It’s been a busy but spectacular past couple of weeks for us at Romance HQ. As you may have seen, we’ve been exploring the beautiful Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo. Because we’ve got so much to show you from our trip to the Land Below the Winds, we haven’t included the usual Travel Recap section in this week’s IG Edition.
So sit back and enjoy as we take you on a journey from populous city to green mangrove regions, from virgin rainforests to the pristine waters of the Celebes Sea.
We start our journey to Borneo – after a relatively easy flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital city – with a look round our hotel.
The Le Meridien Kota Kinabalu is perfectly located for exploring Kota Kinabalu – or KK as everyone calls it. Plus it’s got this beautiful rooftop pool and bar facing west. The sunsets here at KK are known for their beauty and tonight looks like it’s going to make good on that promise!
Just across the street from our hotel is the waterfront markets. These are local markets selling mostly food – though there is a part of it that also sells locally made handicrafts too. Of course, we’re more interested in the food and the people it draws in.
I have no idea how this guy is basting the grill in this head, but it’s all for a good cause. Not only does it make the food taste amazing, it also brings the locals in for their dinner just after nightfall.
You can’t get much fresher than this. The waterfront market sells the fish it buys from fishermen that pull up out front to the kitchens further back in the market who then cook it all up. The fish here is amazing as are the (terrifyingly big) prawns.
We just wish we had longer here to really sink our teeth into the the place – literally and figuratively!
Today, we’re checking out how to make traditional batik art. There’s a programme run by College Yayasan Sabah to give local disenfranchised youth a chance to learn a trade that’s still in keeping with their customs but that will also give them business skills to survive.
These batiks are incredibly hard to make though these young artists make it look so easy. You start with a metal stylus of hot bee’s wax and draw in the lines of your design. You then use ink and water to colour in. The wax stops the colours from blending and the water creates amazing depth.
These students, who are studying under a local master craftsman, have 6 months to learn the trade. If they pass, they then go on to an ‘incubation period’ where they learn things like basic accounting, business management and marketing. They’re then kept on retainer for a further 6 months before passing the course with a recognised qualification.
It’s an amazing initiative and a rare glimpse of a government project working well for indigenous cultures. Visitors can come here and learn about batiks, try their hand at it and also buy some of the locally made handicrafts in the shop above.
This is in a building adjacent to the oddly shaped Tun Mustapha Tower 20 minutes north of KK.
One of those rare moments you capture that really tells of what the people in KK are like.
Today, we’re at the Kota Kinabalu Wetlands. The 1.5kms of boardwalks through the mangroves shows an important ecosystem that’s been ignored for far too long.
The NGO Sabah Wetlands Conservation Society has done some great work turning this from a somewhat forgotten bird sanctuary to a place of conservation, training, tourism and research. There is a small fee to enter (about AUD$5), but it’s a rare chance to see a thriving ecosystem in the heart of Sabah’s capital.
This morning, we’re up on the water visiting Gaya Island just off the coast of KK. This is the biggest island on this side of Sabah, so it makes sense that ‘gaya’ means ‘big’ in the local tribe’s language.
It also means ‘proud beauty’, which I think also fits well. This island, which is home to three resorts, also has its own miniature rainforest on it. This photo is from the one of the main jetties of Gaya Island Resort, who also has resident naturalist and conservationist Justin Juhun working here.
The work Justin is doing to restore essential elements to the island, like its mangroves, is fascinating. We’re lucky enough to have a quick trek through the rainforest with Justin on tracks he himself has formed. It’s beautiful, mysterious and really eye-opening how much nature there is here – even on this tiny piece of land.
The grounds of Gaya Island Resort are stunning. We wish we could stay here longer, but even a day trip here has shown us what the rest of Sabah has to offer.
One of the services they offer here at Gaya Island Resort is a private picnic lunch on the beach round the corner. It’s a pretty special thing to do – though you have to keep an eye on your food. The cheeky resident bearded pig Bacchus and his simian mates will do their best to steal your food.
Bacchus you can easily chase away, but the long-tailed macaques are far less bothered, so be warned!
This beach is accessible by a 45-minute hike along one of Justin’s tracks through the jungle… or a quick (free) boat tender from the main resort.
Our ride back to the mainland is brightened up by this beautiful sunset over Gaya Island. You can see how much forest is on this 1400 hectare island just 10 minutes from the busting streets of KK.
And we’re up in the air again. This time we’re heading for the world-renowned Danum Valley. Even KK locals are impressed when we tell them where we’re going. We can’t wait to get there and experience some of the most important jungle in the world and one of the last natural habitats of the wild orang-utan.
After a 2-hour bumping drive along unsealed roads into the forest, we’re finally here. This beautiful tree marks the start of the true primary forest, untouched and growing for 150 million years. Look at the size of this monster!
Danum Valley is a conservation area the Malaysian government has agreed to allow visitors into. It’s still hard to visit though; permissions are run by the Borneo Rainforest Lodge and Borneo Nature Tours. You have to be staying at the Lodge to come here as they no longer allow day-trippers.
For the price of your stay, you get more than just a room. Your entrance fee to park, your own guide, all meals and transfers in and out of the park are included. And believe me, you’ll need and thoroughly enjoy all of these things!
Danum Valley and the area you can explore is only about 15 hectares of over 1,000,000 hectares of protected jungle. You only get an idea of how much there is to learn about this magical place when you’ve spent a day trekking through this amazing environment.
This troupe of redleaf monkeys are more than happy for us to watch them only a few metres down the road from our room in the lodge. There’s just wildlife everywhere here!
One of the most popular parts of Danum Valley is the canopy walk. This network of bridges spans enormous trees and gives you amazing views of the forest from up to 30m up. To give you some scale, can you see our guide Paul behind me?
Deep into the jungle we go along some of the most beautiful walking tracks. All the way we’re surrounded by these spectacular trees.
Looking down from the highest point of the treetop walk, you realise how thick the rainforest is. You can’t even see the ground for most of the way. That’s Paul you can see down there on the lower path.
The plants here in the Borneo jungle are amazing. This is elephant ear plant grows leaves so big you could easily shelter under them.
We’re lucky to spot this guy as we’re driving out of the jungle. This is a pig-tailed macaque, and he’s quite the poser!
Some jungle essentials I thought I’d share with you – apart from leech socks, hiking boots and plenty of water, don’t forget your passport, Olympus OM-D E-M5 mark II camera with 12-40 zoom lens, iPhone 6, good binoculars and Jord wooden watch!
I call this my jungle chic collection!
Our room at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge is surprisingly luxurious. We’re in one of the newest villas – one of only three they’ve been allowed to develop on the land here. What a good job they’ve done. The other rooms are perfectly comfortable, but if you’re here, you might as well get the best room!
Danum Valley is a popular honeymoon destination and it’s clear why: so much natural beauty delivered so well. The guides and hospitality staff here are superb. And for a little extra, you can also have a private lunch right on the banks of the beautiful Danum River that flows round the property and on through the jungle.
The food here is also top draw.
It’s our last morning here in Danum Valley and the lodge has pulled out its last stop for us: this private breakfast with our guide and now good friend Paul. We’re really not looking forward to leaving the jungle – something I never thought I’d say. But this really is an incredible part of the world and somewhere I wish everyone could see at least once.
Just being here has made Mrs Romance and I both so much more aware of the environment and what the world probably looked like for millions of years before we came along and cocked it all up.
Having said that, the level of luxury available here at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge shows that you don’t necessarily have to compromise comfort for thinking green! Yes, this is our own private infinity plunge pool overlooking some of the most important rainforest in the world.
See luxury and environmentalism all in one!
By the way, yes we did see orang utans while we were here, but we didn’t get any good photos of them. But that’s ok – the memory of seeing these beautiful animals in the wild – happy in their own habitat without risk of attack or deforestation – will stay with us a long time.
It’s a long drive from the forest all the way to the see but finally we’re here: from the port town of Semporna on a high-speed boat transfer 45 minutes into the Cebeles Sea to Mataking Island.
Yes, this is the water we see as we pull up to the jetty, and no, we can’t believe it either!
Mataking is an interesting island. It only has the one resort on it – the aptly named Mataking Island Resort. The villa we’re in is on the eastern side of the island, which is about as far away from the main resort as you can get. If it’s romance and peace you want, these are the rooms you should go for. Closer to the resort isn’t as nice, the rooms aren’t as new (ours was built in Feb 2016) and there’s more noise.
The resort seems to have been built primarily for diving enthusiasts – the superb snorkelling just off the beach is certainly testament to that – and more recently there seems to be a focus on families and groups of friends. The main bar in the evening becomes a karaoke hotspot and there are plenty of kids running about, which makes this a good spot for family holidays.
On the northern tip of Mataking Island is this little sand bar that emerges at low tide to connect the tiny tree-covered island in the distance. It’s such a beautiful spot. Oddly, the water on the right is really quite hot while the water on the left is cool and refreshing. The fish seem to prefer the cooler water – and I don’t blame them.
The groups of snorkelers congregating near the sand bar behind me tells us there’s definitely plenty to see beneath the waves here.
Before the karaoke starts up, we find a quiet table to perch on and grab an ice cold beer. There is plenty of opportunity for romance on Mataking – you do have to get your timing right though. And if you’re not into diving, you might get a little bored here even though the snorkelling is that good and the water hurts your brain it’s that beautiful to look at.
Well, this is the end of our IG Edition for this week, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the coverage from our trip – not by a long shot. The most beautiful and romantic spot we went to is still yet to come, so make sure you’re following along on Instagram… or you can just hang on till next Monday for our IG Edition.
And if you don’t trust yourself to remember, I’ve got an even better option for you. By subscribing to our newsletter, I email you every week with a summary of what we’ve been talking about over the last 7 days.
So next week we’ll have the concluding part of our trip to Borneo and you’ll see the return of our popular Travel Recap section too.
Hope you have a great week and we’ll see you again soon.