Gaya Island: Borneo's Treasurehouse Of Wildlife

18 July 2015
Read Time: 3.6 mins

Well, now we know what you don’t do in Borneo – and that is take your gear off after you’ve climbed Mount Kinabalu. An earthquake and then international focus on the behaviour of backpackers on the mountain has brought attention to the tropical island.

And while many come for the mountain, which is one of the great – and most difficult – hikes in the world, it is Borneo’s marine life that captivated me.

Borneo, the third largest island in the world and the largest in Asia, is often overlooked in favour of a holiday in Bali or among Thailand’s enticing sprinkle of islands.

 Mount Kinabalu from Gaya island. (image: Supplied)

But its wildlife, beaches and accommodation make it a good alternative to old favourites. Here at the Gaya island resort, we are surrounded by water, including several excellent snorkelling spots, and in the soupy heat it makes more sense to be in the water than to climb a mountain.

The seniors get the ground floor

The resort is a 15-minute speed-boat trip from Kota Kinabalu, capital of Malaysia’s easternmost state of Sabah. (In Kota Kinabalu there are some great places to eat but it is essentially a regional port town.)

The resort is built high up in the jungle and the walk to the rooms is steep. When staff allocate rooms they make sure anyone born after 1950 is housed on the lower levels. As a post-1950s person, I’m high up in the trees (and sweating like I’ve just played five games of squash when I get up there).

Once I’m in my room, I almost don’t want to leave. It is spacious and has a deep bath on a raised platform; bedroom and wide balcony look out over the jungle and the water. Best of all, it is perfectly chilled.

The resort has many attractions to lure visitors out of their rooms, however, not the least of which is the amazing sea life. I’ve snorkelled in a variety of spots, from the Great Barrier Reef to remote islands off Sumatra, but have never seen such an embarrassment of underwater riches.

The water is clear and thick with fish of incredible colour, variety and species. It’s like being in some CGI special effect – but it’s real.

Native to Borneo are the walking catfish – which can travel short distances on land, although you are more likely to see them in the rainforest areas in fresh, rather than salty, water.

One of the best snorkelling spots I visit is just off the front of the resort pier where all the boats pull up. I see – among other things – a sea snake curled up in the coral garden (thankfully resting) and bright clownfish.

More monkey business in Borneo. Monkey Business in Borneo

Orangutans need our protection. Protecting Orangutans In Borneo

Turtle nursery keeps them alive

But there is no resting on existing laurels. Despite the biodiversity of the region, work is being done on marine conservation – particularly focusing on the vulnerable turtle population. American marine biologist Scott Maybeck has been running a turtle conservation project here since 2012.

He greets us on a small, semi-private beach, part of the resort, as our small boat pulls up. A New Yorker, he confesses to missing the bagels back home, but as we sit in the shade of a warung, or restaurant, overlooking a picture-perfect beach while fresh salads and plates of steaming fish are brought to us, it’s hard to see the appeal of the humble bagel.

What he does get excited about is protecting Borneo’s beaches and the gorgeous ocean, and the turtle program through which sick and injured turtles are rescued, rehabilitated and released back into the sea.

A nearby hut shelters baby turtles that are being nursed to a bigger size. If their eggs hatch on the beach, they are vulnerable to being eaten, hence the need for a protective nursery.

A more bizarre sight near the restaurant is a family (well, they look like a family) of bearded pigs. There are more than a dozen of them, of varying sizes and levels of shyness. They make a sort of honking sound from their long, bearded snouts as they sniff around the kitchen area, until they are shooed away by the cooks.

Later, sitting by the pool at sunset, I see a couple more bearded pigs, trotting along the beach. It almost looks romantic.

 Approaching Gaya Island. (image: Gaya Island Resort)

The afternoons are the hottest times on Gaya, so it makes sense to get any physical exertion out of the way in the morning. In the afternoon, cooking classes, stand-up paddleboarding and having a massage at the day spa are all good options.

These monkeys have a liking for Carlsberg

But on the first morning, before it gets too hot, we set off with a guide on a jungle walk, climbing high above the property. We’re looking out for orangutans – famed in these parts.

But what we see is far more subtle and interesting – a giant moth, an enormous web spun across a grey tree – gorgeous stuff but hard to see. Because the heat slows us down, we have the time to make out the exotic creatures camouflaged in the dense foliage.

 Beach dining at Gaya (image: Gaya Island Resort)

We don’t see any orangutans but the next day I have a close encounter with some monkeys. There are two of them jumping from balcony to balcony.

I have clothes drying, including my favourite scarf. The monkeys also like the scarf and before I can shoo them away, they’ve nicked it and are running away like naughty children.

Staff tell me the monkeys have been known to open unlocked doors into guests’ villas, head straight for the minibar and take the Carlsbergs. Not the bottled water or Diet Pepsi – only the Carlsbergs. They’ve been sighted subsequently walking down the track swigging from their beers.

I get my scarf back later – the monkeys have tossed it into the jungle. It’s returned to me by resort staff but I feel slightly disappointed. It would have been great to have seen a monkey sauntering down the hill, wearing my scarf and throwing back a beer.

Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Malaysia.

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This article was written by Brigid Delaney from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Brigid Delaney

Brigid Delaney is an Australian novelist and journalist. She has worked at the Telegraph news group and the London bureau of CNN. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Vogue, the Sydney Morning Herald Spectator and Griffith Review. Her first novel Wild Things is published by Harper Collins.