On the island of Borneo, Sabah’s parks and
wildlife preserves encompass some of the most pristine natural beauty in the
world, with thousands of square kilometres of jungle, mountains, riparian
lowlands, wetlands and valley bottoms that seem untouched by humans or technology.
Unfortunately, getting into these parks requires dealing with the most human of
institutions -- bureaucracy -- for permission. Climbing Mount
Kinabalu, diving in Sipadan
or visiting the Danum
Valley and Maliau
Basin generally all need to be organised in advance. While most travellers
understand the need for gatekeepers to protect the parks, it is less clear why the
gatekeepers are private park concessionaires instead of government officials.
Because park access is intertwined with
public-private partnerships, it can cost travellers an arm -- and sometimes a leg -- to book a visit to
Sabah’s parks through an officially designated tour company. However, there are
a few ways to make your travel experience in Sabah cheaper and more
Wildlife Reserve, located only 48km from the town of Lahad
Datu in eastern Sabah, is a smaller alternative to the pricier and more
popular Danum Valley, a nearby conservation area that preserves ancient Borneo
jungle. Staying in Danum means either booking through the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, a
posh jungle camp where packages start at 2,390 Malaysian ringgit, or going through the often booked dorms
of the field research centre, where the combined costs of meals, transportation
and ranger fees come to almost 1,000 Malaysian ringgit.
While the Danum largely consists of primary
rainforest, secondary trees of similar beauty can be found in Tabin, where you
will find 122,000 hectares of preserved land, enough birds to excite the most
hard-bitten ornithologist and Sabah’s three largest mammals: the Borneo elephant,
Sumatran rhino and the tembadau, a local species of wild cattle. Primates also
swing through the trees, and many orangutans that are rescued and rehabilitated
in other parts of Malaysia are reintroduced into the wild in Tabin.
The reserve is run concurrently as the Tabin Wildlife Resort, a plush
collection of jungle bungalows and cottages -- and the only accommodation
option in the park. The resort is moderately priced, starting at around 504 Malaysian ringgit for a three-day package that includes all
food, drinks and game drives. That is decent value, but it comes with a
warning: it can be difficult spotting wildlife in a jungle. You may pay for
three days of seeing trees.
A cheaper option that technically takes you
outside of the parks system is to head up the Kinabatangan River (Sungai
Kinabatangan) from the towns of Bilit and Sukau. Here you will find more than a
dozen riverside lodges offering backpacker-quality accommodation in chalets
that charge around 150 Malaysian ringgit per night. This
fee includes boat trips on the Kinabatangan; and because so much of the
surrounding jungle has been cleared for palm oil plantations, there are heavy
wildlife concentrations along the river. You can also do homestays in Sukau and
Bilit – look for signs in each village advertising the service. These are
very cheap – around 40 Malaysian ringgit per night, plus 60
Malaysian ringgit to book a river trip; just be aware you
will be treated as part of the family and may not get much privacy. On the
other hand, the cultural experience is invaluable.
In the north Sabah interior, climbing Mount
Kinabau, the tallest mountain in Borneo at 4,095m, is the highlight of many
trips to the region -- but getting up the mountain is a little more complicated
than your average Sunday stroll. The main cost involved is lodging (upwards of
300 Malaysian ringgit), largely controlled by the Sutera
Harbour Resort which has a monopoly on accommodation within the park. To
save yourself money, try a one-day ascent of the mountain. You will need to
arrive at the park gates before 7 am and will still pay park
and climbing fees of around 135 Malaysian ringgit; but
if you set out in the early morning, you will be down the mountain in the late
afternoon. Clearly, this option should only be attempted by the physically fit:
you do not need climbing experience as the trek is almost entirely walking (with
a small amount of scrabbling) but it is still a taxing hike.
For something a bit less strenuous, the entrance
area of Mount Kinabalu park is beautiful and features some easy walking trails
that showcase alpine Borneo flora and fauna. Hiking will only costs you the 15 Malaysian ringgit park entrance fee.
Getting to Mount Kinabalu via public
transportation is also easy; any bus going between Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan,
Sabah’s two largest cities, drives by the park entrance (you can flag buses
down here as well). The fare is around 15 Malaysian ringgit.
The Maliau Basin may be one of the most
primeval destinations in Sabah: a bowl-shaped jungle depression surrounded by
unscalable jungle mountains that was unexplored until World War II, when it was
spotted from the air by an Allied pilot. Today, this is the place to see actual
primary tropical rainforest – trees that have never been felled by human hands.
Organising a tour
into the basin can run into thousands of dollars. However, it is possible to
visit independently by renting
a car to visit the basin (there is no public transportation to this remote
corner of Sabah).
A visit to the Maliau is potentially rewarding.
Do not expect lots of wildlife because the forest is untouched and there is a lot
of space for animals to hide. Instead, the reward is seeing one of the last
corners of the planet unsullied by civilization. For information on vehicle
rental, talk to the folks at GoGo Sabah
in Kota Kinabalu, who can help you contact the park directly so you can visit independently.
You will sleep in dorm-style accommodation and have to hire a ranger guide, with
the combined costs coming close to 1,000 Malaysian ringgit,
but that is less than half the cost of arriving via a package tour.
The article 'Borneo’s Sabah off the permit path' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.