The Kinabatangan River is tragic and miraculous at the same time. One of Sabah’s premier attractions, the river flows through a stretch of surviving secondary and tertiary forest sandwiched between the industrial-scale palm plantations of the Kinabatangan region. Perhaps the strongest testament to wildlife’s ability to survive and adapt under desperate conditions, I can personally say that, in all my travels, I have never seen such a boxed-in forest region with so much wildlife and such diversity – it is simply incomprehensible.
Our first outing on the river was especially well timed just moments after the end of a tropical storm which had cooled the air significantly. Within the first ten minutes, we had spotted four of the eight hornbill species found in Sabah, including the phenomenal rhinoceros hornbill. We saw more hornbills in that one outing than we’ve seen in our entire four years traveling in Asia. The river was lined with troop after troop of proboscis monkeys and crab-eating macaques.
As if that weren’t enough, 30 minutes into the trip we spotted our first wild orangutan peeking out of its nest high up in the forked trunk of an enormous tree. (I had no idea how high up they nest. Luckily, we always carry binoculars, but getting a picture of one might be a challenge.)
It hardly seems possible that anything could surpass that, but shortly after the orangutan, we found a large herd of Borneo’s world-famous elephants foraging along the river. Often referred to as pygmy elephants (a title much hyped in tourist literature), scientists are still debating whether the elephants represent a distinct subspecies, or not. Either way, they were our prime reason for visiting the Kinabatangan region and we found them in our very first outing. They are the only wild Asian elephants we have seen outside of India.
Our first outing set ridiculously high expectations, but each of our additional boat trips rewarded with exceptional wildlife sightings. We did two morning trips, three afternoon trips, and one trip down a tributary after dark. Drifting along the narrow side-river through the dark jungle illuminated by swarms of fireflies with a symphony of frogs and electric insect noises will certainly fulfill anyone’s fantasy of Borneo.
Not my best pic, but at least I got a shot of the rare Storm’s stork
Bird life along the Kinabatangan is exceptional. The clear highlight was spotting THREE critically endangered Storm’s storks. Once widespread throughout Southeast Asia, it’s estimated that only 250-500 of these storks remain in the wild; it is considered one of the most endangered stork species in the world. Birders will go gaga over Kinabatangan.
In a stroke of luck, we encountered the elephant herd on four of our six outings, and we spotted another mother orangutan with her baby. (Still no picture, my focus was purely on seeing them before they disappeared into the dense jungle growth.) We found pig-tail macaques, water monitors, silver leaf monkeys… but unfortunately, no red leaf monkeys.
Because I really wanted to see the red leaf monkey, a species of langur with bright rust-orange hair even more intense in color than an orangutan, Thomas and I spent an additional two days hiking in the very muddy forest along the river. Tons of monkeys and bird life but no red leaf monkeys. Never fear, Mother Nature loves to make you work for your rewards and always ends up throwing you a surprise when you least expect it.
On our last day, while packing up to leave, I heard something jump in the trees behind our bungalow. Giving it one last try, I plodded through the mud to the elephant moat surrounding our lodge and sure enough there was a small troop of red leaf monkeys just a hundred feet from where we were staying. Oh, the beautiful rust-colored irony.
Visiting the Kinabatangan River
Visitors must be clear that the Kinabatangan River is not a pristine wilderness. Much of the area has been partially logged and, at points, oil plantations push up to the river’s edge. Despite the destruction, the area remains very beautiful and offers a great deal even for serious wildlife enthusiasts.
Most visitors base themselves in small hotels or lodges near Sukau where they can also arrange boat trips along the river. Unfortunately, most lodges promote rather limited 2-3 day packages which tend to rush visitors in and out. We stayed for four nights and did some independent walking in the jungle.
It is not necessary to arrange a package trip to Sukau as many would have you believe. Independent travelers can travel by bus or minivan to Sukau junction and take a minivan (20 RM per person in June 2011) to Sukau town.
It is also possible to stay at lodges in Bilit or at more remote locations along the river. There is no major advantage to staying in Sukau town as there were no independent restaurants and the small markets had VERY limited supplies. They didn’t even have bottled water most of the time we were there. Food is generally arranged through the lodges.
We stayed at Sukau Greenview B&B and found them to be quite a professional operation. Rooms were simple but clean, food was very good, the staff professional, and boat trips were excellent. We purchased their 3-day package (300 RM per person) and then supplemented with additional meals, nights and boat trips.