May 22, 2012

A River Safari on Sabah’s Kinabatangan

A river safari on Sabah’s Kinabatangan offers a great way to view wildlife.When I first visited Sabah’s famed Kinabatangan some 10 years ago, I was blown away by the wildlife there and the ease at which they could be seen.During that trip, my list of wildlife sightings grew longer each day.

I found myself there again recently with the wife and was glad to see that the place has remained wild. Shortly after our boat entered the mighty Kinabatangan River, a crocodile came into view. Our timing was right. The growing mid-day heat had drawn the reptiles out to bask in the warmth. The crocodile sat motionless on the sandy riverbank, as if posing for our cameras, and for a minute, we all wondered if it was a fake one placed there by the nature guides to give us a laugh.
Kinabatangan, Sabah
Cruising the Kinabatangan River in search of wildlife.
But then the monster croc – it was almost 4m long – turned its head, glared at us for a second as if upset with the noisy intrusion, then slid into the water, leaving only a pair of eyes just discernible above the water line.

After that bout of excitement, all nine of us tourists onboard the boat dared not look away from the river, just in case we missed something. Sure enough, when the boat rounded a bend some minutes later, another crocodile came into view. This was followed by sightings of various birds.
An hour and a half after we left Sandakan, our boat reached Abai Jungle Lodge. Set picturesquely beside the river and across from the Abai village, the lodge was established there to avoid the busier Sukau area that is further upstream, where most resorts in Kinabatangan are concentrated.The location of the lodge could not be more perfect. It sat atop stilts and was built into the swampy forest. A raised boardwalk wound through the forest behind the chalets.
Walks along the boardwalk at Abai Jungle Lodge often yield sightings of orang utans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy squirrels and various insects.
The natural setting meant that there was wildlife practically at our doorstep. The tall trees enveloping the lodge drew all kinds of animals. Early one morning, we found an orang utan on a treetop just steps away from our chalet. And a pair of a pygmy squirrels – endemic to Borneo, they measure no more than 5cm long – scurried up and down a nearby tree.
River of life
Wildlife spotting at Kinabatangan is a leisurely affair and is best described as a river safari – you just sit on the boat and coast along the Kinabatangan and its tributaries.
A gentle mist hung over the river as our boat left the lodge in the early morning. Shortly after, our guide Erik pointed to a reddish blob on a tree top. It was an orang utan sitting in its nest of twigs and foliage. It was a young male, and he had cleverly arranged a crown of leaves to keep his head covered.
Our boat inched closer for a better look but the orang utan became bothered and turned away from us, covering his back with a leafy branch as if to hide himself. Getting the message, we promptly left him alone.
We moved upriver and saw more crocodiles, proboscis monkeys and a vast array of birds: peregrine falcon, Wallace’s hawk-eagle, rufous-bellied hawk-eagle, black hornbill, dollarbird, cormorant, square-tailed drongo cuckoo and the common kingfisher. When we returned to the lodge, a special “jungle breakfast” awaited us at a platform on the boardwalk. We tucked into fried noodles, eggs, sausages and toast amidst tall trees, entertained by the sounds of the forest. Bird warbles filled the air, and the occasional whoops of long-tailed macaques drifted down from the tree canopy above us. What a memorable experience!
The boardwalk soon became our favourite spot at the lodge. Strolls there were always rewarding: the rustle of leaves and a strong animal scent turned out to be a troop of proboscis monkeys, just metres away from the lodge. There were also various bugs and birds, as well as the greenish agamid lizard to excite us.

Night walks there were also fruitful. Our sharp-eyed boatman, Anuar, showed us a wolf spider, lantern bugs, a wild boar and a moon rat (a huge white rat). He said previous guests had seen the flying lemur, slow loris and even a clouded leopard there.
Kinabatangan is one of the best places to see wild pygmy elephants.
It was actually easier to see some birds at night, as they were perched, asleep. This was how we saw the blue flycatcher, oriental dwarf kingfisher (it had gorgeous pink, purple and blue plumage), racquet-tailed drongo and iora (it is puffed up like a ball when asleep) along the boardwalk.One morning, we headed for Tasik Pitas, an oxbow lake, hoping to see wild elephants. We waited a while, but the jumbos did not show up. Nevertheless, there were plenty of kingfishers – the stork-billed, blue-eared and collared – to distract us. And there was something special about sipping hot coffee and nibbling on biscuits on a boat, in a placid lake. So, never mind that there were no elephants.
Grey Leaf monkey at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah, Malaysia
Like other lodge guests, we also did our part for the environment, by planting trees to reforest denuded land along the Kinabatangan. Tree seedlings were bought from villagers who grew them and who also took care of the reforestation site. This provided them with extra income. The resort also makes it a point to employ villagers, thereby supporting the local economy.The tasty udang galah and marble goby which we were served for dinners were also purchased from the locals.
A black and red broadbill at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah, Malaysia
Chasing after jumbos
After two nights at Abai, we moved down to Sukau. Enroute, four storm storks circled over our boat. We were fortunate to see them; Erik told us that only around 100 individuals were left in the Lower Kinabatangan.

Like its sister lodge at Abai, the chalets at Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge are raised on stilts. The lush garden of flowering trees attract nectar-feeders such as colourful sunbirds. The wooden deck by the river looked inviting and would have been a great stakeout spot for hornbills – if we had the time.
This black-and-yellow broadbill was seen collecting twigs and vines to build a nest.
People have seen wild elephants near Bilit village, about an hour upstream, so pretty soon, we too headed that way. And sure enough, the pygmy elephants were making their way upstream along the riverbank. Erik said the herd was about 40-strong, and we managed to see about 10 elephants, including a few young ones. Unconcerned by our presence, the jumbos continued chomping on the long grass, allowing everyone ample time to take pictures.
Having had our fill of elephants, we cruised down to Sungai Menanggul, the most popular tributary for wildlife spotting at Kinabatangan. Many proboscis monkeys gathered on the tree tops, their chosen spot to bed down for the night. An Oriental darter, rudely disturbed by our approaching boat, took off from its perch in a graceful swoop. We were thrilled as this bird is rarely seen in Peninsular Malaysia and yet in Kinabatangan, they are always sighted.
What we love most about Kinabatangan is that one does not have to don hiking boots or work up a sweat on muddy trails to see animals. Abai is still not on the main tourist trail but we found it to rival Sukau in terms of wildlife sightings.

We saw orang utans and proboscis monkeys on every river cruise. Also, crocodiles are more common at Abai since it is nearer to the river estuary. The saline condition also nurtures Sonneratia mangrove trees, on which fireflies congregate. So in Abai, you get to see fireflies lighting up the riverbank like Christmas trees at night.
A monster croc.
Even on the final day, as our boat headed back to Sandakan, there were still lots of animals to gawk at. Before leaving for our trip, we were worried that Kinabatangan might no longer be as wild as before, what with the expansion of agriculture schemes there.
Fortunately, our fears were laid to rest. When it comes to wildlife spotting, Kinabatangan certainly does not disappoint. But is that only because the animals have been pushed to slivers of riverine habitat, thus making them easier to be seen?

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1 comment:

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