Adventures in Malaysian Borneo Part 5: The Eye of the Elephant

A Note From Matt: If you haven’t read the first four parts of the story, you should either read the recap below or read the story from the beginning to make sure you’re up to speed. If you have read the story from the beginning, you should skip the recap, which is the section below written in italics.



I took a ten-day trip to the Malaysian province of Sabah on the island of Borneo to search search for, and hopefully photograph, the elusive endangered pygmy elephant. I rented a motorcycle in Kota Kinabalu and set out for the opposite side of the island where I was most likely to find the elephants. On the first night I discovered that the motorcycle had no headlights while driving up the side of Mount Kinabalu. On the second day I drove for nearly 10 hours in a monsoon and spent the following day trapped by the heavy rains in a dingy hostel in the port city of Sandakan. The next morning, determined not to fail, I mounted my motorbike and drove to the nearby Sepilok Orangutan Reserve. There I ran into two Swedish nurses that I had met in Kota Kinablu and they suggested we travel together. Things were looking up. The following day I received an email from the local tourism board offering to pay for my room, board, and a personal guide to help me find the pygmy elephants. All I had to do in return was provide them with fifty photos. My guide, Thorpe, picked me from the hostel up in a small car. On the way to the park we stopped at the fabled Gomantong Caves where, in the process of photographing the cave, I climbed a giant mountain of bat guano. Afterwards, while discussing photography equipment with Thorpe (he was also a photographer) he informed me that I would need a telephoto lens to shoot the elephants because we would not be able to get close to them. There was just one problem: I didn’t have one.

Part 5: The Eye of the Elephant

“What do you use to shoot wildlife?” I asked Thorpe as we drove slowly on a bumpy dirt road through the village of Sukau.

“I use a 100-300mm telephoto lens. You only have a 70-135mm?”


“We can not get closer than 20 meters from the elephants. If we do they will either charge us or run away. How are you going to shoot them?”

“I don’t know.”

“It has been raining a lot. When it rains the elephants will usually move into the jungle. It’s possible that we won’t see them at all.” Thorpe offered. “They can’t expect pictures of the elephants if we can’t find them.”

The idea did not console me. I gazed out the window at the huts along the road.

We arrived at the Barefoot Sukau Lodge, put our bags in our rooms, and then met in the dining room where our dinner was waiting. My room was comfortable, the fried chicken and vegetables smelled delicious, the dining room that we sat in was suspended on pillars above one of the most scenic rivers on one of the most beautiful islands in the world, and I felt like a failure. I had come all-expenses-paid on one of the best assignments of my young career and had messed it up before I even got started.

“After the tourism board emailed me I looked at some zoom lenses online. Nikon makes a 100-300mm lens that I can afford. I would have bought it if there was time, but there wasn’t. Are there any shops in Sandakan that might have one?” I asked.

“No. You would have to go to the Kota Kinabalu.”

Kota Kinabalu was more than 400km of windy, potholed, mountainous roads away.

I shuffled my vegetables languidly around my plate.

Thorpe and I met at 5am the next morning to take a boat up the river in search of the elephants. We wanted to get started before the other guests woke up. Thorpe’s job was to get me as close as possible to a herd of pygmy elephants. That would be much harder if other guests were trying to follow us, hoping for a glimpse of a member of the smallest subspecies of the largest land animals in the world. Since the other guests knew that I was there on assignment to find the elephants (I had unwittingly told them in conversation the previous night) they were sure to ask where we were going.

It was still dark as we motored up the river wide silent river. The sun rose and the mist began to burn away. The light was perfect for pictures so I took out my camera.

Thorpe directed our driver to turn into one of the many small tributaries stemming from the main river.

When I raised my camera to shoot a colourful bird on a nearby branch the boatman turned the boat gently towards it and slowed down for me. The next time I raised my camera he did it again. I then realized that these men had only one job: to help me get the pictures I wanted.

The fact that these men were charged with assisting me, a supposed professional who was worthy of such assistance, was humbling and inspiring.

After all of the trouble that the people at the tourism board and these men had gone through, I could not return empty handed. Telephoto lens or no, I was going to shoot me some fucking pygmy elephants. I wanted to get close enough to shoot a close-up of an elephant’s eye looking right back at me.

The canopy seemed to billow out of the jungle and into the river as if they were competing for the space. As we meandered up the river Thorpe told me about previous clients that he had guided: photographers from National Geographic and other prominent magazines, camera crews for nature documentaries, and wealthy enthusiast photographers with cameras worth more than I earned in a year.

Suddenly Thorpe spoke rapidly to our driver in Malaysian and he slowed the boat. Thorpe pointed to a broad section of trampled vegetation.

“The elephants were feeding here yesterday.” He said. “We need to go back to the car.”

“Shouldn’t they be nearby?”

“No. They eat so much that they are constantly moving in search of new food. They can walk thirty kilometres in a single day. They could be very far by now.”

“Why did they leave? There’s lots of plants here to eat.”

“They only eat elephant grass.”

“Oh. That makes sense.”

We arrived at the dock as the other guests were climbing into their boats for their morning river cruise.

“Don’t tell them where we are going.” Thorpe told me. “We don’t want them to be jealous or, even worse, to try and follow us.”

“Any luck?” A woman from Chicago called to us as we pulled up.

“No.” I replied. “But it’s early. We’ll try again after breakfast.”

As soon as they were out of sight we got in the car. About thirty minutes later we stopped at a dilapidated convenience store. Thorpe spoke to the men outside rapidly in Malaysian.

“They were here this morning.” He told me as he swung the car around and turned down a side road. He slowed the car pointing to a large area of trampled bushes.

“They slept there. If we’re lucky they haven’t gone back into the jungle.”

We continued creeping down the bumpy road. Suddenly, Thorpe stopped. He pointed where a side road veered left and up a small hill. Over the crest of the hill I saw an elephant’s head. Three more appeared in the bushes, eating their way toward us through the foliage

“Stay behind me.” He cautioned as he opened his door and stepped out. I leapt from the car, camera in hand and starting shooting as fast as I could. The light was bad. I was barely able to take clear pictures, even with my camera set to the highest ISO.

My view of the elephants through my camera quickly grew hazy. It looked as though I was shooting them through a thick fog. I checked the pictures the LCD screen and they looked the same. All of my pictures were unusable.

Pygmy elephants are notoriously shy and we had disturbed them. They began to retreat over the hill.

I took off the lens off of my camera and looked inside. The rapid change in humidity and heat that occurred when I jumped out of the cool dry car into the hot humid jungle air had caused the inside of the camera to fog. I quickly wiped it clean and replaced the lens. My camera could take clear pictures again.

“Come on.” Thorpe shouted. He was already following the elephants up the road.

Just over the rise was a gravel pit. The elephants were at the far end of the pit ready to return to the jungle. Thorpe and I were at the opposite end with our backs to a road. Thorpe motioned for me to follow him and he began creeping closer. We moved closer and closer until the elephants began looking at us angrily. Thorpe motioned for me to move back. We retreated a few steps.

“Here.” He said.

The elephants returned their attention to eating and ignored us. Thorpe had determined the edge of the elephants’ natural boundary. They wouldn’t mind us here. I snapped photos as fast as I could, varying the composition as much as possible from my restricted vantage.

A few minutes later, we heard a door slam behind us. A tourist van had stopped on the road so the occupants could look at the elephants. A tall european-looking man with short cropped grey hair and a beard came ran past us, camera in hand. He stopped 10 feet directly in front of us and started taking pictures of the elephants.

“Hey,” Thorpe shouted. “Come here.  It is not safe.”

The man ignored us.

“Asshole.” I muttered.

Several of the elephants retreated into the jungle. One of them charged the man.

The man jumped back and was about to run away, but the elephant stopped about 20 feet short of him. It had been a false charge meant to scare the man off. The man went back to taking photos. Emboldened by the elephant’s retreat, he started walking towards the beasts. The elephants turned and hurriedly exited the gravel pit on a dirt road.  The man disappeared down the road after them.

“Lets go.” Said Thorpe. “This is no use.”

I agreed.

“That is very dangerous.” He said. “I hope they don’t hurt him.

“I hope they do.”

A few local children had gathered behind us to watch the spectacle. Thorpe spoke to them in Malaysian for a moment before we got back in our car and returned to the guesthouse for lunch.

We waited for the other guests to leave for their afternoon river cruise, telling them that we would be going out later. As soon as they were gone we got back into the car and returned to the gravel pit. We found the children from that morning, and Thorpe began speaking with them again.

I then realized what he had done. The local children, with no school to attend, had nothing better to do than follow the elephants around all day. For them is was great fun. Thorpe had asked them to track the elephants for us. The children pointed us down a muddy road overgrown with vegetation excitedly. We started walking with the children following us curiously.

“We must be quiet.” Thorpe told me. “I need to figure out exactly where the elephants are. Sometimes they can circle around and trap you.”

“Quiet works for me.”

We spent the better part of an hour creeping down the road, Thorpe cautiously inspecting the surrounding jungle. Then, suddenly, he turned back.

“They’re near the river. We must get the boat.”

“This could be an excellent opportunity.” Thorpe told me in the car. “If we are in the boat, and the elephants are on the shore, we can get very close. On land they won’t allow you to get close to them, but if you are in the water then the water’s edge is their boundary. You can get as close as you want as long as you are in the boat and they are on land.” Thorpe had only been fortunate enough to approach elephants from the river a handful of times in his career. This might be our lucky day.

In the boat Thorpe quickly located the place where the elephants were likely to be. We pulled up to the shore. I began to get out of the boat.

“Wait!” Thorpe said.

I turned around. He was holding out his 100-300mm lens.

“Use this.”

“Thank you so much.”

The elephants were less than 20 meters away, but seemed not to mind our presence. With the proper zoom lens on my camera I began shooting like a madman, zooming in and out, and hiding in bushes and climbing trees to shoot from different angles, and filling my memory cards with well-exposed and well-composed photographs.

A boat full of tourists on their afternoon cruise soon noticed us and came over to see what we were doing. The swarmed onto shore with their cameras. The elephants became agitated and started trumpeting and moving off into the bushes.

Thorpe grabbed my shoulder.

“Quick. Into the boat.” He said. “They’re heading for the river.”

We jumped into the boat and shoved off. We turned in the river and approached shore. As we inched towards the bank I could see the elephants eating through the foliage and moving towards the water. I stood on on the narrow tip of the boat shooting as fast as I could as we crept closer and closer.

We were an arms length from the bank when the first elephant’s head appeared through the bushes. He looked right at me, and I took this picture.

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20 thoughts on “Adventures in Malaysian Borneo Part 5: The Eye of the Elephant”

  1. Love it! I spent a month there two years ago — I also sort of toured the island in a “small car” that I still can’t believe made it through those roads. What an adventure you had!

  2. Great read. I kept scanning for photos in your post, but continued reading because I wanted to learn the rest of the story. I’d say that’s the sign of a well written article. Nice job. We work with a lot of wildlife and can certainly relate to your frustration of non-respectful travelers.

    • Thanks a lot Brett! This series is one of my favorites. Three of the five parts are pretty good. I really want to fix up the other two to make it a good long read.

      My god, that european guy was a dick. It was one of the stupidest things I’ve seen.

  3. Hi Matt!
    Great stories from Malaysian Borneo! I read the first post and had to keep going. And after #5 I found myself wishing there more. Are there?

    We were there in 2009 and went to some of the same places that you went to, although we did it in a more touristy fashion, being driven from place to place in a comfy van. Your motorcycle trip was much more adventurous!. 😉

    • Hey Kathy!

      Thanks very much. I’m so glad you enjoyed them. I’m afraid that’s all there is for this series. But I will have others in the future, so be sure to stop by once in a while!


  4. I love this story. It is so adventurous. After read finish, I realised that travelers need to respect the nature too. I like the way you cooperate with Thorpe. Really enjoy your story ^^

  5. Stupid tourists are such a pain in the … No respect for what they’ve gone thousands of miles to see, and ruin it for everyone. Great story. Great pic.


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