Kinabatangan River, Malaysia, Borneo

The trip to the Kinabatangan River was born out of necessity. Visitors can only stay two weeks at the DanumValley Field Center, so our days were numbered and we had to find a place to go to where we could wait for the permit to maybe return to the Center. We spent many hours at the library trying to get some information about some possible options. One alternative was to go to Mabul and spend some days with snorkeling. Gulung Mulu was also on top of the Plan-B list. I always wanted to see that cave – Deer Cave, if I remember correctly-  where the bats swarm out of at dusk. But the logistics seemed a bit complicated (at least 3 domestic fligths and still a ride after that). I found Bako National Park attractive – mostly because it is a home to a large number of proboscis monkeys whom I desperately wanted to see. And as a compromise, finally we settled down on the Kinabatangan River.

Now, we were fully aware that the area is far from “untouched”. Already in 1888 Dutch tobacco plantations started to pop up around the river. In the 1950’s logging licences were issued and in the 80’s the first oil palm platations were opened and natural habitats were destroyed. But, as I argued, we – as visitors – have a certain moral obligations to witness even the destruction, and not just spend our time in beautiful places.  (I am not sure that I managed to convince even myself).

From Lahad Datu I called a few places (I found the phone numbers in Lonely Planet) but they either did not pick it up, or were fully booked. Finally, Greenview Bed and Breakfast were happy to provide us with a room. The bus station was only a few meters from the Field Center’s office. We bought a bag of snakefruit from a little girl (she was maybe five but was able to bargain as a mature businesswoman) and left Lahad Datu at 3 p.m. The view from the bus, as we made our way towards the river was one of the most depressing sights ever. Miles and miles and miles of oil palm plantations. Basically NOTHING ELSE just oil palm plantations. The magnitude of this type of destruction (and I am sorry, I cannot call it anything else) leaves you feeling helpless and hopeless.  What can an individual do against this type of destruction? I don’t think it is enough to say that from now on we do not buy anything that has palm oil in it (according to some surveys, 7 in 10 of all products on UK supermarket shelves contain palm oil). The demand for it seems to be growing and while we heard that along the Kinabatangan they would not issue any more licences for plantation the damage has already been done and other places are still in danger.  Even WWF admits it in one of its book about orangutans: “Attempts to halt expansion of oil palm plantations are very unlikely to succeed.” Oil palms produce high yields of oil (an average 4 tonnes per hectare per year) for little financial costs.

After an hour and a half ride the bus dropped us off at the junction where we got a taxi that took us to our hotel.  Sukau is still 42 km away from the junction and along the road there is still nothing else just oil palm plantation. (Although, now that I think about it, how is it really different from our endless wheat or corn fields? Monoculture rules. )

Sukau is basically a few houses and motels. The roadside is covered with trash – I am not sure if only the macauques raiding the trashcans can be blamed for it. At the hotel (well, there is a kitchen area and some bungalows) we are presented with a price list. Seems like most tourist only stay for one, max. two nights. There is a night-tour on the river, a morning boat trip to the oxbow lake, and jungle tour (jungle?? has anybody seen a jungle around here??) included in the price.  And obviously all the other lodges have the exact same plan, because the next morning we are heading toward the oxbow lake with twenty other boats, full of tourists.

Borneo, 2012 344


Of course by the time your boat (which, let’s say the 15th in line) gets to the tree where supposedely a proboscis monkey family is feeding, you only see a few branches moving as the monkeys disappear in the back trees.

The next day, learning from our experience, we rent a boat for an afternoon (300 ringit).  A huge black cloud is looming over the horizon, but we manage to outrun it.

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And then suddenly, Ralf spotted an elephant on the river bank. It was a small group, with six or seven elephants.

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One of them came down to the river to feed – providing an excellent opportunity for us to take some pictures from a safe distance.

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Borneo, 2012 543.1.

As for a lot of other species, the main threats for the Bornean pygmy elephants are habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. They sometimes move into the plantations in search of food and each year hundreds of elephants are killed because of such conflicts.

On our way back we spot a beautiful hornbill and a few probiscis monkeys.

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The storm has passed in the meantime:

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Next day we took a short boat trip up one of the small tributaries of the Kinabatangan river, and saw groups of pig-tailed macaques. Some of them were using the fire hose slung across the river, which is supposed to help orangutans to move around in isolated forest patches.

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Some of them were busy grooming each other:

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and some of them were simply curious:

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It was already late afternoon when we met some proboscis monkeys:

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The hotel had a very nice library – WWF and Nestlé has a small office there and I guess they supplied most of the books. I find No Impact Man by Colin Beavan especially inspirational. (If you have never heard of him, check out ). Just a few quotes from his book (that I wish I had written).

“Our system makes it virtually impossible to get the things we want and need without leaving behind a trail of trash and pollution and greenhouse gases”

“How much of our consumption of the planet’s resources actually makes us happier and how much just keeps us chained up as wage slaves?”

“I suddenly realized that my problem might not actually be the state of the world. My problem was my inaction. I was worried sick about something and doing nothing about it.  I wasn’t sick of the world.  I was sick of myself.  I was sick of my comfortable and easy pretention of helplessness.”

And most importantly:

“I want my work to align with my values. I want to write about what’s important. I want to help change minds.”


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