Jungle Immersion at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, Borneo, Malaysia
Sukau Rainforest Lodge has always been the premier lodging within Sabah’s Kinabatangan River Wildlife Sanctuary, hosting David Attenborough and his BBC team in 2011 and designated a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World in 2015. With an idyllic location and a focus on ecotourism, it also became known for the skills of its guides and quality of its tours. Add the 2017 completion of 20 new luxury villas, and Sukau Rainforest Lodge now represents the pinnacle of luxury in the region, and the lodging of choice for the discerning adventure traveller.
There are two ways to get to Sukau Rainforest Lodge – by road or by boat. Both take 2.5 hours, but the river route is by far the more atmospheric.
Leaving (the admittedly unglamorous) Sandakan jetty, the speedboat hugs the shoreline, past water villages and fishing shacks, and local fisherman who wave. Soon you leave the estuary and enter the chocolate coloured waters of the Kinabatangan River, which flows through the wetlands like a canal of molten dairy milk. Mangroves and river palms line the shores and the jungle closes in. The journey upstream is spent scouring the water and the shores for wildlife.
Upon arrival at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, there is a group welcome and briefing, accompanied by cold juice and even colder (and even more appreciated) moist towels. No longer moving swiftly on the river, the heat and humidity are readily apparent. Surrounded by rainforest and the sounds of cicadas and birds, you feel at once that you have arrived in the jungle.
There are two room types at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, but the original rooms, in two motel-like wings in the centre of the resort, are not likely to be of interest to our readers. It is the new villas that set this lodge apart. Behind the resort, down a long atmospheric boardwalk, the villas are arranged in pairs that branch out to reside deep in the jungle. Constructed from dark hardwood, with russet-brown roofs, the villas are almost imperceptible in the lush rainforest that surrounds them.
Each pair of villas has an entry-way complete with a water feature, and most are named for a “Conservation Fellow” who has contributed to the preservation of the ecology of the region (including Sir David Attenborough for villa 17). Inside each room, the natural motif continues, with hardwood floors, raked ceilings and exposed beams. A skylight and high windows extend the length of each wall, meaning the outdoors is always visible – including the foliage, birds, butterflies, geckos and even macaques that flitter and skitter past. There are soft green curtains and cushions, and an expansive white-linened queen bed, perfectly positioned in front of the French doors that lead to a small balcony. Here, a small coffee table and chairs provide front-row seats to the jungle just a few centimetres away, and the myriad of activity occurring within.
The villas, although ecofriendly, have much appreciated air conditioning and a powerful overhead fan. There is also a minibar with a small number of complimentary drinks (juice, energy water and lager), a kettle for tea and coffee, a safe, a wardrobe and a writing desk, and copious power points, including USB plugs.
The villa bathroom is spacious and modern, with twin-headed shower and a piping hot water system (although hardly necessary in this climate!). Note however there is a dearth of bathroom amenities – so bring your own (environmentally-friendly) shampoo and conditioner.
In the main area of the resort, activity centres around the jetty and the restaurant. There is also a reception area and the Gecko Lounge, and two separate pool areas. But pride of place is taken by the Hornbill Boardwalk – an elevated and covered walkway stretching in a 500m loop through the jungle. Here guests are encouraged to take a guided walk with a naturalist, or to explore on their own at any time (of the day or night).
Out on the boardwalk the sounds of the jungle surround you. At first it just seems like a thrumming hum, but as your ears acclimatize, you begin to differentiate the noises – the ever-present whirr of cicadas, the scurrying of lizards in the undergrowth, the calls of hornbills, the hoot of a gibbon in the distance. The macaques make frenetic noises, crashing from branch to branch, screeching and squealing like piglets, dropping fruit against the metal roof with a bang. But the orangutans – the orangutans are serene. They glide through the treetops with just a gentle rustle of the leaves – deliberately, gracefully – long arms outstretched as they make their way from branch to branch, or just hang nonchalantly upside down as is their want.
It is at Sukau Rainforest Lodge that we see our first wild orangutans. The jungle is quiet as we make our way along the boardwalk. We are the only guests that have braved the heat, most having retired to their rooms to rest before lunch. A soft rustle is heard above us, perhaps just the wind, but then there is a fluttering of falling leaves. We look up, and see, with a rush of excitement, a flash of orange amongst the green. And then another – this one more auburn than orange. It is an orangutan mother and her baby. The mother is nonplussed by our presence below, the baby inquisitive. We are spellbound by them for an hour, following as they make their way slowly through the treetops, alongside the boardwalk, then behind our villa, then to past the edge of the resort and deeper into the jungle. It is a magical encounter.
Back to more practical matters – all meals at Sukau Rainforest Lodge are taken in the Melapi Restaurant, a spacious open air pavilion set on stilts over the water. It is a picturesque location at all times of the day, with bright pink flowers framing the view of the chocolate coloured river, but it is at its most atmospheric in the evening, when it is illuminated by candles and citronella torches.
Meals are all served buffet style, and are plentiful and flavoursome (just keep in mind you didn’t come here seeking haute cuisine). Particular highlights include the freshly made rotis at breakfast (divine with the house-made coconut jam), the banana fritters at afternoon tea, and the piquant orange sambal that we found added an excellent kick to the curries and vegetables that were otherwise a bit too "westernised" for our tastes (a huge thanks to Chef Teddy for the sambal recipe!). With first breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, it is unlikely you will go hungry at any time. And the team behind the bar make a mean margarita.
While the Hornbill Boardwalk is the primary activity within the resort, the remainder of the resort's activity focus on the river, taking advantage of the lodge's prime position on the Kinabatagan River. Morning and evening river cruises are the norm, utilising small open boats powered by four stroke motors for longer distances in the main river and small electric propellers for silent cruising in the smaller streams. Morning cruises depart at 0600 for about two hours, while evening cruises depart at 1600, returning just after sunset. Excursions head upriver or downriver, watching for animals in the trees along the shore or on the banks of the river. On our safaris, we saw a multitude of birds (including Borneo’s famous hornbills), macaques, red leaf monkeys, silver leaf monkeys, proboscis monkeys, orangutans, and a massive crocodile that made its made menacingly towards us in the centre of the river, before moving sideways at the last moment.
Communal boats typically seat 10 guests in 5 rows, along with the boatman/guide. But we can highly recommend paying the extra 260 MYR (approx A$90) per person for a private cruise – we scored the sensational Suhailie as our private naturalist and guide throughout our stay, and with a boat to ourselves we could leave when we liked (including an extra early 0530 departure for a sublime river sunrise), stay as long as we liked with the wildlife for those perfect shots (without irritating less snap-happy fellow guests) and stay out on the water until the last possible moment (we were invariably the last guests to meals!). In our opinion, this was a small price to pay for such fantastic opportunities, and one we would seriously recommend.
A special tour available at Sukau Rainforest Lodge is the Pygmy Elephant Search. While pygmy elephants can sometimes be seen along the river near the Lodge, and have even been seen near the boardwalk, at other times the herd is known to be some distance away, and so will not be spotted on the normal river cruises. If this is the case, it is possible to book a special afternoon cruise that departs early (1400) and utilises a speedboat to cover the distance to where they were last seen, hoping to arrive in time to view their afternoon bath. We were lucky enough to see a pair of amorous elephants in the forest on the shoreline, but they were not very impressed to see us, and from our small boat nestled against the shore the big bull did NOT look particularly pygmy!
Another tour from Sukau Rainforest Lodge is a visit to the nearby Gomantong Caves. Off-river on this occasion, a 30 minute drive brings you to this vast underground cave system, featured in the BBC / Attenborough Documentary “The Story of Life”. Here, huge flocks of swiftlets nest against the cave walls, their saliva-strewn nests forming an inexplicable delicacy as birds nest soup. The cavern is shared by the largest colony of bats in Borneo. The air thrums with the beating of wings and the high-pitched squeaks of both bats and birds. But at ground level, the situation is much more prosaic – the bat guano is six metres deep in some areas, and even the recently constructed wooded walkway feels spongy underfoot. And the walls and ground are literally teeming with invertebrates – spiders, millipedes, centipedes, crickets and roaches in their millions, scuttling and scurrying over every possible surface. The air is acrid with the smell of ammonia, and while we would highly recommend a visit to the caves, we did not feel the need to linger.
But linger we do in the forest outside the caves. Over the course of an hour, we see five wild orangutans in the area. First, a mother and baby clamber up the trees at the caves entrance. Just as they are disappearing into the depths of the jungle, the screeching of a macaque alerts us to the presence of an adult male orangutan in a nearby tree – he puts on a fruit eating display from within the tree, before making a nest and settling in for the evening. And finally, another mother and baby emerge from the canopy near the walkway, with the mother shrieking her displeasure at our presence, before ambling down the path and darting back in to the undergrowth.
So while the Gomantong Caves themselves are worth experiencing (briefly), the likelihood of seeing orangutans in the surrounding jungle makes this a very worthy adventure to add to your itinerary.
In our experience, all tours and activities from Sukau Rainforest Lodge were well organised and efficient, departing on schedule and making the most of the time on the river. A daily schedule of available activities is posted near the reception room, and staff were very accommodating in making arrangements.
In summary, Sukau Rainforest Lodge is a stylish and sophisticated resort in prime wildlife viewing region on the Kinabatangan River, and should definitely be included in your Sabah itinerary.
Know Before You Go
All the staff are super friendly and helpful, but we want to make special mention of our two guides Suhailie (Sue-hi-lee) and Stephen. Both are highly passionate about their rainforest and are both highly experienced and extremely knowledgeable. Further they are bother committed to maximising the experience, including wildlife sightings, for their guests. Stephen has a calming, measured approach which made our guided boardwalk tour relaxing and serene, and his experience is immense. Suhailie is an exceptional naturalist and is filled with enthusiasm, plus also knows exactly where to position his boat for the perfect viewing, and most importantly lighting, for avid photographers.
Sukau Rainforest Lodge has two bars with varying opening times. While the cocktail making is, shall we say, methodical ;) the team produce a fantastic margarita utilising ultra fresh limes.
Slightly surprisingly, given you are genuinely in the jungle, there is wifi in the Villas as well as at the restaurant. However speeds are variable despite the lodge’s best efforts (they have tried three different providers)! So maybe just unplug and enjoy the serenity.
There are two pools, plus an outdoor jacuzzi. The first pool is part of the original lodge and is small but still refreshing. It is located next to an area of palm plantation. The second, along with the jacuzzi, is among jungle in the new villas area and the pool is a much more luxurious size.
If We Were Asked How The Lodge Could Improve?
The answer is easy... sunset gin and tonics on the water at the end of your evening river cruise!
P.S. We are presently still travelling, with modest internet access, so once we return we will add many more images to this post. D & A :)