Up the Kinabatangan

Finally somewhere with a decent internet connection so catching up on the blog with our August adventures episode by episode over the next few days starting with our trip up a muddy river packed with wildlife ….

7 – 12 August 2019

After a rather miserable time in Sandakan’s exposed roadstead Temptress was eager to enjoy the peace and quiet of the rally’s next destination, the Kinabatangan River. First though the fleet had to negotiate the river bar. A few days earlier reading up various blog reports from previous rally alerted the naviguesser to the possibility of not having enough water at most states of the tide. A little closer reading of the rally pilot and some rough tidal calculations lead me to believe that noon was about the best time to attempt an entry with Temptress’ 2.1m draft. After a little subtle lobbying the rally leaders on Esoterica and Gemini Lady announced a delayed departure of 10am rather than the early morning that had been planned.

We actually sailed under gennie for a an hour or so northwest out of the estuary at Sandakan and across to the north western entrance to the river. Slowly the fleet picked its way around the sand banks, surprisingly the route was close to waypoints from several previous rallies. The leading pack relayed depths via VHF which I plotted on our electronic chart at the position the AIS showed the boat(s) to be. We in turn relayed our soundings to En Dian who was following close behind but draws 20cm or so more than Temptress. At no point did anyone run aground even Il Sogno with her 2.7m draft, though it was close.

Once in to muddy brown waters the fleet headed for an overnight anchorage just above the first junction at Kampong Abai. The early Tarzan movies were filmed here but today most of the jungle has been felled. The banks are lined with nipah palm  and mangroves. Behind we guessed the land had probably been turned over to palm oil. Reports from previous rallies told of large logs or even rafts of logs but little was encountered, a sign that the clearance is complete and palm oil has sadly taken over. We were though treated to our first glimpse of wildlife, a small group of proboscis monkeys in the trees near the bank. Some of the boats launched their dinghies at the anchorage and explored an oxbow lake close by, Temptress took the opportunity to relax in the peace and quiet.

The following day was a 18 nm motor in convoy up the winding river. At times we were travelling away from our destination, the distance to go as the crow flies increasing dramatically. Gradually the nipah palm gave way to trees and the occasional house or river crossing. Lots of birdlife but few monkeys. At the tiny village of Sakau we anchored just downstream of the power cables that at 10m or so prevented our masted boats from travelling any further upstream. The village almost entirely relies on eco tourism to make a living. Here areas of the rainforest have managed to survive and the monkeys, birds and pygmy elephants cling onto life.

Once settled we joined various crews and took trips by tender exploring a tributary half a mile or so upstream. It was a different world, the wide muddy river was gone. Here the trees almost enclosed us, long tail macaques, pig tailed macaques, silverleaf and proboscis monkeys roamed in troops, best seen at dawn or dusk when they came down to the riverbank to play or feed on the buds and fruit of the overhanging bushes. On the mud banks we spotted baby crocs just a couple of feet long and lizards. In the trees hornbills native only to Borneo, giant egret, bright coloured kingfishers and more. One trip at low water, yes even 60 miles inland we felt the effect of the tides, we managed to park Sheila on a submerged fallen tree! The oar wouldn’t reach the bottom and nor would it lever us off. A gentle rock using the outboard only succeeded in spinning us round in an elegant pirouette, then just as we feared we might overturn Sheila gently slid off. Ten minutes later a guide on a passing longboat pointed out a little downstream the two eyes and the tail of a very large croc!

One afternoon Ade from Beau Soleil organised a fleet of local fast long boats to transport us all some ten or twenty miles upstream in a hunt for pygmy elephants. Our knowledgeable guides were all members of the same family, Maria and her brother Moose plus a bunch of cousins. Moose knew where the large Rhinoceros Hornbills hung out as he’d worked with an NGO putting up nesting boxes for them to replace the many felled trees.

An elderly sick female had left the herd, essentially to die and had been spotted on the banks of another tributary. We found her eating long grass in a clearing, then watched her swim across the river and disappear into the narrow strip of jungle there, it was a magical moment. Pygmy elephants despite their name are still larger than the average cow, it was incredible to see such a large beast in the wild. Sadly the audience crammed bow first along the muddy bank was not just our five or six boats but twenty or more boatloads. One can’t help wondering if ecotourism is a boon or a threat to the way of life of the river tribes. However the Kinabatangan is a magic place to visit and one we’d throughly recommend.

Too soon it was time to leave. ESSCOM who had escorted us even so deep inland advised we shouldn’t anchor in the westmost river entrance, Dewhurst Bay so we halted for the night just above the junction of several branches of the river. Surrounded by walls of nipah palm there was no one except the fleet. Then the following morning we picked our way through the sandbanks into Dewhurst Bay. It wasn’t as shallow as the other entrance but still a trip to make on a rising tide. Temptress returned safely to the sea and that night another 30 miles or so further west we dropped the hook tucked up behind Tambisan Island. Hard to believe that we have less than two weeks left on the rally.

Ships Log: Sandakan to Tambisan via the Kinabatangan 136nm