At 10:30am on Tuesday 12th June 2018, we were picked up in Sandakan to be taken to the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan where we would spend the next two nights. Kinabatangan River is the second largest river in Malaysia. It’s lined with jungle that is now protected after extensive palm oil plantations took over the area, stripping the rainforest to narrow sections lining the river and threatening the habitat of many creatures in the jungle. You go on tours to cruise down the river in search of the wildlife that can be found there. There’s a chance to see all sorts of wild animals such as proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, orangutans, hornbills and crocodiles. The narrow jungle is what makes wildlife spotting here so fruitful. We could only hope we’d be so lucky to see everything but our accomodation package included four river cruises, two in the early morning and two in the afternoon as well as some guided jungle walks so we were giving ourselves the best chance to see something.
There were four of us being transported to the Nature Lodge and we were taken in a really big bus so were able to spread out for the journey. We had stopped for lunch for an hour but Niall and I had a huge breakfast and so didn’t need any lunch so it was a pretty boring wait. At 12:30pm we were off again and would be reaching the accommodation at around 4pm. What was a bit silly was that there were other people also being transported to the lodge and they arrived the same time as we did and had eaten lunch at the same restaurant but we all got different buses which didn’t really make any sense.Soon after we arrived we were given afternoon tea which was tea, coffee, biscuits and sweet corn fritters. We then got on our boats for our first river cruise of our stay. Niall and I were put on a boat with four other people called Suzanne, Paddy (from Dublin) Christine (from Germany) and Peter (from Canada). Our guide was called Apo and he would be our guide for the entirety of our stay. He was exceptional at spotting things and really good at letting us stay for ages when we saw something good – our stay here wouldn’t have been nearly as good without him as our guide. Very soon into the cruise we came across a small herd of pygmy elephants. These were completely wild elephants and we had just happened to find them eating long grass by the river. Even Apo was excited as it’s a rare find as elephants move around so much and we couldn’t believe our luck to have these be the first animal we saw out on the river! What was even more incredible was that they had a very tiny baby elephant with them which was very cute. Pygmy elephants are a lot smaller than African and Asian elephants and I don’t think the biggest was any taller than 6 foot. They didn’t seem to be phased by the boats and we were able to get very close to the river bank to see them better. It was only once we were pretty much at the riverbank that they had enough of us and turned away, eating with their backs to us. It was all so amazing! As well as the pygmy elephants we also struck lucky by seeing an enormous, wild, male orangutan sitting in a tree eating fruit. It was huge and had really long hair compared to the ones we had seen in Sepilok which we were told is to keep it warm as the average temperature is colder here compared to other places. Despite being high in the tree we were able to see him clearly through gaps in the branches and Apo had some really good binoculars to help us see him clearer. We couldn’t believe our luck and watched the orangutan for ages before we had to head back to the Lodge. We were also very lucky as the other boat didn’t see the orangutan at all!
As well as elephants and orangutans we also saw a colourful kingfisher, an oriental hornbill, lots of long tailed macaques and a crocodile. It was great to see so much on our first boat cruise along the river as we had read reviews of people seeing nothing for the entirety of their stay and we had ticked off nearly all of the animals on day one!
Tea that night was really nice with a good variety of food to try. The chef even came out to check that myself and the two other vegetarians in our group had enough we could eat which was a surprise and very thoughtful. We also had a visit from a small gecko who kept sneaking onto our table looking for food. We started leaving small pieces of rice for it and the gecko would stalk the rice and quickly grab it as if it was ready to fly away!
We were meant to go on a night jungle walk that evening but the herd of pygmy elephants that we had seen that day were too close to our resort to be able to wander around in the dark. If we crossed them in the jungle in the dark, particularly as they had a small baby with them, it could have been very dangerous for us – they’re wild animals after all. We had an electric fence around the site which would mean they’d not come into the camp at night if they passed (it would just give them a shock enough to move them on) so we were completely safe. Instead of going into the jungle we went around a wooden boardwalk that was surrounded on either side by trees to see what was in the jungle around there. We saw a tiny sleeping kingfisher on a branch, a millipede, crickets and some other bugs. I also spotted a praying mantis by the sinks in the bathroom which was quite cool! To have seen the elephants that day made it completely worth missing a jungle walk so we didn’t mind it at all!
We woke up just before 6am to get out on the boat for a morning river cruise. We had Apo as our guide again and it still amazes me what he’s able to spot. It was a beautiful morning with a few colours still in the sky form the sun rising and the river was very still. Unlike the afternoon boat cruise where we saw other boats, our two boats from the resort were the only two out on the water. We saw some long tailed macaques, langurs, proboscis monkeys and a baby and adult crocodile.The proboscis monkeys are quite shy and are only found in Borneo. Apo told us that they had two main groups along the river, one was a group of females with one dominant male and the other group is a pack of males. Proboscis monkeys look really funny because of their pot bellies and big, long noses (for the males) and pointed noses (for the women) – they’re not the most attractive monkeys out there – in fact if you googled a picture of the male and female together I think it’s the monkey version of the Dursley’s from Harry Potter! Proboscis monkeys eat poisonous fruits and flowers which is digested in its two stomachs which is what bloats their tummies so much and makes them get very gassy! Apparently this is all very attractive to the females – each to their own I guess. We hoped we’d see more of them on the next two cruises as they were hiding a lot in the trees and so weren’t the easiest to see. We were also amazed at Apo finding the baby crocodile as it couldn’t have been any longer then my forearm and was just sitting alone on the river bank. We later saw the adult crocodile which was a much larger version so maybe that was its mother.After breakfast we were scheduled to go on a guided walk through the jungle but the pygmy elephants were still too nearby and so we were taken over to the village instead to have a look around. This village is where both of the guides live and is the third last village on the river. They have their own dialect that’s different to the other villages on the river and would have to speak Malay to those further up river as the dialect is so different that they wouldn’t be able to understand one another. The village is quite small and has a kindergarten and primary school, a small shop and a volleyball court. We walked around the village for around an hour and a half and were shown loads of fruit trees of jack fruit, rambutan, mango and banana. We saw green lizards and long tailed macaques which cause lots of trouble in the village by sneaking into people’s houses and stealing their food! It was a nice walk and the weather was lovely so it was good that they kept us busy instead of leaving us with nothing to do for the morning. We all got on in our group too which I think also helped, I wouldn’t say the village walk added anything to the stay but, by keeping us from being bored, it served its purpose.Our lunch was another tasty buffet with loads of vegetables, crunchy tofu and chicken. We were always given a bit of chill time after eating and then all met at 2pm to hear a presentation on the area and some of the animals we could see in the jungle. It was nice to see that we had seen a lot of the main animals out there!
Twenty new people arrived at around 2pm so the Lodge was a lot busier that evening. We had a boat cruise again at 4pm which was our penultimate trip and had new people in who had just arrived, two of whom had large cameras with tripods. It was another successful trip and we saw more elephants further down the river. We also saw the baby crocodile from the day before, long tailed macaques, a langur, a kingfisher, a large crocodile swimming in the water, oriental and rhino hornbills and proboscis monkeys. We had a really good time and were very happy to get to see more proboscis monkeys as, on our first day, we hadn’t seen a large male. They really do look very funny.After another tasty tea we headed out into the jungle for our night time jungle walk. The elephants had moved far enough down river to not be a threat to us and the new people chose not to come so we ended up having our original boat group on the walk which was nice. Going into the jungle in the pitch black was quite unnerving because you couldn’t see what you might be walking into or what might be on random branches and bushes as you passed. I didn’t like the possibility of walking into a giant spiders web, stepping in a snake or brushing against some other creepy crawly and I did have an enormous cricket fly into me a few times when we first entered the jungle which wasn’t a pleasant experience. We saw sleeping birds, a frog and some spiders but nothing too exciting. I also got a tiger leech on me which is a small leech with red stripes and after that I was ready to get out of the jungle! Once we were back in our lodge complex, Apo spotted a civet cat and an owl in the tree by the river which was cool. It meant that we didn’t even need to go into the jungle to see the best wildlife that night!For the rest of the evening, the six of us from our boat relaxed on the jetty with a beer. It was a really nice evening getting to know one another and two people from our boat worked for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which was really interesting to hear about. It was great that we had so little people in our group and all got on so well. As well as our boat we also got on very well with an Australian mother and daughter and, even though we were the youngest ones there, it didn’t matter at all. We slept well that night and had the dorm to ourselves which was great as it meant getting a private room without paying for it!
It was Niall’s 25th Birthday!! We woke up at 6am again for another sunrise river cruise that would be our last before heading back to Sandakan and then on to Kota Kinabalu later that day. We didn’t see much to start with but, as we moved further down the river we then saw proboscis monkeys! We had been hoping to see more proboscis monkeys during the cruise as there hadn’t been many males which are the more distinctive looking of the genders, but there were plenty here. These monkeys were in a tree with fewer branches and so we were able to get a much clearer look at them which was great.We carried on down the river and saw more pygmy elephants – a different herd than the day before. We waited and watched the elephants for a while as they ate from the palm oil plantation that lines the edges of the jungle. It was great to see the elephants again as we hadn’t expected to at all and we couldn’t have been happier with how the cruise went.When we were watching the elephants another boat told Apo, our guide, that there was a male orangutan further down the river. Even though we were meant to be ending the cruise and going back for breakfast, Apo took us down to find it. This was another male huge orangutan but a different one to the male we had seen the other day as it was on the opposite side of the river. It was amazing to see one again as it was resting in a tree, likely having just woken up! We had amazing luck for all of our river cruises and couldn’t have asked for better sightings! It was great that Niall’s birthday started this way especially as we would be travelling for a lot of that day.
After breakfast we packed and got our transfer back to Sandakan. It was the last day of Ramadan which we hadn’t realised until we tried to get hold of bus companies to see when the next bus to Kota Kinabalu from Sandakan would be leaving. No one would answer and our hostel said that they doubted there would be any free seats as people would be going home to their families for Eid. We had a flight to Brunei the next morning and so had to get back that day so ended up booking onto a flight from Sandakan to Kota Kinabalu that was scheduled to leave at 2:30pm, costing us just over £50 each. It wasn’t ideal and I just really wish the stress and expense hadn’t happened on Niall’s birthday. The flight was slightly delayed and so we didn’t get in until after 3:30pm. We had lunch in the airport and then headed to our hotel. We had booked into the Storytel Hotel which was cheaper than the hostel we had stayed in the last time we were in Kota Kinabalu and, for a budget hotel, it wasn’t bad at all. It had a comfy bed, good WiFi and air conditioning so did the job for us just fine particularly as we’d be leaving at 6am the next morning.
We headed to the riverfront for sunset but it was too cloudy so there was only a few colourful clouds to see. There was a really cute cat on the harbour though which took a liking to Niall (cat’s love him). We then headed to a restaurant called Secret Recipe which is where we had gone for cake for my birthday. We got a New York cheesecake, a chocolate cake and a couple of milkshakes and they put a candle on one of the cakes for Niall. Unfortunately, Niall wasn’t feeling very well and so we didn’t stay out for long and spent the rest of the evening in the hotel. It was such a shame as his birthday had started so well with our great river cruise but, after that, things seemed to just keep going wrong.
Our trip to the Kinabatangan River had been fantastic. Staying at the Nature Lodge had exceeded our expectations with good rooms, great food and we had been fortunate enough to meet some very interesting, friendly people to spend the few days with. I know that it’s not common to be as lucky as we were with the wildlife and even other boats didn’t see as much as we did. We really lucked out and, along with the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, it had already made coming to Borneo completely worth it!
Sending love x