Kinabatangan River Morning Safari Cruise

Kinabatangan River Morning Safari Cruises are the main highlights of the Sukau-Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. It is at these river cruises where bird watchers and nature lovers will experience seeing the rare Borneon birds and unique wildlife available in this region. If you have been following my other Kinabatangan articles, this was my most exciting trip on a river cruise while exploring Sabah Borneo.

Kinabatangan River in the morning

The Kinabatangan morning river cruise had us wake up extra early for breakfast and after that, we were all ready at the jetty at about 7am with our guide, Ben. Another couple had joined us with their nature guide and they were equally ecstatic about the morning river cruise as one of the highlights were seeing the Borneo Pygmy Elephants.

Kinabatangan River Morning Safari Cruise

In no time, our trusted local boatman had arrived with his little 15 horse powered engine boat and everyone got on board checking our safety life vests and ponchos in case it did rain. The tip here is to be careful when boarding the boats as it can get slippery at this time of the morning.

Video of the Kinabatangan River in the morning

Birds in the morning

With a slow start on our morning river cruise, the first things that we saw were the local Borneo birds. Many whom were stationed on top of trees along the river. Our bird spotters also had a bird guide book with them and every bird we saw had a cleared picture in the book.

Kinabatangan River Cruise

Cruising along the Kinabatangan at an early time also saw many other nature enthusiast and bird watchers heading out to various locations to spot the other types of birds. I was also informed that the Sandakan area in Sabah is hosting the third Borneo Bird Fest around the Rainforest Discovery Center in Sepilok, Sandakan.

A Hornbill flies above our boat

Among the birds spotted during the safari were various Hornbills who were often seen flying around the river area. We spotted three of the eight Hornbill species there during our morning river safari through the Kinabatangan river.

Birds are easily seen in the mornings here

Hornbills spotted on some trees

A Hawk is seen from a distance

Kinabatangan River Birds

Video of Kinabatangan River Boat Ride

A boat cruises along the river

As we cruised down the river, more boats were seen ferrying nature lovers armed with binoculars and cameras. To my surprise, almost 98% of the guests were Caucasians and seeing Asians there was indeed a rare sight too.

Video of our boat along the smaller Kinabatangan River

Monitor Lizard

One of the critters which I found quite impressive was the local Monitor Lizard (Biawak in Malay). This reptile is usually seen lazying on tree barks or shrubs looking asleep. Their sizes range anywhere from one meter (3 feet) till about 5 meters (15 feet).

Gibbon at the Kinabatangan River

Arriving at one of the inner rivers here, we encountered a very rare glimpse of the Borneon Gibbon. According to my guide and the boatman, the last sighting was over six months back and this was indeed a rare chance to see them.

Video of one of the smaller rivers off the Kinabatangan

Proboscis monkeys high up on a tree

The usual Proboscis Monkeys were seen at various locations along the main Kinabatangan River and also the inner rivers. This is without fail the most common sightings while you do the river cruises here.

Proboscis monkeys along the river

The Proboscis Monkeys are commonly known to travel in groups ranging anywhere from five to 20 or even more. We must have seen at least six groups of the Proboscis Monkeys in that morning safari along the Kinabatangan.

Orangutan sighted!

And the highlight for me at this river safari was witnessing the Borneo Orangutan in the wild. We saw a total of two orangutans in this one river cruise. The first sighting was in one of the inner rivers where we saw the Borneon Gibbon and the second which was the larger male orangutan on our way back to the Melapi Lodge.

Male Orangutan at the Kinabatangan River

Sadly, the first sighting did not stand out as the Orangutan was quite high up on one of the trees and the view was blocked by the leaves. However the second sighting was absolutely amazing as it was just five minutes from the lodge where we were staying and much closer to the river and us.

Orangutan feasting on local figs

Orangutan video at Kinabatangan River

The fairly large male orangutan was casually sitting on one of the local fig trees feasting away while our boat approached the river banks. Looking non frightened, we were totally amazed on how the orang utan moved around picking the figs. I have personally seen many Orangutans in my life but not in a natural condition like this.

Orangutan in the wild

A real wild Orangutan in the Kinabatangan was definitely something new to me. As I mentioned, I have seen orangutans in the zoos, at the Bukit Merah Orangutan Island and even at the Sepilok Orangutan Conservation Center but this has to be one was the best encounters in my life.

Orangutan closeup

On many occasions, the male Orangutan moved around the tree with similar human like movements. From a distance, one would think that a human was up there. We must have spent a good 15 minutes here observing this before another boat joined us.

Melapi Lodge along Kinabatangan River

After a much satisfied river cruise along the Kinabatangan River, seeing the various animals, reptiles and birds, we headed back to the Melapi Lodge. Again I will say it - This was one of the most exciting nature trips I have taken in my life and I will do it again given the chance. But I have to say thank you to Ben our excellent nature guide and to Sabah Tourism for making this experience a memorable one even though we missed the Borneo Pygmy Elephants by a few kilometers.

My conclusion to the Kinabatangan Morning River Safari: When you arrive at the Kinabatangan and stay at any of the lodges, the river safaris will be included in your package. An absolutely incredible experience if you love all things wild or birds. Highly educational if you have children and a trip you will always remember and relate to friends and family.

Best times to visit Kinabatangan:
  • The Kinabatangan region can be visited all year round, though it is often flooded during the wettest part of the year in December and January.
  • The main flowering and fruiting season, from April to October is generally fairly dry and a good time to spot many birds and animals.
  • Best time to see Pygmy Elephants are around June.
Getting to Kinabatangan:
  • Airasia or Malaysia Airlines flies to Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur and from there, engage a tour company for your river safari.
  • Car, bus or taxi is available from all towns in Sabah and prices vary according to distances.
  • Various tour operators around Sabah offer full board packages to Kinabatangan.
General Tips for Kinabatangan:
  • Bring a poncho as the boats are non covered if it rains.
  • Bring water and snacks as cruises can last 2-3 hours.
  • Binoculars are a must to see the animals and birds at a distance.
  • For those with DSLR cameras, an 18-200mm lens is minimal. Your standard lens will not satisfy you.
  • For those with compact digital cameras, a 10x to 20x zoom is needed with anti-shake function.
  • Night cruises are optional and not included in packages so check with your guide.
  • Always stay in the boat and do not try silly heroic things as you would not want to fall in the waters

And always remember to practice Responsible Tourism wherever you are.

Lodges and Tour Operators for Kinabatangan River:
Official website for Sabah Tourism

Map to Kinabatangan River in Sukau

View Kinabatangan River Cruise in a larger map
For those seeking and adventure to remember, it is here in Sabah Borneo that you get the best out of nature. There are many places where you can experience wildlife and nature so it is best to go with a proper tour company. Prices are not cheap but you get to see some of the most amazing things in the wild. One of the trips I personally recommend is the Kinabatangan River Safari Cruise.