The Kinabatangan River meanders for 560km through eastern Sabah to the Sulu Sea. The catchment of this immense river covers about 23% of the land area of Sabah, providing water and food sources for people and habitat for a diverse range of wildlife. Since the 1950s, forested land around the Kinabatangan has logged for timber, followed by the development of agriculture since the 1970s, particularly the cash crops of rice paddy, rubber, tobacco and palm oil. Fortunately in 2005, 26,000 hectares of the Lower Kinabatangan River was gazetted as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. According to WWF, the lower Kinabatangan is home to over 250 bird, 50 mammal, 20 reptile and 1056 plant species, and one of two places on earth where ten primate species are found together, including the orangutan, proboscis monkey and Bornean gibbon.
TREC is located within the forest on the edge of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary beside a pristine oxbow lake. Our experience can attest to the incredible array of fauna and flora protected by KOPEL and more broadly the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
At TREC, you stay on a ‘camp-platform’, a raised platform with an a-frame wooden hut embedded in the jungle. There are only 10 huts, limiting TREC to 20 guests maximum, however we were the only guests staying there at the time (plus two researchers and a volunteer). This meant that we had a private guide for some of our treks and cruises. TREC also supports the use of zero chemicals, providing eco-friendly soap to be used at the camp and minimal energy use (there is no electricity at TREC).
The food at TREC was delicious. We had noodles, fruit and traditional Malaysian cakes for breakfast. For lunch one day, our guide Reduwan gave us some fish freshly caught from the Kinabatangan River with grilled eggplant. Dinner was a mix of Malaysian food, including chicken and potato curry and tempeh. Coffee and tea is unlimited, and one of the residents sells kombucha.
One of our guides, Noorsalleh, has been deaf since infancy, but seemed to have superhuman eyesight. Noorsalleh could spot a distant kingfisher or a camouflaged crocodile across the river, which we could not see until we took the boat closer. Luckily Noorsalleh would vigorously indicate with a laser pointer to the wildlife to get us on the same page as him. You can watch a short film on Norsalleh’s story from the Borneo Eco Film Festival 2017 here.
We were fortunate to see an incredible range of wildlife, including: the oriental hornbill, kingfishers, a pair of owls, a land tortoise, several large crocodiles, several groups of proboscis monkeys and macaques, a variety of millipedes, a lantern bug, wild boars and monitor lizards, to name a few.
On one of our night treks, we were lucky enough to see a slow loris! Reduwan had only seen a slow loris 3 times in his life prior to this, and he is from the Kinabatangan.
During our night treks, we also saw a giant tarantula beside its tree-hole (we will spare you of the photos), a dangerous snake, a mouse-deer and a big moon rat:
Many small colourful birds, including kingfishers, sleep on the lower branches of trees and in tree hollows.
A woodpecker in it’s tree-hole. Sorry for waking you little guy
Oh, and dozens of tiger leeches leering at us from bushes or crawling up our bodies – leech socks makes this bearable.
How to get there
We caught a bus from Sandakan that was headed to Semporna, and asked the driver to drop us at the Kinabatangan River Bridge. We were a bit confused when we were dropped off on the side of a highway with palm oil tankers whizzing past, but we spotted a small road branching off the opposite side of the road with a broken sign that read KOPEL. As soon as we began walking through the village, locals warmly shouted ‘hello’ and directed us to the KOPEL office.
The KOPEL office, which arranges all eco tourism activities, is located under the bridge at the far end of the village near the water. Most other package tours of the KInabatangan River offer pick up from Sandakan, however it was not much trouble to travel independently to the KOPEL office in Batu Puteh, and definitely worth it.
Not only does staying at TREC support an incredible cause, a 3 day 2 night trip with KOPEL was much more affordable than all the other tour operators. A 3D 2N stay with TREC cost us 505 RM per person, all inclusive. This way, your money goes directly to the local community, and provides an alternative livelihood to logging and palm oil. We would highly recommend staying at Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp. If we return we wouldn’t stay anywhere else.