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Off the Beaten Track: Borneo


A glimmering haven on tropical seas, Borneo is the largest island in Asia; sharing its jungle-clad landmass between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Home to thick jungle basins, ravishing marine life, the world’s largest flower and of course, the elusive orangutan; Borneo leaves thousands of its visitors starry-eyed.

Mournfully, a country so bursting with resources is vulnerable to exploitation. Too many of Borneo’s natural wonders have been plundered in the name of palm oil and logging; its forests and wild inhabitants, shrinking by the day. However, pockets of this beautiful country still remain, and the most adventurous of travellers – who are up for delving deep, despite a questionable infrastructure – can still experience the real and rugged Borneo. We take a look at Borneo, off the beaten track.

Malaysian Borneo – Sabah and Sarawak

Malaysia’s section of Borneo comprises the north western third of the island, and is made up of two states; Sabah and Sarawak. Sabah is most popular with tourists, and justifiably – the list of hotspots here includes 4095m Mount Kinabalu, Sandakan’s orangutan and rainforest rehabilitation centres, the wildlife-rich fringes of the Kinabatangan River and the exceptional diving surrounding Sipadan Island.

Those seeking a lesser-trodden path in Sabah should head to Danum Valley Conservation Area in the south of the region. A favourite of scientists, this 438 square kilometre stretch of lowland forest is almost unique, in that there was no human interference here before it became a conservation area. The dense, mist-covered canopy evokes a sense of impenetrable wilderness, and is home to gibbons, tapirs, orangutans, flying squirrels, clouded leopards, the East Sumatran rhino and 270 types of bird. Of course, there are no guarantees just what you will spot as you embark on a memorable trek through its undisturbed depths (except perhaps, leeches). However, a new plant species is found every week by scientists, such is the complexity of its ecosystem – so keep your eyes to the skies and something is sure to fly, scuttle or clamber into view.

Snuggled alongside Sabah, Malaysia’s largest state, Sarawak has quirkier highlights on offer than its neighbour. Capital, Kuching (derived from the Malay word for ‘cat’) is scattered with feline statues, cultural museums and a great foodie offering. The city is also a launch point for many day trips to the surrounding rain forests, and to Belaga, where many tourists head to stay in longhouses traditionally lived in by the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu.

For an alternative nature experience, UNESCO-protected Gunung Mulu National Park makes for a stunning geological theatre; made up of more breathtaking, bat-filled caves, razor-sharp rock formations and karst cliff faces than you could ever explore on one trip. All of this, while surrounded by ancient rain forest and overlooked by its two hazy mountains, Mulu and Gapi.

Near Mulu Park there’s another off-the-track adventure in store; the Kelabit Highlands. Hiking the trails of this highland plateau offers gorgeous panoramic views, unusually fresh air and great hospitality from the Kelabits; many of whom are more than happy to offer up their longhouses for homestays as you progress on your trek. Be aware – logging has affected much of this area, as everywhere in Borneo – so best to update yourself on the situation before you go.

Indonesian Borneo – Kalimantan

When it comes to lesser-visited terrain, it’s hard to find a region more cloaked from outsiders than Indonesia’s Kalimantan. Though the oil and logging industries have still made their mark here, the infrastructure for tourists is either in its burgeoning stages, or non-existent – to the point where people often get around via rivers rather than roads. Tackling much of these secluded jungles is only for travellers with lots of time, patience and knowledge of Bahasa.

For the majority of tourists, however, a jaunt to Kalimantan means spotting orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park. Visitors typically spend three to four days on board a traditional klotok, drifting down jungle-fringed rivers and stopping on the way to watch orangutans, proboscis monkeys, gibbons and birds who climb, feed and nest in the forest canopies. After a night on deck under a starry sky, waking up to the sight of swinging primates overhead is one wildlife adventure you won’t forget.

Make it happen

For a custom-made trip to Borneo’s best and lesser-visited gems, click on the links above to look at our destination pages, or enquire with our Malaysian and Indonesian operators.

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