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The Land Below The Wind

By Dan Hutton on April 16, 2013 in Other

Photo: Dan Hutton

Photo: Dan Hutton

If you’re thinking of taking a trip to Malaysia’s beautiful island paradise of Borneo, don’t bother spending hours on TripAdvisor planning out all the details – I’ve already done a lot of the hard work for you.

While Borneo island is divided among three different countries – Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia – it was the Malaysian state of Sabah, also known as ‘the land below the wind’ (Sarawak is Borneo’s other Malaysian state), that I chose to visit on a recent two-week trip, namely for its jungle, its islands and the chance to climb the revered Mount Kinabalu.

The first thing you’ll need to consider when travelling to Borneo is your flights. If you’re a bit a frugal traveller like myself, you’ll most likely book your flights to this part of the world with AirAsia. To be honest, I can’t recommend them highly enough. I took numerous flights with them throughout Borneo and didn’t have a problem. And given that the total bill for air travel came to about $600 (yep, that’s return fairs to Australia plus some internal flights) I was understandably quite chuffed.

The Jungle
While a lot of the Borneo jungle has been destroyed and largely replaced by palm oil plantations, there a few incredible patches that remain, and they’re all worth a visit. Danum Valley, Tabin Nature Reserve and the Kinabatangan River are three of the most popular among tourists but fitting all of them into your trip may prove a challenge. The easiest to visit (and the one we chose to include in our itinerary) is the Kinabatangan River.

Staying in a jungle camp and partaking in numerous boat trips along the river, we were lucky enough to encounter several wild orangutans (including a mother with baby) as well as large numbers of proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques and silvered leaf langurs, as well as pythons, lizards, crocodiles and a range of impressive birds including several species of hornbill.

Unfortunately we missed out on seeing the endemic Borneo Pygmy Elephants by a matter of minutes. A herd of the elephants crossed the river only a couple hundred metres ahead of us but by the time we got within viewing range they had disappeared into the dense vegetation. Their smell of their scent was still thick in the air.

A word of warning to high maintenance travellers: there is no shortage of creepy crawlies and the jungle is inundated with leeches!

The Islands
Borneo is home to one of the world’s best dive sites, Sipadan Island, but you’ll need to book about three months in advance to secure one of the highly sought-after permits to dive or snorkel at this beautiful location (only 120 permits are given out each day).

Given that we organised our trip about two weeks out, we chose to stay on nearby Pom Pom Island. One of the highlights of Pom Pom was the turtles, which regularly fed on the sea grass beds just metres from our bungalow. A mask and snorkel was all that was required to get a great view of these prehistoric creatures.

Another highlight was a night walk around the island that uncovered an adult female turtle laying multiple eggs in a small hole on the beach.

While on Pom Pom we were also able to dive some beautiful locations including Mataking and Mantabuan Islands.
Our few nights on Pom Pom certainly weren’t cheap but it was definitely worth every dollar spent.

The Climb
A trip to Sabah really isn’t complete without a crack at conquering Mount Kinabalu. While my whole trip was rather memorable, it was the climb of South-east Asia’s highest peak that I remember most fondly.

It’s not for the faint hearted. The two-day, eight-kilometre climb takes you from an altitude of 1800 metres at the beginning of the ascent to 4095 metres at the summit. It’s a tough climb, broken up by an overnight stay at the basic Laban Rata guesthouse at 3273 metres.

The view from the summit as the sun rises and fog clears on the second morning of the climb is simply phenomenal. But enjoy it while it lasts as the descent to Kinabalu’s base is torture on the knees. Thankfully our 5-foot tall guide Nani strongly advised that we rent walking poles before we began our ascent. I can safely say it was the best five bucks I spent all trip.

If you’ve got a couple of weeks up your sleeve and you’re looking for a great value overseas holiday destination, definitely consider a trip to Borneo’s Sabah. I can’t wait to go back!