Sabah Safari: 10 Reasons To Be On Your Bucket List
It is worthwhile getting up at the crack of dawn to catch a glimpse of Mount Kinabalu when it is the only time of the day with good visibility. Across the bay on Gaya Island Resort as the sunrise bathes the horizon in a sumptuous shade of saffron, the majestic mountain manifests itself in all its glory with a crown of cloud and mist. Its magnificent silhouette dominates the skyline standing high and mighty as the highest mountain in Southeast Asia at 4095 m. It is no surprise that the Kadazan-Dusun tribe of Sabah believe this sacred mountain belongs to the realm of the gods when I see the spiritual vista unfolds before my very eyes. It commands respect. I am on a rumble in the jungle for a Sabah Safari in the Malaysian Borneo state.
After a restful interlude at Gaya Island Resort, we catch the early morning flight on MASwings to Sandakan and head to Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre to see the orang utans during their feeding time. Four pesky youngsters are soon on the feeding platform helping themselves to the feast of fruits stuffing their faces with relish. Later we visit the nursery to see baby orang utans at play like human toddlers playing with toys and with each other. The Centre is responsible for training the orang utans to be released back into the wild once they are ready.
Super Sukau Safari
The real magic of Sabah begins when we travel to Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the Kinabatangan River for a river safari. The boat journey itself is an adventure as we travel on the milky-coffee coloured river flanked on both sides by mangrove forests. We have our first sighting of wildlife when we spot the big-bellied proboscis monkeys on the mangrove trees snacking on the leaves. They look like a freak of nature with ginger hair; big bellies and the males have very huge bulbous noses and make the loudest honking sound in the forest.
The beautiful lodge, which is a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, is an ideal base to observe wildlife along the banks. It is ecologically designed with comfortable rooms set in a forested bank by the river. A wooden boardwalk cuts through the forest by the lodge for nature walk and we spot a mother orang utan teaching her baby how to climb a tree. The lodge is undergoing a major upgrade renovation at the moment with addition of more rooms, new boardwalks and air-conditioning for the comfort of guests in the humid jungle.
On the river safari, we get a ringside view of proboscis monkeys hanging out on the trees with their family groups chattering away while keeping an eye on their babies. The boisterous macaques are leaping from branch to branch in their playtime like naughty schoolboys. Oriental darters with their snake-like neck perch on branches while white egrets poise themselves on logs ready to dive in for passing fish. Our sharp-eyed guide Nexter can spot even the smallest creature like a tiny frog. He spotted a beautiful black gold-ringed cat snake coiled round a branch and a green Mangrove viper the same shade as the leaves. The skill of these nature guides is unbelievable especially on the night safari in pitch dark when they could spot sleeping birds on branches and a crocodile on the river with its red eyes peering at us in the dark.
The dawn safari is a great time to see birds when they are most active while the evening safari is better to see primates, snakes and crocodiles or pygmy elephants if you are lucky. It is a priceless experience to see animals in the wild, though it is a game of chance with any wildlife encounter unlike a zoo. Even if I don’t spot many animals, I really enjoy traversing on the water on the electric-powered boat with the wind in my hair and enjoying the splendour of the rainforest. The Kinabatangan wetland is the last bastion for the survival of wildlife in this area as palm oil plantations are slowly encroaching onto their territory. Let us hope tourism will stop them in their tracks as tourism plays a large part in the state economy.
The Magical Danum Valley
Our next adventure takes us to Danum Valley, the crown jewel of the rainforest of Sabah. The 130 million-year-old primeval rainforest harbours a rich biodiversity with one of the most complex ecosystems in the world that lends itself to become an internationally renowned scientific and research centre at the Danum Valley Field Centre. The conservation area is home to rare endangered species of animals such as the pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, banteng wild cattle, proboscis monkeys, orang utans and numerous species of birds and rare plants. A rough road meanders through the forest covered with lofty dipterocarp trees and lowland flora. It leads to the fabulous Borneo Rainforest Lodge, our accommodation for the next three nights.
The lodge is built by the Danum River with a stunning view of the forest where one can observe the flora and fauna from the comfort of the verandah of the room and the lovely lounge-cum-restaurant. Colourful bee-eaters and kingfishers dart among the trees and occasionally, even orang utans, wild boar and deer have been spotted. Red, pink and yellow flowers brighten up the otherwise green palette of the landscape while birdwing butterflies flutter between each plant. Cicadas, giant Atlas moth and rhinoceros beetles pay flying visits to the lounge much to the fascination of guests. To the delight of the guests, one afternoon a troop of Red Leaf monkeys including some babies come to visit the resort frolicking on the trees right by the lounge. They look comical with their ginger hair and bluish faces with downturn mouths that make them look sad. The babies are born with white hair and only turn red when they get older.
The highlight of our visit to Danum Valley is the Treetop Canopy Walkway, which could be quite daunting if you have a fear of heights. It is a 26m high walkway suspended on sturdy cables around giant dipterocarp and mengaris trees for a length of 300m. It is constructed on different levels with multiple viewing platforms in between to enjoy the astounding beauty of the rainforest from the canopies. It is a magical encounter to be up close to the giant trees and spy on the birds, squirrels and insects and spot wild orchids while the call of the gibbons echo in the forest.
Going Native At Kiulu Farmstay
Our Sabah adventure ends with an adrenaline-pumping note at Kiulu Farmstay, 60km from Kota Kinabalu, a village community project with a nod towards responsible tourism. It is the brainchild of Albert Teo, the founder of Borneo Eco Tours. Kiulu Farmstay involves the three villages of Mantob, Dumpiring and Pinagon Baru, homes to the Dusun ethnic tribe. It is a perfect place for urban folks to chill out amongst enchanting nature with picturesque landscape among friendly and hospitable people.
We stay at The Fig Tree, a lovely rustic house constructed from bamboo in a beautiful setting by a river accessed by a suspension bridge. The chalet has all the mod con with two comfortable bedrooms with fans and mosquito nets, a kitchen and bathroom with shower and modern toilet – a luxury in a remote place like this.
Nuria and Helena our cooks in attendance, cook up a storm of the most delicious food of home grown organic native vegetables, freshly caught river fish and home-reared chicken. Helena’s banana cake will beat any city baker’s cake anytime. It is moist and packed full of sweet bananas from her back garden. The food is deliciously cooked with love and care for their guests. Kiulu can really rock up a rural chic!
Get On Your Quad Bike
One of the activities on offer to see the countryside around the villages is to go on a quad bike. For the first time in my life and in my middle age, I decide to take up the offer. With a German helmet and goggle on, I set off with the marshal who guides us through the village riding off road on paths that is peppered with potholes and big stones on rough terrain of rolling hills. Pumping with adrenaline, I unleash my inner biker and rave up the engine, racing up and down the hill like a woman possessed! It is a thrilling experience that I will never forget but it is hell to pay the next day when I am nursing my aching bones!
10 Great Reasons For A Sabah Safari
1 Miles of seductive sandy beaches for the sun worshippers and beachcombers
2 Challenging climb on Mt Kinabalu for the mountaineers
3 Exotic flora and fauna and jungle treks for the nature lovers
4 Scuba diving in crystal clear waters around idyllic islands with pristine marine life
5 Accommodation to suit all budgets from homestays to luxury resorts
6 Scrumptious fresh seafood and mouth-watering native style cuisine
7 Exhilarating water sports and white water rafting
8 Bounteous stunning landscape and wondrous primeval rainforest
9 Accessibility served by major international airlines in Kota Kinabalu the capital city
10 And of course quad bikes, even for the ‘matured’ travellers like me!
Malaysia Airlines and major international airlines fly to Kota Kinabalu. MASwings operates a comprehensive network of flights within Sarawak and Sabah. For tours to Sukau Rainforest Lodge and Kinabatangan river safari contact Borneo Eco Tours. For Borneo Rainforest Lodge and Danum Valley contact Borneo Nature Tours. More information on Sabah can be found on www.sabahtourism.com.
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