Searching for wildlife on the Kinabatangan River, Borneo

(This was written about my Malaysian trip which occurred last July, but it was so amazing I thought it would be worth blogging about)

After leaving Miri, we had a pretty bad flight itinerary to get to Sandakan, but it was worth the struggle. We had two layovers, and stayed the night in Kota Kinabalu (we booked a hotel for our 8 hour night time layover- made it a lot more tolerable. The whole travel experience took about 14 hours, where a straight flight could have only taken a couple of hours. But we really wanted to both dive and go on a river safari so we made it worth it.

When I first knew I was going to malaysia for the ICCB conference, I knew I wanted to go to Borneo. I heard about this biodiverse and beautiful island through so many nature documentaries. It is most famous for its orangutans, as they only live here and in Sumatra. So when I was planning my trip I made it a mission to see some of this wildlife. So I spent a lot of time spent research ways to do so, and that’s how I came across Kinabatangan River. This is where the likelihood was highest as well as being reasonably priced. Other places in Borneo that are famous for wildlife include Danum Valley, Tabin Wildlife Sanctuary. But the Kinabatangan River offers the best chances of seeing a wild orangutan of all the locations in Sabah and Sarawak. My next mission was to figure out how I can find accommodation on a budget but also includes as many river safaris as possible. So after hours on the web, I found Nature Lodge Kinabatangan. It was so incredible that I would recommend it to anyone going to Borneo. We chose the shared hostel accommodation, as it was significantly cheaper, but there’s also private room options. What was best about this lodge was that it included all transport (to and from the airport) as well as all food, two River cruises a day, and two jungle treks per day. It was awesome!!! It is fully reserved pretty far in advanced, but I booked on Booking.com, and ended up paying a total of $100 per person, and this was for 2 nights, 3 days! Such a good deal.

The itinerary is the same for everyone. Our flight landed at 6 am and pickup wasn’t until 11 am, so we went to the famous Sepilok Orang-Utan rehabilitation sanctuary. We went with a grab, the price was quite reasonable, and we were super happy to find out that they had a room where we could store our luggage for free while seeing the orangutans, making our lives a lot easier. The rehab center is 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Today around 60 to 80 orangutans are living free in the reserve.

Recently rehabilitated individuals have their diet supplemented by daily feedings of milk and bananas. The additional food supplied by the centre is purposefully designed to be monotonous and boring so as to encourage the apes to start to forage for themselves. So we were able to go to some of these feedings to see the orangutans up close!

The sanctuary has two feeding/ opening times per day; and luckily it was perfect for us. Feeding platform and outdoor nursery opening hours:

09:00 to 12:00 (Fridays 09:00 to 11:00)

and

14:00 to 16:00

So we were the first in line and had two hours to view the nursery, feeding platforms, and walk around the beautiful boardwalks. I couldn’t even count how many we saw, but there were so many and it was incredible. David was beaming with happiness and we were so excited. We had read online that sometimes you can’t see any, but we were stoked that we lucked out our day. We even saw a mom and baby that were so adorable. And it was cool to see so many orangutan nests all over the treetops. It was super cool, you can’t miss this experience if you’re in Borneo. At 11:00 we got picked up, and got into the car. Since we were in flights all night, both David and I slept through the entire car ride. The devastating thing was that the whole ride we were passing plantations of palm oil. I think I’m going to take this time to educate you all about the issue of palm oil since it is a super period issue for the wildlife of Borneo. To keep it simple- the rainforests are being destroyed and burnt for the palm oil industry, which is fragmenting the habitats to so many animals, and it’s decreasing biodiversity. Orangoutangs have been majorly affected by this unsustainable land use, and now there are very few in the wild. It’s really sad but the reason that this river is such a biodiversity hotspot is that all their natural forest has been turned into palm oil fields, so they had no where else to go but in the tiny bit of rainforests surrounding the river. What is even worse is that these palm oil farmers do not like wild animals in their fields, because they are a nuisance. So apparently this is how many of the very rare Pygmy elephants die… getting shot by farmers. And it is crazy how many products include palm oil, from shampoos to food in the kitchen. So no one is perfect with what they consume, but if you have the option of peanut butter with palm oil or without, go with the without version. Same goes for candy, it’s tragic how many contain this ingredient.

Sorry for that tangent, anyways we arrived to our spot at around 2 pm, and took a boat across the river to get shuttles to the lodge. Upon check in we got a nice drink, and met the people we traveled in with (since we slept the whole way we didn’t get properly introduced) and we chatted. Most of the people were actually solo travelers, and hearing their stories made me a little jealous. There was one guy who has been traveling non-stop for several months, going all over the world. It definitely makes me hope that once I’m done with my PhD I can take several months/years to travel to all these places I really want to see.

At around 2:00 we had an afternoon river cruise adventure. The boat fit about 12 of us, in two columns so everyone had a great seat, which to me was a huge plus. I brought my huge camera lens so I was super excited to take photos of the wildlife, and was happy to see every seat had such a good view. Our first river safari might have been the best, we honestly saw so much. Our boat guide stayed the same throughout our whole trip, and he was super good. He has worked as a river guide for years and years, and he was really the best. Within minutes of the cruise we saw a wild orangutan high up in the trees, it was so cool! It really was a dream of mine to experience wild Borneo and I felt the adrenaline rush. We saw several species of monkeys, and they were super photogenic. We were able to get super close, which was both scary and thrilling. But since these monkeys aren’t used to being fed they weren’t aggressive or as terrifying as the Bali monkeys. The most common were the silver macaques, and we could see massive troops of them. We also saw lots of long tail macaques, equally as photogenic and fun to watch. The hotels along the river also funded a conservation project to connect both sides of the river using a “rope bridge” for the monkeys and apes to use, since animals like orangutans can’t swim well so this is a good way to increase connectivity. At this bridge we saw a huge male proboscis monkey with a massive nose, they look super silly. There were also some macaques using the role bridge to cross the river. Another highlight was a beautiful hornbill we saw, they have such a unique look to them. After a few hours exploring the river, the started to set and we headed full speed back to our lodge. We unpacked and settled a bit and got comfy in our dorm room until dinner. As mentioned, the food was fully included in the price, and they had a delicious buffet with some quite good vegetarian options! It was fabulous.

After dinner we got to go on a jungle trek. We were able to rent rain boots super cheap at the lodge, and they were definitely a necessity. And renting was way smarter than carrying around clunky boots on the whole trip- so pro tip make sure your lodge/hotel offers this. I absolutely loved all the trekking we did. Yes- I got completely devoured by mosquitos but you only live once right? We didn’t see anything super rare. But we saw some cool nocturnal birds, nest insects, some snakes, and just walking through a jungle at night has some adventure to it! We also saw some elephant tracks and dung- which made me really really want to see a Pygmy elephant- which are pretty rare in the region. I was pretty exhausted so after the trek I took a quick shower and had a good nights sleep in my little bunk bed. The next morning we had a 7 am morning boat cruise. So we sprung out of bed for a full day of adventuring. We were with the same group and same guide, and had such nice weather. Once the boat was going fast it felt like the AC was one and it was a really nice temperature. The highlight of the morning cruise was a massive river crocodile. David has never seen one in the wild so he was absolutely stoked which made me super happy. We also saw more pretty birds and monkeys. At around 9 we headed back to the lodge and had another fabulous meal. We had some of the afternoon free, and the only scheduled activity was an afternoon trek. But we decided to pay a bit extra and sign up for an optional longer boat tour that tries to find the elusive Pygmy elephant. We decided to make the most of our time there and go for it. I think it was like $20 extra but the boat ride was all day from like 2-sunset so we reserved that, watched some Stranger Things in bed, had lunch, and then our afternoon jungle trek. It was really nice to do it during the day as things are much easier to spot. We saw a lot more snakes and cool insects, including the stick bug (it literally looks exactly like a stick) I have no idea how he spotted them. It was a great hike, I wore leggings and got absolutely destroyed by mosquitos, but fortunately a guy in our dorm room had some anti-itch cream which helped a bit.

The afternoon elephant safari was very long but beautiful nonetheless. Unfortunately no elusive Pygmy elephants- but it gives a good excuse to return to see them in the future. We saw tons of monkeys and birds, another crocodile which this time was basking in the sun on the sandbank. It was a lovely day and again when you’re in the boat the temperature isn’t too warm and there’s not too many bugs either. After our long boat ride we showered, had dinner, then went to bed. On our last day we had one morning river cruise followed by breakfast, and then we were dropped off at the airport, where David and I departed to Kuala Lumpur.

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