Adventures along Borneo’s Kinabatangan River: A Malaysian Wildlife Holiday

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by Rob Kay and Kurt Stewart

We hadn’t been at the Borneo Nature Lodge more than an hour when we hopped on a boat and headed down the fabled Kinabatangan River in Sabah State on the Island of Borneo. As we snaked our way along the banks of the river on a two hour cruise, wildlife stirred in every corner of the jungle.


Pigmy elephants, a mother and a calf, trundled through the thickets; a host of birds, including four species of hornbills, darted in and out of the canopy; a family of orangutans foraged for fruit from a tall fig tree while nearby, a group of proboscis monkeys hung out in leafy branches.

That, as Joe Harry, our wildlife guide, pointed out, is what makes the 26,000 hectare Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary so special.

“In terms of birds, reptiles and big mammals,” he noted, “the lower Kinabatangan has the richest concentration of wildlife in Southeast Asia. It’s great for visitors because animal viewing times are pretty predictable.”

Every day at around 4 pm as the jungle bursts into life, if you head out to the river, you can be sure you’ll discover an abundance of wildlife moving in its natural habitat.

Harry, a native of Sabah and an independent guide with 17 years of experience, has witnessed first- hand the remarkable transformation of the Lower Kinabatangan area over the last two decades. It has gone from a region dominated by a palm oil plantation economy to one that includes a growing eco-tourism industry. The formerly unpaved tracks built for the palm oil plantations are now roads that transport visitors to a variety of eco-lodges situated along the river.

The lower Kinabatangan River occupies over 26,000 hectares. The BNL was located in the Sukau area.

Prior to the opening of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in 1997, the palm oil industry had encroached on much of the rainforest, especially the fragile areas bordering the river. In the 1970’s and 80’s, over-logging altered landscapes and impacted animal populations. Where cloud leopards once roamed, clear cutting and the growth of palm plantations decimated their populations. The entire ecosystem suffered, prohibiting the development of eco-tourism.

Since then, animal populations have begun to return, including primates such as the proboscis monkey and orangutan, as well as big mammals like the pygmy elephant.  There is hope that the cloud leopard will also rebound.

“The Sabah Government is on the right track,” says Joe.

Pygmy Elephant
Feeding on the banks of the river, these pygmy elephants were spotted from the tour boat. Thanks to the efforts of the Sabah State Government these spectacular mammals are regaining a foothold in the region.

According to our guide, in the past 15 years wildlife numbers have increased. Sabah state is also negotiating to buy land from plantation owners to widen animal corridors to promote their movement between areas bordered by plantations. Furthermore, the government is purchasing land adjacent to both sides of the river where wildlife traditionally feed and gather. This is because in many areas, plantations extend to the river banks, thus encroaching on animal habitat. Sabah state is now open to foreign NGOs helping to promote and expand the ecotourism industry.

In addition to the Sabah government’s active role, private interests, such as the Nestle corporation, have undertaken reforestation projects.



We chose to stay at the Borneo Nature Lodge, located on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. It’s an eco-friendly lodge and offers modest, no frill accommodations. The lodge practices water harvesting from rainfall and uses solar energy throughout the facility. The rooms were comfortable and clean. Currently this is one of few lodges in the area offering air conditioning in the rooms and restaurant. There are thirteen rooms that function on a twin sharing basis.

We would take issue with a few details that management may have overlooked, such as missing soap, beds with no slipcovers and threadbare bath towels.

Orangutan 1
This approximately 9-year old expectant female orangutan was spotted in the rainforest, a 15 minute boat ride from the lodge. Orang-hutan is the Malay name for this primate, which translates as “People of the Forest”.

Food, particularly lunch and dinner were generally good and depending on the cook, included local dishes, like curries and fresh fish. Typical desserts were tapioca and fresh fruit such as pineapple, honeydew melon and watermelon. We especially recommend the local honeydew melons, clearly the best we’ve ever had.

Breakfast was plain white toast, scrambled eggs and a hotdog-like sausage. We asked for extra fruit and the cook obliged. We would have liked to see more local food instead of the western-style fare that management assumes foreigners prefer.

Staff was friendly and generally very good about taking care of guests.

BNL has its own tour van and will pick you up upon arrival at the airport in Sandakan, which is approximately 140 km or two hours by car.

The Lodge offers activities including river cruises, jungle walks, night walks, a cave visit, bird watching and tree planting. We opted for their Kinabatangan River Safari package–the three day two night option. This entailed river cruises, both morning and evening, a rainforest walk, cave tour and bird watching.

The base package of 3 days is $400 and includes accommodations, meals and tours.


Seeing the Wildlife

Joe 2 - Copy
Finding a competent guide is essential. Joe Harry’s knowledge of the region and its wildlife proved to be invaluable. He can be reached at

If you’re lucky, as we were, you can see a plethora of critters in a very short amount of time.

Bird watchers in particular will love this place as birds are both easy to see from the boats and, numerous. There are roughly 120 species in the Lower Kinabatangan district. In many cases, birds as well as other animals have become familiar with humans. They often  allow visitors in a boat to come closer than one would expect in the wild.

This was the case with a minuscule blue-eared kingfisher (see photo) and the elephants that we observed on the river bank. As we slipped down the river in silence, we soaked up the symphony of bird calls and the steady rustling of primates in the trees.

Generally a guide is provided for each pair of guests. We were very lucky to have  Joe Harry as our guide and can’t thank BNL enough for setting this up. He was knowledgeable, congenial and articulate. A native of the region, he seemed to have a second sense when it came to finding wildlife.

Every tour operator has their own guides and there are very few specialists with greater or lesser expertise. Not all lodges possess the same caliber of knowledge and competence. It’s best to do your research in advance.

What to bring

When visiting Sabah you need some essentials.  Here’s our must-have list:

A good pair of field glasses is absolutely essential. Co-author Kurt Stewart prefers Bushnell’s Legend, with 10×42 magnification.
  • Binoculars – We found the 10×42 glass ideal for this environment. We’ve been using the Bushnell Legend model for years.
  • Short and long pants for forest walks—light fabric as well as “tactical style” pants. We used shorts from Vertx and long pants from Kitanica.
  • Lace up athletic-style hiking shoes are preferable to hiking boots in this terrain. Our preference was the Terrain II from Wolverine products.
  • Knee high socks are useful during forest walks. Tiger leeches are commonly found in the rainforest. The resort supplied leech socks.
  • Sun hat
  • Sun block
  • Insect repellant
  • Flash light for night walk or cave visits – compact is good.
  • Basic First aid kit
  • Backpack—Blackhawk makes sturdy ones that work for travel or wilderness.
  • Electrical outlet adapter—don’t assume your accommodation will have one. You’ll need it to recharge camera gear, tablet, laptop, etc.
  • Light cotton shirts or Dry Fit type shirts are preferable in this hot, sticky tropical climate.


Getting There

The trip to Malaysia started in Honolulu on Hawaiian Airlines to Seoul. From Korea we flew to Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia. Note that Air Asia also connects to Hawaiian from Tokyo and Osaka. Flight time between Honolulu and Seoul was about 9 hours. The link between Seoul and Kuala Lumpur was about 6 and half hours.

Air Asia — The discount carrier has routes throughout Asia. Upgrading seats from Standard Coach to Premium costs 30 to 40 ringgit for both domestic and international. A good option for long tall Texans.

Air Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur, may not be familiar to many Americans. However, the travelling public in Asia has come to rely on this low-cost carrier which offers rock bottom prices, good quality service and modern aircraft. Much like Southwest Airlines, customers get bargain fares but any extras such as food or even water must be paid for separately.

The company, known as Air Asia Group, operates scheduled domestic and international flights to 100 destinations in 22 countries. From “KL” we flew Air Asia’s domestic system to Sandakan, which brought us to the east of Sabah state, one of Malaysia’s eco-tourism hotspots. Flight time from KL to Sandakan was a little over two hours.

The Airbus A-320 to Sandakan had two rows of very tightly packed seats, three seats across. It was an all-coach flight with two kinds of service, “Premium” and “Standard” (coach) class. If you’re over 6’ tall we’d suggest getting the Premium seats. It’s inexpensive to upgrade (only 30 or 40 ringgit–about $10 or $13) so it’s well worth it for the added leg room.

Photos by Rob Kay

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  1. Thank you, Rob. It was a great article. Made me want to go to Borneo, someplace I would have never considered before. Shout out to Kurt also. Mahalo and Aloha!

  2. […] an entrepot to the wildlife refuges of the fabled Kinabatangan River. (See our recent article, Adventures along Borneo's Kinabatangan River: A Malaysian Wildlife Holiday). There's no question that most visitors to Sandakan are strictly passing through and are not going […]

  3. […] an entrepot to the wildlife refuges of the fabled Kinabatangan River. (See our recent article, Adventures along Borneo's Kinabatangan River: A Malaysian Wildlife Holiday). There's no question that most visitors to Sandakan are strictly passing through and are not going […]

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