The Kinabatangan River is the second largest river in Malaysia, stretching 560km through the southwest of Sabah. Borneo’s endemic proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, hornbills, pgymy elephants, amongst other birds and mammals, can all be spotted along the riverbanks from the water. It’s really worth a visit if you’re in Sabah. Seeing these animals in the true wild is an unforgettable experience.
Sadly, the reason there are so many animals now living by the river bank, is due to large expanses of jungle being cleared to plant palm oil plantations. Luckily there is National Park on one side of the river, which means the animals have a protected home (for now).
The river is south of Sandakan, on the southwest side of Sabah. My accommodation included a pick up from where I stayed in Sepilok.
Most accommodation along the river comes as a package deal, with meals and boat trips included, as well as a pick up from the Sandakan area, or it will only cost a little extra to add transportation on. From what I read it was possible to get a public bus to the area as well.
My main preference was to stay somewhere that prioritised sustainability, rainforest and wildlife conservation and supported the local community. There were a number of places that met elements of my requirements, but the place that caught my eye was the award-winning Sukau Rainforest Lodge, which is in the Top 50 National Geographic Lodges in the world! It wasn’t the most budget friendly option, but we wanted to treat ourselves to somewhere we wouldn’t normally stay, whilst supporting the environment and community.
The budget lodges I looked at were £100 or so cheaper, but I really liked that Sukau Rainforest Lodge used electric motors on their boats to minimise noise for the wildlife, had their own boardwalk in the rainforest at the back of the lodges and offered nature talks in the afternoons. The lodge is very eco-friendly with regards to its water, electricity, disposal, education, noise, design and construction. You can read their policies here if you’re interested.
Sukau Rainforest Lodge is right on the river, with their restaurant overlooking the water and the sunsets/sunrises. The restaurant, rooms, reception, games room, swimming pool and lecture room are all connected by a wooden boardwalk, that also loops for 450 metres through the rainforest at the back of the lodge. We stayed in two, beautifully designed double rooms, complete with extensive wildlife identification books – perfect for bedtime reading.
All of the food (early breakfast, breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner!!) was included and the staff were really great at clearly telling us what food was vegetarian, and they even made some extra, delicious dishes especially for us.
The trip wasn’t cheap and I could have done it cheaper by staying at a different lodge on the river. However, we all wanted to treat ourselves whilst supporting a lodge that was truly focused on sustainability and that supported the local community.
Because it was low season and there were four of us, I managed to strike a deal, meaning we paid £250 / RM 1350 each instead of £300 / RM 1650 each for a 2 day, 1 night stay. The price included food, transport, guides, river cruises and visiting the Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Centre and the Sandakan Memorial Park.
Tip – In low season it’s always worth emailing places directly, instead of just accepting the price that’s listed online.
The benefit of visiting in low season, meant that the river wasn’t packed with other tourists. There were only a few other boats around, which meant our river experience was very peaceful and relaxing. We were also the only people on our boat, apart from the guide and the captain, but in high season this number will inevitably increase.
What we got up to
On the first day we got picked up in Sepilok and met our guide for our stay, Zahari, who was a very passionate wildlife photographer and guide. We ate lunch, then drove about two hours in a small minibus, past a lot of palm oil plantations, to Sukau, where we got a fifteen minute boat to the lodge.
After settling into our rooms and looking around, we had coffee and some delicious corn and banana fritters before heading out on a two hour, late afternoon river cruise. Wildlife becomes more active in the evenings, when the temperature cools down and we were lucky to see:
- Proboscis monkeys – Borneo’s endemic monkeys with huge, phallic type noses!
- Long tailed macaque monkeys
- Pig tailed macaque monkeys
- Silver leaf monkeys
- A baby crocodile
- An eagle
- A common civet
- A monitor lizard
The river was tranquil, and we were lucky not to encounter any other boats. Watching the sunset and listening to the sounds of the rainforest coming alive at night on the river is an experience like no other.
After the boat trip, we had dinner, then went to a short, interesting talk about Sukau Rainforest Lodge’s sustainability and community projects.
We woke up early, at 5.30am, had some coffee and toast, then headed out on an early morning two and a half hour river trip up to an ox-bow lake. The mist hanging over the river was absolutely magical.
Again, we were lucky to have the river mostly to ourselves, there were only a couple of other boats around. We managed to spot:
- A lesser fish eagle
- Proboscis monkeys – we managed to see the male and his big nose very clearly
- Pig tailed macaque monkeys
- An osprey
- Oriental darters
- Oriental hornbills
- Asian black hornbills
Having binoculars was essential to see the details on these spectacular creatures and Azari’s wildlife identification books were great to look at.
When we returned, we had (another) breakfast, then Zahari took us on a walk along the boardwalk, and into parts of the rainforest. We didn’t manage to spot any mammals, but we saw some huge butterflies and creepy crawlies.
After lunch, another great guide gave us a really interesting talk about orangutans – their feeding habits, day-to-day activities, pregnancy, upbringing and the difference between Bornean and Sumatran orangutans.
In the late afternoon, we went on our third boat trip to a different part of the river. We spent a lot of time cruising down little rivulets, watching birds and monkeys in the trees overhead. Using the electric motors was serene and didn’t disturb the wildlife. We saw a lot of species of birds, and of course monkeys:
- Dollar bird
- Blue eared kingfisher
- Buff neck woodpecker
- Oriental pied hornbills
- Asian black hornbills
- Brahminy kite
- Grey imperial pigeon
- Great egret
- Cattle egret
- Crested serpent eagle
- Blyths hawk eagle
- White breasted water hen
- Silver leaf monkeys
- Long tail macaques
- Proboscis monkeys
The highlight of the trip for me was seeing a wild orangutan!! Zahari spotted it from a distance, and used the electric motors to get closer without unsettling it. The orangutan was magnificent – the way it moved so slowly though the trees, how its orange fur was so bright in the sunlight but camouflaged in the shade and how quietly it moved. What a fantastic way to end the river trip.
After dinner, Zahari organised a night walk along the board walk. Although no mammals were spotted, we saw a lot of interesting insects, but not as many as expected in a rainforest. I think all the pesticide spraying from the nearby palm oil plantations is having an affect on the insect populations, which will impact their predators and the rainforest’s biodiversity. Hopefully the government will start to implement restrictions on the palm oil mono-cultures to prevent wildlife damage and loss.
We were walking around the boardwalk at 6am and we managed to see Bertuah and Hari (meaning Lucky Day in Bahasa Malay) – the mother and baby orangutans that regularly nest in the lodge’s grounds. We watched them for about an hour whilst they played, ate and moved through the trees. It was so special being able to watch the beautiful creatures in the wild. We also witnessed a stand-off between a black squirrel and a hornbill which was very entertaining!
After breakfast, we set off back to Sandakan, where we had lunch, then visited the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok, and the Memorial Park in Sandakan.
Zahari was such a fantastic guide and a genuinely lovely person – I really learnt a lot about Borneo’s wildlife and culture from him. If you read this Zahari – thank you for an unforgettable experience!
Next stop: Sandakan.