Proclaimed somewhat grandly as Malaysia’s ‘Gift to Earth’, the mighty, muddy Sungai Kinabatangan is Sabah’s longest river, measuring 560km from its headwaters in the southwest to the point where it empties into the Sulu Sea. Logging and clearing for plantations have devastated the upper reaches of the river, but by a strange irony the riverine forest near the coast is so hemmed in by oil-palm plantations that an astonishing variety of wildlife is crammed into its limited boundaries.
The number one reason to come here is the wildlife, and the Kinabatangan is almost invariably a highlight of any nature-nutter’s trip to Sabah. Mammals can be seen at any time of year. Most bird activity happens in the wet season (October to March), but conditions can be uncomfortable, to say the least. In recent years, the annual floods have become progressively worse, with heavy rain lasting well into March; in 2006 entire villages had to be evacuated and the majority of tourist lodges and camps were unable to operate until the water levels went down. Conversely, during the dry season the river’s oxbow lakes may not have any water in them at all.
A narrow corridor of rainforest clings to the northern riverbank from the Sandakan-Lahad Datu road downstream to the mangrove-fringed estuary. Sightings of proboscis monkeys are common among the mangroves in the late afternoon, long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques are everywhere, and wild orang-utans are also often seen, particularly nesting in the trees downstream.
There’s a chance of seeing marbled cats in the forest, and flat-headed cats are seen regularly at night along the Menungal (a tributary of the Kinabatangan); other mammals include deer, giant squirrels and some very shy elephants.
Bird lovers will find the bird-watching incredible: all eight of Borneo’s hornbill species are seen regularly, two species of the gorgeous pittas are reasonably common, and if you’re lucky you may also come across Storm’s stork and the bizarre Oriental darter or snake-bird.
The success rate of animal-spotting largely depends on luck and the local knowledge of your guide – don’t be afraid to ask hard questions about the specifics of your trip before you sign up. Elephants and other larger animals come and go, as herds often break up to get through the palm plantations.