There are 42 human skulls hanging from the rafters of a house on the outskirts of Sabah’s capital Kota Kinabalu. Taken during the 17th century by the famous head hunter Monsopiad, they are today treated with the greatest of respect in the small Kadazan-Dusun cultural village on the banks of the Sungai Moyog. These powerful spiritual talismans, as the locals believe them to be, are one of the most awesome – and to the Westerner, shocking – reminders of Borneo’s ancient tribal past.
And in modern Sabah, the past is still very much alive. With 32 different ethnic groups, ranging from the keepers of skulls and sea nomads to the Muslim Bisaya of the Klias Peninsula, the rice priestesses of the Kadazandusun and the traditional longhouse dwellers of the Rungus, Sabah in Malaysian Borneo is a fascinating and complex cultural mix.
Add to this a natural environment that is amongst the most stunning in the world, and the chance to come face to face with forest dwellers (including our distant cousins, the orangutan), and you have yourself a wild and adventurous destination that is truly unique.
Sabah has a very special biogeography that creates a treasure house of natural wonders. Ancient rainforests, mangrove swamps, coral reefs and soaring mountains breed an immense variety of incredible birdlife, flora and fauna not found anywhere else on Earth – none more famous, or as in need of conservation, than those flame-haired orangutan. The locals call them ‘Man of the Forest’, but it is the decimation of that very habitat at the hands of humans that have put these beautiful primates on the world’s most endangered list.
Eco-tourism has, thankfully, become Sabah’s new signature, harnessing much-needed funds to drive the conservation efforts whilst also promoting the plight of these very special animals and environment. Sabah is home to numerous refuges and rehabilitation centres for baby orang who have been orphaned by brutal deforestation by the palm oil industry or captured illegally, while on Selingaan or ‘Turtle Island’ in the Sulu Seas off the East Coast of Sabah, a local conservation project has transformed the fate of the vulnerable green turtle that were once a poacher’s prize. Back on dry land, a forward thinking agreement between Malaysia and neighbouring Indonesia and Brunei called the heart of Borneo agreement was declared in 2007 so that the forests would be protected while allowing sustainable use and access by local people. For naturalists and adventurists with a yearning to experience some of the world’s most precious creatures and habitats, the new world of ancient Sabah naturally beckons.
Related article: Sabah From the Heart
Legend has it that a dragon guarding a large pearl once resided on the peaks of the mystical Mount Kinabalu – a story that many a brave climber could appreciate, for the view of a Borneo sunrise from the summit is a treasure of a different kind. At 4095m above sea level – and the highest mountain between The Himalayas and the island of New Guinea – Mount Kinabalu commands the respect of all who come to conquer its soaring granite peaks.
On the clearest of days, you can see the Mount Kinabalu rising as a backdrop from the capital, Kota kinabalu (or KK as it’s affectionately known) and as far as the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, rising dramatically up out of the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Kinabalu National Park. There are daily tours and several pleasant rainforest walking trails for the less adventurous, while more able-bodied enthusiasts can take on the two-day return hike.
For those searching out more isolation (and tropic humidity in place of freezing altitude!), you can make the journey to the lost worlds of the Maliau Basin in Tawau, South Central Sabah for a Jungle Trek that is not for the faint hearted! This remote and geographically intense region is solely for the more gung-ho, taking you through dipterocarp forests that are among the most diverse ecosystems on earth and home to wild orangutans and rhinoceros.
Not so keen on the hard core? If you’re staying in one of Sabah’s many fabulous luxury resorts, you may have access to expert guides who can take you off into the wilderness for a more laid-back trek. The stunning Gaya Island Resort on Pulau Gaya just off the coast of KK is one such resort, with a dedicated eco programme facilitated by naturalist Justin Juhun who leads guests on daily walks through the island’s forests, tracking the elusive proboscis monkeys that call the island home, and teaching you about the native medicinal plants and wildlife along the way. So you can take a few hours out of your morning to go exploring, before returning to the more hedonistic pleasures of the beach, pool and the indulgent treatments at the spa village.
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The mangroves and fresh water swamp forests of Sabah are home to an incredible array of wildlife, and a guided boat trip down the Klias River, a few hours drive outside of Kota Kinabalu, will reward you with almost guaranteed sightings of the proboscis monkey that are endemic to the region. These odd looking (and rightfully shy) monkeys with their old man face, awkward protruding nose and dare devil branch behaviour hang about in the trees, with whole families and the hilarious ‘bachelor pads’ of the single boys groups offering an thrilling spectacle from the water. The wetland wildlife also includes the cheeky Macaque monkey and the stealthy langur – or silver leaf – monkey, as well as a huge array of birdlife, fireflies and the odd crocodile. Many tours can be organised direct through your resort or hotel, and will include lunch or dinner. And though the peak hours of sunset and early evening (when the fire flies come out to play) can avoid the heat of the day, they can also be cause of an unpleasant overcrowding of boats on the water. Get lucky with a day time trip and you’ll be rewarded with the peace and serenity of river life with just you, your guide and (hopefully!) the animals to enjoy. For those wanting to try their luck at spotting wild orangutan on a river cruise, head to the east coast to the Kinabatangan Wetlands for the possible gift of orangutan (and even pygmy elephants!) seeking out fresh water and food by the river banks.
To see the orangutans in a protected environment, don’t miss the opportunity to visit one of the rehabilitation sanctuaries like Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre just outside of Sandakan, the largest and best known – though if you’re staying in the Kota Kinabalu region you can avoid the six-odd hours journey by car and head instead to the sanctuary set within a 64-acre nature reserve on the grounds of the Shangri-la Rasa Ria Resort, which facilitates rehabilitation programmes for endangered species of Sabah. It’s an experience to be cherished, to be in the presence of these breathtaking creatures as they come swinging down out of the canopies to feed, play and forage just metres from your viewing platform. The centres both run a great foster programme where visitors can donate a sum of money each year to go towards their chosen orangutan’s food, health and general care... so you could be leaving Sabah with an extra member of the family!
Evolution scientist Charles Darwin noted that Borneo was “one of the greatest luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself ”. And with Sabah’s potent mix of jungles, rivers and untouched beaches that embrace the call of the wild all within an easy few hours flight from mainland Kuala Lumpur, modern day explorers can share in the rich rewards of nature’s most precious possessions.
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