A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December

The Mighty Kinabatangan River

Abbey has a fever and is listless and hot to touch but she says she’s cold. It’s nearly time to leave Sandakan so we pack and then I scoop her floppy little moist hot body off the bed and sit her on the dunny. Then I start up the shower on lukewarm and begin hosing her down. She seems to like it but afterward says she’s feeling cold.

I don’t have kiddy Panadol so I jump online to find the dosage. 15mg per kilo of body weight. I ask the boys how much she weighs and they reckon around 25kg so one 500mg tablet should be more than enough. She stalls and doesn’t agree to take it and wants time to think about it. I’m a bit whatever. If she wants to sweat it out she can. If I make an issue of it she’ll start to whine and then probably spit it up anyway. I offer her a lolly and break a tablet up in some water and add a little sugar. Eventually she takes it and gets it all down. The waiting game works.

We check out of Winho Lodge B&B and aside from our room being as small as a prison cell and the floor being rather sticky and the bathroom not very clean, we’ve had free wifi, breakfast provided, 24 hr air con, TV (2 channels) and the use of their computer all for 80 rm per night. Bargain. Our driver Faris whose people are the Sungai (river) picks us up along with Tom the German (would that make it Thom?) who climbed Mt Kinabalu up and down in a day and drives us the 2.5 hours south to Sukau Kampong where we are to stay the night on the banks of the legendary Kinabatangan River the second longest in Borneo.

On the way he pulls up at what looks like the Malaysian equivalent of a 7/11. It’s a grocery shop that sells freshly baked goodies sweet and savory, fried fishballs and chicken, rice things steamed in banana leaf and Kuih (my favorite is the soft chewy green pancake wrapped around gula Melaka coconut filling. Outside the front door three or four hawkers are selling steamed corn in eskies. Next to them a little girl around 5 or 6 years old is selling mangoes and rambutan. I assume belonging to her parents but I can’t see them. I buy four mangoes and a bag of rambutan while Nani gets a big tray of goodies. I get so excited I photograph it at the register.

The only excitement on the 2.5 hr run through to Sukau is seeing two trucks run off the road being retrieved. Along the way is wall to wall palm oil trees and the associated industry (plantations named “prolific yield palm oil industries” etc) trucks laden with seed and tankers. One plantation has electric fencing and signs of one man pointing a rifle at another man surrendering. Apparently it’s open season on trespassers.

The road gets worse until we slowly trundle through Kampong Sukau and past beautiful (I use this word in the nostalgic sense) ramshackle little wooden houses on stilts, yellow skinny dogs, blokes in nothing but shorts hang out around little hawker stalls, feet up smoking cigarettes next to tiny grocery shops with various packets all pegged up along the front and we finally reach Green View Lodge.

After a quick rest and a cup of tea in the restaurant it’s off for our dusk safari. We are joined by a group of students who as it turns out are Aussies. It seems wherever we go they keep turning up. This time from a private school in the mid south coast hinterland. They were a bit noisy and I would have preferred to soak up the peace of the jungle but on the whole they were pretty well behaved and at times somewhat funny.

The river looks about 200m wide and is brown, turbid and slow flowing carrying clumps of plants, sticks and logs toward the sea. On the banks are water bottles tied in two’s as floats for prawn traps. Bamboo fish traps are placed along the bank that are the same funnel design and simple constructions that have been used for centuries by the people of the region.

Our Yamaha 15 and 25HP four strokes purr gently but powerfully as they deftly propel our long fiberglass boats. We see white and purple herons before the kids find a group of ivory hornbills the size of black cockatoos feeding on some fruit in a tree. As we watch they fly at the fruit, expertly grab one in mid air and alight on a branch before trying to toss it back like a tequila slammer. Numerous times they miss and the small round fruit falls to the ground. I realize they are expert at grabbing these in flight because they must get a lot of practice. I’m glad I have lips.

We pull up and watch a group of long tail (crab eating) macaques playing in a tree. Up and down they race, pulling on each others tails, leaping, falling but always grabbing something to break their fall. One humps another on the ground but I think they’re just playing too. I wonder if they ever miss and fall into the water and get whacked by one of the crocs that haunt this river.

I’m grateful when we move on because I’ve seen plenty of macaques. I’m really desperate to see wild proboscis and most of all the “man of the forest” the Orang Utan and the Malaysian elephant that were spotted about three days prior.

In the distance I spot a proboscis monkey but too far away to really see. The guide says we will see more in a half hour or so because they nest near the water. Turning up a narrow tributary with thick jungle either side we find a troupe at the waters edge in the overhanging canopy. Everyone is still making noise and the visible ones turn their backs, move a couple of meters and are so good at hiding they simply and quietly disappear from view. The proboscis is much shyer than the macaques and the noisy Aussie students learn the hard way.

We find another troupe feeding and watch them in silence for a long time stuffing their faces with leaves. We are told they have two stomachs – one for poisonous leaves, the other for regular foliage. The monkeys have long grey legs and tail, light browny orange backs and become more intensely orange around their heads. The females have a short comical pointy pink Pinocchio nose. The alpha males look even more comedic. They have a strong muscular backside, a huge beer gut and their nose is long and bulbous. But it’s the way they sit that makes them look really funny. One foot up, the other dangling down, legs wide open, leaning back with a huge gut stuffing their faces with their old fella proudly on display. It is this look that earned them the nickname “Dutchman” by the locals.
The alpha male has up to 20 females in his harem and is the most shy of all of them keeping mainly out of view. Apparently their prowess encourages the Chinese to hunt and eat them for their aphrodisiac properties. I would be shy too.

We stop and watch another troupe of macaques but in the distance I see a tree shaking and branches moving. It is an orang utan building a nest to sleep in but we can’t see it. We watch straining our eyes but it settles down and we don’t get to see it. These solitary primates that are some 97% similar to us genetically can build up to five nests a day. I’m disappointed I didn’t see it.

Some wild pigs come down to the water to drink warily. The adult sow sniffs at us and looks agitated. This is when crocs have the best chance at fresh pork. Colorful kingfishers take flight low across the water as we approach.

On our return an enormous barge being pushed by a junk carries two big fully laden lorries down the river.

A delicious buffet dinner was served by the Green View crew of rice, stir fried beef, fried beans, curried veggies (melon, pumpkin or sweet potato, green chilli, and tomato) fried beans, and spicy omelet followed by some canned fruit and jelly. We’re hungry so we bolt our food and go back for more except for Abbey. She is still pretty sick and lays across two dining chairs but she’s not complaining and I’m grateful for this.

We are alone for the still warm and moonless night safari and the guides
shine a powerful spotlight up and back sweeping the waters edge and up into the canopy as we glide along the now dark river. A large fishing owl has caught its dinner and holds the fish in one talon and a branch in another. It must be blinded by our light and spreads its wings to get out of the way. As we continue down the river I’m desperate to see some of the Bornean mammals – tarsier, clouded leopard, flying lemur but I settle for a very small croc, a stork bill kingfisher, an uncommon black capped kingfisher, and sleeping proboscis monkeys.

Suddenly our visibility is cut as thick fog rolls in. The guide says “too much fok. We go back”. I’m disappointed that we didn’t see as much as I thought we would, but glad that we were getting Abbey to bed – she desperately needs the rest and we are waking at 5.40 for the dawn safari. The guides warily shine spotlights ahead in the mist to dodge oncoming logs weaving their way back to our jetty where allegedly crocs like to hang out.


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