If you are a wildlife fanatic and are planning to visit Sabah in Borneo, then you should not miss out on the Kinabatangan River. The river is the second longest river in Malaysia, stretching 560 km (350 miles) and has the largest concentration of wildlife in Borneo. Besides the astonishing and easily accessible wildlife in all of Southeast Asia, the river in the east of Sabah is also known for its swampy forest and very humid climate.
Sabah's Kinabatangan River is home to Borneo's indigenous proboscis monkeys, four meter long crocodiles, pythons, rare types of birds, pygmy elephants, and of course the endangered orangutans to name a few.
Unfortunately, due to the growth of palm oil plantations, the number of wildlife has decreased. Although at times, you would expect it to be a little difficult to spot some of these rare and endangered animals, this is actually quite the opposite. Deforestation has forced the wildlife into small forest pockets along the riverbanks.
As sad as it is for them, it does give us a great opportunity to see these wonderful animals in their natural habitat on the Kinabatangan River.
Arriving At The Kinabatangan River
After a two hour drive from Sandakan, we arrived in the small town of Sukau along the Kinabatangan River. The town of Sukau is your best option to find accommodation along the river, offering river cruises and packaged deals.
While doing some research beforehand, we were finding the prices to be a little steep. At first, the cheapest we could find was for 450+ MYR each (102$). Within the price, you got three days and two nights accommodation in a dorm room, four to five river cruises and three meals.
Digging a little bit deeper, we came across the RB Lodge offering three days and two nights in a private bungalow, four river cruises and 3 meals, for 250 MYR (57$) each. Saving ourselves 400 MYR (90$) altogether.
This was a fantastic deal and the cheapest in the area at the time. Our bungalow was very basic but clean and had hot water, while the food was satisfying and filling. We could also help ourselves to coffee and tea throughout the day.
Spotting Wildlife On The Kinabatangan River
All excited for our first river cruise, we made our way down the Kinabatangan River with our very well English speaking guide and a Canadian couple. We were not even two minutes on the river before our guide spotted a baby crocodile sitting on a log. Unfortunately, by the time we noticed the crocodile, it was already half way back in the water.
100 meters up the river our guide suddenly pulls over towards some trees. Wondering what he could have spotted from 20 meters away, he was pointing at a sleeping python along the branches.
God bless his eyesight, because even from five meters away it still took us a while to notice the snake. By this stage, we knew we were in luck and had a great guide with us.
Over the four Kinabatangan River cruises, we were spoiled with wildlife and here is what we saw.
The native proboscis monkeys can only be found in Borneo. There wasn't a day gone by where we didn't see these monkeys swinging from tree to tree close to the river. Usually, you will find a dominant male in a group with several females and their young. Male proboscis monkey uses his large nose to attract attention from females. So the bigger the nose the better.
You will have no problem spotting the common oriental pied hornbill chilling in the tree tops. Sometimes even flying overhead in noisy flocks. On our last Kinabatangan River cruise, we were also lucky enough to spot the rhinoceros hornbill, one of the largest birds in Asia.
Besides the python, the mangrove snake is one of only two snakes that we saw during the Kinabatangan River cruise.
Another group of monkeys we saw besides the cheeky macaques are the silver leaf monkeys. Very easy to recognise with their black, silver tipped fur and a dark face.
We had seen quite a few birds on the Kinabatangan River, from the crested serpent eagle to the black and red broadbill. But the most beautiful and vibrant of them all were the kingfishers.
We got a chance to get up close to two kingfishers as they slept during our night cruise. One was the larger stork billed kingfisher and the other was the smaller blue-eared kingfisher.
Keeping the best till last is the endangered orangutan. These intelligent creatures are the only great apes found outside of Africa. Also, there are actually two separate species of orangutan, the Bornean and the Sumatran orangutan.
Not everyone gets to see these clever animals in their natural habitat on the Kinabatangan River. But we must have had a lucky day because we came across them on three different occasions. Our first was a large male feeding alone in the trees, while the others were of two females and their young.
Unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to see any Asian pygmy elephants. We were told that they had made their way back into the jungle, and it's not safe to follow them. Other travellers were also lucky enough to see large crocodiles, monitor lizards and wild cats.
How To Get To Sukau
Coming from Sandakan, the easiest way to get to Sukau is by booking a minivan at your guesthouse. It is a bit more expensive than the local bus but definitely less hassle. We walked around Sandakan's two different bus stations looking for the right bus. Everyone we asked kept pointing us in different directions or gave us different bus numbers. So after walking around in a circle twice, we eventually gave up and booked the bus through our guesthouse.
Travelling from Kota Kinabalu you can either fly to Sandakan and then take a two-hour minivan to Sukau. Or you can take a six-hour bus drive from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. There you will change buses, and get on another two-hour mini van ride to Sukau.
From Semporna take one of the buses going to Sandakan. Ask the driver to drop you off at the Sukau Junction. At the junction, there will be minivans waiting to take people into Sukau town.
Have you ever been to Kinabatangan River in Borneo before? Share with us in the comments below, the wildlife you were lucky enough to see in this part of the world.