With large swathes of rainforest waiting to be explored, Malaysia’s beautiful island region of Sarawak is fast becoming a prime destination for travellers seeking adventure.
Here you’ll find fairytale caves, crashing waterfalls, forests of towering tapang trees and limestone sea stacks in weird and wonderful shapes. Trek under the canopy and you may be lucky enough to spot orangutans, proboscis monkeys and even a rhinoceros hornbill bird, which takes pride of place on Sarawak’s coat of arms.
Sarawak has more than 24 national parks and reserves open to the public, all protecting habitats including beaches and coastal mangroves, hilly inland regions and mountains along the Indonesian border. Here are five adventurous ways to get a taste of the region’s extraordinary flora, fauna and geology.
1. Hike Bako National Park
Bako National Park, on a finger of land poking into the sea north of Kuching, has an excellent network of hiking trails criss-crossing its nearly 11sq miles. These come in a whole range of lengths and difficulties to suit all travellers, from gentle meanders from the park visitor centre to more challenging treks of up to six miles that will fill a few hours. Base yourself in one of the forest lodges so you can hit the trails first thing to avoid the midday heat and see the best of the wildlife.
The park has seven separate ecosystems, including mixed dipterocarp forest, areas of mangrove and stretches of grassland. The vegetation can shift within a few hundred metres from tropical rainforest to varieties of flora that grow on stonier ground. Much of it comes supersized; you can pass between the folded trunks of vast durian trees and wind beneath umbrella-like palm leaves. All around is the undulating rattle of cicadas, and at times the sound of water falling into hidden pools.
Among the animals living in the forests is the endangered and endemic proboscis monkey. Its protruding round belly and large pendulous nose make this unique animal easy to identify within the dense rainforest foliage. There are also long-tailed macaques and silver-leaf langurs, with their characterful tufted hairdos. Look for soil by the trailside that’s been disturbed by bearded pigs, and perhaps a green pit viper curled around a branch. The particularly beady-eyed might spot a flying lemur resting among the trees.
Beyond the lush rainforest and the trails, Bako National Park’s coastline is also truly inviting, with quiet bays and secluded beaches, craggy clifftops and some spectacular rock formations — including a famous natural sea stack that looks like a rearing cobra.
2. Scale the Fairy Cave
The former gold-mining region of Bau, an hour from Kuching, offers some excellent outdoor activities to get the heart pumping, from rock climbing to mountain biking through forests, past lakes and cabins that were once used by gold miners. The standout highlights are its caves, including the Fairy Cave, dating back around 170 million years. It gapes from high up a cliff face, and explorers need to scale four flights of steps to reach the entrance. Once there, join the Twilight Trail, which winds for 1,125 feet through the vast cavern.
It’s easy to believe there are fairies here; during the day, an opening in the roof of the cave casts a soft light, and the outcrops of karst limestone inside are covered with mosses and plants that give the place a grotto-like feel. Towards the rear stands a stalagmite that looks like a standing fairy-like figure; in the past, people would come here to pray before it. Various legends surround the form: according to locals, a young boy was cursed by the fairy for relieving himself in the cave… You’ve been warned.
3. Discover Piasau Nature Reserve
From unpromising beginnings, Piasau Nature Reserve has become a conservation success story. Lying on the northwest coast, 20 minutes from Miri — a city that mushroomed after the discovery of oil in 1910 — this was once a camp containing the living quarters of Shell employees. At its height, there were 202 houses here; it would not have been considered as a nature reserve. But in 2013, a poacher killed an endangered oriental pied hornbill that had bred for several years in a hollow tree at the camp. The outrage that ensued resulted in a decision to return the region to its natural rainforest state.
The accommodation blocks were dismantled and irrigation systems installed to help rehabilitate degraded forest areas. A ‘tree adoption’ programme was launched to encourage funding from individuals and businesses. Five zoned gardens are planted here — including a mixed species garden and a fruit tree garden — and you can now walk trails through them and the wider rainforest. This is a project still in its infancy, but already nature is on the march back to rude health, with walks accompanied by the calls of kingfishers and frogs, and the swish of branches as long-tailed macaques leap through the canopy. Even better, the former mate of the deceased hornbill found a new mate, and the pair — nicknamed Jimmy and Juliet — can often be seen in the forest.
4. Trek Niah National Park
Niah National Park, located in the north of Sarawak, is the site of one of Borneo’s most important archaeological discoveries: a skull dating back at least 40,000 years. The cave where it was discovered is an epic place, with its roof soaring like a cathedral, bats roosting in dark corners and swiftlets screeching and wheeling overhead. Nearby, a second cave contains ancient wall paintings and several wooden boat-shaped coffins.
Journeying into the caves is a memorable experience in its own right. Start with a short boat ride across the Niah River before joining an atmospheric 1.8-mile trail through the rainforest, where vines snake around the buttressed trunks of binuang trees. From somewhere deep in the forest come the soft, deep calls of bulbul birds, a sound like someone blowing into a bottle. A copper-coloured stream bubbles alongside, and once in a while the gnarled surfaces of limestone cliffs emerge dramatically from the greenery before disappearing once more. It’s a backdrop that could easily grace an Indiana Jones film.
5. Visit Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, just 30 minutes’ drive south of Sarawak’s capital, Kuching, was originally set up in the 1970s as a rehabilitation centre for orangutans that had been injured or rescued from illegal captivity. Since then, it has become a 1,600-acre reserve with a troop of around 30 orangutans and a thriving rainforest habitat.
The reserve contains several wooden platforms among the trees that rangers stock with food between March and September, when fruit is otherwise scarce. Twice daily, visitors can follow a trail to a viewing area in the hope of seeing some of the troop coming to feed. There are no guarantees, but some orangutans will usually descend from the canopy to the platform when there’s food to eat. If you’re lucky, you might be there when Annuar pays a visit; the troop’s dominant male with distinctive face pads. It’s certainly an encounter to remember.
There are regular flights to Kuching from Heathrow via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Brunei. For more information, visit sarawaktourism.com