In the year 2000, my best friend’s father spent a month hanging out with the famous former headhunters of Borneo. His memoirs, Espresso with the Headhunters, become a best-seller and stole my imagination. Since the day I read it I always dreamt of visiting Borneo myself. Late last year, the planets collided and I finally made it to Sabah, one of the two Malaysian states in northern Borneo. The trip was amazing and blew my mind. There was so much to see, so much to do, the people were super friendly and the nature – rainforests, mountains, beaches, islands – was out of this world. And while it may not be as cheap as a trip to Bali, there were some great deals to be had. Here are my top three.
Words and images by Ian Neubauer
No trip to Borneo is complete without seeing the island’s most iconic animal: the orangutan. Going back 50 years, these primates were found right across east Asia. But widespread habitat destruction has vastly reduced the orangutans’ natural habitat and food source.
Borneo is home to the world’s largest surviving orangutan population thanks, in part, to the the Rasa Ria Rescue Centre. A 64-acre wildlife sanctuary set on the grounds of the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort 30km north of the capital Kota Kinabalu, it provides sanctuary and veterinary care for orphaned baby orangutans.
The centre’s rangers lead guided walks into the sanctuary twice a day, where you can see baby orangutans feed, swing around a rope course and leap from tree to tree. The rangers will also tell you all kinds of interesting things about orangutans, like the fact they spend most of their day collecting forest debris to build nests to sleep in each night, and that they’re so smart they layer the insides of their nests with certain kinds of leaves that repel mosquitoes.Click to view slideshow.
“As a Malaysian, it gives me a great sense of pride to see the government is doing everything it can to ensure the survival of this species,” says the Shangri-La’s Jeremy Kabin Chong. “If no action were taken, the orangutan would have all been gone by now, and that would be a very sad thing.”
Route Of Steel
Climbing to the top of Mount Kinabalu, which at 4,095m is not only the tallest mountain in Borneo but the tallest in Southeast Asia, is another must-do activity in Borneo. The two-day mission combines a five-hour, six-kilometre uphill slog though wet lowland rainforest, a night spent at a guesthouse at Laban Rata base camp, and a 2am wake-up call for the final and torturous three-hour, 2.8-kilometre climb to the summit for sunrise.
There’s no discounting the experience of seeing the sunrise over the Crocker Range and the view all the way down to Kota Kinabalu. I did it and it was great. But it pales in comparison to a supplementary activity only a few people do on the way down.
It’s called Via Ferrata – Italian for ‘route of steel’. A downwards version of a mountaineering discipline called lead climbing, it sees participants crawl down the face of what would normally be considered suicidally-steep rock faces with the aid of steel foot pegs and handrails anchored into the rock at strategic positions. Two forms of safety are provided: a harness with large carabiners tested to bear the falling weight of up to 2.5 tonnes, and a dynamic rope tested to 1.5 tonnes.
The Via Ferrata course at Mount Kinabalu is the only one of its kind outside of Europe, and the highest course in the world. The first few steps require a leap of faith as one crawls backwards (it’s better not to look down at first) down a 70-degree cliff that drops nearly four kilometres to a forested valley below. The fastest way to lose your fear, our guide Leo tells us, is simply to let go – not metaphorically – but from the handrails and foot-pegs and to feel the strength of the harness and dynamic rope supporting you. I do as Leo bids, winching myself away from the wall bit by bit until I’m dangling at 90 degrees with only a foot on the wall. It is, like Leo says, incredibly liberating and turns me into an instant Via Ferrata junkie.
Flatbed For Peanuts
I’ve never flown anything but economy. So when I received an email from AirAsia offering an upgrade to the airline’s ‘premium-economy’ class with flatbed on my way home to Australia from Borneo – for only 25 percent of the regular rate, around $130 – I jumped at it.
The premium-economy experience started at the domestic airport at Kota Kinabalu, where instead of standing in line with all the poor saps flying regular economy, I strutted along a real, albeit worn out and mangy, roll of red carpet to the to the Priority Check In counter. The upgrade, the lady at the counter explained, was not valid on the two-hour domestic flight connecting me to Kuala Lumpur, but on the lengthier, eight-hour, overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney.
The priority boarding at Kuala Lumpur never happened; it was the same mad ‘the Titanic is sinking’ scramble from the gate across the tarmac to the awaiting plane that is so common in Asia. The flatbed, however, was total bliss. Much like a dentist’s chair, it reclines back to a 77-degree pitch and allowed me to get a proper night’s sleep. I arrived back home feeling awake and refreshed and I didn’t lose a day recovering from the flight.
Air-Asia Premium Economy isn’t to be confused with first or business classes. There’s no champagne, no lobster on the menu and no internet connectivity. But it lets you sleep through the boring ordeal of long-haul travel and hit the ground running. And when purchased for a quarter of the regular price, it’s the best deal in Borneo.