The Kinabatangan River is Malaysia’s second longest river (at 560 kilometers). Located in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, the Kinabatangan has its origins in the mountains of southwest Sabah and carves its way through some of the oldest tropical rainforests in the world to its mouth in the Sulu Sea. A great way to see the abundance of unique flora and fauna is to go on a Kinabatangan River safari.
To get to the Kinabatangan River, we drove about two hours from Sandakan to Sukau, stopping at the Gomantong Caves along the way. What makes these caves unique are the edible birds’ nests high in the crevices of the cave’s ceiling, more than 100 feet above the cave floor. The nests have been harvested for centuries and sold to the Chinese who consider it a delicacy. It’s said that the Chinese Emperors only ate birds nests from this cave.
During the drive, my guide, Joel, from Borneo Passages, provided an excellent commentary about Sabah, its wildlife and its people.
A boat was waiting for us by the time we arrived at the pier. It was hot and muggy so I was glad to be in the boat – the cool breeze was absolutely refreshing as the boat sped along the river to the Borneo Nature Lodge. Joel gave me a rundown of the wildlife I could expect to see along the banks of the Kinabatangan River: the elusive proboscis monkey, pygmy elephants, orangutans, crocodiles, macaques and a large variety of birds, insects and snakes. I couldn’t wait!
We arrived at the Lodge and were welcomed by the friendly staff. The resort consists of individual lodges up on a hill overlooking the river. The lodges looked rather simple from the outside but when I opened the door, I found a lovely, clean room with comfy beds and a balcony with a beautiful view of the river.
Kinabatangan River Safari
After a delicious lunch, we hopped into the boat for our first river safari. I’ve been on many guided treks and safaris, and each time, it truly amazes me how much the guides know about the flora and fauna (I guess it’s their job to know these things but it still amazes me nevertheless) and how they’re able to spot animals that are often beautifully camouflaged. The first animal we spotted was a macaque having a banana lunch at the riverbank.
A few moments later, we spotted a magnificent hornbill in a tree.
We turned off the main river and cruised along one of the many tributaries. We were constantly accompanied by the sounds of the jungle: thousands of crickets, the hoots of different birds and the howls of monkeys. In certain parts, the sounds were almost deafening!
The Proboscis Monkey
Not much later, we found a family of Proboscis Monkeys. It was a stunning sight. The Proboscis Monkey is an endangered species and can only be found in certain parts of Borneo. They were high up in the trees but the male’s ‘beer belly’, orange fur coat, reddish face and long nose were unmistakable. These monkeys are called ‘orang belanda’ or ‘Dutchman’ by the locals, a reference to the Dutch traders who lived along the coast in the 19th century. The locals quip that when the Dutch, with their long noses, got drunk, their faces turned red and resembled the Proboscis Monkey! 🙂 LOL!
The Proboscis Monkeys have a fascinating social life. The dominant male in the group heads a harem of up to 20+ wives and always sits on the highest branches, while his harem and offspring reside on the lower branches. Not too far away, a separate group of bachelors look on enviously. The females are often attracted to the males with the biggest, um.., nose!
We spotted more macaques playing at the edge of the river.
A Snake Story
We were constantly on the lookout for crocodiles – seems the Kinabatangan is infested with them – but we didn’t spot any. We did spot snakes, curled up in the trees.
My guide, Joel, had a great story to tell. During one of his river safari cruises, the visitors asked the boatman to get closer to a tree so they could take a good picture of a snake. There were three boats crowded around that tree and one of the boats accidentally bumped the tree and the snake fell into the boat. The visitors panicked and scrambled to get into the other boats. Some of them jumped into the river. Within moments, they realised that there were crocodiles lurking around. They tried desperately to clamber back into the boat, horror written all over their faces. While all this was happening, the boatman casually picked up the snake and threw it back into the tree. The lesson here: keep your distance and don’t jump into the water! 😉
The Kinabatangan Night Safari
After a long, lazy dinner, we were ushered back to the boat for our night safari. Joel said that night safaris offer visitors the opportunity to get very close to the animals, especially the birdlife, as they sleep. Equipped with nothing more than a few torchlights, we cruised silently along the serene river banks. The atmosphere was completely different compared to the daytime – the jungle was asleep. The boatman and Joel were true experts. With a single sweep of the torch’s ray along the river bank, they could tell if there was anything worth checking out. As Joel shone his torch across the surface of the river, a dozen little diamond-like objects lit up. Crocodile eyes, Joel explained.
Joel was absolutely right about being able to get up close to sleeping animals and birds. We spotted many birds, including the gorgeous kingfisher. I took the following pictures within a foot of the sleeping birds!
The night river safari was a truly enthralling experience. We returned to the lodge at about 11pm.
The Early-Morning River Safari
We were at the boat at 6am for our morning river safari. The best times to see wildlife in the rainforest are in the early mornings and late-afternoons. It was another magical experience. The sun was slowly spreading its warm rays across the jungle while a misty veil floated gracefully above the river.
The birdlife stole our attention again. Gorgeous cormorants, hornbills, kingfishers and eagles. We also spotted more Proboscis monkeys in the trees. The crocodiles and pygmy elephants stayed out of sight… unfortunately.
I was simply awestruck by the wildlife along the Kinabatangan River. If you’re visiting Sabah, this is one place you will not want to miss. You can also embark on the Kinabatangan River cruise as a full-day tour from Sandakan.
Search for hotels in Sandakan (Booking.com).
Read other posts on Sabah:
- Plane views: Mount Kinabalu
- Experiencing Sabah
- The orangutans of Sabah
- Plane views: Kota Kinabalu
- Sabah: a nature lover’s paradise