Borneo may still seem to be the exotic domain of safari-suited adventure travellers. However, in reality it is a spectacular melting pot of friendly people, unique wildlife, wild adventure, and a picture-perfect paradise for families.
I’d read about Borneo as a kid as one of the last truly wild frontiers. A land of dense jungle, uncharted territory and head hunters, it’s a country I’ve been intrigued about ever since, for its rich history as a remote British colony and its unique wildlife.
Of course, it hasn’t been known as British North Borneo for a long time. And while heads are still known to adorn the homes of some tribal chiefs, the tradition of headhunting stopped long ago.
Malaysian Sabah is now more famous for its population of orang-utans and proboscis monkeys and a blossoming eco and adventure tourism industry. Visitors come here for three reasons: for fantastic wildlife encounters, sensational diving, or to climb Sabah’s most famous landmark, the awesome Mount Kinabalu.
While heads are still known to adorn the homes of some tribal chiefs, the tradition of headhunting stopped long ago.
But it’s to Sandakan we’re heading on this occasion, on the northeast coast of this island paradise, and I’m wracking my brain as we fly in as to “why the name rings a bell?”
Sandakan: the second largest city in Sabah
In its heyday, the then capital of the bustling British colony was known as Little Hong Kong. but – and this was what had those bells ringing – it’s better known as the starting point of the Death March during the Second World War and where 2700 Anzac and British soldiers died during the Japanese occupation. In fact, the airstrip we land on was built by them, but as Sandakan was almost completely destroyed during the war there are few other surviving sites.
We’re greeted at the airport by our gorgeous guide for the week, Jame. Like most of the people we meet here during our stay, he’s cheerful (cheeky even) and really friendly. We’re woken bright and early by Jame on day two for our first wildlife encounter and Borneo’s biggest attraction, the fascinating orang-utan, at Sepilok Orang-utan Sanctuary.
People travel thousands of kilometres across the globe to get up close and personal with the flaming hair and soulful gaze of the endangered ‘wild man of Borneo’ in his natural surroundings.
The main threat these animals face is loss of habitat and, as more and more trees are felled to be replaced by palm oil plantations, hundreds of young orang-utans are orphaned and this reserve is purpose-built for the ongoing rehabilitation of baby orang-utans.
At Turtle Islands is always Sea Turtle Hatching Season
On day three we head out to the Turtle Islands, where incredibly, on average 30 green turtles and hawksbill turtles visit each night to, between them, lay several thousand eggs. The turtle action starts after dinner as rangers allow us to watch the amazing sight of one of these massive beasts laying her eggs. On this occasion, she manages 45 eggs before settling down for a well-earned rest.
The evening finishes with something extra special – perhaps the highlight of our whole trip – as we get to set the evening’s little hatchings free. They are gorgeous. About 60 little turtle hatchlings, each less than 7cm long, frantically scrabble for the water as we wave them bon voyage.
Monkey adventures and the temple of doom
After a windswept trip back to the mainland the following morning we hop on another boat to head upriver in search of more wildlife. After a high tea at Proboscis Lodge, we head for a more intimate cruise along one of the river’s tributaries in search of our lodge’s namesake. Luckily we don’t have to wait long to spot one of these funny looking fellows with their protruding noses.
The following day our first stop is the Temple of Doom. Seriously. Nearby Gomantong Caves, while spectacular in size and formation, are alive with creepy crawlies. In the centre of the cave is a huge mound of bat and bird droppings and as we look a little closer we realise its moving. It’s then I realise the boardwalk beneath us is also moving. Cockroaches and centipedes scuttle about underfoot, on the handrails and the walls of the cave next to us. Fascinating as it is, this one is probably better for older kids.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, our last lunch in Sandakan is at the English Teahouse and Restaurant and it’s a blast from the British colonial past. A traditional bungalow replete with parquet flooring, elegant rattan chairs and wooden ceiling fans on a wide veranda. There’s even a game of croquet set up on the manicured lawn. It’s a peaceful little oasis looking out over the city and a great place to sit and reflect on the past week’s adventures.