The Kinabatangan River ecosystem is a popular destination for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in an abundance of biodiversity and to see some of Sabah’s most iconic wildlife. More often than not most visitors head to the upper Kinabatangan to stay near the small village of Sukau. The lesser known Kinabatangan Wetlands Resort offers a completely different perspective of this unique ecosystem offering exclusive accommodation facilities at the 20 pax maximum property. 10 gorgeous rooms stand elevated above the wetlands connected via boardwalks for easy access to on-site facilities.
To begin the journey a speed boat will be awaiting you in the small coastal town of Sandakan. Heading out across the coast past tropical islands the boat ride takes you past mangrove forests that signal the interface between the marine ecosystem and the freshwater river system. Slowly the mangroves give way to nippa palms that replace the mangroves lining the banks of the river. As we began to enter the river delta a dark looming horizon greeted us, by the time we reached the river a huge tropical storm begun to unleash its fury above us. It was a good thing the boat is well covered to keep us and our luggage nice and dry.
As the speed boat makes its way upstream you will soon pass the small village Abai one of the few communities living in the area. In recent years tourism and jobs with NGOs have provided an alternative livelihood for the Abai community to help reduce pressure on the natural ecosystem and to ensure continued preservation of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
At this stage of the journey it is easy to begin to start recognising the different habitats that make up the Kinabatangan ecosystem. The five distinct habitats include saline and freshwater swamps, waterlogged and dry forest along with limestone forest making the lower Kinabatangan an incredibly unique area of biodiversity with some 1000 species of plants, more than 200 species of birds, 90 species of fish and reptiles, and around 50 mammal species.
By the time we reached the resort the storm had passed over leaving a coolness in the air in its wake. We checked into our rooms before heading out in the afternoon on one of the boats to try and spot some wildlife. For the duration of the stay boat trips for wildlife spotting are included with a driver and guide. The guides have incredibly keen eyes and know the area like the back of their hand so wildlife sightings are almost guaranteed.
The Kinabatangan Wetlands Resort is situated on waterlogged forest with the ground becoming inundated with water during heavy rain when the river level is high. It is easy to lose yourself with the private forest setting of the rooms, whether you want to sit on your balcony watching the birdlife or relax within the confines of the room where your every need will be met. There is a boardwalk that continues into the forest providing a nice platform to enjoy some of the unique plants that occur in the area such as the carnivorous pitcher plants. The birds certainly weren’t shy either after the torrential afternoon downpour flycatchers, sunbirds, bulbuls and parrots filled the air with their calls. In the late afternoon we took a small boat out to try our luck with some more wildlife spotting along the river. Heading out through the nippa swamp it wasn’t long before we started to spot some critters. A yellow ringed or mangrove cat snake (Boiga dendrophila) was sitting on top of a nippa branch hanging out over the water. This strikingly coloured snake is commonly found around riparian areas throughout Southeast Asia and is one of the largest cat snake species.
Heading out into the main branch of the river the spectacular view of the Kinabatangan with its forest-lined edges is a sight to behold. One of the benefits of exploring the Kinabatangan by boat is that you can sit back and relax whilst covering a lot of distance looking for wildlife. Every so often the guide would spot movement in the trees signalling the driver to pull up nearby so that we could take photos and watch nature doing its thing. Macaques, proboscis monkeys and orangutans are often encountered along with hornbills, raptors and other wetland birds that only occur in this type of habitat. The rather shy silvered langur can also be found in the lower Kinabatangan, upstream they are much rarer and difficult to find.
The proboscis monkeys are definitely one of the more animated characters on the Kinabatangan. Their long noses and pot bellies are iconic of this species and they are only found in riparian areas where they can feed on leaves that they are specially adapted to be able to digest. They live in harem groups where multiple females live with a dominant male.
After a relaxing afternoon of wildlife spotting, more than satisfied with our luck of sightings, we gradually made our way back to the resort stopping from time to time to watch proboscis monkeys settle in for the night perched high on the branches of their chosen tree. The sun dwindled beyond the horizon turning the sky into a fiery dance of reds and orange contrasted against the billowing clouds that are a quintessential trait of the tropical skyline.
After a lovely meal prepared at the on-site restaurant we set out for our last endeavour before retiring for the evening. Opting out of an evening boat cruise we decided to try our luck searching for wildlife in the forest. Whilst you are surrounded by forest and nature at every point within the resort there is a boardwalk that takes you deeper into the waterlogged forest where you can appreciate the native flora and fauna. Pitcher plants cling to the ground and small trees spreading in every direction, their wide mouths open waiting for an unsuspecting insect to fall in.
We saw a glimpse of a gliding squirrel taking off into the forest at the sight of our headlamps and torches. Because of the swampy soggy ground, pools of water offered great habitat for frogs so we had no trouble at all finding a multitude of species that were sitting and calling from a branch or a leaf. The cacophony of night time sounds in the forest is impressive.
The following morning we set off early to make our start for the day. We head back out to the river to go and explore an oxbow lake. These water bodies are formed when a wide bend in a river is cut off creating a freestanding body of water.
Parking the boat amongst a floating bed of aquatic vegetation we were able to sit back and soak in the view shrouded in morning mist whilst a breakfast picnic was prepared for us. We ate our sandwiches and drank our tea and coffee, and a more substantial breakfast was awaiting us back at the resort for when we returned. Once satisfied with our morning we began the boat ride back to the Kinabatangan Wetlands Resort to enjoy the rest of the morning before heading back to Sandakan.
Photos by: Charles Ryan & Nicholas Heard