Visit the third largest island in the world and you’ll experience adventure, tropical nature at its best and culture at its most exotic, writes Graham Stephenson.
Sarawak and Sabah are both Malaysian states on the island of Borneo.
Both have a colourful history of coastal pirates and intertribal warfare where headhunting was rife; of 27 different ethnic groups speaking 40 distinct languages; a state covered by 70 per cent of the world’s oldest virgin rainforest and superb national parks.
The Gunung Mulu National Park in the north of Sarawak covers 52,866 hectares of thick rainforest criss-crossed by fast flowing rivers and clear streams. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, with 67 types of mammals, 262 bird species, 281 varieties of butterflies and hundreds of insects and fungi. Add to that 1,500 species of flowering plants, including 170 species of orchids and 10 species of carnivorous pitcher plants and you have a breathtaking natural paradise.
The park features 18 caves, and Langs Cave is one of the easiest for tourists to visit, thanks to a 3km timber boardwalk, two to three metres above the forest floor. This allows visitors to come face to face with virgin jungle without all the hardships of trekking through water and thick, impenetrable foliage or climbing limestone peaks.
“... Mulu Canopy Skywalk, the longest tree-based walkway in the world."
Probiscus Monkey, Labuk Bay
Native longboats on the Melinau River below take visitors to the Wind and Clearwater Caves hiding high in the limestone cliffs further up-river.
We climb to the start of the 480m-long Mulu Canopy Skywalk, the longest tree-based walkway in the world. It’s 20m above the dense jungle floor, but you walk through the canopy’s interior rather than on top of it. The walkway shakes and moves as you traverse each of the 15 sections, just two people at a time. If you hear a loud slow flapping above, look quickly and you just might see a Rhinoceros Hornbill, with its distinctive yellow bill, flying overhead.
Langs Cave has a magnificent variety of stalactites and stalagmites, but it was the Deer Cave just around the corner that really impressed. Discovered in 1977, it is the world’s largest show-cave. Two kilometres long and never less than 90m high and wide, with the main chamber 174m wide and 122m high, it was the shelter for hordes of deer long gone.
Today, around four million tiny bats roost here. They produce guano, a pungent dung used as fertiliser. At about 5pm, the bats depart in a mass exodus for feeding in the jungle, anywhere up to 50km away. It’s a spectacular show and visitors are treated to the sight of long narrow swirling black clouds streaming out of the cave entrance like smoke.
Meanwhile, the night shift moves in – thousands of small swiftlets (swallows) enter the caves, returning to their nests. It is here (and in similar caves throughout Borneo) they make their nests purely from their own salivary secretions. These valuable nests (around $1,000 per kg) are used to produce the highly regarded Chinese cuisine, bird’s nest soup.
Just 23km out of Sandakan, in Sabah, the Sepilok Nature Reserve is a huge natural jungle area housing the protected Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, the Sun Bear Conservation Centre and a Rainforest Discovery Centre.
The jungle scenery is breathtaking, especially at the high orang-utan feeding platform where at 10am and 3pm daily, the rangers arrive with huge buckets of fruit, which they empty onto the decking.
The beguiling creatures swing down using vines, ropes and cables to land on the deck. They love the keeper and cuddle him as they pick over the fruit to eat. Many other smaller long-tailed macaque monkeys drop down quickly to steal a few bananas and then climb away at full speed.
Orang-utans are apes (or lovable mammals) found only in Borneo and Sumatra. They share 97 per cent of the same DNA as humans.
The Sun Bear Conservation Centre is the best place to see the endangered honey bears, the smallest in the world. They love honey, figs and termites and are expert climbers, making their nests in the treetops – anywhere up to 40m above ground. Their name stems from the remarkable markings in their chest fur.
At the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, you’ll see groups of the most remarkable and cheeky monkeys of all. The males, with their long white tails, pendulous noses and rotund stomachs usually have a harem of around 10 females. Younger males spend their days trying to take over the harem, providing plenty of entertainment.
Rainforest Discovery Centre
Sabah Traditional Food
Most Australians would have heard of the deprivations and death toll inflicted on Australian, New Zealand and other prisoners of war in Changi, at Singapore, during World War II.
But many may not know that each year on 25 April – Anzac Day – a poignant ceremony takes place at dawn at the Sandakan Memorial Park.
The site is dedicated to the 1787 Australian and 641 British soldiers who were victims of the Sandakan Death Marches towards the end of the war. They’d been shipped to North Borneo from Singapore to construct a military airfield and POW camp at Sandakan. As the Allies advanced, the airfield was bombed and the Japanese decided to move the POWs west towards the capital of Kota Kinabalu and Ranau.
Of the 2,428 prisoners at Sandakan, only six survived three forced marches between January and June 1945. The dead POWs whose bodies were recovered are now buried in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Labuan – a small island south-west of Kota Kinabalu.
This article by Graham Stephenson originally appeared in the Spring edition of 50 Something magazine (September 2018).