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Born Free: Along the Lower Kinabatangan River

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Ever since I shrieked with laughter through Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo, I’ve wanted to go. Not trekking inland and eating odd things like he did, but a more muted, less spine-tingling adventure with fewer critters (and none on my plate).

The Kinabatangan River called to me, its name a foreign, distant sound that conjured up visions of muddy, crocodile-infested waters and gnarled jungles filled with hooting birds, slithering snakes and screeching monkeys. No disappointment there.

Muddy Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo

Muddy, dirty and enchanting: the Lower Kinabatangan in all its glory

My first sight of the river – a two-hour drive from the city of Sandakan in Eastern Sabah – was rather underwhelming: a flat stretch of brown, silted liquid without a scary crocodile in sight. It hardly seemed worth keeping our hands out of the water.

It is long rather than mighty, drifting some 560km from the Crocker Range in southwestern Sabah to the Sulu Sea in the East. The segment that interests us is the popular Sukau-Bilit corridor, where most wildlife viewing and lodges are concentrated, with reason, I’d say, as I never went longer than a few minutes without spotting some kind of movement.

First, the bad news. I didn’t see any Asian pygmy elephants. Nor did I see a rare Sumatran rhinoceros. I didn’t even really ‘see’ a wild orangutan, although everyone insisted those dark waving limbs in the distance did, in fact, belong to one. You be the judge.

Orangutan reaches for leaf on tree along Kinabatangan River

A bit distant and blurred, but an orangutan nonetheless

What I did see outweighed any possible disappointment at what I might have missed. A rustle in the trees turned out to be a troop of macaques, or small monkeys, of which there are five species in the lower Kinabatangan. Hard to spot at first, I was soon pointing them out to newcomers. They range from playful to vicious and tend to be great actors, in love with the limelight: the more you hang around, the more they tease you with their proximity.

Pig tailed macaque monkeys

Pig-tailed macaques preen and flea one another

Long-tailed macaque along Kinabatangan River

This long-tailed macaque is deciding whether he wants to climb into the boat

Macaques are delightful to watch but what I really wanted to see was a proboscis monkey, with a nose – it’s really a schnoz – the size and shape of a shiny floppy pear. Female monkeys actually think this appendage is sexy. Many people consider it ugly but to me this large-ish primate is utterly endearing. It is also unfortunately endangered as a result of decades of hunting and drastic habitat destruction; its population has dropped by half in the past few decades and conservationists are working hard to protect it.

By the end of Day Two I thought any sighting of my big-nosed friend would be relegated to the wish list. But no! At last, we spotted a clump of bright red monkeys in a faraway tree. One family member sitting with its back to us – they’re a bit shy – shifted on a branch, just enough to show off its famous snout (and to confirm it was indeed a fully mature male). No cartoonist could have done a better job than nature with this gentle giant.

proboscis monkey along Kinabatangan River

A profile only a mother could love… fun to watch but not easy to find

The jungle is a changing canvas. No matter how many times you head out, it will always look different and trigger new emotions. I experienced everything from curiosity to excitement to elation when I spotted my first hornbill for example, and fear when I came face-to-face with a pretty black and yellow-ringed snake curled around a tree trunk.

As my boat glides to shore, we move into a different world where every species, however common, looks majestic and peaceful and where we are the ones causing the disturbance.

Hornbill along Kinabatangan River

An Asian pied hornbill. I love birds and this one was a stunner – not easy to find or to photograph

When time came to leave I wasn’t ready and could have spent days drifting in the river, hoping for another proboscis monkey or, why not, something even rarer.

Most boat rides go at dawn or dusk when the forest wakes up or goes to sleep and is most active. At dawn a heavy mist clouds the river’s surface and slowly, erratically it begins to lift, exchanging the pre-sunrise chill for the lumbering heat of daytime.

Sunrise along Kinabatangan River, Borneo

The morning mist rises along the shores of the Kinabatangan River

A little more daunting (ahem – leeches) is the nighttime walk, an extraordinary opportunity to see species all but invisible in daylight. Just grab your wellies and your leech socks and join the group, but quiet, please.

Kingfisher in Sabah, Borneo

A colorful kingfisher wakes up wondering who all these strange silent people are

Civet cat at night in Sabah, Borneo

A nocturnal Borneo civet cat (although it’s not really a cat)

rare female giant pitta bird, sabah, borneo

To make up for not seeing elephants, I came across this extremely rare female giant pitta

There is something almost ghostly about walking through a rainforest under the stars.

The sounds change as the day’s animals sleep and nocturnal creatures start to stir. And there’s a bit of excitement as people ahead and behind utter muffled cries, slapping themselves all over when they spot a leech (I’ve been incredibly lucky so far). It is hot and humid despite the late hour and wet palm fronds keep slapping my face as I stumble towards centipedes, mouse deer, miniature frogs or even a palm civet, a type of cat. If you’re extremely fortunate you’ll spot a tarsier or a loris, but that wasn’t to be for me.

A few practical notes about a Kinabatangan River trip

A half-hour flight to Sandakan from Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu followed by a two-hour drive will get you to the jumping off points of either Sukau or Bilit (20 minutes beyond the more popular Sukau and far less developed). Bilit has half a dozen eco-lodges of varying comfort levels, from luxury to backpacker standard. All offer package tours which include meals and boat rides and will sort your transport, usually from Sandakan onward.

Eco-lodge on the Kinabatangan River

The Bilit Adventure Lodge was my home for three days along the Kinabatangan…

However luxurious your jungle accommodation, you’re still in the wild – and you may be unexpectedly reminded of that fact. I was reading on my bed when a knock at the door made me look up. I noticed a lovely painting I had somehow missed, a giant gecko whose color blended into the wood walls.

Then it moved.

In a fit of panic – this was no gecko but an imposing lizard of sorts – I ran across the compound to the main building. It took Nelson Deocampo, the manager, and two men to drive the feisty creature out of my room by placing a towel over it and gently carrying it outside and letting it go.

Remember: it’s a jungle out there.

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary: protection at last

Kinabatangan’s wildlife has been under constant threat. In the 1950s, like much of forested Southeast Asia the region faced threats from logging companies. By the 1970s cleared land was farmed for cash crops such as rice, coffee, cocoa, rubber and tobacco and by the 1980s the region had been so wrecked it was finally turned over to agriculture permanently, mostly to oil palm plantations.

Palm oil plantation in Sabah

Palm plantations scar the land across Sabah, breaking up habitat and preventing wildlife from roaming freely. Photo: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Farmers lost their land to corporations and fishermen saw their catch drop as water pollution increased. Pressure from conservation groups prompted eventual protection of the lower Kinabatangan; the region does, after all, have the largest concentration of wildlife in Southeast Asia. In the late 1990s it was formally protected by the Sabah government, which in 2005 created the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.

Mangrove forest along Kinabatangan River

No more logging or cutting – at least for now

As a result forests survive alongside oil palm plantations, unnatural neighbors caught uneasily between commercial agriculture and environmental protection.

Redmond O’Hanlon might no longer recognize the Borneo he visited, but at least some common sense has prevailed. Despite the damage done, wildlife and habitat now have a chance to survive.

stuffed toy proboscis monkey

And if you don’t get to see a proboscis monkey in the wild, here’s your consolation prize

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • You can easily fly to Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu (half an hour) or Kuala Lumpur (2.5hrs). There are also direct flights from Singapore. You can travel from Kota Kinabalu by bus but it will take at least 6 hours, depending on traffic.
  • I stayed at Johnny Lim’s relatively basic Bilit Adventure Lodge. It was super-friendly, comfortable, and women traveling on their own would feel perfectly well looked after here. I always worry on water because I can’t swim but the boats were safe, speed was kept low, and life vests were provided.
  • Johnny also has a travel agency, Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventure and can help organize trips to the coast or the islands.
  • A good length visit is three days and two nights, but if you’re in a hurry you can shorten that and still see a lot of wildlife.
  • If you’d like to spend some time with local people and explore how they live you could also stay in a local Kinabatangan homestay.
  • If you don’t see any orangutans close up, you can do what I did and stop off at Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary on the way back to Sandakan.
  • Bring binoculars – I kept having to borrow them. You can rent rubber boots and leech socks on site for the night walks. Yes, leech socks. Other musts: a hat, sunglasses, high SPF sunscreen, a bandanna (keep it wet around your neck), long sleeves, long pants, and mosquito repellent.
  • Several non-governmental organizations work in the area to help preserve wildlife, including HUTAN and WWF Malaysia.
  • And if you haven’t read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo, you’re missing a classic. Don’t worry though – your trip doesn’t have to be like his at all!

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Thanks to the Sabah Tourist Board for organizing this visit and hosting Women on the Road. Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way. Photos by Anne Sterck.


  1. Melissa on July 28, 2013 at 3:40 am

    The colors of some of those animals… Remarkable! At first I thought that hornbill was a toucan (a bird I recently saw while in Peru), but nope! I’ve never seen that species before- quite a beak! Looks like an amazing trip, although leech socks… Uh…

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 28, 2013 at 6:52 am

      I thought exactly the same about the hornbill – it immediately reminded me of toucans I had seen in Panama! As for the leeches, I thought it would be a lot worse. The only time they were any kind of an issue was during the night walks or one day walk to the oxbow lakes. The rest of the time we were at the lodge or on the boat, and not a leech in sight.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 6, 2013 at 7:10 pm

      A toucan is exactly what came to mind as well! As for the leech socks – better with than without!

  2. Jennifer on August 6, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    Those have got to be the most colorful birds I have ever seen! Birds and I don’t seem to get along very well, so I’d be happy to spot them, but from a distance. And the monkeys are wonderful!

    • Lianne on February 2, 2015 at 7:13 am

      Great write-up! I saw more or less the same animals as you, but your photos are much clearer! What kind of camera do you use?

      • Leyla Giray Alyanak on February 3, 2015 at 10:13 pm

        I don’t – I was traveling with a photographer!! She had telephoto lenses because a lot of the animals were quite far away – the proboscis monkey photos are incredibly enlarged…

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