Borneo: land of exotic beauty

By | Category: Travel destinations

Patricia Cleveland-Peck is bitten by the beautiful scenery and exotic wildlife of Borneo

The road, edged with lemon grass, wild ginger and tall bamboo orchids winds upwards from Kota Kimbalu, the capital of Sabah, one of the Malaysian segments of Borneo.  We pass through groves of wild bananas and acacias and see distant villages deep in the valleys below while crested serpent eagles wheel above. It is an awe inspiring scene.

“There it is, the sacred resting place of the spirits,” my guide Philip says pointing  excitedly to the mountain which now looms above us.


Mount Kinabulu

In the old days, Philip tells me, local people would not climb Mount Kinabalu and disturb the dead and when a British officer Sir Hugh Low tried to make the ascent 1851, his guides insisted on appeasing the spirits with the offerings of crystals, cockerels and eggs.  In 1994 five members of a British Army expedition were lost for a month in an area known as Low’s Gully. They were eventually rescued but the mountain is still afforded a great deal of respect by locals and climbers.

I had not come to climb the mountain however, but to visit Mount Kinabalu National Park which contains thousands of species of plants, insects and animals found nowhere else on earth and is justifiably a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On these slopes some 1200 species of orchid grow. So valuable are these plants that some years ago a Malaysian, Lim Sian was caught at Heathrow airport smuggling 130 of the most rare into Britain. We walk one of the trails through the oak and chestnut forest with laughing thrushes chortling above us and we find quantities of orchids including one of the very smallest bulbophyllum orchids, its bloom like a tiny drop of milk.



Much as I love orchids, I confess to Philip that my greatest desire is to see a Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, which I understand to be out of season. “No,” he assures me. “There is no real season, only luck.” On the way down the mountain, he stops at the Pecan Nabalu village market and after talking to a local man, tells me he thinks he’s located one.

We head off in the direction of Poring Hot Springs, sulphur baths installed by the Japanese during their occupation, now much used by weary mountaineers. At Ranau we pass the monument commemorating the 2400 Allied prisoners marched by the Japanese from Sandarkan –  six survived.


Enjoying bananas

Shortly afterwards we see a home made sign on the roadside, “Rafflesia in Bloom 3km” and turn off into the jungle.

“At first if people found these plants growing on their land, they would destroy them, thinking the government would take them, but now they make a little business of it,” Philip tells me as we meet the owner and pay her 10 ringgits ( about £2.00). She then escorts along a wooden walkway to the back of her house … and there they are! Not one but several huge, almost surreal blooms, the size of dustbin lids, growing at ground level. They are indeed  Rafflesia arnoldii  which are parasitic to a wild grape vine and take nine months to mature and then last only one week. I can’t believe my luck and can’t stop smiling as we head back down to Kota Kimbalu for a cool swim and a relaxing evening as I have to leave my comfortable bed at 4.30am for my next adventure.

This time I am heading  east, taking a short flight to Sandakan. I know of this town not only from the march of the prisoners but also from the books of Agnes Keith, an American who in the 1930s, married the Conservator of Forests for British North Borneo and wrote interestingly of colonial life in the area. Her house is now open as a museum and nearby there is even an English tea room where you can eat crumpets and play croquet.

My destination, however is The Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, a few miles out of the town. The orangutan (it means ‘man of the forest’) is to be found in the wild only in  Borneo and Sumatra and the numbers have dwindled perilously because of  intensive logging which has robbed them of their preferred habitat, lowland rainforest –only two per cent of which remains according to a WWF estimate. Much of it has been replaced with palm oil plantations which do not suit these apes who spend most of their lives high in trees – they even built nests in which to sleep.  Further they are often killed by planters for ‘doing damage.’ Often it is the mother which dies leaving a helpless baby – infants stay with their mothers for nine years. On a brighter note the Sabah authorities are declaring some one million hectares protected and have begun placing ‘corridors’ linking existing patches of forest.

Here at the centre, orphans are taught the skills needed for survival and then released back into the wild. I am taken through the forest to the feeding platforms, sort of half-way houses, to which the released orangutans can return for extra nourishment. It is a thrilling moment when the foliage begins to rustle and they appear, swinging through the trees. Suddenly there are half a dozen. I see a mother with a tiny baby clinging to her side. She stuffs bananas into her mouth, grabs more with her feet and makes off again. Two teenage males chase away a group of tiny macaque monkeys who want to get in on the act. The macaques hide beneath the platform and dart back when the orangutans are not looking. On the way out I see a vivid flash above as two rhinoceros  hornbills, the national bird, fly past. Magic.


Pecan Nabulu market

Soon I leave Sabah for Brunei. A city tour of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, reveals mosques newly built with the sort of fervour which must pervaded Europe at the time when the great cathedrals were built. Here there has been no need to despoil the jungle by logging as the Sultanate is rich in oil. This is expected to last until the 2020s, and to replace the revenue, investment is currently being mad in eco-tourism.

One of the focal areas is Ulu Temburong National Park. There are no roads so access is by boat and I board one of the type inauspiciously known as ‘floating coffins’. It is quite safe and comfortable however, and we  enter mangrove swamps and nipiah palm forest.  Proboscis monkeys swing in the trees and white egrets stand on the banks as we head towards Brunei Bay. We eventually disembark at Bangar, a small town with a single row of houses.


Iban girl

Taking a mini-bus, we set off to visit a traditional longhouse where the  Iban people still eke out an existence. We see the typical communal verandah in which women sit weaving. The people smile for our cameras and I know they receive money for each visit, but I cannot but feel how intrusive we are gawping at their impoverished way of life.

Leaving the longhouse we walk for a short while through the jungle to the river where a traditional longboat or temuai awaits us. Here the thrills begin in earnest as we hurtle along the river at great speed passing truly pristine jungle on either side. Eventually we reached the HQ of the Ulu Temburung National Park. From here I can vouch that the climb of a thousand of steps up to the base of the canopy walkway lives up to its description as, “steep and sweaty’. This I do manage – but the idea of climbing a further 50 m up ladders contained within  a metal tower to cross the treetops on a swaying, swinging walkway, confirms just how trepid a traveller I really am. Rather fortunately the man in charge, seeing  the look on my face, forbids me to go, saying that a lady who set off  only to regret it half way, had to be rescued by a Malaysian  Air Force helicopter.

Happily the hotel I am staying in caters superlatively for wimps and sybarites. The Empire Hotel Brunei is a completely over-the-top monument to extravagance and luxury. Built by the Sultan’s play-boy brother, Prince Jeffri, (who was eventually charged with embezzlement) the glittering gold atrium is some 50 m high, the rooms are palatial, the service sublime. Returning from the ‘sweaty’ jungle I enjoy a blissful massage in the state- of-the-art spa and reflect that it is the juxtaposition of luxury and adventure which has made this trip so memorable.

Sue Sheward of Effingham, Surrey  launched the Orangutan Appeal UK to support the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. For details of how you can help – or adopt an orphan orangutan, visit , or call 01372 457460


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