Sabah, Borneo (15.10.15)
Smack in the middle of the South China Sea, the Malaysian state of Sabah sits like a jewel in South East Asia’s crown. With its great variety of landscapes visitors can delight in one of the world’s most exciting natural environments, the maze of wildlife opportunities, adventure activities and stunning coastal settings.
While Nomadic Thoughts have arranged travel across the vast and relatively under-explored island of Borneo for well over two decades, we do continue to regard this part of the world as one of Asia’s outstanding wilderness areas. Certainly the state of Sabah remains a perfect place of respite for those living on, or visiting, the mainland Peninsular of Malaysia. Leaving behind the considerable hustle and bustle of one of South East Asia’s fastest expanding metropolises with its famous giant Petronas Twin Towers, the iridescent coastal waters, high mountains, sprawling jungle and surreal wildlife areas of Borneo appear as if out of an adventure comic.
Where else in the world can you watch turtles lay eggs on a white-sand beach, marvel at orangutans, dive in aqua coral reefs, navigate proboscis monkey waterways and scramble through enormous cave grottos – all in one day?
In addition to the vast tropical rainforest jungle regions, there is a huge variety of activity options. For example, the World Heritage Site of Mt Kinabalu Park (Borneo’s highest peak 4,101m) not only provides majestic views across the island, but also an extraordinary range of trekking opportunities.
As exciting as it sounds, sadly the sustainability of Sabah’s natural world is not guaranteed. Although surrounded by lush jungle, the very existence of this north east region is in the balance, as indigenous flora and fauna struggle against the steady impact of the island’s rainforest destruction. Research shows that the government are having difficulty bringing even 30% of Sabah land area under protection.
The rainforest destruction is fuelled by a thirst for precious natural timbers, pulp, rubber, minerals and palm oil. The reality is that palm oil plantations and an illegal wildlife trade thrive, despite the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Sepilok (which can be visited once a day), with its 43 sq km of protected jungle landscape, standing as a fragile beacon of defiance. In the face of enormous multi-national conglomerate might, the opportunity to visit such an extraordinary wildlife enclave may not last much longer.
Turtle Island, in the Sulu Sea off the Sandakan coastline, also offers a safe haven to the endangered green and hawksbill turtles. Visitors can stay overnight, see the turtle hatchery during the day, and then accompany a National Park ranger at night to watch turtles coming ashore to lay eggs.
One of my fondest memories of my first visit to Sabah is of my young children delightedly spotting, high in the jungle canopy, the long noses of the proboscis monkeys. Leaning over the boat as it slowly glided through the flooded jungle, it was a job to stop them jumping into the water to join the monkey’s jungle tea party. Equally the enormity of the Gomantong Caves, views from the Danum Valley Borneo Rainforest canopy walks and the fabulous colours you see during snorkelling, diving and swimming in Sabah will delight one and all.
If you are thinking of visiting this Malaysian outpost, I do recommend planning in advance. Twitchers, trekkers and environmentalists will have their work cut out as much as sun worshippers, divers and water-sports enthusiasts.
The 688 species of resident and migratory birds, 6,000 plant and 100 mammalian species await, along with over thirty different ethnic groups and vast numbers wildlife species in need of protection. These include the Bornean elephants, Sumatran rhinoceros, Bornean clouded leopards, sea turtles, all manner of monkeys, gibbons and the poster pin up orangutans.