Breathtakingly beautiful scenery and rare wildlife make Borneo a must for any adventurous traveller

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Borneo: what and where?

Straddling the Equator, the steep forest-clad mountainsides shrouded in mist epitomise the "Land of the Clouds" – a result of the combination of highland terrain surrounded by sea, and the hot, damp climate. The perpetual warmth and moisture makes Borneo incredibly verdant, with nearly 11,000 species of flowering plants and more than 700 species of trees. Numerous large rivers, most of them chocolate brown in the lower stretches, flow from Borneo's mountains into the sea, many carving mysterious valleys.

The world's third-largest island (after Greenland and New Guinea) lies in the South China Sea south-west of the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, south-east of the Philippines and north of the Indonesian island of Java. It straddles the Equator, and has a hot and humid climate.

Three countries claim a share of Borneo. Seven-tenths is taken up by the Indonesian state of Kalimantan. The majority of the north of the island belongs to Malaysia, split between the states of Sarawak (to the west) and Sabah (to the east). Tucked between these two areas is the smallest and richest constituent, the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam – better known simply as Brunei.

A brief history of Borneo?

The island is thought to have been inhabited for over 35,000 years; perhaps 3,000 years ago, foreign traders began to visit, but it was five centuries ago that more significant changes came about.

The first Westerners to arrive were the Portuguese in 1521: the Spanish followed soon after. The Dutch came at the beginning, and the British in the middle, of the 17th century. Islam and Christianity also arrived.

A number of settlements were established along the coast, most notably Brunei. As elsewhere, the European superpowers began to wrest control from the local rulers: coastal Borneo roughly became divided between the British (to the north) and the Dutch (to the west, south and east). But the vast, inaccessible heart of the island was largely unaffected – not least because of a certain reluctance to explore by outsiders wary of headhunters.

In 1840, James Brooke, a British army officer, arrived in Borneo and helped the Sultan repress rebel tribes. The following year, in recognition of his services, he was made Rajah and established Kuching as capital of Sarawak. Known as the "White Rajahs", Brooke's descendants continued to rule Sarawak until the Japanese arrived in 1942 and occupied Borneo until 1945.

After the Second World War, Kalimantan separated itself politically from the rest of the island and became part of Indonesia in 1963; the same year Sarawak and Sabah broke free from British rule and joined the Federation of Malaysia. Brunei became independent in 1984.

Borneo offers dramatic scenery combined with rare wildlife: including freshwater dolphins and crocodiles, proboscis monkeys, sunbears, macaques, lizards and even pygmy elephants. Star of the show for most, though, is the orang-utan (see panel). The island also has ancient tribes, a wide range of adventurous activities – and fascinating relics of a colonial past.

Where do I start?

Most accessible from the UK is Brunei, which has daily direct flights on Royal Brunei from Heathrow to the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan. The main attraction of the city is Kampong Ayer, a "village" of 32,000 people, built entirely on stilts in the Brunei river. The Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery (KACTG) – which aims to enhance the visitor's experience – opened two weeks ago. And don't miss the city's two great mosques: Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah and Omar Ali Saifuddin. You can visit them Saturday-Wednesday (non-Muslims are not permitted on Thursday and Friday) from 8am-midday and 2-3pm, 5-6pm and 8-9pm; admission free.

West of the capital on the coast is Jerudong, the site of the forlornly half-closed Jerudong Theme Park as well as the opulent Empire Hotel & Country Club (00 673 241 8888; theempirehotel.com), Brunei's most prestigious accommodation. It has sumptuous rooms, a fine pool, golf course, spa and many other activities. A double room starts at a reasonable 213 Singapore dollars (£90), including breakfast.

The most regal address though is the Istana, the royal palace overlooking the capital where the Sultan and his wife open the doors to visitors for three days during Hari Raya, which marks the end of Ramadan (this year 21-23 September). About 30,000 devotees queue up each day to shake hands with the royal family and eat at the palace every year (including Jenny Bond, who reported on the event for The Independent Traveller: tiny.cc/et42g).

Some colonial heritage?

Aim for Sarawak, the nearest part of Borneo to the UK, with easy connections at Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines (0870 607 9090; malaysiaairlines.com) and Air Asia (0845 605 3333; airasia.com).

Sarawak is the largest of Malaysia's 13 states. Be sure to visit the Sarawak Cultural Village (00 60 82 846 411; scv.com.my), a living museum where seven authentic houses have been built in the shadow of the mountains.

You'll enjoy the experience more if you've visited – or better still, spent a night in – a real longhouse. Part of the adventure is getting to these wooden houses built on stilts on riverbanks. Longhouse visits can be arranged by local tour operators, but some longhouse experiences are more authentic than others, so follow recommendations from other travellers or use a company such as Borneo Adventure (00 60 82 245 175; borneoadventure.com).

Also worthwhile – especially for keen hikers – is a visit to Bario (reached by daily Twin Otter flight from Miri on Malaysia Airlines: 0871 423 9090; malaysiaairlines.com.my). In addition to great hill trekking, the environs of this small village – famous throughout Borneo for the quality of its rice – are home to members of the Kelabit tribe.

Beach bliss?

Aim for Sabah's capital, Kota Kinabalu, which has the most developed tourism infrastructure for gentle beach life or more active watersports. Travelmood (0800 011 1945; travelmood.com) offers a week at the five-star Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort in Kota Kinabalu, plus return flights with Royal Brunei from Heathrow and transfers, for £899 for departures next month.

Kota Kinabalu is also a base for wilderness exploration. Pulau Tiga is a volcanic island reached by road and then boat from Sabah's capital. It was used as a location for the American reality television show Survivor, which has placed it on the tourism mainstream.

More uplifting is to climb Mount Kinabalu. South-east Asia's highest peak (4,095 metres) can be conquered by any reasonably fit person. The ascent of the 14km trail is more of a steep trek than a climb, but there are a couple of tricky bits – including briefly edging around a precipice with the help of a fixed rope.

To climb the standard route requires a two-day trip. The initial walk takes about four or five hours from the starting point (the Timpohon Gate) to the Laban Rata hut, a compulsory overnight stop. Most people then set off at between 2am-3am for the ascent to Low's Peak, with the aim of arriving to see the sun rise.

The last 2km of the trail is steep and slippery, especially in the dark: when you reach the top, the glow of your achievement may be dimmed as it's not unusual for cloud cover to obscure the (otherwise) incredible view of the whole of the entire north-east tip of the island of Borneo.

The wildest side?

Kalimantan is the place for the adventurer. Balikpapan, in the province of East Kalimantan, is the region's main gateway, with air and sea connections to Jakarta and other points in Indonesia. The province's Mahakam River is home to freshwater dolphins.

Pontianak (bang on the Equator and best explored by boat along its many rivers) is West Kalimantan's major urban centre. Central Kalimantan, largest of the four provinces, occupies an area equivalent to England and Wales combined, with mountains to the north and swampy lowlands to the south. The major town is Palangkaraya (renowned for rattan handicrafts). South Kalimantan is divided by the Meratus mountains with mountains and thick forest to the east and lowlands and waterways to the south. Banjarmasin – known as "river city" – is the biggest town, and has a fascinating floating market.

If you go, you'll find remarkably little tourist infrastructure, but if you want to disappear into the jungle for months or really experience somewhere off the beaten track this isn't a bad place to start.

An organised adventure?

The British Army trains in Borneo's mountains and jungles V C to hone their survival techniques, but the island also attracts parents looking to give their kids a different kind of holiday experience. Peregrine Adventures (01635 872 300; peregrineadventures.co.uk) offers a 10-day Orang-Utan-Go family tour including wildlife encounters, cycling, dips in hot springs, a visit to the Sepilok Orang-utan rehabilitation centre, a river cruise and three days at the beach. Prices are from £888 (adult) and £598 (children aged six to 11 years): flights are not included.

Naturetrek (01962 733 051; naturetrek.co.uk) offers wildlife and birding tours of Borneo including a 21-day Mount Kinabalu & the Rainforests of Borneo trip. Prices (from £3,795) include return flights, hotel and lodge accommodation, most meals and expert guides.

Can I tread gently?

Governments and tour operators in Sabah and Sarawak have begun to get the message about conservation and, to a degree, "responsible tourism". In 1991 the Borneo Project (earthisland. org/borneo) – based in Berkeley, California – was established to assist the island's indigenous peoples to regain control of their ancestral lands.

Some larger local tour operators work with villagers and discuss how tourists can experience and learn about the tribal lifestyle without too much disruption or corruption of traditions. Several organisations have projects in Borneo that overseas volunteers can join, many concerned with nature conservation.

Much new accommodation has been planned to be environment-friendly – a good example is Exquisite Borneo Villas' Kudat Riviera luxury villa estate resort in Sabah, due to open in the autumn. It will offer a 6km stretch of beachfront villas, each with its own butler. For more details, call 00 60 88 249 276 or visit exquisiteborneovillas.com.

What will I eat and drink?

Spicy Malay (and to a lesser extent Chinese) cuisine dominates. Seafood is excellent, especially in coastal Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu. Laksa – chicken, egg and beansprouts in a coconut and tamarind soup – is a Sarawak speciality. Jungle fern, delicious stir-fried, is ubiquitous, and there's a huge array of tropical fruits in the markets. Most hotels won't allow guests to take durians or mangosteens to their rooms, the former because of their foul odour, the latter because their juice stains badly.

On the liquid front, Ian Dury paired the wilds of Borneo with the vineyards of Bordeaux in his 1979 classic "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick". But tuak, the Malaysian Borneo's local and sometimes very potent rice wine is very much "acquired taste" rather than "premier cru". Most visitors stick to beer.

Brunei is largely dry, with patches of dampness: the national airline allows you to bring your own alcohol on board, as does the odd hotel bar – so bring some duty-free.

Jungle VIPs: The wild men of Borneo

One of the big draws for visitors to Borneo is the chance to see the world's second-largest non-human primate, Pongo pygmaeus, better known as the orang-utan – Malay for "man of the forest". There are suggestions that illegal logging, which razes lowland forests to make way for vast plantations of oil palms and destroys the orang-utan's habitat, may mean that the "wild men of Borneo" will be extinct in the wild within a decade.

The best chance to see the big orange-brown haired apes are at centres in Sepilok (25km from Sandakan in Sabah) and Semenggok (about 40km from Kuching in Sarawak) where orang-utans that have been rescued from captivity or are being relocated from deforested areas are rehabilitated for their return to the wild.

Stay at the relatively new, tranquil Paganakan Dii Tropical Retreat (00 60 89 532 005; paganakandii.com), a contemporary version of traditional wooden stilt-house living which costs 98 Malaysian ringgits (£17) per double including breakfast.

The Sepilok Nature Resort (00 60 89 673999; sepilok.com) offers chalet-style accommodation for MR285 (£49) including breakfast, and the clean-but- basic Sepilok Jungle Resort (00 60 89 533031; sepilokjungleresort.com) has air-conditioned rooms (from MR105 (£18) including breakfast) and dorms with fans from MR28 (£5) per person including breakfast.

At the Samboja Eco Lodge (00 62 542 71 11 484; sambojalodge.com) in East Kalimantan, former wasteland has been restored and replanted under the auspices of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and is now home to more than 100 orang-utans.

Travel essentials: Borneo

Getting there

The only direct flights between the UK and Borneo are on Royal Brunei's flights (020-7584 6660; bruneiair.com) between London Heathrow and Bandar Seri Begawan. Flights refuel at Dubai (where stopovers are available). Through discount agents, you can get a return ticket to the Brunei capital for about £650. The airline also offers connecting flights to Kuching or Kota Kinabalu – perversely, fares to these two destinations are sometimes cheaper than a ticket just to Bandar Seri Begawan. Royal Brunei also offers Bandar Seri Begawan as a stopover on its flights between Heathrow and Australia or New Zealand.

The other main approach is via Kuala Lumpur, reached on Air Asia (0845 605 3333; airasia.com) from Stansted and Malaysia Airlines (0871 423 9090; malaysiaairlines.com) from Heathrow. Connections are frequent to Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. Malaysia Airlines often offers good deals for those wishing to take a side trip to Borneo from Kuala Lumpur en route to or from Australia or New Zealand.

Getting around

There are relatively few roads. The main highways are reasonable, though ferry crossings are frequent – with checkpoints near all borders. You can hire a car, but most road transport is by long-distance taxi or bus. Buses run daily between Kuching and Pontianak (Kalimantan).

Sabah has a limited railway system with one working line, from Tanjung Aru to Beaufort and Tenom. There is talk of the possibility of a TransBorneo railway, but don't wait on the platform just yet. There are numerous ferry services, some more official than others, on rivers and from the mainland to nearby islands. Safety standards can be questionable. If time is short, consider flying – Malaysia Airlines has the best network.

More information

Tourism Malaysia (020-7930 7932; tourismmalaysia.gov.my) can provide information on Sabah and Sarawak. Brunei and Indonesia have no representation in the UK, but tourismbrunei.com and my-indonesia.info should help. Bradt's Borneo: Sabah, Sarawak & Brunei by Tamara Thiessen is an invaluable guide (£17.99).

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