A Guide to Wildlife Watching on Borneo’s Kinabatangan River
During my six-month stint travelling Southeast Asia, few experiences were more memorable than my three-day, two-night safari along the Kinabatangan River in Borneo. Sabah’s longest river is renowned for being a great spot to see rare species endemic to Borneo; these include the pygmy elephant (yes, that’s right, pint-sized elephants!), Bornean orangutans and the proboscis monkey – although you’ll need to be eagle-eyed in order to spot the shy elephants and orangutans. Several companies offer river safari tours in the region, so you'll have lots of options; just be sure to pick one that's as eco-conscious and animal-friendly as possible. Here’s what I discovered…
Up early and ready to begin our wildlife-watching adventure, we hopped on a local bus from Sandakan to Sepilok, where we were picked up in a minivan for the two-hour drive to the river. I had teamed up with my new friend Alex, a Ukrainian backpacker I’d met back in Sandakan. An avid photographer and animal lover, as well as a dab hand at hitchhiking (a story for another time) he was the perfect companion for the trip. On arrival at the banks of the Kinabatangan River, we were given an orientation of sorts. We found out where we’d be sleeping, how the next three days would be structured, meal times and so on. After settling into our cabin (and choosing the least fusty looking bunkbed) we sat down for a quick lunch of chicken, rice and fruit before getting strapped into our lifejackets. Soon we would be undertaking our first afternoon boat safari, and I was full of anticipation as to what we might see.
The outing did not disappoint. As we slowly made our way down the river, the most beautifully-coloured hornbills flew overhead, while macaque monkeys chattered in the treetops. The quirky proboscis monkeys, rusty orange in colour and with their instantly-recognisable, almost comically large, noses, swung from the trees in troops, observing us from a safe distance.
On the way back, we noticed another tour boat 30 yards or so ahead of us in complete silence – engine off – full of tourists gingerly peering towards the riverbank. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, our boat crept quietly closer, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever was hiding there. It wasn’t long before we saw a flash of scaly reptilian flesh glide beneath the water and up again, revealing a pair of beady glass-like eyes before lurking back underneath. The saltwater crocodile is an elusive beast, moving at a surprisingly slick speed, so it felt pretty special to spot one on our first trip out on the water.
Later that evening, after another generous meal, we got ourselves prepared for the night safari into the surrounding jungle behind our lodges. To avoid being eaten alive by bugs and mosquitos we covered up from head to toe: I’m talking full-length wellies, a shirt and leggings – not a comfortable experience in the humidity that’s for sure. Armed with nothing but a torch, we set off into the darkness to see what we could find. The result? My worst nightmare: spiders, spiders, and more spiders. Cue several stifled screams from me – much to the amusement of my group. Despite this, I continued on and was relieved to see something that wasn’t a spider: a clutch of vibrantly-coloured birds, sleeping peacefully in the trees. Despite being a fairly terrifying experience (especially if, like me, you have a strong fear of insects) it did make us feel like true intrepid explorers, wandering into the darkest of jungles, putting all our faith in one guide.
Day two began at 6:30am when we were dragged towards the boat, lifejacket sleepily slung on, ready for more wildlife spotting. At first, I felt mildly annoyed that we’d been woken so early (side note: I am not a morning person). To make matters worse, a thick sheet of mist hung over the lake, making it virtually impossible to see anything – atmospheric as it was. But as the fog cleared, I quickly realised why they’d brought us out this early. It was seemingly the witching hour for animals big and small. Our guide urged us to be quiet as he heard the low rumble of something in the distance, and as we got further along the river, the noises were unmistakable. It was the sound of an elephant – several elephants, in fact, trumpeting nearby. Then we saw it, a family of pygmy elephants eating their way along the riverbank, the baby incomprehensibly small (for an elephant at least). Incredible. We stayed in that spot for a good 15 minutes, sure to capture every possible moment on camera, video and in our minds.
Later that afternoon, we were due our second boat safari of the day. After the excitement of the elephants that morning, we were pumped up and ready to continue along the river in search of something more. And once again, we weren’t disappointed. Perhaps the thing I was most excited to see, were Bornean orangutans. These gentle ginger beasts are endangered – the victims of poaching and deforestation for palm oil – so seeing them in the wild is extremely rare. In Borneo, for a more likely sighting, it’s best to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Here, locals rehabilitate orphaned orangutans and pair them with older orangutans to teach them key survival skills, before releasing them back into the wild.
As we progressed further down the river, our guide – binoculars in hand – pointed out a rustling noise high in the treetops, a blur of ginger fur disappearing behind a tree trunk. We were patient for 10 minutes or so, eyes fixed to the treetops, with nothing really moving or happening. Then, just as we were about to move on, we were rewarded with the sighting we’d all been waiting for: a pair of orangutans swung out from seemingly nowhere, directly into the tree in front of us. We were all mesmerised, whispering and giggling, desperately trying to capture the gentle beings on camera. For all of us, avid nature lovers, it felt like a truly rare and special moment, and certainly one I won’t forget in a hurry.
On our third and final day, we were offered a morning trek through the jungle, furthering our opportunities of seeing wildlife before leaving. Hot, sweaty and humid, we trekked for what felt like hours (but in reality was more like 45 minutes) only managing to see a few more birds and as usual, a lot more bugs. There was no doubt in my mind that the highlight of the tour had been the river cruises. As we boarded the boat back across the river to our minivan, preparing to return to Sandakan, I reflected upon my time along the Kinabatangan River and how privileged I had been to have witnessed such incredible, yet sadly rare and endangered, species. It felt truly humbling; a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, and one I would recommend to anyone.