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A River Trip to Borneo's Hidden Jewel

Text and photography by Andrea & Antonella Ferrari


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Bornean pygmy elephant Elephas maximus borneensis crossing the Menanggol tributary, Kinabatangan river basin, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Bornean pygmy elephant Elephas maximus borneensis crossing the Menanggol tributary, Kinabatangan river basin, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia Image #: 129525

The lowland riverine forest encompassing the extensive Kinabatangan river basin and its 26,000 hectares Wildlife Sanctuary has few rivals in the world for remoteness, richness of animal species and just sheer natural beauty. At the same time, this spectacular and mostly untouched wilderness of Malaysian Borneo is very accessible and easily explored – usually by small boat in daylight, and by foot at night or late evening. Departing from the harbour of nearby Sandakan – a pleasant coastal town aptly named “Gateway to Borneo’s Wildlife” - visitors can easily reach the Sanctuary’s headquarters in Sukau - where most of the tourist lodges are located - by a scenic one-hour long boat trip which ends at one of the riverside resorts’ piers. More and more guesthouses, jungle camps and fully-fledged forest lodges have been recently popping up along the river’s banks, all offering excellent accomodations (of varying level and cost, but all very clean and very well organized), good standards and very tasty Sabahan food, often using locally acquired, fresh organic products such as delicious vegetables or fruit and big river prawns grown and farmed by the local Orang Sungai (river people). The best way to visit the Kinabatangan river basin with its enormous, eerily beautiful oxbow lagoons and many small, twisting tributaries is by booking a week-long stay via a specialized wildlife travel agency in Sandakan – service is usually excellent and specific needs of visitors are normally very well cared for. Regularly subject to tides and periodical inundations during the rainy season, in a perennial state of flux and sparsely populated along its banks by small fishing and farming communities, the Kinabatangan river basin represents a very unique natural environment, peacefully shared by humans and wildlife.

The Importance of a Good Guide

The Kinabatangan river basin is a wildlife photographer’s dream come true, as most Borneo wildlife is not only richly represented in the area but also often easily sighted and photographed around Sukau, provided one knows where and when to look. This is obviously a destination where the services of an experienced local wildlife guide are a must, especially for those taking their exploring seriously. We had a stroke of luck and had the time of our life with Dennis Ikon, a native, self-taught enthusiast who is not only a very experienced rainforest guide but also a passionate wildlife photographer to boost, always ready to recognize a photographer’s special need or request without even being asked – he certainly made the difference for us. He has worked many times with big-time, exceedingly demanding professionals such as National Geographic’s Frans Lanting, so he knows his trade well! Remember to take with you a good telephoto (VR-equipped or with a sturdy tripod) for all the big and not so big species you’ll observe during the day from the safety your boat, plus a good flash and your macro lens of choice for all the weird and wonderful little critters you’ll see at night. Being this Borneo, a sun hat and a lightweight rain poncho are nice to have around, especially if you plan to spend a lot of time exploring the river by boat. Night walks are safe and easy, but bring a pair of strong, comfortable jungle or trekking ankle boots and a small torch with you, and be prepared to get very wet and very muddy.

Where to Go and What to Do in Sukau

The average day in Sukau starts just before dawn, with the faraway hok-hok of some distant hornbill welcoming the first warm rays of the sun over the steaming jungle – after a lovely breakfast at the lodge, visitors hurry down the riverside jetty to board a small, low aluminum canoe powered by both petrol and electric engines to start the day’s explorations. The boats are lightweight, flat-bottomed and very stable, making an excellent platform for a photographer’s tripod – the local boatmen employed by the lodges take great pride and are very good at switching from petrol to electric just at the right time to allow as close an approach to wildlife as humanly possible. Most exploration takes place at a leisurely pace along the Kinabatangan muddy banks and up its small, meandering tributary, the extraordinarily scenic Menanggol – it’s a good idea to book one’s accomodation as close as possible to its mouth, as the winding course of the forest-canopied Menanggol is a favourite destination for wildlife enthusiast and birdwatchers visiting the Kinabatangan area, so to enjoy it at is most evocative, unpopulated best it’s better to get there before anybody else, immediately after sunrise. If you’re staying at a lodge close to its mouth you’ll also be able to linger around for a longer time in the evening before going back for dinner and your night walk. If you can afford it and are serious about your wildlife photography, go for your own personal guide and boat – it will surely make a difference.

On Foot or by Boat

The thickly forested area around Sukau itself – this is prime virgin lowland dipterocarp country - makes extended exploration on foot rather difficult, but that around the village of Abai – somewhat downriver and closer to the coast and the sea – allows excellent walks on well-mantained secondary forest trails and boardwalks, offering wonderful opportunities for safe, comfortable and very fruitful night walks. Even closer to the coast and branching out to the Sulu sea itself, the immense estuary of the Kinabatangan is clogged in thick, labyrinthine, impenetrable forest of mangroves and Nipa palms – primordially beautiful and rich in species but not easily explored or – thankfully - exploited. You will have excellent opportunities to admire this unique environment on your way to and from Sukau. Encroached on all sides by rapidly developing oil palm plantations – the scourge of Borneo’s primeval forests - and endangered by logging plantations which severely curtail the larger animals’migratory routes and forest corridors, the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is nevertheless officially considered today to be one of the most important and pristine areas of wilderness of the whole world, and as such it cannot be missed by wildlife enthusiasts – floating down its murky, deep, slow-flowing waters is like taking a veritable trip back in time.

A Treasure Trove for Wildlife Lovers

But what about the animals one can hope to see? Well, we know very few areas outside of the African plains and the Venezuelan Llanos where one can hope to observe and photograph such spectacular amounts of tropical wildlife. Remember always, however...this is South-East Asia, not the Serengeti! Commonly sighted reptile species here are estuarine or saltwater crocodiles (with some very big individuals occasionally sighted up close), reticulate pythons, mangrove and dog-toothed cat snakes, bright green temple pit vipers and very large water monitors, while among the 250 bird species found in the area one can sight - among others - several species of large hornbills (including the spectacular Rhinoceros hornbill), fish-eagles, buffy owls, kingfishers, cuckoos and darters; among the large mammals, wild pigs, dwarf Bornean elephants, river otters, langurs, long-tailed macaques, wild orangutans and proboscis monkeys are commonly observed, often up close and at length. In fact, the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sancuary is the best spot anywhere to observe the rare elephant of Borneo, a smallish and friendlier cousin of the Indian one which has recently been awarded its own species status. This is also the land of flying snakes and flying frogs, while those interested in insects and spiders – often quite large and very colorful – will keep their cameras clicking away, especially if going out at night and with a warm tropical drizzle shrouding the thick forest. All in all, the Kinabatangan river basin is a treasure trove of rare, endangered and fascinating tropical species, all to be found and often easily observed in a landscape of unrivalled beauty and isolation. As a choice destination for the discerning wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast, it truly has few equals anywhere in the world, and one can only hope its currently protected status will keep it healthy and untouched for many, many more years in the future.