A Real River Safari on the Kinabatangan

I was very excited to be part of a REAL river safari. I chose Borneo Dream as my tour operators and I was very, very happy with them – they come highly recommend by me! My 2D1N itinerary included everything I could have wanted (apart from more views of the elephants, but that’s not Borneo Dream’s fault!) and I even had some nicer-than-expected accommodation for my one night stay in the jungle.

Map of the Kinabatangan River Basin (courtesy: WWF)
Map of the Kinabatangan River Basin (courtesy: WWF)

After experiencing a night in the jungle at Tanjung Puting, and a few nights in the Sumatran rainforest at Bukit Lawang (plus a daytrip in Taman Negara), I think I’m experienced enough now in dealing with the threats of the jungle, so I was quite at ease here beside the river in Borneo. I travelled by bus from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan and then made my way with Borneo Dream to the Kinabatangan River Basin, where out river safari was to begin in earnest.

A typical river safari lodge
A typical river safari lodge
Bloody macaques hanging around near the accommodation!
Bloody macaques hanging around near the accommodation!

Before then, though, we got a little glimpse of our overnight accommodation. Quite basic, but still more than enough considering we’re in the middle of Sabah! It didn’t have aircon or wifi or anything like that, but it did have hot water, which surprised me! The only downside was seeing too many monkeys around camp – I HATE monkeys!

Industrial transport on the Kinbatangan River
Industrial transport on the Kinabatangan River
Local fishermen use the Kinabatangan as a source of food
Local fishermen use the Kinabatangan as a source of food

Unlike superficial river safaris (like the overrated theme park in Singapore), you can be sure of an authentic experience on the Kinabatangan River. Local fishermen can be seen everywhere, as the river is their source of livelihood. Many of these men and women will sell their freshwater catch in the pasar malams around Sandakan and beyond. Naturally, in the 21st century, it would be weird if we didn’t see some kind of commercial/industrial activity on the river, too, and I saw plenty of heavy machinery being transported downstream, no doubt to a Chinese-controlled mine somewhere…

The river seemed so wide
The river seemed so wide
There are scary residents of the river
There are scary residents of the river

During my guided tour with Borneo Dream, we spotted what looked like a saltwater crocodile, although I still cannot be sure. I didn’t know they existed in Sabah, so it could be a gharial instead. Still, it made me realise that as the Kinabatangan widened further downstream, it wouldn’t be a nice place to capsize or go overboard the boat’s edge. The weather was playing up today, and while it was typically hot for Malaysia, the cloud cover made everything seem much darker, which actually added to the ominous atmosphere by the river’s edge. We were also lucky enough to see rare birdlife and giant monitor lizards, as well as proboscis monkeys.

Further downriver, the waters gets deeper and murkier
Further downriver, the waters gets deeper and murkier
Our only view of a Bornean Pygmy Elephant
Our only view of a Bornean Pygmy Elephant

Arguably the main thing my tour group of 9 wanted to see was the indigenous Bornean Pygmy Elephants. We heard them many times, but no sign of them. Then out of nowhere, we heard the rustling in the jungle get louder, and for a split second I managed to see the backside of one of these miniature giants! A lot of people get to see whole groups of these elephants frolicking in the river, but today they were obviously not coming out to play. Maybe they had the same concerns about the weather as me?!

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4 thoughts on “A Real River Safari on the Kinabatangan

  1. I am in the midst of planning at trip to either Borno or Bukit Lawang to see the orangutans.
    If you had to pick one do you have a suggestion?
    Thank you, Lisa

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    1. Hi Lisa. 🙂 I think both are good options, but depending on your experience I would say the Borneo option is slightly more touristy, in which case you may prefer it to Bukit Lawang, which could be seen as more of an adventure. If you are travelling solo, then I would certainly recommend Borneo.

      However, there isn’t much difference really, you should have a great time whichever you choose. I personally liked the Sumatran orangutans better, and you could combine Bukit Lawang with other destinations on the backpacker trail in west Sumatra, such as Lake Toba and Beristagi.

      On the other hand, the various orangutan opportunities in Borneo, including on the Kinabatangan, will give you the chance to see the smaller kind of orangutan up close and personal!

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