Malaysian Borneo offers a fascinating combination of jungle safari and beach retreat and is the perfect romantic destination for anyone with a passion for beautiful wildlife, intriguing culture and pristine beaches.
Borneo’s unique, rare flora and fauna is exquisite and the resident bird and wildlife as intriguing as its indigenous head-hunter tribes. Many species are endemic and endangered such as the Proboscis Monkeys with exorbitantly dangly red noses, the world’s smallest Sun Bear, the Sumatran rhino, clouded leopard, Bornean Pygmy Elephants and wonderful Hornbills with their unique calls.
I most hoped to see an Orang-utan and this is possible at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre where these magnificent primates are living wild in virgin forest. Many have been rescued as orphaned babies from habitats depleted by logging or illegal hunting and are trained to survive again in the wild. We witnessed a spell-binding feeding session at hair-raisingly close range as these adorable creatures gobbled bananas, swung from branches, dangled from ropes and ‘performed’ for us.
The Niah Caves are one of Sarawak’s most impressive natural features with the Great Cave being one of the largest in the world, famed for the fascinating rock paintings and swiftlets that nest here in huge numbers. These nests are the key ingredient in birds-nest soup and we watched in awe as a collector scaled the soaring bamboo scaffolding to gather nests. Something I’m never likely to see again in my life is the mass exodus of two million bats swarming en masse at dusk out of the Deer Cave in Mulu in search of food – it is an impressive spectacle and so, too, are the cave’s amazing stalagmites and stalactites.
A most memorable part of the journey was a jungle river trip by native riverboat to visit an indigenous Iban village. We followed one of our hosts into the rainforest to see the rubber tree being bled, watch palm heart being cut and learn about the medicinal plants along the way. Following a blow pipe demonstration surrounded by eerie totem poles we were ushered up narrow ladders to the longhouse, the ladders were then lifted to block evil spirits. I felt very privileged to have an insight into this ancient culture where we shared music, dance and lunch surrounded by ancestral head hunters’ trophies hung from the walls!
Borneo boasts pristine tracts of undisturbed Centuries-old virgin jungle and we ventured deep into such an area by small plane, riverboat and four-wheel-drive to circumnavigate an area of pristine jungle by foot with an Iban tracker, eating local food, washing in streams and sleeping under the tree canopy. We saw plenty of wildlife and not one other tourist! It was quite an adventure but that’s another story!
It was the climb of the tropical Mount Kinabalu which stole the show for me, witnessing from its summit the emerald jungle canopy sweeping down towards the sea. The ascent was strenuous but fascinating. Enroute you witness different types of vegetation – lowland forest, montane, moss and sub-alpine. Setting off along a path with steps was easy going but pretty soon the effects of the altitude were dramatic and demanded frequent breaks. At one such recuperation point we were flabbergasted as several spritely local runners sprinted past apparently training for the Kinabalu Climbathon! After about five hours of continuous uphill progress we arrived at our destination for the night, Laban Rata, a mountain rest-house offering basic, (unromantic!) dormitory accommodation. Reveille at 3am, we set off for the final three hour steeper ascent. Slightly daunting in the dark it was reassuring to hold onto guide ropes fixed across the smooth granite slabs. We were well rewarded for our exertion as our arrival at the summit, Low’s Peak, coincided with the sunrise – a burning globe rising above the purple horizon casting a spine-tinglingly beautiful golden fire on our majestic surroundings. We stood on the roof of South East Asia at 4,095m. The descent to the Park Headquarters was breathtakingly beautiful as the sun continued to rise revealing the rainforest below swathed in morning mist…very romantic indeed!
Our descent was rewarded with a visit to the Poring Hot Springs where we blissfully steamed and relaxed in the soothing, hot mineral springs. Further adventure beckoned with a canopy walkway to experience yet another vista! We also explored the Mountain Gardens – home to many species of orchids, pitcher plants, birds, insects and butterflies and where some are lucky enough to witness the Rafflesia (rotting flesh) flower in bloom.
For the perfect finale to the perfect holiday, head to the northern beaches of Sabah where palm-topped atolls emerge from the azure waters of the Sulu Sea. With idyllic glaring white sands squeaking between your toes, feasting on exotic fruit galore and spending hours snorkeling through the shallow coral gardens that fringe the islands – life doesn’t get much more romantic than that