Amuse-bouche to keep us from starving during the boarding process
Amuse-bouche to keep us from starving during the boarding process
Zebra crossing?
Zebra crossing?
Palm trees in the fall time in Zurich
Palm trees in the fall time in Zurich
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion

Kinabantangan.  That’s a mouthful but it rolls off the tounge once you get used to it.  It’s the name of a river in northern Sabah that has recently been protected as a wildlife refuge.  It is indeed chock full of animals but the underlying reason is a bit sad.

Soon after we left the highlands around Kinabalu the land flattened out and we rode through endless fields of palm trees.  Malaysia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil and much of it comes from Sabah.  As the demand for palm oil rose over the last century the rainforests of Sabah were cleared to make room for massive palm oil plantations.  One of the few areas untouched by this development was the sliver of land carved out by the Kinabatangan River.

We arranged a three-day, two-night trip with the Greenview B&B in Sukau, a little village along the river.  The tour included all meals, transport from Sandakan, accommodation and a smattering of boat tours and hikes.

Day 1 of the trip included a boat cruise in the late afternoon.  We motored along the river for a while and spotted a few hornbills flying about.  Eventually we turned down a narrow canal that emptied into the river.  It wasn’t long before we started to see monkeys – lots of monkeys.  The most common were macaques (both the long-tail and pig-tail variety) but the most popular among us tourists were the proboscis monkeys.  Proboscis monkeys, specifically the dominant males, have a nose of cartoon proportions that photographs well.

A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.

After a long while staring at the monkeys, our boat driver received a call on his cell phone.  Yeah, we weren’t exactly way out in the wilderness.  Regardless, the phone call was to inform him that some of the area’s pygmy elephants had been spotted nearby.  I can’t say that I have received a phone call about elephants but it seemed like an everyday thing for the guides.  We sped off down the canal at a rate which  made me feel sorry for the other tourists who were just arriving.

A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys

Closer to the village we pulled up along the bank and saw some of the trees and bushes moving around.  Inside the guide promised were “some” elephants.  A short while later we heard the distinctive trumpeting of an elephant.  There was a rather large group of them in the forest but we could only see a few that were nearest the river bank.  Apparently, we were lucky to see them at all and they are definitely one of the rarest mammals we’ve seen in the wild – only a few thousand individuals are estimated to remain.  As adults they only stand about 2 meters tall, much smaller than normal elephants.

Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants

After a buffet dinner back at the B&B we went on a night boat ride.  We spotted quite a few owls, a reticulated python and a few kingfishers.  Photography was pretty tough but the guide’s spotlight helped us get a few good shots.

Reticulated python
Reticulated python

The next morning we rose early and took another boat ride.  Some eagles were out fishing in the river and we passed a “school boat” filled with kids on their way to school.  A short while later we got another glimpse of the pygmy elephants, this time it was an immature female.

Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!

We stopped at one point and went on a short hike through the jungle and found a number of huge insects.  When I think of a rollie-pollie I think of a small insect the size of a pencil eraser.  In Borneo, their rollie-pollies are the size of ping pong balls!  We also spotted some nicely camouflaged insects like this leaf bug.

A leaf bug
A leaf bug

All of the tourist material about the Borneo jungle gives some information about the leeches.  Fortunately for us, our visit was well-timed during the dry season and they are much less active.  We only saw one during our stay and it was happily attached to the back of one of the other tourists staying at our B&B.  Despite their vile reputation, apparently the leeches in this area really aren’t all that dangerous as they don’t host diseases like mosquitoes.  Nevertheless, I was happy not to have been bitten!

Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle

On our second night of the tour we completed a nighttime hike through the jungle behind the B&B.  We wore waterproof boots to deal with the muck and very slowly made our way through the jungle.   Thorny vines were the main bother and the mosquitoes really weren’t all that bad.

We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

Overall we were only moderately impressed with the tour.  Then again, we have both been on some really good boat tours on this trip so the competition is a bit steep.  Being able to see the pygmy elephants in the wild was certainly the highlight for both of us.  Both the guidebooks and the local tourist literature flaunt the Kinabatangan as a haven for bird spotting but our tour, and I suspect many of the competing outfits, are just not setup for this kind of tourism.  There are simply too many people visiting a very small area of land.  This aspect of the tour left me disappointed.

Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan

The biggest take-away for me from these three days was the environmental impact of the palm oil industry.  What this industry has done to the landscape of Borneo is very sad and I will certainly be more conscious in the future when I see products at the store containing palm oil.

Kinabatangan River
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
Our mode of transport for the three days of the excursion
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
After about an hour I concluded that this lifevest was far more valuable as a cushion than as a floatation device.
Hornbills
Hornbills
A male proboscis monkey.  The most famous nose in Borneo.
A male proboscis monkey. The most famous nose in Borneo.
Oriental Darter
Oriental Darter
A family of proboscis monkeys
A family of proboscis monkeys
A female proboscis and her child
A female proboscis and her child
Bornean pygmy elephants
Bornean pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
Borneo pygmy elephants
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
“The Lion King Photo” according to a Dutch guy on our tour.
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Plenty of geckos around our guest house
Reticulated python
Reticulated python
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Kingfisher, the smallest species in Borneo I was told.
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Early morning sighting of a red-haired monkey
Boat cruise at dawn
Boat cruise at dawn
It's the school boat!
It’s the school boat!
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephants again, this is an immature female.
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Pygmy elephant, an immature female
Oriental darters
Oriental darters
Water monitor lizard - about 5ft long
Water monitor lizard – about 5ft long
Rollie-pollie bug...the size of a ping pong ball!
Rollie-pollie bug…the size of a ping pong ball!
A large hive of bees
A large hive of bees
A leaf bug
A leaf bug
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
It looks like smoke but it is actually fungi spores coming out of a log.
Elephant ear - a type of fungus.  Literally the size of an elephant's ear.
Elephant ear – a type of fungus. Literally the size of an elephant’s ear.
A walking stick
A walking stick
Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
Lots and lots of tourists visit the Kinabatangan
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
A quick glimpse of a very shy otter
Night walk through the jungle
Night walk through the jungle
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk
We saw some really crazy looking bugs during the night walk

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