Monday, March 31, 2014

Borneo to be wild


BORNEO isn’t the sort of place people just go. The world’s third largest island, shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, is a Serious Destination; usually found on those top five lists that honeymooners browse, vying with African safaris or the Maldives for the ultimate trip-of-a-lifetime status.

It merits a smug Facebook status as you check in at Heathrow; a selfie or 12 of your feet parked on various exotic sunloungers; and a free pass to start all stories with “When I was in Borneo…” for at least six months after you get back.

The island’s exotic status comes partly from the fact that it’s not particularly easy to get to. While all those air miles you’ve been saving up for a special occasion might just cover a business class upgrade to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur (two of the major Asian hubs that serve the island), you’ll still have to spend another three hours in the air before reaching Kota Kinabalu, a popular beachside gateway on the north-west coast of the island.

But once you get there, the options for how to spend your time are overwhelming.

The Malaysian part of the island alone is home to almost 30 national parks, offering the chance to head offshore to dive by nearby Gaya Island, venture inland to trek through the jungle and up to Mount Kinabalu – a 4,000m peak in the middle of one of the parks – or just stick to the beaches for hot, languid sunbathing and sunsets.

For those stretched for time, or less willing to drag themselves away from the honeymoon suite, the “lite” version of most of these activities can be done close to Kota Kinabalu itself, with many of the remote hotel resorts offering easy access versions of the island’s biggest draws.

WHIRLWIND TOURING

A morning spent watching the sunrise over Mount Kinabalu is particularly spectacular, with the misty view across Borneo’s dense forests and winding rivers making the 6am wake-up call and half-hour uphill trek more than worth it. A night-time river cruise to see trees along the bank lit up by fireflies is equally stunning, with only the moon and hundreds of the tiny, bioluminescent insects to illuminate the pitch black river.

The coastline’s mainly flat landscape also makes it perfect for cycling; if you can stand the heat then a short tour around the local area is a great way to see how the locals live, including a glimpse of tradition in the indigenous Bajau (sea gypsy) peoples’ stilt houses, wobbling perilously over the clear South China Sea.

But, as pleasant a distraction as they provide, no one really comes to Borneo for fireflies and history lessons. What makes the 15-hour flight worth it is the one thing that really earns Borneo its status as a nature lover’s paradise and bucket-list destination – the orang-utans.   

Native only to Borneo and neighbouring island Sumatra, the WWF estimates that fewer than 65,000 of these lumbering orange apes still live in the wild, with numbers declining rapidly as their natural rainforest habitat shrinks to make way for logging trucks and agricultural development.

With more than 80 per cent of the surviving orang-utans found on Borneo, it’s the best place in the world to see them in the (semi-)wild, making the island a major destination for so-called eco-tourism, with sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres popping up across the remaining jungle.

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