Saturday, June 27, 2015

Gaya island: Borneo's biodiverse treasurehouse of jungle and marine life


A short break on tropical Gaya island is a dream for snorkellers and conservationists alike – but just beware of the monkeys

Well, now we know what you don’t do in Borneo – and that is take your gear off after you’ve climbed Mount Kinabalu.

An earthquake and then international focus on the behaviour of backpackers on the mountain has brought attention to the tropical island. And while many come for the mountain, which is one of the great – and most difficult – hikes in the world, it is Borneo’s marine life which captivated me.

Borneo, the third largest island in the world and the largest in Asia, is often overlooked in favour of a holiday in Bali or among Thailand’s enticing sprinkle of islands.

But its wildlife, beaches and accommodation make it a good alternative to old favourites. Here at the Gaya Island Resort, we are surrounded by water, including several excellent snorkelling spots, and in the soupy heat it makes more sense to be in the water than to climb a mountain.

The resort is a 15-minute speed-boat trip from Kota Kinabalu, capital of Malaysia’s easternmost state of Sabah. (In Kota Kinabalu there’s some great places to eat but it is essentially a regional port town.)

The resort is built high up in the jungle and the walk to the rooms is steep. When staff allocate rooms they make sure anyone born after 1950 is housed on the lower levels. As a post-1950’s person, I’m high up in the trees (and sweating like I’ve just played five games of squash when I get up there).

Once I’m in my room, I almost don’t want to leave. It is spacious and has a deep bath on a raised platform; bedroom and wide balcony look out over the jungle and the water. Best of all, it is perfectly chilled.

The resort has many attractions to lure visitors out of their rooms, however, not the least of which is the amazing sea life. I’ve snorkelled in a variety of spots, from the Great Barrier Reef to remote islands off Sumatra, but have never seen such an embarrassment of underwater riches. The water is clear and thick with fish of incredible colour, variety and species. It’s like being in some CGI special effect – but it’s real.

Native to Borneo are the walking catfish – which can travel short distances on land, although you are more likely to see them in the rainforest areas in fresh, rather than salty, water.

One of the best snorkelling spots I visit is just off the front of the resort pier where all the boats pull up. I see – among other things – a sea snake curled up in the coral garden (thankfully resting) and bright clownfish.

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