Posted by: Tommy | July 11, 2011

Searching for Orangutans on the Kinabatangan River

My wife is the greatest.  When I’d hurt my back in Bangkok, she diligently found things to do so I wouldn’t go crazy while laying around for 3 days.  And when she hurt her ankle, leaving us in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia for 9 unexpected days (and KK is not where you want to spend 9 days, ordinarily) she diligently found things for me to do while she was laying around so that I wouldn’t go crazy.  Or so she said at first…when I told her I’d stay, she revealed that she thought she’d go crazy if I stayed in the room with her for 9 days, so she wanted me to ship out for a few days in the middle.  And that’s how she found Osman’s Kinabatangan River homestey.  (No that’s not a typo, well, not my type, anyway).

The lawn in front of Osman's homestay

According to Trip Advisor (Anna’s favorite website), one of the best things to do around KK is to see the Kinabatangan river with Osman.  Reviews online have headlines like: “You have to go with Osman!!!” “Amazing Osman!!” and “Osman – king of the jungle!”.  The reviews go on to talk about staying in the house with Osman, his wife Yanti, their 6 children and 7 cats.  About zipping around the river, while Osman’s sharp eyes find orang utans, proboscis monkeys, macacques and pygmy elephants.  Definitely my kind of adventure trip.  She found this on Thursday night.  The other thing she found for me to do in KK is a very active pick-up frisbee scene.  There are 3 games every week, on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.  So as to not miss any frisbee games, I decided I could go to Osman’s on Friday morning, see animals Saturday and return Saturday night.

Early Friday morning, I contacted Yanti about coming later that day.  She said it was no problem and advised me that it would be 4 hours from KK.  No problem.  I made sure Anna was situated, ran and got her some fruit and other food since she needs to stay off her ankle, packed a backpack and headed for the bus station.  On the way, Yanti texted again.  Apparently she was wrong – it’s 6 hours by bus.  It was already 11, but that should be ok, I’d have all day Saturday to spot animals before taking an evening bus back to KK.

At the bus station, I was told that the bus I needed left from a different station….30 minutes away.  I took a bus to that station and bought a ticket for the correct bus…leaving 90 minutes later, at 1:30.  At 2:15, I texted Yanti and let her know that I was still in KK, but hopefully the bus would be leaving soon.  Elapsed time: 3 hours so far.  The bus left soon after.  For the next 6 hours, I half-watched a terrible cartoon about crime-fighting dogs and cats.  I wanted to read my book, but I kept getting angry looks from people when I turned on the overhead light (and it hardly worked, anyway).  At 7, Yanti started texting me.  At 8, I asked the bus driver to let me know when we’d reached Sakau Junction – Yanti was sending a car for to pick me up there.  At 8:30, we still hadn’t arrived.  Or at least, not that I knew of.  The bus driver never would acknowledge me, so I was just kind of hoping he’d let me out at the right spot.

At 8:45, the bus stopped for a smoke break.  At the same time, Yanti was calling me on the phone – I answered, told her the name of the restaurant we’d stopped in front of and she told me to get off the bus and wait.  So I did.  One of the craziest things about this trip is the number of times that we’ve had to blindly depend on some stranger to help us.  And more amazingly, it hasn’t really gone wrong yet.

I sat there, in the dark, alone, for about 20 minutes before a truck pulled over and asked if I was “Tom”.  I hopped in and he took me to small pier about 20 minutes down another road.  Upon arrival, I was horrified to find 3 tourists with a huge pile of suitcases, huddled together (it had started raining really hard just after I got picked up by the truck) on the pier, clearly waiting for me.  Yanti had expected my at 8 and it was now past 9, so I was worried they’d been waiting for an hour or more for my bus.  It turns out they’d only been waiting 10 minutes and that they couldn’t have been nicer.  Paul, Geraldine and their daughter Niamh are an Irish family on vacation for 2 weeks.  We would end up spending a lot of time together.

Driving the boat from the pier to the homestay was Osman’s dad.  He spoke some English and told us a little about the place and said that Osman was out with the tourists in the jungle.  In the online reviews, people rave about the trekking and how Osman is the only guide who will let you get up close and personal with orangutans, elephants and the like.  We didn’t think anything of it…until we got to the house (at around 10, just over 10 hours since I’d left KK for what I thought was a 4 hour trip).  At the house, a daughter brought us some re-heated dinner and Osman’s dad explained that he was very worried.  Yes, Osman takes tourists out in the jungle.  But never after dark – and dark comes at 6.  It’s 10:30, so everyone is understandably freaked out.  In fact, we don’t even meet Yanti that night – she’s part of the search party out looking for Osman.

I’m shown to my room – very homestay-ey.  2 beds, no fan, no sheets.  But nicer than expected, actually.  I’d packed my mosquito net, but the construction was totally sealed (a rarity in Asia for places without A/C) and the windows fully screened (another rarity).  I fall asleep soon enough, only to be awakened at 2:30 – by cries of joy.  The search party finally found the group (Osman plus 3 tourists) at 2am, 6 miles downriver.  They ate dinner and were all so relieved that it was quite festive – which translated to loud when I’m sleeping at 3 am.  At first I was annoyed – now that I’ve heard their story, I don’t hold it against them one bit.

They went into the jungle at 2:30.  Osman had spotted fresh elephant tracks near the house and the group went out to look for them.  A French couple had been staying for 4 days, expressly to see the Pygmy elephants (only 120 in the world, all living on this particular river – they’re the big draw).  So they went out, thinking they’d be gone 30 minutes, maybe an hour – just long enough to find the elephants and watch for a bit.  Apparently the trail was good, tracks fresh and all that – so they kept following, thinking elephants were just around the corner.  They did that until dark….never saw any elephants.  And when Osman tried to guide them out, he got lost.

The wandered the jungle, never finding the river, until about midnight.  At some point it started to rain – no one had rain gear (at 2:30 it had been sunny) – so they were quickly soaked and freezing.  The mud in the rain forest was knee deep and full of leaches (the next day, they showed off their multitude of leach bites – glad I wasn’t there).  Around midnight, they gave up.  They scavenged for any dry wood they could find and built a fire, expecting to spend the night sitting in the jungle.  We found out the next day that Osman saw at least a dozen snakes, but didn’t say anything so he didn’t freak out the tourists (apparently the tourists only saw 1 snake).  If I’d been there, I’d probably be going into much more detail, but thankfully I wasn’t…and I’m glad someone has a travel story much, much worse than anything we’ve encountered so far.

The next morning, I was up at 5.  Sleeping in the Borneo rainforest with no fan is not an easy thing to do.  I got up, got dressed and sat on the back patio (where we spent the majority of our time), waiting for someone to come out and tell me what to do.  The sun rising over the river was beautiful, but I was ready to see some animals!  About 6, the Irish family emerged, also dressed and ready to start the day.  Yes, they’d also heard the group return the night before.  Yes, they wanted to see some animals as well.  We were all hungry – dinner the previous night was about snack-sized for me.

So we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Around 10, Robert, one of the tourists, emerged.  He was shirtless and bleeding profusely from most of his 10 or so leach bites.  He proceeded to use tissues to blot the bites while giving Paul, Geraldine and I the play-by-play above.  He’d been carrying a $2000 Canon camera – which had a water-filled lens and a mud-filled housing.  He went to work on it, while also giving us the lay of the land at Osman’s.  Yanti came out next, introduced herself and served breakfast – 2 pieces of white bread and an egg.  Disappointing, as we’d heard about the amazing food, but understandable.  She’d been out searching til 2:30, after all.

When Osman finally emerged at noon, the Irish family and I had been sitting around, waiting for this amazing adventure we’d read about, for 5 and 7 hours, respectively.  He came out, told us that we’d be going on a boat ride at 2:30, then left for town in the boat.  So we did some more waiting.  Everyone was getting along, but we’d just been sitting around forever.  It became clear that if I wanted to see anything, I wouldn’t be making it back to KK that night.  I was able to email Anna to let her know (Robert had a laptop with its own 3G modem) that I wouldn’t be back that night.

At 2:30, Osman still hadn’t returned.  Osman’s dad loaded us into the other boat and took us out to look for the elephants.  Robert stayed behind (he’d seen elephants), but the French couple still hadn’t seen any and Paul and Geraldine had come specifically to see the elephants.  I was much more interested in looking for orang utans (I’ve seen a lot of elephants this year!) but was in the clear minority.  Fortunately, we found the elephants in the first 20 minutes.  Osman’s dad drove the boat straight into the bank of the river, directly in front of these elephants, which put me within 10 feet of them.  They didn’t pay me any attention, but it was still a little nerve-racking to be so vulnerable.  Pygmy elephants are small…for elephants – which makes them about 7 feet tall and several tons in weight).

Pygmy Elephants - only relatively pygmy

We sat there watching them for about 30 minutes, then moved across the river to give the elephants space in the hopes that they’d come into the river.  As we sat (for an hour) across the river, we watch as 1 elephant, then another, would take a few steps down the bank…only to have another tour boat come right up to the shore to take pictures, scaring the herd back a few steps.  We watched this until everyone in the boat had had their fill of elephants and we only had another hour of daylight (Osman’s dad was unwilling to consider getting back after dark and after the night before, none of us were interested, either).  We left the elephants and headed back up the river, turning down a picturesque tributary in the hopes of finding the hilarious proboscis monkeys.

And we were in luck.  Paul and Geraldine had been to the Sepilok monkey sanctuary and seen these monkeys, so all morning they’d been telling us stories of their funny behavior.  Proboscis monkeys are named after their giant noses.  The males are recognized by their huge nose, bloated belly and red penis that sticks straight out from their bodies at all times.  Within 5 minutes of turning down the smaller channel, we saw our first tree full of monkeys.  We sat for a few minutes watching the antics of the younger monkeys jumping between trees and chasing each other.  We passed around the single set of binoculars and everyone tried to get a good photo of the monkeys high in the trees.

Check out the nose on the male.

After a few minutes, we moved further down the river and found an interesting bird.

A few minutes after that, we moved still further and found this monitor lizard basking in the sun

A little while later, we saw a group of macacques hanging out on a line across the river.  We saw a mother grooming a baby, some larger males and a few females, about a dozen in all.  It was just about dark by this time, so we turned back around, stopping only for a minute or two as we passed the group of proboscis monkeys again on the way out.

Macaques on a line

When we returned to the house, dinner was ready to be served.  We ate in true home-stay style – sitting on the floor, eating with our hands.  Osman sat with us, though he didn’t eat, and we were served by Yanti and all of the daughters (5 of them! – though the 5 year old twins didn’t do anything but giggle).  The food was amazing this time.  We made arrangements to ride back out the following morning – the Irish family had to catch a flight and I wanted the first bus back to KK.  The power went out early that evening, so we all ended up going to be pretty early.

The next morning, we loaded up the boat and caught a ride to the bus.  Another 7 hour bus ride had me back to KK just in time to play frisbee Sunday afternoon.  Reflecting back on my time, I’m not sure if I’m glad I went.  It took 10 hours to get there and 8 to get back.  I sat around, doing nothing, for over 9 hours.  I was actually doing the activity I’d signed up for from 2:30 to 6.  Those aren’t good ratios.  But I did see the rare elephants, the proboscis monkeys and the macaques – an incredible haul for just 3 hours in a boat.  And I wasn’t driving Anna crazy during the 3 days I was away, which was really the point of going.

My experience speaks to the difference between the eco-lodge experience and the homestay experience.  We ended up sitting around so much because Osman’s family business isn’t equipped to function if Osman spends the night lost in the jungle.  He needed time to recover from that and to take care of his business.  At an eco-lodge, you might still end up lost in the jungle, but they’ll have extra people able to pick up the slack the next day – a larger workforce and pool of helpers.  All in all, I’d say it was worth it – sure, it had potential to be much better, but if I’d come a day earlier it would have been ALOT worse.



  1. Amazing patience y’all have developed. All those delays and unexpected developments would have Sally and me in a tizzy.

  2. Kudos to you Tommy for your attitude and good cheer I am sure I would have lost my patience. Sounds like you saw some amazing animals desire the challenges. You need to do a post counting up all the different animals you have seen in the wild.

  3. Another amazing story of adventures in the wild! You are so brave to “stey” with a family that had FIVE little girls!!! ( Very glad you were a day late and missed the LOST TOUR…my worst nightmare!)
    I hope Anna’s ankle is better…does she need to wrap it in an ace bandage for extra support until it is completely healed?
    sending you all my XOXOXO, Kita

  4. Hi. I am due to Borneo very soon. How can we contact/book Osman’s place?

  5. Hi Tommy,

    This blog was literally the best I read on Osman’s on the Kinabatangan (kudos to your wife btw). And there are lots of blogs out there and I did read quite a few.

    To be honest I wasn’t sure if I should even go myself after reading all the not so positive reviews of the place so I thought I would add to the pile and write my own blog. If you can’t beat them… join them, as they say.

    Osman was on top form when I visited with my boyfriend in February this year, 2017. So I just wanted to share my experience with you and all of your readers.

    Osman is the man at finding animals and he may be a little crazy but that is all part of his charm. You are stayin in his home with his family after all and Osman’s home was definately a memorable stay for me. I would love it if you would be so kind as to read my blog.

    All the best, and keep up the funny blog posts. I like readng stories warts and all.


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