Travelling Malaysia recently made me realise that we travel for many different reasons. The destinations we pick suit our goals for that particular bit of travel. For instance, if you want to sit on a beach and read your book, you might pick somewhere sun-drenched in the Mediterranean. If you love to ski then you will of course prioritise a winter holiday in a mountainous region over somewhere in hotter climes.
It has been one of my life-long dreams to see wild orangutan. Recently backpacking in Malaysia I realised I was within easy access of reaching one of my ultimate travel goals; to head to the jungles of Borneo. Unwittingly, I had based myself in a destination that would enable me to fulfil one of my initial reasons for travel.
The more I thought about capturing a glimpse of an orangutan in the wild, the pull of Borneo became too much to ignore.
Where to go to spot these rare primates took a little bit of research. I pictured Borneo as an island of largely impenetrable jungle. This turned out to be true only in part. Of course, to give myself the best possible chance of spotting orangutan I wanted to be right in the thick of it, so to speak. The more I read about the Kinabatangan River, the more I realised that this was the right destination to attain my travel goal.
The Kinabatangan River trip that I booked turned out to be an experience that further concreted my love for travel, and for spotting wildlife in their natural habitats.
The Sabah Region has some of the most diverse concentration of wildlife in Borneo. Furthermore, the Lower Kinabatangan Region is estimated to have the largest concentration of wildlife in all of Malaysia. It is renowned for colourful tropical birds, crocodiles, monitor lizards, monkeys, tree snakes and even the rare orangutan, proboscis monkey and the pygmy elephant.
The Kinabatangan River is 560km long. It is the largest and longest river in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Originating in south west of Sabah state, the Kinabatangan River flows through eastern Sabah to the Sulu Sea on the east coast. The river and its surrounding rainforest wetlands make up one of the richest ecosystems on the planet.
It is the perfect location to spot some indigenous Borneo wildlife, such as the distinctive proboscis monkey with its protruding nose, the hornbill bird and of course the orangutan.
On the first morning I was met in Sandakan by Juan, my driver, who took me to the Gomantong Cave. The main cave, which is open to visitors, is part of a larger, more intricate cave system. Gomantong Cave is famous for being one of the best managed edible birds’ nest caves in the world. Yes, that’s right. Edible birds’ nests. Twice a year, licensed collectors climb up to the roof of these caves in a dangerous operation to retrieve the swift nests after they have been vacated. The white saliva of the swiftlet, the baby bird, on the nest itself is what makes it valuable.
The pungent smell of bat and bird droppings mingled in the air as we gently edged our way along the slippery boardwalk. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I began to take in my surroundings. The vaulted, 90 metre high ceiling of the cave was beautiful and I enjoyed the shafts of light filtering into the cave. However, as you looked more closely at the walls, you caught sight of spiders and cockroaches existing in the darkness. Definitely not a place for the squeamish.
In the jungle surrounding the cave I spotted a mother and a baby orangutan in a nearby tree. She was so close to me that I could clearly see her face as she looked down. I kept a respectful distance so as not to disturb her or her baby as they fed on the fruit in the tree. I must have stayed there for 15 minutes or more simply gazing up at her. In that moment I felt completely fulfilled, as if whatever went on to happen in Borneo couldn’t top that experience.
Fortunately for me, my sensational Borneo wildlife spotting adventures were only just beginning.
Kinabatangan River Cruise: Beautiful Borneo Wildlife
The Gomantong Cave was a further 30 minute drive to Kampung Bilit, from which I was picked up by boat and taken across the river to Bilit Adventure Lodge.
The Kinabatangan River accommodation turned out to be wonderfully comfortable. At Bilit Adventure Lodge I was given my own double room with private bathroom. I chose to pay for a fan cooled room, however, there were air conditioned rooms also available at a higher price. The temperature was around 32 degrees centigrade and the humidity was up around 85%, so it’s definitely worth considering what your comfort level will be.
Once I had settled into my room and eaten lunch, it was time to set off on the first of my river cruises. I prepared for the rain by taking my rain jacket and a spare poncho to cover my bag containing my camera should it start to rain, but I fortunately managed to dodge the downpours.
My first cruise began in the best way possible. We had only been on the water a few minutes until we rounded a corner and were treated to the sight of approximately 30 to 40 wild pygmy elephants on the river bank. According to the WWF, “pygmy elephants were determined […] to be genetically different from other Asian elephants. DNA evidence proved these elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra. Over time, they became smaller with relatively larger ears, longer tails and straighter tusks. Today, the pygmy elephants of Borneo are the smallest elephants in Asia.”
There are thought to only be 1,500 of these elephants left and they are an endangered species. It’s quite rare to see the pygmy elephants along the river as they roam quite large distances through their forest habitat.
I saw several small babies standing close to their mothers as the herd chewed on the vegetation on the river bank.
Aside from the sensational pygmy elephants I enjoyed seeing proboscis monkeys. These huge-bellied, long-nosed primates with long white tails are especially easy to spot when they are socialising, crashing through the trees and foraging for food. My guide explained that there were two separate groups in the proboscis social hierarchy; the alpha male with his harem of ladies, and the bachelor males. We saw bachelor groups on a couple of occasions swinging through the branches and contentedly munching on fruit and vegetation high up in the tree tops.
There are eight species of hornbill birds and all of them can be found in the Sabah region of Borneo. We spotted a rhinoceros, pied and a wrinkled hornbill. The hornbills glided through the air high above us and settled on branches to survey the river next to grey headed fish eagles.
A Morning Cruise
Cruises depart twice a day along the river. The next morning I was climbing aboard the boat at 6am to try to capture a peek of the local wildlife as they were just starting their day. We spotted a snake curled around a branch. “Don’t worry”, said our guide, “he is nocturnal”. Quite a relief as this particular snake was apparently venomous.
On my morning cruise, the river was shrouded in a gentle mist. Watching the boats drift off into the white cloud was incredibly atmospheric. I enjoyed the silhouettes of the trees looming closer to me as we approached them through the mist. Less than 30 minutes later the clouds had almost all been burned away by the sun.
Other sightings included an orangutan and her baby the high branches of a tree, plus lots of macaque monkeys.
Oxbow Lakes on the Kinabatangan River
A unique feature of the river are the unusual oxbow lakes. These are crescent shaped lakes lying alongside the winding river, formed as erosion and deposits of soil changes the river’s course over time.
On the morning I was going to explore the oxbow lakes I was the only guest. Undeterred, I hopped into the boat with my guide, Ezrah, and we were soon happily zipping along the water together.
To access an oxbow lake you have to know where to find them. Luckily, Ezrah knew exactly where to point the boat and we ducked our heads to avoid the canopy of low branches as we crept down a hidden inlet off to one side of the river. I really enjoyed this part. As you spend most of your time chugging up and down the wide expanse of the Kinabatangan River, it was exciting to feel like you were actually deep within the jungle itself. With the trees enveloping me from every side, I kept my eyes peeled for the elusive orangutan high up in the branches.
We popped out the other end of the narrow inlet and into the oxbow lake itself. We cruised across to a beautifully ramshackle boathouse in the far corner. Here we disembarked, ready to start a walk through the jungle on any normal occasion. In fact, we were all kitted out for our walk in our gum boots and leech socks. However, due to the fact that there had been pygmy elephants in the area, we first waited in silence listening to the sounds of the jungle. If we could detect that there were elephants in the area then we would not venture any further.
It didn’t take long before we heard the not too distant sound of branches cracking and crashing. Unmistakably a sound created by a pygmy elephant. Ezrah and I froze. My heart rate started to quicken its pace as I pictured a heard of elephants emerging through the trees towards us. Another crash, followed by an unmistakable low growl of the head male elephant.
Ezrah turned to me with disappointment in his eyes. “I’m sorry we cannot go any further than this,” he said. “I wanted to show you the jungle, but it is not safe.”
I reassured him that I was absolutely fine at missing out on the walk. The thought of the pygmy elephants in the jungle was thrilling enough that I was satisfied with the experience. Just knowing that these elusive, wild animals were in such close proximity to me had me smiling from ear to ear.
Night Time Jungle Treks
On my first night at Bilit Adventure Lodge I was given the chance to take part in a night hike. We paid a small amount of money to rent gum boots, leech socks and to pay for our local guide. I made sure I wore jungle appropriate clothing of long sleeves, long trousers and hat so as to not get nibbled by mosquitoes or any other jungle creepy-crawly. With my torch in my hand, I set out in a small group of five plus our guide. The reason we needed gum boots became immediately clear as the floor of the forest was thick with mud.
We had an entertaining time squelching through the mud and scanning the forest for night-time creatures. We spotted a civet cat, with a super long tail, climbing through the trees. There were a couple of tiny, fluffy birds snoozing in the nook of small trees. Amazingly, our guide also managed to spot a huge stick insect hanging out in a tree, which was pretty impressive in the dark considering that a stick insect looks like, well, a stick.
Do You Need A Tour To See The Kinabatangan River?
In my opinion, the short answer is yes. If you are an independent traveller who does not book onto anything pre-organised, then you can of course negotiate with local boat owners to take you for a cruise on the river. You can take a public bus from Sandakan to the Junction of Route 13 and Route 22 (Jalan Sandakan Lahad Datu / Jalan Ranau – Sandakan) and then hitchhike to Kampung Bilit, which is a village on the bank of the Kinabatangan River.
However, if you’re planning a visit to the Kinabatangan River as part of a longer holiday and you want the reassurance of knowing that you will get to the river and onto a boat, then I would recommend a tour. If you don’t want to stay the night on the river (although I highly recommend this experience) you can organise a Kinabatangan River day trip. There will be companies that are willing to drive you from Sandakan to meet up with a cruise then drive you back again at the end of the day.
For maximum chances of spotting incredible wildlife – which is surely why you’re there – give yourself as much time as you can. There are many different packages for one or two night river cruises, with accommodation included, to choose from.
I joined a 2N3D trip with Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure. They have an office in the centre of Sandakan that I booked through, although they also have a website that you can check out if you’re not in Borneo.
How Much Should You Pay For A Kinabatangan River Safari?
This was the biggest question I had before visiting Borneo. It was my absolute goal to see orangutans in the wild and when I was researching orangutan tours online the results I was getting were dishearteningly expensive. Because I am a solo traveller, every time I reached out to a company to enquire about departure dates and prices I was getting stung with up to a 50% single person surcharge. As I was backpacking Malaysia and conscious of my budget, these figures became prohibitively expensive and I was losing faith that I’d ever find a way of seeing wild Borneo orangutan.
That was until I realised that I could book in Borneo with local tour operators at a fraction of the cost. When I was staying in Sandakan I approached a local company that had a set price per person, which I paid for in Malaysian Ringgit, and avoided all of the online fees I would have incurred paying in another currency.
My two night package with transfers to/from Sandakan, accommodation at Billit Adventure Lodge with food included cost me $131AU / £73 GBP / $97 US.
Getting to Borneo is incredibly easy from Malaysia. From Kuala Lumpur there are regular (and reasonably priced) flights by Air Asia to Kota Kinabalu on the west coast and Sandakan over on the eastern side.
If you would like to explore the Lower Kinabatangan River in the Sabah Region of Borneo then I would advise that you fly to Sandakan. Flight time from KL to Sandakan was 2 hours and 50 minutes.
Sandakan is a 2.5 hour drive to Kampung Bilit where the Kinabatangan River lodge was situated.
Over to you!
What’s your purpose for travel? Do you have somewhere you’d like to go for a specific reason, such as the wildlife? I’d like to hear what your wish-list is!
Have I inspired you to travel to Borneo and go on your own adventure? Or have you already been on a Kinabatangan River cruise? What did you see? Share your thoughts with me!
Please note: I did not receive any compensation from Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure for this article. I paid for my trip fully and am recommending Bilit Adventure Lodge to you because I enjoyed my stay with them.
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