Borneo: You don't have to be an explorer to enjoy this exotic land

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The Gaya Island Resort is perfect for relaxation, but with the jungle on your doorstep, you'll soon leave the spa behind, says Matthew Bell

The day before I leave for Borneo, an island so wild it seems absurd to say you're going there on holiday – expedition sounds better – someone recommends me a book. It is, of course, Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo, a witty account of the trip he and the poet James Fenton made in 1983. Theirs really was an expedition: they set off up the Rajang river on canoes, looking for rhinoceros in what was then relatively uncharted territory.

My own itinerary is slightly less intrepid, though no less exciting. I'm heading for the north coast, where you can see wildlife without needing a snake stick or even malaria tablets. This is Borneo-lite, a gentle introduction to an island where orang-utans still swing through the rainforest and much of the landscape is jungle.

I say much: Borneo is known for having one of the world's most biologically diverse rainforests, but also one of the most endangered. The logging of hardwood has been going on since the 1970s, initially for the wood itself, used to make teak furniture. Latterly, trees have been felled to make way for palm oil plantations. This wonder oil is used in so many products, from biscuits to biodiesel, that as a crop, palm is a sure-fire winner. The trouble is, removing primary rainforest is a potential catastrophe, not only for the environment but also its native species such as the orang-utan.

The good news is that, thanks to increased awareness, Borneo is making efforts to reposition itself as a responsible tourist destination. There have been clamp-downs on illegal logging, and the plight of the orang-utan, of which there are still 35,000 living on the island, has been recognised. And not just the orang- utan: Borneo has an extraordinary diversity of wildlife – proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, flying squirrels, clouded cats, hornbills – and the opportunities to see it are improving.

My base will be Gaya Island, one of five small islands just across the South China Sea from the regional capital of Kota Kinabalu, or KK, as you learn to call it. This northern portion of Borneo, a state known as Sabah, forms part of Malaysia, along with the neighbouring state of Sarawak. The larger southern half of the island is the Indonesian territory of Kalimantan, with the Kingdom of Brunei wedged into the middle of the Malaysian territories. KK is a fun city for a night out, a low-built former colonial town (Britain ruled here until 1963) with plenty of bars and fish markets along the water. Soon after I arrive, the US aircraft carrier John C Stennis pulls into harbour. According to the Daily Express, the excellent local paper (much more informative than our own paper of that name), 5,500 sailors who haven't been ashore for three months will be hitting the town. Just as well we're off to Gaya Island.

One surprise fact I gleaned from O'Hanlon's book is that Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Can you name the biggest two? I couldn't. (It's Greenland then New Guinea. Australia counts as a continent, apparently.) So don't expect to see more than a tiny fraction of Borneo in a fortnight's holiday. Tourism is still relatively new, but the infrastructure is good.

A short taxi ride from the airport to the marina is followed by an invigorating dash in a speedboat across the water to Gaya, and suddenly, I'm in a tropical haven. There are only two hotels on the island, and the one I'm in, called simply Gaya Island Resort, is very new and big – 120 villas and suites have been scattered along the water, centred on a pool, bar, library and restaurant complex.

It's an ideal position for those who like peace and quiet but want excitement close at hand: from your sunlounger you can gaze across the water to the hurly-burly of KK and Mount Kinabalu beyond – at 4,095m, it's the tallest mountain in South-east Asia – while pondering whether to order the lobster or crab.

But I want to see wildlife. This is, after all, a long way to travel for a lobster salad. Gaya Island is the largest of a cluster of five outlying islands, and most of its 15sq km are covered in primary forest. As part of a government drive to protect its wildlife, the islands have been designated a marine park. You might think that plonking a resort here would be unlikely to help, but in fact YTL, the owner, is ploughing a lot of money into preserving the wildlife, both in the water and on land.

The hotel is spread along the water's edge, and rising steeply behind it is the wilderness. It is densely wooded, but Justin, the resident naturalist, knows his way around and takes me into the network of paths in search of the proboscis monkey. We climb through trees the like of which I have never seen before. I can tell an oak from a birch, but here you need an encyclopaedia of flora. Luckily I have Justin, who points out the low-lying rattan, with its long frondy palms. Technically, it's not a tree so much as a vine, but it certainly looks nothing like the furniture you find in conservatories back at home. Then there are the enormous dipterocarps, the tropical hardwoods that surge up like skyscrapers. These are home to many weird and wonderful insects, including termites, that build all sorts of elaborate homes in trunks and on the ground. Apparently on one tree alone, 1,000 species of insect were once identified.

That's all very well, but I wanted monkeys. Or bearded pigs at least: apparently they're not shy of coming down to the hotel and truffling for food. Patience, says Justin – nature is not like television or the internet; you can't just switch it on whenever you want. It does, however, have its own adverts for Viagra. Justin snaps off a piece of tongkat ali, a spongy green plant with leaves that spring back if you scrunch them up. "It makes you feel healthy, and gives good performance for men," he laughs with a wink. I look it up later and he's right: it makes the blood circulate better and scientific studies have concluded it raises testosterone levels. Weirdly, it can also be used as a contraceptive by women. All in all, handy for honeymooners.

I see my first animal, not in the woods but at the poolside bar: a handsome green lizard joins me for a coconut milk. I can't tell you what variety he is, as whole books have been written about the lizards of Borneo. But he isn't shy about taking a dip in the pool. Just as well he has it to himself.

You could while away days at Gaya Island doing really not very much: the beach is Bounty-bar white, and there are even hammocks strung between the palm trees. The spa is up the hill in a vast, light-filled sort of temple on its own, surrounded by mangroves. I choose the signature "rolling waves" massage, which is supposed to replicate the movement of the sea, and certainly delivers a good pounding. You can experience most of South-east Asia without leaving the spa, with treatments offered from Bali, Malaysia, Borneo and Thailand.

But I had been tantalised by O'Hanlon's adventures among the Iban people. So I head off to the mainland for a trek up the Kiulu valley, through which a beautiful wide river meanders through the foothills of Mount Kinabalu. Thrill-seekers can go white-water rafting, but I opt for a mountain bike, taking two friendly locals as guides.

The population of Borneo has doubled to 18 million since 1980, partly because of an influx of immigrants into the Indonesian portion of the island. But here in Sabah, everyone still identifies themselves as Dayak, Dusun or Kadazan, the predominant tribes. Learning the many languages is too difficult, but asking which tribe someone is from is a good ice-breaker.

Junior and Sylvester are two young Dusuns who run Trek Finder Tours out of KK. They have earrings and super hi-tech bikes, but their home village of Kiulu is untouched by time. We reach it by criss-crossing the river over alarmingly creaky rope bridges high above the water, passing through villages where the trees are laden with pineapples and jack fruit.

Their village consists of handsome wooden houses dotted about a field of brilliant green. Buffalo mooch about in the mud, each with its own egret perched on top. This is paddy field territory: fertile plains where rice and rubber are grown. We stop and have tea with Mr Francis and Mrs Flora, who also offer home stays. They serve two different cakes made of rice: panjaran, a rice fritter, and tinubong, a softer mix wrapped in a banana leaf. They don't look much, all brown and sticky, but they don't taste bad. Mr Francis and Mrs Flora whoop with laughter as we try them, and then encourage us to wash it all down with rice wine, a heady mix in a white bucket that looks like porridge but tastes, oddly enough, like sherry.

We don't see monkeys that day, but we do see plenty of brightly coloured birds and butterflies. The hornbills are particularly spectacular, swooping down with their broad black wings, making a whooshing sound through the trees.

Back on Gaya Island, there is still the water to explore. The resort has a coral reef on its doorstep, just a plop away from the jetty. And it's here that I finally find nature in all its wild glory: an underwater fashion parade of popinjays and peacocks. Pink, green, scarlet and yellow: there are fish dressed as clowns, others pretending to be zebras, some with stripes, some with spots. And then there is the coral, variously pretending to be shrubs, or tables, or brains. Redmond O'Hanlon may have seen the trophy skulls of head-hunters and stayed in an Iban longhouse, but he didn't swim through an underwater carnival. And besides, I tell myself as I potter back for a cocktail, this isn't an expedition. It's a holiday.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Matthew Bell travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838100; audleytravel.com), which offers a seven-night stay at Gaya Island Resort (00 800 9899 9999; www.gayaislandresort.com) from £1,725 per person, including Malaysia Airlines flights from Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur, transfers and B&B. Two-week trips combining wildlife-viewing in Sabah start at £2,385pp.

More information

Tourism Malaysia: tourism.gov.my

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