Since I was a little boy, Borneo had a special ring for me – the ring of adventure and nature untouched. Stories of headhunters, reports of untouched rainforest and Orang Utans in the wild, it all added up to a world so far from what I grew up in. And once you travel to Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Manila, it really isn’t that far anymore – just a short flight to Kota Kinabalu, the gateway to Northern Borneo, Sabah province…
While there are lots of things you can do in Sabah, there are really three things in my mind that stand out and make it a dream destination worth saving for: Mount Kinabalu and the flora and fauna around it, the Danum Valley, a conservatory and remote part of the Borneo rain forest and Sepilok, the Orang Utan rehabilitation center.
One of my favorite wildlife watching experiences anywhere, was visiting the Orang Utan rehabilitation center in Sepilok, Northern Sabah. I had read that Orang Utan’s share approximately 97% of our DNA – which is more similarity than I observe with some of my fellow men that don’t have orange hair! But you can really believe it when you see the young Orang Utan playfully approaching the feeding platform only a few meters away from you. When they dangle from one of the ropes, staring right at you and assessing you as much as you are assessing them, tilting their head a little, almost saying “are you for real?”, it is just uncanny how they resemble a gangly, human teenager. The Orang Utan show no fear and one gets up close and personal when he jumps onto the handrail separating the viewing platform from the jungle. Being able to observe Orang Utan in their natural habitat from so close up, is an amazing experience that you really have to come to Borneo for!
Well, if natural habitat and rehabilitation center don’t gel in your mind, you can always go “all natural” and head deeper, no much deeper into the rain forest. The Danum Valley is far from either coast with little development anywhere close by. Based at a the lodge 2-3 hours from the nearest town, you have a chance to explore the rain forest on guided walks. While it takes us a while to adjust to the jungle, we first hear and then, finally, see the inhabitants: From giant spiders and leeches (thankfully, on my leech socks) to monkeys and apes. It takes more time in the forest to finally see our first Orang Utan in its truly natural habitat, far up in a tree! It’s a very different experience from Sepilok, but equally thrilling!
And, visiting Sabah province, you really can’t ignore Mount Kinabalu. At over 4,000m it is the highest mountain between the Himalaya and Papua New Guinea in what is the oldest National Park in Sabah. You can climb the mountain in 3 days (or two, if you are an experienced climber and in good shape), what must be a great experience. I chose Mt. Kinabalu light instead and did a day trip to the national park, to glimpse at the peak from afar and to learn about the flora and fauna. That certainly is a treat, even without the climb! I learned that Cinnamon is made from the bark of a tree (seriously!) and was lucky enough to see the largest (ok, this species is the second largest) flower on the planet! The Rafflesia needs 15 months to go from bud to bloom and then only blooms for 7 days! Because of development, the Rafflesia is becoming very rare and on top of that, there is no “season” for blooming! So, seeing the 1m, red and fleshy plant sure made my day!
And all these amazing nature sights are within easy reach of Kota Kinabalu, a modern city with all the amenities, services and shopping you might need. Throw in some beaches and you have the making of a dream vacation!