Three Days on the Kinabatangan River
BORNEO, INDONESIA- There are innumerable must-see destinations in Borneo, but among the top 3 is a trip along the Kinabatangan River in a grand quest to see orangutans in the wild. Chances are if you’ve visited the Sabah region, Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center is on your itinerary. The opportunity to see orangutans in any capacity is a wondrous one, but there’s something about seeing one in the wild that makes the experience all the more enticing. There are a number of jungle lodges offering tours and lodging along the river along with the opportunity to see any of the three most popular animals: elephants, crocodiles, and orangutans. Additional animals include the Long-tailed Macaque and the Proboscis Monkey.
There’s not much difference between the tours offered aside from the accommodation, and if you are a budget traveler you’re really just gunning for your cheapest option. For me, this was the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan 3-day 2-night package: of course, we could have done a single night, but as with any expedition in search of wildlife the more time you spend looking, the greater your chances of success. It should be noted that the tour is really 2 days and 2 nights…even though you are technically there for 3 days, there are hardly three days works of activities, but that’s really besides the point.
Arriving at the Nature Lodge, we were shown to our bare jungle accommodation; a small cabin consisting of not much more than two beds and an adjoining restroom. It wasn’t exactly luxurious living, but it was better than being in a dorm room and after a few hours we actually found it to be quite a cozy little refuge. With a small porch that opened up right on the river, it gave off the vibe that we were in the middle of a jungle despite being centered in the middle of a resort compound. The surrounding grounds blend seamlessly into the landscape of the rainforest which slowly inches it’s way into virtually every facet of jungle-lodge life: from an extensive canopy of trees covering the structures to the lizards and mosquitos which follow you everywhere you go. It’s exactly the kind of atmosphere you want to spend a few days living a Spartan existence, focused on exploring the wonders of the rainforests of Borneo.
Our first river cruise is at 5:30pm, and we’re given a few minutes to unpack before meeting in the dining hall for afternoon tea prior to our departure. It’s the beginning of a period where our entire lives will revolve around meal times and river cruises. It’s the rainy season, and there isn’t much to do but read in the jungle huts or walk the limited grounds of the Nature Lodge—you’ll need Welly Boots if you want to venture much further.
Yet this isn’t an issue, since the river cruise proves bountiful almost immediately: within the first five minutes of gliding up the river in a small, tin motorboat with six people, we spot our first significant find—a crocodile on the banks! While everyone else has had their eyes high up in the treetops, searching for orangutans, I’ve been scanning the shores looking for crocs. Having spent a year in Australia and never having laid my eyes upon one, I was eager to see a saltwater croc in its natural habitat.
My heart skipped a beat, and I’m usually quick to rush to conclusions about what I’m seeing…often mistaking a whitecap for a whale or a seagull for an albatross. So I didn’t speak up right away when intuition told me that the log lurking a few meters offshore was a croc. Maxi, our driver, beat me to the punch: cutting the engine immediately, he pointed starboard and drew our attention to the crocodile. Damn, I thought. So much for “first”.
Seeing a crocodile up close and in the wild is an experience I won’t soon forget, and it will certainly make me think twice before venturing into any unknown, muddy waters. Remaining motionless, it looks just like all of the other natural detritus littering the riverbanks and can move with alarming speed when the occasion calls for it. No sooner have we drifted to within a few meters of the croc than he’s disappeared underwater again, unsettling the passengers more than the captain.
Continuing downstream, I’m thankful to have my binoculars as I scan the tops of the trees for an orangutan. Before departure, we were given a briefing that the solitary creatures dwell high in the trees, hundreds of feet above the ground. This makes them especially difficult to spot to the untrained eye, and I’m thankful to have my binoculars to aid me in my search. It can’t be more than a half hour before we round a bend and see another boat idling at the shoreline, gazing upwards and pointing—they’ve spotted an orangutan! Maxi skillfully guides the boat towards our fellow thrill-seekers and cuts the engine. It’s difficult to make out through the cover, but there it is, right in front of our eyes! An orangutan…a wild orangutan. In the twenty minutes we spend passing around the binoculars and marveling at this animal that we’ve come all the way to see, it doesn’t do much more than shake a few branches and eat some leaves. Yet that’s the life of an orangutan—human-like as they are, they’re still a wild, arboreal ape that eats tree leaves for a living.
Over the course of the next three river cruises—two morning expeditions, and two evening ones in total—we see three more orangutans, and two more crocodiles. The routine is the same each time: mornings we go upriver, afternoons we go downriver. Apparently it’s too late in the season to see any elephants, which is disappointing, but we certainly can’t complain. I’ve seen orangutans and saltwater crocodiles in the wild, something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.
PRO TIP: Rent a pair of Wellington Boots so that your hiking boots don't get filthy. FILTHY.
Proboscis monkeys and long-tailed macaques are ALL over the place, and by the end of your trip you really won’t want to stop to look at them at all. They’re interesting, but an animal loses a certain degree of allure when you’ve spent hours watching it. Additional animal sightings (unfortunately with no corroborating photographic evidence by your correspondent, since I lack a powerful zoom and sometimes it’s just better to revel in the glory of the moment than ruin it by capturing a photograph and failing to actually experience what’s happening), including:
Brown Eagle Kite
Silver Lipped Monkey
White Crowned Hornbill
Additionally, we went night trekking through the jungle circuit hoping for a chance to see a Slow-Moving Loris. Unfortunately, we had no such luck and for the hour and a half we spent mucking about with a dying flashlight (courtesy of the lackadaisical, unprepared attitude of yours truly) all we had to show for it was a Green Tree Frog and a pair of sleeping Bluebirds. The day trek was a bit more pleasant since I could actually see where I was going, but the only notable encounter with the local fauna was a particularly large leech that managed to affix itself to my ankle with a surprisingly steadfast reserve.
All in all, the experience at the Kinabatangan Nature Lodge was a positive one. If you can swing it, go for two nights. The itinerary won’t change for the additional days, but it will afford you additional opportunities to spot wildlife. Take advantage of all the treks they offer; they might make you a little bit uncomfortable with the mosquitos, the heat, or the moisture, but you didn’t come to stay in the jungle lodge to be comfortable now, did you? Just remember to bring three things: your bug spray, binoculars, and rain gear. Other than that, you’ll be fine.
PRO TIP: Don’t swim in the Kinabatangan River. I’m hard pressed to put it more eloquently than the website of the Lodge: “The rivers might be calling your name and ask you to submerge in the cool flowing water but we do not advise you to give in to the temptation because we have seen crocodiles looming nearby awaiting for its next victim for them to swallow up in one gulp.”