The island of Borneo - which is divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei - is home to some of the world's best diving sites, along with a huge variety of plants, birds and mammals, some unique to the country. Yet it is also the land of the super-logger and oil-palm plantations that are eradicating the island's natural forests. Ecotourism is one of few economic activities that can make a convincing case for protecting these habitats while supporting indigenous communities. The following five experiences get under the skin of Borneo and demonstrate that its superb natural assets are worth more alive than felled.
Sabah’s Rafflesia Forest Reserve exists to protect the rafflesia – the world’s largest flower. The quest to find this rare plant begins in Kota Kinabalu, where you can take a bus upwards of 1500m through thick pockets of Bornean mist to the Tambunan waterfall. Then the trail leads into the forest; scrambling through the trees, stepping round enormous buttresses and over fallen logs you come to a clearing, and there it is, lying on the ground in splendid isolation: the unmistakable blood red bloom, spotted with white markings – a lone and beautiful rafflesia.
Take the bus from Kota Kinabalu to The Rafflesia Information Centre at Tambunan (about 1hr). For more information about visiting the centre and guided tours see www.sabahtourism.com.
When you see a turtle hatchling take its first steps towards the sea it becomes instantly clear what conservation is all about. You can witness this remarkable sight at the Turtle Islands National Park, which is made up of three small islands (Selingan, Bakkungan Kecil and Gulisan) in the Sulu Sea off the east coast of Sabah. Visitors may only stay on Selingan (numbers are limited to 38 per night divided between three chalets) though you can visit the two other islands during the day. At night, a ranger will take you to watch green turtles nesting on the beach and in the morning you’ll get the privileged chance to see their young being released into the sea.
The egg-laying season for turtles is between July and October. For entrance fees see www.sabahparks.org.my.
Ecotourism is a much-bandied term in Borneo, but this place fits the bill perfectly. Stay with a local host family in one of four villages in Batu Puteh Community, located in the wetlands of Lower Kinabatangan. You’ll go on river cruises and hikes into the jungle with naturalist guides, where you might come across gibbons, lemurs, tarsiers, some of the two hundred bird species or perhaps the bizarre-looking proboscis monkey, with its long, protruding nose and large belly.
Batu Puteh is 1.5hr by road from Sandakan or 5hr from Kota Kinabalu. For prices and reservations see www.misowalaihomestay.com.
Beyond the towns and cities, the majority of the population of Sarawak lead a traditional life that revolves around the longhouse (a communal wooden house on stilts) and the river. There are several disingenuous showcase village tours, but for a more authentic experience head for the Nanga Sumpa longhouse – located a two-hour longtail-boat ride from the Batan Ai jetty on the Ulu Ai River. For the last twenty years, Kuching-based Borneo Adventure has developed tours with the owners of the longhouse, home to about thirty Iban families who provide guests with river transportation, local guides and cooks. Based at a nearby jungle lodge, you’ll go fishing with the Iban, hike through jungle trails to waterfalls and visit the longhouse for an insight into today’s rural Iban lifestyle.
Three-day trips depart from Kuching. For prices and reservations see www.borneoadventure.com.
One orang-utan has the strength of seven men. To see these rare creatures in the wild (from a respectable distance) go to the lowland rainforest of the Tanjung Putin National Park in Kalimantan, home to one of the largest buffooneries of orang-utans in the world. Stay at Rimba Lodge, a simple and comfortable 35-room lodge by the Sekonyer River, from where you can hire guides and walk into the park…cautiously.
For details about visiting the park either on your own or as part of a tour group, as well as information about volunteering with the Orangutan Foundation, see www.orangutan.org.uk.
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