The Kinabatangan River is a wide brown expanse of water snaking some 560km into the heart of Borneo. Where it meanders towards the coast it is fringed on one side by the ever encroaching palm oil plantations, which stretch as far as the eye can see over the hills around Sandakan, and on the other side by dense secondary forest dominated by mangroves and fruit trees. These forests are home to a huge diversity of wildlife including hornbills, huge monitor lizards, monkeys, orangutans and even elephants, while the river itself is heavily infested with crocodiles.
Chris and I arrived in this amazing place after a two hour journey from Sandakan and a short river crossing. Our base for the next few days was the Borneo Nature Lodge, a cluster of around fifteen cabins including sleeping quarters, a kitchen, dining area and bird watching tower built in a clearing on the river bank. Due to issues getting a reliable supply of mains electricity during construction, the lodge is entirely powered by two generators, one diesel and one solar. Rainwater, of which there is plenty, is harvested for showers and toilets, and guests are encouraged to run their air conditioning units as this is the only source of hot water. Our cabin was set back from the others against the forest edge and decorated in a very traditional style with polished wood floors and colourful wall hangings. Everything was very clean and, considering that keeping anything dry in the jungle for more than five minutes is a miracle, very fresh. It was simple, and perfect.
We spent most of our time on a boat with our guide, a local man named Rosli, who had a demon eye for spotting monkeys in the dense forest, and a passion for birds. His excitement at spotting rhinocerous hornbills, an infrequent visitor to the Kinabatangan, was completely infectious. He registered complete disbelief when we told him that long-tailed parakeets, another excitingly rare visitor to the river, were extremely common in our corner of south London. I was fascinated to learn about the cultural differences between Sabah and Peninular Malaysia from him, and he in turn learned what ‘ear muffs’ were from us.
Kinabatangan’s most famous inhabitant is the proboscis monkey, which are found nowhere else in the world except in the coastal and river swamps of Borneo. During the early morning and evening they can be seen in their favourite mangrove trees in large groups; usually around five to ten females with young, and a single dominant male whose enormous pendulous nose has given its name to the entire species. The monkeys favour the mangrove trees because, according to Rosli, the leaves help to ease the monkey’s semi-chronic indigestion caused by their leaf-based diet. Watching these corpulent, bulbous characters wedged into a cleft branch slowly munching, you’d swear that you’d seen something similar in a pub back home.
For much of our visit our outings along the river were impeded by constant rain. Under the onslaught of weather most of the wildlife chose to shelter out of site, leaving us sitting in our dripping vessel hoping for even just the tiniest glimpse of a rustling tree branch. However, on our last evening the clouds parted, and as if to make up for lost time the creatures of the Kinabatangan treated us to a spectacular display. As well as the ubiquitous proboscis monkeys, hornbills flocked through the sky, huge water monitor lizards draped themselves across the tree branches, an iridescent kingfisher flashed across the water’s surface and some beautiful silver leaf monkeys came out to play. Our eagle-eyed boat captain even spotted a juvenile mangrove snake curled up under the large leave of a tree.
While we were making our way back to the lodge, deliriously happy and flushed with success, a chorus of loud screeches overhead heralded the approach of a troupe of long-tailed macaques. About 15ft above our heads, two males were having a vicious argument, which culminated in one of them taking a daredevil leap from the tree down towards the boat. From that height there was a significant risk of injury, and we swung the craft to the side as quickly as possible. The monkey missed us by inches and hit the water with a huge muddy splash. As he vanished beneath the surface, I panicked trying to remember whether these monkeys could swim, and Rosli shouted to our captain to kill the engine in case he might get caught in our propeller.
Thankfully a moment later a little brown head bobbed above the surface of the river. Long-tailed macaques are in fact adept swimmers, and despite looking a little dazed he gamely paddled over the opposite bank and climbed out, looking bedraggled but no worse for wear.
When the time came to leave the lodge we felt more than a little downcast. I had got used to waking up in the night to the sound of chirruping geckos, and monkeys running across the roof. But Rosli had one more adventure planned for us, which I will share with you in another post. Suffice to say it involved 30 million bats (and their poo) and the largest population of cockroaches in the world.