Half Day Kinabatangan River Cruise, Sabah

Since I’ve been to Labuan, Sabah so many times, we decided to travel to Sandakan to check out several wildlife attractions. One of them was the Kinabatangan River, an area declared by the government as Sabah’s Gift to the Earth and preserved for the conservation and protection of Sabah’s precious wildlife!

WWF and other NGOs have carried out local conservation efforts, which is great to see amidst the widespread forest destruction. Vast areas of habitats were once, and are still, cleared in favour of palm oil plantations, a commodity so valuable to both locals and huge corporations alike.

I booked our trip one day before we flew into Sandakan (LBU – BKI – SDK) through two short 40-50min Malaysia Airlines flights from Labuan, without any concrete plans.

0800. I called up Borneo Dream Travel (www.borneodream.com) and in just two hours, we were confirmed on a Kinabatangan River Cruise (half day) costing RM265/pax.

1145. Pick up time. The journey to Kinabatangan River took approximately 2.5 hours from Sandakan, and included lots of bumps along the way. Do not expect any amenities at the drop off point.

Happy us at Kinabatangan

Happiness after the bumpy ride

The river was not wide, but not narrow. It was calm and we took a 2 minute boat ride to our start point.

1430. We arrived at the Kinabatangan Nature Lodge, I checked us in to ensure we had a spot on the boat.

While waiting for the tour to start, we walked around the lodge and saw a raptor and a few hornbills.

A raptor/owl at Kinabatangan Nature Lodge

Wildlife around the Kinabatangan Lodge can be seen if you stay quiet.

After getting bitten by lots of mosquitoes, we spoke to a fellow traveller who told us that Pygmy Elephants passed by the lodge recently! Now we were getting really excited. Pygmy elephants were rare. Could we catch a glimpse of them? After all, that’s really why we are here. The season to see Pygmy elephants seems to be April to June (according to a quick search online) and it’s July now.

1600. We grabbed our life vests and cushions (yes! one cushion per person, to make your 2-hour river cruise butt-friendly) and got on the boat with everyone else, as directed, until another staff member came over.

The Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan River in all its glory. These boats were not the ones we took, but are also used for cruises.

“Nicole, you are supposed to be on another boat.”

“Dammit,” I thought, “we were just getting cosy.” But surprise, they gave us a private boat. AWESOME! I think I’m really booking through Borneo Dream the next time I travel.

Our fantastic guide started by cruising left of the lodge but received a call from a colleague. They found a herd of wild Pygmy Elephants, the world’s smallest elephants! Immediately we did a 180degree turn and joined them in about 10 minutes (nearly at the other end of the Kinabatangan River.

“This is it. This is why we are here,” I thought. Well, not quite, but the Pygmy Elephants are one of the biggest draws to the area.

Seeing animals in the wild are never quite the same as seeing them in captivity. In a zoo, you expect to see certain animals. In the wilderness, it is a luxury to see them. They are born wild, and free. Paying for a tour is paying for a chance to see them, not a guarantee.

“There they are!” We may have been 50metres away.

Pygmy Elephant Herd

A herd of wild Pygmy Elephants

There were about 6 of them bathing in the brown river waters. I looked to the right. At least 10 of them were eating. One was trying to gingerly enter the water. It took about 2 minutes, before it was lying on the side, in the mud. We laughed at the display of pure innocence.

Pygmy Elephants at Kinabatangan

Pygmy Elephants are native to Borneo, and are endangered due to habitat destruction, poaching and a demand for ivory.

I looked to the left. Tall grass everywhere. You could see where the grass moved, the elephants were in there. Along with about 8 other boats, we sat there in silence. I could hear the sound of the camera shutters going wild, and a few elephant trumpets.

Our guide reminded us, “Let me know when you are done. We need time if you want to see the monkeys.” Oh yes. We started wrapping up. I nodded to the guide and away we went. Such a sight is so rare that even the locals took their own boats out to have a look!

Elephants were everywhere

Adult male pygmy elephants grow to a maximum size of 2.5metres. Scientists estimate there are only 1500 wild Bornean Pygmy elephants left.

With the euphoria of seeing an entire herd of elephants lingering, I wondered how anything else could beat the trip.. until..

“A crocodile!” It was fast. With a swish of its powerful tail, it quickly disappeared into the murky waters. There was no picture, just a memory.

We continued on our journey once again, keen eyes eagerly scanning the lush greenery for any sign of movement or colour. In a few minutes, we spotted some hornbills thanks to our fantastic guide.

Male Hornbill at the Kinabatangan River

A male hornbill, characterised with his huge horn above the beak. 

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A pair of hornbills. Their baby was not too far away.

Hornbills stick to one partner for life, my guide explained. When a baby hornbill hatches, the female cares for it in a hole inside a tree and does not leave. The male brings food to them. If the male dies, so does the female and their baby. A somewhat bittersweet love story.

During the rest of our journey, we also saw long-tailed macaques, which are common even in Singapore.

Long Tailed Macaque at Kinabatangan River

This long tailed macaque was as curious about us as we were of him. 

The sun was getting lower, and the conditions ideal to see Proboscis Monkeys, our guide said. They appear on trees at the river bank where they sleep for the night to prevent being eaten by Sunda Clouded Leopards or large pythons.

Proboscis Monkeys at the Kinabatangan River bank

Proboscis Monkeys start to settle down for the evening on trees near the river bank

“Clouded leopard? I want to see one,” I said eagerly. “I’ve never seen one. It’s very rare,” our guide replied with a nervous laugh. He has been working as a guide for 3 years.

A Proboscis Monkey at Kinabatangan River

Look closely, hear the leaves ruffle and you find yourself looking at a Proboscis Monkey.

The Proboscis Monkeys are endemic, meaning they can only be seen in Borneo in the wild. He also said that they can be found in the Singapore and San Diego Zoo, nowhere else.

1800: It was the end of our tour. Just as well. We’ve traversed the length of most of the Lower Kinabatangan and were approaching the borders where forest ends, and palm oil plantations dominated. It was indeed a grim reminder of the threat all these animals are facing.

Dinner was a low-key affair where we felt really bad seeing a huge school group scrape for the last of whatever little food we had. We could buy more food back at Sandakan. They were staying, and couldn’t.

2000: While we made our way back to our bus, I gasped as I saw literally thousands of stars in the sky. For the second time in my life, I was looking at the Milky Way.

Milky Way at the Kinabatangan River

The Milky Way at Kinabatangan, darkness takes over once the sun has set.

This trip was nothing short of amazing, especially when we had a fantastic guide that loved the wildlife and the area, private transfers and a private 2-hour boat trip (which is not the norm, we were just lucky). If you are in the area, and want to get lost in nature, and see some beauty amidst the destruction of forests for palm oil, the Kinabatangan River is a place to put on your list.

My only comment would be to bring some snacks and forget about having a satisfying catered meal. We also did not have the conservation slide show, which I was wondering about, but the trip was still great nonetheless.

An option to a tour: We found this out much later, but if you can find a taxi driver to bring you to Kinabatangan River, a return trip should cost RM350-400. They’ll help you get a boat for 80RM. I did not use this option and cannot speak for the quality of this DIY trip.

PS: Usually, it is recommended to stay for a few days so you may trek and cruise on the river multiple times, thereby increasing your chances of seeing wildlife. We were just so lucky to see everything on a 2-hour river cruise!

All pictures taken by @clintx on Instagram. Check his profile out here: instagram.com/clintx

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