FROM A LUXURY BASE IN BORNEO, you can dive the Coral Triangle, journey up steamy jungle rivers to spot orangutan and pygmy elephants, climb mountains in the clouds, and enjoy outstanding hospitality from friendly locals.
I’m writing this from the Chart Room, a quiet place here at Sutera Harbour Marina and Country Club in Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian state Sabah, on the island of Borneo. From here I have a great view of the yachts in the marina and the beauty of Tunku Abdul Marine Park spread out in the background – a perfect backdrop for my thoughts.
Kota Kinabalu is right in the middle of South-East Asia, so it makes complete sense to choose it as a base when cruising the region. The marina was my base on board M/Y Andiamo for three and a half years. Not only is it the gateway to the spectacular cultural and natural attractions of the region, but it would be challenging to find a marina that is more comfortable, anywhere in the world. And yes, I really mean that. Anywhere in the world.
This is a very luxurious marina to return to after remote cruising adventures and a superb place to base your yacht – both from the perspective of the owner and crew. In the marina grounds, there are 27 holes of golf, undercover tennis, squash, table tennis, badminton, tenpin bowling, a movie theatre, four swimming pools (one Olympic-size), good restaurants, and two resort-style hotels.
Operationally, Kota Kinabulu is also a great city, featuring:
First and foremost, Sabah is a nature destination. Sitting squarely within the Coral Triangle, the magnificent scuba diving is one of the obvious drawcards for visiting yachts.
Any diver worth their salt would have Sipadan on their bucket list. The schools of fish on Barracuda Point never disappoint, and the sheer number of turtles in the area is staggering.
Mabul offers some incredible critter diving, with huge colourful frog fish and the longest blue ribbon eels I’ve ever seen.
Less well-known but even more impressive is Layang-Layang. The naval base perched right on top of this atoll has guaranteed that this reef remains untouched. Best known for hammerhead sharks, the reef is actually equally good when they are not around. Great coral, good fish life, excellent diversity and crystal clear water.
When you want some time on land, it is time to head for the Bornean jungle. The World Wide Fund for Nature lists forty-four endemic mammals and thirty-seven endemic birds in Borneo; you will not see these animals anywhere else.
People are attracted here by the charismatic megafauna. A boat safari on the Kinabatangan River is the best way to see orangutans, pigmy elephants and proboscis monkeys.
Complemented by a night’s stay in one of the river resorts, this is a fun side-trip. A private excursion to Sepilok Wildlife Sanctuary can also be arranged. The orangutan rehabilitation centre there is very successful and really worth seeing; the baby orangutans will melt even the coldest heart.
If ancient, pristine rainforests are your thing, head for Danum Valley. Take a helicopter or tough it out in a 4WD, returning from your adventures to be pampered at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Forest walks led by extremely knowledgeable guides are the main activity here, while watching the sun peek over the horizon from the forest canopy walkway is a surreal experience.
For those who want to challenge themselves, climbing Mount Kinabalu is a fantastic way to spend a couple of days. At over 4,000 metres, it is the highest peak in Malaysia. This is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Alternatively, choose the easy option and do some relaxing hikes in the cool montane forests of Mount Kinabalu National Park at a slightly lower altitude.
Take a short flight into the mountains to Gunung Mulu Caves, a cave network of staggering proportions surrounded by lush Sarawak jungle. Deer Cave, the world’s largest cave passage, is home to approximately 3 million bats. Watching these bats leave the cave at sunset for their evening feed is to witness one of nature’s great migrations.
Another good option, not very far from Kota Kinabalu city, is the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort. You can enjoy lunch here and then head over to the Orangutan Sanctuary to watch the primates having their own lunch.
Head back to Kota Kinabalu to experience city life. Have your jungle aches massaged away, explore the markets, and enjoy a delicious meal. The city has just the right balance between first-world comfort and old-world charm. Genuine smiles and friendly people are everywhere; Sabahans take great pride in being the friendliest and most welcoming people in Malaysia.
When you are ready to leave, you might sail north for a new adventure, enjoying the yacht’s water toys and the amazing sunsets at Borneo North Tip or Balambangan Island.