Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo offers yachtsmen the perfect jumping-off point to explore primaeval coastlines and waterways.
Many have heard myths of Borneo, a faraway island rich in misty jungles filled with ancient trees and weird and wonderful animals. The word itself conjures up images of head hunters, explorers and mysticism all on a parchment map. However, as the world’s third largest island and located in the heart of Southeast Asia, it is remains a wonderous destination, with an uncluttered paradise waiting to be rediscovered.
Borneo offers a glimpse of amazing bio-diversity – comparing a temperate forest to a Borneo rainforest is like comparing a painting with 20 colours to one with 2000. The island has the world’s oldest rainforest, many of the rarest and most endangered species of flora and fauna, extraordinary river systems, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, over fifty ethnic tribes, and surrounding coastline waters bursting with stunning tropical islands and several of the most dazzling diving spots on Earth. Very few places on Earth offer so much to a visitor.
Three countries are represented on the island of Borneo; Malaysia to the north, Indonesia to the south and the Sultanate of Brunei in the middle. While each country’s territory has its own charms, the Malaysian state of Sabah, known as the Land Below the Wind for being south of the typhoon belt, is emerging as a new cruising haven, drawing sailing boats and superyachts from every corner of the globe. Covering the northern-most point on Borneo and featuring amazing coastlines on the eastern and western shores of Borneo, Sabah provides perfect cruising grounds coupled with extraordinary sights and adventures for an amazing journey. Kota Kinabalu, the capital, is an ideal hub to explore the interior of Sabah, as well as the coast and outlying islands.
Captured in KK
During the colonial era, Sabah was under the control of the British North Borneo Company, whose young bucks were drawn to these shores in search of riches in the form of timber, spices, coffee and rubber. It is because of the company that the 36 ethnic tribes came in contact with the outside world. It is still possible to experience the rich cultural heritage of the many tribes of Sabah, which blend with the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities.
This diversity has resulted in a multi-cultural culinary delight. In Sabah, seafood in all forms is the focus and mainstay of any diet. With three major fishing ports and waters teaming with an amazing array of species, freshly prepared seafood is everywhere. In Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah and affectionately known to locals as KK, there is a huge array of dining options waiting to be discovered, whether at one of the many seafood restaurants, a Kedai Kopi (coffee shop), or some of the market stalls and hawker centres. A visit wouldn’t be complete without a Roti Canai for breakfast, curry laksa for lunch and black pepper crabs and king prawns for dinner.
Kota Kinabalu is not the most architecturally-inspired city in the world, but it has emerged from its frontier ways to become a growing metropolis, with shops to explore and plenty of things to do to keep you busy. There are several 5-star resorts in and around the capital, as well as seven world-class golf courses in the vicinity, one sporting night golf for those who want to avoid the heat of the afternoon sun while on the greens. Aside from the hundreds of restaurants, there is also a burgeoning nightlife, with hotspots like the Waterfront, @mosphere’s 18th floor revolving @Bar and Shenanigans making everyone’s hit list at night. But to get the most out of your journey, venture offshore.
Just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, there are several stunning islands that beckon to sailors and yachtsmen. The Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, made up of the five islands of Gaya, Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug, can be reached from many of the five-star hotels, as well as from the town jetty by speedboat. Police Bay, on the north side of Gaya Island, is an excellent secluded spot, out of view from the city. There, among the steep jungle slopes and shores, you will see families of monkeys, wild boar and giant monitor lizards roaming the beach in the early morning or late afternoon. There are several good diving spots that can only be reached by yacht. If you want to avoid some of the more popular tourist beaches on the island, you can find seclusion at anchor in one of the many private coves.
If you’re a fan of the TV show Survivor, you might already be familiar with the island of Pulau Tiga, southwest of Kota Kinabalu – it was the original site for the first series. Pulau Tiga has two small resorts and a small jetty. The island formed just recently in the late 1800’s, and has an interesting mud volcano at its centre, reflective of the harmless thermal activity of the region. No trip here would be complete without a good roll-around in the mud, which must be the most traditional and unique local spa treatment available around. The beaches on Pulau Tiga are a lovely place to set up a BBQ or simply relax, either on the main island or on its adjacent sand-spit that is situated off the northern tip. On Pulau Tiga, you can do far more than just survive. You can really live.
The entire coastline of Sabah provides stunning cruising for days or weeks. Near the northern most reaches of Borneo, the island group of Mantanani is a tropical haven, with private white-sand beaches and surrounding reefs. There is a small island community on Mantanani Besar, where the villagers are extremely friendly and are usually up for a spontaneous pick-up football match. They can also point out the best diving and snorkelling spots, let you know if there have been any recent sightings of dugongs (sea cows), or help you pick a coconut from the hundreds of trees that line the beaches. In the evenings, thousands of frigate birds circle overhead – a beautiful sight. The smaller island is a national bird sanctuary set-up to protect these glorious birds. Early risers will be welcomed by a stunning view of Mount Kinabalu, which towers over the mainland and hills to the east.
A new Riviera
Just south of the northern tip of Borneo lies the idyllic Kudat Riviera, a six-kilometre stretch of coastline that is home to a world-class, low-impact resort, with beautiful beaches and excellent anchorage coves, as well as coconut plantations, valleys, rice paddies and hills that are worth a visit. The resort is a collection of 29 luxurious villas estates, each with its own private garden, an infinity pool and even a private butler. The Kudat Riviera is a gem and a great starting point for adventures in Borneo’s interior. Check out the view from the top of the hill overlooking the resort at the Caviar Sky Lounge, a decadent experience enjoyed with a bottle of Tattinger or two.
Sempang Megayau, four miles to the north along the coastline, features a dramatic cliff-lined area marking the Tip of Borneo. It is along spectacular coastlines such as this, often very difficult to reach by land, that yachting really comes into its own.
Kudat is home to the Rungus people of Sabah, famous for their weaving, bead-work and gong making. There is even a Rungus longhouse – the traditional communal home of the tribe – on one of beaches at the Kudat Riviera, as well as several nearby villages. These offer a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of Sabah.
Even more secluded, tropical paradise awaits, just 20 nautical miles offshore from the Kudat Riviera. There, the Maliangin Sanctuary Islands, near Pulau Bangi, offer the world’s best diving, snorkelling and coral exploration. The islands feature plenty of white sandy beaches fringed with native coconut and banana trees – island hopping just doesn’t get much better than this. There are excellent wreck-diving and wall-diving spots in the area, and a guide can be hired at the Kudat Riviera to help explorers get the most out of these rarely-seen places. Fishing is also extremely plentiful in this area, especially during the tuna migration season. If you are spoiling yourself at the resort, bring the fish back to your villa for your butler to cook on your barbeque!
No first-time visit to Sabah would be complete without a visit to Mount Kinabalu, which can be reached either from Kudat or KK. At 4,095-metres, it is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, and dominates the Sabah landscape. There is a local, deep-seated belief that the mountain is a resting place of souls.
Visitors can choose to tackle the mountain in a rigorous ascent, or simply enjoy the lovely cool temperatures and scenery along many of the easy hikes that dot its lower slopes. The mountain, the first to attain World Heritage status in Malaysia, is home to some of the rarest orchids and pitcher plants in the world, a few examples of the extraordinary biodiversity found on this peak. If you opt for the summit, try adding an extra, adrenalin-filled challenge: the via ferrata, the highest system of rungs, rails and cables in the world.
The vastness of Borneo’s jungles let trekkers experience Mother Nature in her full glory. The island’s rainforests are the oldest and most revered in the world, and draw visitors with mists in the trees that create an ethereal world both mysterious and awe-inspiring. There is a veritable orchestra of sounds – chirps and clicks, tonk-tonks and the constant droning of the cicadas – that form an endless and unforgettable cacophony.
Thankfully, Sabah offers plenty of pristine jungle to explore, and has also done much to preserve its natural heritage. Danum Valley, a major wildlife conservation area in Sabah’s east, can even be reached by helicopter for those wanting the experience but not the wait.
It is in places like the Danum Valley, in the heart of the jungle, that you experience one of the last refuges for some of the most extraordinary animals on the planet. Sun bears, clouded leopards, pygmy elephants, rhinos, macaques, slow loris and the orangutan find their home among the 400-year old trees that tower through the clouds in grandeur.
The jungle is alive and well, though outside of the conservation areas the threat is great. Palm and timber plantations threaten crucial wildlife corridors, and while the government and NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund have placed a tremendous focus on the conservation of this critically bio-diverse region, years of damage has been done and the clock ticks in a race against time. Tourism and awareness are the critical salvation to ensure that priority remains focused on what is important here in the heart of Borneo.
Yachting on a jungle river
On your must-do list, Sukau, a tiny stop on the Kinabatangan River, whose mouth ends on Borneo’s northeastern shores, deserves at least one night of your itinerary. On a few occasions, superyachts have actually made the inspiring journey up the river – probably one of the most memorable passages in the world.
This amazing river is home to a burgeoning mangrove eco-system. There are jungle lodges along the main river section, though be prepared to brace yourself for rustic living, as, while clean and comfortable, none of the accommodation is up to a five-star standard yet. A late afternoon boat trip will guarantee you extraordinary face-to-face encounters with the other big primate of Borneo – the proboscis monkey. Troops of proboscis dominate the banks of the river, swinging madly from tree to tree. Though highly endangered, the proboscis in the Sukau area seem to be thriving and certainly put on an unforgettable show for visitors.
The Kinabatangan offers a wide variety of species-spotting. Along with the big-nosed Proboscis, long, short and pig-tailed macaques dominate the trees to the great irritation of the more docile and introverted orang-utans. Clouded leopards, civet cats, boar and Borneo pygmy elephants may also make their way to the riverbank for a drink. Keep an eye out on your river journey though – crocodiles roam the river and the occasional snake might drop from the lush canopy above!
There are hundreds of destinations in the world that provide great and memorable experiences. But for those seeking new discoveries, few places can rival Sabah state in Borneo.