The palm oil plantations keep ‘waxing away’ at the Borneo rainforest. This is one area where you wish the inspiration for forest maintenance was more 70’s Playboy rather than Shaven Havens. Ironically, the thin strip of bush on either side of the Kinabatangan River in Sabah is the best place in Borneo to see wild animals. The reason is obvious. The animals have nowhere else to go.
We booked into a riverside resort called the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan. They run good-value, nature-oriented 2N/3D packages. These include transfers to and from the lodge from nearby Sandakan, Sepilok, or Kota Kinabatangan.
Activities and nature watching
The packages include a number of daily activities and there is an option for additional night walks.
On day one, you get to the lodge around 3pm. There is a 2 hour boat ride down the river at 4pm. The night trek costs 15myr and leaves at 8pm.
On day two, there is a 90 minute boat ride at 6am, a jungle trek from 9-12, and another cruise through the river at 4pm.
On day three, you do another cruise before breakfast. Then, transfer out to Sepilok or other destination.
Kinabatangan Day One
The evening nature watching cruise was somewhat marred by the boat getting caught up in fishing lines at the confluence of the Kinabatangan and a smaller tributary. It seems absolutely incredible to me that local fishermen would plant fishing traps across the full width of a river that is visited everyday by tour groups. I get fishermen need to fish. But, in a way that screws up the motors of boats of your fellow villagemen? Ugh! Dumb!!
We floated around aimlessly in the tributary until the lodge sent another boat to fix the problem. Still, we managed to see some wildlife. Sadly, much of the time we hovered around playful packs of long-tailed macaques. This seemed to delight our fellow passengers. Long-tailed macaques are ten-a-penny in Asia. They are even found in cities. This is akin to being excited by pigeons at Trafalgar Square. You don’t pay good money for a wildlife trip and expect to see only macaques!
Further along we saw one of the beasties we had been eager to check out. The permanently priapic, bulbous-nosed, fat-bellied, and flatulent Proboscis Monkey. They were a little high up in the trees to really check nose and willy. However, fat belly was clear and present.
We also saw a couple of species of hornbill, the wrinkled and pied Oriental varieties. Love those ungainly charismatic birds!
There are rumors of 7m long saltwater crocodiles in Kinabatangan. The biggest our guide had seen was a mere 4.5m. Salties scare the poop out of me so I was glad the only ones we saw were mere pups. Malevolent looking beasts though.
Kinabatangan Day Two
I had a fitful night’s sleep. A mixture of high humidity, weird noises, and weirder dreams kept waking me up. At one point, I dreamt I was bit by a snarling beast. I leaped out of bed like a jack in the box!
A 5.30 wake up call was exactly what I didn’t want! Thankfully, we still had some Flores coffee on hand to give us a morning jolt before the nature cruise. We found some Proboscis Monkeys frolicking around. But, the dominant male must have been tending to his harem like a dude with permanent erection and ten wives must! We didn’t catch any glimpse of Bulbous Priapus!
But, if it is big horns you want then you can always rely on hornbills to put in an appearance. We saw a couple of Wrinkled and a large flock of Pied Orientals.
Still, we had seen no orangutans or elephants. We felt cheated!
We opted out of the morning jungle trek. Once the sun is up, the animals retreat to the shade. And, I doubt Kinabatangan is as beautiful as Danum Valley. Our fellow travelers confirmed we had made the right decision. Three hours, lots of sweat, and zero beasties.
Late in the afternoon, we set off for another river jaunt. We wanted to see orangutans. We weren’t bothered about macaques. Sadly, our fellow passengers couldn’t get enough of them. So, I bitchily intervened and told the guide that we had enough of macaques. The boat sped on. But, no ginger apes. We saw loads of Proboscis Monkeys. All very cute but… We did see some Rhinoceros Hornbills though. That was a first for us. Never going to bitch about Hornbill sightings.
Eventually, we sped off back towards home base. Laura and I had faces like bulldogs licking piss off a nettle. We were not pleased. Suddenly, our guide swung the boat round to the left and sped across the width of the river towards another boat. I couldn’t see why. Guide yelled ‘Orang Utan!’. ‘Where?’ Came my reply. ‘Right in front of you’.
Dude was not wrong. It was ten feet away from us. No wonder these beasts are so difficult to find in the wild. It looked like an old brown sheepskin hanging off a branch. It was a young solitary male. And, jeez, was it strong. It hung from one arm while contorting itself around to pick leaves from trees. It looked really healthy with shiny dark chestnut brown fur. Not the matted orange mess I was expecting.
It seemed very unconcerned by our presence. Guide reckoned it must be very hungry since they usually shoot off quick when boats approach.
Fantastic! Now, we can cross off one more of our Asia must-sees.
We’re not sure how lucky we were to see an orangutan. We had gotten the impression from reading trip reports and talking to other travelers that it was pretty common to see them on the Kinabatangan. But our guide said he typically saw them only once a month.
On the way back to the hostel, we saw four large troops of proboscis monkeys. And, we can confirm that the males do indeed have a ridiculous nose and permanent erection.
We also saw a large crocodile chowing down a recent kill. It looked pretty big. It then slid into the water and headed towards us. In doing so, we saw its immense tail. I changed my sizing of it too. From big… to very large get us the hell out of here quick!
Kinabatangan Day Three
Another cruise upriver. It was very misty, so the magical atmosphere quotient rose considerably. We saw more Proboscis Monkeys in all their bulbous glory. We also caught sight of another large crocodile on the riverbank. The top sighting of the day was a pair of rare white-crowned hornbills. Apparently, birders would have been wetting their knickers over this. It is high on their list of reasons to visit Sabah. I had never heard of them but they were undeniably cool!
Any transfer out of the jungle in Sabah is depressing. It was a sea of palm oil tree ugliness from the river all the way to Sepilok.
The Nature Lodge Kinabatangan offers two types of packages. We took the cheap option, a stay in one of the 4-bed dorms. It wasn’t high season so we had the dorm to ourselves.
Meals are full-board. Veggie options are sort of available. We told them we didn’t want meat or fish, but no veggie options were forthcoming. Lunch and dinner consisted of two meat/fish dishes and two fried vegetable choices. The veg option was no meat but two veg. Each meal we had to ask for eggs for some protein. For breakfast one morning we were served sausage. I am sure the only part of ‘no meat’ they understood was ‘meat’. The food was simple but tasty and filling. All three meals are served buffet style. Filtered water, coffee, and tea are available 24/7.
If you like wildlife, you should definitely visit Kinabatangan. Seeing an orangutan in the wild is a magical experience. If people stop visiting, then I fear the palm oil plantations will encroach more on their habitat. Be advised that orangutans notwithstanding, going to the Kinabatangan is a depressing experience. Even when you float down the river, the occasional break in the forest reveals the palm trees just a few meters away.
We got the feeling from Kinabatangan, and most areas in Sabah, that the tourist places feel a little tired and shabby. Tourists have been coming here for years, but there doesn’t feel like there is much continued investment here. Sabah is certainly not a place to hang out in. It’s a ‘doing destination’. You come in do the activity in a particular place and move on.