James Clark takes four (yes, four) river safaris in Borneo

When I was offered the opportunity visit Borneo I didn’t know all that much about the island. I was aware that the island was governed between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei and home to the smallest orangutans in the world, but other than that my knowledge was ashamedly lame.

I have a love for animals, their behaviour fascinates me. I’m the first to jump at the opportunity to see animals in an environment other than a zoo and when I read a feature written by Greenpeace suggesting that Borneo orangutans are facing extinction due to deforestation, I signed on the dotted line and took a flight from Heathrow.

I decided to spend two nights at the multi award-winning Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the Kinabatangan River. The lodge is reputed for sustainable and responsible tourism and the animals and rainforest are at the forefront of everything they do.

Even Sir David Attenborough stayed here in room 17, 11 – 19 October 2011 when filming a documentary. Well if it’s good enough for the great man himself, then it’s got to be good enough for me.

Getting to the lodge

My guide Nexter picked me up from the Sabah Hotel in Sandakan, and we travelled by coach to the jetty where we embarked on a 2.5 hour speedboat journey out of the bay and up the Kinabatangan River to the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. It was a bumpy ride out of the bay, but exhilarating and so much fun. For those of you that don’t like the water the lodge can also be reached by land.

The wildlife safaris

After a short introduction and being taken to our rooms it was time for our first of four river cruises, the afternoon cruise.

Each boat is equipped with eco-friendly outboard engines and an electric motor used during wildlife viewings. The boats don’t appear to interfere with the wildlife in anyway. We saw a variety of birds and the Proboscis monkey; they’re the ones with the big noses and one of the areas big five.

At the crack of dawn it was time for cruise number two. Prior to the cruise, I caught site of an orangutan holding a baby running around the lodge and outside my window, another of the areas big five. I’m not a morning person, but there’s something beautiful about gliding down the river in the early morning mist, before the humidity levels rise. On this trip we saw lots of birds and monkeys going about their early morning business and making lots of noise.

Cruise number three after lunch and we spotted another of the big five; the Rhinoceros Hornbill, Malaysia’s national bird (more about that later).

After dinner I was offered the chance to go on the night cruise and although I wasn’t really in the mood for it, I’m so glad that I did. I witnessed what I came to Sukau for, two young Saltwater Crocodiles swimming near to the bank and an adult that swam up close and just stared at us – two metres away from the boat.

I returned to the lodge that night happy that I’d seen four out of the big five; the Pygmy Elephant had decided to head off for a couple of days. And that’s what I love about animals, their unpredictability.

Our guide, Nexter, was knowledgeable about the animals and environment and was happy to tell us about some of the encounters he’d had with the animals. As he described a four metre long crocodile jumping out of the water to snatch a monkey from a tree I felt a cold shudder a long my spine.

Sakau Rainforest Lodge

The lodge is built on stilts on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. Its many achievements include being included in the National Geographic list of ‘unique Lodges of the World.’

Even my room was located in the jungle and waking up to the sound of birds, monkeys and orangutan (even at 2.30) gave an amazing feeling. The sounds of wildlife are so much more powerful than the dawn chorus of magpie and pigeon back home.

The lodge is designed for optimum relaxation and wildlife watching (there’s a walking platform). The open restaurant setting on the river gives outstanding views during meal times and there’s a bar.

The big five (if you’re lucky)


Found only in Sumatra and Borneo, orangutans are long-haired, reddish brown primates with very long arm spans. It spends most of its time up in the trees in the rainforests, eating mostly fruit and young leaves. Every night, an orangutan will bends branches together into a bowl shape, fill with foliage, and create a nest to sleep in. Look up into the trees and you’re bound to see what looks like a giant nest.

The most famous place to see orangutans in Borneo is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Visitors can climb tall platforms to observe orangutans in the trees. Fruit is placed on feeding platforms twice daily; shy orangutans brave a barrage of tourists’ cameras to take the offerings before retreating back into the forest. They do great work at the centre to rehabilitate orangutans that have had terrible lives.

Borneo pygmy elephant

The Borneo pygmy elephant is the smallest elephant with large ears. The elephant is found hanging around the lowland forest, which is seasonally inundated with floodwaters. It’s not unusual to see them swimming in the river, cooling down.

%TNT Magazine% PygmyElephant

Proboscis monkey

A reddish-brown monkey that inhabits Borneo’s lowland forests and mangrove swamps. The male is easily recognisable with a large fleshy nose. They are great swimmers and can swim under water for up to 20 meters. They can often be seen hanging from branches along the Kinabatangan River.

%TNT Magazine% ProboscisMonkeys

Estuarine Crocodile

Saltwater crocodiles are the largest of all living reptiles that can reach five metres in length. The largest population lives amongst the floodplains of the Kinabatangan River basking on the banks. Watch them – just because your boat is bigger doesn’t mean that they won’t grab an overhanging arm.

Rhinoceros Hornbill

Malaysia’s national bird is the size of a swan; it’s noisy and can live for up to 90 years. The more beautiful male, has orange or red irises, and the female has whitish irises. The bird isn’t having the best of times due to loss of habitat, hunting for its meat and fashion. The feathers have become fashionable in jewellery.

A bit about Borneo Eco Tours

Borneo Eco Tours is the most awarded tour operator in Borneo, and recognised by international awards from British Airways, National Geographic, Wildasia, Sabah Tourism, Green Globe, UNWTO, World Travel Awards and mentioned in CNN Travel, BBC, the Guardian, Flight Centre and now TNT Magazine. As part of a new sustainable development agenda, Borneo Eco Tours, Sukau Rainforest Lodge and Borneo Ecotourism Solutions and Technologies (BEST) Society are adopting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals when developing and implementing community and environmental projects throughout Borneo. The team is striving to incorporate and adopt the sustainable development goals into their existing and potential projects, policies, processes and systems over the next 15 years or more.


Words by James Clark