Cruising the Kinabatangan River

For our visit to the Kinabatangan River we opted to book a whole package through Sukau Greenview B&B, rather than organising each aspect separately ourselves. There are relatively few budget options for organised tours but they had good reviews and reasonable prices. We knew that both the accommodation and the food would be basic but we were not there for luxury, we wanted to see the wildlife that the area had to offer and, in this, we were not disappointed.

The package included our transfer from Sepilok and we piled in to a mini bus along with an extremely annoying Italian family who had been staying at the same place as us. We’d suffered through their childrens’ tantrums already and were not eagerly anticipating a 3-hour journey in close quarters. Please don’t think that we are awfully judgemental but these kids were at least 10 and they were little arseholes who screamed if they didn’t get their way. As soon as we saw them approach we exchanged knowing looks, pulled out our noise-cancelling headphones ready to polish off our third run-through of the Harry Potter audiobooks, which we had been meaning to finish since we left Europe.  The drive is pretty unremarkable through many thousands of acres of Palm Oil plantations and a few villages.

We arrived, dumped our bags in the room and were soon being ushered on to a boat for our first wildlife spotting river cruise. We rejoiced as the Italian family were deposited in a different boat although our celebrations were cut short by the annoying Italian woman who joined us instead. She seemed to feel that it was her responsibility to make sure that that everything ran to plan and constantly offered her expertise on things about which she had little clue only to be corrected immediately by the guide. It’s possible that this was karma for wishing the Italian family miles away. We appreciate that this mini rant has nothing to do with what we saw but travelling can often seem idyllic when seen by a third person so we like to give a fuller picture and give some real depth to our first world problems.

We have taken to making a note of all the different wildlife that we see on each safari and it has been a really good tool, particularly for times when you do multiple safaris in a short time. Sometimes we come back at the end of the day and think that we haven’t seen a huge amount but then we look back through our notes and realise that we are spoilt rotten for the amazing things we have been lucky enough to see and that, actually, we saw a great array of wildlife.


So on to the good bit, our first cruise. We set off downriver and within 10 minutes saw a long-tailed macaque in the trees and several Hornbills flying over. As we continued our guide spotted a tree full of fruit and instinctively directed the boat straight towards it. It was a great call, as we pulled up alongside the tree a mother and baby orangutan made their way up through the branches to feast on the fruit.


We prised ourselves away from them and as we passed by a riverbank covered in reeds James spotted several Kingfishers sat on branches. We got some great close ups with our new binoculars (just slipping in another plug for the binoculars there). Apparently, we were lucky to see the birds as they usually only hang out on the riverbanks at night.


Next up on our wildlife extravaganza was a harem group of Proboscis Monkey which really are as ridiculous looking as in real life as they are in the photographs. Although on this occasion we didn’t manage to get a good picture of them.

It was time to go back to the lodge so we about-turned and made our way back. We saw a group of boats gathered along one bank so scooted over to join them admiring two pygmy elephants swimming along. We asked if it was common to see just two elephants and in the water and our guide informed us that it was quite unusual and tended only to be for mating, which turned out to be the case. The whole exercise looked pretty cumbersome.


We were about to leave the elephants in peace and had in fact moved away when they decided that they would rather be on the other side of the river and started to swim across, trunks held in the air.


Once they reached the other side they started to feed. We really wanted them to get out of the water so we could see their size but they seemed quite happy munching along and eventually we left them to it. Sunsets on the river are pretty spectacular.


The elephants had made us a bit late so we motored back to the lodge, quickly had dinner and then hopped back in to the boats for our night cruise. The Italian woman was very irked when the guide made her give up her fiercely guarded seat at the front of the boat for one at the back and was completely unmoved by his explanation that she would be able to hear what he was saying better. It was very funny. It’s much eerier being out on the water at night, the fact that there are some large and hungry crocodiles in the water seems so much more threatening when it is also dark. The musical accompaniment of the last prayer call was a safari first for us. Lightning flashed constantly in the distance, this didn’t seem to faze anyone so we assumed that it was normal for the area. We loved the night cruise, it only lasts an hour and you are on the lookout for smaller wildlife. For safety, some birds sleep on branches right on the water’s edge so you can get much closer to them than you would ever be able to during the day. People with better photography know-how would undoubtedly be able to take beautifully clear pictures in torchlight, what we have to offer are some fuzzy blobs but it really is very cool in person. First up was the red-headed tailor bird which looks for the world like a fluffy ping pong ball and our guide must have had the eyes of a hawk to spot it.


Next up was the Blue Water Kingfisher.


All of these birds sleep with their eyes open but the security actually comes from vibrations; any tiny movement of the plant they are perched on and they will fly away, shining a torch in their faces doesn’t seem to register as danger. We’d only really been expecting to see the birds but our guide also spotted a flying fox and a civet cat, both of which are really cool to see. We rounded a bend in the river and the driver pulled the boat up nice and close to a yellow ring cat snake. James was delighted to discover that this was the one thing that we managed to get a clear photograph of.


Finally, we saw two Black and Red Broadbills together on a branch. Apparently, they are the only birds on the river that sleep in groups and the guide told us that he had once seen five snuggled up together.


It had been a crazy busy day and we fell straight in to bed as soon as we got back, ready for the dreaded 5:30am wake up the next day for our morning cruise.

Caro does not do well with early mornings and didn’t speak in full sentences until we were back from the cruise and fed. We went down one of the smaller estuaries this time and spent a majority of the time cruising pretty slowly, scanning the trees for signs of life. We were surprised that there were very few birds around and wildlife was thin on the ground in general. We saw a group of probiscus monkeys, a couple of macaques and an estuarine crocodile before heading back for a much-needed breakfast.


Next up on the agenda was the jungle walk for which we were equipped with wellies because the mud was too deep for us to go out in hiking boots. The B&B hadn’t really accounted for the fact that westerners tend to have significantly larger feet than Malaysians so James ended up ramming his feet in to wellies that were at least 3 sizes too small, but only after being helpfully told by the Italian woman that he should look for a larger pair. At least they didn’t come off in the mud. We were bundled in to a boat and dropped off a short way up the river to stomp around in the jungle for a bit. We had mixed feelings about the walk, Caro wasn’t particularly impressed with the whole experience and felt that it had been contrived to put something different in to the agenda. Our guide openly said that we were highly, highly unlikely to see any wildlife so it was more like a nature walk where he told us about the different plants and their uses. To be fair, this bit was pretty interesting but it was stretched out needlessly to fill an hour when he could have covered it all in about 20 minutes. We spent at least 10 minutes standing looking at some boar tracks and listening to the Italian woman tell us about wild boar in Italy that are apparently the size of a family car and go about attacking humans left, right and centre.


The stumbling through the mud aspect was kind of fun at first but became a bit tedious in the very sweaty jungle and when our guide found a leech and had it crawl up and down his arm Caro officially checked out. Back at the edge of the river we launched in to a debate about the evening’s planned activity where the guide was clearly trying to encourage us not to go on another walk. His reluctance was a pretty clear indication that night walking shouldn’t be offered at all.


Guide: So tonight, you still want to do the jungle walk?

Caro: Act…

Annoying Italian Woman: Yes! Of course we do!

Guide: Really? Because it’s just the same as now but in the dark, there will be no animals, just more insects.

Caro: Well….

AIW: Of course! It will be really interesting, we will see some different things.

Guide: It’s the same as we have seen now

Caro: So…

AIW: But maybe something else will come out later

Guide: …..

Caro: Is it possible to go out on the boat instead?

Guide: (relieved) Yes, that is the other option but you need to let us know early.

AIW: But we didn’t see anything on the night cruise, it was quite boring, just the cat and the snake and the birds.

Caro: (Ignoring this entirely) Do we tell reception if we want to go on the boat?

Guide: Yes

AIW: (turns to other two guests) Of course, you want to come on the night walk

Other Guest: Um.. well I suppose…

AIW: Ok, so we will go on the walk

Guide: (visibly disappointed) Ok… (visibly brightens) Sometimes the weather is not good for the walk so we will have to see


Why this conversation could not have happened back at the lodge we don’t know but fortunately it ended there before Caro launched the woman in to the river. By the time evening rolled around the other couple had also opted to go out on the boat… as had the Italian woman.

We had the entire middle of the day free and we spent it writing blog, playing with the many cats and, in Caro’s case, resisting eating ice cream. Caro had also heard that one of her closest friends had gotten engaged the night before. Fortunately, Sukau Greenview B&B had excellent wifi, making Whatsapp calls possible so Caro spent a happy thirty minutes chatting with her and hearing all of the details.

You have to be pretty lucky to see the pygmy elephants at all so when they put in a second appearance on our afternoon river cruise we knew that it was a real treat. This time they joined us in force, with 50 or so of the little guys spread out along a couple of hundred metre stretch of the riverbank.  We couldn’t see them all that well at first but they quickly ate their way through the undergrowth, providing us with a beautiful view.


We stayed with the elephants for about an hour, occasionally catching sight of the babies before they were ushered away from the river by doting mothers.


We certainly didn’t have the spot to ourselves so the entire hour was accompanied by the sound of boat engines and people dodging and weaving amongst the ten or so boats to get the best photograph. It was still a fantastic viewing and we’d drunk in our fill before we continued up river in search of other animals. Once again, we were really lucky to see a civet cat in the daytime perched up in the tree in which we’d seen the orangutan’s the day before.


Rather sadly, we did also pass a dead elephant floating along in the river, our guide said that it had most likely drowned attempting to cross. Not pleasant but unfortunately nature isn’t always. Continuing down the river we were spoiled for birds again with plenty of egrets and hornbills, our favourite being the dramatic looking rhinoceros hornbill. We passed a large group of probiscus monkeys and this time we were able to get a couple of decent pictures.


On our way back to the lodge we passed the elephants again, this time they were trooping along the edge of the river and back in to the forest.


Another glorious sunset followed.




The weather had been threatening for most of the afternoon and with thunder rumbling overhead the guides felt it safer to cancel the night boat trip as well and offered us another morning cruise instead. The Italian woman made the rounds making sure that everyone knew about the change of schedule. Caro was simply thrilled with the prospect of another early morning but conceded that it would be faintly ridiculous to forfeit the safari in the interests of a couple of hours sleep. This was fortunate as it was an excellent safari with lots of birds, monkeys of all sorts clambering in the trees, the civet cat which we were beginning to suspect they had nailed to the branch and, the crowning glory, a male with enormous cheek pads chilling out in a tree.


We were down another of the smaller estuaries so we were able to drift gently along beneath him as he ate his bodyweight in fruit. After about 15 minutes he clambered down the tree and disappeared in to the undergrowth. We cruised back to the lodge, watching the silver leaf and probiscus monkeys flinging themselves from tree to tree.


Back on dry land, we had a quick turn-around before being bundled in to the minivan. Much to AIW’s chagrin we nabbed the prestigious row of 3 seats in the front of the van before she could get there. We had a slight delay whilst she told the driver how to do his job but we were still at Sandakan Airport about 3 hours before our flight. We passed the time watching a group of no fewer than 20 people walk around the airport in a huddle putting stickers under security cameras. Drastic overstaffing is ubiquitous throughout Malaysia but this was perhaps the most extreme example; one chap to carry the ladder, another to tell them where to take the ladder, another to prop it against the wall, another to climb it, another to hand him a cloth to wipe the camera, another to pass him the sticker, and 15 of their closest friends to provide moral support. The AIW missed a prime opportunity to project manage.


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