There’s much more to the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo than sun loungers and sandy beaches, discovers Carolynne Dear.
Views of Mount Kinabalu in the distance from the surrounding rice fields.
One of the most popular activities for visitors to Sabah is climbing Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain on both the island of Borneo and in the country of Malaysia. The mountain lies in Kinabalu Park, a World Heritage Site, and boasts more than 5,000 species of plants, 300 plus species of birds and more than 100 animals.
Reaching the top is on many visitors' bucket list, but don't be deceived, at 13,435 feet it’s no walk in the park. The best way to tackle the challenge is to hire a guide to lead the way. It’s steep, it’s tough walking and it can be wet, but the views - not to mention the feeling of achievement - from the top are worth all the effort.
Ascending Low's Peak can be attempted by anyone in good physical health without needing climbing equipment. It’s a two-day adventure with a night spent on the mountain before attempting the final ascent. Climbers must be aged 15 years and older.
Borneo enjoys some of the best dive sites in the world.
Back down at sea-level, diving and snorkelling opportunities abound. Sabah is surrounded by three seas, the South China Sea in the west, the Sulu Sea in the northeast and the Celebes Sea in the southeast.
Borneo is billed as one of the top diving destinations in the world with a hugely diverse marine environment. Spot green and hawksbill turtles, wrasse, giant clams and many species of shark.
Speedboats link Jesselton Point in the state’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, with the marine park that sits just off the coast, or head to Sipadan Island, one of the top-rated dive locations in the world. The nearby islands of Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking and Pom Pom are also worth the stop with guaranteed sightings of marine life great and small as well as healthy colourful corals. Resort facilities are available on the islands.
Turtle tracks on Selingan Island.
If you’re interested to learn more about the turtles, it’s worth heading to Turtle Island Park (Pulau Selingan) off the eastern coast of Borneo in the Sulu Sea.
Turtle Island is part of Sabah National Park and is one of three islands dedicated to green and hawksbill conservation. Turtles nest throughout the year at Selingan and it's home to Malaysia's first - and the world's oldest - turtle hatchery. Data is collected to provide valuable research and care of the hatcheries is managed by on-site rangers.
There are two further hatcheries on Gulisan and Bakungan islands, although Selingan is the only one that allows visitors to watch the turtles laying their eggs. Visit as part of a two day, one night tour in order to view the turtles laying their eggs overnight. You should also be able to see hatchlings being released.
Adrenaline rush at Coral Flyer Zipline.
Dry-off and try the Coral Flyer Zipline at Pulau Sapi. It flies between the islands of Sapi and Gaya with a picturesque hike to reach the launch point.
This thrilling ride is the second longest island-to-island zipline in the world at 235 metres long. It can be undertaken alone or with a parallel rider and lasts around a minute (although it does seem longer when you’re hanging 45m over the ocean).
Zoom over the gelato-hued ocean and feel the wind in your hair. There is no age limit for taking a ride, but the minimum weight is 40kg; if children are too light, staff or a parent can ride tandem. The heavier you are, the faster you will fly...
Residents at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Sanctuary.
Of course no trip to Borneo would be complete without a sighting of the island’s famous orangutans and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Sanctuary makes for a rewarding visit.
Sepilok is a leading centre of excellence set on land protected by Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Around 80 orangutans live freely on the reserve and a further 25 young orphaned orangutans are housed in the nurseries. Visitors can view the animals from a platform and learn about how they are nursed, rehabilitated and finally released.
It can take up to seven years to return an orangutan safely to the wild; at Sepilok, a buddy system operates, pairing youngsters with older and more skilled animals.
Pygmy elephants playing on the shores of the Kinabatangan River.
Orangutans can also be spotted from an adventure cruise on the Kinabatangan River. Kinabatangan River is the second longest river in Malaysia at 560km, passing from the mountains of southwest Sabah and down to the Sulu Sea.
The area through which it runs is known for its rich, high-diversity habitats, with limestone caves, forests, freshwater swamps, salty mangrove swamps and oxbow lakes. The river can be visited all year round, but it is often flooded during wet season in December and January. April to October is the main flowering and fruiting season, a good time of year for wildlife spotting.
The forests are home to both Borneo’s indigenous orangutans as well as proboscis monkeys. Take a trip at dawn or dusk and you may be lucky enough to spot one of the eight species of hornbill or even a herd of Bornean pygmy elephants.
A splashing good time at JSK Borneo Reef (image courtesy JSK Borneo Reef).
For a fun day out, the JSK Borneo Reef is a brand new reef activity pontoon located inside the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park around 15 minutes by speedboat from Jesselton.
Once at the reef, you can enjoy a plethora of sea-based activities, including snorkelling and kayaking, and there’s also a children’s play pool for littlies under the age of eight - they can splash around safely with water guns and floaties and there’s even a designated lifeguard.
The big draw card for youngsters, however, is the one-of-a-kind inflatable water park. It’s suitable for all ages and it even has an underwater observatory tunnel for those who would rather not get wet.
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