The perfect trip: Borneo
Of the five islands, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Sapi are the most popular, with barbecues and cafés set up along the sand to cater for a stream of snorkellers and sun-worshippers. Tiny Pulau Sulug is sleepier, a wooded islet fringed by a perfect comma of white sand. Quietest of all is Pulau Gaya, the largest and craggiest of the islands, with a backbone of ridges and peaks teetering above hidden coves, most only accessible by kayak or speedboat.
‘There are plenty of empty beaches, but to find them you need local knowledge,’ Royzems notes, as he watches groupers and parrotfish flash below the jetty. ‘I think I know them all by now, but there are still a few I like to keep to myself!’
The islands are well-known for their snorkelling, but the most impressive scenery lies at greater depths. Seasonal plankton blooms coupled with powerful ocean currents attract some of the signature species of the tropics here: nurse sharks, stingrays and barracudas lurk in the deep water, while green turtles and whale sharks pass through the national park during their springtime migration.
Royzems is in no doubt about the islands’ beauty. ‘In most places you’d have to travel for days to find a place as perfect as this,’ he says. ‘But here, you can leave the city and be in paradise in 10 minutes. That’s why I love it.’
He watches the lights of Kota Kinabalu twinkle across the bay as the sun dips into the sea, and the islands trace wooded silhouettes against the orange clouds.
Kinabalu National Park: Best for mountains
A white moon hangs on the horizon like a paper lantern as climbers inch across Mount Kinabalu’s granite slopes. Ahead, a line of head-torches uncoils across the plateau. ‘Only an hour till dawn,’ says our guide Edwin Moguring, pointing towards a rugged outcrop just visible against the inky sky. ‘And it looks clear at the top. We have good luck – the mountain spirits must be happy!’
Mount Kinabalu lies roughly two hours inland from Sabah’s northern coastline and looms on the skyline resembling the teeth of a great granite saw, surrounded by tropical forest. Officially the mountain is a part of the nearby Crocker Range, but its isolated position gives it the look of a gigantic volcano. In fact, the mountain was formed by the movement of tectonic plates around 10 million years ago, which thrust the underlying rock skywards and formed Kinabalu’s sprawling summit plateau.
In previous centuries, local Dusun tribes believed Kinabalu was the resting place for their ancestors’ spirits; its name translates as ‘the revered place of the dead’. The first recorded ascent was in 1854 by the British colonial administrator Hugh Low, after whom Kinabalu’s highest point is named. Nowadays it’s considered one of Asia’s most accessible mountains, with around 40,000 people attempting the climb every year.
‘The mountain can be fickle,’ says Edwin, as he clambers over the shattered boulders beneath Low’s Peak, one of several rock towers that make up Kinabalu’s summit. ‘I’ve been climbing it at least twice a week for nearly 10 years, and every day is different. The weather changes so quickly.’