The perfect trip: Borneo

From unique wildlife and tropical islands to untouched jungle and isolated hill tribes, few destinations match Malaysian Borneo’s natural drama.

From unique wildlife to untouched jungle, few destinations can match the natural drama of Malaysian Borneo. Visit hill tribes, explore tropical islands and conquer its highest mountain on this unforgettable adventure.

Semenggoh Wildlife Center: Best for orangutans
It’s feeding time at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, but today’s diners seem to be late for their lunch reservation. Bunches of bananas, coconuts and jackfruit are piled on the feeding platform, ripening slowly in the steamy forest air, but so far the only animals showing interest are a few squirrels and songbirds in the nearby trees.

The quiet doesn’t last long. Soon the sound of snapping saplings crackles from the undergrowth, and a face pokes from the treeline: two chocolate eyes, a pair of puffed-out cheeks and a wrinkled muzzle, framed by a mantle of cinnamon fur.

‘Here comes Ritchie,’ explains John Wen, who’s been working as a wildlife assistant at the Semenggoh reserve for nine years. ‘He’s the big man of the orangutan family here. Usually we just call him the King.’

He watches as Ritchie lumbers out from the forest, balancing on balled fists at the end of two bushy arms. ‘He has a bad temper, so the rest of the family usually let him eat first. We’ve all learned it’s not a good idea to get in-between the King and his lunch!’ John laughs, as Ritchie scoops up an armful of fruit and disappears back into the forest murk. As soon as he leaves, the other family members swing down to claim their lunch, cartwheeling lazily through the trees to gather heaps of fruit in their rangy limbs.

Of all Borneo’s wild inhabitants, none have the totemic status of the orangutan. Asia’s only endemic great ape, the orangutan (whose name derives from the Malay words for ‘man of the forest’) lives wild only on Sumatra and Borneo. Orangutans are descended from the same hominid ancestor as all the world’s other great apes – gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees and human beings – and have been a resident of Borneo’s rainforests for several million years. But their natural habitat is under threat due to deforestation and palm-oil plantations, which makes wildlife sanctuaries such as Semenggoh, along with sister reserves at Sepilok and Matang, all the more vital.

Surrounded by 740 hectares of protected rainforest, Semenggoh is the largest wildlife reserve in Sarawak. It’s home to a permanent population of 27 orangutans, many rescued from captivity, that roam the jungle and return to the reserve at meal times. ‘Some animals are social, and stay close to the reserve,’ explains John. ‘But others we may see only once a month – especially during fruiting season, when they can find most of the food they need in the forest. They’re all different. That’s what makes them fascinating to work with.’

A mother orangutan emerges from the brush and splits open a coconut, tipping the stream of milk into her mouth while her baby tugs at her mane. ‘We still know little about how they think and communicate,’ he adds, as mother and baby do somersaults. ‘They’re like us in so many ways, but they’re still wild creatures. Our work here is about making sure they can stay that way.’

Nanga Delok: Best for tribal culture
Daybreak at the Nanga Delok longhouse, and the morning’s work has already begun. Men are busily patching up their fishing nets, while their wives fry noodles for breakfast before strapping on rattan baskets, ready for another day’s work in the village rice fields. Outside, dogs stretch in the sunshine and pigs snuffle around the stilts of the house, while the cock-a-doodle-doos of roosters echo across the riverbanks. The smell of wood-fires and charcoal hangs in the air. It’s a vision of village life that seems little changed in 100 years – and that’s just how the inhabitants of Nanga Delok want it.

Situated on the verdant banks of the Jelia River, a 50-minute boat ride upriver from the nearest road, the longhouse at Nanga Delok belongs to members of the Iban, the largest of the 20 or so indigenous tribes that make up the population of Sarawak. The Iban are jungle-dwellers, living a subsistence lifestyle in harmony with the land, finding food, medicine and materials in the forest. ‘In the past, the jungle provided everything we needed,’ explains Tiyon Juna, an Iban guide who runs expeditions exploring his indigenous culture. ‘It provided us with food, building materials, and told us stories that helped us understand how we came to be.’ He points out the tattoos covering his arms and torso; each one is inspired by an Iban legend, but also marks an important moment in his own journey through life.

The most striking feature of the Iban lifestyle is their use of communal dwellings known as rumah panjai, or longhouses. Each includes private quarters for up to 50 families, as well as a shared veranda for storage and village meetings. Historically, longhouses were built from natural materials such as ironwood and pandanus, but most are now made of concrete and plaster. ‘All Iban people still belong to a longhouse, even when they no longer live there,’ says Tiyon. ���For us, the longhouse is where life’s big events happen – funerals, marriages, festivals. It’s part of who we are.’

Nanga Delok is one of only a few in Sarawak built in the traditional way, using timber and thatch, supplemented by the odd patch of corrugated iron. The villagers here spend their time as their forefathers would have – fishing, making crafts, tending to the rice fields – although these days they have access to modern amenities such as running water, electricity and satellite TV. However, Nanga Delok feels a long way from the outside world, especially after dark when the generator shuts down and the air fills with the rasp of insects and chatter of birds.

‘Even though I spend most of my time in the town now, it’s in the forest where I feel at home,’ says Tiyon, as he prepares an Iban barbecue of fish, chicken and ferns, steamed in bamboo canes. ‘I feel in touch with my ancestors here. It’s where I’m most alive.’

He kneels and breathes life into the fire, sending spirals of smoke into the forest air. As he works, an old boatman glides past, stripped to the waist, his wiry torso covered in tribal tattoos. He watches Tiyon for a while, then raises his oar in greeting and slips silently downriver, dissolving like a ghost into the morning mist.

Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park: Best for islands
The last evening ferry putters away from the jetty of Pulau Manukan, and lifeguard Royzems Lundus can finally hang up his float for another day. Shadows are falling across the beach as the sun dips towards the horizon, but a few snorkellers are still splashing around in the lagoon beside his guard-tower. ‘This is always the best time of the day,’ he says. ‘We call it the magic time. And on an evening like this, you can see why, eh?’

A half-hour boat ride from the city of Kota Kinabalu, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is one of Sabah’s best-known island getaways. Comprising five tropical atolls (locally known as pulau) scattered over 5,000 hectares of ocean, the park is famous for its glassy waters and abundant marine life. At weekends, city-dwellers clamber aboard one of the ferries buzzing around Jesselton Harbour and skim over the bay to bask on the islands’ manicured beaches, or dive amongst their coral reefs and sandbanks.

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.’

The ascent is usually split over two days. Day one involves a six-hour trek from the park entrance at 1,866m to the resthouse at Laban Rata at 3,262m, followed by a three-hour climb to the top at 4,095m the following dawn. Along the way, the trail passes through distinct habitats, from steamy rainforest to montane meadow to rocky plateau. Some sections are steeply stepped; others wind their way through a jumble of rocky slabs and knotted roots. Beyond Laban Rata, the trail disappears altogether as it ascends sharply towards Kinabalu’s apex, and climbers are forced to rely on a series of fixed ropes hammered into the granite. While the views from the summit are spectacular, it’s Kinabalu’s natural diversity that makes it memorable: pitcher plants and orchids bloom alongside the trail, including many species found nowhere else in Borneo. Little wonder the mountain has been protected as a Unesco World Heritage site since 2000.

‘Kinabalu has many moods,’ notes Edwin, clambering onto the crest of Low’s Peak as the first rays of dawn break at the summit. ‘Some days it helps all the way to the top. Other days you can feel it telling you to turn back. It’s best to listen to the mountain.’

He turns to watch the rising sun, as ribbons of mist swirl around the mountainside, and Kinabalu’s towers light up like signal beacons. ‘Today, I think the mountain is happy we came,’ he says.

Maliau Basin: Best for a lost world
‘There’s one thing you learn in the jungle,’ says nature guide Allen Patrick, as he leads the way along a trail edged by ferns and soaring trees. ‘It’s never quiet.’ He cocks an ear to listen to the cacophony of sounds: screeching birds, humming crickets and whooping gibbons, underpinned by the constant chainsaw buzz of insects. A hooting call rings out, descending into a throaty cackle that sounds eerily close to a human laugh. It’s a helmeted hornbill, Allen explains, one of eight hornbill species found in the Maliau Basin. ‘Some people call them the joker of the jungle. It’s a good name.’

Located 30 miles north of the Indonesian border, the Maliau Basin is known as Sabah’s ‘lost world’ for a reason. A vast river basin encircled by a nearly impenetrable ring of rock, it contains some of the largest remaining tracts of virgin jungle in Borneo. The basin was only discovered by chance in 1947, when a British pilot almost crashed into its rim, but the first organised scientific expedition to the area wasn’t until 1988.

The scientists were amazed by what they found. This expanse of jungle harbours an estimated 240,000 species – two-fifths of all the animals, plants and insects found in Borneo. It’s one of the world’s great cradles of biodiversity, and is home to some of its rarest species: Malayan sunbears, pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and the Sumatran rhino. Giant flying squirrels and red leaf monkeys caper through the trees; rare lichens and rafflesia flowers bloom on the forest floor; hidden rivers and waterfalls flow through the jungle, past agathis and seraya trees as tall as seven-storey buildings.

Even today, only around half of the basin has been explored; remarkably, fewer than 2,000 people are thought to have set foot inside the basin’s rim. And on an island where the rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate, Maliau has become a potent symbol of the need for Borneo to preserve its natural heritage while there’s time. ‘It’s important that we look after Maliau,’ Allen muses, as he leads the way across a bridge suspended high in the jungle canopy. Dappled light rains down and colourful birds flit through the tree tops. ‘I don’t know anywhere else quite like this.’

Part of the reason for Maliau’s survival is its isolation. From the rim, it’s a two-hour drive to the nearest asphalt road. The interior of the basin can only be reached via a day’s hard trekking and its handful of camps are equipped with minimal facilities. Maliau’s wildness is exactly what makes it precious; a stay on the rim more than acquaints you with this unique appeal.

‘There’s not much room left for wild places,’ says Allen, as darkness descends on the jungle and bats flutter home to roost. ‘But once they are gone, we have no way of getting them back. And without them, Borneo will be a much poorer place.’

The article 'The perfect trip: Borneo' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.