Discover the Treasures of Borneo at Kinabatangan River
Thanks to its abundance of water and protected rainforests on both sides of its river banks, the Kinabatangan River is a magnet for a myriad of animals to get their water source. A small village right next to the river, called Sukau, is the launch point of many animal viewing river cruises. The village also hosts lodges, bed and breakfasts, and homestays for tourists, which usually offer packages that include cruises and meals. The advantage of viewing wildlife on a river is that you can sit comfortably on a boat, yet still be able to experience the pristine rainforest and its hidden gems.
Sukau is somewhat out of reach, which is a good thing in terms of preserving its local culture and wildlife. To reach it, you will first need to get to the nearest city, Sandakan, the former capital of Sabah. You can choose to take a short flight of about 45 minutes from Kota Kinabalu or travel by bus for 6 hours.
Although cheap public buses run from Sandakan to Sukau, these can be unreliable and you might end up wasting a lot of time waiting for the bus to be filled before the vehicle begins its journey. A better alternative is to hire a taxi to Sukau if you are a group of four people or arrange for a shuttle if you are traveling alone. Depending on traffic, it will take about 2 to 3 hours to reach Sukau from Sandakan by road.
When to go
You can visit Sukau all year round. There are pros and cons to being there at different times of the year. April to October is the main flowering and fruiting season and is generally dry. This makes seeing animals like birds and crocodiles easier. November to March is the wet season and it often gets rainy in the afternoon. However, during the wet season, the water level rises and creates access to oxbow lakes that tend to host a higher concentration of wildlife.
As the saying goes: the early bird catches the worm and in this case, the early riser spots the animals. When the sun emerges and wakes up the daylight creatures, wildlife flocks to the river while the temperature is still relatively cool. This is one of the best times to see them as they hang out by the waters. You should be on the boat by 6 am and head out to the many different wildlife hot spots along the river.
When it starts to get too hot by the waters, the animals retreat deep into the rainforest for the protection offered by its dense vegetation. As the day heads towards dusk, the animals emerge from the cover of the forest and proceed to the river again. Your afternoon cruise should start around 3 to 4 pm and end just after sundown when the diurnal animals turn in for the night.
You are almost guaranteed to see one of Borneo’s most distinctive creatures – the proboscis monkeys, which are easily identifiable by their long noses and pot bellies. These unusual looking monkeys are endangered with an estimated population of about 7,000 in the wild. If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of Borneo’s most famous primate, the orangutans, though they can be rather shy. Other primates that can be spotted here are the feisty macaques and beautiful leaf monkeys.
The Kinabatangan River is a paradise for bird watchers. It is rather common to be able to see the magnificent hornbills, often in pairs, perching on tree branches. Large birds of prey like eagles and hawks soaring in the sky is a sight to behold. You can also easily encounter other large birds like storks and herons. With a competent guide and binoculars, you might be able to spot some stunningly colourful feathered creatures like pittas, broadbills, trogons, and drongos.
One of the most well-hidden jewels of the rainforest at Kinabatangan River is the fascinating Borneo pygmy elephants. Its dwindling population of only about 1,500 has rendered the world’s smallest elephants to be critically endangered. Although you have a higher chance of tracking them down near Sukau village compared to other places, it is still no easy feat to find them in the wild. Take note that you should only observe them either in a boat or an aircraft. Because elephants can be unpredictable, if you encounter a herd in the forest, it is crucial that you listen to your guide and get yourself to safety immediately.
As the day plunges into darkness and the nocturnal creatures take over, it is time for a very different kind of wildlife experience. Embark on your boat after dinner while the air turns cool, accompanied by the sounds of insects chirping and frogs croaking. Your search for wildlife has turned even more challenging with the absence of light. However, with the aid of torchlights, the knowledge and eagle-sharp eyes of your guide, you are very likely to spot some animals.
Relatively easy to catch sight of, large owls look almost regal perched on tree tops awaiting their next prey. Surprisingly, this is the time to get up close and personal with birds that are active in the day. They are almost oblivious to their surroundings while they sleep, allowing you to shine your torchlight and get within a few metres from them.
With a keen eye and low water level, you might be lucky enough to see crocodiles before they disappear into the water. Other reptiles like vipers coiled around tree branches and different species of lizards can be seen too. While lizards are generally harmless and crocodiles tend to stay out of the way, snakes can pose a real danger. Therefore, it is imperative that you listen to your guide’s instructions on how close you can get and how you should move about around them.
It can be rather chilly at night with the wind blowing while you cruise along the river. This is also when insects are the most active. Wear a light jacket to protect you from both the cold and bugs.
Wildlife expedition on foot
Should you decide to also explore the forest on foot, be prepared for a tough but rewarding experience. You will find no paved trails nor any man-made comforts within the wild rainforest. Your guide will take you by boat, to a trail created by elephants, where you will begin your discovery of the lush rainforest.
Do not forget to look up while you trek through the forest to avoid running into spiders hanging in mid-air on their webs. The rich rainforest is home to many wildlife like jungle lizards, primates, birds, snakes, wild boars, elephants and many more, of which you will have a chance to encounter. Massive ancient trees loom before you intertwined with various ferns and vines. Beware of thorny or poisonous plants and heed your guide’s warnings.
You will most certainly need insect repellent and make sure that you apply an ample amount on your feet and legs to prevent leeches. Another must-have is rubber boots to trudge through inches deep of wet, slippery mud.
Tips and tricks
One of the reasons that so many animals thrive within the evergreen rainforest is because of the bounty of insects as a food source. Therefore, you should load up on insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to protect yourself from bugs. Because of the hot and humid tropical weather, you should wear baggy clothes that allow for air circulation. Depending on your accommodation, a mosquito net might come in handy too. You should also take measures to prevent Malaria. The pills are available over the counter in pharmacies within the cities of Sabah.
Although it is possible to rent a boat and explore the jungle on your own, it is highly recommended that you hire a local guide. Even if you are very experienced, it will be extremely difficult to surpass the expertise of a local guide in terms of wildlife spotting and knowledge of the forest. Many guides in Sukau are very competent with eagle-sharp eyes, profound understanding of local wildlife, and know the best spots to find animals. An especially skillful guide could track animals by scent and even mimic their cries to locate them. Not only are their services inexpensive, but you will also be contributing to the local community.
Note that you will be venturing into the tropical rainforest so make sure that you pack a rain jacket, comfortable shoes, and clothes. Ideally, your attire should be in dark, neutral colours so that you remain inconspicuous to the animals and do not alarm them. You will not be under the protection of a shade while you are on the boat, so bring along some sunblock too. You might like to take with you a torchlight and binoculars, though your guide will probably have them also. Do keep your bags closed at all times if you do not want to be surprised by bugs and little critters that tend to sneak into them.
You can connect to the Internet at Sukau village, though only Edge technology is available and an occasional 3G connection if you are lucky. There is a small local cafe that offers free WiFi but it is extremely slow. Nothing much can be done when the temperature is at its highest in the afternoon, so bring a hammock and a book to keep yourself entertained.
There are many services that offer a day tour to Sukau from Sepilok or Sandakan. However, they are often in big groups and only cruise along the main river. For a true wildlife experience, stay a night or two in the village and use the services of local guides, which your hosts will gladly arrange for you. Not only are the tours more personal, the guides will often take you to hidden oxbow lakes and water passages that are not easily visible.
Sukau offers a rare opportunity to observe real wildlife in relative comfort. As the Borneo rainforests are destroyed by oil palm plantation and illegal logging, so are the many endangered species that live there. Tourism can contribute to the local community, which in turn, helps protect this ancient and opulent rainforest from disappearing forever.