Borneo is one of those rare cruising areas: it is world class but no one seems to know and very few yachts visit. The name “Borneo” invokes images of pristine jungle and untouched islands, but it is very rarely talked about as a potential yacht charter destination.
Yet some of the seas surrounding Borneo are home to coral atolls, oceanic islands, pristine beaches, crystal clear waters, and one of the best dive sites in the world. Even Borneo’s interior is a great opportunity for yachts which are able to sail up giant rivers that meander through dense tropical jungle and where an abundance of nature & wildlife await.
Starting from Sarawak or Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), or Brunei (Bruneian Borneo) or East Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), there are myriad options for the adventurous. However, it is the Malaysian state of Sabah which is an ideal departure point for yacht charter expeditions.
Sabah, one of Malaysia’s 13 states has long been an exciting holiday destination for lovers of nature, culture, diving and adventure. Known as the “Land Below the Wind”, this lush corner of Borneo lies outside of the typhoon belt free from major climatic disturbances. Sabah almost seems unfairly blessed in terms of natural beauty, not to mention a stable society and rapidly developing economy.
For visiting yachtsmen and women there is much to explore, from tropical islands, including coral atolls (Layang Layang) and oceanic islands (Sipadan), to giant rivers (Kinabatangan) and the 4000m high Mount Kinabalu. For more information about tours and travel in Borneo see www.discoverborneo.com
Interested in a yacht charter in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo)? Please enquire.
Sabah’s West Coast
Sabah’s west coast presents a huge variety of activities and sights to see, including marine parks, wreck diving, jungle trekking mountain climbing, white water rafting, duty free shopping, great dining and city
• Kota Kinabalu
• Kinabalu Park
• Tunku Marine Park
• Pulau Tiga
• Pulau Labuan
• Klias Wetlands
Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, is an ideal base for yachts, having both an
international airport and excellent marina facilities. Undoubtedly this this lush corner of
Borneo will one day be one of Asia’s most popular yachting destinations and the
government has been working hard to enhance the attraction for boating tourism with a
series of new developments. In the nearby port of Labuan a public marina has recently
been completed, and more facilities are sure to follow.
From Kota Kinabalu the most accessible islands are in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. From here one can travel up or down the west coast towards scenic bays, rivers, and islands with attractions above and below water. North of Kota Kinabalu is Mantanani, notable for resident dugong (sea cows), a sheltered anchorage, deserted white sand beaches and typically crystal clear waters. Just 35 nautical miles south of Kota Kinabalu is Pulau Tiga (the original “survivor” island fromTV). Geothermal activity below the centre of the island has created warm bubbling mud baths which are not only relaxing to sit in but also therapeutic. Here one can stretch the legs on nature trails which take you through the jungle. Resident wildlife include macaques, giant monitor lizards, wild boar, and hornbill. Further north is Mengalum Island, where you can have a hand at fishing in an area that is known for Dogtooth and Yellow fin Tuna. The adventurous divers among you may want to venture further north again to a coral atoll called Layang Layang. Layang Layang is famous for its resident schools of Hammerhead sharks, and incredible underwater visibility that rarely drops below 30 metres.
After a cruise, visitors can set their sights on climbing the majestic Mt Kinabalu, SE Asia’s highest peak, or take on a white water rafting challenge on one of the major rivers flowing down from the Croker Range. Culturally, there are many places of interest from traditional “kampung air” (water villages), longhouses and the famous House of Skulls where the local Kadazan tribe displays trophies from a not so distant, headhunting past. A sejour in Kota Kinabalu offers the opportunity to relax tired muscles at a 5 star beach resort and pamper oneself with shopping, spa therapies and fine dining.
Sabah’s Northern Tip
Remote and idyllic, with untouched beaches, has good facilities for yachts with Kudat Marina and adjacent dry dock. A good stopover on the way around Sabah or up to the Philippines.
• The Tip of Borneo
• Rungus Longhouse
Discover the secluded northern beaches and islands of Borneo, starting from the sleepy and idyllic town of Kudat. Kudat, once the capital of British North Borneo, used to be a stop-ever point for ships carrying cargo back and forth from Labuan to Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan or up to the Philippines.
This northern region is still very rural, however with a new marina, golf course, and a planned tropical villa development, the northern most tip of Borneo promises to be a cruising playground of the future. The area’s natural beauty is set to harness a new wave of discerning travelers seeking the ultimate tropical lifestyle away from the crowds of the enduringly popular Bali & Phuket.
Furthermore, adjacent to the marina in Kudat is a small dry dock, with haul out by travel lift, making it an ideal place for yachts to carry out minor maintenance and repair work whilst in Sabah.
Kudat is also the heartland of the Rungus tribe, a subsection of the Dusun people. Many Rungus still live in longhouses (communal dwellings where each family has their own sleeping and cooking quarters but shares a long verandah) and visits can be arranged offering an insight into the customs, music, dance and cuisine of this traditional culture. Offshore, past the northern tip of Borneo, are the islands of Banggi, Balambangan and Malawali, which are gazetted to become Malaysia’s newest and largest Marine Park.
However, please beware of the shallow fringing reefs surrounding these islands. In fact the reef hazard means that there are several shipwrecks for the underwater adventurer to explore, many from WWII, lying in 20 to 50 metres of depth.
Banggi, Balambangan and Malawali are only accessible by boat. Banggi itself is the largest island in Malaysia with an area of 440 square km, and is very quiet with a population of only 20,000. These islands offer a real escape and feeling of isolation, with empty white sand beaches, jungle covered hillsides, clear waters, beautiful bays, reefs and mangroves. Here there are indigenous people who still live in isolation from the modern world and retain century-old traditions.
Sabah’s East Coast
Sabah’s east coast is a wildlife paradise, with some very notable marine and terrestrial national parks,
conservation areas, and wildlife sanctuaries.
• Kinabatangan River
• Sepilok Orang Utan Centre
• Turtle Island
• Langkayan Island
The East Coast of Sabah is divided from the West Coast by the rugged Crocker mountain range and visitors often fly into Sandakan which becomes the starting point, or gateway, to a remarkable wildlife safari.
In Sandakan itself is the world renowned Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. Known not only for its contribution to the research and rehabilitation of the Orang Utan’s, the centre also focuses on the study of the endangered Bornean Rhino. Labuk Bay Conservation Area is another 30 minutes from here and known for the Proboscis or long-nosed monkeys. A visit to the Sandakan yacht club, together with the English Tea house and the Agnes Keith museum, are all that remain to remind the visitor that this was once a charming, even idyllic, outpost of the British Empire, replete with white chapels and picket fences. For a sense of this forgotten age, Agnes Keiths memoire (“Land Below the Wind”) is a highly recommended read.
Sailing out of Sandakan Bay and into the Sulu Sea we find the serene and secluded tropical islands of the Turtle Island Marine Park. The park has an important turtle breeding program, the first and largest in South East Asia, and they are safe-havens for both Green and Hawksbill Turtles. A few hours further north, Lankayan Island, known for Whale Shark spotting, holds crystal waters and healthy coral reefs. In diving circles Langkayan is highly regarded as a “macro” paradise.
Sailing south of Sandakan we can find the mouth of the Kinabatangan, the second longest river in Malaysia, with a length of 560 kilometers from its headwaters in the mountains of southwest Sabah, to its outlet at the Sulu Sea. A wide river with deep channels, navigable for yachts with shallow drafts, the Kinabatangan is known for its remarkable wildlife including large primates, crocodiles, snakes and elephants, and fascinating habitats such as limestone caves at Gomantong hill, riverine forest, oxbow lakes and salty mangrove swamps.
A helicopter flight, or off road 4×4 drive, provides the serious nature lover access to the remote but spectacular Meliau basin, and/or the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, known for Pygmy Elephants, and the rare Borneo Rhinoceros.
Sabah’s South Coast
Incredible diving and snorkeling, crystal clear waters, beautiful white sand, coconut scattered beaches.
In 1989, after filming one of his last documentaries, Jacques Cousteau said “I have seen other places like Sipadan, 45 years ago, but now no more. Now we have found an untouched piece of art”.
To go scuba diving in Sipadan is to literally take a plunge into a hyper-diverse underwater world. Almost nowhere in the world can one find a richer variety of coral reef, plant, fish and animal life than around the reefs of Sipadan. Rated as one of the 10 best dive locations in the world, and soon to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sipadan is Malaysia’s only oceanic island rising vertically 2,000 feet from the seabed (she was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone in a process that took thousands of years to develop). With clear waters, pristine beaches, awe inspiring wall dives, mysterious turtle tombs, and an outstanding array of marine life, Sipadan is a gem of creation.
Here one can find hordes of greenback and hawksbill turtles, residential schooling barracuda and big-eye trevally which often gather in thousands forming spectacular tornado-like formations. With the possibility of seeing pelagics such as mantas, eagle rays, scalloped hammerhead sharks and whale sharks, each dive at Sipadan is a highly anticipated event.
Located in the heart of the Sulu-Sulawesi ecoregion, Sipdan, and also the islands of Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking, and the Tun Sakaran Marine park, are at the centre of the richest marine habitat in the world, with more than 400 species of corals, 1000’s of species of reef fishes, 6 of the world’s 8 species of marine turtles, endangered marine mammals, and more than 400 species of algae and 16 species of seagrass. Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking & the Tun Sakaran Marine Park also offers some of the best opportunities for divers & underwater photographers to view rare and beautiful macro life such as flamoboyant cuttlefish, blueringed octopus, seahorses, and mating mandarin fish.
Nearby, Semporna is home to the Bajau sea gypsies and numerous “kampung air” watervillages where houses are built on stilts. Each year, the Bajau traditions are celebrated during the the ‘Lepa-Lepa’ regatta in April (Lepa Lepa are traditional hand crafted boats used by the Bajau sea gypsies of Semporna).