We weren’t originally planning on going to the Kinabatangan River, but after seeing very little in the way of wildlife at Danum Valley, we decided to head there for our last few days in Borneo. Our reason for going? We wanted to see orangutans in the wild!
Palm Oil Takeover
If you weren’t already aware, Sabah (the northern state of Malaysian Borneo), consists mainly of Palm Oil Plantations, with very little rainforest remaining. It is a very sad state of affairs. Travelling through Sabah on the local buses we saw mile after mile of oil palms, in fact, we saw little else. It was a pretty boring landscape for those long and bumpy bus rides.
Wildlife on the Kinabatangan
Surrounding the Kinabatangan River is an ever shrinking stretch of primary rainforest. In some areas the palm plantations back right up onto the river, but for now there is still enough rainforest to support a number of wild and critically endangered animals, including orangutans, proboscis monkeys and pigmy elephants.
Palm oil plantations backing right up onto the Kinabatangan River.
On the Kinabatangan there are quite a number of homestays and eco-lodges offering boat-trips and hikes for the chance to see these beautiful rarities in the wild. The whole thing is bittersweet however, because the reason there is such a good chance of seeing the animals is simply, they have nowhere else to go. This is why we weren’t too sure about visiting the Kinabatangan River in the first place.
A change of heart
After seeing nothing but a few wild pigs in Danum, we decided that we couldn’t leave Borneo without visiting the Kinabatangan River. We had to see at least one cool and rare animal surely! I had done some reading up on it and sort of knew where to go. I knew we had to get to a small town called Sukau - this is where there is a cluster of homestays and a pier to catch a boat from. So we put our concerns to one side and headed for the Kinabatangan River.
Getting there - Lahad Datu to Kinabatangan
Distance: 80 miles
Time: 3-3.5 hours
Cost: RM35 ($7.85/£6.40) per person
We took the 8:30am Friday transfer from Danum to Lahad Datu which we'd prearranged with Danum Valley Field Center. From Lahad Datu we caught the 1pm bus heading north to Sandakan and asked the bus driver to drop us off at Sukau Junction. The bus cost RM15 per person ($3.35/£2.75) and took roughly 2 hours. We were assured by the bus driver that we would be able to catch a minibus for the remaining 25 miles from the junction to Sukau.
When the bus pulled up at Sukau Junction it was pouring with rain, so we quickly headed for a shelter on the side of the road. As if by magic, a man with a minibus was waiting there. We told him we were heading to Sukau in the hope of finding a homestay, and before we knew it, he was on the blower to the infamous Osman’s Homestay and had booked us in for 2 nights. It was as simple as that. We paid him RM20 per person ($4.50/£3.65) to take us to the pier where Osman's wife picked us up in a boat and took us to their home.
To be honest, Osman’s was a little pricier than we had originally wanted to pay. It was RM70 ($16/£13) per person a night, all meals included, plus an extra RM50 ($11/£9) per person for each boat trip. However, I had done my research on the Kinabatangan and had read a lot about Osman online, both good and bad. Stuck in the rain at Sukau Junction, 25 miles from anywhere, Osman's seemed like a pretty good offer.
Osman is a legend in his own right. He personally chauffeured Sir David Attenborough around the Kinabatangan River, spotting animals for him. He has hosted numerous celebrities including Freddie Flintoff and has worked with the BBC no less than nine times. He is known as ‘the fixer', as he can locate the rarest and hardest to find animals for the BBC to film. Osman absolutely made our trip to the Kinabatangan. He's a character alright. Not exactly what you'd call ‘politically correct', but he’s as genuine as they come and an absolute boss at finding animals.
Osman's home from the river
Two Incredible Boat Trips
We opted to do two boat trips on the Kinabatangan. Osman also does hiking trips to find animals, but after wading through the mud and attempting to avoid the leeches at Danum, we were pretty set on enjoying the animals from a gentle river cruise.
Morning Boat Trip
We were up at the crack of dawn for a 6am boat trip with the other couple staying at Osman’s. We told Osman that orangutans were our top priority and he did not disappoint. After seeing plenty of macaques, proboscis monkeys, sea eagles and phenomenal rhinoceros hornbills, Osman made it his mission to find us an orangutan. Even though it was pouring with rain and Osman forgot his raincoat, he headed downstream away from his home to a tree he'd seen one in a few days before. Sure enough, a small female was hanging around in the tree by the river. It was fantastic, all this and we hadn’t even had breakfast! Definitely a successful boat trip.
A rhinoceros hornbill through the bins!
Sea-eagle through the bins
Afternoon Boat Trip
At 4pm we set off on another boat trip with Osman and an Australian couple (Renée & Linton) who had just arrived. We didn’t think it could get much better than the morning trip but it totally did. We saw two more orangutans, the second of which was a massive male that Osman said must be nearing 25 years old. Even Osman was impressed to see this guy, his face was huge and incredible.
We also saw a pretty big crocodile lounging on the mudbanks of the river, as well as more hornbills, proboscis monkeys and some confident macaques that courageously boarded our boat.
Proboscis (big-nose) monkey
The fabulous male in his nest
Surprise Night-Time Expedition
Whilst sat on the porch in the evening listening to one of Osman’s many stories, we heard a strange noise from the other side of the riverbank. Osman was up in a flash! ‘Elephants!' he exclaimed ‘They’re close!’ And with that, he ran inside the house, grabbed an industrial-sized torch and we all scarpered down after him to the boat. Off we went on an impromptu night-time elephant hunt.
We didn’t hear too many elephant noises after that, but we did career into the riverbank at one point and Renée and I squealed as the damp foliage wrapped around us. The next thing we knew Osman had a baby crocodile in the boat. I’m not sure how he did it, but we were all pretty impressed.
After scouring the riverbank for what felt like ages, we headed back to Osman’s for a quiet evening... Wrong! About 30 minutes later we heard more elephant noises, this time they were even closer! Quick as a flash, Osman grabbed his huge torch and we all ran down to the boat for a second time. This time we heard more noises whilst out on the water, Osman said they were getting ready to cross the river, we could even smell the mud they had churned up.
After a little while, Osman shone his light into the jungle covered riverbank. It took us ages for us all to see it, a tiny tarsier clinging to a tree branch. So cute, every time he turned to face us we could see his huge, unblinking eyes. We never did see an elephant, but the thrill was definitely in the chase.
- Although we may have been able to do it ever so slightly cheaper (by staying in Sukau Village rather than on the river itself), we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Having an eagle-eyed guide like Osman made it a truly magical experience.
- Osman is the man for finding animals. Although he never promises anything, he more than delivered on everything we wanted to see out on the river. None of the other boats would have seen the tiny tarsier without Osman pointing it out. He also spotted crocs, birds, and lizards that other boats seemed to sail straight past.
- Osman is a fountain of knowledge about the local area and the local people. He gives a running commentary about the history of river and all the animals throughout your stay. We saw a number of boat trips out on the river where the driver wasn’t even talking to the passengers.
- A pair of binoculars would have been very handy for animal spotting, we had to keep borrowing Osman's and passing them around.
Special thanks to Renee and Linton who generously contributed most of the photos for this post. We were really struggling to take decent photos with just an iPhone and a pair of binoculars.