Kinabatangan River, Borneo, Malaysia
Sabah, north Borneo, is home to an abundance of wildlife – some rare and indigenous to Borneo. There are several areas throughout Sabah where this wildlife thrives. The Sabah Wildlife Department has responsibility for “implementation and administration of the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment, 1997”, and this includes managing Sabah’s parks and protected areas. The protected areas were introduced to preserve the natural heritage of Borneo, thus enabling species such as the proboscis to recover and thrive. This map illustrates the protected areas, including the River Kinabatangan – home to the greatest concentration of Borneo’s wildlife.
As Lynn and I were in Borneo diving at Sipadan, it made sense to explore some of land based wildlife, particularly when it is so accessible, fascinating and prolific. We first headed to Malaysia’s second longest river, the Kinabatangan. Most of the wildlife live, eat and hunt within a few hundred meters of the river’s edge, so the best sightings of wildlife are by boat. We spent two days doing this, so most of this post comprises photographs I took. I have split my sightings by group, and not do my usual “travelogue”style of reporting.
On the way to the Lodge, we were fortunate enough to see an estuarine crocodile finish off a water boar he had attacked moments before. The ranger told us he last saw a crocodile attack four years ago, so we were lucky …
Incredibly, this was the second time I have witnessed such a rare thing. The first time was a few years ago at Dundee Beach, near Darwin in Australia – a crocodile attacked and killed a dolphin after cornering it in a sandbank. Estuarine crocodiles are patient and very effective hunters.
A python wrapped around a tree
Pig Tailed Macaque’s
Long Tailed macaques – these are very common throughout south-east Asia
Blue eared Kingfisher
Oriental pied hornbill
Blue headed pita
Egret and ?
White bellied sea eagle and a Buffy fish-owl
Some flora from around the lodge and riverbank
I decided to name this the Bob Marley plant…
The routine for the river trips is 3 hours from around 6 – 6.30 am, then again at around 3 – 3.30 pm. This is partly due to the punishing tropical heat and humidity, but mainly because this is when all the wildlife is out feeding. In the morning, there is a beautiful mist that gently rolls off the river as soon as sun is up…
..and sunset on the river makes a very tranquil end to the day…
An optional tour during the day is to the Gomantong Caves, about a 30 minute drive from the riverside resort area. The limestone cave system is now a protected area due to its unique ecosystem – it is home to millions of bats, swifts and cockroaches. As you approach the caves, one of the caves most famous characteristics becomes evident – the smell!
Huge deposits of bat guano lie on the cave floor, thus attracting the cockroaches. A wooden board-walk sits above the guano thankfully. As we walked in, it felt like an Alfred Hitchcock set – it was dark, with a distant bursts of sunlight peeking through the roof holes. Ropes hung from the ceiling, used for a twice yearly harvest of the birds nests. It is a very eerie place indeed. I asked the guide if it had ever been used as a film set and discovered David Attenborough had been recently filming a 3D documentary titled “Conquest of the Skies”. So look out for that!
Another popular, and almost mandatory excursion on the way to the Kinabatangan river is the world-famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre – a short drive from Sandakan airport. If you are in the area, this is worth visiting. Feeding times are 10am and 3pm…
The first to arrive was this rather frail looking chap that was recently rescued…
Then the star attraction. – Although most orangutans are carefully rehabilitated and released back to the wild, this chap has been at the sanctuary for years now….
Who can blame him, with two meals a day provided and all this attention? It was obvious he had a special relationship with the ranger – and clear how we Homo sapiens have evolved from primates…
The Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre recently opened across the road from the oranguatan sanctuary. These gorgeous bears were rescued from poachers capturing them for their bile, or because they’re orphans as a result of this activity. Chinese medicine uses bear bile. You can clearly see the scars on the back of one I spotted …
Both these attractions at Seipok can be visited on the way to or from the Kinabatangan River. Allow around two to three hours to see everything.
Most mainstream tourists see Borneo as part of an organised tour. All budgets are catered for and there are plenty of tour operators in Kota Kinabalu – the industry is very well established. I found my operator online – it was mid-priced and we received good sales service. As exploring the Kinabatangan River is mainly boat based, this trip is also suitable for anyone who may have limited mobility – check with the operators.
How to get to the Kinabatangan River
By Air – the closest airport is Sandakan. Both Air Asia and Malaysian Airlines fly several time a day from both Kota Kinabalu and KL. For more information, check their websites. Tour operators will pick up from the airport.
By bus – several services a day. Check with the bus stations at Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu. Wikitravel is also a good source, but double-check before planning anything
Where to stay
There are a number of places to stay to explore the Kinabatangan River. Most are in the Sukau area and can be booked independently or as part of a tour package. As part of my package, I stayed at the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge, Sukau. The guide was good, the rooms clean and comfortable and the food average. The resort location of course was excellent…
Overall, we enjoyed our two days exploring the Kinabatangan River, where all these nature encounters are almost guaranteed – except the crocodile attack! Seeing these rare species for the first time was wonderful, as well as getting up close to them. If you are seeking a peaceful and relaxing way to spot and admire Borneo’s wildlife, definitely head to Kinabatangan River.