3 Days on the Kinabatangan River – Everything you need to know and what to expect to help you plan you plan the perfect trip to Borneo!
Having spent a few awesome days at Bako National Park, Sarawak, we flew to Kota Kinabalu the capital of Sabah. From there, we caught a bus to Sandakan, the gateway to the states longest river, the Sungai Kinabatangan (Kinabatangan River). Specifically, we visited the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, from where we based ourselves at Sukau village. From here, we spent three amazing days exploring the area in search of more wildlife. In particular, Orangutans, Bornean (Pygmy) Elephant and other members of the Bornean ‘Big 5’.
The easiest way to visit the Kinabatangan River is with a guide and the best way to search for wildlife is by boat. Not wanting to ‘wing it’ and/or far worse end up on a large group tour, we booked a short tour in advance online. We had decided on a 3day/2 night package with Mr Aji, who had glowing reviews on TripAdvisor. He offered reasonable prices and most importantly, small group sizes of average 2-8 people. Described as a ‘man of few words with an obvious passion for Borneo’s wildlife, we couldn’t wait to get in the boat and see what he could find.
However visiting the area in mid-March, which was at the end of the wettest period of the year (October to March), our biggest concern was not what we might find, but would the weather let us find it, or would it be a washout?
Day 1: Kinabatangan River Expedition
Our morning started with a bus from Sandakan to Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. From Sepilok, we met Mr Aji’s son, who transferred us to the village of Sukau. The dark overcast skies and heavy thundery showers made us anxious about what the day would bring. On arriving at Sukau, we had lunch and met two other ladies who we would spend the day with. And of course, we met Mr Aji.
Afternoon boat cruise down the Kinabatangan River
Our first wildlife expedition started at 14:30pm. We cruised down the ‘big river’ (the main part of the river) under a very ominous sky. However, with blue sky on the horizon, we had our fingers crossed.
Our first wildlife sighting of a troop of Long-Tailed Macaques was a little underwhelming. But, a little further down the river, we saw our first Asian Black Hornbill, albeit, at a distance. No sooner had we moved on past the hornbill, when we spotted the stunning pair of Rhinoceros Hornbill. Easy to tell apart, the males have red eyes while the females have white eyes. Mr Aji informed us that we were lucky to see them as they can be hard to find. These beautiful birds are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Sadly, they’re still hunted for food, the pet trade, tail feathers and upturned casques. And of course, one of their major threats is habitat loss due to deforestation.
The charismatic Proboscis Monkeys weren’t far away. We don’t think we’d ever tire of photographing the strange-looking males. Proboscis Monkeys are sometimes referred to as ‘Dutch Monkey’s’, which is apparently a sarcastic reference regarding the stereotype of the big-nosed, big-bellied Dutch Colonisers.
Finding what came here for…
With the weather clearing, we continued on down the river in search of Orangutans. After several more Hornbill sightings, Mr Aji doubled back after seeing something in the distance through his binos. His obvious excitement and then exaggerated pointing up, followed by a fist pump, indicated we’d hit the jackpot. High up in the tree canopy, snoozing in a freshly made nest, with only a hand to show his presence, was one of the regions two male Oragnutans. Shortly after our arrival, he peered down at us before slowly emerging from his nest. At first, he curiously sat staring at us before practically posing for the camera.
Honestly, we could not believe our luck! We’d both seen wild and semi-wild female Orangutan’s in Sumatra in the past and had our fingers crossed for more this time around. But never in our wildest dreams did we think we’d see a large male with big flanges (cheek-pads), so clearly. And, best of all, there were no other people around!
Still shaking from the excitement of our 20 or so minutes with what Mr Aji called the ‘big boy’, we headed down one of the rivers smaller tributaries. There was so much bird life, we were totally in our element! The highlights were more Rhinoceros Hornbills, a pair of Oriental Pied Hornbill, Wrinkled Hornbill, Black and Red Broadbill, and several species of Kingfisher. We even saw one of the rarest Storks in the world, the endangered Storm’s Stork. We also came across our first Estuarine (Saltwater) Crocodile of the trip, albeit a pretty small one.
The Night Walk
After an unbelievable first boat trip and with the weather gods still smiling (apparently the night before was a washout), we went out on foot for a guided night walk. We saw various spiders and moths, a snake high in the trees above and Malaysian Blue Flycatcher perched in a tree sleeping. But our favourite was the bizarre looking Kinabatangan Lantern bugs. The night walk was nice, but it didn’t compare to our days boating on the Kinabatangan River!
What a day! We’d had already spotted four of Borneo’s ‘Big 5’ – Rhinoceros Hornbill, Proboscis Monkeys, Orangutan and a Crocodile. We went to bed daring to dream of completing the set the following day by finding the very rare, elusive and endangered Bornean Pygmy Elephant.
Day 2: Kinabatangan River Expedition
We woke at 6am to a blanket of mist covering the river. Our morning boat expedition was at 6.30am and looking at the weather, we weren’t very optimistic of sighting any wildlife through the mist.
We joked that the only thing we’d see in these conditions would be an elephant and only if it was just a couple of metres away! After vaguely seeing Macaques and Proboscis silhouettes through the mist, we pulled up by the banks of the river. We were trying and photograph a Red-and-Black Broadbill as the light began to slowly improve.
Finding Pygmy Elephants!
Suddenly on the far side of the river, came the unmistakable trumpet of an elephant. Forgetting the pretty bird in an instant, we shot over in search of the elephant(s). Our guide for the morning (Mr Aji’s son), then kindly flagged over one other boat who was passing-by, oblivious, as a lone Bornean (Pygmy) Elephant emerged from the undergrowth.
Within moments, a younger much smaller elephant followed. This little guy didn’t hang around for long, but over the next quarter of an hour, a few elephants ventured out of hiding to feed. This included a tiny calf who never left its mothers side. Then, as if they’d never been there, they melted back into the thick vegetation. Wow, the Bornean ‘Big 5’ completed. Just wow!!!
On the way back to our lodge, we came across a White-Bellied Sea Eagle, a few more Kingfishers and Crocodiles. Getting close enough to photograph the colourful Kingfishers in the boat was proving to be a challenge.
Afternoon boat cruise down the Kinabatangan River
After hearing about our early morning elephant encounter, the ever-enthusiastic Mr Aji was eager to search for them again in the afternoon. He hadn’t seen the elephants since the beginning of November. We went back to where we’d seen them earlier, with no luck. After examining some new tracks, Mr Aji did another double take and amazingly spotted a large elephant coming out into the opening not too far away!
After slowly and quietly moving up to the river bank, we spotted more elephants hiding in the vegetation. They were waiting to follow the larger one across a small open area. Positioning our small boat against the bank, we waited silently for the small heard to make their way across this opening. Just as the first elephant began to make its way out of hiding, 4 much larger louder boats, carrying 15-20 phone camera-wielding day-trippers apiece, came tearing up to the bank scaring the elephants away. After getting a few pics of the elephant hiding deep in the vegetation and scaring off all other wildlife in the vicinity, the day-trippers disappeared leaving us ranting at their terrible timing.
Mr Aji led us down a small tributary where we could hear and see glimpses of the hiding elephants. After a few minutes, we returned to the riverbank in the hope one might re-emerge. After 5-10 minutes of waiting to no avail, we decided to head elsewhere. Just as we left, a little elephant scuttled out to the exact spot where we’d been waiting. A quick yank of the throttle and a 180° turn allowed us to see the little guy in the open for seconds. Then it disappeared for good.
About the Pygmy Elephants
So, why are they called Pygmy Elephants you ask? Are they miniature versions of their Asian and African cousins? The answer is, not really. They are about 30% smaller than their Indian and Sri Lankan relatives. But a full-grown elephant still stands 8-10 feet tall. From our photo’s, you may notice that they have long tails that almost touch the ground, along with straighter tusks. Both features are unique to the Bornean Pygmy Elephant. They also have smaller faces, some say ‘baby like’, which makes their ears appear larger. But the name ‘pygmy’ simply comes from the fact that they’re the smallest elephants in the world. Not because they’re pocket sized!
Exploring small tributaries of the Kinabatangan River
For the remainder of the trip, we searched down a smaller tributaries for anything that cared to appear! We saw plenty more Proboscis Monkeys and Long-tailed Macaques. The latter openly used one of the few cable bridge ‘crossings’ constructed by locals. The cables were specifically erected to enable Orangutan’s to cross the river, connecting them to their fragmented habitat.
Again, we saw plenty of the ever restless Blue-eared Kingfishers flying around. We also caught glimpses of pretty Red-Headed Tailorbird and some Monarch birds. Just as we were heading back to our lodge for the last time, we came across a troop of Southern Pig-Tailed Macaques. It was the first time either of us had seen this particular species of Macaques. As the light had all but disappeared a striking thickset male ventured down to the water’s edge. He was incredibly picturesque, quite the contrast to their not so picturesque long-tailed cousins. Such a nice way to finish the day.
Day 3: Kinabatangan River Expedition
We woke to a beautiful blue sky for the final part of our Bornean wildlife adventure. We headed for the Gomantong Rainforest, home to more Orangutan, Red Leaf Monkeys and Gibbons. From there, we would do a short walk searching for more wildlife.
As we made our way to our final destination, we both wondered if our unbelievably lucky streak would continue. We won’t beat around the bush, it didn’t. Other than an Asian Black Hornbill, we really saw very very little on our hour-long walk. A bit of a flat way to finish. The day prior, a female Orangutan had been right where we started our walk. But we saw no sign of her, other than her abandoned nest. But that is wildlife and part of the reason we love it so much. It’s unpredictable. If we’d wanted a more guaranteed sighting, we would have gone to Sepilok Orangutan Centre with the other busloads of tourists.
Just to confirm our lucky streak had definitely ended, the scheduled public bus due to depart from Sepilok to Sandankan never showed up. We learnt afterwards that they are notoriously unreliable in the afternoon. But at only RM12 more than the bus, catching a Grab was an easy solution.
We really couldn’t have hoped to see anything more over our three days on the Kinabatangan River. Finding Borneo’s ‘Big 5’ – the stealthy Estuarine Crocodile, the distinctive Rhinoceros Hornbill, the endangered and endemic Proboscis Monkey, the critically endangered and enigmatic Bornean Orangutan and the endangered and elusive Bornean Pygmy Elephant was truly amazing. It just shows what a remarkably rich and biodiverse wildlife area the Lower Kinabatangan is and hopefully, continues to be.
Upon leaving and driving through the endless palm oil plantations, we couldn’t help but wonder if these beautiful creatures would still be around beyond the next decade. Despite the efforts of passionate locals like Mr Aji, their future is looking bleak.
Threats to wildlife along the Kinabatangan River
The Lower Kinabatangan is a small wildlife sanctuary. It’s often described as a narrow protected corridor, as only the area directly alongside the Kinabatangan River is safeguarded. With an ever-expanding local population and increased agricultural development in the encircling areas, the wildlife’s natural habitat is constantly shrinking and animal/human conflict is constantly increasing.
Borneo Malaysian Orangutan & wildlife facts
- Over the past two decades, 80% of Bornean Orangutan habitat has been destroyed.
- This is due to illegal logging, mining and agriculture. The main offender being palm oil plantations.
- Over 100,000 Bornean Orangutan’s were lost between 1999 and 2015. The drop in numbers is mainly due to deforestation and poaching (WWF UK).
- Hunting for traditional medicine and conflict with humans, are other major issues all wildlife in the region face.
- The other big problem for Orangutan’s, is their breeding cycle. They are one of the slowest breeding mammal species only giving birth every 7/8 years. Along with this, the fragmentation of their habitat means inbreeding can become a problem.
- For the migratory Bornean Pygmy Elephant, the fragmentation of their natural habitat due to humans, be it palm oil plantations, roads and human settlements, mean they have no place to hide in their patchwork forest home. Disruption to age-old migratory routes leads to evermore human-elephant conflict.
- Between 25-30 elephants were killed in 2018. This means around 100 elephants have died in Sabah in the last 8 years, due to humans. The recent spike is particularly alarming. With less and less forest and collaring showing they are spending more and more time in and around palm plantations, sadly it’s not overly surprising. The risk of getting snared, shot to death and even poisoned seems to be greater and greater for the 1500 (WWF estimate) remaining Bornean Pygmy Elephants.
What to do now?
After seeing the effects that palm oil plantations are having on Borneo’s ecosystem, we asked ourselves one question. How could we make sure we used and consumed absolutely zero palm oil from now on?
Did you know that more than 50% of supermarket stock and 95% of bathroom products contain palm oil?! It’s all very well pointing the finger at countries like Malaysia and Indonesia for growing it. But, it’s supply and demand from all over the world. Ultimately we are all responsible for what’s happening. Whether it be munching on a palm oil-laden products or brushing our teeth with toothpaste full of it. We must all take urgent action should we want to continue to see these creatures in the wild. Here’s some things we can all do to help include:
- Choose products that don’t contain palm oil. Just because the label doesn’t say palm oil, doesn’t mean it’s not in there! Look out for certifications or check out the helpful list of ingredients below, that commonly contain palm
- Vegetable Oil
- Hydrogenated vegetable Oil
- Stearic acid
- Cetearyl alcohol
- Sodium lauryl sulphate/sulfate
- Sodium palmitate
- Palm kernal oil
- Sodium lauryl sulphoacetate
- Glyceryl monostearate
- Magnesium stearate
- Use ‘Apps’ like ‘Palm Oil Scanner’ (You can download from HERE with Google Play or HERE with Apple). These app’s quickly and easily scan the product barcode and determines if the product contains palm oil. They then list alternative palm oil-free products you can buy instead.
- If you buy products that contain palm oil, ensure its from a sustainable source.
- Consider ‘adopting’ Orangutans. By doing this, you will be contributing to the care of their rehabilitation, with the potential of being released back into the wild.
- Support organisations like @rainforesttrust & Orangutan Alliance directly, who protect important animal habitat around the world.
Getting there and away
To get to the Kinabatangan River, you will need to get to either Kota Kinabalu (KK), or Sandakan. Both cities are located in the Bornean state of Sabah. We flew to KK with Airasia from Penang and the flight was short and cheap!
To/from KK International Airport
The airport is located about 8km from the centre of KK. You have the below options for transport between the two:
- Airport Bus – Comfortable, air-conditioned airport coaches offer hourly service between the airport and downtown. They stop at Center Point, Horizon Hotel, and Padang Merdeka. Tickets are sold at the Airport Bus booths located just after Arrivals – RM5
- GRAB – (Asian version of Uber) to/from airport to Kota Kinabalu – Approximately RM10
- Taxi – Purchase a coupon from the Airport Taxi counter in the middle of Arrivals (Level 1). Proceed to the taxi rank outside and hand your coupon to the taxi driver – Flat rate RM30.
To/from KK – Sandakan
Sandakan is the Gateway to the Kinabantangan River. After spending a night in KK, this is how we got there:
- We took a GRAB to KK Inanam Bus Terminal, located about 9km from KK town centre – RM14
- From KK Inanam Bus Terminal, we took a bus to Sandakan long distance bus station. This took about 6 hours, with a lunch stop/loo break (326km) – RM44p/p
- We then took a GRAB from Sandakan’s long distance bus station to Borneo Sandakan Backpackers RM7 (8kms)
If local transport isn’t for you, consider flying directly to Sandakan Airport. From there you can either spend a night in town, or even consider heading straight to the Sepilok Orangutan Centre and spending a night at nearby accommodation.
To/from Sandakan – Sepilok Orangutan Centre
Getting to the Sepilok Orangutan Centre (the pickup point for our tour) is easy. Jump on minibus 14 from the local Terminal Bas Sandakan. The bus picks up/drops off people along the way, so can take about 45-60 minutes. But it only costs RM6 p/p.
Minibus 14 departs Sandakan to Sepilok Orangutan Centre 4 times daily: 9:00, 11:30, 14:00 17:00. Return times back to Sandakan are 6:30, 10:30, 12:30 and 16:00 – (45-60mins) RM6 p/p. BEWARE, the scheduled minibuses from Sepilok Orangutan Centre to Sandakan sometimes don’t run.
If this happens, it’s easy to get a GRAB back to Sandakan! GRAB to/from Sepilok Orangutan Centre to Sandankan costs about 20RM and is a lot faster.
There’s a good amount of accommodation options to choose from in both KK and Sandakan. Our choices were:
Nusantara Mattwaddien Hostel – This was a small clean hostel. We had a basic twin room with fan & shared bathrooms. A basic breakfast (tea/coffee, toast, cereal) was included – RM50 p/nt.
Borneo Sandakan Backpackers – This was a much bigger hostel, one street back from the coast and a short walk to the minibus station. We had a large, clean, double room with fan & shared bathrooms. A basic breakfast of tea/coffee, eggs, toast and cereal was included RM77 p/nt.
Accommodation included in our 3d/2n package in Sukau village was Temangong River View B&B. Our room was was big, clean and comfortable.
Kinabatangan River packing list
Theres a few things we recommend taking with you:
- Camera with a zoom lens. Spare camera batteries or charger!
- Binoculars are handy too
- A good torch for night walks and in case of power cuts
- Long Trouser and long sleeve shirt for both sun protection and protection for trekking
- Shoes and long sock for night walk
- A spare pair of shoes in case one pair gets wet
- Rain jacket and waterproof trousers – really important in the wet season
- Waterproof bag for valuables
- Take plenty of good ‘reef-friendly’ sunscreen with you. Regular sunscreens contain ingredients that contribute to coral bleaching. We love Sunbutter Skincare, which comes in a tin
- Hat, sunnies, mosquito spray
- Water & snacks
- We had no WIFI, so if you can’t live without the internet, grab a SIM and load it with data. Be mindful, WIFI connection in the jungle can be poor
Our top tips
- Download ‘GRAB’ the Asian Über. It makes getting to and from airports/ bus stations super cheap and easy. For a couple, it worked out cheaper than two tickets on the airport bus.
- This means you’ll need a SIM with data. These can easily be bought from convenience stores and at airports. Maxis, Celcom, Digi, U Mobile and Tune Talk are the main operators. Reception can be patchy outside of the cities in Borneo. Celcom tend to offer better coverage.
- If you really want to see a good amount of wildlife, DON’T just do a day trip. You might get lucky on a day trip and have a great experience, but if you’re making the effort to get there, why not stay a night or two. It’s totally worth it!!
- If you have a passion for wildlife photography, we highly recommend taking a decent zoom lens. We shoot the majority of our wildlife pics with a Canon 100-400mm. If you don’t own a zoon lens, consider renting one from a camera shop.
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