After some research, it appears that the best place to see orangutans and other wildlife in Borneo is in Sabah and specifically from the jumping off point of Sandakan in northeast Borneo. After spending a couple of nights in Sandakan, I moved to Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the banks of the Kinabatangan River inside the rainforest. The speedboat ride from Sandakan to Sukau took about 2.5 hours. Sukau Rainforest Lodge is a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World which means it is more than a world-class hotel, it is also an ecolodge dedicated to protecting the surrounding habitats and cultures. The 20-room and 20-villa Sukau Rainforest Lodge is built on wooden stilts and connected by raised walkways blending into the rainforest. The lodge can be booked through Borneo Eco Tours on a full board basis with two daily river cruises. The river cruises are conducted early in the morning at 6am and again around 4pm in small river boats. There is a Hornbill Boardwalk at the lodge with orangutan and bird sightings and educational walking tours led by the lodge’s naturalist. I joined one of their 4-day orangutan search tour programs. Sukau Rainforest Lodge is supposed to be the most “luxurious” option along the river but it doesn’t even come close to the lodges I have stayed in elsewhere say Africa. But to be fair those lodges in Africa are also much more expensive. There is air-conditioning in the rooms which is a lifesaver in this part of the world as it is also hot and very humid. The service here is just okay and on the slow side. Because you stay on an all-inclusive basis, there is no à a carte menu and all the meals are served buffet style (and I have never liked buffets). The food is okay but not much variety especially after staying there 3 nights. In terms of the river cruises, there is a guide to lead a group of about 8-9 people which is not too big of a group except that the guide also has to steer the boat. Even the guide said he would have liked to have a captain to steer the boat so that he can focus on searching for wildlife amongst the dense forest.
It is said that Kinabatangan River offers very good chances of wild oranguatan sightings. But as the guides would say with all wildlife viewings, it all depends on luck and I wasn’t so lucky this time. The area was not teeming with wildlife like I had imagined. It could be because the rains came late this year and even though we were supposed to be in the dry season, it almost rained everyday and at times very hard too. The Kinabatangan River is Sabah’s longest river and the second longest river in Malaysia with the lower Kinabatangan River a protected wildlife sanctuary. This area of oxbow lakes and mangrove swamps is home to the Borneo Big Five: Orangutans, Proboscis Monkeys, Esturarine Crocodiles which are the largest crocodile species in the world, Pygmy Elephants, and Malaysia’s national bird, the Rhinoceros Hornbill. The Kinabatangan area is one of two known places in the world with 10 primate species such as the orangutan, long tail macaques, pigtail macaques, silver leaf money, prosboscis monkey, maroon langur, and bornean gibbon. It is estimated that 1,100 orangutans live in the lower Kinabatangan River. Wildlife viewing here is rather effortless since it is all conducted by boat unlike in other places where you are required to trek in the dense rainforest. Having said that I think the area is very spread out and wildlife sightings are not as easy as is claimed.
On one of the afternoons, we were taken to the Gomantong Caves which is home to millions of Wrinkle Lipped Free-tailed bats and swiftlets as well as millions of cockroaches. Yikes! Most visitors come here to see the million of bats’ nightly exodus from the cave (because it was raining when we went, we didn’t see this spectacular sight). When the bats leave the caves at night, the swiftlets fly in. The swiftlets’ nests are harvested twice a year and can sell for over US$1,000 per kilo to make bird’s nest soup. It is not harvest time for bird nests when I went but I can see the rattan ladders and ropes inside the caves used by the licensed locals who climb up to the roof to collect these valuable nests. The cave is not a pleasant place to visit at all. There are faeces from the bats and swiftlets forming layers of guano that is food for millions of dung beetles and cockroaches. You can imagine the smell… With the cockroaches crawling everywhere, it feels like I’m inside the cave of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom! Cringe! Anyways the cave is surrounded by primary rainforest with many fig trees which is a favorite fruit of the orangutan. We did see several newly built nests but no orangutans made an appearance. ☹️
I came all the way here originally to see the wild orangutans and truth be told I was a bit disappointed to only see a mother and her baby in the wild and no sightings of any male orangutans with their large cheek pads. Turns out orangutans are solitary animals and territorial making them more difficult to spot than the proboscis monkeys who live in groups. I didn’t know much about the proboscis monkey before coming here, but I really fell in love with them. They are so full of expression and are so interesting to watch. I was also hoping to see the endangered pygmy elephants which some people saw a couple days before. Again no such luck. I think if you do come, manage your expectations and be prepared for the heat and humidity and sudden torrential downpours. Just like my previous experience on the Amazon River, wild animals are rather elusive and not all that easy to see. At least I saw or caught a glimpse of four out of the Borneo Big Five. If I do come to Borneo again (unlikely), I will try to go to Danum Valley to see if I have better luck there with wildlife encounters.
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