For me Borneo has always had an air of mystery about it. I remember watching a TV programme with David Attenborough roaming through the undergrowth in search of orangutans. I had to get a map out to find exactly where this wild place was.
Sandwiched between mainland Malaysia and Indonesia, Borneo is the third largest island in the world and its land mass is shared between three sovereign nations: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
I recently had the chance to spend some time travelling through Sabah, one half of Malaysian Borneo (the other half belonging to Sarawak) to see what it offered, which turned out to be a huge variety of exciting things to see and do: I found myself being mesmerised by the most stunning scenery, gawping in awe at towering peaks, laughing uncontrollably at a female orangutan getting the water from a coconut, donning rather unsexy leech socks to trek through the rainforest and cruising the Kinabantangan River in search of wildlife.
Travelling in Sabah is a bit of an adventure. Not because it’s full of blow pipe wielding natives (that kind of behaviour is long gone), or because it’s difficult to get around. But certain areas are relatively undeveloped so, when you’re off the beaten track, the Lodges, although extremely comfortable, are not luxurious; but then a 5* stay in the jungle just wouldn’t be anywhere near as authentic. Luckily I’ve done all the hard work and have my list of the best places to stay. Another factor to consider is that the wildlife is not laid out on a plate for you like on an African safari – it is a jungle after all – but going out searching for it and not knowing what you might happen across is super exciting and even spotting the small things is amazing.
If you’re up for a little adventure, want to experience incredible rainforests, spot wildlife and try something different for your next trip, here’s why I think you should consider Sabah
It’s good to go in our summer
Unlike most other places in Asia, the best time to visit Malaysian Borneo is between April and October when the weather is relatively dry and the seas are at their calmest. This makes it perfect for a family adventure during the long school holidays, as children will absolutely love the sense of adventure. But try and travel at the start or end of the summer holidays to avoid the peak crowds.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu
The majestic and awe-inspiring Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak in South East Asia, standing at 4,095m above sea level. A designated World Heritage Site, it has a diverse and unique flora and fauna including the Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, and is a magnet for trekkers. I’ll admit that I didn’t have time to scale it, but I travelled with people who had. And, as long as you are well prepared (proper acclimatisation, lots of muesli bars and layers) it’s apparently climber-friendly. The journey to the top takes 2 days, with an overnight stop at the Lodge at Laban Rata, 3,200m up. The next morning you start early for your final attack to catch the spectacular sunrise at the summit.
Due to the large scale deforestation that has taken place in Borneo, particularly through the Palm Oil industry, the population of orangutans has been put at risk of extinction. This makes seeing them in the wild difficult, but I can vouch when you do, it’s very rewarding. Admittedly at first they were fuzzy blobs high up in the trees, but these became much clearer with the aid of binoculars – these and a long lens for your camera are a must on this trip.
Although I would whole heartedly suggest everyone tries to spot orangutan in the wild, you are not always guaranteed a sighting. So, I would definitely include a visit at the end of your trip to one of the reputable government run rehabilitation centres, which are vital for maintaining stable orangutan populations through their reintroduction to the wild. Here you will learn all about the “little people” of the forest – so called because they share around 97% of human DNA. The centres are set within huge forests so the orangutans are free to roam far and wide, but until they are fully reintroduced will (more often than not) still find their way back for feeding times.
River cruising and cheeky monkeys
Orangutans are understandably the star attraction in Sabah but the proboscis monkey definitely deserves plenty of attention too. I’ll admit that it’s not the prettiest of primates with its rather funny looking bulbous nose – the females have smaller, pointier snouts – and the ones I saw all seemed to have permanently erect, very red penises! But, they are just so fascinating and, for me, behave more like humans than orangutans.
Despite their endangered status, proboscis monkeys can be seen in quite large numbers munching on fruit in the trees that line the banks of the Kinabatangan River. There are a couple of super places to stay here and days are spent out on safari by boat.
Whilst cruising the river, as well as proboscis monkeys, I also spotted the unmistakable silhouette of the orangutan (those binoculars came in handy again), bearded wild pigs, plenty of hornbills with their helmet-like feature above their beak and the rather vicious short tailed macaque monkeys. For the lucky ones (I wasn’t one of them) there’s also a chance to spot the pygmy elephant as they bathe and water down at the river’s edge – I did spot plenty of their (rather fresh) droppings which suggests they were lurking about in the jungle somewhere.
The highlight of a stay along the river is a night cruise. It’s an eerie feeling with nothing but the beam of a spotlight guiding you and then focussing on a snake wrapped around an overhanging branch above your head, or catching the glint of a very large crocodile’s eyeball looking back at you. Then with the light turned off, you are surrounded by the sounds of the jungle and can watch trees magically aglow with fireflies; a totally surreal experience.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
The smallest species of bear on the planet with a distinctive gold stripe on its chest, Sun Bears are one of my favourite animals. However, they are ever so rare to spot in the wild so I jumped at the chance to see them at this excellent Conservation Centre; its mission is to rescue these delightful creatures from the effects of deforestation, commercial hunting and the pet trade. The hour I spent here was an education and so uplifting.
A trundle in the jungle (luscious rainforests)
The Danum Valley Conservation Area covers over 43,000 hectares of pristine rainforest, renowned for having one of the world’s most complex ecosystems rich in flora and fauna. The area has been protected from the ravages of deforestation and has one of the best Lodge’s in Sabah, with excellent guides who help you get the most out of your explorations, whether on foot (both day and night safaris are available) or from a canopy walkway suspended amongst the trees high up over the jungle floor. There’s over 300 species of birds and a host of endangered wildlife to track, such as the clouded leopard (too rare for my eyes), orangutan, proboscis monkeys and gibbons which were just the most amazing things to see as they swung from tree to tree.
It’s a bit of a trek to get there, with the last bit of the journey being 2½ hours along a bumpy road. But, it’s definitely worth it to experience the complete isolation in a truly beautiful place surrounded by nothing but the cacophonous sounds of nature.
After sweating it out in the jungle, you’ll definitely be in need of some R&R and a bit of luxury. On the mainland a mere 45 minutes from the main Airport at Kota Kinabalu, you have the luxurious Shangri La Rasa Ria Resort which is set on its own sweeping bay with great views, wonderful sunsets and every conceivable facility.
Or just a zippy 20 minute boat ride from the mainland, you’ll find Gaya Island and two notable beach resorts. Bunga Raya is set in its own stunning bay with crystal clear waters and a house reef. It’s a laid back place with wooden villas dotted around pretty gardens fronting a white sand beach and backed by the jungle.
However, if you want a more “resort” feel then you can opt for the larger Gaya Island Resort which has excellent accommodation and lots of activities on offer or you can just relax on the beach.
If a little adventure is up your street and you’d like to get a bit off the beaten track, then please do get in touch to chat about Sabah as I know the best way to travel around the area (getting the order right is so important) and also the nicest Lodges to stay at.
[Pictures – All My Own]