Table of Contents
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Sun Bear Conservation Center
Kinabatangan River Cruise
Rainforest Discovery Center
Sandakan Memorial Park
Kinabatangan River is the second longest in Malaysia (563km) and drains into a wide delta and into Sulu Sea at Sandakan. The river has many uses – serves as a conduit for transport between interior villages and developed towns upstream. Why Kinabatangan River? The area has diverse habitats – dipterocarp forest; riverine and freshwater forests; limestone caves at Gomantang; mangrove swamps on the coast and ox bow lakes. Furthermore, it is endowed with remarkable wildlife, some endangered. In fact, amongst the highest concentration of animals in Borneo. The place to do this is in the Lower Kinabatangan River – with lodges around Abai, Bilit and Sukau. We choose the most dramatic and with abundant wildlife – Sukau. Homestay and river excursions in local villages is also possible.
To see my adventure photos, go to Kinabatangan River.
We took a 3 days /2 nights package deal which included lodging; meals; river cruises and transport from Sandakan and the resort; Sepilok Rehabilitation Center; Sun Bear Conservation Center; Rainforest Discovery Center and the Gomantang Caves. The package is practical and just be taken care of. You can do it independently – book accommodation, organize food and transport independently. However, most lodges provide all the services.
We booked with Sukau Rainforest Lodge and its affiliate Borneo Ecotours. This lodge became the first member of the prestigious national Geographic Unique Lodges of the world collection. It cost more than other resorts, but it had a reputation of being eco-friendly, using electric motors on smaller rivers/streams and supports environmental issues. A bit of luxury from time to time is great.
Read about Sandakan – a rustic old-world vibe
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
Sandakan, the gateway to wildlife, is a great place to hang around, enjoying local fruits and delicacies, seafood and ordinary life. We were picked up from our hotel in Sandakan. Our first stop is the unique Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. As wildlife is threatened by habitat loss to agriculture, profiteering and human settlements, this center is a pioneer in rehabilitation and reintroduction into the wild. More importantly, it is an educational center. To learn and educate issues relating to Orangutan in Sabah.
Our visit coincided with the 10am feeding time. Several age groups reside here. Interestingly, the released orangutans are free to go into the unenclosed part of the forest. I managed to see a wild male and a mother with a baby. It was an amazing feeling. At the center, it was a little crowded with visitors. Watching through the glass room was not particularly inspiring. Perhaps necessary to separate visitors from the animals. My first encounter with an orangutan was in the late seventies in Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Kuching, Sarawak. I was a student. His name was Bullet – as a bullet is lodged in his head permanently. Any attempt to dislodge may cause death. He had the softest of palms as he grabbed my hand and walked. I was nervous. A moment to cherish.
Sun Bear Conservation Center
Close to the Orangutan Center is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. Malayan sun bear are the smallest bears in the world. Again, like in the orangutan center, it is about rehabilitation, reintroduction and education. Most bears are brought into the center escaping capture and hunting. Poaching is a major concern. The bears are in an enlarged enclosure and watching them in a ‘natural’ environment is great. They seem to get on with their normal business – foraging for food. Magnificent animals though.
Kinabatangan River Cruise
We were picked up by bus (by boat if we had taken the most expensive room – the villa) in Sandakan and headed towards Sukau, on the banks of Kinabatangan River. Ironically, to see wildlife, we passed large swath of oil palm plantations. Its cultivation, for economic growth is equally a major threat to biodiversity, wildlife habitat and ecology. Other threats include human settlement and draining wetlands for cultivation. How do we balance it? We arrived at Sukau village and caught sight of the muddy brown Kinabatangan River. The water level was high and occasional flooding is common. A short boat ride brought us to our lodge. I am always awed and feel inspired when surrounded by dense lush green tropical rainforest. The only sound heard was the fast-flowing river and sound of the forest – insects creaking, bird calls and the occasional boat passing on the river. The lodge has expansive boardwalks, aptly named Hornbill and Attenborough Boardwalks, extending into rehabilitated forest for nature walks – day and night. The reason we are here, to hopefully to see wild orangutan, pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys while on a river cruise. There is a sense of tranquility, having arrived. Only the sound of forest. Along the boardwalk, high on a tall tree, I sported a nest. It was an elegant Wallace Hawk Eagle. Later, I was stopped in my track by a group of common pig-tailed macaques. They can be aggressive. Butterflies, creepy crawlies and lizards kept me occupied along the walk.
After a relaxed evening snack of traditional deserts, we embarked on our first river cruise. Spotting wildlife on the riverbanks is by chance. Surprisingly, just a short ride on the river, we spotted a wild orangutan gorging itself on wild figs. Its golden hair shined in the afternoon sun. It was exciting to know that these gentle creatures, although increasingly difficult, to see them wander freely in the forest. Soon we encountered the playful and endangered proboscis monkeys or “Monyet Belanda”. They have distinctive flopping nose. They are endemic to Borneo. The mainly live on trees amongst the mangrove forest. They are arboreal – tree dwellers. My first encounter of these monkeys was at Klias Wetlands near Beaufort in Sabah. Birdlife is plentiful and likely to spot the many species of hornbills and water birds. Sightings of pygmy elephants had not occurred for nearly sixty days as our guide explained. The reason – plentiful of fruits inside the forest. I was optimistic. Perhaps a stray or rouge elephant. Our lodge is comfortable and relaxing. Don’t miss the talk by a guide on the lives of the orangutan. Fascinating and informative.
At 9pm, we took the optional night cruise. In the pitch black, only illuminated by a spotlight, we sped through on the river. I had no expectations on what we would see. Perhaps a waste of time. I was wrong. We spotted a kingfisher, presumably in deep sleep as it did not move as the light shined on it. Its technicolor feathers are amazing. I could almost grasp it in my hand, and that’s how close we got! Next, look out for red spot on the water, our guide advised. They would be salt water crocodiles. There are plenty here and they move quickly and submerged immediately. It certainly was an interesting hour.
The next days’ ‘morning cruise was early. We departed around 6am. In parts of the forest, the mist had settled on the surface of the water. It was a dreamy world. However, it disappeared rapidly as the sun rose. We slowly made our way through several smaller tributaries. The forest here is closer. So is the wildlife. More proboscis monkey swayed on trees as the foraged for food. Some with little babies on their rounded bellies. On the way to an ox bowed lake, our guide pointed out to a pair flying birds some distance away – Storm’s Stock. She mentioned that there is only five hundred left. We were lucky. As we made our way through a narrow channel, a small troop of proboscis monkeys jumped in mid-air from one bank to the other. Their acrobatic skills must be admired. They happen to be good swimmers too. Just watch out for the crocodiles. We switched to the electric motor for a slower and quieter cruise. There was a chorus of calls from the black and white Oriental Pied Hornbill. Further down, a Brahminy Kite (Eagle) perched on a treetop, surveyed its domain. However, the lake is slowly being choked with aquatic plants. Common kingfisher casually passed looking for their next meal. We revisited the fruiting fig tree near the lodge. We were lucky, again, to see a mother and baby wild orangutans feeding on the fruits. A lovely outcome to end the day.
After lunch we headed to Gomantong Caves (optional). It is known for its resident, mainly, colony of the wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats. It was an interesting walk through the forest aided by wooden steps to get to the cave entrance. this is Simud Hitam Cave. It was dark and had a strong odor of bat droppings (guano). These make great organic fertilizers. Aided by torch and head lights, we managed to make our way slowly. I could see the floor moving – giant cockroaches and spiky (centipede-like) insects. Above, chatter from bats. The entire wooden walkway is slippery from water seeping through the limestone. In the middle, a shaft of light and greenery. An exposed section and an outlet for bat to enter and exit. Permanent ropes hung from the ceilings. These are used to collect swiftlet bird’s nest high on the walls. A dangerous and arduous job to collect them. Any false move, a 90m fall into the guano heap below. At the entrance, an owl was perched on a tree branch waited patiently in anticipation. In the skies above, falcons swirled. Why? Well, like us, they too are waiting for the daily dusk exodus of bats from the caves. Unlike us, they want to feast on them. Finally, the exodus began in batches. I could only see them as black dots in the sky. They swayed like music cords. They were in their thousands. An impressive sight indeed.
We departed our luxury lodge after breakfast. We were in luck. Instead of returning to Sandakan by bus, we were put on the boat. Something I hoped for. It was a fast but pleasant two-hour ride through initially the main river and eventually through smaller mangrove forest channels at the mouth of the river at Sandakan Bay. The final section is rough as we hit open water. It was another opportunity to spot wildlife, and we did – crocodiles and proboscis monkeys. Also, an opportunity to see the Orang Sungai community – the indigenous people of the river.
Rainforest Discovery Center
From Sandakan we headed to the wonderful Rainforest Discovery Center close to Sipilok Orangutan Sanctuary. This is a great way to explore the Borneo Rainforest. Not only at ground level but also with an aerial experience via the several canopy walks. Seeing eye level of treetops is amazing. A bird’s eye view of the forest below. however, with our guide’s schedule, we managed about 1.5 hrs.
Sandakan Memorial Park
A lovely park to commemorate one of history sad episodes. This is one of three site of POW camps between Sandakan and Ranau. A few articles displayed were a steam engine and a dredge. This is a place for contemplation. On an black obelisk, these words were written –
In Remembrance Of All Those
Who Suffered and Died Here,
On The Death Marches
And At Ranau
Finally, we returned to Sandakan and just in time to celebrate Chinese New Year.