Just 15 minutes by boat from downtown Kota Kinabalu lies a different world.
Here, Gaya Island still has most of its primary forests and wildlife intact. Even if you’re not the type who likes camping, don’t worry, there is the plush Gaya Island Resort that allows you to combine luxurious pampering with nature.
Actually, the “jungle trekking” is likely to begin soon after you leave the wood-themed reception area – most of the villas are built amid huge trees and clambering lianas.
The resort decided not to have golf buggies whizzing about to bring guests to and fro, so you get a first-hand experience of what it’s like to walk past, and be immersed in, a glorious rainforest.
I wish more Malaysian resorts were built this way, making the most of the natural features with minimal disturbance to the existing vegetation, rather than bulldozing the land and building some cookie cutter hotel that looks pretty much the same anywhere around the world.
It took me five minutes to get to my villa, which was blessed with a magnificent view of the sea and the mainland of Borneo.
Gaya Island is part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a group of five islands just off Kota Kinabalu. Measuring about 1,500ha, the island was gazetted as Sabah’s second National Park back in 1974.
There are several “water villages” on stilts here, but some 85% of the island is still covered in forest.
This is why the resort is bold enough to boast of its “Seven Wonders” which include proboscis monkeys and red giant flying squirrels.
A group nature walk with the resort’s guide, Iffah Syazwani Ramsah, began with her pointing out various interesting species of flora found right in the resort’s grounds.
One of them was the buta-bute tree.
“This tree has a poison that is used to catch fish,” she explained. “But we are planting many of these trees here because they attract fireflies. One day, we may have an Earth Hour type of experience where guests can see the fireflies when all lights are switched off.”
From the comfort of the wooden boardwalk, soon enough, it was time to get our shoes into the earth, by entering the jungle proper.
We saw the source of incense fragrance: hardened resin exuded from the injured parts of huge trees.
And then there was the “termite air-con”, a mound (on a bush) full of countless small holes built by termites to cool and ventilate their main nests underground.
When I asked Iffah where she studied ecology or zoology, she replied that she was actually trained in hotel hospitality, but had learned by experience and by reading.
The proboscis monkeys were elusive on this particular day, but we did see several largish lizards scampering up tree trunks.
Later, at Tavajun Bay, a short boat ride away, I saw some large wildlife – several bearded pigs which often come to the beach to forage for food. At the Gaya Island Resort Wildlife Centre, officially launched in October, guests can check up on whatever they have seen during their walks.
Over the past three years, the three staff members here have painstakingly assembled a wealth of photographs and background information – all neatly put into folders – on the wildlife found here, which includes over 60 species of moths, 50 species of birds, 30 species of fungi, 20 species of butterflies, 20 species of spiders, and eight species of frogs.
Iffah told me that it was relatively easy to spot the white-bellied sea eagle and the oriental pied hornbill. Other species here include those with exotic names such as St Andrew’s Cross spider, Sunda pangolin and Inger’s dwarf frog.
The resident naturalist here is Justin Juhun, who grew to love wildlife when his family was awarded a rare licence from the Sabah Wildlife Department to look after animals (which had been displaced by logging) in a small patch of forest behind their house near Tawau, Sabah.
He could rattle off Latin names of what’s found on Gaya Island like a scientist. What’s truly amazing is that he is self-trained.
“I studied hotel management. I have worked in housekeeping, at the front desk, and even as a pastry chef assistant,” recalled Justin. “I’m glad I got the chance to return to my first love, which is nature conservation.”
Another staff member here, Jamie Era, was a pool attendant and receptionist before.
“I started with zero background knowledge,” he confessed. “But Justin used to bombard us with questions and we learned things.”
As I left the wildlife centre, I noticed that the cloudy skies had cleared up. And across the sea, the signature silhouette of Mount Kinabalu loomed majestically. Ah … this is Sabah!
The delights of Gaya Island Resort are not only found on land, but in the water.
The resort has a quasi private beach (with a marine centre) that is a five-minute boat ride away.
Since its launch in October 2013, this centre has successfully rescued, treated and rehabilitated two Hawksbill and nine Green Sea Turtles.
Scott Mayback, the resort’s resident marine biologist who hails from New York City, said that the centre has taken in injured or sick turtles from other resorts or from government agencies.
“We’ve seen all kinds of cases. Many turtles were hit by boats or propellers, while others were victims of fish bombing. Many of the badly injured ones did not make it,” he recounted.
“We’ve also had sick turtles which died. When we did autopsies, we found their stomachs full of plastic bags. Turtles eat them thinking they are jellyfish. This is why it’s important not to litter. Things you throw will often end up in the sea.”
He added that the resort is working on buying its prawns only from fishermen who use turtle-friendly nets (that allow accidentally caught turtles to escape).
Another initiative is to collect broken pieces of coral and replant them.
“I stick the pieces into blocks of cement,” explained Mayback. “I prefer this method to planting corals on frames made from plastic pipes or metal because cement won’t break down in the sea.”
Later, back at the main resort jetty, Mayback became my snorkelling guide. There were lush schools of striped fusiliers and other smaller fish moving like clouds right under the jetty. It felt like a mini version of Sipadan, which is famous for its swirls of jackfish.
Mayback skin-dived down (without any scuba tank, that is) several times to point out the coral replanting cement blocks and some giant clams amid the resort’s “house reef”.
The ultimate sight was a 50cm-long cuttlefish which looked like it had running rows of LED lights as it changed its camouflage colours!
The visibility here varies with the tidal currents, and an hour of snorkelling can have both clear and cloudy water.
Which is why I snorkelled again after my lunch. This time, the sea was clearer and I caught sight of batfish, barracudas, butterflyfish, largish groupers and even pufferfish. I did wonder for a moment if the resort’s Japanese teppanyaki restaurant served this delicacy, before reminding myself that this is a marine park.
To top it off, a swarm of about 100 parrotfish swam into view and began pecking at the corals!
After all that swimming, it was time for a traditional Sabahan oil massage. The resort’s spa has a soothing setting amid the mangroves – the perfect environment for a relaxing rubdown. What a way to end my trip.