If you’re after a family-friendly jungle experience that doesn’t cost the earth, a Kinabatangan River Jungle Adventure could be just for you!
Find out where the river is, how to get there, and tours available (including prices).
Where is the Kinabatangan River?
The Kinabatangan River is Sabah’s longest river and measures around 560 km. It’s in the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo. Just a few hours’ drive from Sandakan, it’s located on the eastern coast of Sabah, facing the Sulu Sea. Sandakan Airport only services domestic flights, so you’ll have to fly here from elsewhere in Malaysia. From Kota Kinabalu, it’s about a 40-minute flight.
What can you see?
There is a large diversity of wildlife along the river, including proboscis monkeys, tarsiers, hornbills, slow loris, macaque monkeys and crocodiles. We saw a lot of different types of monkeys and a couple of enormous crocodiles!
The area is also home to orangutans, but unfortunately, we didn’t see any during our trip. At one point our guide Jo pointed out a rope stretching high across the river, which he said he regularly sees orangutans crossing the river on.
You can also see Bornean pygmy elephants, which come very close to the lodge, apparently in the right season. Our guide mentioned that if you see an elephant, don’t look directly at it in the eyes, as it will see this as a threat and charge you. Although smaller than ordinary elephants, don’t be fooled – if they charge at you, you will get seriously injured or worse!
The elephants weren’t in the region when we visited, but were around three hours downriver. We arranged a boat cruise for our second afternoon to take us downstream searching for them. The cost was about 600 ringgit (approximately USD 130) for a full boat (which you can split between however many people wish to go), but unfortunately, it started raining a few hours before we were due to leave. And it didn’t stop. So we didn’t make it out. However, the group before us saw around 20 or so the day before, so if you can pay extra, it’s worth the trip!
What happens on tour?
During the tour, you’ll stay at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan, which features private lodge huts (twin/triple share) or dormitory-style accommodations with shared bathrooms. There is a reception area where you can buy drinks, play games and chat when you’re not out exploring. There’s also another area where breakfast, dinner and lunch are available, which is buffet style and provides plenty of options (including catering for vegans and vegetarians).
Each morning at 6.30 am, you can go for a cruise down the river, where your guide will look for wildlife and slow down so you can get as close as possible for photos. The morning is the best time to catch the monkeys down on the river bank, where they sleep before heading back up to the top of the trees.
You’ll return for breakfast and then can go on a morning jungle walk (remember to wear long pants, and long shirts, put on plenty of insect repellant and hire some gumboots if it’s been raining!). Lunch is at the main dining area, and then you’re free until 4 pm for another boat cruise before dinner. There’s also a night walking tour on offer at about 8.30 pm.
All the activities are optional, so you can pick and choose which ones are right for you. For example, although the kids were keen to do the night walk, we heard the mud was terrible, so we skipped the first night, did a walk the following day and after a hard slog, decided that the night walk wasn’t a viable option with little ones! Thankfully, we didn’t encounter leeches, as some girls found them in their boots and belly button after their night walk!
Where to book?
We booked our tour with Nasalis Lavartus Tours in Kota Kinabalu. I contacted them via their website and had to pay upfront via an international transfer before we arrived in Malaysia. All the tours are available via the InSabah website for full details, including recommendations of what to bring. While there, check out the Turtle Island tour, which was a fantastic and family-friendly experience.
You can choose to stay for one or two nights, and to make sure we had enough time with the kids we opted for two nights. The total cost of the tour for our family (two adults and three children) was about USD 1000. The price included transport, dinner the first night, breakfast, lunch and dinner on our second day, and breakfast on our final morning. It also included accommodation (we opted for two huts because the shared occupancy was only double/triple), tours along the river, and day and night walking tours. To hire gumboots for the walking tours (depending on the time of year you visit, you will need for the mud) was around 10 ringgit per person ($US 2). You could also buy drinks at the reception area, and on the bus on the way to the lodge we stopped to purchase snacks.
If you love the jungle and want an excellent opportunity to see all types of animals in the wild, a visit to the Kinabatangan River is well worth it – and a great option for families!