Sabah - Land below the wind

Malaysian Borneo, Febraury 2010

Borneo, the worlds third largest island is devided among three countries: Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia:

  • Brunei is a tiny, ultra oil-rich sultanate.
  • Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) covers 73% of the islands total land mass of 743'330km2.
  • The States of Sarawak and Sabah make up Malaysian Borneo, and Sabah State is where we travelled to on this excursion.

Since ancient times, Sabah has been called "The land below the wind" as it lies south of the Pacific hurricane belt. Planning to spend some time in Sabah's last remaining pockets of primary rain forest, we wanted to get there sometime after mid February. Just as the rains would come to an end, but well before peak season would draw in too many visitors. 2010 saw an exceptionally dry month of February for most islands of the Celebes and Sulu seas. But it also turned out to be the month of an 8.8 moment magnitude earth quake that ocurred off the coast of Chile (27 February 2010). We were on Lankayan island when news about a tsunami warning for the Pacific rim reached us. Luckily, the warning was soon lifted for Asia Pacific.

The tropical paradise of Lankayan island was the first destination of our Borneo excursion. Travelling there from Switzerland takes quite a bit of time. However, it is worth every second spent on planes, in airport lounges and on boats, as this is a fantastic place. Lankayan Island is situated in the Sulu Sea, north of the town of Sandakan, on Sabah's north-east coast. Lankayan offers pristine white beaches and spectacular coral reef diving and snorkeling. Speed boat transfers from Sandakan to Lankayan island pass by Pulau Selingan, where Sabah’s Turtle Sanctuary is situated. Both Hawksbill and Green turtles also nest on Lankayan. Visitors may have a chance to see the turtles nesting as well as witnessing the controlled release of baby turtles back into the sea.

In 2003 Sabah state government declared Lankayan island part of the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area (SIMCA). Since then, no fishing is allowed within the park and, as a result of this, reefs and marine life have greatly recovered throughout the park.

Welcome sign at the jetty of Lankayan island:

Malaysian BorneoMalaysian Borneo

So far, I haven't managed to take up scuba diving. But there are distinct advantages to snorkeling, especially at a place like Lankayan. It is the perfect getaway to shake off jetlag after fifteen hours of flying, a night stay-over at Sandakan and two hours on a speedboat. Days start with a hearty breakfast. If I feel like, I can then grab my snorkeling gear and the camera and stroll to the beach. The coral gardens start right there, two or three metres into the water. Since Lankayan is a dive resort, all the scuba experts head out to special dive sites by boat. This means that the hand full of people staying behind on the island have the coral gardens and pristine beaches to themselves.

The perfect place to shake off jet lag:

For us this is just perfect. While Jacorine can enjoy the sun, go through her lietrature and join me whenever she feels like, I am free to snorkel around the island all day long, observe the magical beauty of its tropical coral reef gardens, with their colourful inhabitants, and improve on my underwater photography. I only have to get out of the water for lunch and eventually again, when it's time for a sundowner.

There is a marine conservation management office and a turtle station with an information centre on Lankayan. Turtles can be observed at night, moving up the beaches to digg nests and lay eggs. The conservation biologists will then digg open the nests, recover all the eggs and move them to a breeding shelter next to the information centre.

Breeding shelter for turtle eggs:

When a batch of eggs reaches maturity, the turtle centre will arrange controlled and protected release. This in order to ensure that as many hatchlings as possible reach the water, from where they will have to fend for themselves.

The coral reef full of life, right at the beach:

Malaysian BorneoMalaysian Borneo

There is some birdlife on the island and there are interesting insects, including some stunning butterflies. Although I focused on the underwater world I managed to capture Pacific reef heron and Olive-backed sunbird. But as we will definitely include Lankayan island into future travel plans to Sabah, there may be more opportunities to come.

From Lankayan Island to Danum Valley

The speedboat for Sandakan leaves Lankayan about half an hour after sunrise. We had arranged a private road transfer from Sandakan Yacht Club to the town of Lahad Datu, where the operations office of the Borneo Rainforest Lodge is situated. The drive across to Lahad Datu sends one past extensive palm oil plantations and some secondary forest here and there. Especially around the area where the road crosses the lower Kinabatangan river. This time around we included neither Tabin Wildlife Reserve, nor the Kinabatangan in our itinerary. These destinations that are both in the area will definitely be part of our next trip to Malaysian Borneo, though.

At Lahad Datu we were treated to lunch at a Chinese restaurant before being transferred out to Danum Valley in an old Land Cruiser VX (I have always had the hearts for the VX, as it is one of the most reliable, sturdy and comfortable SUV's ever built).

Transfer from Lahad Datu to Danum Valley takes about 2 1/2 hrs: The first 15km on tar road and the rest on gravel. Actually, logging roads, as it were. On the way in we collected our guide Danny, who would be looking after us for the time we would spend in the valley. And yes, there were many, many huge trucks hauling cut up tree trunks from somewhere further west, past the turn-off to Danum Valley Conservation Area. Selective logging, we were told. But so far I still don't fully understand the concept...

Oncoming traffic on the way to Danum Valley:

Borneo Rainforest Lodge is a pretty place. There are a number of chalets on stilts, facing out across a river into the tropical rain forest. BRL offers day and night walks, short game drives along the road leading into the valley, and extensive walking trails. However, the main attraction would be the 300m treetop canopy walkway with its viewing platforms. Any exploring of the area is done on foot. We know the drill: A cup of coffee and a quick bite at 5:30am, grab the backpack and camera and head out into the forest at the crack of dawn. Back at the lodge at around 10:30h for brunch. Although we had no rain, the climatic conditions are such that one is soaking wet after the first km or so. It is very warm and extremely humid.

View from the treetop canopy walkway at Borneo Rainforest Lodge:

On our walking trails we saw Orang Utan (every day, different individuals), Red leaf monkey, Sambar deer, Mouse deer, Oriental small-clawed otter, various reptiles, birds and insects. And leeches, not to forget (there is a good reason for them to sell leech socks there.) Some of the walking trails lead past little pools where one can dip in and cool off. Very pleasant indeed, and it comes with a free skin treatment as there are many little fish nibbling at ones toes and legs.

The Borneo Rainforest Lodge, set up on the banks of a river:

However, bird viewing was best near the canopy walkway and around the lodge, in the more open areas. This is also where we saw a pair of Crested fireback phesants, and fresh pug marks of Leopard cat. I checket the visitors book: In the weeks prior to our arrival there had been various sightings of Leopard cat, but no entries for any of the other four cat species that still occur in the area. 

The Borneo Rainforest Lodge is beautifully set. All our meals were excellent and the staff was very friendly. We particularly enjoyed the company of Denny, our most knowledgeable private field guide.

Back to Kota Kinabalu

As this Asia excursion included some city lights (Kuala Lumpur and Singapore) we cut short on the Borneo nature experience this time round. From Danum Valley we headed back to Lahad Datu and flew across to Kota Kinabalu. There are some island resorts off the cosat of Kota Kinabalu that I would like to look at on our next trip to Borneo.

Travel information

We usually like to include Singapore as hub for our trips to Southeast Asia. However, there are many direct international connections to Kota Kinabalu, for example from Singapore, Hongkong, Manila, Seoul, Jakarta, etc. And of course from West-Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, etc. For our domestic flights in Sabah, both to Sandakan and from Lahad Datu we found MASwings to provide excellent service. Affordable one-way fares allow for very flexible itineraries. Our individual road transfers were arranged by the reservation offices of Lankayan Island Resort and Borneo Rainforest Lodge.

On this excursion we didn't visit Tabin Wildlife Reserve and the lower Kinabatangan river, but I include these two links as information for people who are interested in planning a trip to Sabah:

Tabin Wildlife Reserve

Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge

While searching for photographs of birds in order to confirm some of my sightings, I evenually came across the website of Cede Prudente, a well known and very experienced professional photographer, conservationist and field guide, based in Sabah. I'm sure Cede will have many interesting stories to tell about his beatiful land and I will definitely contact him before my next visit to Borneo.


Patrick Meier, April 2010