Elephants, orangutans and hornbills – oh my!: cruising on the Kinabatangan


It was Monday, and I was dumbstruck.

Now, you and I both know that Mondays suck. No matter how much you might like where-ever you wind up at the beginning of the work-week, it still marks the end of the weekend and the resumption of drab responsibilities.

Any other Monday, I might be in the office, twiddling my thumbs and reading travel blogs and staring out the window until the clock finally hit 4:30.

But this Monday, I was sitting two meters away from a herd of wild elephants.


We first saw them as rustling movements in the trees, and heard them as low trumpeting on the river bank.

The elephants in Borneo are pygmy elephants, which means that they are significantly smaller than their Southeast Asian or African cousins, and a touch harder to spot from a distance.


As our boat approached, we saw that some of them were only a meter tall.


They seemed completely nonplussed by the approaching boat, and continued tearing through the reeds and stalks on the riverbank as we stared on.


Earlier that day, in the beginning of our river cruise, we’d already passed a family of silvered leaf monkeys in the trees. They strolled over branches, balanced precariously, their fur stuck in sharp grey mohawks atop their heads.

Then, a minute or two down, a crested serpent eagle appeared in another treetop, brown and white against a darkening sky.


A Rhinoceros hornbill passed overhead next, one of the largest hornbills in Borneo, black with a massive red and orange horn atop its beak. Silhouetted against the sky and paired with those spindly, primordial jungle trees along the river bank, it looked positively prehistoric.


In another tree, after turning the boat to chase the sounds of elephant trumpeting from one of the river banks, we passed a family of long-tailed macaques pulling food from the branches.

Later, in the afternoon of our final day, one would sit on the lower branches and watch us pass without a movement.


And, though we didn’t see them until the next day’s dawn river cruise, we would later spot two massive harems of proboscis monkeys.

Their faces look so human, that it was truly creepy to see them sitting in the trees.


However, silvered leaf or long-tailed or big-nosed or mohawked, there was one primate which we saw that really stole the show.

Orangutans. Wild. Four of them, by the end of one dawn river cruise.


Before I came to Borneo, one of the oldest jungles on the planet, I made a mental checklist of the animals I had hopes of seeing – some of which, like the proboscis monkeys, are endemic to Borneo.

By the end of my time on the Kinabatangan river, I’d seen nearly all of them.


And so, it was on this weekday afternoon that I sat, utterly dumbfounded, staring directly into the tiny, blood-shot eyes of a wild pygmy elephant, after already encountering macaques, monkeys and truly baffling birds.

I turned to my travel companions, smiled in spite of myself, and said,

‘So guys, this is our Monday.’

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16 Responses to Elephants, orangutans and hornbills – oh my!: cruising on the Kinabatangan

  1. Kristina 22 March, 2012 at 13:58 #

    Such a wonderful experience – wild Asian elephants and Orang Utans! Crazy! That is indeed a different Monday than usual :)

    • na-o-mi 27 March, 2012 at 21:31 #

      It was one of those moments where you can’t help but take a moment to look at your life and be thankful for where you’ve ended up, haha! ;)

  2. This Battered Suitcase 22 March, 2012 at 15:02 #

    Wow, beautiful shots! I totally agree with you about the human qualities of the proboscis monkeys – even the way they sit kind of freaks me out. You are so lucky that you saw elephants while you were there! I didn’t spot any but I did see orang-utans, which was such an amazing experience. xx

    • Alison 23 March, 2012 at 04:26 #

      Those elephants are fab and you really get the feel that you’re ‘in the wild’ from your photos. I never knew they had pygmy elephants in Borneo. I really like the orangutan who looks mischievous peeking out from behind the tree :-)

      • na-o-mi 27 March, 2012 at 21:33 #

        They are adorable. A-DOR-A-BLE! Now to spot some of the larger cousins on the mainland ;)

    • na-o-mi 27 March, 2012 at 21:33 #

      I really wasn’t holding out hope to see the pygmy elephants as I heard they were quite rare, so when we saw a big herd within ten minutes of being on the river, we were all pretty blown away!! Unfortunately, after the first day we were all pretty over the elephants – they actually got so close to our camp that our first two jungle treks had to be cancelled, ha! ;)

  3. Ellie 4 April, 2012 at 15:21 #

    OMG! Amazing pictures! I NEED TO GO TO BORNEO! your amazing:)

    • na-o-mi 7 May, 2012 at 09:19 #

      YES, YOU DO! It’s amazing and quite under-visited!!

  4. Natalie 13 April, 2012 at 12:32 #

    Wow, that looks like a really great river cruise. I’ve done a few river trips but have never seen wild elephants on one – amazing! I need to get myself to Borneo! Nice photos too :)

    • na-o-mi 7 May, 2012 at 09:19 #

      I think I’m hooked now – the river cruise was so fun, and quite the learning experience ;)

  5. Sienna 24 April, 2012 at 05:06 #

    your blog is incredible…i can’t believe those elephants!

  6. Mark Wiens 10 May, 2012 at 12:59 #

    That is an incredible Monday Naomi! So cool that you got to see all these animals – and in Borneo, one of the most amazing ecosystems. I visited Malaysian Borneo a few years back, but didn’t have a chance to see the wildlife like you did.

    • na-o-mi 22 May, 2012 at 13:26 #

      I know – I think everyone in our boat was amazed at how lucky we were. The animals I saw is one of the biggest reasons why I can’t stop recommending Borneo to people now!! It’s a must if you love ‘em ;)

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