It’s a lovely countryside drive past colourful weatherboard houses, followed by a 30-minute boat journey through Kimanis Bay, to reach the destination. When they arrive on aptly named Pulau Tiga, a group of islands of the west coast of Sabah, guests of Borneo Eagle Resort are greeted at a large hut that’s said to resemble the wings of an eagle landing in its new nest.
It’s small, considered details like this that make the resort so breathtaking. Like the first few minutes of a yoga class, arriving at the long timber jetty mimics one extended exhale into relaxation. From here, you have the choice of staying in a calming child’s pose equivalent by soaking up the sun’s rays alongside your private pool while gorging on fresh fruit platters or diving into a more adventurous flow with an island trek, diving, snorkelling and kayaking.
On my first night Benny, the resort’s manager, joins me for dinner at The Eagles Nest restaurant, which features a delectable menu using produce from the resort’s own farm, One Green. Benny tells me the overall goal of the destination is to get guests to relax. “You can tell,” he says. “When they get off the boat they’re full of stress, and we want to give them an opportunity to unwind.”
He insists I’m here to do the same, but I’ve never been good at relaxing travel and ask if we can arrange a snorkel safari followed by jungle trek … following my private in-room massage, of course.
The pathway back to my luxurious spa villa is every bit as exciting as the days to follow. To my right, through rustling leaves I spy monkeys playing hide-and-seek. Opposite, the ocean meets soft yellow sand, blanketing the shore in its crystal blue before receding back out to the reef that lurks below the glistening surface.
Sebastian, my personal attendant, warns me that while the monkeys may look cute, they’re actually quite aggressive: “You’re from Australia, so nothing probably scares you, but don’t get too close to them.”
“A little while ago, I saw a crocodile here,” Sebastian adds, glancing at me with a smile. “I’m not sure if it’s from the ocean or the freshwater inland, but either way, look out for the little guy.”
I’m glad my manicured pink nails and colourful floral kaftan does nothing to disguise my true identity and somewhere deep within me wants to respond with, “Yeah mate, that’s not a knife, this is a knife. But seriously, please don’t leave me in the jungle!” As we continue up the path, I sidestep away from a small monkey hiding in a nearby bush.
My villa’s courtyard is taken up by a private saltwater pool, fed directly from the ocean just metres ahead of me. I have the option to spend the following afternoon lazing on a bright yellow outdoor bed or flippering up to explore the reef. Of course, I opt for a date with the fish and hope Mother Nature pulls through with the weather goods and provides a clear, calm ocean.
With my fins on and mask as ready as it can be, I walk backwards into the enticing cool of the not-so-calm waters. My hopes fade and Jane, my guide, yells over the crashing waves, “We’ve had a bit of wind so it might be a bit dusty.” We venture out as deep as we can go anyway. There are moments of clarity, but mostly it’s a particle-fuelled haze.
No matter, we keep trying and after seeing endless corals in browns, yellows and dusty pinks, a giant clam and a couple of colourful fish, we decide to retreat from the sea and venture further inland in search of monkeys, snakes, monitor lizards and the hornbill eagle. I’m thankful Jane is there to guide me and share her knowledge. “I learned from my dad who is a ranger on the island,” she tells me. “They originally discovered this island by accident. A fisherman got lost and, in the search, they found Pulau Tiga. They also found the fisherman who survived.”
She points out a liana, a long woody vine that clings to the trees and produces two types of liquids: one is safe to drink, the other poisonous.
“Only drink the clear,” Jane warns. “If it’s black or murky, it will be bad.” Suddenly, I feel like I’ve entered a game of Jumanji and everything is a test of survival. Jane points to a termite mound, standing among trees that dwarf it. “If you’re lost in the jungle, you can eat them,” she says. I take her word for it, since getting lost in the jungle isn’t high on my priority list.
The trek is an easy one, and the only obstacles are some fallen trees and vines that occasionally catch my foot and send me tumbling. The air is thick and humid, and sweat covers every exposed inch of skin, offering up a gold mine to the local mosquitoes.
As we pass a long vine hanging from a tree, I contemplate channelling my inner Tarzan. “How sturdy are these vines?” I ask Jane, hand on the woody vine ready to launch. “I wouldn’t pull too hard,” she responds quickly. “There are two things you’ll find up there: snakes or a hive.” I pack away the loincloth, step away from the not-so-sturdy rope, and shield my face from a possible falling snake.
“Are the snakes here deadly?” My Australian ‘nothing scares us because everything is deadly in my country’ confidence has waned. “Yes, on snake island [one of the three islands that make up Palau Tiga] there are the yellow-lipped sea kraits.
“I don’t know why they call it yellow,” she explains. “It’s black and white. Anyway, they try to bite you between the fingers because it’s venom gets into your system quicker. They’re very dangerous. More poison than a cobra.”
Deadly snakes aside, I’m quickly distracted by the beauty of the jungle. It’s far greener than I ever imagined, with tall trees forming a lush emerald canopy that occasionally parts to reveal a glimpse of blue sky and sun. Vines weave their way from branch to branch, like purposefully placed decorations. There’s the occasional hoot of a monkey or squawk of a bird, but the jungle of this small island is otherwise peacefully silent bar the rustling of leaves.
Eventually we make it to the mud volcano area, for what’s known as virgin mud. Don’t let the word volcano fool you. When we arrive, I’m shown to a small mound that’s been pushed up through the earth by the pressure of sulphur gas, forcing mineral-rich mud to flow from the top. It’s unsightly and reminds me of a very specific part of the human anatomy, thankfully without any offensive smells. The mud is said to have therapeutic properties, and is not out of place in Borneo Eagle’s spa features.
Jane tells me to scoop up a handful of the grey mud and smother it over my skin. “It’ll make you look 10 years younger,” she insists. I’m hesitant. Sticking my hand in a gurgling hole as if it’s the fountain of youth seems more akin to an Indiana Jones movie than a Sunday trek, but I do it anyway. I slather the grey paste on my face. It is smoother than I expected and glides over my sweaty skin like clay. It feels surprisingly comforting and calming and, as an added benefit, instantly shields my body from the thickening heat of the day.
On the trek back to the resort, the mud’s cooling effect works so well, I almost need a jumper in the 30ºC heat. As a bonus, it also acts as a natural bug repellent. When we arrive back at the resort, I enter the ocean a swamp monster and imagine re-emerging a youthful, toned Bond girl. Alas, the mirror’s reflection tells a different story – I look like the same version of me, only a little less stressed and puffy around the eyes. Benny was right, maybe there is something to this relaxation thing after all.
Malaysia Airlines flies from Australian cities to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur. From there it’s an easy two-hour drive and short boat transfer to Pulau Tiga.
Stays at Borneo Eagle Resort start at about AU$1,000 a night, with a minimum two-night stay.
For more details on travelling to Sabah and other parts of Malaysia, visit the official tourism website.