Sepilok & Kinabatangan

The next destination of our time on Borneo was one that we had spent a bit of time researching into, as our hunt to see wild orangutan continued. Sadie had picked this location, as its reputed for being one of the best places to see them in the whole of the Borneo/Sumatra area. As she mentioned in the previous blog, we got it booked whilst in Sandakan.
The area is called Kinabatangan River, and is around a 2-hour drive south of Sandakan, however the tour company can pick us up either at your hotel or at Sepilok, so we opted for the latter as we wanted to see what it was like.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was set up by an Englishwoman called Barbara Harrison and opened in 1964 and is like Semenggoh that we visited whilst in Kuching, however the major difference is that this place still operates as a centre and has a nursery area which opened in 2014, and allows the public to view the nursery and watch the babies learn to be outside. So, although the babies and juveniles are kept indoors and have a lot of contact with humans, they slowly get rehabilitated and are free to roam around the reserve, and the younger ones are ‘buddied’ up with an older one, to assist this process. 

We got a taxi up with all our bags to the centre, and paid our entrance fee of 30MYR, which allows you to attend both the morning & afternoon feeding sessions plus entry to the nursery area.
They also provide free lockers to keep all your belongings in, as you’re not allowed to take any bags at all into the reserve in case a monkey or orangutan tries to grab it!
We got there with a bit of time before the first feed of the day, so we headed up the wooden boardwalk towards the nursery. Just as we got near it, there was 2 or 3 orangutans playing in the trees about 30 metres away. We watched them for a bit (one fell out the tree which was hilarious, see the video) and then went for a quick look in the nursery. As mentioned this is a fairly new addition and it allows the public to view the orangutan outdoor area through huge tinted glass windows in 2 rooms, to apparently stop them seeing humans, although it doesn’t work too well when direct sunlight hits one of them! There is some platforms, ropes and various other things to help them learn to climb, one of their most important skills. There was at least half a dozen out and about playing in this area, though remember they are free to roam if they wanted too. 

It was then time to head to the viewing platform for the feeding, it’s the same set up as Semenggoh where they put out some fruit twice a day, however they don’t always come especially in fruiting season. But of course, the pesky gangster macaques will be around to snaffle anything that’s going!
One of the few we seen earlier in the trees came down one of the ropes, in a hilarious cartwheel which almost looked as if it was put on for the waiting tourists. He went down to the platform, where one of the rangers had put some fruit out, so the orangutan picked some bananas up, and pretty much turned his back on everyone waiting. The ranger sat for a bit near him, then left as he continued to tuck into his fruit. We watched for a bit, but sadly no others came and then one of the other rangers informed us that it was nearly feeding time at the nursery, so we went back up there.

The rangers brought out a couple of buckets of fruit for the orangutans who swiftly got stuck in to them. There was a female one with a young baby, it may have been hers but as mentioned, they put them with older ones to interact. The baby was so cute, tucking into a slice of watermelon and stealing bananas when it could. We watched this for a bit, there was one in particular who was just a little bit crazy, jumping, rolling, throwing dirt about and generally just being a little troublemaker, it was hilarious. Then they rangers played with them briefly, before leading them off by the hand back towards where they are kept indoors to monitor their health etc.


We still had a couple of hours to kill till 13:30 when our lift was due to arrive, so we headed off out the hot and humid jungle and into the little café for lunch. And before long, just 15 minutes late, a minivan with Sukau GreenviewB&B pulled into the car park and off we went on the 2-hour journey south towards Kinabatangan. We shared the minivan with a girl called Michelle who was from Seattle and was nice and we shared travelling stories and got some tips for some places. One hilarious moment on the journey was that she thought she seen a rhino near the side of the road, but as we later found out after she had gone, they are not even found here, though she would have been telling her story to others I bet!/

Kinabatangan River is the 2nd longest river in Malaysia, at over 560km long and is known to be one of the best areas in all South-East Asia for animal & plant life. We hoped to see plenty, with the main prize of a wild orangutan in the back of our minds. Sadly, this area is so good for wildlife due to the deforestation by excessive logging and palm oil plantations, something far too common across Malaysia. The plantations are abundant and you need to pass endless fields of them to get to the small township of Sukau, where we were based for the 3D2N package we had booked. This has practically forced any remaining wildlife into smaller jungle near the banks of the river, hence it being so popular with tourists. And guest houses, B&B’s plus several homestays offering cruises and a few other trips from Sukau and another nearby village of Bilit. 

There isn’t much around the area, no 7-11 stores, no bars etc, whether it remains like that who knows, but the river keeps everyone occupied and brings in the tourists. With one single track road leading in and out the village to our accommodation, on one side of the road is the cabins, plus a few dorms and a building called the Green House which is slightly more expensive as it’s nearly new and has bigger rooms apparently. We opted for the basic cabin, which had air-con and double bed and was a decent size.

On the other side of the road is the restaurant where we would get fed as part of our package with breakfast, lunch and dinner included along with tea/coffee all day. Reception area is also part of this building, along with some cats and kittens lounging around.

We had arrived around 15:45, and with our first 2-hour afternoon river cruise due to start at 16:00, there was just time to check in to our chalet, dump the bags and head back to the restaurant to await our departure from the small jetty attached to the restaurant.
We met Rex, our guide for this first cruise, and we had another local lad who would take control of the boat. This didn’t happen on all the cruises we did, which must make it harder for the guide to actually spot the wildlife, as he then has to worry about the boat too (and especially on the night cruises where it’s done by a powerful lamp).
So we got onboard, and off we went up the river. The Kinabatangan is a muddy brown water river, with the current not moving too fast, but with a lot of forest debris bobbing along down it. As there are a few other properties doing similar packages, most of the other boat traffic you see on these trips are fellow tourists, so the obligatory wave across happens a lot. Scattered down the river banks are several other resorts, some fancy looking and others just basic. Both sides of the river have jungle down most of it, plus there are wetland patches and several narrower tributaries that shoot off, some of which we explored over the few days we were there. 

It was exciting to be just cruising along the river, with only a few of us on the boat, however the rain soon started and luckily Rex had brought some ponchos, so at least we didn’t get soaked. Thankfully it was the only time it rained out of all the cruises we did, so guess we got lucky.

Anyway, on to the wildlife and what we saw on that first trip was amazing, it was so lovely to see so much out there in the wild and not in captivity or semi-wild. For our first trip we seen plenty of long tail and short tail Macaques (a theme repeated on nearly every trip), a few types of birds plus a water monitor lizard. The highlight though was seeing a harem of Proboscis Monkeys, who are endemic to Borneo. The males either live in a bachelor group or as a harem with all the females and infants. They are easily identifiable as the males have a long nose that hangs over their mouth, have a bigger belly and have a bright red penis that is always erect!! 

The afternoon and morning cruises last for 2 hours, with the night one for an hour. So, after we had been up the river and along one of the tributaries, we headed back to the B&B for dinner. Lunch and dinner was always a chicken/beef dish, rice, veg and salad. The food though was tasty, and we usually got some fruit for dessert.

After that, we headed back to our cabin for a quick change into long sleeved tops and trousers, sprayed lots of insect repellent on and then went back over for the night cruise. This time we got another guide called Sugi, who was a bit older and seemed keener to get us seeing as much as possible. We then got him for all our trips, apart from the last day when he had to go to Sandakan to take a private tour of people wanting to see the Borneo Pygmy Elephant. We did consider adding this trip on to our package, but at around £50 each, with no guarantee of even seeing them along with a 2-3-hour boat trip to get to where they were last seen, we gave it a miss. 

For this night cruise, it was just me and Sadie plus Michelle on it so we had the 12-seater boat to ourselves. There is something a bit eerie about cruising down the river, with just the guide using a big torch to spot what there is, as it is pitch black with only a few lights from nearby properties. What is more noticeable is the amount of sounds you can hear all around, as we creep along the river banks looking to see what is around. We saw a few birds asleep, some baby crocodiles and a few fireflies, however it was my least favourite cruise out of the 3.

We opted for an early night after the night cruise (plus there is no beer around), as the morning cruise departs at 06:00 and so the alarm was set for 05:15 to ensure we managed a coffee before heading onto the river. The coffee they had was very strong, and after a few you felt a bit wired and it set you up for a busy day. Today we had a morning cruise, a jungle trek, afternoon cruise and we were meant to do a night trek, but swapped that for another night cruise as neither of us fancied stumbling about in a muddy dark jungle.
The river had an amazing mist hovering above it, it was sometimes so thick you couldn’t see the other side on one morning. As we sailed along the river, it slowly lifted and then sunrise came and we both agreed that the morning cruise was the best by far. This one brought another load of monkeys, a few different birds and an eagle.

As there are a few other boats out and about, and as the guides obviously all know each other and notice that if one boat stops near the riverbank, they tend to go over to see what they have spotted.
It works quite well, as this morning was to prove, about an hour into our cruise, we spotted one boat looking up into the trees at the start of a tributary. We headed towards them, and I could see that the guide was excited as he waved to Sugi to slow down, and he made a swinging motion with his arm. Could it be that he had spotted our top prize, the wild orangutan?

We edged closer to the other boat, and yes, he had! There was one in the trees about 20m away from us, just one but it was so amazing to see. It didn’t hang around long sadly, as it clambered through a few trees and eventually went out of sight. We had been lucky enough to see what we had dreamed of, and it was truly wonderful. Everyone on the boat was just in awe of how amazing it was to see, although it’s sadly becoming less common to see them, and it was the only one we managed to see on our cruises. But we feel very privileged to have done so, in their natural habitat.

We headed back to base not long after that, and had breakfast which was just noodles, fried egg and toast. It was ok, and filled us up but after the 2nd day it got a bit boring, but with no shops or restaurants nearby, it’s what we were stuck with. No sooner than we had finished that, it was time for our next activity which was an hour-long jungle trek. Now we weren’t sure about this, due to the heat of the morning, the number of mosquitos about and more so the possibility of leeches! I’d especially bought long socks for this, and was glad to see they provided us with some wellies too, and thankfully so, as we discovered.

Again, it was just myself and Sadie, so Sugi took us over the other side of the river on the boat, and about 10 minutes downstream he went over to the river bank. So off we jumped and went into the jungle, now we knew that we wouldn’t see much wildlife as they would hear us coming and scarper, but it was an interesting walk anyway. Sugi told us a few stories about the locals who use the jungle, we managed to see some unusual flora and Sadie did spot the very rare Mouse Deer (apparently even harder to spot than the Orangutan). We also seen a pygmy squirrel, a weird millipede that is like a huge wood-lice and a tarantula who was hiding down a hole in a tree. What did surprise us was how muddy it was, and we were glad of those wellies as the mud came up to the top of them. After an hour, we got back to the boat and headed back, any longer would have been a bit much for me.

Arriving back about 11:00, we had a couple of hours spare before lunch, then another couple of hours after that before our 2nd afternoon cruise. By this point, we were really enjoying our time there and didn’t want to leave the next morning, so planned to stay another day and fit another couple of cruises in. We really wanted to do the elephant one, but with limited cash with us and no ATM for miles, we settled on booking another morning and afternoon one for the following day.
It’s a pretty full on schedule whilst at the B&B, but what little down time we did have, we got chatting to fellow travellers and exchanged stories, tips and chatted about life on the road. It was a really nice, relaxing place to chill out in the restaurant overlooking the river, and I’d have stayed a few more days if we could, but would have got even more expensive as we would be booking lots of cruises!

The afternoon and night cruises brought more monkeys, birds and other various things, and Sugi has excellent skills as a guide. Sadly, he told us he was leaving that day to go on a task, so we would have Rex again for our extra day. Strangest thing we seen that day was a bird asleep in a tree right next to the river, which Sugi called the Angry Bird… and true enough, it did look like one… it’s official name being a Black & Red Broadbill. After our 2nd night cruise, we headed back to bed after an action-packed day, it fairly tires you out.

The next morning, we set off again with Rex this time, and whilst he is a nice lad, he just doesn’t have the same enthusiasm as Sugi, and often was seen on his mobile and not spotting…
We did manage to see more monkeys, a few rare birds and even an eagle which was nice to see.
On the afternoon cruise, we seen the usual suspects plus the highlight was a snake, the only one we saw during our time there too. 


With our cruises completed, as we decided not to do the night one on our last day, it was chill time and trying to plan out our next few days. But with dodgy wi-fi and barely a phone signal, this was proving harder than we thought. Eventually I managed to get a place booked in Semporna for a couple of nights, so we arranged for our hosts to drop us off in the morning at the end of the road/junction so we could catch the bus there.
But as we sat discussing the following mornings plans, we both decided that we would kick ourselves if we didn’t do the morning cruise before leaving as there is always that chance to see more Orangutan! It had turned into an expensive week, but worth every penny as it’s once in a lifetime stuff, like our turtle experience just the previous week.

So off we went to bed early again, for the 3rd day running we had a 05:15 alarm call. But as I mentioned, the river is beautiful at that time of day, and the sounds of the morning chorus is unbelievable. Sadly, we didn’t see any more than we had already done, apart from a different couple of birds. And after a quick breakfast, a slight panic as we thought we would miss our connecting bus due to people being slow, we managed to just catch the bus to Semporna as we pulled into the bus stop just ahead of it!

I tried to make a list of what we saw, not sure if 100% correct species, but you get the idea of the variety there.

Proboscis Monkeys
Short Tail Macaques
Long Tail Macaques
Water Monitor Lizard
Asian Kingfisher
Buffy Fish Owls
Baby Crocodiles
Asian Black Hornbill
Oriental Darter
Yellow Kingfisher
White Belly Sea Eagle
Mouse Deer
Pygmy Squirrel
Rhino Hornbill
Pied Fan Tail
Black and Red Broadbill
Stork Bill Kingfisher
Southern Eagle
Oriental Hornbill
Yellow Lizard/Banana Snake
Bushy Crested Hornbill
Great Egret
Blue Eared Kingfisher


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