Maliau Basin: Trekking Sabah's Lost World

BY NICHOLAS HEARD, 15 March 2019

About Maliau Basin

Nestled amongst Borneo’s interior lies Maliau Basin, aptly named Sabah’s Lost World due to its isolation and the fact that it was unexplored by outsiders until the early 1980’s. The unique geological bowl formation of the basin creates a massive water catchment with all water sources leading to the Maliau River, the only point at which water can escape the basin. The water then flows on to the Kuamut and eventually the Kinabatangan River highlighting Maliau Basin as an important watershed for rivers downstream.

Maliau Basin Aerial Shot

Maliau Basin is a natural forming bowl with a self-contained ecosystem within

Encircled by a formidable escarpment, that reaches 1,675m above sea level at its highest point, the almost circular basin encapsulates one of Malaysia’s finest wilderness areas. The basin supports a virtually self-contained ecosystem of pristine forest that covers around 390 km2 with some regions remaining completely unexplored until today. Due to the isolation of the flora and fauna of Maliau Basin there are several species that can only be found within the basin with many endemic plant species occurring at the higher points of the rim.

Maliau Basin was recognised as a place of natural significance and biological wealth by Malaysian authorities in 1981 with Yayasan Sabah declaring Maliau Basin a conservation area for research, education and training. The Maliau Basin Conservation Area, which includes the buffer zone around the basin itself covers 58,840 hectares and held little legal protection until the 1997 when it was given Class I Protection Forest Reserve status, the highest classification given to forest reserves in Sabah. Today researchers and tourists are the main visitors to the conservation area conducting research and embarking on multi-day trekking adventures.

Getting to Maliau Basin

Going to Maliau Basin means you will be embarking on a truly wild adventure to Sabah’s interior. The nearest major towns with airports are Kota Kinabalu or Tawau. Driving from these locations will take around 6 and 4 hours respectively with road conditions being poor in sections. If you are leaving from Kota Kinabalu you will first make your way to the rural town of Keningau before continuing to the Maliau Basin Study Centre. Unfortunately there is not quick way to get to Maliau Basin by road, however venturing this far into Borneo’s interior will really make you feel like you are stepping off the map.

Maliau Basin Accommodation

Maliau Basin Study Centre

The first night for all visitors will include a night at the Maliau Basin Study Centre where you will have the option of staying in a dorm, the resthouse or a chalet. With few people venturing this far into Borneo’s interior the chances of having this place almost to yourself are pretty good. A team of research assistants and park rangers stay at the Study Centre full time at staff accommodation. The dorms are really nicely positioned with each wing of the dorm equipped with comfortable bunk beds and toilet & shower block. There are two dorm rooms with two wings coming off each dorm making this a quiet and comfortable lodging option whilst at the Study Centre.

Maliau Basin Study Center Aerial Shot

Aerial view of the Maliau Basin Study Centre and the surrounding forest

Agathis Camp

The Agathis Camp was formerly a camp that marked the start of the trail up and over the rim of Maliau Basin, however all that remains now is a dilapidated old building and a bench area to do a last minute pack adjustment before heading into the forest. Rumour has it the camp was destroyed by elephants and was never rebuilt.

Agathis Camp

Last minute packing at the disused Agathis Camp

Ginseng Camp

If you are doing a 4D3N itinerary this will be your base during your time within Maliau Basin and is a 9km walk from the Agathis Camp. Located next to the tranquil Ginseng Falls this remote camp provides visitors the perfect spot to overnight in the forest. Facilities are basic but comfortable with beds equipped with rubber mattresses and pillows and a common area to enjoy your meals. If you arrive at camp early enough after your first day of trekking you will have the afternoon to enjoy a refreshing swim at the nearby Ginseng Falls to cool down for the day.

Ginseng Camp

Aerial view of Ginseng Camp and the adjacent Ginseng Falls

Nepenthes Camp (Formerly Camel Trophy Camp)

The first stop within Maliau Basin for the 5D4N itinerary is the Nepenthes Camp and is located approximately 7.5km from the Agathis Camp. The Nepenthes Camp offers you the chance to check out a couple of extra waterfalls including Takob Akob Falls and Giluk Falls which you can explore the afternoon you arrive at the camp providing you have time. There is also an observation platform at the Nepenthes Camp that you can climb to give you a better perspective of the surrounding forest.

Nepenthes Camp

Nepenthes Camp with the tree platform in the background

Other Remote Camps

There are a number of other remote camps throughout Maliau Basin which are used primarily as weather data collection stations or for researchers exploring sections of the basin more further afield. These camps are very basic and not usually open to tourists. Whilst our 4D3N & 5D4N itineraries will give you a good taste of trekking in Maliau Basin longer treks are available upon request if you are looking to spend more time in the basin and make the most of your natural surroundings.

Activities at Maliau Basin

Trekking

For the vast majority of tourists visiting Maliau Basin the main focus for activities will be trekking. Trekking in Maliau Basin requires a great deal of fitness due to the long days and the steep, sometimes difficult terrain. If you are considering embarking on a trekking adventure in Maliau Basin you will need to have a good level of fitness to be able to tackle each day’s trekking quota.

Maliau Basin Trekking

Trekking through Maliau Basin will put you face to face with some true forest giants

From the moment you step foot on the trail to the moment you return to the Agathis Camp you will be dwarfed by the towering virgin jungle around you. The core area of Maliau Basin has never been logged and is a great example of primary Bornean rainforest, a truly remarkable experience. Standing below one of the towering agathis trees that are endemic to Malia Basin not only makes you feel small but also gives perspective on the fact that Sabah is home to the tallest trees in the tropics. Walking along the trails will make you feel like you have completely left civilisation behind becoming fully immersed by nature. Whether rain or shine there is no escaping whatever mother nature decides to throw at you.

Wildlife

Although Maliau Basin is considered one of the best examples of primary forest is Sabah it does not necessarily support huge wildlife populations. Although you can see wildlife within Maliau Basin and around the Study Centre we do not suggest Maliau Basin as a wildlife destination if you are wanting to see Borneo’s iconic animals. The primary forest consists of trees that tower tens of metres above the forest floor making it incredibly difficult to spot wildlife in the canopy. As Maliau Basin receives few visitors the wildlife is not as habituated compared to other more suitable wildlife destinations.

Beetle

A beetle found during a night walk at the Maliau Basin Study Centre

Some of the creatures that can be observed, although with difficulty, include North Borneo gibbons, hornbills, deer, civets and leopard cat. Optional night drives are offered when you stay at the Study Centre and if you are really lucky you may see elephants if they are in the area. We do not guarantee any wildlife sightings at Maliau Basin so if you want to combine some jungle trekking with wildlife sightings a more suitable destination is probably Danum Valley.

Swimming

There’s nothing quite like having a swim to cool off after hours of trekking to refresh and catch your energy. Be sure to have a change of clothes handy so that you can take a swim at any of the waterfalls. You can spend the afternoon cooling off at the waterfalls near Ginseng and Nepenthes Camps if you arrive with enough time spare for the afternoon. Ginseng falls are quite close to camp whilst Takob Akob Falls and Giluk Falls require a little more trekking from Nepenthes Camp and will require dedicating the afternoon to go exploring.

Ginseng Falls

Ginseng Falls makes for an idyllic setting to take a refreshing swim after a long day of trekking

The undeniable highlight of Maliau Basin is visiting the multi-tiered Maliau Falls and will also be the furthest point you will trek to. You will have the chance to take a dip and enjoy your packed lunch at Maliau Falls to cool off from the trek in. This section of the Maliau River can become a raging torrent after heavy rain so it is not advisable to go swimming if conditions are not safe to do so.

Trekking to Maliau Falls

Maliau Falls is undeniably the highlight for visitors going to Maliau Basin and is the most stunning accesible section of the Maliau River. The Maliau Waterfall consists of 7 tiers and lies at the heart of Maliau Basin. Getting here requires a solid trek down into the basin with some steep sections during the descent to really test the knees. At this point along the trail you begin to feel like you have really stepped off the map and dived deep into the Bornean wilderness. The strength of the water flow at the Maliau Falls will depend on the amount of rainfall that has been encountered upstream.

Maliau Waterfall

The trip highlight the 7 tiered Maliau Waterfall in full flow after heavy rain

While we were there we experienced heavy rain the night before visiting Maliau Falls and were greeted to a roaring torrent with the falls in full flow. Usually it is no problem to go for a swim, even at the base of the main falls, but the flow was so strong we opted to stick close to the edge away from the current. The return walk takes you back up the same steep trail you took to get down and there is no sugar coating the fact that it’s a difficult, hot climb back up.

Maliau Basin Trekking Itineraries

The first day of the journey will take you from Kota Kinabalu, over the Crocker Range and onto the rural town of Keningau where you will have a short break. The journey from here will continue to the Maliau Basin Study Centre, around 3-4 hours from Keningau. Depending on what time you arrive you will have the opportunity to settle into your accommodation and take an afternoon walk around the centre to try and spot some of the local wildlife. We do not recommend Maliau Basin if you are visiting Borneo to see wildlife specifically. Whilst you can see wildlife this is not the most ideal destination for wildlife encounters. After dinner you will embark on an optional night drive in a 4×4 along the road to the Study Centre spotlighting for wildlife. Settle in for the evening to rest up before your first day of trekking.

Take an optional night drive at the Study Centre on your first night in Maliau Basin for a chance to spot some of the local wildlife

Rising early the next day you can take another brief walk around the centre to spot birds in the morning and listen to the sounds of the forest come to life for the day. The nearby Belian Camp is situated next to the Maliau River with a suspension bridge that crosses the river providing nice views of the surrounding forest. Finish up breakfast and have everything ready packed for your trek (spare items can be stored at the Study Centre). Next we will take a vehicle one hour to the entrance of the trail located at the Agathis Camp. Driving down the dirt road you are met by a seemingly impenetrable wall of jungle that makes up the base of the outer rim of Maliau Basin.

Belian Camp

The suspension bridge next to the Belian Camp traces over the Maliau River and provides nice views of the surrounding forest

Once bags have had their final pack and adjustment you will begin the first day of trekking in the basin. Unfortunately there is no easy way to tackle the first day of trekking as you climb up the rim of Maliau Basin. Although not overly steep the constant incline will certainly give the legs a good workout, especially if you are carrying a fully loaded bag. Best to have some long distance trekking practice under your belt before tackling a trekking adventure in Maliau Basin. The route and the amount of time you spend within Maliau Basin will depend on the itinerary you have chosen.

Trekking in Maliau Basin

Trekking in Maliau Basin is no easy feat but the rewards are breathtaking

Those doing a 4D3N itinerary will spend the next two nights at Ginseng Camp whilst those on the longer 5D4N itinerary will spend the next night at the Nepenthes Camp followed by two nights at Ginseng Camp. See our product page for the full Maliau Basin 4 Day 3 Night Teaser Itinerary and Maliau Basin 5 Day 4 Night Full Loop Itinerary.

Threats to Maliau Basin

Coal Mining

In recent times local government has proposed mining the rich coal reserves that sit below Maliau Basin’s surface. The ludacris proposal has been heavily opposed by local Sabahan’s and would stand to cause irreversible damage to the unique ecosystem. As Maliau Basin also serves as a vital watershed for major river systems in Sabah the flow on effects from a disruption to this ecosystem would be felt far and wide. Irreversible damage would be caused downstream not just for the flora and fauna but for the people and communities who depend on these ecosystems for their livelihoods and way of life.

Say no to goal

Gaharu Poaching

Poaching of this scented timber is causing a silent extinction that is occurring throughout Borneo via the illegal harvest of gaharu wood, also known as agar wood. Agar wood is formed in the heartwood of aquilaria trees when they become infected with a type of fungus (Phialophora parasitica). Once inoculated with the fungus the heartwood of the tree becomes dark and aromatic and is used in incense, perfumes and small carvings. Gaharu wood is probably the most expensive natural product in the World, 2010 prices estimated a value of $100,000/kg for premium quality product and is an industry that shows no signs of slowing.

Aquilaria tree

An aquilaria tree felled by gharu poachers, left to rot as it did not contain the aromatic resin

In order to harvest the raw product teams of poachers will wander the forest in search for aquilaria trees, which they chop down with axes to reveal whether or not the tree has formed gaharu wood. There is no effective way to tell if a tree has been inoculated or not, in many cases aquilaria trees are simply chopped down and left if they do not contain the resinous heartwood. Both catching poachers and protecting aquilaria trees is incredibly difficult as poachers constantly stay on the move to avoid detection and it’s difficult to protect individual trees.

A solution to protect wild populations of aquilaria trees is to harvest gaharu wood commercially by planting the trees and manually inoculating them with the fungus. This can already be seen in rural parts of Sabah with varying degrees of success and hopefully proves to be a sustainable way of harvesting this tree in the future.

Logging

Whilst Maliau Basin enjoys the highest level of protection awarded to natural areas in Sabah there is alway the chance that the protection status is changed to allow logging within the protected area in the future. At this current point in time government departments see the value in conserving this unique wilderness area for generations to come and we hope to see continued protection well into the future.

The huge stands of Bornean hardwood timber within the protection area are highly valuable for commercial timber production. In early 2018 government officials were called into question over allegations of illegal logging operations within the protected area. These accusations were quickly dismissed with authorities stating that Maliau Basin is categorised as a totally protected area and could not be licenced for logging.

Start planning your Maliau Basin trekking expedition

Fitness Preparation

There is no sugar coating the fact that trekking in Maliau Basin can be tough. The steep terrain and pressing humidity make for some pretty challenging trekking conditions. On average a day trekking in Maliau Basin will cover around 10 km in distance so it is definitely worth making the effort to do some training beforehand. It would be ideal to give yourself a month or two to prepare doing some long distance trekking in your local area to build up your stamina. It might also be a good idea to do some practice carrying a pack while you train if you plan to carry your own gear during your time in Maliau Basin.

Getting the right gear

Making sure you have the right equipment can mean the difference between staying comfortable in the remote wilderness of Borneo and being miserably unprepared. For trekking adventures the key thing to remember is having you ‘wet clothes’ that you can get all sweaty in and that you will use during the day and your ‘dry clothes’ that you will change into at the end of the day and sleep in. The key items to keep you comfortable during your trekking adventure include a comfortable backpack, trekking boots (make sure they’re worn in), comfortable clothing and walking poles if you require the extra support.

Booking Your Trip

It’s always a good idea to plan ahead with your holiday preparations, especially if you are wanting to include multiple destinations in your itinerary. During peak tourist periods in Malaysian Borneo accommodation and availability at some of the hot destinations can fill up quickly. Making your travel and booking arrangements early will save you missing out on the opportunity to see all the Bornean destinations on your wish list.

A wilderness area like no other the challenge is worth the reward exploring Maliau Basin