7 mins

Exploring Malaysian Borneo

Drinking coconut wine, diving among the glimmer of shark fins or braving a red-hot curry at 3,272m up a mountain; Will Gray discovers Borneo has strange charms

Sabah sunset (Steph Leung)

Three spurts of brown water and a large insect leg. That was it. A single defiant offering from a shower that oozed remoteness and little else. It was quite satisfying really. After all, imagine flying all the way to Borneo, taking an internal flight, a two-hour bus ride and a 35km voyage across the Celebes Sea only to find that your accommodation had a luxury shower with jet nozzle and turbo heat booster. It just wouldn’t seem right. I had come to Sabah, one of the East Malaysian states in northern Borneo, to sample a different kind of creature comfort – the ‘living’ creature kind.

My first destination was Kapalai Dive Resort, which rises from the sea on wooden stilts like a rickety Atlantis. Modelled on a traditional Bajau fishing village, Kapalai consists of several thatched chalets connected by long boardwalks stretching across a shallow reef flat.

By noon, a strong north-westerly had tussled the sea, while ominous thunderclouds had smudged out the distant mainland. I took refuge underwater. Kapalai and nearby Sipadan Islan offer world-class diving and within minutes I was kneeling on the sandy seabed ogling a large hawksbill turtle. It was also on the bottom, about an arm’s length away, occasionally lifting its head from feeding to trade casual, reptilian glances for my captivated stare.

The shallow waters at Kapalai provided a gentle precursor to Sipadan Island where, barely a stone’s throw from the beach, the coral reef plunges a giddy 600m to the ocean floor. After transferring to one of the island’s resorts, I joined a boat-load of divers bound for Barracuda Point on the very brink of the abyss. The transition from turquoise shallows to inky depths was abrupt and unnerving – even before the dive-master warned us of potentially strong currents.

“Keep together,” he said. “Follow me.” Then he was gone, somersaulting backwards off the side of the boat. I hesitated a moment longer, but already the dive-master was fading from view, snatched away by the keen drift. Gravity and adrenaline conspired to topple me in after him. I squeezed the air from my buoyancy jacket and the sky abruptly turned to the silver belly of waves. Chaotic bubbles jostled my mask as I struggled to control my breathing – and then I felt the irresistible tug of the current. It took a few seconds more before I realised I was flying.

A cloud of barracuda

Like an aquatic Peter Pan I was swept along the plunging wall of the reef. There were turtles everywhere. At least half a dozen were riding the ocean surge; some were feeding amongst branching thickets of coral sprouting from the drop-off, while another was asleep inside a giant sponge shaped like a laundry basket. And there were sharks, too. Not distant, fleeting shadows, but groups of two or three up close – their slender bodies twisting gracefully, mocking the current that held me so powerless.

I gasped away my air supply in 30 minutes. Never before had I witnessed such an exhilarating explosion of life. Ascending slowly through a vast, shimmering cloud of barracuda, a thousand-strong, I tried to fix an image of this extraordinary world in my mind. But I knew that the moment my head breached the surface, it would seem almost impossible to imagine.

There is little to fantasise about my boat trip back to the mainland. Although Sabah, the ‘Land Below the Wind”, lies south of the typhoon belt, its east coast still feels the brunt of the north-east monsoon. By the time I reached the small town of Semporna, nestled beneath the weathered volcanic hills, I was drenched in sea water.

A five-hour minibus ride took me 300km north to Sandakan. Much of the journey is through monotonous palm oil plantations, but there are glimpses of untouched rainforest on distant hill tops. Near Sandakan, however, lies one of Borneo’s most pristine areas of tropical forest – the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. This 4,294ha sanctuary is named after the two rivers that drain the area and flow into mangrove-fringed Sandakan Bay. But the reserve is best known for its orang utan rehabilitation centre.

Women and bananas

The following morning my guide, Neil, led me along a raised boardwalk to Feeding Platform A. Many of the orangs that find themselves at Sepilok have been orphaned by hunting or deforestation. They literally have to be taught all the skills essential to life in the jungle – everything from swinging to feeding. Neil explained how a tedious supplementary diet of milk and fruit encourages them to forage in the wild and gradually gain independence – but he was cut short by the sudden appearance of King.

“This is interesting,” said Neil. “When King’s around, he’s only got two things on his mind – women and bananas. He’ll have a quickie with one of the females, eat all the food from the feeding platform, then disappear into the forest again.”

As Neil was talking, we were slowly backing up along the boardwalk. King was an adult male orang utan – 90 kilos of stocky muscle and wild, orange hair – and the boardwalk was simply not wide enough for the three of us. Fortunately, however, a young female with dreamy, hazel eyes diverted King’s attention long enough for us to slip past.

There were half a dozen more orang utans at the feeding station – some perched on handrails around the viewing balcony, others swinging in on a network of aerial ropes. We seemed to regard each other with mutual curiosity. Even young orangs and babes-in-arms met my gaze with sad eyes that seemed to wear the years of persecution behind them. I’ve come across few creatures that emanate such calm and trust around humans. It was a privilege to crouch quietly next to a mother orang utan and its young while they held hands, patiently waiting for the bananas and milk to arrive.

Orang utan is Malay for “man of the forest” – a term that might also have been coined for my next guide, Sadib Miki. A member of the Dusun tribe, Miki has developed a reputation as one of Sabah’s most knowledgeable rainforest guides. He is also something of a national hero. Every year over 150 athletes from around the world congregate at the foot of Mount Kinabalu – a preposterous 4,095m granite hulk that looms above Miki’s village in the foothills of Sabah’s Crocker Range. They then proceed to run up and down it. Yes, run up and down it. The record time is something superhuman, like two hours 40 minutes – a shade under Miki’s personal best when he finished third in 1997.

A Kinabalu laughing thrush

I once tried to reach the summit of Kinabalu myself – on my honeymoon, if you’ll humour me. It rained during the entire uphill slog and we were forced to abandon the trek when the steep path became an impractical, if spectacular waterfall.

It now seemed suspiciously likely that history would repeat itself. No sooner did Miki and I step foot on the 10km trail that climbs near 2,200m to the summit, than it started to drizzle. A Kinabalu laughing thrush, one of the mountain’s many endemic species, called nearby – a mocking outburst that sent us sloshing along our way.

Kinabalu’s mountain forest is a mysterious, misty place – where worms grow to the length of your leg, frogs are tiny as your fingernails and plants feast on insects. The mountain is a botanist’s Mecca. As well as insectivorous pitcher plants, there are 1,200 varieties of orchids thriving here in the cool, moist climate. Even to my untrained eye, the forest is an intriguing table of gnarled limbs festooned with beards of moss and lichen. It could have germinated from the mind of Tolkein. I half expected Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf the wizard to appear beside me – but that was probably just a side-effect of the scarce oxygen at high altitude.

By the time we reached 3,000m, I resembled an unfortunate pet that has inadvertently trapped itself in a washing machine programmed to two hours on a fast-rinse cycle. Miki, however, seemed totally unfazed by the torrential rain. Whenever we reached one of the shelters that are regularly spaced along the trail, he would saunter in, give his umbrella a brisk shake, prop it nearly in a corner and then perch on a bench. I, meanwhile, tended to squelch in, gasping for breath, my ‘waterproof’ jacket defeated and sodden and my knees making all kinds of alarming creaking noises.

Five hours after setting out we reached Laban Rata, a spacious hut at 3,272m where most trekkers spend the night before tackling the summit. Inside, a hot shower and a fiery curry launched a dual assault on my cold, stiff muscles. I shared a dorm with three other trekkers. One a hyperactive young German, insisted on spending the rest of the afternoon meticulously drying everyone’s clothing on the single tiny radiator. So there was little left for the rest of us to do – apart from listen to the rain and watch the cockroaches run relays around the ceiling.

Surviving the jungle

At 2.30 the next morning, the rain had stopped and we seized the moment. Donning head torches we stole outside and groped our way upwards, scaling wooden stairways, until the forest finally succumbed to the altitude. Looming above us now was the bare granite dome of the summit. Bizarre columns of rock reared, black and forbidding, against the steely grey of predawn. Miki told me this is where the spirits of the dead come to rest.

We switchbacked across the vast, bald expanse of rock, using fixed ropes to haul ourselves up the steepest sections. After a while I became mesmerised by the yellow circle of my torch bean – oblivious to the imminent daybreak.

“Just five more minutes.” Miki’s voice broke the spell and I looked up. A jumble of boulders led to a stark pinnacle where a metal sign glimmered in the weak light of a subdued dawn. But even as I staggered the last few metres to the summit, clouds frothed up from Low’s Gully and with a mean flourish, the sunrise was whisked from view. Our disappointment, however, was short-lived. By descending a short distance we dropped below the clouds to witness the remarkable spectacle of Sabah spread beneath us – from the smooth sweep of the South China Sea to the crumpled mantel of the Crocker Range.

Having scaled the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea, most trekkers hobble to nearby Poring Hot Springs for a long, revitalising soak. Bit Miki had other plans for us – a few shots of local coconut wine at his village, followed by a seven-hour rainforest ramble. It all added up to his so-called Miki Jungle Survival Tour.

I secretly suspected that several vital parts of my body were already a lost cause. My legs, for example, were on the verge of mutiny – refusing point-blank to co-operate with my brain. But I couldn’t decline Miki’s generous hospitality – particularly when I learnt that his cousin had shot a barking deer especially for our soup that evening.

Jackfruit and tobacco

Miki’s house was tucked into a steep hillside at the end of a long gravel road. While his wife and two-year old daughter were busy washing vegetables, he showed me around the traditional farming community. A wide range of crops is grown – everything from tobacco, coffee and hill rice to tapioca, jackfruit and pineapple. But sources of food are not restricted entirely to cultivated areas.

Setting off early the following morning, Miki led me into a nearby tract of pristine primary rainforest – an equally important larder to the Dusun people. Before long he had gathered a handful of exotic looking fruits. Then he was on his hands and knees digging up a large frilly mushroom. It would make good soup, he told me. With Miki as a guide, you didn’t even have to carry drinking water. A few swipes of his machete and he revealed a pure, natural supply – inside the hollow stems of giant bamboo.

My aching legs forgotten, Miki transported me into the intriguing timeless world of the forest hunter-gatherer. Plucking a sprig of wild ginger, he blew across a leaf to imitate the call of a barking deer – a vital skill for luring this shy quarry within range. Later he showed me how to strip bark from the toohub tree which, when smoked, drives evil spirits from his house – or bees from their honey-rich hives. The wood from another tree, Miki explained, was once fashioned into shields by his ancestors to protect themselves from headhunters. Not that Miki’s own people, the Dusun, were averse to a little lopping themselves. Over 300 human skulls were once collected from Miki’s village and the practice of head-hunting was only outlawed as recently as 1920s.

Nowadays, one of the biggest hazards in Sabah is succumbing to traffic fumes in the capital city of Kota Kinabalu. It was my last stop on what had been a brief, but fascinating tour of one of the world’s most pristine and diverse wildlife hot spots. I just had time to freshen up briefly at the luxurious Magellan Sutera hotel before my flight home. My room was sumptuous with a king-size bed, rattan furniture and the kind of decadent bathroom you could happily wallow in for hours. The shower was powerful enough to flay skin at a hundred paces, but my favourite touch was the orchid flowers scattered on the pillows, the bedside table and the writing desk. There was even one on the toilet seat. But that was perhaps one creature comfort too many.

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