6 superb short adventures in Malaysian Borneo
20th January 2016 | by Simon
Much as you might like to abandon your hectic modern lifestyle and disappear alone into the rainforest for a few years, you'd probably end up missing some things - toilets, for example, or possibly a limb, if your jungle survival skills aren't great.
A shorter expedition, as part of a more diverse itinerary, is far more realistic... not to mention fun, since it lets you relish the thrill of the wild with the confidence that creature comforts await you when you're done.
Wildlife-spotting on a Kinabatangan River boat trip
'Kin River', in Borneo's north-east, is prized for its fantastic array of diverse habitats, which shift from coastal mangroves into placid oxbows, tangled freshwater swamp forests, and lowland rainforest. Although the wild habitat has been reduced to a corridor along the river, with palm plantations beyond it, this corridor contains some of Borneo's densest wildlife populations, too; species of note include Bornean orang-utan, pygmy elephants, langars, and proboscis monkeys. Crucially for our purposes, all of the forest mammals get thirsty, and sometimes like a bath - the riverbank is thus an excellent place to look for them. Travelling in a small open motor launch, you're virtually guaranteed to see creatures - in the water, on the banks - with diverse birdlife on the oxbow lakes. Read more about the trip here.
Get under Borneo's surface in Gunung Mulu caves
Gunung Mulu National Park is remarkable for many reasons, but perhaps the least visible is its extraordinary complex of limestone caverns. One of them is the largest known natural chamber in the world, and can be reached 'on foot' - providing you're willing to follow an underground river course, traverse a narrow ledge, and possibly do a bit of swimming! Several Mulu sites are suitable for adventure caving - difficulty levels vary, but all require physical fitness and a head for weird underground spaces. Another famous feature of the Mulu caves is their vast population of bats - around five million of them, with many different species streaming together from the shadowy mouths of 'Lang' and 'Deer' caves at dusk. This daily bat exodus is quite a sight, and can go on for an hour while they all stream into the forest to find supper. You can explore the caves and see the bats on our Mulu Caves experience.
Climb to the peak of sacred Kinabalu
Providing you promise to keep your clothes on, one of the most awe-inspiring things you can do in Malaysian Borneo is climb Mount Kinabalu - the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago, and deeply sacred to the region's Dusun tribe, who perform an annual ritual to appease mountain spirits that might otherwise be angered by the tourists and climbers. The mountain sits deep within the richly biodiverse Kinabalu National Park, and although the climb can be done as a (gruelling, and not recommended) day trip from Kota Kinabalu, there is accommodation within the NP - most people stay overnight and start the ascent very early. Dawn breaking over the landscape far beneath will take your breath away, even if you aren't puffed out from the hike. Although you do need a good level of basic fitness, this climb is surprisingly achievable for most people.
Trek lesser-known trails & stay with ex-headhunters in the Sapulot region
Our man in Borneo (we do actually have one) told us that the last known headhunting on the island occurred in 1915. Preserved heads were considered a huge source of spiritual energy by Borneo's tribes, and acted as the focus for crucial rituals. The Murut people - your hosts for part of this trip - were the last tribe in Borneo to renounce the practise. The important thing here is that they have renounced it, and will be happy to welcome you into their homes - sturdy longhouses situated deep in Sabah's most remote region. You'll sleep in the longhouse, and eat traditional Murut meals with your hosts. You'll also camp by (and swim in) a rainforest-flanked river, explore a cave system that few visitors get to see, and climb a 200m limestone pinnacle that is one of the Murut's sacred sites, with unsurpassed views over Sabah from the top. The Sapulot expedition is a brand new addition to our An Insider's Borneo suggested itinerary.
Explore the Sarawak River in a kayak
Not too strenuous and easily undertaken in four hours, this expedition starts just outside Kuching, and is a great way to get acquainted with Sarawak's rural landscape when you arrive on Borneo. The kayak excursion will take you paddling quietly beyond the town, between forested riverbanks and tribal settlements, stopping off to visit the village of Danu, one of the last substantial settlements of the Bidayuh* group. Here you'll partake of a traditional home cooked Bidayuh lunch - usually several dishes including rice, bamboo, steamed chicken or slow roast pork, and vegetables - before paddling along to another village, where you'll dry off and hop in the car for the short drive back to Kuching. The kayaking tour features on day 3 of our Borneo: Beyond the Ordinary itinerary, but you can add it to any of our holidays in Borneo.
(*a collective name for several tribes indigenous to the area)
Wildlife trekking in Danum Valley or Tabin Reserve
One of Borneo's most famously biodiverse and treasured regions, Danum Valley Conservation Area and nearby Tabin Wildlife Reserve are the places to go if you want to stay in a comfortable lodge deep in the rainforest, and spend your days encountering wildlife - in particular, orang-utans in their natural habitat. The best known place to stay here is Borneo Rainforest Lodge, where guests reside in astonishing luxury given how deep they are in the rainforest. The chalets of Tabin Wildlife Resort aren't quite as sumptuous, but still pretty wonderful, and contain everything you need for a comfortable stay, with treats like en suite bathrooms, and a private balcony from which to spot wildlife over coffee.