Hello #Sukau!! What a great #pygmy #elephants sighting today along the #Kinabatangan river 🐘.#Sabah #Borneo #Sandakan
As a travel writer, I remember Sandakan as one of my first feature destinations. It’s been years since, but each time I return to visit, there’s always something new and to be discovered and told in a travelogue. Of course, Sandakan owes its famous reputation.
Spanning 560 kilometers, the Kinabatangan River is the second-longest river in Malaysia after the Rajang river in Sarawak. The river flows from the mountainous headwaters in Sabah’s southwest into the Sulu Sea, east of Sandakan. In addition to its remarkable wildlife, the Kinabatangan floodplain area is also renowned for the Gomantong limestone outcrop, its dryland dipterocarp and riverine forests, its fresh water and salty mangrove swamps, as well as the unique oxbow lakes.
Kinabatangan Floodplain: A Wealth of Biodiversity
For generations, the Kinabatangan River has been the pulse that sustains the fertile floodplain that surrounds it. The Kinabatangan floodplain, itself, is an area of extreme importance both for the wildlife and the local Orang Sungai community that dwell in the area. Dubbed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as the ‘corridor of life’, the Kinabatangan floodplain is said to be the last forested alluvial floodplain in Asia.
Despite the ongoing threat of human activities, the ecology of the lowland forests and mangrove swamps still remain a sanctuary for a vast number of mammals, reptiles and birdlife. On a random cruise along the Kinabatangan river, you will be able to spot the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), a tribe of long-nosed proboscis monkeys and long-tailed macaques, the orangutan and, if you’re lucky, an elusive herd of the pint-sized Bornean pygmy elephants.
The 270 square kilometer-large lower Kinabatangan floodplain is also famous for its extensive birdlife. It has been declared as a protected area in 1997, and as a bird sanctuary in 2001. Each year, groups of avid birdwatchers flock to Kinabatangan for a chance to spot some of the rarest birdlife in the world, both endemic and migratory species, such as the Oriental Pied Hornbill, Malaysian Flycatcher, Blue-eared Kingfisher, Oriental Darter, and the White-belly Sea Eagle.
Many nature enthusiasts and ecologists believe that the Kinabatangan floodplain is arguably the best place to go for wildlife-spotting in the whole of Southeast Asia, with a large chunk of its tourism activities concentrated around Sukau — the most accessible part of the Kinabatangan floodplain.
Most chalet accommodations along the Kinabatangan river offer a package for lodging and river cruises and / or night walks, accompanied by a certified nature guide. The river cruise usually takes place early in the morning, in time for sunrise, and late in the afternoon to dusk. The cruise would normally take two to three hours, depending on the weather and the wildlife sighting for the day. For the best wildlife-spotting opportunity, you are recommended to stay for a minimum of two days and experience at least two river cruises (morning and afternoon).
My first time seeing a herd of Bornean pygmy elephants is along the riverbanks of Sukau, as they are feeding on the tall grasses that line the riverbank. According to our guide, sightings of elephants are entirely dependent on luck as these pachyderms routinely travel from one place to another in search of food and their directions are unpredictable. The elephants are mainly spotted during the early morning cruises, along with the freshwater crocodiles that cleverly disguise themselves as logs floating on the river. Therefore, if you see a curious looking log on the river during your cruise, please do not stick your arm out to poke it.
KingfisherKinabatangan River, Borneo
Unlike the elephants, the orangutans, proboscis monkeys and long-tailed macaques are normally found perched on trees late in the afternoon. Sometimes, you may also spot the mohawk-haired silver leaf monkeys leaping from one tree to another. After dusk, the trees along the riverbanks are beautifully decorated with flickering fireflies that look like Christmas tree colored lights from a distance. The evening cruise is also your chance to spot some rare nocturnal creatures, such as frogs, snakes and other reptiles.
Spelunking in the Gomantong Caves
The Gomantong Caves are a majestic place, being one of the largest cave systems found in Sabah. Bats flock out in the…
The Kinabatangan floodplain is also home to Sabah’s largest cave system: the Gomantong caves. The caves primarily serve as a habitat to some 270,000 bats, which mainly consist of the wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bat colonies. The Gomantong Caves are also famous as a swiftlet nesting place, which is open for harvesting twice a year. These swiftlet nests, that contain high collagen content, are believed to possess great health and beauty benefits.
The Gomantong caves are divided into two parts: Simud Hitam (Black Cave) and Simud Putih (White Cave), with Simud Hitam being the more accessible cave that is open to the public. From the building entrance, the Simud Hitam is located circa 10 t0 15 minutes’ walk away. You will know that you are drawing nearer to the cave opening as the putrid smell of guano (bat droppings) becomes increasingly assaulting on your nose.
The 40 to 60 meter-high ceiling of the cave is home to some hundreds and thousands of swiftlets, so bear in mind that having bird droppings dropped on you is somewhat expected. Therefore, it is advisable to wear a wide-brimmed hat before entering the cave. For better protection, you may even bring a small foldable umbrella, and make sure that your choice of footwear is covered, lest a friendly centipede or scorpion crosses your path.
Access into the cave is through a wooden boardwalk that circuits the cave’s interior. Another caveat: the cave is also home to massive populations of cockroaches that are mainly found on the cave floors and along the boardwalk, so expect squelching sounds as you trample on them all the way in. You may also like to note that the wooden banister along the boardwalk is also covered in bird droppings. Be very careful while walking so that you wouldn’t have to rely on the banister for balance.
Inside the cave, you will witness a cathedral-like chamber with a ray of light beaming through the crack above it. Depending on the time of the day, this sighting of sunray would look so mesmerizing — like something out of a religious scene. Above you, there would be colonies of bats, which would appear like random black patches attaching themselves onto the cave ceiling. Keep your mouth closed when looking up!
- Invest in a disposable poncho for rainy days
- Don’t forget your insect repellant before going on a river cruise/night walk
- Be sure to wear covered footwear for caving and night walk expeditions
- In case of bug bites, do invest in a soothing bug bite balm
- Cruising on a speedboat can be a bit chilly even on a sunny day, do bring along a light windbreaker or scarf
- In case you can’t stand the smell of guano in the Gomantong cave, you can wear a disposable surgical mask during your tour
- There will be plenty to capture on camera and there will also be splashes on the speedboat, be sure to bring an extra plastic bag to keep your camera dry
- Be sure to bring enough cash. Kinabatangan is located circa two hours away from Sandakan city and there are no ATMs in the area. Due to the spotty internet connection in the area, charge card usage may also be very limited.