I am embarrassed to say it took me a whole day of practice for the pronunciation.
But I really wanted to make the effort. After the amazing wonder of Turtle Island Park, I was worried our next adventure (and basically the rest of the holiday) would be … less inspiring? So, I put as much effort in to bonding with the River as I could.
I was worried about NOTHING!
We were booked in for a 3D/2N river safari with Bilit Adventure Lodge (organised through Sepilok Tropical Wildlife, who also booked our stay at Sepilok Jungle Resort). We had our own personal guide (Hi Loi!) who took care of us for the entire stay. By the end of our 3 days, the boys loved him and we were all sorry to see him go.
Loi and the driver picked us up directly from the Sandakan wharf and took us straight out to the river – it is a long drive, so we broke it up with a tour of the Gomantong Caves.
These caves are stunning! It appears as one huge cave, but there is a small, intricate maze of caves that branches off the main one. The cave itself is home to the world’s largest colony of bats (and you can smell it) – but it is also one of the largest Borneo colonies of sparrows. Particularly the sparrows nests the Chinese community love to make soups out of. Which have been scientifically proven to have NO MEDICINAL BENEFIT whatsoever, but for some reason people are still willing to pay $10,000 per soup. I kid you not.
In fact, the black market for these nests is so bad, the Sabah Government have stationed a group of rangers permanently in and around the cave to prevent and arrest people from stealing the nests. As a sign of “cultural sensitivity” they will allow people one day per year to come into the caves to collect nests (on application).
The walk to the caves was enjoyable, and a fantastic opportunity for the kids to do some wildlife spotting – S spotted a squirrel, while B spotted wild orang utans (including a baby). If you are interested in seeing the Australian War Memorial in Sandakan, it is in the same area. Unfortunately, I found this out afterwards – I had thought it was the otherside of Sandakan. Next time…
Bilit Adventure Lodge is located on the Kinabatangan River itself – along with a few other safari lodges. It’s not just a tourism grab. The lodges are part of a “responsible travel” initiative being promoted by the locals to reclaim the land and support their own community. A lot of the land in this area has been bought by big companies and turned into Palm Oil Plantations. It is heart-breaking to drive through the area and see plantation after plantation, when you had previously seen jungle in other parts of Borneo.
Loi explained how many of the plantations did not employ locals on the farms. In fact, most are foreign companies who find cheap labourers overseas and bring them in. Add the extreme measures the plantations take to “protect” their trees from the wildlife, and many locals simply want to stay far away from them. Prior to our holiday, the boys had been reading about the need for conservation in Borneo – after seeing the plantations first hand, the whole family has become even more adamant about removing uncertified palm oil from our home.
We made it in time to the Lodge for lunch and to prepare for the afternoon river cruise – sharing long, thin motor-powered boats. They fit two across, and four long, with the guide and driver at the back. As we power down the river, Loi points out the diverse wildlife living in the area. Most of the Kinabatangan River is now considered protected, due to the amount of eco-friendly lodges being here. There are loads of monkeys, and the promise of even more wildlife tomorrow.