If I had one recommendation for Borneo, the Kinabatangan River would be it! Despite knowing absolutely nothing about the place when I first turned up, it very quickly became my absolute favourite place on the entire trip.
If you are at all interested in wildlife then you absolutely have to head here. Think sunrise and sunset boat safaris spotting exotic wildlife – and by exotic I mean crocodiles, elephants and wild orangutans – nature hikes and huge impressive, cathedral-like caves.
The Journey from Kinabalu National Park to Kota Kinabatangan
The first successful day of driving from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabalu National Park had lulled us into a false sense of security about what was to come. But the drive to Kota Kinabatangan turned that upside down.
According to Google Maps, the drive from Kinabalu National Park should take around 3.5 hours. We took closer to six.
Setting off grossly unprepared, with just an insufficiently detailed map as our guide we headed for the village of Bilit, our home for the next few days. The first 3 hours of the drive were fine, the scenery much more beautiful than the original drive from Kota Kinabalu to the National Park.
But getting closer to Kota Kinabatangan we found ourselves hopelessly lost (this won’t surprise anyone who knows me and Sally), driving in circles down dirt roads and through small villages with crowds of children running around, the standard reaction whenever we asked for directions being stares and giggles.
By the time we found Bilit it was dark and our accommodation was nowhere to be found. It turned out that it was located at the opposite side of the river, inaccessible by land. Being as unprepared as I was for that entire road trip I had failed to read the booking instructions that informed me to contact them in advance to arrange a boat transfer. We were now stranded, in the dark, with no working phone number and no way of getting across the river.
We asked the owner of a local homestay for help and in yet another stroke of luck (luck is pretty much the only way we survived our entire Borneo road trip) he happened to know the person on shift at our lodge that night. He arranged for a boat to pick us up and sat chatting with us and feeding us ice tea until our boat arrived to whisk us off to our lodge.
Wildlife spotting on the Kinabatangan River
We woke early the next morning to the sound of…absolutely nothing. Just forest. Leaves rustling in the wind and the occasional animal call in the trees. After months of travel and being immersed in the chaos of Southeast Asia, this little bit of isolation was welcomed with open arms.
We were at the Kinabatangan Sunshine Lodge, a small, quiet resort consisting of wooden huts sat on stilts above the rainforest floor. The rooms were basic but clean, if a little insect infested (it was particularly difficult to sleep on the first night after watching a huge spider ducking in and out of cracks in the wall for the preceding 30 minutes).
Like I said before, Kinabatangan is all about the wildlife. And the best way to see it is on a boat safari down the Kinabatangan River, a huge chocolate brown river stretching for 560km through the province of Kota Kinabatangan. Climbing into the boat on that first morning I was feeling sceptical. We had been promised wild orangutans, pygmy elephants and crocodiles. But we weren’t really going to see all of that were we?
Well Kinabatangan proved me wrong. Immediately after pulling away from the pier the boat stopped again, the guide pointing excitedly into the trees above our heads. There, perched high in a tree was a huge fluffy ball of bright orange fur. A wild orangutan. Right in front of us and right next to our accommodation. To see a wild orangutan in the flesh was incredible. But it didn’t stop there.
Next up were a family of proboscis monkeys, another endangered species of monkey native to Borneo with swollen bellies and phallic-like noses dangling from their faces. We saw a group of pygmy elephants playing and bathing in the river, grabbing huge piles of tree branches to eat. There were groups of monkeys, giant water monitors and colourful hornbills gliding overhead.
But the highlight of the day for me was the crocodile. A huge crocodile basking, still as a rock, on the banks of the river. I’m not sure whether our driver had a death wish but he got much closer to that giant crocodile than I would have liked. And moments later kept us floating underneath an overhanging tree with a huge black snake coiled inches above our heads.
But dangerous snake encounters aside, this was easily one of the best wildlife spotting excursions I have ever been on for the sheer diversity of wildlife and the high probability of spotting it. The safaris happen at sunrise and sunset for the best chance of spotting the animals and can be easily arranged through your accommodation.
If you’re going to do anything in Borneo – make this it!
What else is there to do in Kota Kinabatangan?
Most of the resorts and lodges along Kinabatangan River offer morning and nighttime nature hikes through the surrounding forest. We personally didn’t opt to do one – choosing a boat trip over the morning walk and too scared of creepy crawlies to attempt the night walk.
But the walks do offer the opportunity to see the very cute tarsiers (tiny bug-eyed primates endemic to this part of the World) and and all manner of weird and wonderful insects (if you’re into that kind of thing).
Bukit Belanda Hill
Bukit Belanda Hill is located just behind the village of Bilit. At 420m high it offers amazing views around the surrounding area, and the opportunity to see a bit more of the local wildlife. The start of the path is not particularly well signposted so ask your accommodation or a local to guide you there. And definitely tackle this in the morning, before the sun gets too hot.
We debated over a visit to the Gomantong Caves for quite a while, eventually deciding against it because, well, they seemed downright unpleasant. Tales of bats and 10 foot mounds of guano covered in thousands of dung beetles.
However, they are apparently extremely impressive and fascinating so probably worth a visit if you’re not too squeamish about these kind of things. They are also the location for the collection of swiftlet birds nests used to make birds nest soup.
To get to the caves you can either drive yourself or arrange a tour through your accommodation. Check out the Lonely Planet’s summary for driving directions.
Batu Tulug Caves
These were our caves of choice. We had a spare few hours inbetween our morning and evening boat safaris and decided to head here.
The Batu Tulug caves are a series of caves located inside a limestone hill, about 40km from Kota Kinabatangan township. The caves contain over 125 ancient Chinese log coffins and are full of bats.
The caves are located at different intervals along the hill with the end goal being to reach the top of the hill where you can rest and admire some of the breathtaking views stretching out all around you. Its a bit of an odd day out but worth it for the scenery at the top.
Where to Stay in Kota Kinabatangan
Most of the accommodation is located along the edges of the Kinabatangan River and ranges from homestays and budget accommodation right through to luxury resorts.
We stayed in the Kinabatangan Sunshine Lodge which offers fairly basic, budget accommodation. All meals are included in the price of the room and are served buffet style in the large open-air restaurant.
Wherever you decide to stay, don’t end up in the same situation we did. Check your booking confirmation. Check where your accommodation is located and whether you need to arrange some kind of pick up point and time.
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