If you've come to Sabah for the wildlife, spending a few days cruising along the Kinabatangan River looking for orangutans and proboscis monkeys should be at the top of your to-do list. The mangrove forests and flood plains along the 560 kilometre-long river are a refuge for animals pushed out of the jungle as it's eaten up by palm plantations. The fact that they're constrained to a narrow swatch of land is bad for them but good for you -- sightings are practically guaranteed.
The treetops are home to more than just primates and you can spot eagles, kingfishers, herons and the spectacular rhinoceros hornbill. Crocodiles can be seen sunning themselves on the riverbanks and many more lurk in the river's muddy water. If you're lucky, you may even see the endangered Borneo pygmy elephant, which are small for elephants but still stand up to three metres tall and weigh a few tonnes.
Jungle lodges offering varying levels of comfort have sprung up along the river and offer wildlife-spotting boat rides and guided treks. Unless otherwise specified, rates include accommodation, three meals per day, unlimited coffee, tea and drinking water and river cruises with a wildlife-spotting guide. It is possible to do a Kinabatangan river safari as a very long daytrip, but since the animals are unaware of your tight schedule we highly recommend a two-night, three-day stay to increase your chances of sightings.
If you hope to stay at a particular jungle lodge you should book in advance, especially during the peak season from June through August. If you're not fussy, last-minute arrangements can be made at any hotel or tour agency in Sandakan and usually result in a slight discount.
Tours still run during the wet season from December to February, just be prepared for mud and leeches.
If Sepilok and Kinabatangan River are too touristy for you, the Danum Valley Conservation Area may be more to your tastes. This 438 square kilometre expanse of pristine primary rainforest is home to Borneo's famous wildlife like orangutans, pygmy elephants, sun bears, rhinos and clouded leopards as well as the scientists who study them.
The downside is that Danum Valley is not really set up for tourism. There are only two places to stay -- one (the Borneo Rainforest Lodge) is extremely expensive and the other is for scientific researchers (but begrudgingly accepts tourists).
If you're angling for the latter, plead your case to the scientists at the Danum Valley Field Centre to take you in – visitors are more likely to be accepted if they're associated with a university or nature association. It costs 91 ringgit per night for a spot in the fan-cooled dorm or 286 ringgit for a private resthouse with attached bathroom that can sleep two people. It's an additional 110 ringgit per person for full-board meals, 60 ringgit for the permit/conservation fee and 65 ringgit each way for transportation from the nearest city of Lahad Datu to the field centre. Do note that this is a working research centre, not a tourist lodge, and there are no scheduled activities. When they're not working, park rangers can take you on guided treks (20 ringgit per hour). You are not allowed to trek independently. If you'd like to visit, contact them well in advance. http://www.searrp.org/
Due to the prohibitive costs involved, we did not visit all individual jungle lodges along the Kinabatangan River. We sought information from their booking offices in Sandakan or, where they didn't have one, we confirmed information over the phone. We did visit Uncle Tan's, Danau Girang Field Centre and the KOPEL base centre. Each review notes whether we saw it in person or not.
By Tanya Procyshyn.