Adventures on the Kinabatangan

Three days exploring one of the most diverse habitats in the world—the Kinabatangan river basin—home to Borneo’s highest concentration of wildlife.

By Dave

Filed in: Family Travel, Malaysia


Day 1

The village of Sukau is a two-hour drive from Sepilok and the jumping off point for exploring the Kinabatangan River wildlife sanctuaries. We’re not sure what we’re going to see over the next few days, but chances are we’ll see some rare animals we’ve never seen before—neither in the wild nor in a zoo—so we’re excited.

After much research, I booked us at Sukau Greenview B&B. We’re very happy with our experience with them and would highly recommend them to others for the value at this price point—and I say that because undoubtedly there are far more luxurious lodges you could book with in the area that cost much more, of course.

If you’re not looking to spend a lot of money, but want something all-inclusive with excellent guides, friendly staff, delicious and filling food, and perfectly adequate jungle lodge accommodation (clean, A/C, hot shower, bug-free) then Sukau Greenview is worth serious consideration.

They offer a variety of different all-inclusive packages for whatever length of time you might be interested. We had no problem putting together a custom package with them (to accommodate Noe’s nap times and factor in some much-needed rest time for all of us), so they do that too. We were also able to move around a few things last minute due to weather and Noe, and all but one of our guided treks ended up being private (just us, the guide and the boat driver) though this fluctuates with the seasons and number of guests.

Our [modified] package itinerary:

DAY 1 — SUN, APR 15

0830 Pickup from Sandakan Backpacker Hostel. Transfer to Sepilok.

(Transfer from Sandakan town to Sepilok ended up being in a private taxi; transfer from Sepilok to Sukau was in a large minivan with another couple staying at Sukau Greenview).

0930 Arrive Sepilok. Watch the video presentation documenting the conservation program on Orangutan rehabilitation.

1000 Enjoy viewing semi wild Orangutan at close range while they are fed by park rangers. Take in their natural habitat.

(We later added on the Sun Bears Sanctuary at our own cost—we ended up with an excellent Sakau Greenview guide for the Orangutan center portion (which we didn’t know we’d have and was a pleasant surprise), but Sun Bears were on our own).

1230 Lunch at Sepilok Cafeteria.

1330 Shuttle to Sukau Kinabatangan for about 2 hours.

1530 Arrive at Sukau Greenview Bed & Breakfast! Get a briefing of the activities during your stay with us and check-in to cabin. Relax for remaining afternoon.

(We opted to stay in one of their private cabins, but rooms and dorms are also available).

1830 Enjoy dinner of Sabahan special dishes on the river.

1930 Night cruise dedicated for nocturnal wildlife such as kingfishers, Buffy fish owls, wild cat, snakes, frogs, and others. Watch for the flaring eyes of a crocodile while having its night swim. Drift your way back to the lodge for a good night sleep.

(this night cruise was originally scheduled for the next day, but on arrival we asked to do it on the first day instead because Noe had had a good, late nap).

2030 Return for a good night’s sleep.

DAY 2 — MON, APR 16

0800 Breakfast is served.

0900 Explore the jungle and see different plants and unique trees. Have a significant encounter with wildlife while breathing the smell of a virgin forest.

(Unfortunately, we had to cancel the jungle trek due to weather—it poured from sun up to about noon).

1230  Relax in the restaurant and enjoy your lunch.

1600 Cruise the afternoon in Sabah’s longest river and one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, the Kinabatangan River. Watch wildlife abound along the banks and visit one of its famous tributaties for more wildlife.

1830 Enjoy dinner of Sabahan special dishes at our riverside restaurant.

DAY 3 — TUE, APR 17

0600 Cruise among the fog and feel the cool morning breeze. Hear the songs of the birds, watch proboscis monkey, macaques, and other wildlife. Cruise your way back to the lodge.

0800 Breakfast is served.

0830 Load your luggage and drive back to Sandakan airport.

1030 Arrive at at Sandakan airport.

Total package cost for 2 night’s lodging in private cabin, all meals, transport to/from Sandakan, guided activities (English-speaking), entry fees (Sepilok Orangutan center), and taxes was US$350.

Our stay was perfect but for 2 things:

1) No Beer (only water, coffee, and soda)—this area has strong Muslim influence, which may have something to do with it. We’d read that you can buy beer elsewhere in the village and bring it back—no problems—but everything was closed by the time beer-thirty rolled around. In our backpacking days we would have brought a flask of the local spirit to fortify our sodas with, but with my drinking buddy out of commission for a while, I was just fine with sharing a Coke.

2) Guide no-show—our guide for the last day’s early morning boat cruise had some sort of last minute obligation and there was a miscommunication with the other guides, so we went with just the boat driver, which was okay, but not ideal. However, the lodge staff were responsive and apologetic about it and refunded us 30% of the a la carte cost of the cruise.

There’s a frequent car ferry (tug-pushed barge) that connects the Sukau side of the Kinabatangan with the east bank of the river. It runs from Sukau village to the Morisem terminus, just across the river from our lodge. We enjoyed watching it maneuver around from the lodge’s riverside restaurant (Noe thought it was the best thing ever, of course).

It wasn’t until our second day that I learned that this little river ferry (known as the Morisem ferry) had become world famous in the past couple of years, finding itself at the center of a major ecological controversy, but we’ll get to that later.

Our cabin, which, lucky for us, was the only one located right across the street from the riverside restaurant (meaning—you guessed it—baby monitor reception!)

Not only is it a GREEN view outside, it’s inside as well!


First night’s dinner: A fry-fest of delicious local specialities. Yum.

With full bellies, it’s time to go see some critters!

As I said earlier, we moved up the night cruise a day to take advantage of the fact that the Mister had had an awesome late afternoon nap and that we had no early morning activities schedule the next day (all the fun considerations that go into adventure traveling with a toddler).

This was our first of three boat treks we’d take up and down the Kinabatangan during our stay. On this one, our English-speaking guide also operated the boat—motor tiller in one hand, spotlight in the other, which seemed to work well at night as when he would catch the eye of something, he could immediately maneuver the boat to get closer.

I don’t have photos of all the critters we saw, given that it was night and extremely difficult to get clear shots, but I did get a few clear ones—surprisingly, all of birds.



We also saw a couple of saltwater crocodiles, a large tree snake, and a variety of other birds.

Just over an hour later, we returned to the lodge.



Back at the lodge, a quick bedtime story and lights-out for the Mister.


•  •  •


Day Two

All suited up and ready to go trekking through the jungle!


…for this.

Rain. Lots and lots of rain. Yesterday was beautiful of course. Same thing happened to us at the Tip of Borneo. We arrived to gorgeous weather, only to wake up to a tropical downpour throughout the morning. I had a strange feeling this my happen the day before, which also factored into us moving our night time cruise up a day.

So, here we are, in the upper level sitting room of the lodge, watching the rain come down. It is nice to have a bit of break with no itinerary, but definitely a bummer to miss the jungle trek.

Either way, Noe seemed to take it in stride, playing with his foam alphabet…

Keeping tabs on the ferry…

Reading up on how to prepare for worst-case scenarios…

So, while we’re waiting out the rain, I’ll finish my little bit about the Morisem ferry. For years, a bridge was slated to be constructed in this very spot (just to the left of the lodge, and over to where the current rudimentary ferry terminus is). There’s not a lot on the other side to warrant such a sizable infrastructure project for the area. But there is one thing—palm oil plantations.

Palm oil plantations are controversial in themselves, as many around here put the large-scale decimation of Borneo’s magnificent rain forests squarely on the shoulders of this industry. But we won’t get into all that here.

Basically, a bridge replacing the ferry was to be built here. It didn’t matter that both banks of the river (and both sides of the bridge) were wildlife refuges home to several of the planets rare and endangered species, and that surveys taken had demonstrated a sizable impact on the areas habitat. It didn’t seem to matter that it would be the only such bridge in the region and would dramatically alter the natural scenic quality that attracts tourists (and their money) the world over (an industry that has a much farther-reaching and more positive impact on surrounding communities than palm oil). And, it also didn’t seem to matter that there are very few communities on that other side that would stand to benefit from bridge access versus ferry access. For a long time, the bridge appeared to be a given, and area residents basically essentially lost hope that anything could change that.

The project was ultimately halted in 2017 through the efforts of Bornean and international conservationist organizations, with famous broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough lending his voice to the cause. The central issue that sealed the fate of the bridge were mounting concerns over dwindling populations of pygmy elephants, given that the bridge and slated highway crossed one of the key migration paths of the elephants—hundreds of elephants cross all at once at various times of year.

In the end, many agreed that it wasn’t so much a battle for the pygmy elephants as it was a battle for common sense, given that the bridge was largely unnecessary in the first place, and the tourism industry stood to lose more from the construction than the palm oil industry stood to gain.

After lunch, the sky cleared enough to provide a dry cruise down the Kinabatangan. We’ll see who’s out and about after the storm.



Heading down river this time, it’s not long until we spot our first monkey. Then another. And another. And another!

Macaques, doing what macaques do best: playing and cleaning each other in trees!

Admittedly, I don’t own a proper wildlife lens—my midrange zoom goes as up to 105mm on the long side of things (full-frame Canon 6D). So, we’re pretty dang close to these monkeys, maybe a couple of meters in some instances. We’re on the boat and several of these guys are playing on trees over-hanging the river bank. We sat and watched them play for maybe ten minutes or so. Noe got a kick out of it, as you might imagine.






I know that most people sign up for these treks hoping to get a glimpse of Borneo’s famed proboscis monkeys or even an orangutan. One of the highlights for me, however, was seeing large monitor lizards up close, which we did on a few occasions.


Toward the end of the cruise, we finally got our glimpse of Borneo’s remarkable and unique Proboscis monkey—dozens of them! We never got as close of a view to them as the macaques (these photos are cropped close), but close enough to see the big ol’ flappy shnoz that the dominate males are known for.

…and many more females and babies.

Time to head back for dinner!


•  •  •



Day 3

It’s 6am and we’re standing on the boat plank. Unfortunately, our guide is not. We’re told by our limited-English-speaking boat driver that he is “sleeping.” Later, we find out there’s more to the story than that (as I mentioned before), but for now we’re working off the assumption that our guide didn’t bother to get up for work today.

Oh well. We got the boat and we got a driver who knows the river. Let’s get on with it.

A thin layer of fog hung over the river, keeping things cool and peaceful. But the humidity fogged up my camera lens rendering it useless for the first hour of our two-hour trip. The downside was I didn’t quite get the shots I was hoping for. The upside was that it allowed me to relax and enjoy the ride. I did get a few usable shots with my new-fangled GoPro before my camera lens became usable again. The lens on those things is pretty wide, so no quality snaps of the saltwater crocodiles or other wildlife we spotted along the way.

The highlight of the morning boat ride was meandering through a narrow tributary that emptied out into a small lake.



Next Up:

Breakfast. Followed by a two-hour drive back up to Sandakan. We’ll catch a short flight this afternoon back to Kota Kinabalu, then another two-hour drive up to the final major stop of our Borneo trip: Three nights on a remote beach at an off-the-grid dive camp.

Big travel day ahead!

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