Kinabatangan River cruise – close encounters with Borneo wildlife

Most of today was taken up by traveling from Danum Valley to Sukau for our stay at Osman Homestay to look for wildlife of Kinabatangan River. We left the field center at about 8 am and saw a group of Borneo Pygmy elephants again on the way out.

By lunchtime, we made it to the unappealing town of Batu Puteh and stopped for some food. Amazingly, the restaurant, that looked more like a soup kitchen, had free Wi-Fi service, something Sydney should be embarrassed about since almost none of the cafes in Sydney offer free Wi-Fi.

See my story about this wildlife watching trip in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph

Gomantong Cave

Having eaten and connected to the world, we headed for Gomantong cave. Jo wanted to see the bats emerge at dusk and we were crossing our fingers that the rain would stay away for the spectacle. When I visited Gomantong cave a few years ago, I watched the bats emerge in the torrential downpour and I was keen for a different experience this time.

We made very good time and arrived at the cave a few hours too early, at 2.30pm. We walked around, had a look at some Pig-tailed macaques getting up to all sorts of mischief near the cave entrance and then headed inside.

The first thing you always notice on entering Gomantong is the almost unbearable stench of guano. The smell was so strong, it almost brought tears to my eyes as I stepped into the cave. Thankfully, human sensory organs adapt to prolonged stimulation pretty quickly and soon the smell faded into the background of my awareness.

When we walked into the cave we immediately found a magnificent Cave Racer – quite a sizable snake, whose body was swollen with its recently consumed lunch. I am always amazed by snakes’ ability to dislocate their own jaws in order to swallow a prey that is often so much bigger than the snakes themselves. It looked like this good-looking camper had just swallowed a rat.

READ MORE: 50 Outstanding Safari Holidays Destinations Outside of Africa

Cave Racer in Gomantong Cave in Borneo
Cave racer

The ceiling of the cave was alive with thousands of swifts and possibly millions of bats, that were responsible for the mountains of guano covering virtually every surface below. The cockroaches, on the other hand, were in pleasantly low numbers.

Horseshoe bat in Gomantong Cave in Borneo
Horseshoe bat

When we emerged from the cave Mike spotted a Giant flying squirrel. More precisely, it’s tail, hanging out of a tree hollow. We got a bit excited thinking that we might see it glide in the daylight, but the squirrel shortly retreated into the hollow and did not show itself again.

We whiled away the time in a gazebo by the cave, hiding from the on-again-off-again rain and making small forays into the surrounding forest. The only thing of interest we spotted was a Plain Pygmy squirrel and a group of Maroon langurs.

When twilight finally arrived the bats started to emerge from the cave. At first, it was just a trickle, but soon it became an endless stream that undulated across the sky, attempting to confuse the predators. And there were a few of those around.

A Brahmini kite patrolled the sky, a Crested Serpent eagle perched just below the mouth of the cave from which the bats were emerging, and finally, Bat hawks arrived and started snatching bats with incredibly precise, swift attacks. We watched the drama unfold against the dark overcast sky until it was time for us to go.

Check out this article for tips on exploring caves & what to bring with you.

Osman’s homestay

We still had some time on the road ahead of us. We drove through an endless sea of oil palm plantations to a jetty on Kinabatangan River and continued travelling by boat for another 15-20 minutes just as the sun was setting.

For the first time since our arrival in Borneo, we caught a glimpse of a sunset. Up until today, it has been raining every day and the sky stayed mainly overcast at sundown. February is the tail end of the rainy season, so it wasn’t all that surprising. Unfortunately, it also meant that the river was higher than usual and the chances of finding a Flat-headed cat were rather small.

Sunset on Kinabatangan River
Sunset on Kinabatangan River

Osman’s homestay, as the name suggests, is based at Osman’s family home. It is a big wooden house on stilts right on the bank of the river. The interior decoration of the house was very brave: two of the walls were green and the other two – yellow. This striking pallet was offset by purple doors, bright red curtains, and red linoleum floor.  Surprisingly, the décor worked quite well and the house felt very cozy. Above the TV, in between Islamic calligraphy art, hang photographs of Osman with Sir David Attenborough.

Osman’s three daughters were sitting with us in the living room. One was playing with a knob-tailed kitten, while the older girl was sitting on the floor with a large pillow lying across her lap, which she was using as an ironing board to iron her school top.

We were each allocated a bedroom and once we were settled, dinner was served on the large veranda at the front of the house. Osman’s wife cooked up a storm. This was the best spread of Borneo cuisine I have ever had.

Wildlife of Kinabatangan River

I was super keen to start the river cruise, and not surprisingly, I was the first person in the boat. The early bird gets the worm! I plonked myself on the front seat, next to Mike. Osman is rumored to be an excellent wildlife spotter. David Attenborough seemed to agree. Could we beat the odds and find the cat? Well, between Osman and Mike, we were in the best possible hands.

Blue-eared kingfisher on Kinabatangan River
Blue-eared kingfisher

Once all were on board, Osman steered the boat towards Menanggul tributary – evidently the best place to look for the Flat-headed cat when the main river is high. The moonless night was clear and warm and our spirits were high. We quickly spotted some common animals: Common palm civet, Malay civet, Long-tailed macaque, Pig-tailed macaque, Proboscis monkey, Crocodile.

Some stunning birds perched on the branches overhanging the river: Blue-eared kingfisher, Stork-billed kingfisher, an endangered Storm stork and a number of perpetually surprised Buffy fish owls.

But in general, the night was rather quiet.  Osman took us quite far down the tributary in an attempt to find the cat, but it looked like they were simply not around. Supposedly, they use the smaller tributaries that form only when the river is particularly high, and these tributaries, of course, cannot be accessed by boat.

Stork-billed kingfisher on Kinabatangan River
Stork-billed kingfisher
Buffy fish owl, Kinabatangan
Buffy fish owl

We did, however, spot an adorable Philippine Slow Loris on the low branches above the river. He was so content and curious that we dared a quick foray onto the bank to have a better look at him. He looked down at us from his moss-covered branch, slowly turning his cute little head around trying to work out what we were.

Usually, lorises are seen quite high up in the canopy, and to see one so close was a special treat. It easily compensated for the lack of feline activity on the river.

Wildlife of Kinabatangan river - Philippine slow loris
Philippine slow loris
Surprised Buffy fish owl on Kinabatangan River
Surprised Buffy fish owl

We returned to Osman’s house just after midnight and Jo & Jens started planning a morning ride. I politely declined the 5.30am wake-up call, choosing a much-needed sleep-in. In my experience, morning boat cruises are not particularly different from afternoon cruises and my prolonged sleep deprivation easily won over the temptation of potential sightings of proboscis monkeys and orangutan.

Morning mist lifting off Kinabatangan River, Borneo
Morning mist over the river

Day 6

I only managed to sleep in until 7 am, but that extra 1.5 hrs made all the difference between enjoying my day of wildlife watching and passing out halfway through it. It wasn’t just the lack of sleep that was wearing me down. My cold was also progressing from bad to worse. By now my head felt like mashed potatoes and my engagement with reality was dialled down to observational mode.

Jo kindly donated her entire stash of Lemsip to me, but it was making very little difference.

As I suspected, nothing spectacular was seen on the morning cruise. We whiled away the day on Osman’s veranda, drinking coffee, reading and sorting through our photos.

Wildlife of Kinabatangan river - Young Pig-tailed macaques
Pig-tailed macaque young

Afternoon river cruise

On the afternoon boat cruise, we had some fun photoshoots with Proboscis monkeys and with Pig-tailed macaques. We spent some time photographing a pair of passed-out Water Monitors that seemed to have melted over the log they were camping on. There were a few Crocodiles in the river, but not many hornbills around. A Writhed hornbill flew across the river, and that was the only member of the family that made an appearance.

Adult male Pig-tailed macaque
Adult male Pig-tailed macaque
Wildlife of Kinabatangan river - Female Proboscis monkey
Female Proboscis monkey

Jens has been wanting to see some snakes since the beginning of the trip and today his wish was fulfilled in a spectacular fashion. We spotted a snake in the tree – a Grey-tailed racer. On closer inspection, it appeared to be two snakes, and when we got even closer we were stunned to discover four identical snakes in the same tree. Neither Osman nor Mike have ever seen anything like it.

Grey-tailed racers on Kinabatangan River
Grey-tailed racers

All four were snoozing, or whatever it is snakes do when they lie around motionless. Three were sprawled out in the branches, one was coiled up. While we watched them, one of the snakes became active, slithering to a different position with slow deliberation. The others remained where they were.

It was quite a strange experience seeing so many snakes at once. They were beautiful, non-dangerous creatures, yet seeing them all together brought to mind images of snake plagues. I guess we have evolution to thank for our innate fear of snakes.

Grey-tailed racer resting on Kinabatangan River
Grey-tailed racer

As we were heading back, we came across another boat idling in the middle of the river. This usually means that they found something. They did. There was an Orangutan high up in the tree. It was concealed by the branches, but its movements made it apparent that it was building itself a nest for the night.

I was surprised to learn that the Orangutan will make itself a new nest each night, instead of returning to an existing nest. New nests are soft, the branches and leaves are still supple, whereas in the older nests the branches would have dried up and become sharp and uncomfortable.

We watched the Orangutan for a while. That is to say, we watched the tree shake now and then as the Orangutan moved about, completely concealed from view. Realizing that we were not going to get a better view, especially in the disappearing light, we headed home for dinner.

You can also spot wild orangutans on the Orangutan tour in Sumatra that takes you on a two-day wilderness adventure. Sumatra is another beautiful island of Sunda Islands of western Indonesia that I am very keen to explore.

Another night on Kinabatangan

At 8 pm we headed back to Menanggul. The night was clear again, and again there was no sign of the moon. We saw the usual suspects: Three-striped Palm civet, Malay civet, Large flying fox, Stork-billed kingfisher, Buffy fish owls, but nothing unusual. Osman tried to enter one of the smaller tributaries, but we couldn’t get very far.

Buffy fish owl on Kinabatangan River
The best eyebrows on Kinabatangan – Buffy fish owl

After about an hour on Menanggul, Osman threw in the towel and we headed back to the main river. There he spotted something on the bank. He brought the boat to the bank, and after a brief exchange in Malay Mike headed into the forest. Jo, who was sitting at the front remained in her seat.

Time passed and nothing happened. I was very confused about what was happening and what we were supposed to do. Did Mike go to look for an animal? In which case, what were we waiting for? He obviously wasn’t going to bring it back for us to have a look. Should we follow him? Or would we create too much noise and spook the mystery creature?

Time kept passing, nothing kept happening and my flu-ravaged brain could not handle any more suspense. I all but pushed Jo out of her seat and climbed out of the boat after her. Jens and Osman followed.

We found Mike and as he and Osman were talking we realized that Osman had spotted a cat. They left us to wait where we were while both of them went looking for the cat. We were still slightly disoriented from all the confusion in the boat.

When we heard Mike’s whistle, indicating that he spotted the animal we more or less bolted in his direction. By the time we reached him, it was clear that the chase was off. Mike was not impressed.

“Next time you walk through the forest, try not to make so much noise”. We could tell that keeping it polite took him a bit of effort.

Feeling like punished children we returned to the boat. While nobody had actually seen the animal, just the eye-shine, the consensus was that it was a Flat-headed cat. Feeling a mixture of dismay, shame and disappointment we sat there quietly as Osman steered us towards Tenneggang tributary.

Ninja’ing after the wildlife of Kinabatangan River

When we arrived at Tenneggang, Osman spotted another interesting eye-shine. Mike went onshore to investigate. The three of us, Jens, Jo and I, fell in behind him in single file, intent on getting it right this time. We were as quiet as we were ever going to be, which was pretty quiet. Half walking, half crawling we followed Mike through the thickets, all but holding our breath in concentration.

At one point Mike paused briefly, then dropped down on all fours and crawled through a civet-sized passage in the undergrowth. Jo was first in line after Mike and she was quite stumped at the prospect of repeating his maneuver. She started to half-heartedly fold herself towards the ground but hesitated once she found herself in a completely awkward position.

Anxious not to fall behind, I walked around her and pointed out an alternative path. By the time Jo disentangled herself from the bushes, I already went through and took off after Mike.

Suddenly Mike cursed under his breath and abandoned the chase. Turns out he finally managed to have a good look at the animal only to realize that it wasn’t a cat, but a Malay civet. We’ve just scrambled a Navy seal-like operation to follow a Malay civet through the jungle. What a disappointment. On the upside, however, it gave us a chance to hone our ‘ninjaing’ skills which will come in handy later on the trip.

Night heron on Kinabatangan River
Night heron

Oriental Bay owl

The next hour was pretty quiet. Until we heard the call of a Bay owl. The only reason I recognized it, was because Mike got very excited about it the night before.  Any longer than that and I would’ve forgotten it. I am all but tone deaf as far as bird calls are concerned. Bay owls are apparently very hard to see and Mike hasn’t seen one yet after virtually living in the jungle for a number of years. So he called a ‘side mission’ and Osman turned the boat towards the sound.

It always amazes me how some people are able to zero in on the source of a sound. I thought bird calls, like frog calls, were supposed to be un-directional. An adaptation that allows frogs to sing serenades all night long without being immediately snatched up by the predators.

Whether the rule applies to birds or not, Mike and Osman knew exactly what they were doing. They called the bird in and with some expert maneuvering on Osman’s part we were soon looking at a small, Barn owl-like bird, checking us out with its enormous eyes, probably confused at the lack of its competitor, or whoever it thought was calling to it.

Oriental Bay owl on Kinabatangan River
Oriental Bay owl

The next find was even more exciting, for the three of us at least. We were already on the way home, cruising down the main river when Osman spotted a Western Tarsier and brought us very close to the tiny creature. On closer inspection, Tarsier turned out to be one of the coolest species of wildlife on Kinabatangan River.

I was told they scare easily and leap away at the slightest disturbance. But this individual was very chilled. It remained on its perch and let us watch and photograph it for quite a while.

Borneo wildlife - Western tarsier
Western tarsier on Kinabatangan River

By the time we returned to Osman’s house, it was already past midnight. As the night before, I declined the opportunity to wake up 5.5hrs later for the morning river cruise. My main interest on Kinabatangan was the Flat-headed cat and my last chance for spotting it has just expired. May as well get some decent sleep.

House cat on Kinabatangan river
Kitler of Kinabatangan – we only feline we saw on the river

How to see Kinabatangan wildlife

Getting there

Fly from Sydney to Sandakan with AirAsia from $680 return. For more information about getting to Sukau independently, check out this excellent guide to visiting Kinabatangan River on your own.

Touring there

Adventure Alternative Borneo offers a range of tour options starting from $300 for two nights for simple river homestay to $600 for an upscale lodge. Prices include all food and drink, accommodation and transfers from Sandakan.

Learn More

Borneo is one of the best places in all of Southeast Asia to see wildlife in its natural habitat. And it is more fun to watch wildlife when you know what animal you are looking for. So, pick up a few wildlife guides, and have fun exploring!

Do you have any questions about wildlife watching in Borneo? Don’t think twice, leave a comment!

More on Borneo Wildlife

2 thoughts on “Kinabatangan River cruise – close encounters with Borneo wildlife”

  1. amazing! planning my trip now! I have two weeks (13 days after flights) so trying to make the most of my time but don’t want to rush each location (I’m thinking Kinabatangan River, Danum Valley, & Kota Kinabalu). Curious, but what type of lens do you use? Your pictures are amazing, but curious how strong of a lens I’ll need to get such close pictures.
    Thanks for the great info!

    • Hi Chantelle, Kinabatangan River is one of the best places in the world to get close to wildlife. The water acts as a natural barrier and animals are quite at ease on the river. I use an 80-400mm lens on a cropped sensor camera, which is equivalent to about 600mm lens. But of course, I don’t always use it at full zoon. You’ll get some close-ups with a 300mm lens, especially on the river.

      Have a fantastic trip!


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