Kinabatangan River Night Cruise Sabah

Kinabatangan River Night Cruise Sabah
Kinabatangan River Night Cruise in Sabah is one of the most exciting and adventurous trips you will take while you stay at the Lower Kinabatangan River Lodges. This unique night cruise is an optional package at each of the lodges so you need to book with your lodge or tour guide if you want to experience this cruise along the Kinabatangan River in Sandakan to see the nocturnal wildlife here.

As I was staying at the Proboscis Lodge Bukit Melapi for my Sandakan Eco-Tourism visit organised by Sabah Tourism, I was informed by my nature guide - Ben, than there were optional night cruises available and I had to book from the lodge. So without fail, my booking was completed and it was a very memorable experience.

Birds seen at the Kinabatangan night river cruise

After experiencing the late afternoon cruise seeing the various wildlife, we headed back to our lodge and freshened up for a sumptuous local dinner there. Questions of all kind were thrown to Ben about what we would expect during out night cruise and Ben calmly told me 'not to worry, you will have a chance to see things you never saw in your life' and that kept me extra curious until we started our journey. The boatman had arrived at the lodge jetty right on schedule and we made off into the dark Kinabatangan River armed with my DSLR camera and a couple of high powered torch lights not forgetting our safety life vests which are mandatory.

Bird at the night river cruise

In just three minutes of the ride, we had already spotted a bird on one of the leaves along the side of the river. Unafraid of the light and boat, we moved in closer and I started with my pictures. Being a first time there, I was afraid that using the flash would scare the bird and tried to click without shaking my Nikon D60 with 18-105mm lens. The result? A total failure! Ben noticed and told me to go ahead and use my flash as they birds will not fly away. So from the pictures here, you will see that I literally flashed every bird I came across.

Kingfisher bird at the night river cruise

What you should know about the Kinabatangan Night Cruise is that the boat travels in pitch darkness except for the spotlight which the boatman handles to spot birds and reptiles. Ben had another high powered flashlight so there were only two sources of light. Once a bird or reptile is spotted, the boatman then quickly heads to the direction and keeps the light on the animal.

Another Kingfisher bird seen at the night cruise

At many points during the night cruise, I would say that I was about three to four feet from the birds perched on the branches. They looked like they were asleep when we got close. So for Birders or Bird Watchers, this is one of the very rare moments you can get extremely close to the Borneo birds. An absolutely amazing experience if you ask me.

A Pied Hornbill seen on one of the trees

Among the birds that were seen by us were Hornbills, Kingfishers and other named Borneon birds. They literally sit comfortably on the branches as we spot them in this two hour night cruise. Apart from looking out for birds, we also saw fire flies as they dimly lit up parts of the trees.

Once again I would like to mention that if you are a Bird lover, this is the place to further explore your hobby as it is amazing to see the birds in their natural habitat from such a close distance. Among the birds that you will be able to spot are the Oriental Darter, Egret, Herons, Storm's Stork, Hawks, Osprey, Pheasents, Owls, Hornbills, Trogon, Nightjar, Bee Eater, Woodpeckers, Drongo, Pittas, Broadbills, Babbler, Forktail, Warbler, Spiderhunter and many others.

A pacific swallow rests on one of the branches

At one point of the night river cruise, the boatman brought us right in the middle of the Sandakan River to experience total silence while gazing at the stars. The boat engine was turned off while we casually drifted along the river in total darkness while looking at the stars.

Baby crocodile at the Kinabatangan night river cruise

The highlight of the Kinabatangan river night cruise was the crocodiles. We must have come across at least five of them ranging from babies till juvenile crocodiles. Most the the baby crocodiles are sighted by the sides of the rivers as the mother is nearby but hardly spotted as they are in fact quite shy.

Baby crocodile at the Kinabatangan night River Cruise

Honestly, I was a little scared at first when encountering these reptiles but reassurances from Ben and even the boatman calmed us down. The crocodiles are known to be shy and when boats arrive, they would just go under the water. But the baby ones would remain on the surface.

An 8" baby crocodile looks at us

Our boat got so close to one of the baby crocodiles which measured about eight inches, it looked like we could just pick it up from the water but we did not. Apparently these little ones would grow to a whopping length of 10 to 15 feet in length once fully matured.

Yellow Ringneck Snake seen on the branches

Also sighted along the Kinabatangan Night Cruise was a Yellow Ringneck Snake which was fast asleep on one of the branches of the trees. This was a whopper in size as the width of the snake was estimated to be around three inches in diameter. We also saw a Brown Civet Cat (Musang) high up on the trees feasting on some local fruits. If you are lucky during this river safari, you would have a chance to see other nocturnal creatures like the Borneo Wild Cat, Owls, Wildboar, Deer, Frogs, Insects, Otters and many others.

Without my guide Ben, I would not have known any of the names of the birds and reptiles that I saw during my Kinabatangan Night Cruise or Night River Safari. It is imperative that you have a guide with you throughout your Kinabatangan stay as it is required by each of the lodge operators.

My conclusion to the Kinabatangan Night Cruise: You should take this trip if you visit the Kinabatangan Sukau Eco-System. It is unique and very educational and you get a chance to see the Borneon Birds up close and personal. And bring a good camera!

Best times to visit Kinabatangan River:
  • The Kinabatangan-Sukau 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 River:
  • 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 River:
  • Bring a poncho as the boats are non covered if it rains.
  • Bring water and snacks as cruises can last 2-3 hours.
  • Torch lights 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.
  • Always stay in the boat and do not try silly heroic things as you would not want to fall in the waters.
Information of Kinabatangan River on Wikipedia

And always remember to practice Responsible Tourism wherever you are.

Map to Kinabatangan River in Sukau

View Kinabatangan River Cruise in a larger map

Read my other Sandakan, Sabah articles on;

~ David Jr

*Pictures were taken with a Nikon D60, Lens: 18-105mm