All aboard for a safari by boat on Sabah’s Kinabatangan River, a global hotspot for orangutans and monkeys
By Steve White
You haven’t seen blue until you’ve seen a blue-eared kingfisher up close. Their sleek form is wrapped in plumage that shimmers with a metallic sheen, like a factory-fresh sports car.
But this speedster was laid flat out (see above) after hurtling into the kitchen window of the nature lodge where I was staying. One of the guides knelt to ever-so-tenderly scoop up the body, its featherweight frame seeming still more vulnerable cupped in his calloused hand.
Happily the bird revived and the guide transferred it to a nearby branch which it gripped gratefully. After a drunken lurch or two, it looked for all the world as though embarrassed and took off, perhaps just to show it could. It was too soon and it quickly had to grasp for another branch. It was a very human moment: just like when we ourselves walk into a glass door and then overcompensate. The bird was saying, “What, me? Hurt? Nah, look I’m fine.”
* * *
I was in the east of Malaysia’s Sabah state, on my way to the Kinabatangan River, an area that has become a favourite with nature-loving tourists. Most people come here intent on seeing orangutans in the wild, but they are just one of 10 species of primates potentially on view, making this spot one of the handful of places on Earth with such richness. Besides the great orange ape, there is the proboscis monkey, the slow loris and the western tarsier, as well as species of macaque and langur.
My guide, Jame (pronounced Jay-me), met me at the coastal town of Sandakan, the most common gateway to the Kinabatangan. A boyish former washing machine salesman, he clearly liked people and knew how to snag their interest. And as a keen nature photographer, our coming trip was going to be almost as much fun for him as for me.
The first leg of the trip took us to a trio of visitor centres in the nearby Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. Such are the complementary attractions of Sepilok’s sites that a lucky visitor might see most of the animals they had come to Sabah to see without ever needing to go near the river.
Above all, the name Sepilok is synonymous with the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, started in 1964, but the newer Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) sits right next door and the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) is not far away.
We started, as most visitors do by making a beeline for the orangutan centre where previously captive animals, and young orphans, are brought to prepare them for eventual release into the wild. Sightings of the animals are pretty much guaranteed here, especially at feeding times.
Such has been the demand for access to the younger apes that the centre opened access to the outdoor nursery in 2014. There Jame and I sat behind a row of visitors stood by the one-way glass viewing the youngsters coming in to grab the easy pickings.
“I’d be happy to see zero orangutans here,” he said, as we watched the action on the platform. I asked him what he meant and he told me how the keepers always feed the orangutans bananas: not because they are a favourite, but because they hope to make the animals bored, to encourage them to hunt in the surrounding forest for more interesting morsels.
For one individual named Toby, interesting morsels extend to shiny, non-edible stuff – Jame told me he had stolen around 60 cameras and phones from unwary visitors to date. Fetishes for electronic goods allowing, the objective is to see the orangutans in Sepilok returned to the wild and I learned that around 600 have been released in the Kinabatangan, some of them placed in spots so remote that a helicopter was needed.
Then we moved outdoors, walking the boardwalk out to an open site where the elderly and mothers with young – as well as opportunistic macaques and squirrels – are fed. Here there was chance to get much closer and enjoy the ease with which they get about. Among the branches of a tree, the orangutan’s swing is as unthinking and instinctive as the way we walk. Most of their body is held immobile as they pivot about an extended arm. It’s almost mechanical in its lack of effort, but no mechanism could ever achieve such grace.
Some were wary of the number of people while others seemed very at ease, perhaps too at ease for their own good. I watched one male orangutan sit atop the wire roof of the observation deck and glare at a forest of raised cellphones and cameras less than two metres away. Yet the crowd soon dwindled once they’d seen a baby and got their shots: staying on a few minutes after the tour groups had gone brought a much calmer atmosphere.
Also calmer is next door’s sanctuary for the Bornean sun bear. Much newer than the orangutan centre, it is bidding to bring similar attention to the plight of what is one of the most endangered of all bear species.
It doesn’t hurt that the bear is undeniably cute and, in these controlled surroundings, easy to spot, with several feeding and rolling about within feet of the platform I was on. Outside this centre, it’s a very different story. In 15 years guiding, said Jame, he had seen only two sun bears in the wild.
The RDC, a short drive away, is a step closer to that naturally occurring forest and so is a more enveloping experience. Face-to-face meetings with ‘megafauna’ such as orangutans and other large mammals do happen here, but its importance lies in its easy access to intact jungle via canopy walks and educational panels. It’s ‘jungle-lite’ but a worthwhile trip for anyone, even if the Kinabatangan is on your itinerary.
Jame quickly found a flat-backed millipede in the undergrowth. The size of a highlighter pen, its body was anything but fluorescent, being a dusty grey colour. It was no one’s idea of ‘beautiful’ but it was the sort of size that impresses friends when you regale them with your jungle stories. It has an unpleasant defence too: giving off the ‘bad egg’ smell of hydrogen sulphide when riled. Despite Jame rolling this one about in his palms though, it obviously felt unthreatened and we left the walking stink bomb and moved on.
Unlike Sabah’s other important forest reserves such as Danum Valley and Maliau Basin, the Lower Kinabatangan is an area of wetlands: one of the few left with any forest in all of Asia. Known formally as the Lower Kinabatangan-Segama Wetlands, the area is on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, part of which is protected within the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
We would be visiting the sanctuary, set up to protect the remaining forest from logging and encroachment by oil palm plantations, and to safeguard endangered populations of Borneo elephant, primates and other species.
Next morning, as we made the three-hour drive to the south to the river, Jame told me that though estimates suggest there are 1,100-1,200 orangutans in the Lower Kinabatangan region, in places where the land is not sufficiently protected, the apes, and other species, become trapped in shrinking pockets of forest. With fewer choices of mate, inbreeding can result leaving entire populations susceptible to genetic disorders and illness.
Just how trapped the animals can become was obvious when we reached the river. On a boat, transferring to the lodge, I saw places where plantations of palm oil and other crops had encroached almost to the banks.
Wildlife tourism on the river is essential it seems, not just because it keeps locals employed and the park in business. As visitors we are also witnesses, helping to ensure that corridors of forest remain along the Kinabatangan.
Over the next two days, we went out in the early morning, in the afternoon and again at night, scanning the banks upstream and down.
Birds were often the first life we saw. Close to the water, streaks of colour sped between the lower branches: various kingfishers, bee-eaters and oriental darters. Raptors were a common sight too: white bellied sea eagles, lesser fish eagles, crested serpent eagles and, at night, beautiful buffy fish owls, a regal puff-ball of downy feathers perched on overhanging branches. Also high overhead soared hornbills and storks, noisily secure in their size.
I often saw wires and rudimentary bridges strung from bank-to-bank across the bigger tributaries and Jame explained that they were deliberate attempts to help primates cross, a simple measure to provide them with longer corridors to move between patches of forest.
Several times we saw monkeys using the bridges; always macaques, as the most numerous monkeys here and the least shy of humans. Adaptable generalists, the two species here – pig-tailed and long-tailed – cavort in large groups, even mingling contentedly. Indeed these species have been known to interbreed, stretching the boundary of what some regard as the very definition of a species.
Proboscis monkeys too were not too hard to find, though their smaller groups were much quieter and more liable to be spooked by us. We also got lucky with orangutans, on two separate occasions catching one in a riverside tree. Despite the limited view in each case – far less clear than I’d had back in Sepilok – it was satisfying to see them in the wild, especially as Jame said only around one in 10 visitors to the Kinabatangan get the chance.
The night rides were the most magical, puttering up sidestreams narrow enough to touch the vegetation on both banks simultaneously at times. The boatman and Jame fluttered flashlights up and down trees, scoping for snakes and sleeping birds. We came across a stork-billed kingfisher this way and incredibly, were able to close to within a metre of him.
Other times, poling up shallow sections with the engine off, I lay back and enjoyed the illusion of another river running overhead, one of stars floating past banks of pitch-black canopy. So clear was the night that I was almost able to trick my brain into inverting the scene and have us floating high above a black stream speckled with tiny lights.
At one point my reverie was shattered by a panicked cry from behind me: “Ular! Ular!” – Snake! Snake! I sat up and spun around to see a miniscule striped bronze-backed tree snake wriggling energetically up the boat’s propeller shaft. Jame and I laughed at the boatman’s panic and he looked sheepish for the dreaded monster was only 20 centimetres long and hardly thicker than a pencil.
I’m sure the boatman took a ribbing for this for a day or two for the guides and boatmen have a healthy rivalry, the boat guys seeing the others as comparative city slickers no doubt.
Other laughs are on the guests. In boats with families and groups of regular tourists, rather than hardcore birders or amateur naturalist types, some guides enjoy a little banter. Picking out a proboscis monkey was comic gold for them, starting with that nose. “We call them orang belanda in Malay,” I heard more than one guide say to his flock – the tone depending on the audience – “It means Dutchman in English.”
The alpha males were especially prized. Sat front-on, on a branch high above, they tend to let it all hang out. Their drooping penises are a vivid red and the well rehearsed lines about ‘hot chilis’ were not slow in coming.
Still they all were intent on sightings (it doesn’t hurt the potential for tips for one thing!) and they clearly traded info between themselves – even guides working for different lodges.
My last morning, I intercepted one guide whom Jame had said was an expert on frogs. I asked him if they saw any close to the lodge and in answer he whipped through his phone to find a recent shot of a common species pressed up against the window of the dining area. What was telling were the glimpses I had of his album on the way through: a few family pictures with the wife and kids, but mostly wildlife.
I’m not sure what that frog had expected to see but the lodge was a no-frills affair. Comfortable enough, timber-built and, even high on the bank, set on stilts to keep it above any potential floodwaters.
Planted in the grass between the raised walkways were signs exhorting us to make the most of our time there. “Sleep deeply, dream richly” caught my eye. I had been doing both.
In Sabah’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, my dreams were Kurtzian, ripe with sensations, as though the jungle life enveloping the resort was pressing itself through the walls of my hut and into my sleep. I didn’t awake with the smell of napalm in my nostrils but a night of rustling and pattering overhead had me groping through a pall of half-remembered scenes first thing.
My last morning, I asked Jame if it was hard to be away from his family so much of the time. “Not really,” he said. “I’ve been married for a while.”
It felt like more than the universal wearied acceptance of married life. I’d seen how he got a kick from meeting people from all around the world and he seemed genuinely proud to introduce them to ‘his’ forest.
He then told me of his excitement at meeting Sir David Attenborough sometime before. He laughed as he remembered gushing like a schoolgirl meeting a boy band, blurting out: “Can I hug you?”
Sir David has done wonders for the cause of conservation around the world but now the baton is passing to younger naturalists who face an uphill task to keep true to the message while making it resonate with generations with shortening attention spans.
In the guest book though, I found some encouragement. A young boy of around seven or eight who had left that morning had written:
“This was the best bit of my holiday because the animals were more important to me than TV, tablet games, luxorese [sic] bed and hotel”
– Josh Slade, Lodsworth, England
The Kinabatangan had done its job there at least. AA
When to go
The wettest time of year is during the northeast monsoon which runs from November to March, with December and January the worst months for rain. Flooding at this time makes animals hard to spot from the river as they can find water away from its banks. Conversely though, access to the many oxbow lakes – former river meanders cut off as the river has changed course – is made easier and these are ideal places to see wildlife.
Most of the flowering and fruiting takes place from April to October when it is fairly dry, making this also a good time to spot birds and animals.
How to get there
Fly into Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu, or direct from Kuala Lumpur, using either Air Asia or Malaysian Airlines. You’ll need to hire a car with or without a driver to get to all the areas mentioned here, or else arrange transfers with a ground operator.
Where to stay
As a base for the wildlife centres, Sandakan has a few hotels plus some simpler hostels, or else stay in Sepilok itself where there are several rustic resorts.
There are lodges on both banks of the Kinabatangan, and along some of its larger tributaries. Most are built along similar lines: a high jetty leading back to central dining/education/admin blocks, with satellite units tucked under the fringing forest.
Two of the more popular are:
Borneo Nature Lodge, http://borneonaturelodge.com.my
Sukau Rainforest Lodge, www.sukau.com
Not sure where to start with Sabah? Find more on all the state’s wildlife attractions and much more at Sabah Tourism