support, can bring sustainability, accessibility and inclusion to communities.
Bring on the orangutans
But Borneo’s wildlife – particularly orangutans, which share similar traits to humans – is a major draw on the island.
Agents got incredibly close to the great apes of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where orphaned and confiscated orangutans live wild in a protected forest.
Watch for Part Two of PAX’s Borneo report where we’ll dive deeper into these experiences and more.
One thing’s for sure, though: Borneo, being a rustic destination, is a place where you need to “get your brave on,” as travel advisor Linda Loewen put it.
This was something G’s David Green kept telling himself as he got deeper into Borneo, where the animals get smaller…and the insects get bigger.
“I hate creepy-crawlies,” Green told PAX, halfway through the trip. “Borneo has been challenging, but I’m embracing it.”
“Adventure is about putting yourself out there.”
Carpenter bees, dragonflies, and millipedes...oh my!
Stay tuned for more of PAX's exclusive coverage from G Adventures' Borneo FAM for Canadian travel advisors.
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