Borneo’s beach and wildlife

Borneo’s beach and wildlife

The word ‘diversity’ in 2024 is probably most used by big consulting companies; in reports where they make promises to have more of it in senior management (lol).

In Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah though, diversity refers to rainforests where orangutans, sun bears, mouse-deer, pangolin, pygmy elephants, leopards, loris, dick-nose (probiscis) monkeys and heaps more live in harmony. A week-long trip was enough for this writer to encounter creatures he didn’t even know existed – looking at you, Red Flying Squirrel.

It refers to the most multiethnic state in Malaysia; home to no less than 32 tribes, 55 languages, and around 100 dialects.

There’s 450 islands – give or take a few pretty big sand banks – diverse and beautiful in canopy and colour.

The state shares the incredible island of Borneo with Indonesia and Brunei. From a ‘turtle metropolis’ to island-hopping incredible deserted islands, there’s some genuinely extraordinary experiences to be had in Sabah. Here’s six:

1. Join the turtle club

The most extraordinary population of hawksbill and green sea turtles can be found cruising gently through the waters of the Semporna region.

They’re everywhere, as are a wild range of fish, some neat coral and some wrecks to dive.

But it was the turtles for us. They’re easily accessed with a snorkel, but we recommend strapping an oxygen tank on and getting a bit deeper, so you can chill with these little legends for longer. You can dive up to ten metres without a PADI certificate.

Arcadia Beach Resort is a beautiful resort on tiny Pandanan island, and they know all the best spots. Get them to take you out.

2.Hit up deserted islands

Off the north-east coast of Borneo there’s a stack of islands and sand banks, all seemingly blessed with astonishing good looks. Hop on a boat and dart the short distances (in placid bays) from one to another, and wear a bib to wipe the drool from your chin when you come across paradise after paradise.

My favourite was Timba Timba – a thin sliver of uninhabited sand with only a jetty and a small hut selling drinks. Sunbake, swim, get a drink. Repeat.

Most accommodation in the area will offer island hopping excursions.


3.Go face-to-face with orangutan

Standing at the edge of a viewing platform, we were told to move back for our own safety.

“Why” I wondered silently; the mother orangutan and her child were feeding about 20 metres away. More than safe.

Seconds later, a gigantic male orangutan – Big Papi – walked nimbly across the very wooden bench I’d previously been resting my arms on. I hate to be cliché but nothing prepared me for what a fully-grown orangutan would be like up-close. I could not – still can’t - believe the size of this guy.

Seeing these apes up close in the Sepilok Rainforest, their home, is an extraordinary treat. Float between the viewing deck and the interior section where you view baby orangutans from behind glass. The little ones are a lot more playful and funnier – think stealing each other’s bananas, wrestling – while the adults are a lot bigger, and majestic in their own way.

Established in 1964, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was the first place in the world dedicated to the rehabilitation of orangutans. To come here is to support the protection of these beautiful, hilarious beasts. Big win-win.

4. Smash local cuisine

With so many different ethnic groups comes a whole lot of different cuisines. Fresh fish is on the menu plenty of the time, and our favourite form came in the form of Panasakan Basungan – a traditional Dusun dish of braised basung fish, mixed with takob akob – which is a kind of fruit. Sweet and delicious.

Honourable mention goes to My Native Sabah restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, who served up a plate of fried basung and rice, spicy sambal and this thing called ‘wild mango pickles’ (pictured below) which was as tasty and wild as it sounds. Hook it to my veins.

Dishonourable mention to the same restaurant, who served Pizza Butod…that is, a basic pizza topped with bush grubs. You can even pick out your preferred, still-moving grubs in the restaurant.

5. Conquer Bohey Dulang

Bohey Dulang is an island located in the Sakaran Marine National Park area. Look, 650 metres doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a bloody steep 650 metres, a hike that is almost as high as it is long.

Once at the top you’ll be afforded the most majestic views over the marine park, taking in an epic array of colours and sections with names like Big Boy Reef. If you’re staying nearby, work up a sweat doing this in the morning, and then fall into the ocean after that – has to be in that order, as it gets very hot here.   

6. Here comes the sun…bear

The Sepilok Rainforest is frequented not just by orangutans. Sun bears are the smallest bears in the world and are found only in Southeast Asia, and they’ve had a rough time of it as late, being kept cruelly as pets and suffering from forest degradation. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre are doing some incredible work to look after these cute, industrious things.

I say industrious because a mere 15 minutes of watching ‘Noah’ the sun bear was enough to see him attacking a tree for stingless bee honey, play fight with one of his friends and get down and dirty with another. Talk about productive.

7. Wander through the culture jungle

Imagine this: you’ve met a girl and you’re mad for each other, ready to spend the rest of your life together. You’ve paid the bride well which is customary for your culture, and now the only thing left to do is to solve a small puzzle, to prove you are smart enough to take care of a family.

It’s lucky I’m not in the Lundayeh tribe, I’d be single for life. After spending 30 futile minutes attacking a simple but impossible puzzle, I kept moving through Mari Mari Cultural Village, a series of stations in the jungle that describe the life and traditions of the five major ethnic communities in Sabah:  Bajau, Lundayeh, Murut, Rungus and Dusun.

Go for the culture, rice wine, honey and welcoming ceremonies; stay to see if you can do the puzzle.

Get there

Malaysian Airlines offer regular flights from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur.

From here, it’s a short flight to Tawau airport, or Kota Kinabalu, the two major airports on the island.

Stay there

Arcadia Beach Resort is located on the tiny island of Pandanan, off the north-east coast of Borneo.

Click here to read our feature on it. 

Get Informed

Always check the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website for all information regarding travelling safely overseas.

Words Tim McGlone

Photos Tim McGlone

Tags: beach, borneo, malaysia, Sabah, wildlife

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