Nearly two decades ago I spent four years in Borneo, immersing myself in its multicultural diversity. Family and friends visited to join me in experiencing the pristine jungle and offshore islands, and two of my children – Tara, now 16, and Cameron, 15 – were born there. Not surprisingly, I have fond memories of the place – but how do they compare with the Borneo of today? With my teenagers ripe for an adventure, and as eager as me to return, the time felt right for a holiday to find out.
To make the most of our 14 days, we devised a strict timetable: first we would visit the north, taking in the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, 15 minutes off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s state capital. From there we would climb Mount Kinabalu, at 13,400ft the highest peak in south-east Asia. Afterwards we would head south to Sarawak, experiencing the jungle en route to The Pinnacles: razor-sharp, limestone shards that jut skywards in Mulu National Park, back in the north. We would end our Borneo adventure with a visit to the park’s limestone caves.
In Kota Kinabalu, to help Tara and Cameron acclimatise to the country’s colourful assault on the senses, we checked into the Hyatt-Regency hotel. Not only did it offer familiar home comforts, but it was also perfectly located for short boat rides to the islands. When I’d visited these in the past, I could almost have counted the people on one hand. Now they are the destination of choice for south-east Asian travellers. Restaurants and barbecue joints have sprung up, and I was saddened by the amount of plastic polluting the once-clear ocean. The best of the islands is Manukan, which is less of a tourist magnet.
Brought up on my stories of how untouched the islands were, the children were disappointed by the reality. More than the number of people, it was the amount of rubbish that perturbed them. But in stoic fashion they set about collecting all the plastic waste in sight. Only then were they happy to snorkel in the turquoise waters that teemed with fish despite all the human activity.
Any disappointment evaporated in Sabah, where we embarked on our three-day trek up Mount Kinabalu. Our guide first told us about the steps being taken to protect the environment around the iconic peak – and we were impressed. The accommodation built to cater for the swelling number of visitors is designed with low environmental impact in mind, with an emphasis on recycling, solar energy and transporting rubbish off the mountain.
Mount Kinabalu also boasts the world’s highest via ferrata – a climbing route following a steel cable anchored to the rock. At 12,000ft, the route is breathtaking as it passes over a sheer rock face descending almost vertically to the jungle below. Tara and Cameron had never attempted one of these before, but I’d brought them up to enjoy rock climbing and abseiling so they were up for the challenge.
After acclimatising at a hotel near the entrance to Kinabalu National Park, we trekked up to Pendant Hut – our next accommodation, at 10,500ft. This was where the real adventure began as we trekked through dense forest in intense heat and humidity.
As we neared the hut, the terrain opened out into an awe-inspiring panorama, revealing the immense rock buttress of Kinabalu.
Relieved to have arrived in one piece, we enjoyed dinner and a magnificent sunset before bed. We needed an early night before our 2.30am ascent of Mount Kinabalu. Equipped with head torches, hats and warm clothes, we set off in the dark. It’s a taxing climb, but achievable by anyone who is moderately fit.
Cameron moved quickly over the ground, keeping up with the lead guides, while Tara and I adopted a more leisurely pace. We all reached the summit for sunrise – and what a treat. We watched the mountain’s shadow cast on to the clouds beneath us and across the South China Sea.
We descended to the Low’s Peak circuit, the longest via ferrata route around Mount Kinabalu. Clipping on the steel-wire ropes, we tried not to be daunted by the long drop and the thin air beneath. It was a raw test of nerves, but one of the best via ferratas I’ve done.
By now the jungle was calling. We took a plane south to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, known as the “City of Cats”. The animals are everywhere: on pavements, in parks, on roundabouts and on rooftops. However, these are not the real thing but statues and sculptures, installed by cat-obsessed locals who believe they bring good luck. A charming waterfront promenade and some interesting museums (including one dedicated to cats, of course) add to the city’s appeal.
Our first challenge was to kayak down the Sarawak. There is no better way to get accustomed to the sounds of the jungle and the immense scale of the plants and trees than paddling gently past them at your own pace. Our chances of spotting orangutans in the wild were slim, so we went to see them at the Semengoh Wildlife Centre in Kuching, where they had been rehabilitated into the wild. It was a humbling, educational experience as the guides explained the damage done to the jungle by deforestation and the steady march of palm-oil plantations.
For our “serious” trek into the jungle, we took a longboat upstream along the “Headhunters Trail”, which follows the route taken by Kayan headhunters who paddled up the Melinau river to Melinau Gorge. They then dragged their longboats through the forest for nearly two miles until they reached the banks of the Terikan, where they launched raids against the people of the Limbang area.
Our guide explained the customs of his forefathers and identified trees and plants, some of which were used to intoxicate fish and make blowpipe poison. We wandered through a primeval landscape, encountering snakes, chameleons, scorpions and insects at close range. There were leeches, but they didn’t cause too much concern. Astonishingly, my “insect-averse” daughter developed an affection for “eyeball” millipedes and was happy to have them crawl over her hands. She was intrigued by the way they rolled into a ball when sensing danger, which she said made them “cute”.
On reaching our camp beside a fast-flowing river, Cameron was impressed. He thought the remote location and access to the jungle made this the best part of our trip.
Downpours did little to dampen our spirits and we enjoyed a comfortable night before making the strenuous ascent to The Pinnacles. Cameron, ever eager to push himself, was right on the heels of the guide, who later told us it was the fastest ascent he had made with a client.
The view at the top, though, was worth the effort. No words can describe how majestic and intricate The Pinnacles are. On the way down we saw plenty of wildlife, including snakes, which we passed by with interest as well as caution.
Our final challenge was exploring the caves at Mulu National Park. Deer Cave is said to be the world’s largest subterranean passage, providing a habitat for birds and bats, which exchange places each evening and morning, being diurnal and nocturnal respectively. Few sights are more mesmerising than ribbons of darkness forming across the sky as three million bats fly out of the caves and similar numbers of birds fly in.
So what did Tara and Cameron make of it all? Both were enthused by the jungle and wanted to spend more time there. They were unconcerned by leeches, rain, snakes, heat and humidity. In fact they took it all in their stride. “Once you’re in it, you just settle into it and it becomes the real world,” said Tara. “There’s so much to see and learn, and you’re much more alert to what’s happening all around.”
Borneo is indeed an amazing adventure destination for all ages, and there is so much more to discover than we could in our limited time there. What made it special for me was the appreciation that Tara and Cameron developed for the jungle. It made me very proud. I was also pleased that Borneo had changed far less than I was expecting. Yes, there are more visitors, but there’s also a clear determination to manage the pressures ecologically. The best endorsement I can give is that Cameron and Tara are urging me to take them back – and as soon as possible.
All the details
✱ A 12-day trip to Borneo with Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk) costs from £2,575 (Dh12,321) per person. The price includes four nights in Kota Kinabalu at the Hyatt Regency, three nights at the Waterfront Hotel in Kuching and four nights at the Mulu Marriott hotel, plus international and internal flights, most meals, transport and English-speaking guides. Also included are the Gaya Island Jungle Walk, a trip to the Semengoh Wildlife Centre, trekking in Mulu National Park, and climbing The Pinnacles.
✱ A three-day, two-night trip to climb Mount Kinabalu and complete the Low’s Peak section of the via ferrata costs £440 per person through Amazing Borneo (00 6088 448409; amazingborneo.com; email info@amazing borneo.com). The price includes guides, permits, accommodation, transfers, equipment and most meals.
✱ For more on what to do in and around Kota Kinabalu, and for diving options, contact Zaliha Aduka (email@example.com).
✱ For further information, websites to visit are: sabahtourism.com; sarawak tourism.com; mountkinabalu.com/stay/laban-rata/pendant-hut; mulupark.com; marriott.co.uk/hotels/travel/myymu-mulu-marriott-resort-and-spa; kinabalu.regency.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html