The last time I was on the Kinabatangan River was 18 years ago, and I remember saying at that time there was nothing to see. I couldn’t believe what I experienced last week visiting the exact same spot – the jungle is alive and there is a lot to see!
I had the privilege to spend a few days in Sabah (Malaysia) on the island of Borneo exploring the wildlife along the river and in the jungle. We have read news stories alleging that all the trees have been cut down, the animals have disappeared, palm oil plantations have destroyed the eco system and many more.
Such stories are not entirely true, and the journalists writing have either not visited Kinabatangan or reused old stories that are far removed from today’s reality. While it is true that part of the jungle has been destroyed, it is certainly not the case for the entire island of Borneo, which many of our readers know is the third largest island in the world.
Eighteen years ago the highlight of a journey to Borneo was the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre near Sandakan where the primates that have been orphaned or displaced by logging, are trained to adapt to life in the jungle. This is still the place where most travellers start their Sabah trips.
This Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is just one of many highlights for travellers to Sabah today. In the past, visitors to the sanctuary would have to wait at the feeding platform to see the orangutans. Today, it is so easy to spot them in their natural jungle habitat that the focus at the sanctuary is on the feeding of babies and juveniles.
At the same location, just opposite the sanctuary, is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Sun Bears, endemic to Borneo, are nocturnal animals and more active at night, making it difficult to see them in their natural jungle habitat. There are several platforms at the centre for visitors to see the bears during daytime. The staff is very passionate to tell you their bear stories, and you can easily spend an hour listening to them.
From Sandakan I travelled on a speedboat to the lower Kinabatangan River area near Abai, which took about an hour. In Abai there is a jungle lodge directly on the river from where I started river explorations in a small boat.
I was amazed at what I saw – two orangutans in their jungle tree nests within 30 minutes, two of seven that I would see in the next four days! Also present are an abundance of birds including hornbills and kingfishers, many monkeys including the famous Bornean Proboscis Monkeys with their long red nose, crocodiles, wild boars, lizards and numerous insects.
I returned on a river boat at night for wildlife spotting under the gleaming spotlight of my nature guide. If you have never seen colourful tropical birds at night, just this sight is worth a visit to the jungles of Borneo. The birds’ colourful feathers were shining in all of their splendour in the spotlight, and they did not seem to mind the light since they did not fly away. In the darkness of the jungle the fireflies were spectacular, and ever now and then a pair of small yellow slit eyes would be glowing in the dark. Crocodiles were observing what we were doing from the safety of our boats.
Travellers back at the lodge were telling exciting stories of what they had seen during the day and night; so no need for TVs at this place! A night jungle walk enhanced the jungle experience. It can be creepy at first since it is totally dark as one is not used to the sounds of the jungle, but it felt safe walking on wooden planks surrounded by wooden railings, while being fascinated by the explanations of the nature guide. Another highlight of this journey.
After the early morning wildlife spotting in a boat at sunrise I participated in tree planting activities near the Abai village, a community based project to help the villagers in their sustainability activities. I then boarded a speedboat to travel an hour further upriver to a lodge near Sukau. From here I embarked on more wildlife spotting boat tours during the day and at night, and what I saw was as spectacular as in Abai.
My recommendation to travellers is to choose one location on the river, and use it as their base to start the exploration of Kinabatangan. My personal favourite is Abai as it has few tourists and is only accessible by boat. Spend at least two nights at the same lodge. Lodges here are simple but comfortable 3-star standard, and offer amenities including attached bathrooms with hot showers. Meals are served buffet style, and include vegetarian dishes and fruits.
The Sukau lodge is near a road from where I travelled 4½ hours overland, partially on untarred pathways, further south to the Danum Valley. The Borneo Rainforest Lodge sits in the pristine rainforest of the Danum Valley Conservation area, and is considered Borneo’s premium wildlife lodge. The wildlife experience in the middle of this jungle is absolutely incredible, and probably the best jungle safari experience in Asia.
From the luxury of this lodge travellers experience jungle activities ranging from jungle walks, canopy walks, night drives to river tubing and mountain hikes. There is an abundance of activities suitable for anyone in average healthy physical condition, and you can even observe wildlife from the comfortable terraces of the lodge.
The wildlife in Danum Valley is even more abundant than those found at the Kinabatangan River. With a bit of luck travellers may see Pygmy Elephants, Bornean Gibbons and wild cats such as civets in addition to those I have seen in Kinabatangan.
Danum Valley is also home to the Clouded Leopard, which is difficult to spot. It is also a birdie’s paradise, attracting bird watchers from all over the world. A minimum stay of 3 nights is recommended to fully enjoy this part of Borneo, and travellers will not be disappointed by the comfort and culinary experiences at this high quality lodge.
I just love the combination of both regions, river activities on the Kinabatangan River and jungle walks in Danum Valley. For lovers of nature and wildlife it doesn’t get any better than that.
Access to Sabah is either through its state capital Kota Kinabalu with its international airport, or through Sandakan or Tawau that offers direct flights to Kuala Lumpur.
Sabah is also a diver’s paradise, but presently concentrates on the small islands off the state’s western shores as the northern and eastern islands are close to southern Philippines that has an unpredictable insurgency movement. Some countries have issued travel advisories against travel to Sabah which, in my opinion, is totally wrong. While I understand the concerns on the northern and eastern islands, I see no threat to the Kinabatangan River and Danum Valley.
Sabah can also be combined with Sarawak, another Malaysian state on Borneo. In combination with Sarawak, I recommend starting the journey via a Malaysian point of entry to Mulu that is famous for its river and caves, and then a flight from Mulu to Sandakan. Or fly into Sarawak’s state capital Kuching and travel on from there.
Asian Trails Malaysia offers a wide choice of tours in Sabah and Sarawak with wildlife safaris to suit every client and most budgets.
Please excuse my use of the word ‘safari’. I know that some of our readers opine that ‘safari’ should be exclusive to Africa. I don’t agree with this as, for me, the meaning of ‘safari’ is spotting wildlife and this can take place anywhere in the world. Wildlife spotting in Sabah is, in essence, a safari in Borneo, an experience of a lifetime.