Luck on a river safari….Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia

Sabah is the eastern most state of Malaysian Borneo. It is set up very well for package tour groups. Lots of companies offering transport, lodging and attractions for exorbitant prices. Since that is not really our style, we had a bit more of a challenge to figure everything out in the cheapest possible way from Semporna to Sukau.

We eventually found a reasonably priced bus from Semporna to “the junction”, which is a fancy name for an intersection with a couple of signs and a covered bench. The buses in East Malaysia are not the fancy three-across reclining ones like we encountered around KL and Singapore. They aren’t the worst though and the only hiccup on our 4 hour trip was the family of seven (yes, five children) attempting to buy just the two seats behind us (yes, only two). This resulted in a long delay when a large group boarded the bus an hour into our trip. The children were exiled to the aisle, slightly reminiscent of our hell-on-wheels Myanmar journey, except the person with their head on Riki’s seat was a cute, polite little girl, not a smelly, dirty, rude man.

When we were dropped at “the junction”, we walked in the appointed direction to find a minibus to Sakau. Except there was no minibus, at least according the man at the covered bench, who conveniently could take us the 45 minutes to “town”. Our driver loaded us into the most rickety little sedan I’ve encountered and sped off through 40 some kilometers of palm oil plantations.

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Sukau has a small slice of protected forest that boasts easy to spot wildlife along the Lower Kinabatangan River. The reason wildlife is easy to spot along the river: the palm oil plantations have pushed all the animals into a narrow strip of land. They congregate along the water, making boat trips popular up and down the river. We were there to spot the elusive orang utan (man of the forest). And if that failed, our backup was to hit up Sepilok Nature Reserve, where they have an orang utan rehabilitation center with a popular feeding program.

But we were incredibly lucky. On our first afternoon boat trip, we spotted an orang utan with her baby high in the trees along the river.

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Mother orang utan and baby
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Close up of the baby orang utan

We also saw many black hornbills, a small eagle, two types of macaque (long and pig tailed), AND the funny-nosed Proboscis monkey. These were my favorite, as they were very active and the females have cute pointy noses, while the males have fat, floppy ones. There are two types of Proboscis monkey groups – a male with his harem of “wives” and the bachelors. We only encountered the first group type, but were able to make out one of the shy males.

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Pig tailed macaque
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Lower Kinabatangan River
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Proboscis monkey – males have long, droopy noses but are very shy and we didn’t get a good photo
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Definitely a female Proboscis – between the pointy nose and the nursing baby, its a dead giveaway

 

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Black hornbill

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Eagle of some sort

Returning from our afternoon boat trip, we saw a small fishing boat on the side of the river with a man making a rather funny gesture. His hands were fanned and wiggling by his ears. This could only mean one thing – pygmy elephant. What luck!

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Pygmy means small, but other than his ears, this guy was pretty big
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Pygmy elephant

The fact that it is lucky to see one is very sad. According to our guide, there used to be many, many more animals along the river. The palm oil plantations have taken over and the wildlife has died or migrated elsewhere.

Later that evening, we went on a night cruise. Its much harder to spot anything at night, but our guide had a strong flashlight and wasn’t afraid to blind the wildlife. We saw some nesting swiftlets, who attach small nests to the side of the rock right over the water – a rather precarious situation.

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Swiftlets

We also saw the eyes of a baby crocodile. a puffy faced owl and some sleeping Proboscis monkeys. It was much tamer than our eventful afternoon.

The next day, we hit the water at 6 am for our combo river cruise and short trek. The monkeys must have been hiding, but we spotted another puffy faced owl and a crested serpent eagle, as well as a few other birds.

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“Puffy faced owl” though it must have another name
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Python
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Big monitor lizard
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Another python
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Lots of sticks and logs in the water
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The ferry

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As we entered the small creek leading to the start of our trek, we realized a large tree had fallen across the water and completely blocked the way.

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We backtracked and found another path, which connected to the other one. I was about to write the morning off, thinking we had used up all of our luck the day before – the guide was getting excited about common butterflies and cicada shells – when Riki spotted a lone orang utan headed our way. You know its good when the guide, who does this everyday, whips out his phone and starts taking photos. The orang utan made its way right over our path and stopped to eat some leaves about 10 meters above us. It made the most incredible sound – best described as a kiss squeak/grunt – which Riki has been mimicking ever since.

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Little orange bugs
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Green lizard
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Orang utan – means “man of the forest”
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Thorns

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Water hyacinth perhaps?
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Cicada shell

And our luck had not run out. On our final afternoon boat trip, we were spotting monkeys left and right along a small river. A mama kingfisher was guarding her nest, and when we got too close she flew off, revealing tiny chirping mouths.

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Other boats

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Macaque
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Baby macaque

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Another baby macaque
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Mother Kingfisher

 

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Baby Kingfishers

 

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But the climax of the day, and the final animal on our Sakau checklist was yet to come. While taking endless photos of monkeys grooming and playing right along the shore, we heard a loud crash just across the creek. Another loud crash and we saw the tail of a giant crocodile come down hard on the water, breaking a large branch.

We followed slowly as this 4-5m croc swam across the river with a bloody carcass, which our guide said was probably a monkey caught drinking at the water’s edge. Can’t get much cooler than that.

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Giant crocodile
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Back of the crocodile’s head – the pink part is the carcass

Despite seeing the orang utans in the wild, we decided to continue on to the rehabilitation center to see some more. We took a shuttle with a neighboring lodge to Sepilok, while stopping on the way at the only ATM in the area (and everybody and their mom was there to use it).

 

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Snake neck crane
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Kingfisher

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We got a bit too close for this guy

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2 thoughts on “Luck on a river safari….Sukau, Borneo, Malaysia”

  1. Wow! So glad you didn’t miss Borneo! What a great collection of wildlife. Kingfisher babies – how cool. My favorite bird. Not sure we ever saw that one with the super blue head. .. .

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  2. Fabulous. I’m so pleased that you got to see as much as you did. We had one, not so great, view of an orangutan, and I thought that was very cool. P.S., just for the record, the snake neck crane is almost certainly a bird called a Darter.

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