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Sabah ‘The Land Below The Wind’

Author: Brian W Fisher
Date of Trip: November 2011

Mount Kinabalu, at 13,455 feet above sea level, is the world’s twentieth highest mountain. Its peak often pokes its head above the clouds whilst its lower parts are shrouded with mist from the surrounding rain forest, which, in turn, rise and mingle into spectacular cloud formations.

Sited in Sabah, Borneo, it draws both novice and experienced rock climbers from many countries, challenging them to tackle its formidable traverses and faces. This author was much too old to join those eager to try, those folk who’d awoken at three a.m., donned their gear and in the tropical temperature, began their quest to reach the summit (where numbing cold awaits) and return to base before what was left of the day’s light, turned itself off.

My tour of Sabah was to be much less strenuous. I wanted to witness and savour some of the other attractions that country could offer ‘Mr and Mrs Average’ tourist, wishing to holiday under the tropical sun and recharge their batteries.

I chose not to fly from the UK via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu but via Bangkok and onwards by using Royal Brunei Airlines. Take-offs and landings were on time and the flight was comfortable enough, although more thought could have gone into the choice and standard of food on offer.

Arriving after dark and facing a 30 kilometre road transfer north to the hotel I’d booked, the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, I did a fast check-in, showered for a bit longer than usual and flopped into bed.

It wasn’t until the following morning, that I took time to inspect my room and its facilities. Having spent many thousands of nights in hotels across the globe, I have to confess that this was the best I’d ever come across — a bit like my description of Mount Kinabalu — ‘it pokes its head above the clouds’.

The room itself was large (as was the bed). Double sliding doors led to its balcony. Not the usual type with a small table, a couple of hard-backed chairs and not enough room to swing the proverbial cat – but one sporting a huge (6ft x 5ft) glazed bathtub, an even bigger lounger bed complete with scatter cushions, a table, a pair of rattan easy chairs, electrically operated privacy screens and an overhead fan that actually did what its designer had wanted it to. Sunset views were spectacular indeed.

What came as a real surprise, was when one of the ‘front office’ staff introduced me to the room’s facilities. She asked, “Please select a preference from the Pillow and the Perfume Menus and I will instruct the housekeeper accordingly.”

Oops! This was a new one on me. I admit now, to having asked her to explain?

“Yes, sir,” she replied, “you have a choice of bed pillows…Full Feather Down – or Dunlopillo – or Memory Foam – and whatever kind of aromatic smell you would prefer in your room overnight.”

Pretty unusual menus eh? I opted for the Feather Down and a room permeation of Jasmine. Brilliant!

As to the hotel’s dining options, I was even more impressed. Housed in separate buildings and sited in various areas of the grounds, each catered for guest’s preferences — Malay specialities — Japanese Sushi — Western a la carte — Indian — Italian — Chinese — American and any combination requested.
I never heard a single complaint about food quality or presentation — no wingeing Poms — no wise-cracking Aussies — no stern Germanic frowns.

The hotel’s staff outnumbered guests by three to one and that delivered impeccable service, no matter in what area a guest happened to be — by one of the three pools – near the beach – working-out in the gym – partaking in a morning routine of Tai Chi, or lounging on one’s own balcony sipping a G & T.

For the golf fanatics, the hotel’s minibus can deposit them outside the entrance to the Dalit Bay Country Club (belonging to the hotel) in less than three minutes. The 18 hole course is sited among the most beautiful scenery, the backdrop to its signature hole for example, being where the azure blue of the sea, meets the gently flowing green of a river — truly stunning!

The Director of Golf (and head coach) Aaron Johnson — an Australian, is an ex professional. Having witnessed at close quarters, his style, manner and demeanour, I can vouch for the comments made to me by players of all categories. Aaron prides himself on being able to offer the absolute novice, the perfect way in which to fully enjoy even lesson number one. Yours truly just watched — not wanting to demonstrate a life-long total lack of hand and eye coordination.

What else? Well, three swimming pools are on offer. A large (three section) one to the front of the hotel’s Ocean Wing, another of equal size but furnished with an array of water slides for adults and children alike, near the Garden Wing, and a smaller (semi-hidden) one shaded with an overhead translucent sheet and sited in a manicured lawn for those who seek seclusion.

A fully equipped gym with expert staff, is large enough for the most nervous of patrons to exercise without being constantly overlooked by the more adventurous and pose conscious — those with bulging biceps and a rippling ribcage.

There’s mini golf, tennis and water sports available too. Constantly evident was space — lots of it — in fact acres of it. This meant, that whatever activity (or otherwise) one chose to indulge in, there was a feeling of freedom.

Of course, many (if not all?) resort hotels offer ‘outside excursions’. From the Rasa Ria one can devote a day to visit the Mari Mari Cultural Village for a glimpse of times gone by and try their hand at Blowpipe Shooting — or travel deep into the Forest Reserves to seek-out the world’s largest flower — the Rafflesia — or venture a mile or so off shore to visit one of the islands located in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (one of which, Manukan, offers guided ventures on underwater scooters where the rider breathes naturally without a mask or mouthpiece). A word of caution and advice. Do ensure that the companies/owners that offer boat transfers to and from the Islands, are licensed and maintain all safety procedures, such as the provision of approved life jackets. Some are (Sea Quest) others are not. Choose wisely.

The highlight and real benefit of being a guest at this hotel, is the fact that it has its own Orang Utan Sanctuary located in the forest, which borders its northern edge. The jungle, its paths and canopy walks are maintained by full time hotel staff and inspected and certificated annually by the Malaysian Wildlife and Forestry Department.

From the building where an introductory film is shown, followed by expert advice from the senior Ranger, guests (for the meagre sum of £10) are then led onwards and upwards into the jungle. The trails are not beyond any able-bodied person to walk along. They lead in a number of directions — one to the highest point atop the hills — another to about a third of the way up leading to the canopy walks — or the third and by far the most popular, the viewing platforms where, twice daily, those on them can watch in amazement, the acrobatics and antics of the Orang Utans, all of which have been rescued and saved from certain death by those who, without conscience, hew, slash and burn the very jungle habitat of these graceful and human-like apes. An hour passes very quickly indeed and a sense of disappointment can be felt as a Ranger ushers the guests back down the trail.

Just when those guests think that their ‘Oos and Ahs’ have been used-up, another very special treat awaits them on return to level ground. A senior Ranger awaits and clinging to him is, ‘Ten-Ten’ an 18 month old female Orang Utan. ‘Up close and personal’ is a must if one is to savour the moment. NO touching of course, as human ailments even as minor as the common cold, can be passed on. For 10 minutes or so, camera shutters click and camcorders are pointed, as the little ape tries its hand at tree swinging — but never more that a few feet away from its carer. When it does stray that little extra distance, it immediately realises the fact, begins to cry and hastily returns into waiting and comforting arms. The entire experience is a delightful mix of ‘awe’ and entertainment as these endangered species display their natural wont — to live in peace and harmony with the rain forest.

Reflecting on what I had experienced in under 2 hours, I was left with mixed feelings. I just couldn’t get out of my head, the vision of illegal loggers shooting dead any and all Orang Utans should they have reached the age of self-reliance (3 to 4 years) and thus leaving behind the young, to die of hunger and depression.

Those I saw at Rasa Ria Resort’s sanctuary, were all orphans but fortunately rescued, loved, fed, cared for and taught to rehabilitate themselves back into what is left of the primeval Rain Forest. I have every admiration for all the Rangers and carers, who devote so much of their own lives to the welfare of the Orang Utans.

I commend the management of the Resort for its dedication and persistence in this field and compliment (and urge) the General Manager, Timothy Wright, in continuing to maintain and develop such a vital endeavour.

On a closing note, as with any country, there are myriads of other things to see and do. I merely ‘scratched the surface’ during the 12 days I spent there.

What is certain however, is that I’ll allocate more of them when I return.

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