Occupying the northern tip of Borneo Island, Sabah is a true paradise for active travellers. Not only is the Malaysian state home to Mount Kinabalu – the region’s highest peak and bucket list goal for many adventure seekers – but it also offers a broad selection of active travel opportunities.
Whether you’re looking for a multiple-day trek in the wilderness of the Maliau Basin or a light day hike in Kinabalu Park; a cycling adventure through the hilly countryside or an awe-inspiring diving expedition in the clear waters of the Pacific Ocean; Sabah is an excellent destination for outdoor travellers of all fitness levels. What makes this part of Borneo – Asia’s largest island and shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei – even more alluring is its incredibly rich ecosystem. Boasting a diverse array of plants and animal species, the island is still largely rainforest, which provides a safe haven for its famous residents, the orangutans and pygmy elephants. Beyond its coasts, it is blessed with coral reefs and a colourful underwater life.
To help you plan your ultimate Borneo Sabah Adventure, we’ve asked Buffalo Tours’ own Product & Marketing Director, Richard Ludwig, to share his advice. For more than a year, Richard called the state’s capital, Kota Kinabalu (KK), his home and fell in love with Borneo during this time. Sabah is still relatively untouched by mass tourism compared to many destinations in Southeast Asia, and travellers are infused with a feeling of adventure when exploring its wilderness. In this blog, we’ve broken down some of the best destinations for active travel in Sabah, including some of Richard’s personal insider tips.
Up and Above
Probably Sabah’s most famous and impressive sight, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain (4,095 metres) between the Himalayas and New Guinea and on the bucket list of trekkers seeking a challenge. It dominates most of the Kinabalu National Park and is easily accessible from Kota Kinabalu. Despite its popularity, it’s a challenging climb; hikers should be in good health and prepare for the cold and high altitude. Usually, the climb takes two days, with an overnight stay about two-thirds up the mountain, with the final dawn ascent on day two. Whilst it’s possible to travel from KK on the morning of the ascent, we recommend spending a night at the park to acclimatise and embark on an earlier start. For safety reasons, the number of climbing permits is limited to 135 per day, which also allows travellers to enjoy an epic hike without the crowds. A licensed mountain guide is required. If you plan to conquer Mount Kinabalu on your Borneo Sabah Adventure, make sure to book a permit at least six months in advance as they can sell out quickly.
An alternative to Mount Kinabalu is Malaysia’s second highest peak, Mount Trusmadi. Whilst only 2,642 metres above sea level, it has earned itself a reputation as being equally, if not more, strenuous as its taller counterpart. Similarly, ascending and descending will take two days and a permit is required.
Trekkers looking for a challenging one-day trekking tour off-the-beaten-track, should opt for Mount Alab in the Crocker Range National Park. No permits are required, and experienced hikers can reach the summit at 2,080 metres on a single day’s adventure.
From Day Trips to Wilderness Expeditions
If mountain climbing sounds too challenging, the Kinabalu National Park also offers several shorter hiking trails for day-trippers. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park boasts an incredible variety of plant and animal species. Whilst it can be easily reached from Kota Kinabalu on a day trip, we recommend spending a night at the park to take in the amazing views of Mount Kinabalu, which is usually shrouded in clouds from 9am onwards.
On the other end of the spectrum, intrepid adventurers who want to leave the comforts of civilisation and head ‘into the wild’ will find the mysterious Maliau Basin Conservation Area an unrivalled destination. Dubbed as Sabah’s Lost World, it encompasses a deep valley of wild forests, wildlife and waterfalls – a highlight is the seven-tiered Maliau Falls. Vastly unexplored, the basin is considered one of the world’s few remaining wilderness areas and, whilst access is limited (permits are required) and the journey can be arduous, exploring this awe-inspiring natural treasure is an experience like no other.
A great place to witness Sabah’s abundant wildlife is on a trip to the Danum Valley Conservation Area. Stretching across 438 square kilometres of lowland forest, it is home to an impressive range of animal species, ranging from the Bornean bearded pigs and sambars to macaques and the elusive orangutans. A great way to get even closer to the jungle’s residents is to stroll along the 300-metre long and 26-metre high canopy walkway.
One activity that should make it on every Sabah list is a river cruise safari along the Kinabatong River. Board a boat at the small village of Sukau and travel along the undulating river, keeping your eyes peeled for pygmy elephants, crocodiles, proboscis monkeys and, if you’re lucky, wild orangutans. Whilst fortunate travellers might glimpse orangutans in the wild, a safer bet (though not guaranteed) is to observe these endangered primates at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Accessible from Sandakan, the sanctuary cares for orphaned apes and reintroduces them into the wild.
Mixing it up on your Borneo Sabah Adventure
If you’re looking for a peaceful nature escape from Kota Kinabalu, travel to the idyllic Kiulu Valley, a 60-kilometre ride from the city. Known as the ‘Valley in the Mist’, this ecotourism destination is surrounded by a clear, winding river, emerald-green paddy fields, local farms and lush hills. Cycling through the scenic countryside is a great way to unwind, experience Sabah’s natural beauty and visit some of its quaint villages. A highlight is crossing the four, narrow suspension bridges that stretch over the beautiful Kiulu River.
Travellers looking for more action will be happy to know that the Kiulu River is also a great place for white-water rafting. At Grade 1 and 2, the water here is moderate, and trips are suitable for children and families. More experienced rafters will get their adrenaline pumping on an adventure down the wild Padas River (Grade 3 and 4). The starting point is about a 90-minute trip from KK.
Explore Sabah’s Colourful Underwater World
Whilst Sabah’s innumerable jungle and mountain adventures are main draws for travellers, the tropical island’s underwater life is just as enchanting. Located just off the coast from Sandakan – Sabah’s second largest city – Selingan ‘Turtle’ Island is not only a great place to explore the colourful marine life but, as the name suggests, to see beautiful Green and Hawksbill turtles. The island is a key nesting place and houses a hatchery and visitors’ centre where it’s possible to witness turtles laying eggs and release the hatchlings into the sea.
Renowned as one of the world’s best scuba diving spots, Sipadan Island boasts an incredible coral reef with thousands of fish species as well as a high concentration of sea turtles. Whilst the small island is not easy to visit – there’s no more accommodation so visitors must stay on the nearby Mabul or Kapalai islands and diving permits are limited to 120 per day – exploring the atoll’s underwater world will be a dreamlike experience.
A Few More Bits and Bobs
- The climate ranges across the island, however, in general the period between June and September is considered the best time for a Borneo Sabah Adventure. Regardless of the season, prepare to get wet.
- As a former British colony, it’s easy to get around with English.
- Always (and we mean always!) bring leech socks with you. If you are not sure what else to take on your Borneo Sabah Adventure, check out our packing list here.
- We recommend taking the overland journey when travelling from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. The roads are good and the scenery is amazing. If you decide to fly, try to book a window seat on the left side of the plane to enjoy the fantastic views of Mount Kinabalu.
- Before you go, prepare by watching David Attenborough documentaries.
Most importantly, don’t feel intimidated! Sabah is a breathtaking and safe place to visit. Whilst getting around by public transport isn’t easy and guides are required for most expeditions, with a little help, Sabah can actually be a comfortable and even family-friendly destination to travel. Reach out to Buffalo Tours and let us help arrange your Borneo Sabah Adventure!