Life in the beautiful region of Sapulot is relaxed and uncomplicated, and the communities who live here want to keep it that way. They are inviting visitors to this remote part of Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, to show them the Murut way of life. Ros Walford went to find out why their homeland is worth protecting.
I’m floating on my back in clear water beneath a gentle waterfall. Above me, the jungle canopy reaches out to close the gap through which I can see an intense blue sky. The air here is cool, a relief from the scorching tropical sun, and I’m lulled by the distant chatter of birdsong.
Time seems to slow down. “This is the life”, I think to myself, somewhat envious of my hosts who regularly come to this waterfall to bathe.
In Sabah’s remote Sapulot region, people live a simple life – farming, hunting, building and fishing, and enjoying the natural wonders on their doorstep. But this peaceful lifestyle is under threat, as the lure of big bucks sees illegal logging destroying primary rainforest all over Borneo.
The Gunting family – descendants of the Murut headhunting tribe – have no intention of letting this happen in Sapulot. They have set up a community project to encourage the villagers to grow sustainable crops instead of developing environmentally damaging palm-oil plantations, and are embarking on small-scale tourism in the hope that local people will understand the value of preserving the landscape.
And that’s why I’ve come here, to explore the natural wonders of this little-visited region on a family-run tour, and to experience a bit of the good life for myself.
The astonishing highlight of the Sapulot region is a jagged pinnacle of rock called Batu Punggul. This mysterious outcrop is a geological misfit and a source of local legend: accordingly to a Murut folk-tale, it is said to have been a longhouse that was turned to stone.
The rock is protected from overdevelopment primarily by its remote location. To get here, you have to head deep into Borneo, close to the Indonesian border, travelling first in a 4X4 car along broken dirt tracks, then switching to a longboat for the final leg of the journey. As the boat glides along the river the mighty pinnacle comes into view, a lone karst rising up above the canopy. This 300-metre-high tower of limestone is the beast we’re about to ascend – with neither ropes nor harnesses...
After trekking upward through the rainforest, we reach the base of the rock. An older guide ascends first. He knows every crag, and points out natural footholds to people scrambling behind. A few metres up, you have to defy the desire to look down – it’s a sheer drop down a wall of razor-sharp limestone needles.
The top is a narrow peak, and when we finally get there we sit on a ledge to take in the astonishing view: primary rainforest stretches out in all directions with no sign of modern life. It’s a tragic thought: this jungle cleared by loggers. Fortunately, it is just a thought as the area around Batu Punggul has been designated a protected area – thanks, in part, to the lobbying efforts of the Gunting family.
The return journey downriver is magical: we swim and float all the way back – a distance of almost a mile. It's just us, the lazy river and the Bornean jungle – and it’s easy to see why Batu Punggul is such a special place for the Murut people.
Sapulot has natural wonders below the surface, too. Tinahas Cave is a treasure trove of geological artwork and subterranean species. It’s also a haven for swiftlets, whose nests, constructed using their own saliva, are the desirable ingredient of birds’ nest soup. This dish is believed to be an aphrodisiac in many Asian countries, where the nests fetch well over $1000 per kilo on the black market.
Tinahas is a target for thieves so the Gunting family uses caving tours as an opportunity to check on the swiftlets’ nests. We set off into a tunnel that leads deep underground. Wearing rubber kampong (village) shoes, we wade through ankle-deep water and watch out for huge huntsman spiders and long-legged centipedes.
Soon we come across an amazing sight: thousands of bats are swirling around a high-roofed cavern in a cacophony of flapping wings and shrieks like chattering humans.
Deeper underground, the cave system opens out to a huge cathedral of stalagmites and stalactites – sleek rock formations glowing in the dim torchlight.
Here, perched on a ledge, there’s a small nest containing a single white swiftlet egg. Jaubi, the youngest guide, disappears into the blackness to check on the other nests.
The trip ends at the Gunting family longhouse. It’s in an idyllic spot, with a pristine lawn, a treehouse, and a view over the farm to the rainforest beyond. This is the communal home of Richard Gunting and his extended family, where life seems to roll on in rural bliss. Richard’s eldest son Virgil shows us the modest farm, where they use sustainable growing methods such as interspersing mutually beneficial crops. They aim to show the neighbouring villagers that by keeping production small-scale – and not selling off their land for palm-oil production – they can grow enough to feed themselves and make sufficient profit to maintain their way of life.
The richness of Murut culture is displayed with a traditional welcome. First, a Henry-VIII-style feast. In this culture, guests eat first, followed by the eldest to the youngest member of the family. We tuck into sophisticated dishes, such as wild boar and deer (hunted by Richard himself), mirror fish with chilli and garlic, jungle ferns, banana flowers and rice.
After dinner, the rice wine is brought out and a drinking game begins. A large ceramic pot filled with rice and wine is brought out, and we take turns drinking through a bamboo straw until the wine level has dropped by two notches on a carved marker stick. It’s a rich spirit that goes straight to the head but is made more palatable by chewing a slice of wild boar meat.
There’s more entertainment to come: a band start playing a mesmerizing rhythm on gongs and out come the children dressed in their finest beaded sarongs and warrior costumes. They perform a shuffle-dance with elegant hand movements followed by a dance that involves stepping between ever-faster-moving bamboo poles.
As I reflect on my way back to the city the following day, I hope the Murut’s laidback lifestyle will carry on here unchanged. And I wish I could take some of the good life home with me.
For more information on trips to Orou Sapulot and other adventures in Sabah contact Sticky Rice Travel. Explore more of Malaysia with the Rough Guide to Malaysia. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.
Top image © Eva Mont/Shutterstock