Spotting Wildlife on The Great Kinabatangan River

We booked a 3d/2n tour on the Kinabatangan River with our hostel in Sandakan, Harborside Backpackers.

Our shuttle picks us up at a nice time in late morning, and we drive for well over an hour before reaching our accommodation for the next few nights, which is an impressive surprise. Seeing that we booked at a budget hostel, and paid very little, we had low expectations.

The jungle lodge appears to be more of a resort, with a large wood-dining hall overlooking the river and log-cabin-chic dormitories and cottages connected by an elevated wooden walkway. Meals come all-you-can-eat buffet-style. Beds are comfy. Bathrooms are nice.

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An army of mischievous monkeys immediately greets us as we approach our cabins and settle in. At one point, a particularly scruffy gang corners us and we decide it’s best to take the long way around and avoid passing the malicious-looking creatures. For those of you who think monkeys are cute–you’re very wrong.

The little beasts seem to take great joy from dismantling the metal lanterns, placed convienently along the walkway, with their creepy fingers and sharp teeth. I imagine lighting the path to the cabins must be a constant battle for hotel staff.

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One of the evil monkeys at our lodge

We have a cup of tea and a snack of fried plantains before embarking on our first nature spotting river cruise. These cruises will become my absolute favorite part of our entire Borneo trip. Jim hires binoculars and we gaze intently into the treetops and forests. It’s peaceful and relaxing and hypnotic.

Though we never spot the famed pygmy elephants who’ve been known to make an appearance in these parts, we did see countless hornbills, scores of cartoonish long-nosed, proboscis monkeys; too many ubiquitous macaques; stunningly colorful kingfishers, Sea Eagles, a crocodile lurking under murky waters, and one orangutan.

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Sunrise river cruise

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 probiscus monkeys, sabah

So many probiscus monkeys

A side note about the Kinabatangan River:
The Kinabatangan River makes up the largest river system in Malaysian Borneo’s state of Sabah, and the second longest in the country. The region is home to some of Borneo’s highest concentration of wildlife; including the great Sumatran rhino, pygmy elephants, probiscus monkeys, orangutans, wild pig, Borneo river sharks, and a GINORMOUS variety of birds.

Historically, these forests attracted exotic bird traders seeking taboo treasures such as ivory, rhino horns and edible birdnests.The area has only been protected since 1997, and turned into a wildlife sanctuary in 2006. However large parts of the area has been destroyed by logging and palm oil farming, putting many of the animals listed above in grave danger.

After our first cruise, we have dinner at the lodge. Nearing the end of the meal we are hit by a torrential rain. Sheets of water hammer down on the metal roof and spray into the open sides. Everyone scurries to find a dry place.

We are disappointed to learn that the crummy weather has cancelled our scheduled night walk. Instead the lodge provides “entertainment.” A band plays local folk music and the staff attempts to teach all the foreigners a dance, which resembles the mating ritual of exotic birds. This ends up being a lot of fun, despite the fact that it’s all very awkward. Because we are in a Muslim country, where alcohol is very expensive, we are all dead sober.

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“Dancing”

The next morning comes too soon as we are all awakened for a sunrise boat cruise for more wildlife spotting. We see mostly birds–though this is not disappointing since we love birds. After breakfast we embark on a jungle hike, along the way we stop at a peaceful lake, which also serves as a natural fish nursery. Here we sit on the edge of a dock, dip our toes into the murky water and allow thousands of tiny fish to flock to our lims and suck away our dead skin. Yummy…

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In the afternoon, we take a walk through the nearby village and see the school and houses of the local people. Here, our guide shares his mixed feelings about palm oil farming. He believes that since this farming first came to the area the overall quality of life has improved for the people here. He argues that Malaysia (compared to neighbor Indonesia) has a done a pretty good job with their conservation efforts; designating space for national parks and encouraging a more sustainable growing practice. I’m not completely convinced…

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Local children in the village

Unfortunately, once again our night walk is canceled due to rain. And so, we all chip in….and buy a bottle of vodka. The remainder of the evening is spent in lively conversation under the pitter-patter of jungle rain. The night serves as a reminder that these moments are also important during travel; slowing down and enjoying the chance to chat with people from all over the world, of different ages, career paths, backgrounds. Though perhaps not as exciting, these experiences are just as valuable and often even more memorable than sightseeing.

The next morning begins with another enjoyable sunrise river cruise, followed by breakfast and goodbyes. We are herded into shuttle buses and sent our way by midday.

Now we have a long bus ride with plenty of time to decide how to spend our last three days in Borneo…

Know Before you Go:
There are plentiful options for multi day tours in the Kinabatangan region. Many guesthouses and agencies in Sandakan can book the tours for you. We booked ours at Harborside Backpackers. They offered two options, one slightly more expensive than the other–we choose the pricier one after we were promised much nicer accommodation/etc–and this turned out accurate. However, we were disappointed by the size of the boat we used in this tours–large and noisy and sometimes hard to see the shores and trees clearly.

Note that a smaller boat may be more favorable for viewing wildlife as it can get much closer to the shores. Maybe we were bitter because we didn’t see any pygmy elephants whereas many other tour groups out at the same time we were with different lodges did see elephants and more. However this is probably an unfair assumption.

If we were to do it again, I think we’d try for a more independent experience such as a homestay. We met backpackers who were heading to a homestay in a more remote part of the region where they’d get to pick and choose their adventures/tours/hikes. Ask around before you book.

Most lodges offer rentals of rubber boots and binoculars. We rented both and were happy with our decision. Most of the viewing is done from a afar so binoculars were needed to see spotted animals up close. It is the jungle, hence it rains… a lot. Rubber boots are to save your shoes from muck and destruction and to protect your ankles and calves from insects and snakes. We did not get slug socks and ended up fine without them. Athletic leggings are useful for slug protection during the hikes.

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