Borneo: Kinabatangan River Safari

Asia Days 8,9 and 10

It is claimed that Borneo offers up the best safari outside Africa. With this in mind, we were eager to venture into the wild and see for ourselves.

After a lot of research online and looking at some of the tours on offer in Sandakan, we decided to book through our hostel with Nature Lodge Kinabatangan. Our decision was based on the fact that there was no way we could be scammed or that they could just run away, as we were staying at the hostel- Harbourside Backpackers- and they had provided us with excellent advice and tips up until now.

We booked on the 3days, 2 night safari in a twin dorm shack for 380 MYR/ $100. This included all safaris, tours, transfers and food! A pretty great deal in my eyes! The only extras we paid were for beer and extra drinks- which didn’t add much more than $10 to the overall bill- for 3 days of intense safari I don’t think there is a better deal to be found!

Into the Wild

Packed and ready and still on a wave from our Orangutan exerts the previous day, we were ushered to a small cafe for lunch. Here a wretched mini-bus picked us up, driving us on the 2 hour trip into the jungle. A couple of bumpy hours later and we had completed our off-road journey, reaching the murky river bank. We sat tentatively as we swayed in the water with our entire belongings on a decadent wooden raft across the gaping river to the campsite.

The camp itself was perfect for us- rustic, wild and a proper earthy experience. This is exactly what we had hoped for- to be thrown deep in the wild and in tandem with some of Borneo’s most incredible wildlife. In fact, we were chuffed with our little wooden shack- as basic as it was- but it came with its own chorus of howling monkeys in the trees above and groans from tropical frogs within the surrounding grasslands- it was insane! There were however those who were not so impressed- an Australian couple on their honeymoon were expecting something a lot more luxurious and silver plated. For the price, I don’t really know what they were expecting as there are of course much more luxurious and expensive options to choose, but we were not alone in sharing the excitement at finding a real travelling hot-spot- a true experience and unrefined taste of the wild!

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We checked in, were given a briefing of the camp, a quick itinerary for the day ahead, measured up for life jackets and then assigned to our tour guide and boats. All of the tour guides are pretty good and work together to try and spot the animals, but there’s no doubt we got the top dog- Arshad- this guy had eyes like a hawk!

After all the formalities were over and we were given time to settle and have a drink, we were on our little boats ready for an hour long venture up along the river, which was ever-increasing in saturation as the sun loomed to the horizons edge.

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We had barely left the camp port when we stopped by the bank to snap a crocodile as it completed its sunning for the day- pretty intense feeling knowing a crocodile was a few hundred metres outside our camp.

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Motoring down the river, we were joined by a dozen boats from other tour operators- working in tandem to source out the animals. It wasn’t long until we came to a halt and joined a queue to watch a gang of Probiscus monkeys feed, fight, jump and scrap through the trees. The monkeys are endemic to Borneo and notorious for two things- their ridiculously long, lumpy nose and for their almost constant state of erection- yes, we are directly related to such creatures!

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After watching the daily struggle for supremacy between the monkeys to perch upon the highest branch, we continued further down river, almost always accompanied by squabbling macaques.

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We came to a smaller tributary and drifted through the roots and vines as Herons, Kingfishers, Toucans and Hornbill swooped along the river and into their nightly nests.

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More macaques followed and they got ever more boisterous, rambunctious and cheeky as they leapt between the reeds of our boats and fought each other over the females.

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A monitor lizard would have been mistaken for another tree root, without the guidance of Arshad, but what was even more impressive was his ability to scope out a Python from about 50 metres away. Even as he steered the boat directly underneath where he claimed the snake to be, nobody could see it. We must have been no more than 5m away when we finally managed to unmask its camouflage- I think I also deleted the photo- thinking it was nothing as I went through them later that evening.

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As the light faded we drifted back to the main river and headed back to camp and headed towards the sun- now touching the horizon; This itself this was a pretty special experience!

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At camp we were served dinner- which went down great! There was plenty of food to go round- enough for 2/3 helpings and it was all good stuff. As the light faded, moths and other flying insects came in their waves towards the illuminated food shelter- some reaching the size of dinner plates!

Stuffed from multiple helpings of noodles and rice, we fully clothed up, put on plenty of insect spray, adopted our head-torches and set out on our night walk around. Without a head-torch it would have been impossible to your hands in front! Again, Arshad managed to navigate Gekos, stick insects, frogs, beetles, birds and spiders- all in the dark!

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The main goal however was to source out a Tarsia, and after a half hour of hunting we found one! A truly ridiculous, enchanting creature!

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Tired from a physically enduring day, but perhaps more so mentally from the emotional ebbing and flowing of adrenaline and excitement, we made our way back to camp and retreated to our lodges, swiftly falling asleep to the sounds of croaking frogs and distant monkey howls.

Day 2

The 6am bell sounded for our wake and we were swiftly aboard the boats once again for the morning river cruise. As the fog rose, so did a bright orange sun from behind the tree canopy- again an absolutely mesmerizing experience.

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In the distance Arshad caught sight of a boar, which we approached slowly. Before we could get too close, it darted back into the jungle bush, steering up a rush of flocking birds.

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Continuing down the river, we were encouraged to stop by a group of 5 or 6 other boats. Between a break in the canopy an Orangutan was picking at the fruits. The Orangutan encounters we had at Sepilok were pretty stunning, but to see a completely wild Orangutan feeding in its natural habitat was just as rewarding! We had definitely lucked out!
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Down the river more smaller Leaf monkeys jumped between canopies, some responding to Arshad’s monkey calls. More macaques, birds and lizards also peered down the river shoreline for an early morning drink.

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Back at camp, we breakfasted and relaxed a little, before going on a midday hike. Arshad guided the walk, teaching us about the millipedes- some of which are among the most poisonous creatures on Earth. The hike was intense and interesting, but we didn’t see much of note- there is little movement within the jungle around midday.

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We returned for lunch and met up with the new group of new comers before setting out on our final evening river cruise.

You know its been a pretty special experience when the site of a group of monkeys- mostly macaques- barely conjures up a response. We did however, get a much closer view of the Probiscus monkeys, which were on the river shoreline, again fighting and squabbling for fruit and supremacy.

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As ever, the sunset was extraordinary- arguably enough reason to come on the safari alone! The engines were turned off and we drifted through the river, guided by the bickering of monkeys and birds between the canopies around us.46

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At camp we sat by the river with a couple of Tiger Beers, making acquaintances with two equally minded travelers who had just come from South America making their way to New Zealand- the reverse of our trip. Naturally we swapped tips and advice for the road ahead.

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Again, we set out on our night walk and were lucky once again to find another, or perhaps the same, Tarsia.

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The routine continued as we retreated to our lodges and rose early again to the sound of the morning bell and aboard our last cruise.

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By now we had almost become accustomed to the gang of monkeys sprawled across the shoreline, however the river was to unleash one last spectacle! A dead Boar floated like a buoy by the river bank. As we emerged closer, its killer revealed itself- a crocodile- guarding its prey from the boat and dragging it toward the reeds. Even for Arshad, this was a pretty unique experience and a fitting way to end an incredible few days.

5857One last feed for breakfast and we were packed and back aboard a minibus, this time on our way East towards Lahad Datu. The Safari however, is one that will long be remembered. True wildlife, in its true setting. An incredible, unforgettable 3 days amongst one of the most diverse, serene and oldest habitats in the world and all for the price of a Premier League football match! What an experience!

Kinabatangan River Safari: 380 MYR/ $100: *****

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4 thoughts on “Borneo: Kinabatangan River Safari

    1. From the tour? Hmm I think the first evening on the boat was perhaps the highlight- just being thrown into the wild like that was pretty special! Fantastic tour though and highly recommended

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