sabah jungle tour

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.

kinabatangan river
The sun sets over the Kinabatangan

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.

gomantong caves sabah
Gomantong caves

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 macaque having lunch

A few moments later, we spotted a magnificent hornbill in a tree.

The hornbill

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!

Cruising down a Kinabatangan tributary

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! πŸ™‚ LOL!

A Dutchman?
A Proboscis Monkey in deep thought

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.

Let me have a look at those fleas.



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.

This one can grow to about 2 meters.

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! πŸ˜‰

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.

The night river safari

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!

A kingfisher
And another…
And another!

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.

Kinabatangan sunrise
Morning mist

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.

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30 Responses

  • What an incredible journey!! Those lodges look amazing too and all individual cabins…love it. That snake must have been a frightful adventure for all those onboard. I wouldn’t even want to imagine. LOL.

  • What an incredible experience! I’ve been considering a trip to Borneo and this has tipped me over the edge. Thanks for sharing!

  • […] the accompanying post: ‘The Kinabatangan River Safari‘. Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010 Asia TAGS: Malaysia, […]

  • Cool! I’m sure you’ll have an awesome time there. Will keep a look-out for your Sabah posts. Enjoy!


  • Very much looking forward to doing this very trip at the end of June. Keep an eye out for our reviews from all over Sabah. Thanks for helping me prepare!

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  • Keith, what a beautifull adventure, and again beautifully (and funny) told!
    .. Orang Belanda …mmm..maybe I’ll change my nationality.., does my nose look this big?

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  • Hi Mindy,
    I was there for only one night (unfortunately). Yes, we did see quite a few monitor lizards – have a picture of one of them on a branch. Some people who left comments here said they saw wild orangutans too. Pretty awesome.

    Thanks for your comment!


  • Hey, Keith, how long was this safari? How many nights did you stay at the lodge at Bukit Melapi? Sounds great — I have been boat-riding on the Kinabatangan and also never did see a single crocodile.

    One thing we saw that you did not mention: big monitor lizards! First we saw them running on the riverbank. Then they jumped in and went swimming, parallel to the bank. Very impressive.

    We also saw a trashed clearing where the dwarf elephants had recently had a romp. That got our hopes up for seeing the elephants, but there was no other sign of them.

  • Hi Kathryn,
    Yup, you can see all of them in Sabah. It’s an amazing corner of Borneo & I highly recommend a visit.
    Glad you’re loving my Sabah posts. πŸ™‚


  • First orangutans and now proboscis monkeys?!? Wow – if I wasn’t before, I’m now OFFICIALLY jealous! Thanks for the fantastic stories and photos. I’m enjoying living vicariously through your adventures.


  • Thanks Deb. Think I would have freaked out if that spider landed on me! You’re so lucky to have seen the orangutan in the wild.

    Cheers, Keith

  • Your safari lodge looks way nicer than our rustic lodge with Uncle Tans:) But we loved our time at Kinabatangan. I can’t believe that people jumped into the water. But when panic strikes, all rational thoughts go out the window.
    We were even lucky enough to see an orangutan in the wild at Kinabatangan. I think that we saw almost everything that you could see in Borneo while on safari there. Except for the Rhino.
    One great tip we learned on the night safari was to hold your flashlight up to your nose while you look into the jungle. The light will catch the animals eyes and you will be able to spot them quite easily. We learned all the different colours of each type of animal too. I can’t quite remember the rules anymore, but I think it was red eyes for mammals, green eyes for amphibians. Very cool!
    During our night jungle walk, huge spider fell on a girl in our group and we all freaked out, (maybe we would have jumped out of the boat if we were in it) Then our guide said it wasn’t poisonous as he casually took it off her back and let it crawl on a few brave souls. Dave was one of them of course:-)

  • Oh WOW….looks like another destination for the ‘Bucket List’. I love finding out about new places I never knew existed!

  • Thanks Marilyn. The whole place felt like I was leafing through a Nat Geo mag, well apart from the Karaoke in the Jungle. πŸ˜‰ I guess my sensible side prevailed – I knew I had to get up at 5:30am the next day and once you get me going on stage… you never know what’ll happen next. LOL! πŸ™‚ Thrilled you love the pics!


  • wow! and the birds don’t get scared off? lovely close-up portraits of kingfishers!

  • Thanks for your comment Nancie. Seeing an orangutan in the wild must’ve been an awesome experience – that’s so rare.


  • Hi Keith,

    I toured the Kinabatangan with Uncle Tan’s two years ago. It was a fantastic adventure. The highlight for me was seeing a orangutan in the wild.

    Thank you for bring back from great memories.

  • Haha, that’s probably true. Great story to tell though. πŸ™‚
    Thanks for your comment.


  • Keith, great write on this. Funny too cause my guide told me the same story about the snake falling on to the boat during my river safari there in Dec. Probably it’s a guide story for everyone πŸ™‚

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