Travels around Malaysia – Part 5: Kinabatangan River

This is the fifth in a series of blogs that describes our holiday on the Malaysian Peninsular and the Malaysian portion of Borneo.

Heading into the Red Zone

Before we moved on from Lankayan Island, we had to decide if it was safe to continue our trip.  Approximately one hundred armed men from the Sulu archipelago, who had previously invaded and occupied an east coast village in Sabah, exchanged gunfire with Malaysian forces tragically resulting in many fatalities.  Malaysian authorities moved extra military and police into the area and created a “Red Zone”.  We were already in the zone and the final parts of our journey would take us further into it.  The UK Foreign Office (FCO) advice was to consider leaving the area and indeed some UK based travel agents had immediately pulled their customers out, along with a number of other nationalities who cancelled their trip.  The FCO guidance also said to follow advice of local police, who in turn were saying their measures made it safe for tourists to continue.  This led to some soul searching as to our next move, plus much information gathering by Selective Asia and local sources. After lengthy discussion we decided the risk was acceptable and continued on deeper into the Red Zone.

Buli Sim Sim water villageWe travelled back to Sandikan (armed military on the streets for reassurance), gathering at Buli Sim Sim water village.  The village was interesting in itself plus in some huge tanks there were some extraordinary large fish kept not for my supper, but for Feng Shui purposes.  We departed by boat along the coast on the Sulu Sea, to the mouth of the Kinabatangan River (Malaysia’s second longest river).  A 90 min journey took us to the Abai Lodge for a very pleasant lunch, then back on the boat for a further hour delivered us to our accommodation.

Early morning Rainforest mistDuring our stay we went for three river cruises to spot wildlife, one an early morning, pre breakfast start.  There’s something almost ethereal about watching the sun try to burn off the misty shroud of the rainforest.  There were plenty of animals about during our trips, but there’s also a tranquility and serenity about cruising the river in a small boat, accompanied by the soundtrack of birds and monkeys singing or calling.  There’s such beauty to see; an Orangutan looking at us at the foot of the tree while we’re looking up at him shading in the leaves – who’s curious about who? The Rhino Hornbill or the Crested Serpent Eagle sitting majestically at the top of trees, surveying their territory and catching the first sun rays of the day.  Then there’s the Proboscis Monkeys, with their long bulbous noses, showing their athleticism by leaping long jump style from tree to tree.

Macaque climbs out after his swimOf course there are sights to remind you that this is the wild and often about harsh survival.  There’s the monitor lizard basking in the sun after feeding on the carcass of a dead lizard, the smell of carrion in the air.  The thrill of watching a macaque swim across the river, with crocodiles in it, your heart in your mouth, will he make it…will he…oh thank goodness he made it…Phew!  Pretty stupid really as 400m downstream the WWF had put a rope across the river so the monkeys could cross without danger!  Perhaps this one didn’t read the memo!

The highlight without doubt, was finding a herd of about twenty, Walt Disney cute,  Pygmy Elephants.  They were happily tearing up and munching the vegetation when we arrived, ears flapping and not really that bothered that we’d made it to within a few feet to watch them.  Then one of the other boats just got a bit too close and a chorus of angry trumpeting told us to keep our distance.  It was magnificent to see them up close and was enough in itself to make this part of the trip worthwhile, without all the other things we had seen.

We were reminded that our swimming macaque from earlier was in real danger when we were exploring one of the river’s tributaries.  Alongside our small boat a massive crocodile (judged to be four metres) thrashed into the water and surfaced just behind the boat.  Our driver (closest to the croc now) jumped as if he’d been electrocuted, wound the throttle round and our craft shot off like we were taking part in a power boat race.

Modelling our sarongsOur accommodation was at the Kinabatangun Riverside Lodge, managed by S.I.Tours, who also provided our very good, knowledgeable guide George.  The lodge is a wooden structure, in keeping with its Rainforest surroundings, providing simple but comfortable chalet style accommodation all connected by raised walkways.  The staff where so friendly and the food provided in our inclusive package was lovely.  You are provided with and encouraged to participate in wearing the traditional sarong at dinner.  It’s worth saying that pretty much everyone we met in all parts of Malaysian Borneo were absolutely delightful.  It was no different when we walked into the nearby village of Sukau.  I’ve never been anywhere where so many people passing say hello and smile, or gently toot and wave from a passing motorbike or car.

Next stop Danum Valley.

For holidays to Asia, Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia.

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Steve Aldridge

Award-winning travel writer

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