For the most accessible wildlife adventure in Sabah, the Kinabatangan River, Sabah’s longest, offers easy packaged experiences. Known for its remarkable wildlife, you are almost guaranteed to see one or several of Borneo’s endemic species in the wild here.
You may even need more than all of your fingers to count them: 10 species of primates live here, including orangutans and big-nosed proboscis monkeys plus more than 200 species of birds with eight spectacular types of hornbills. 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, or the world’s smallest (and cutest) bear, the Malay sun bear. You could hit the jackpot with a clouded leopard and you’ll possibly catch crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbanks, and the list continues.
The sad irony and the reason there is so much wildlife is that the mangrove forests and flood plains along the 560 kilometre-long river offer a narrow corridor of refuge from encroaching palm oil plantations—they’re stuck with nowhere else to go. As much as we despise this destruction of habitat, it's not a new thing; for centuries the forests edging this dirty brown swirl have attracted commerce and traders in search of highly prized rare timbers, rhinoceros horns, elephant and hornbill ivory, rattan, resin and edible bird’s nests found in the nearby Gomantong Caves. In 2005, 26,000 hectares of forest were gazetted as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, and although it's still not a fully protected national park, it’s a start.
Jungle lodges and homestays offering varying levels of comfort have sprung up along the river and offer wildlife-spotting boat rides and guided treks. Mostly based in the villages of Sukau and Bilit, there are other areas, too. New lodges open with regularity, so check with Sandakan tour operators for the latest. If you hope to stay at a particular jungle lodge, 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. It’s possible to visit the Kinabatangan as a very long daytrip from Sandakan, but you’ll have less likelihood of wildlife sightings.
During the wet season from December to February, the monsoon causes the river to swell and frequently flood. This may make your trip a little uncomfortable, but the animals and birds love it, so the area teems with wildlife—just be prepared for mud and leeches. April to October is the main flowering and fruiting season, and an excellent time for birdwatching.
Most lodges offer packages that include a place to sleep, all meals, river cruises and trekking, and often return transport from Sandakan. They are highly scheduled, and can feel like a summer camp experience rather than a relaxed holiday. They do however maximise your chances of spotting wildlife, though the success rate still largely depends on luck and the spotting skills of your guide.
We recommend a two-night, three-day package, although it sounds a lot if you have a tight schedule, you generally don’t arrive until late afternoon on the first day, and leave early morning the third day, giving you a whole day to explore, usually with a couple of river cruises and a guided jungle trek. One-night, two-day packages are barely 24 hours on the river, and usually only allow time for one river cruise. Early morning and early evening are when the wildlife is most active, leaving you a bit of time in the middle of the day to catch up on a book or some sleep. The people of the Kinabatangan region, Orang Sungai, are majority Muslim, and being conservative local communities appreciate modest dress and behaviour, particularly if you choose to stay in one of the homestays.
When shopping around for a tour, one important question to ask is what the maximum number of people on the boats will be, and the ratio of guides to guests. We saw some boats with 30 or more people, which is not very conducive for getting a good look at the animals. Obviously you’ll pay more for more personal service, but if it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so it may be worth it. Regardless of group size, your experience will be coloured by your guide's knowledge and enthusiasm. Even if you choose a tour with smaller numbers, don’t expect to have the river to yourself, particularly in July and August, when dozens of boats converge on the same patch of forest to watch the same troupe of monkeys. After a stay at one of the jungle camps, it’s convenient to add on a trip to Gomantong Caves, where edible birds nests are harvested. Warning: it’s very smelly!
We visited Nature Lodge Kinabatangan based in Bilit run by Nasalis Larvatus Tours, who also run Nature Lodge Sepilok. Pick up points are Sandakan, Sepilok or Bukit Garam, near the Kinabatangan. Their three-day, two-night package includes four river cruises and a jungle walk, plus the opportunity to do two optional night walks charged at 15 ringgit per person. The all-inclusive package offers either a very basic four-bed dorm with share cold-water bathrooms or slightly less basic private twins with hot-water ensuite. Fan-cooled rooms are clean and comfortable, with essentials like power outlets to charge your cameras, but it’s the jungle—they are far from luxurious. Windows are screened, but you may wish to take your own mosquito net.
On arrival, you are assigned a group and a guide for the activities for your entire stay (groups may change a little if guests have a different package). Our guide was friendly and knowledgeable. We liked the system as you got to know both the guide and your fellow travellers. Our group size varied between five and nine people. Meals are served buffet style and are filling, but we felt rushed and crowded. All river cruises supply life jackets and here we were given padded cushions as well, which was handy as boat seats can be hard and uncomfortable after a few hours. We enjoyed the boat trips, but felt perhaps they were too repetitive, and would have preferred an extra walk. We loved the night walk — there’s something quite magical about being in the jungle in the pitch darkness, and we were very lucky to see a rare bird, a giant pitta. Handy hint—use a handheld torch rather than a head-torch, or you’ll be dive-bombed in the face by all manner of flying critters.
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan have a small shop with rubber boots, torches and binoculars available to hire and leech socks, ponchos, cold drinks including beer and wine, and chocolate for sale. When we did the trip, they had a promo package and this was cheaper than the one-night trip. Prices were 371 ringgit (296.80 ringgit for kids under 12) for a dorm, or for a deluxe chalet, 424 ringgit per person (339.20 ringgit for kids under 12), based on two sharing a room (single supplement 106 ringgit). June to September add 10.60 ringgit per person. Gomantong Cave add-on is 159 ringgit per person.
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan: T: (088) 230 534, (0138) 636 263; F: (088) 258 263; www.insabah.com.
The following are some alternative lodges and packages. We didn’t visit all, however they were recommended to us.
Kinabatangan Jungle Camp offers a slightly more upmarket deal, without the option of a dorm. The private fan-cooled rooms have attached hot-water bathrooms, however it’s still the jungle remember. The focus is on seeing wildlife, rather than the accommodation. What we liked about this offer is that they promise six to eight guests per boat, and you can opt for an additional elephant search (100 ringgit) or night cruise (60 ringgit). Their two-day, one-night package low season rate is 424 ringgit per person (212 ringgit for kids under 12), based on two sharing a room (single supplement 50 ringgit). High season sees the price rise to 477 ringgit per person (238.50 ringgit for kids under 12), based on two sharing a room (single supplement 159 ringgit). Their three-day, two-night package for low season is 636 ringgit per person (318 ringgit for kids under 12), based on two sharing a room (single supplement 50 ringgit). High season is 901 ringgit per person (450.50 ringgit for kids under 12), based on two sharing a room (single supplement 318 ringgit). A Gomantong Cave add-on is 106 ringgit per person (excluding ticket.
Kinabatangan Jungle Camp: T: (0112) 699 5157, (0198) 047 756; F: (0892) 29 299; www.kinabatanganjunglecamp.com.
Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Lodge is newer and more “party style”. Nice rooms with lots of natural wood. We were advised that the guides are very enthusiastic, but that boat numbers were 20 plus. The promo deal they were offering was for a two-day, one-night package, dorms for 280 ringgit per person, cottages 340 ringgit per person based on two sharing a room and deluxes 390 ringgit per person based on two sharing a room. Half off for kids, and a single supplement was 80 ringgit.
Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Lodge: T: (0168) 411 414; (089) 218 372; F: (089) 273 127; www.asiagreentravels.com.
MESCOT (Disclosure: We know these guys) is a community tourism programme based in the village of Batu Puteh. They offer both village homestays staying with a local family and a basic jungle camp, along with river cruise and cultural activities. We like the programme as it’s a little more flexible than some of the jungle camps. Running since 1997 it’s an excellent model for sustainable long-term conservation and economic development, and gives travellers the opportunity not only to see wildlife, but to have a cultural experience too — the best of both worlds. The homestay is 70 ringgit per person; Jungle camp 95 ringgit per person (plus the cost of the return boat trip 40 ringgit each way, plus Sabah Forestry Department fees of 5 ringgit per person and 5 ringgit camera fee); river cruise is 40 ringgit per person.
MESCOT: T: (089) 551 070; (089) 551 064; (0195) 825 214; www.mescot.org.
Back to basics, but well loved Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures is one of the longest running camps along the Kinabatangan. No running water, no electricity, not even a proper bed, but lots of wildlife. All accommodation is on a share basis, sleeping in huts with shared facilities. A two-day, one-nightpackage is 371 ringgit per person; three-day, two-night 498.20 ringgit per person, with additional nights 127.20 ringgit per person.
Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures: T: (0895) 35 784; (0168) 244 749; firstname.lastname@example.org; uncletan.com.
Warning! Don’t swim in the Kinabatangan River. Not only is the current very fast flowing, there are crocs, and we don't mean the footwear variety. But the most dangerous animal you will encounter is much smaller: Don’t forget the mozzie repellent. When you visit the jungle camps, respect the wildlife, remember you are in the animal’s territory, not vice versa.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 12th October, 2016.