Friday, January 09, 2015

Exotic and surprising, Borneo a traveller's mecca

Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak offer much more than orangutans and headhunters

In the increasingly globalized, urbanized mall-world, it’s harder and harder to find a place that’s unique let alone exotic.

The search for something different led me back to Malaysia recently, accompanied by 26 Vancouver Sun readers.

Kuala Lumpur is where we began our trip. But it was Borneo that was the lure for all of us with its history of headhunters, its wealth of indigenous arts and crafts and, of course, its wildlife.

Borneo’s tropical rainforest is so rich in unique species that several new ones were discovered this year.

But it’s orangutans that are the big draw. They are highly endangered and these red-haired great apes are found only in Borneo and on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

As few as 600 of them are estimated to remain in the wild in Sabah. So, we went with faint hopes of seeing them in the wild and most of us were content having been able to spend a couple of hours watching them at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre near Sandakan before heading up the Kinabatangan River to the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, which was ranked by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 eco-lodges in the world.

Yet, our hopes were rewarded even before we got to the lodge when our sharp-eyed guides spotted a mother and a baby feeding in a ficus tree. The following day, farther upriver, they spotted another mother and baby pairing even closer to the river so that we were able to get a much better look at them.

The birders on the trip spotted at least 56 species of birds from the magnificent Rhinoceros hornbill to different varieties of kingfishers, some sporting yellow bodies with turquoise wings and others with turquoise bodies and red breasts.

The lodge itself is simple, decorated with indigenous carvings and each room named after adventurers and scientists who have come to study the jungle wildlife.

Meals featuring Malaysian cuisine are served in an outdoor pavilion overlooking the river with guests summoned by the striking of a gong. For evening meals, after a day spent on the river or hiking in the jungle, guests are encouraged to wear the sarongs provided for them.

And while the lodge is lovely with all the conveniences including a swimming pool, it’s the guides who make the whole experience so amazing. Where their skills truly shine is in spotting wildlife at night from open-air boats using blue spotlights.

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