Beloved by naturalists the world over, Borneo is teeming with exotic flora and fauna.
But as Sarah Marshall discovers, travelling in the wilderness is now much easier – and more comfortable – than ever before.
“Pro! Pro!” The honking, nasal call is quickly absorbed by the uncomfortably moisture-heavy forest canopy. We scan the dense tangle of tree trunks and twisted vines, waiting for a response.
Naturalist Justin Juhun has spent months out here, slowly attempting to gain the trust of a group of proboscis monkeys.
As resident naturalist for the luxury eco-friendly Gaya Island Resort
– built on a protected island of the same name, a short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Borneo’s Sabah region – Juhun hopes he can one day bring visitors here to observe the lithe-limbed primates’ behaviour.
But today is not that day.
The monkeys, who are endemic to Southeast Asian island Borneo, and who locals historically referred to as Dutchmen thanks to their distended bellies and long, ruddy paddle-board noses, appear to be shy or sleeping.
Fortunately Juhun doesn’t expect to see results overnight. “This is a big job and I’ve been working alone,” he says with an element of frustration.
Brought up in Tawau, in south-east Sabah, he’s been surrounded by animals all his life. One day his father asked him to rear a deer rather than kill it, and from that point on he developed a Dr Doolittle-esque empathy with wildlife.
Of his past 40 years, he’s lived just four of them outside the jungle; he’s swung through the trees with orang-utans, and spent six months guiding scientists through the pristine primary rainforest of the Maliau Basin.
“Some of the species I remember as a child, I’ve never seen again,” he says with sadness.
Borneo’s woeful story of deforestation and near extinction of species has been told many times, and is far from reaching a happy ending. But the opening of luxury eco resorts, such as one-year-old Gaya Island, is bringing attention and money to the world’s third largest island, with a greater commitment to investing resources in conservation.
Juhun’s joined in his vision by Scott Mayback, a marine biologist who hopes to grow Gaya Island’s house reef, home to clown fish, blue-spotted stingrays and parrot fish. The remaining hotel staff are locals, including Nonny, a spa masseuse who’s terrified of the sea, and young waiter Adzeen, who grew up on a water village in the Philippines.
They belong to a melting pot of cultures in Borneo: there are 52 tribes and 82 dialects spoken on the island, which is divided between Malaysia and Indonesia.
On a visit to the weekly Gaya Street Sunday market, on the mainland, I’m bombarded with a chaos of smells, sounds and snapshots of different cultures. Young girls, giddy with excitement, choose pet rabbits from metal cages, while frowning women queue up for heavy-handed foot massages.
A band, with synthesizers protruding from plastic laundry bags, belt out a muzak version of ‘You Are Always On My Mind’, as a sausage dog waddles past, dressed in oversized pink plastic shades.
We’re undoubtedly in Asia, but I’d struggle to pick out where.
Borneo’s flora and fauna is no less varied, and despite David Attenborough’s shocking observations about the colossal loss of habitat to palm oil plantations, people are still drawn here by the lure of species found nowhere else on the planet.
The Mount Kinabalu national park is home to half of Borneo’s bird life and is the most researched region in Southeast Asia, due mainly to the number or rare orchids and pitcher plants found here. During my visit, a TV crew are filming in the botanical gardens; their focus is a Rothschild’s slipper orchid, which I’m told can fetch 40,000 US dollars on the black market.
But despite the many natural riches on offer, locals are more interested in the nearby Kampung Luanti fish spa, where toothless, foot-long fish suck dry skin from any body part they can slap their slimy chops around.
It’s so popular, visitors are restricted to 15-minute slots, making this the Bornean equivalent of an express pedicure.
Labels: Borneo, Gaya Island, Gaya Street, Kinabalu National Park