The Kinabatangan River: The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo

The Kinabatangan River: The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo


The mist was slowly swirling through the trees as I boarded the small motor boat and we pushed off along the Kinabatangan River as the sun was only just rising. This river is the heart of Sabah, surrounded by jungle and rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. It’s one of the most ecologically diverse regions of Borneo, a place known as the ‘Corridor of life’ for the rare and endangered species that live along its banks. It’s a protected area, and as we set off that morning, I was hoping to see wild orangutans and perhaps even a few crocodiles.

The crocodiles I saw sooner than I was expecting. As the boat twisted around the first of the many wide bends in the river, along the banks, moving lazily through the water, was a saltwater crocodile. It was long and strangely graceful, but our guide quickly moved us on, saying he knew where to find an even larger crocodile, a crocodile he said was king of this section of the river.

Being very territorial, the local guides know one crocodile from another and know where to find them most of the day too, and soon enough, we were far too close to a 6-metre long crocodile that didn’t seem to have a care in the world. This was his river, and as he suddenly began to move underwater, our guide turned on the engine and we sped off downstream.

The river banks were full of monkeys, from macaques to the strange, long-nosed proboscis monkey. Colourful birds of paradise took flight from treetops, while the sound of the rainforest echoed along the length of the river.

The real attraction though lay around the last bend we navigated in the river. Our guide cut the engine quickly after he noticed something in the trees. We drifted quietly towards the river bank, and there, high above us, was a female orangutan, with a young baby clinging on to her as she built a nest with her long, human-like arms.

The orangutan, elegant and majestic in their natural habitat, is one of the rarest creatures to find in the wild. The corridor of life though, the Kinabatangan River, is a refuge for these rare animals, and I was lucky enough to catch just a glimpse of one. Our guide turned the boat around before long, so as not to disturb this wonderful animal, and we headed back along the Kinabatangan River, to leave the orangutan in peace.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - The Kinabatangan River - The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo - Borneo Monkey
Borneo Monkey
WSE Travel - The Kinabatangan River - The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo - Borneo Sunrise
Borneo Sunrise
WSE Travel - The Kinabatangan River - The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo - Borneo sunset
Borneo sunset
WSE Travel - The Kinabatangan River - The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo - crocodile
Crocodile in the Jungles of Borneo
WSE Travel - The Kinabatangan River - The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo - misty borneo morning
Misty borneo morning
WSE Travel - The Kinabatangan River - The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo - Sunrise Borneo
Sunrise Borneo

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GO – Getting There

The Kinabatangan River is in a remote location in the rainforest of Sabah. It’s a large protected area, known as ‘the corridor of life’, as it provides a safe haven for rare and endangered creatures. The closest city to the river is Sandakan, which has direct flights to Kota Kinabalu and to Kuala Lumpur. You can also reach Sandakan by bus, a journey of about 8 hours from Kota Kinabalu. The accommodation is along the river itself, so to get here involves taking a boat ride, after travelling from Sandakan or Sepilok by minibus or four by four. The easiest way to arrange transport is as part of a tour package, as local transport is very limited here.

WSE Travel - The Kinabatangan River - The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo - Map
The Kinabatangan River – The Corridor of Life in the Jungles of Borneo – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

The main activity along the Kinabatangan River is, of course, wildlife watching. It’s a diverse and unique place, and you have the opportunity – if you are lucky – to see wild orangutans and pygmy elephants, as well as saltwater crocodiles and birds of paradise. In the morning, you can head out nice and early as the sun rises to see the wildlife along the river. During the day, your guides will take you hiking along jungle trails, to see more plants and wildlife. Before the sun sets, expect another tour along the river. The longer you stay, the more chance you have of seeing all the wildlife that might be on your list.

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Stay – Accommodation

There is a large range of accommodation along the river. Most tour companies will have their preferred guest houses and hotels, but you can expect most of them to be fairly basic, as this is a remote part of Sabah. It’s best to arrange accommodation as part of a package, to get a good deal that includes all your food and tours. The really basic, value lodgings will be dormitories. Expect spiders and mosquitos everywhere you stay though.

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Eat – Restaurants

There isn’t much choice when it comes to eating along the Kinabatangan River. As you will see, when you arrive at the river, you will find most of your time is spent on wildlife watching trips, and the accommodation will become your base of explorations. As such, each guest house has their own dedicated kitchen, serving exclusively to their guests. Quality may vary depending on the style of accommodation you’ve opted for, but it will generally be all home cooked, with surprisingly hefty portions. You should expect to have breakfast, lunch and dinner included, so check when you book that this is the case. Expect plenty of rice of course, but also lots of local style dishes. Check that you will have access to clean drinking water too. They should do, but take a few bottles along with you just to be sure.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

Borneo is home to some of the most extensive rainforest in the world, and of course, that variety of wildlife couldn’t be sustained without a lot of rain. For much of the year, it’s likely to rain at some point. This is the tropics, and it’s unavoidable. The months of November to April are officially the rainy season, with the heaviest monsoon rains falling in December and January. It’s possible to visit all year round, however, but be aware of the potential for blocked roads and lots of storms. The rainy season can in many ways be a great time to visit too for the fact that it’s when plants really start to bloom, animals may migrate and there is a lot of activity along the river.

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Safety – Possible risks

The Kinabatangan River is a safe place to visit in terms of security. The area is a protected zone and many of the local villages found along the banks are very much invested in tourism for their future, meaning guests are well looked after and will be safe. The danger along the Kinabatangan River though comes from the nature of the jungle itself. The river is home to a lot of saltwater crocodiles, and these are the biggest and deadliest type of crocodile you can encounter. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t swim in the river. The rainforest is home to a great many creatures too. Our hosts told me that they once removed an enormous python from a guest’s bedroom. While in the showers I found what looked like a huge huntsman spider and in all the trees were golden orb spiders, which are potentially venomous. Encounters are unavoidable in a place like this, it’s part of the experience, but when you are hiking or visiting the river, it’s imperative you are accompanied by a local guide. It’s easy to get lost in the rainforest and their local knowledge will be vital. It’s best to wear long sleeves and trousers, especially when walking, as the jungle is full of leeches. Long sleeves will also keep away the mosquitos, but ensure that you have strong mosquito repellent too and that you use the mosquito nets at your accommodation.

The nearby city of Sandakan can have its own dangers as well, and many travellers choose to avoid it. Although the problems of the jungle are much removed, because of its proximity to the southern Philippines, the city has in the past seen kidnappings along its shorefront. These have been undertaken by various groups of pirates that operate in the Sulu Sea and unfortunate victims have then been sold onto other terror organisations. Although this is rare, be aware that it has occurred in the past, and it has always occurred along the harbour, at restaurants and bars that overlook the sea. There’s not a huge amount to do in Sandakan itself, so don’t hang around if you don’t need to anyway.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

The best value way to organise a trip to the Kinabatangan River is through a local tour operator. You can do this either in Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan or in Sepilok, and there will be several different options and price ranges to pick from, depending on the length of your stay and the standard of your accommodation. It would be very difficult to organise this independently, primarily due to access and transport, and overall, you will save money having it all sorted as a package anyway. I opted for a 3 day 2 night trip from Sandakan, and for everything, including food, accommodation, transport and all the tours, I paid around $100. This was a very budget trip but works out to be good value.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

Visiting the Kinabatangan River is one of the best ways to experience the wildlife of Borneo – in particular, such rare animals as the Orangutan and the Pygmy Elephant – but it’s also a reminder of the problems faced by this part of Borneo. You may see much of the rainforest before the protected area has been turned into palm oil plantations, and you will find out from locals and the guides you will meet, just how little land is actually protected in comparison to the vast size of Borneo itself. The river still sees poachers as, being a poor area, it can, of course, be tempting. Ask the locals for more information on this sort of thing if you are interested, as they have a wealth of knowledge and their opinions and reasons as to why things happen the way they do in Borneo, may surprise you. The guides and the villagers who run the tours and guesthouses along the Kinabatangan River are very much reliant on tourism, not just for their own livelihoods, but to ensure funding for research and protection of the wildlife here. Make sure you stay with the local guest houses and try to ensure as much money goes directly to them as possible.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

Don’t forget that you are in the jungle. It’s not an easy place to stay, let alone to live, and by the end of your stay, you may find yourself with a newfound appreciation for the guides and locals here. I know I did. If you are worried about encounters with insects, spiders or snakes, then this is not the place to visit. It is inevitable to meet them, but just be careful and listen to the guides and you will ultimately be fine. It can be an unnerving experience though, as for me, this was the first time I could say I was really in the jungle, and even then, it’s still a tame experience compared to a real expedition through an uncharted rainforest.

Additional Resources:

A Cruise to the Heart of Darkness

Kinabatangan River Photo Essay

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JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages

This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!

Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

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