It all started with a deep yearning for fernweh, a German word meaning an ache to get away and travel to a distant place, a feeling even stronger than wanderlust. I simply call it an “itch” to escape concrete buildings and day-to-day modernization – to smell the sweet primary rainforest air once again. Spoilt as I am fortunate to be able to find wild escapes within Sabah, a place I proudly call home.
One such cherished ‘once-a-year’ escape is into the mysterious Lost World of Maliau Basin. Some would best describe it as an avid trekker’s dream – a 42.5-kilometer full loop adventure spread out between 4 days!
You may find treasures when exploring at any time of the year and each season (wet or dry) offers a slightly different special perspective. But, a personal preference of mine is to visit when rainfall peaks up and it is true the resident leeches are more ‘friendlier’ when wet, however, the basin’s spectacular waterfalls are in full bloom and they are indeed sights to behold.
As its name suggests, the basin is a remarkable saucer-shaped depression enclosed by a mountainous rim housing untouched flora and fauna, many are rare, endangered, and endemic species making this destination unique. 2019 is my 4th year into the basin and each year it never ceases to amaze. It is safe to say that I have only explored a teaspoon full of its wonders.
From an intimate sharing with one of its rangers, he had described his own experience when standing at the highest peak of the basin. During sunrise, he looked down and as the valley opens up to a blanket of misty clouds, flocks of Hornbill set flight across the top of golden-green tree canopies and peeking limestone rocks – such beauty!
Our journey begins at 7am from Kota Kinabalu City taking the hilly Kimanis Road, a 2-hour drive towards Keningau Town and another 4 hours slow drive reaching Maliau Basin Information Centre / Maliau’s Security Gate with many pit stops along the way. After taking attendance of our arrival, we continued our last 1-hour drive to Maliau Basin Study Centre, stopping for a view of the basin’s rim in the distance. Finally arriving at the study center, we registered, checked into our hostel quarters and re-packed for our 4-day adventure into the magnificent Maliau Basin.
The co-ed hostels are divided into two buildings, each with a large communal sitting area and two sleeping areas accommodating 12 bunked beds (housing 24 people), each with its own shower and toilet areas. Electricity only ran from 7am to 11pm and we knew that it was our final night in cotton sheets and pillows before heading into more basic living quarters. We met our first ‘wildlife’ lying on the green grass below our stilted hostel – the famous Sus Barbatus, The Bornean Bearded Pig peeking up at us hoping for a free handout of unwanted snacks and some even venture so close finding opportunity to nip at our backpacks!
Maliau Basin Studies Centre
After dinner at 7pm, we had an Introduction to Maliau Basin video presentation at the lecture hall before heading for a short jungle walk around the immediate areas of the center where we spotted wild boars (mom and her babies), deers, sleeping birds, a pair of Binturongs (Bearcat) above a high canopied tree, and various amphibians, and arachnids. As the generator took rest for the night, we headed out for some stargazing along the boardwalks over the lake – thus, concluding our first day.
After a hearty breakfast with the busy rustling of birds and gibbons howling in the background, we departed at 9am towards Agathis Camp, the starting point of our hike. Our porters carefully weighed our food rations, it costs MYR100 for the maximum weight of 12KG and any extra KGs are charged at MYR10 per KG. We carefully strategized our rations and any extra we could carry ourselves we did with our more capable members carrying heavier loads.
At 10am, we took off with on a steady incline up to the rim of the basin – a 7.5-kilometer hike towards Nepenthes Camp for our first-night stay. The initial trail was covered with fallen autumn-colored leaves and large strong-rooted trees with sheltering canopies fighting each other for sunlight. It is beautiful how nature made roots and rocks into steps marking our pathway forward and upon reaching the rim at 3.5-kilometer, Mother Nature greeted us with a steady breeze – the view is great from up here!
From the rim into the basin a sudden change of vegetation is evident as roots and tall trees change into shorter mossy greens, the ground feels more damp and springy, and the climate cooler – welcome to the Primary Rainforest!
Almost there… towards the right a small brown-colored stream starts to form marking that the camp is just 100 meters away and after crossing a bridge and a small hill, we arrived Nepenthes Camp at exactly 1pm for a short rest and to boil some hot ‘tea’ and by ‘tea’ I mean the natural reddish-brown colored water sourced within the basin available for boiling and drinking. According to our ranger the water is reddish-brown due to the high concentration of dark brown humic acids which cause low light penetration and acidic PH values of 4.3 to 5 – this is why after a few days within the basin, using its waters for washing, you are left with smoother skin, and the wonder if you have actually found the mythical ‘fountain of youth’.
With the time and weather on our side, we packed a small day bag and decided to head towards three nearby waterfalls in the area – Giluk Falls (2.7KM), Takob Akob Falls (3.1KM), and Fauzi Falls (2.8KM). The trek towards the junction where the trail splits into three took us 2.5 kilometers from Nepenthes Camp and we visited Giluk first (described as the easiest to get to), then Takob Akob Falls (the most technical to get to) and lastly Fauzi Falls (described as the most romantic and picturesque – we spent most of our time here). Before night fell, we made our way back to Nepenthes Camp for dinner and lights out by 9pm.
The sleeping quarters at the camps within the basin is best described as very basic expedition styled co-ed steel bunk beds with sparse mosquito netting and a thin canvas-covered mattress (no pillows or blankets). It is advised that one is to bring their own sleeping bags – not only for warmth during cold nights but also for hygiene purposes as small rodents do wander around the room in search of food and mattresses may not be wiped down thoroughly. We hung our backpacks on hooks to prevent them from touching the ground and ensuring no rats bite into our belongings at night. The toilet facilities are also very basic and only cold water from the Maliau River is piped into the showers so if you love getting out of your comfort zone and back to basics, you would have no qualms here.
As dawn approached on the third day of our expedition, we packed our bags to head towards Ginseng Camp and as we were having our quick breakfast, a visitor came lurking around the kitchen veranda, a frequent resident of the camp, a shy black and white striped Malayan Civet hunting for scraps of food leftover from the night before. It gave us a few seconds to enjoy its presence before speeding into the thick bushes surrounding the camp.
The hike took us across 6.5 kilometers through the Nepenthes Garden and over Microphone Hill to reach Ginseng Camp where we will spend our final two nights. We departed at 8am and had a wonderful leisurely stroll at the Nepenthes Garden (just 500 meters from Nepenthes Camp) learning about the various trees, ferns, orchids, and pitcher plant species found in the natural wild garden. About 9 Nepenthes species can be found here with the most famous one being the Nepenthes tentaculata – the smallest one found within the basin, measuring as tiny as your littlest fingernail. The trails around the garden are a labyrinth of different passageways filled with fresh wild boar and deer hoof prints so it is best to stick with your guide as to not get lost.
After a good hour of exploring the garden and taking over a hundred pictures, it started to rain and what a wonderful experience it was when the canopy of tall trees start to cover itself with a blanket of mist creating a mystic atmosphere and the smell of fresh dew drops on the mossy forest floor steam up to engulf your senses – I was certain that this is why they called Maliau Basin the Lost World of Borneo!
At 1pm, we arrived at the T-junction between Ginseng Camp, Maliau Falls, and Nepenthes Camp and making a right we reached Ginseng Camp within 15 minutes. Refreshed and headed towards the nearby Ginseng Falls (just 10minutes walk / 300meters away from camp) – this is by far my most favorite as water sprouted at two sections of this enclosed multi-tiered cliff cove providing one with an exceptional view and Instagram-able photo opportunity.
The bedding facilities at Ginseng Camp is the same as Nepenthes Camp but with a more open concept communal sleeping area. The toilet and shower facilities are bigger with more rooms available to accommodate more visitors, and the grounds and communal areas are bigger and more spacious. Comparing the two camps, my group and I agree that Ginseng Camp is by far better. We took our rest after 9pm and woke up at 3am to observe and photograph the Milky Way shining over the silhouette of trees and our camp.
Our fourth day started at 8am and this was our longest hike yet at about 10 kilometers plus a return trip to Maliau Falls – the famous seven-tiered falls of the basin, usually seen as an icon of Maliau Basin featured on the cover of magazines, calendars, books, and brochures. The trail comprises of flat and few hilly terrains with many opportunities to gather more plant portfolios.
A rare and spectacular experience happened along Kilometre 3 to Maliau Falls, we had noticed a steady rustling of trees in the distance and as we tread quietly we noticed that this became more and more prominent – all of a sudden we heard the call of howling Gibbons and as we looked up towards the branches above, we beheld a rare sighting of one staring right back at us with its arms stretching out over the trees as beguiled to see us as we were to see it. No time for photographs, we thought, for this moment only comes once in a lifetime and is to be embraced by our eyes alone. As swift as it came, it left swinging over the canopy.
We reached Maliau Falls at around 11am and as we came across a sign stating ‘Maliau Falls – No Swimming’, we made our way towards a small passageway towards the right and the forest opened up to a view out of the movie Jurassic Park – a flock of Egrets were surprised by our arrival and took flight following the flow of the river which provided an even bigger ambiance impact. Maliau Falls magnanimously stands as one of the biggest / widest accessible waterfalls in the basin to date. During the low water levels, one may also carefully venture behind the fall to experience what it’s like to be sitting on the mossy floor behind a curtain of flowing water.
On our final night at Ginseng Camp, we compared photographs and shared our individual experiences and we all agreed that there is something very special about Maliau Basin. As we hiked on our final 9 kilometers back to Agathis Camp the next day, with a heavy feeling in my heart as I bid farewell to the mossy primary rainforest of the basin back to civilization. I was left with a profound appreciation of the wonders of mother nature and the important part we play in ‘her’ sustainability.
Our venture into Maliau Basin was not just a mere journey or a beautiful expedition, it was in all its rightful glory, a REBIRTH.
Photography by Charles Ryan & Nasier Lee.