At Borneo’s northern tip the fascinating Malaysian state of offers a personal introduction to some of the world’s most intriguing wildlife, spectacular rainforest and memorable eco-luxe experiences.
Sshhh! … our guide indicates to us to stop, putting his finger to his lips to halt our chatter. Furtively, he walks a few steps ahead looking up into the trees and then whispers in a low husky tone, “Orang-utan at ten o’clock!” All eyes dart up into the canopy and there he is, a magnificent beast lolling in the fork of two huge branches. Everyone gasps in wonder at the sight of the ‘Wild Man of Borneo’. He is scratching himself and seems a little agitated, and then suddenly he takes off, swinging effortlessly through the branches like he has been doing some serious work in the gym. “Come on!” our guide Calix says, and we follow him like excited kids, ignoring the path and pushing our way through the undergrowth of the Borneo rainforest on an exhilarating chase, following the creature who has fascinated mankind for many years. Another group calls out to us, and we confirm that we have spotted him. They fall in with us and the atmosphere is electric. We burrow deep into the jungle and track the orang-utan for over an hour, Calix snapping branches as we go so that we can find our way back to the trail. Eventually our ‘friend’ swings up higher into the trees and we lose sight of him, but with satisfied grins and a real sense of achievement we wind our way back to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge and share our story with the other guests. We are staying right in the heart of the lush Danum Valley in southern Sabah.
Said to have the world’s most complex ecosystem, the rainforest covers an area of 438 square kilometres and is an untouched paradise, home to over 275 bird species, numerous reptiles, fish and insects, and 110 mammals, including the rare Sumatran rhino, the clouded leopard, and seven species of primates including the unique proboscis monkey and orang-utan. Each day guided treks set out from the lodge along tracks built by the forest rangers. Conservation of the natural habitat is the prime consideration, and the environment that surrounds us holds surprises at every turn. One morning we get up way before dawn, winding our way along a 27-metre high canopy walkway to watch the mist rise up through the trees as eerie shafts of light begin to form and the forest awakes. Gibbons are heard in the distance and helmeted hornbills call out their morning song. With numerous treks leading in all directions from the lodge, guided walks are performed three or four times per day, each one heralding the changing face of the magnificent forest. In the evening it comes alive with the sound of nocturnal animals, and with torch in hand we see flying squirrels, tiny mice deer and huge atlas moths.
ADVENTURE & DISCOVERY
The afternoon trek, normally the longest but also one of the most rewarding, is quite different again as we climb up to a majestic escarpment, visiting an ancient tribal burial site along the way. At the summit the views are stunning as we look down at our lodge nestled in a small clearing beside the Danum River, and then out to the horizon, the hills and valleys covered with dense, 140 million year-old rainforest. We stand there awestruck for some time, enjoying this almost ‘spiritual’ experience, completely dwarfed by a luxurious natural world.
Little wonder the ancestors of the land laid their leaders to rest here! Eventually we head down again, remembering that Calix has promised that we will enjoy a jacuzzi like no other, complete with pedicure! This turns out to be a natural rock pool and waterfall so we happily abandon our trekking clothes, ready for a refreshing dip. The pool is teeming with tiny garra rufa fish, and as we wade in, they nibble at our feet, the ‘pedicure’ sending us off into shrieks of laughter, as we swim towards the rushing waterfall. Exhilarated but also tired and ready for a break, we make our way back to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, a series of very comfortable wooden cabins linked by wooden walkways, with an impressive main bar/restaurant and meeting area, lovingly referred to by the staff as KL!. Guests mix and mingle at all times of the day, swapping tales of what they have seen and experienced. Our cabin overlooks the river and also features a romantic outdoor bath. Sitting back, champagne in hand, we look up at the escarpment and wonder about the stellar line-up of famous guests that have stayed at the lodge – Ringo Starr, the King and Queen of Sweden, Isabella Rossellini. Did they stay in this very cabin listening to the wild sounds of the jungle just as we are? Our Sabah adventure, though, had started one week earlier, and we had wondered if it could get any better than this. The fabled ‘Land Below the Wind’ offered so much more than we ever expected. Arriving at the brand new Kota Kinabalu International Airport, our first stop was a relaxing three days at the Shangri La Rasa Ria resort, some thirty minutes drive out of KK.
Rasa Ria sits on three kilometres of pristine beach and is surrounded by 400 acres of tropical vegetation. With its own nature reserve, it was here that we fi rst witnessed the rehabilitation of orphaned orang-utans, a program that provides a home before they are ready to return to natural habitats. The reserve also conducts nature awareness and learning programs for visitors from all over the world. If complete getaway is what you look for in a holiday then Rasa Ria certainly ticks all the boxes, with two huge swimming pools, numerous restaurants, shops, spa, gym, bars, watersports, tennis, a par 72, 18-hole championship golf course and all the soft adventure you could ever want.
Adventure being the order of the day our next destination was Sandakan on the east coast, a one-hour flight from KK during which passengers are treated to an awesome view of the serrated peaks of Mt Kinabalu which stands at 4,095 metres. Just 28 kilometres from Sandakan, our first stop was Sepilok, a nature reserve set on 43 square kilometres of jungle where over 170 orphaned orang-utans learn survival skills. This is one of Sabah’s prime tourist attractions and we all lined up for the 10am feeding time to watch as a sudden rustle of branches brought forth a male orang-utan who put on quite a show for us as he traversed the ropes onto the feeding platform.
From Sandakan Jetty an eco-friendly, electrically-powered boat took us deep into the Sukau jungle to the Kinabatangan River to Abai village, a small proud community of fishermen and their families. Our home for the next two nights was the Abai and Kinabatangan Riverside Lodges, and from here we were treated to a fabulous array of wildlife. It’s worth getting up very early in the morning here, to witness the gentle mist that shrouds the river as dawn breaks and listen as the jungle bursts into life.
This area is said to have the most diverse range and largest concentration of wildlife in Borneo and it’s here we first spotted the strange-looking but unique proboscis monkey with its distinctive long nose and big belly as well as pig-tailed macaques and silverleaf monkeys. We also learnt how to spot an orang-utan nest and got our first glimpse of them in the wild. A cruise upstream took us to Pitas Lake to see the dozens of tropical birds on show including egrets, kingfi shers, kites, sea eagles, hornbills, purple herons, spoonbills, Oriental darters and dollar birds; our guide Abbas pointing out some wonder of nature at every turn. Across the river, in the Abai village, we learnt how the villagers are doing their bit for the preservation of the forest and were invited to adopt a tree which we planted in a special ceremony, glad to give back to the environment we were so enjoying. Gliding through the water in a long boat in the still of the night was another unforgettable experience, scanning for nocturnal animals with our torches, the eyes of flat-headed wild cats glistening in the dark. Abbas (who loves a joke) told us we would soon see a Borneo Christmas tree, and with torches switched off, there it was, a huge tree completely lit up against the night sky by thousands of twinkling fireflies! Sadly, we eventually had to leave the jungles of Borneo behind and return to Kota Kinabalu. Don’t feel too sorry for us though because KK, with its shopping malls and night markets, is enough to quench the thirst of any shopaholic!
ADVENTURE & DISCOVERY
For everything that Sabah has to offer on the land, it also has a wonderful array of sea life, coral reefs, and some of the best dive sites in the world. Just 15 minutes ferry ride from KK lies Gaya Island home of the luxury Gayana Eco Resort.The heart of the resort is not its over-water tropical villas, stunningly situated beside a natural bay/lagoon, but its Marine Ecology Research Centre which is all about protecting and regenerating the area’s precious marine ecology. The centre is a must-visit and here you can adopt your very own piece of coral which is then replanted on the ocean floor surrounding the resort, bringing the damaged coral reefs back to life. The research centre’s real passion though is the conservation and preservation of endangered giant clams which are found in the area.
Their marine biologists work on propagating them in huge tanks then returning them to their natural environment. At Gayana excellent snorkelling can be experienced in the lagoon right off your own jetty. Everything here is vivid; the magnificent giant clams with electric blue lips, the soft pink jelly fish that gently float by, the red star fish and of course numerous brightly coloured tropical fish.
For honeymooners, or just those of us who love a little indulgence, breakfast arrives direct to your villa by boat – and not much beats enjoying a delicious gourmet start to the day on your own deck surrounded by such beauty. Gayana’s sister resort, Bunga Raya, lies just a short boat ride away and there are regular shuttles between the two. Bunga Raya is a secluded hideaway of timbered villas tucked so much into the hillside that arriving at the resort you have to really look to spot them. Surrounded by virgin jungle and sitting on the edge of a fabulous white-sand beach this was the perfect way to end our Sabah experience, in total luxury. A romantic dinner on our last night in a private pavilion right on the beach gave us time to talk about all the wonderful things we had experienced in just a little over two weeks.
We had been up close and personal with Mother Nature in all her magnificence. We had been welcomed into a country made up of 32 indigenous groups of warm and friendly people who live in harmony with each other and the environment. And our family had grown somewhat because here we were now proud parents of a rainforest tree, a piece of coral on the ocean bed and an orphaned orang-utan called Sen. Sabah, our hearts are full!
GETTING THERE Royal Brunei fl ies ex Brisbane 6 x weekly ex Perth 4 x weekly via Brunei to Kota Kinabalu www.bruneiair.com.au; Malaysia Airlines flies to KL from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth with multiple connections daily to Kota Kinabalu www.malaysiaairlines.com.au CURRENCY in Sabah is Malaysian Ringgt. Exchange Rate 1 MR = 0.34 AUD (at time of writing). ATMs are freely available.
ACCOMMODATION www.shangri-la.com www.borneorainforestlodge.com www.gayana-eco-resort.com HELP You too can help the endangered Orang-utan! Visit Sepilok Sanctuary www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk or www.orangutan.org.au
For more information about Sabah Tourism.