It was with a hint of excitement that we embarked on the highly recommended Santubong Mangroves Swamps River Cruise, a three hours cruise on a PVC motorized launch that navigates the several branches of the Santubong River and Salak River delta systems that come together before joining the South China Sea.
This tour, sometimes called Santubong Wildlife Cruise, is best taken at high tide, and it combines a mangrove cruise with a visit to the Santubong River mouth in search of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins and for a chance to see some of Sarawak’s fascinating wildlife that inhabit the mangrove swamps, namely crocodiles, mudskippers, crabs, shell fish, proboscis monkeys and more.
The minivan transfer took us from Kuching Town along the highway that crosses the Santubong peninsula to the Sarawak Boat Club, from where the river cruise boats depart. Our boat hosted 20 people and included the captain and 2 members of the crew that also functioned as knowledgeable guides. We were accompanied by private guide Wayne, courtesy of the Sarawak Tourism Board.
The boat navigated in slow motion due to the low tide, indeed not the best conditions for this tour, but it was the only time-frame that we could accommodate. We cruised past small colourful fishing villages and had great views of Santubong peak and the surrounding lush hills whose shapes and silhouettes were accentuated by the lowering sun.
Our boat roamed the mangrove-lined river looking for wildlife, while a gentle breeze caressed us and made us realize how quiet it was all around. Dusk was approaching tainting the water brown, water that peacefully hit dark-grey sand shores that, thanks to the low tide, revealed huge mangrove roots. The guides continued feeding us information: these heavily silted mangroves and the tidal swamps in which they thrive are often mistaken as a wasteland, used in the construction industry for piling and also as charcoal for cooking. Coal production was also a huge mangrove decimator in Thailand before the Royal family declared mangroves a protected tree species. Mangrove swamps in fact sustain many different species of trees, including the versatile Napah palms, and enjoy a symbiotic relationship with prawns, fish, lizards, and other coastal organisms.
As we absorbed all this data, a small monitor lizard appeared, stood motionless and looked at us head up, patiently waiting for our boat to pass. Big mudskippers slid and jumped on the muddy shore as if in a toboggan at a
fun-fair, a fisherman tried his luck with a fishing cane from his wooden boat, while fluffy clouds started towering above us, and an eagle glided in search of preys, before disappearing behind one of the peaks. This tour was providing a unique view of the picturesque riverine life of Kuching surroundings, and of nature of course, which was confirming itself as the main character of a supreme environmental design.
It was past 6,30pm; crew and passengers looked out attentively for a sighting of proboscis monkeys, since small groups are often seen in the treetops at the water edge at this time of the day, settling down for the night. No luck. Birds chirped and cicadas sang, the boat kept flanking the shore in search of wildlife until, past the last meander, the open sea showed us its immensity; in the distance we could spot the two islands Pulau Satang Besar and Pulau Satang Kecil part of Satang Turtle Island National Park.
We knew we had reached the vicinity of Salak village when we heard roosters singing; there we enjoyed the sight of Malay houses on stilts, each painted in a different lively colour, and of the local Muslim population meeting in porches, men chatting, women cooking, kids playing. We marveled at floating fish farms, at a local market scene and at a majestic mosque, all forming part of the scenic landscape. It is not the Amazon of course, still you cannot help but think about the lifestyle of local communities living here with no running water or electricity, at barely 30 minutes from the biggest town in the Malaysian Borneo, commuting daily with their small wooden boats to the Sarawak Boat Club where their wheeled vehicles are parked, and traveling daily to town to sell produce and buy goods of first necessity for the village.
The cruise continued its slow navigation along the river, and finally dark descended upon us; we kept an eye on the waters around the boat but there was no sight of the unusual looking Irrawaddy dolphins at the place where they are often spotted. These marine mammal inhabits rivers, estuaries and shallow coastal areas, and the Santubong area is one of the best places in Sarawak to spot them. These dolphins are wild creatures of course, and therefore sightings cannot be guaranteed, but the guide informed us of their high success rate, so it was down to our luck. I was not disappointed at all, there were so many features that I was enjoying, but the lulling made me feel so sleepy – I needed a boost; I did not expect a hornbill, but at least a croc snapping out of the water, a monkey jumping on the boat and creating panic, anything please…
The guides were now after fireflies and crocodiles! Crocodiles are a protected species here in Sarawak, and are often seen on these mud banks; and passing a torch light over the river often guarantees the sight of brightly shining eyes; no luck here either.
After the crocodile search was over, the boat proceeded back upriver to a spot where fireflies gather at night. There were so many of them, moving around the branches of the mangroves and momentarily lighting up the pitch-dark night sky; the whole place gleamed with a magic aura.
It was time to return to the Sarawak Boat Club. We did not have much luck in terms of wildlife sightings, with that small monitor lizard being the only really wild animal we encountered. I was left to imagine these elusive animals that cannot be controlled and timed. Nature is just like this, and Sarawak is not Africa. Yet on an average this cruise has a high record of wildlife spotting, so I am confident I will schedule a future visit to this great Malaysian province that is Sarawak and will repeat this superb cruise hoping to see more.
In the night, as I packed my bags for my next day early morning departure, I did so with the joy of having had the luck and the chance to be there and enrich my travel memories with one of the best travel destinations I have experienced so far in my life.
Santubong Mangroves Swamps River Cruise runs 3 times per day: at 8am, 2pm and 5pm. The morning cruise touches Satang Turtle Island National Park to watch turtles. The evening cruise have the option of a gourmet seafood dinner at one of the waterfront seafood restaurants overlooking the Buntal River. We were hosted by professional CPH Travel, check them out on www.cphtravel.com.my