The Kinabatangan river in Sabah, eastern Malaysia on the island of Borneo is the second longest river in Malaysia, at 560 kilometres long. Home to Borneo’s highest concentration of endemic species – such as the proboscis monkey, Borneon orang-utan and pygmy elephants – we knew that a visit to Borneo would not be complete without visiting this spectacular part of the world.
The most common way in which to experience the Kinabatangan is on a river safari, with most tour operators offering a three day, two night package. This is the most popular way to visit, as this duration offers several cruises on the river at different times of the day to increase the chances of seeing wildlife – nighttime, early morning and late afternoon. In addition to the cruises, jungle treks and visits to nearby caves were other activities included in most packages.
As with any tour, prices ranged considerably – depending on how much comfort you wanted! In our research of over twenty different tour operators, prices for 3D2N packages ranged from as little as 459 RM ($151.00 AUD) to over 5000 RM ($1646.44 AUD) – per person! We couldn’t quite justify spending nearly as much as we do in a month on just three days, so we opted for a tour at the lower end of the price range – which was all inclusive of meals, accommodation and activities.
We ended up going with Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Adventures, as we were also staying at their B&B accommodation in Sepilok and their itinerary and budget suited what we were chasing. We’d had a great couple of days staying here and exploring Sepilok (post all about this coming soon), and the best part was the great people we’d met – lots of like minded, long-term travelers. We had great expectations for our safari based on our experiences with Uncle Tan’s up to this point.
We departed on Day 1 at 2.30PM by minibus, arriving on the banks of the Kinabatangan at around 4PM. Climbing down a slippery, muddy riverbank, we carried our bags into a little boat, full of supplies for the next few days. As we took off, the beautiful breeze a welcome respite to the hot sun beating down on us, we were delighted to see a family of wild pigs, long-tailed macaques and monitor lizards along the shores on the way to the camp – and this wasn’t even a dedicated safari trip!
Arriving at the camp, we quickly realised that when they had said in a prior briefing that it was no resort – well, they weren’t joking. The camp had no electricity, a generator providing light only from 6PM to 11PM. There was no running water – showers only possible by filling buckets full of river water and throwing it over yourself. The six of us shared a room (if you could call it a room – it had no door after all), sleeping on a mattress with a mosquito net on the ground, without pillows. It was going to be a fun couple of days!
As we climbed back into out tiny boat in the pitch black of night, we were astounded when our guide flashed his light across the river within seconds of taking off, exclaiming ‘Look! Baby crocodile!’ Sure enough as we came in closer, a tiny baby crocodile was on the banks of the river, his red glowing eyes giving away his position before he quickly ducked back into the water and swam away.
The nighttime safari proved quite successful – moments later, he pointed out a small jungle cat that disappeared into the vegetation before we could determine exactly what type it was. We also saw a python, a frog, a monitor lizard in a tree, a kingfisher and sleeping proboscis monkey. Not bad for our first trip!
Our next several outings – an early morning safari, jungle trek and late afternoon safari didn’t prove as successful. In the broad daylight, we quickly noticed that our jungle environment was not as ‘jungle-ish’ as we had hoped. The riverbanks were lined with foliage, but beyond that – perhaps 10 metres back – there was no density to the jungle whatsoever. Instead, palm tree plantations (for the production of palm oil) could be clearly seen. We were devastated, not just to see first hand how much the plantations were encroaching on the natural habitat of these animals – but also, the reality that we weren’t going to see any. Our guides kept taking us out along the same kilometre stretch of river, and on each trip there wasn’t any sign of wildlife. We asked if we could go to a different area in the hopes of seeing some animals – friends we’d met the day before had seen pygmy elephants further up river by offering to pay for more fuel to get there – but to no avail.
We totally understand that on any safari, the opportunity to see any animals is completely up to chance – it’s not guaranteed. However, being in the right environment – where the animals are actually living – will definitely increase those chances. We were definitely not staying in the right environment, with a severe lack of jungle along this part of the river. It turns out that other accommodations and tour operators were further down the river, where the jungle was much more dense and therefore having a much better reputation of seeing wildlife.
We feel that if we had perhaps been a little more thorough in reading reviews in the experiences others had had with Uncle Tan’s, we would not have opted to do our river safari with them. Whilst we understood the conditions of the campsite would be basic, perhaps opting for something a little less basic would have increased our comfort levels a little, and therefore our attitude as well. What didn’t help either was that we felt the staff didn’t seem to care about whether we were enjoying ourselves, seeming more concerned about playing competitive football at every opportunity as opposed to making sure we had the best experience.
At the end of the day, we are glad that we took the opportunity to explore the Kinabatangan river in Borneo – whilst it is still there. If things keep going the way they’re going – the river and it’s animal populations will soon disappear. If you are planning to visit Borneo, ensure you make the trip to the Kinabatangan river – and based on our experience, we’d highly recommend spending a little more than you usually would. This is one activity where we firmly believe you do get what you pay for. But, as mentioned before – it really does all come down to luck – and we hope that when you experience this part of Borneo for yourself, that you get lucky!
- How to get there
The usual departure point for most Kinabatangan wildlife safaris is the town of Sandakan or Sepilok, located in the eastern part of Malaysian Borneo. You can fly directly to Sandakan from other cities in Borneo, or mainland Malaysia. Alternatively, there are many buses bound for these destinations every day all over Borneo.
- What does it cost
In our research, prices ranged from as little as 459 RM through to over 5000 RM for three day, two night safaris. As with our experience, we found you definitely got what you paid for. If you are on a tight budget, then opting for a safari at the lower end of the price scale may suit you best – however be aware that the location of the accommodation may not be as far up river as the more expensive accommodation. The price is also a reflection of the facilities you will experience, so keep this in mind.