In Search of Elephants at the Sungai Kinabatangan

I slept most of the way to the village of Bilit along the banks of the Sungai Kinabatangan.  Dan told me we even passed through some dirty roads.  I vaguely remembering waking-up at one point with the mini bus juggling up and down some road that was being constructed.  We arrived at the small jetty where we boarded a motor boat that was to bring us to the other side of the river.  Incidentally, the driver was a Filipino.

The view from our hut door

We booked a 3d/2n package at the Civet Wing at Nature’s Lodge Kinabatangan for RM440 each.  I would have wanted to do the trip independently, staying at one of the guesthouses in Sukau and hiring our own boat.  It would be cheaper and give us the flexibility of running our own program.  But things didn’t turn out that way so we ended up signing-up with the package which was the cheapest one I found.  Everyone was raving about Uncle Tan’s but it would be my first jungle experience I didn’t really feel like truly roughing it out.  Other lodges such as the Borneo Rainforest Lodge were quite expensive.

Getting off the boat, we all trooped to the registration area for some welcome drinks (a cold glass of orange juice) , given a little briefing on the activities and handed our keys.  There were about 15-20 of us.  It was almost 3:30pm which left us only half an hour to get ourselves ready for the afternoon river cruise.  Nature’s Lodge is along the banks of the Kinabatangan in Kampung Bilit.  The compound is quite large and there are dorms and even chalets.  Meals are served in three restaurants and there’s a small store where you can buy cold water. There’s even internet though a little slow.  Electricity is 24 hours.  The rows of huts with double beds had a small balcony and faced the river.  We had the hut nearest the center where we assembled for the treks.  Our hut two single beds, an electric fan, and a small bathroom with a shower.  We were told that all the water was pumped from the Kinabatangan and sanitized and chlorinated in large tanks.

Shower with water fresh from the Kinabatangan

Our room. Dan’s bed is on the left and mine is on the right.

The throne of honor

We were all assembled at the jetty by four.  We put on our life jackets and were herded into motor boats.  Dan and I got on a large one with about eight others.

In Search of Monkeys. The river was fascinating and looking at the banks you could see that it was indeed a flood

plain as only some tree-tops and shrubs stuck out from the brown water.  Big logs and branches which our guide called floated downstream.  Occasionally we would strike a big one and our guide would call out “log-dile.”  Far away, some did look like crocodiles.  We were scanning the forest covers for wildlife.  White egrets stood quietly on the banks like sentinels.  When we got close, they would fly off.  More colorful, though placed high on tree branches were the hornbills.  It’s a marvel how our guide can spot the birds.  Where we would only see leaves and branches, he would say, “look at 3 o’clock, there’s hornbills.  The one on the right is male because he is bigger.”

We turned right to a tributary and soon our guide pointed out a group of proboscis monkeys hanging around some trees.  It was fun watching them jump from tree to tree.  These monkey are endemic to Borneo only so it was a treat to see them.  I’ve always thought they were big monkeys but they seemed kinda small. Or maybe because we were on the river and they were high up on the trees.  On the left bank were a group of long-tailed and short-tailed macaques.  One boat was very close to a clump of trees where an adult macaque had slide down in full view of everyone.  The monkey even parted the leaves seemingly wanting to get a glimpse of the people taking pictures.  We meandered along the tributary but we saw mostly monkeys.  We are all anticipating crocodiles and the famed pygmy elephants.


We headed back the lodge as the sun began to set.  “Look behind you.  Picture! Sunset!” our guide would excitedly exclaim every now and then.  He seemed more thrilled about pictures than us.  The colorful hues of the sun setting on the horizon was beautiful as a cool breeze wafted around us.  It was almost time for dinner and we were speeding along the river.  The waves and the sound of the motor kinda detracted from the experience. I much preferred the quiet meandering boat ride I had at the Mekong Delta.  It was so relaxing.

Dinner was noodles, some meat, potatoes, and fruit.  I kinda pitied the vegetarians who raised their hands when at the orientation, people were asked if they were on any special diets.  Based on the spread, they didn’t have much to eat.

In Search of Night Critters.  I’m glad I followed Dan’s advice to spare the RM5 rubber boot rental fee rather than use my own trekking boots as we sloshed through the mud on the surrounding jungle. It was my very first time to use rubber boots and it felt strange walking in them.  We were divided in four groups and I was last on the line behind an Australian couple— a nice lady with a younger husband who looked like Vin Diesel.  They had just come from the Danum Valley which explains their more than average knowledge of the flora.  I simply looked where they looked and poked where they poked not that we saw anything really interesting other than some millipedes.  Occasionally, I would look behind me and turn my light off just to experience being in the middle of the jungle in complete darkness.  I kept thinking of one guy I knew who got lost in Mt. Halcon several years back and was never found except for his backpack.  It was horrifying thinking of how he felt alone in the forest not knowing where he were with no food and probably drained-out batteries.  Incidentally, we were told not to wear our headlamps but hold them instead as they attract insects.  We looped back to the lodge in about an hour.  It was only 9:30pm.

After showering, I went out of the hut and saw Dan on his hammock which he had set-out on the trees just outside our

Proboscis monkey

hut. He was in conversation with the cook and the mamager, Joel, a Filipino.  Joel used to work in Kota Kinabalu and was good friends with the owner of the lodge. The previous manager, a girl who was also a senior guide was fired and Joel was asked to take-over about two months ago.  He was a real entertaining guy with great stories.  He even helped us change our dollars when we realized we had forgotten to get some RM at Sandakan and there was no currency exchange at Kinabalu National Park where we were headed after.

Good Morning Kinabatangan. At 6am, we were all assembled at the jetty again for the hour-long river cruise.  It was very cold and the river was very quiet.  We didn’t spot anything new except for a large lizard that lay quietly on the top of a dead branch that stuck out on the water. The ride was more for the thrill of seeing the river waking-up.  Breakfast was poached eggs, sausages, canned beans, cereals, and toast.  It was better than last night’s dinner.  I stuffed myself as the next activity was the 3 hour return trek to the oxbow lake.  As always, I was still sleepy and managed to get a few winks before putting on the rubber boots again.


Stuck in the mud

Oxbow Lake. There were about 12 of us who set out for the trek.  We had two guides, one based at the lodge and another one, the younger one and who looked and dressed more like a wildlife guide, was as Joel explained later, was a senior guide they get from the city as additional staff. Expectantly, the senior guide knew more and would stop now and then to point our interesting stuff such as a millipede that had curled itself into a ball to protect itself when threatened (in this case, us who were handling it), some unique plants, and even elephant poop which he says was probably “expelled” two months ago.  The elephant poop was large and looked like those large Christmas balls made of fibrous material.  He also took a leaf from a tree which smelled like mangoes!  But the real prize was when he spotted a big black and green lizard!  It was an oooohhh and aaaahhh moment.  I was again at the end of the line behind a white couple and the Australian couple.  Dan was a little nearer the center of the line.  This time the lady had a book about Borneo birds.  The local guide was with us.  As we trekked in the jungle, our group got increasingly separated from the rest.  As the two couples were taking so many pictures.  In fairness, they did spot some interesting creatures such as a stick insect which looked like a praying mantis and a red bird which the lady tried to identify from her book.  “Look at that bird just past the ginger,” she told me.  I was too embarrassed to tell her that I didn’t know what a ginger plant looked like.  At a stop, I quietly slid out from the group and joined the rest.



Millipede that has turned itself into a ball


We finally arrived at a large view deck overlooking the oxbow lake.  It didn’t really look like a lake.  It seemed more like just another tributary of the Kinabatangan. I expected a large lake where you can see animals grazing or drinking water.  The local guide took out pieces of bread and dropped them on the water. Fish started swarming to it and he took out one from the water to show us.  It looked like a tilapia. He mercifully dropped it back to the water where the fish swam for its life.  Resting at the view deck, the local guide told me that he had been to Bohol when Joel brought him there a few  years ago. Trekking back to the lodge was faster this time as we were all hungry for lunch.  I signed-up for the visit at Kampung Bilit but was too lazy and tired to get up at 2pm.


Apes, Monkeys, and Snakes. “Oh crocodile, where are you?” our guide crooned as we made our way again on the river for the afternoon cruise at 4pm.  Suddenly, he stopped.  Maneuvered the boat around and then quietly said, “Look at the tree on the right.  Orangutan.”  Now this was a wow moment! An orangutan in the wild!  Unfortunately, it was too high-up and too far-away and from the naked eye, all I could see was a red speck.  By now, I had regretted two things:  not bringing binoculars and not buying a camera with a 10x zoom.  Again, we made our way to the tributary and another surprise awaited us.  Just as we turned right, on the left bank, a snake was sleeping on the branches of a tree. Our guide moved the boat closer for a better look. It was black and yellow and all nicely curled-up.  We nervously laughed at the thought of the snake waking-up and falling on the boat.  As we entered the tributary, groups of proboscis monkeys seemed to be having a party on a large tree on the left bank.  They were scrambling up a tree and then they suddenly crossed the rope strung out high across the river!  One monkey even stopped in the middle seemingly displaying himself.  There were more monkeys out this time.  And our guide even deftly maneuvered the boat into a really small tributary so we can look very closely at a macaque and her young.   As we made our way to the river, we scanned the banks for a crocodile that one of the groups saw the day before.  There were also no elephants.  We made our way back at sunset for dinner.  There was better food this time and there were even table napkins.  Maybe because it was our final night and it was supposed to be special.  I skipped the night trek this time as I felt there wouldn’t be anything really interesting.  Went to bed early.

Sleeping snake

Proboscis monkey

Monkeys on parade


Goodbye Kinabatangan.  Our last chance for more wildlife was the last morning river cruise.  Fortunately, the light rain stopped by the time the boats arrived to take us.  Except for the lizard that was still lying stoically on top of the branch that we saw the previous day, there was nothing new.  We packed our bags as the shuttle was to pick us up at 8:30.  We bid the staff goodbye, especially Joel who had been very kind to us.  We asked to be dropped of at the junction where we could catch the KK-bound bus where we could be let off at the entrance to the Kinabalu National Park.  Two locals hanging out at a parked mini-van awaiting passengers told us to just wait at a kedai across the road and they would just hail the bus for us.  When the bus came about 15 minutes later, as we boarded, they asked us for a tip. I gave them RM1. It was fair enough us they told the driver where we were headed and transacted the bus fare for us– RM25.

The excursion into the jungle or whatever is left of it was all too brief.  We didn’t see elephants nor the crocodiles.  Honestly, I would have freaked out if I suddenly came face to face with a crocodile lurking on the water.  I have seen enough National Geographic episodes to know how savage they are.  Though far from actually living jungle-like (Unlce Tan’s would have been perfect for that), the three days and 2 nights I spent were along the Kinabatangan all the more made me realize how fragile nature is and how human encroachment continues to threaten that fragility.  If tour packages such as what I took is able to imprint that on anyone who travels to the area (and I think it has) then it’s one great learning experience.  On the bus trip to the jetty, we were shown a video on how the jungle is continuously being threatened by the expansion of the lucrative palm oil plantations.  If animals are easy to come by, it’s because they are slowly being pushed out of their homes.  I’d like to go back to the Kinabatangan some day but maybe do it independently or do a home stay.

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