Sandakan: Wild. Pygmy. Elephants.

As I previously mentioned, Kinabatangan River offers so many opportunities to discover its beauty. Our stay at Bilit Adventure Lodge included morning and afternoon/evening river tours – watching out for wildlife, and talking with Loi (our personal guide) about the conservation work in the area.


Staying for 3 days / 2 nights gave us a really good opportunity to take in as many river tours as our cameras could handle. N absolutely loved seeing all the monkeys, and S enjoyed the chance to stretch outside his comfort zone.

But let’s be honest – what really motivated us was the small sliver of a chance to see wild pygmy elephants. We knew it was a small chance, but every time we stepped on to that boat, we hoped in our hearts for this to be the moment.

Where the morning cruise is about the birds, the afternoon/evening cruise is once again about the monkeys. Lots of monkeys – jumping from tree to tree. Fighting over fruit. Some of them even dropped in to the water for a swim.

Then… ever so gently… Loi mentioned there might be wild pygmy elephants further up the river. Should we take a risk and go look for them? The entire group of us released a resounding YES!!

As the responsible guide for our boat (and lets be frank – with a bunch of excited tourists being tempted by the idea of seeing wild pygmy elephants, he was probably the only responsible adult on the boat), Loi took the time to explain the risks of chasing the ‘rumour’.

The elephants had been spotted by another tour operator further up the river – all guides are part of a tight knit community of locals and they share information around the boats. We were probably the furthest away – the elephants were a very long way up river. And we were running low on both fuel and light. But every single passenger agreed THIS was the experience we would talk about long after. THIS was the one we would regret if we didn’t at least try.

We had two boats, and about 12 passengers in total. The other boat had already agreed for B and I to have the last say, since we had young kids. Both boys shouted yes before B and I even had a chance to discuss!

Between you and me, I think I shouted yes with them…

Our boat took the rear position as we travelled down a small branch of the river. Other tour operators were starting to return, and this section was so tight we had to take turns to fit through some places. At this point, the afternoon tour had definitely turned to evening. We were all craning our necks to see or even just hear anything in the surroundings. Every time we passed another boat we were told the same thing – “keep going! long way!”. Even Loi was unsure we would see them before we ran out petrol.

And then suddenly


A small herd of wild pygmy elephants walking away from us along the river – with a baby! Goosebumps – even just typing that!! Both S and N beamed with happiness to see them! These majestic animals are so rare to see in the wild! This once in a lifetime opportunity – with no guarantee of it ever happening! Our driver took us up close to the river bank – in fact, you can see how close in the photo above. That’s S taking his own photo. And this is one of his photos.DSC_1975

We wanted to be as close as possible without upsetting them – with the dusky eve falling upon us, the lighting was difficult to gain any decent photos. Of course, B took that as a challenge and produced this beauty:


We were so close, the Matriarch decided we were too close, and started to charge us, with intent not speed. Thanks to the quick reactions of our driver, no one (human or elephant) was hurt.

This was a good time to start our trek home. All of the passengers sat in silence, absorbing the beauty of what we had just experienced. Even the boys sat quietly in their own reflection – the only sound was the chirping of evening birds and the very faint whisper of N saying “Elephants. Elephants.”

It wasn’t until we had made it out of the small branch of the river that Loi advised us we needed fuel immediately.

It seemed our river adventure was not yet over.

This is part 1 of a 2-part story. Read Part 2 at Sandakan: A River of Darkness.


2 thoughts on “Sandakan: Wild. Pygmy. Elephants.

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