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The peak of Mount Kinabalu, in Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. Photo: Alamy

Sabah: the good, bad and ugly sides to the Malaysian state on the island of Borneo

  • Whether it’s snorkelling in translucent turquoise waters or hiking to the summit of Mount Kinabalu, Sabah has something for everyone
  • There are troubles in paradise, though, including deforestation and the risk of getting kidnapped by militants

The good

Borneo is enormous – 672 Hong Kongs would fit into the world’s third largest island – and is occupied by Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. The latter nation’s Sabah state accounts for a modest 10 per cent of the land mass but punches above its weight in tourist terms. The modern city of Kota Kinabalu serves as a gateway to ancient rainforest where ginger-haired orangutans swing through the tree tops; the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea soars skywards here; and divers discover an underwater treasure trove once described by celebrated ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau as an untouched piece of art.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is a capti­vating place to begin a tour of the Land Below the Wind, as Sabah is known. The facility cares for young apes orphaned as a result of logging or that have been illegally caught and kept as pets. Visitors get to attend feeding sessions and watch as the “people of the forest” are taught the skills they’ll need to survive in the wild.

If you’d rather see orangutans and other animals in their natural habitat, consider a Kinabatangan River cruise. The dense rainforest canopy might hinder your ability to spot endangered pro­boscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, crocodiles and pythons but eagle-eyed guides know what they’re looking for.

The waters off Borneo. Photo: Alamy

According to a study by National Geographic, 10 sq km of Borneo rainforest supports a greater variety of flora and fauna than North America and Europe combined but conditions beneath the waves are equally biodiverse. Sipadan Island lies at the centre of the Coral Triangle, one of the world’s most extensive reef systems.

To limit human impact on the fragile environment, only 176 diving permits are issued per day. For those who prefer to swim and snorkel in translucent turquoise waters, the five islands that make up Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park are just 20 minutes by boat from Kota Kinabalu.

Not everyone wants to lounge on a beach, however; conquering Mount Kinabalu involves an arduous two-day climb. The reward for a successful ascent of Southeast Asia’s highest peak – besides the outrageously stunning sunrise – is a soothing dip at Poring hot springs.

Nostalgia buffs shouldn’t miss a ride on the North Borneo Steam Railway. The service runs from Kota Kinabalu to the agricultural town of Papar. Refurbished colonial-style carriages provide a blast from Malaysia’s British past. The train clickety-clacks along tracks built in 1896, beside paddy fields and palm oil plantations, stopping at sleepy villages and coastal towns.

Talking of palm oil, Sabah produces more than 7 per cent of the world’s supply and after decades of indiscri­minate logging, awareness-raising campaigns have resulted in numerous multinational corporations committing to zero-deforestation pledges. Aerial surveys and satellite imagery show clearance rates are slowing. According to the Centre for International Forestry Research, natural forest loss decreased from 6,100 sq km in 2016 to 2,500 sq km a year later.

The bad

Land is cleared to make way for an oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Photo: Alamy

While any decline in logging should be seen as positive, it’s worth noting that 2,500 sq km represents an area more than twice the size of Hong Kong. Greenwashing and a lack of transparency have hindered real change and “zero-deforestation” has become a meaningless corporate mantra.

Traceability, or pinpointing exactly where each batch of palm oil comes from, is still a stumbling block for the industry, parti­cu­larly as a significant proportion of oil palm trees are grown on small plantations in remote locations where regulatory compli­ance is minimal and law enforcement weak.

The vanishing habitat for orangutans has been extensively documented and countless column inches devoted to the huge demand for the shaggy-haired primates as pets. Significantly less media coverage has focused on how the stripping of Borneo’s ancient forest has affected other animals, such as sun bears, clouded leopards, gibbons and proboscis monkeys.

Scientists unlock secret of Malaysia’s proboscis monkeys

Nor should the impact on impoverished humans be overlooked. Non-governmental organisations claim migrant workers from neighbouring countries are rarely issued with residence permits and are denied written contracts. There have been instances of foreign labourers being paid less than the agreed wage and threatened with imprisonment and deportation.

On the subject of migrants, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park needs to clean up its act if TripAdvisor reviews are anything to go by. (“Unfortunately the beach is filthy, with lots of rubbish strewn all over. The water is murky, and no coral in sight. Toilets and changing rooms have a putrid stench. A terrible shame.”)

Much of the garbage comes from a squatter community of about 6,000 Filipino migrants who live in illegal stilt houses on Gaya Island, where there are no waste disposal facilities. With little regard for sanitation, debris routinely ends up drifting out to sea and onto nearby beaches.

Filipino immigrants at a settlement on Gaya Island. Photo: AFP

Thoughtlessly discarded rubbish isn’t the only issue divers face, however. When Sipadan upped the number of diving permits from 120 to 176 recently, conserva­tion groups claimed the increase could cause irreversible damage to the reef system. In response, authorities have agreed to close the island each December, starting next year. Don’t make plans to visit when it reopens, though – heavy rainfall reduces visibility between January and March.

Murky waters are one thing; being kidnapped is another matter entirely. In 2000, militant group Abu Sayyaf gunmen seized 21 hostages on Sipadan Island and kidnappings in the area have continued sporadically ever since. The Hong Kong Security Bureau currently warns against “all non-essential travel to the coastal regions of eastern Sabah due to the unpredictable security situation” (now there’s a phrase with a familiar ring to it).

To escape Sabah’s relentless heat and humidity, set your sights high – 4,095 metres high to be precise. An assault on Mount Kinabalu is challenging – be prepared for torrential rain, strong winds and sub-zero temperatures, not to mention steep slippery paths and bouts of altitude sickness.

In 2015, an earthquake led to the deaths of 18 climbers, including a school group from Singapore. A week earlier, 10 Canadian, Dutch and German nationals had stripped and posed naked on the sacred mountain. Commenting on the actions of the tourists and the subsequent quake, the deputy chief minister of Sabah was quoted as saying, “There is almost certainly a connection. We have to take this as a reminder that local beliefs and customs are not to be disrespected.

The ugly

A crocodile is released into the Kinabatangan River with a satellite tag in a bid to find out why crocodile attacks have increased. Photo: AFP

Keep your eyes peeled during a Kinabatangan River cruise. In March this year a man and killed by a crocodile that jumped out of the water and grabbed him by his right shoulder. A body was found a day later minus a leg and a hand.