Going to Sukau along the Kinabatangan River in the east coast of Sabah, North Borneo was one of my two main back-to-the-nature domestic trips for last year. The first one to Tabin Wildlife Nature Reserve in Lahad Datu materialised in early May 2016 and it was an amazing trip to remember (you can read it here). However, the trip to Sukau that was initially planned for October had not been so smooth-going.
Due to the clash of dates with a supposed business trip overseas, my trip to meet with the renowned wildlife in Sukau had to be postponed not just once but twice, from October to February this year and later to June when I eventually got the chance to pack my bags and head for Sukau for the long-awaited 3 days/2 nights short trip.
I arrived a day early in Sandakan from Kota Kinabalu and was picked up early from the hotel the following day. The first stop was the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
Though we did not spot any orangutans (人猿/紅毛猩猩) at the feeding platform, we were very fortunate to have encountered this big guy instead at the sun bear observation boardwalk right next to the orangutan centre…
After a short introduction on the Bornean sun bear/honey bear (馬來熊), we walked along the boardwalk to the observation area and we spotted this little guy enjoying his lazy day among a few others that have been rescued and placed at the centre for rehabilitation.
the journey commenced…
After lunch and with excitement, we headed to the jetty in town for a 2.5 hours boat ride on a speed boat with covered top and open sides to the resort along the Kinabatangan River. Our group was comprised of a young Irish couple whom I got on very well with, a young Indian couple from Mumbai, a Swedish family of 3 and myself.
After just a short ride of about 20 minutes across the open sea, we reached the outlet of Kinabatangan River, the longest river in Sabah and the second in Malaysia, and started cruising upstream. The sight that first greeted us was the salty mangrove swamp that went for miles before the freshwater swamp forest took over as we travelled further.
Unfortunately, the weather also started to turn…
Good thing was we were told in advance by our experienced nature guide Hamit to bring along our rain jackets as the rest of our luggage were travelling by land to the resort. It rained for the rest of the journey and when we eventually arrived at the resort, we wasted no time to get out of the boat and were hurried along by the welcoming party to a nice big wooden building, the Gomantong Hall for shelter.
After we checked in to our respective accommodation, freshened up and had simple afternoon tea at the Gecko Lounge, we were ready for our first late afternoon excursion. The rain had stopped by the time we got on the boat. The rain-washed air was fresh and the temperature had cooled down considerably after the downpour.
Bornean wildlife and birds, here we come!
I almost screamed in sheer delights when we spotted the long-nosed and big-bellied proboscis monkeys (長鼻猴)! I had wanted to see them in their natural habitat for so long and it was a little hard to contain my excitement!
The proboscis monkeys are endemic to the island of Borneo and they are normally found in coastal areas and along the river banks. They are never far away from a river source and favour river and mangrove forests. Hence, they are common in this area along the Kinabatangan River.
spot the monkeys…
I had been longing to see two iconic and protected groups of animals in the area and was hoping desperately that I had come at the right time and this was the right season to encounter them. After the sighting of the proboscis monkeys, I managed to tick one of the boxes. As for the second group of animal, thank God I was not disappointed as when we were cruising further down the river bank, we spotted them – the Borneo pygmy elephants (婆羅州小矮象)!!! Wow!
The shy herbivorous Borneo pygmy elephants are mainly found here on the island of Borneo, in my home state of Sabah. They have big ears, long tail and a round face that give them their appealing baby face appearance. They are small in size and in fact, they are the smallest in Asia with the male elephants grow to a height of less than 2.5 meters/8 foot while other Asian elephants grow to 3 meters/about 10 foot.
Hamit told us that they love to eat durian. Really, the thorny durian?
We stayed quietly on the boat and watched them for some time before we were willing to say goodbye as it was getting dark. We continued to cruise along the river and when we just went round a bend we came face to face with another group of elephants happily munching away by the river bank. I managed to capture a young mother with her baby who were really close to the edge of the river…
Just one afternoon I had both of my long-standing dreams fulfilled —
Proboscis monkeys, spotted!
Borneo pygmy elephants, spotted!
I was happy and contended as I managed to achieve what I had come to Sukau for, and was not expecting anything anymore. However, unbeknownst to us there was one huge surprise in store for us the next day —
This little family of 3 with a mummy elephant and her two young offspring who were having an outing decided to say hi to us. The close encounter was really more than what we could have asked for. I wondered how we managed to keep still and watch in silent the little delightful scene taking place before our eyes.
The second morning after our early morning cruise, Hamit took us on the boardwalk just behind the resort for a short tour.
Sukau Rainforest Lodge
The resort I stayed with was the multiple award-winning Sukau Rainforest Lodge. It was built on the river bank of the Kinabatangan River and is also one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.
“Sukau Rainforest Lodge has developed into an integral part of the Kinabatangan River community, promoting sustainability initiatives to preserve the forest and sustain its people” — National Geographic
icing on the cake
It has been an incredible journey for me with the sighting of the wildlife but my experience of the whole trip was elevated when I had the privilege to have my room upgraded to the newly launched villas of the resort.
I like the finishing touches too…
Who would have thought that there is such luxury in the rainforest?!
after bidding farewell…
On the return journey I decided to go by land, along with the luggage in the van instead of getting on the boat to Sandakan the same way we came. I wanted a change of scenery, I said. Though I knew it would just be miles and miles of oil palm plantations lining both sides of the road and I risked getting myself upset seeing how our beautiful nature has been destroyed and exploited for commercial gain, and the natural habitat of our precious wildlife being threatened and is gradually lost.
My intention was purely to see how much the rural landscape of Sandakan has changed over the years but what I did not expect was my decision to change the itinerary turned out to be a blessing. Just a few minutes after we started the journey, the rain came pouring down! How nice it was to be sitting comfortably in the van and staying dry!
When my trip was being postponed again and again, and with the trouble I had to go through to get my air tickets sorted (first with the airline help desk messing up one of the dates after my first two postponed trips and later the flight was “retimed” etc), I had doubt if I should make the trip at all. Only later that I realised it was all blessings in disguise as with the change of dates, I was able to see the proboscis monkeys in large quantities and especially the pygmy elephants who usually migrate after a certain period of time, and my luxurious accommodation. Truly a blessed trip!
last but not least…
My sincere thanks to Mr. Albert Teo, the founder of Sukau Rainforest Lodge and Managing Director of Borneo Eco Tours and Mr. Timothy Teo, Director of Borneo Eco Tours (http://www.sukau.com, https://www.borneoecotours.com) for their kind gesture in upgrading my room to the impressive new villa where I had a very comfortable stay. I was well looked after and a big thank you to your efficient, friendly and courteous team.
This trip is, and will be one of my most treasured moments to behold.