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Sabah’s Mighty Kinabatangan River (Long)

(The problem with seeing much is finding time at the end of the day to write about it all.  It takes a fair amount of time to prepare an entry!  This is a bit tardy and I haven’t been quite as frequent as I’d like but I hope everyone enjoys!)

I’m not all together certain I’d intended to visit Borneo. I’m unsure if I thought it a feasible locale, even considering a childhood adrift in clouds of adventure, traipsing vast exotic realms, discovering for science, knowing the world. Mcgarryi seemed an esteemable epithet for a bird in my formative musings. For whatever reason, the third largest island in the world seemed as far away as Madagascar or New Guinea. To find myself waltzing from one locale to another in Sabah has been altogether dreamily exhilarating.

The most tragic bullet to a place you’ve held imaginary is wakeful reality. Sabah, the Malaysian State in Borneo I’ve been exploring, is on par with visiting the Amazon in terms of nature, but with the ease of Florida. When you’ve read from Alfred Russel Wallace and any of the other multitude of Bornean explorers, it’s with a never fading tinge of guilt that I use the freeways through hours of palm plantations; stay in hostels with WIFI where I can ring home to reassure good health; sit on waterfronts enjoying a cold beer and Nasi Goreng. In modern reality, not the misty depths of archaic naturalistic exploration, more than 15 million people live here.

Yet it’s still possible to visit wild places to touch on the once overwhelming essence of illusive, wild Borneo.

The Kinabatangan River runs 560 Km inland to the Sulu Sea on the Northeast coast of Borneo. Nearly 100 km of that stretch is deemed lowland floodplain, swampy and full of life. In terms of overall biodiversity, the lowland forests of Borneo are the most affluent. They hold all the primates, the most birds, and flora. Straying back to the past topic of Palm Oil, it also happens to be prime orchard land. Thankfully, the wealth of nature means a wealth of tourism and accordingly, the Malaysian government halted legal land clearing in the area. I wonder at the impact of constant visitors, but would rather have them visit in place clearing.

Visiting the longest river in Sabah is another drop in the tourist bucket, but I’ll be clear, it was well worth it. There is no other feasible way for the threadbare backpacker to explore the river with knowledgeable naturalists, except by staying at a lodge. My friend Sam and I had a ride out to the Kinabatangan Nature Lodge with a pleasant middle aged couple from California, a surprise, as we Americans are few. Since we’d be sharing the activities, I was delighted they were genuinely excited about Bornean Wildlife and full of good spirits.

Touring the river wasn’t like touring a game reserve; faux wild animal encounters guaranteed. Yet once we’d arrived and had our bags properly disgorged, we disembarked downriver, and there was no mistaking staked out animals despite the romantic aspects of motoring muddy waters. We returned having seen Bornean Pygmy Elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis), Proboscis Monkeys (Nasalis larvatus), Crested Serpant-eagles (Spilornis cheela) , and Oriental Darters (Anhinga melanogaster). In my mind, Borneo was always about birds, but seeing 25 wild elephants crowding a strip of open bank, bathing, and doing decidedly quadrupedal, megafaunal things, is the best sight of my trip. There was even a doughy-eyed calf, barely keeping nostrils above water whilst being jostled by the stouter adults fully engaged in enjoying an evening dip.

Our night walk was short, but included a slumbering Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (Black-backed Kingfisher – Ceyx erithaca), I shamefully flooded with light. Our guide, Larry (not his real name if you could have guessed), even had an Emperor Scorpion (Pandinus imperator) secreted away in a buttress crevice for daily use. Jokingly we asked what he called it, as he teased it out, and let it crawl on his arm unperturbed. After a pause for consideration, he answered.


Whenever I’ve had occasion to visit a remote lodge, I am heartened that most employees are locals. Malaysian nature guides are legally required to go through school and obtain certification. It truly showed. Larry was a dive instructor but returned to the land around his home village of Bilit to guide here. Many of the others had also worked at other nature wonderlands. They were all fun, knowledgeable, with no hint of the malaise engendered by years of dealing with privileged tourists. We even conversed with one about deforestation, delving into the taboo subject of the ever present plantations, (in follow up posts from the trip, I’ll have unimpeded words on the subject). He was very realistic about conservation here, without it, there would be no reason for tourist money to flow in.

Night or day the river and surrounding forest is quite a sight. Even knowing what real lowland tropical rainforest should appear, I could have been occasionally convinced that patches here and there were primary. Massive pale barked Dipterocarps spottily soared above the sub-canopy. Yet largely, the precipitous muddy banks are overflowing with the recovering, logged secondary forest, choked with competing growth. I think it looked a wonderful green mess, deciding to temporarily suspended acknowledgment of reality, in favor of appreciative immersion. A mere 2 km of corridors followed the river bends.

Morning fog burnt off quickly under an equatorial blaze. Optimistic about what adventures the morning cruise would hold, there were countless potential birds, but everyone else wanted Crocodiles or Orangutans. For lack of ginger apes, we did glimpse a Silvered Leaf Monkeys (Trachypithecus cristatus) and multitudes of Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis). Several harems of Proboscis Monkeys lined taller trees each with a presiding 20 Kg male with a prodigious schnoz, sporting perpetual, lipstick red, erections. Call me lewd, but I tried to document this braggadocios display but in vain. Maybe they’ll have anatomically correct stuffed animals somewhere down the road? Possibly too kitschy or taboo in a Muslim country.

The most wonderful bird encounter involved two Rhinoceros Hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros), fighting beside the river. These massive birds landed on the bank, so raucous we couldn’t have missed them. Rapidly, there were eight about, all honking away as if cheering the skirmish, vaulting between the ground and tree. Uncertain if the bird being pursued was a female or not, it seemed likely a lady with an all too forceful courtier, among many lustily circling bachelors. If you’ve spent any time watching birds, you’ve see this sort of behavior, which is unsettling to most people. As witness this was a once in a lifetime experience and no magnitude of Tiger Beer will scour it away.

Over the course of 3 nights, 2 days, we saw a handful of fantastic birds, including five of the eight Hornbills in Borneo. From many birds of prey, the most exciting species was Jerdon’s Baza (Aviceda jerdoni), but the most impressive were lethargic Crested Serpent Eagles, soggily attempting to dry after an afternoon storm, appreciably less skittish. From three Dusky Broadbills (Corydon sumatranus) high over the river to Red and Black Broadbills (Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchos) with nests perilously dangling above water, I was elated by glimpses. These gaudy birds are surprisingly cryptic in contrast to their perpetual audible taunting. A solitary and exceedingly rare Storm’s Stork (Ciconia stormi) flew by. Pleasantly adorned White-crowned Shama (Copsychus malabaricus) flitted off the porch.

This visit to the river was no different than any other visitor’s. In fact, I would venture that almost every individual coming to Sabah has some interest in the natural world, even if they are wholly ignorant of the realities. Yet, I know I had precious experiences and came away with a better perspective, which is ultimately why one travels. I was sad to go, but had to move on to other adventures, most eminent, the Danum Valley.

1 Comment so far

  1. Pingback: A (Photographic) Year in Review « Wingtrip

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