I had to admit I had some trepidation about booking with a travel company over the internet after hearing so many horror stories.
I worried that a lot of the transfers and connections would fall through and we would be stranded. I needn’t have worried.
The trip was seamless. Perfect. Our itinerary spanned 3 weeks and took us from Kota Kinabalu to the caves in Gunung Mulu, Sarawak and back to KK where we spent a day exploring the Klias Wetlands and the base of Mount Kinabalu under our own steam.
Then we flew to Lahad Datu and travelled 3hrs by dirt road to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the Danum Valley where we stayed for 3 days.
We travelled to Sepilok and stayed just outside the Orang Rehab Centre, before going on to Myne Resort and spending 3 days exploring the Kinabatangan River by boat as part of the Boutique package.
The wildlife was incredible and Myne Resort’s staff were very hospitable going out of their way to help us with any requests, even scheduling extra boat trips or walks at night if we were so inclined.
We travelled by private car (no tour buses on this itinerary!) to the Gomantong Caves where traditionally birds nests for bird nest soup is harvested, then to Labuk Bay Proboscic Monkey Sanctuary (this is very underrated and I personally enjoyed it far more than Sepilok as it was far less crowded).
We went on to the water villages and markets in Sandakan after visiting the Buddhist Temple, but our guide accomodated our request to make a last minute detour to visit the Sandakan War Memorial where 2,400 Australians died in the Death Marches from the POW camps there in the Second World War.
As we are Australian, this was a moving experience and our guide intuitively understood how important it was to us.
We flew south to Tawau and travelled by road to Semporna where we took a boat to Kapalai Dive Resort – the diving was amazing and winning the Sipidan permit lottery meant I fulfilled my dream of diving one of the holy grails of scuba.
It certainly lives up to its reputation with turtles the size of coffee tables and schools of barracuda.
Even though my partner is a non-diver, she was well looked after and had plenty to do with snorkelling and kayaking and she was never bored.
The chalets are on stilts, in a water village style, on a sandbar in the middle of the Celebes Sea and it felt very exclusive.
Danum Valley held a special place in our hearts and was head and shoulders above the rest, only equalled by Kapalai.
Virgin rainforest bursting at the seams with wildlife everywhere you look. We would often trek four different trails each day even at night, through mud, with leeches throwing themselves at us.
We were apprehensive about the leeches and humidity, but quickly it became second nature and we were in love with the place.
One particularly memorable day, we woke up to the sound of gibbons and walked along the rainforest canopy walkway with the trees and surrounding hills covered in mist.
We spotted a wild female orang utan and her baby. And hornbills. And tree snakes. And langurs. And macaques.
The list goes on and on. We even saw a pair of the rare Bornean Bristlehead, which had fellow birdwatchers in the party extremely excited.
We walked to Jacuzzi Pool, but pressed on and walked on to a couple of beautiful waterfalls, with nothing but the call of birds and gibbons to break the silence.
There was movement in the canopy all the time. Our guide, Yoktan, was brilliant. The night before he spotted sambar deer, flying squirrels, owls, tarsiers, tarantulas, civets, wild boar and many other animals for us with uncanny ease on a night drive on an open-top 4WD.
We climbed to View Point and the view over Danum Valley took our breath away. We then moved on to Coffin Cliff and visited the burial site of Kadazandusun head-hunters on the rock face above the valley. Then descended to Jacuzzi Pool for a welcome dip and some therapy with fish nibbling our toes.
We did more trekking through the rest of the day including at night and spotted another orang utan, this time a fully grown adult male with the cheeks.
At lunch the resort manager, Edmundo, convinced Kirsty to touch a non-venomous tree snake which was resting on the balcony. No mean feat, as Kirsty has a snake phobia!
But the day wasn’t over yet. I had tipped off the Borneo Rainforest Lodge team that I was planning something special. When we arrived for dinner at the restaurant, which is open on two sides to the forest, we were met with a table with a floral arrangement.
My partner heard the pop of a champagne cork behind us and they served two glasses of sparkling wine. I got down on one knee and popped the question and she replied yes without seeing the ring, which was sitting at the bottom of her glass.
25 of the staff came over, surrounded us and started strumming guitars and singing Ronan Keating’s “This I Promise You”.
It was a night to remember, under the stars.
I had never wanted to propose in Paris – I always found that too cliched. The staff threw themselves into the proposal.
You see, they had even carried sparkling wine to Jacuzzi Pool earlier in the day in anticipation of my plan to propose there and set up a romantic lunch back at the lodge for when we returned.
But when Kirsty decided she didn’t want to go for a swim, and I did, and she only dipped her feet in the pool, I motioned to Yoktan that it wasn’t happening then.
He discreetly radioed the lodge and the plans changed quickly. And it happened later that night, over dinner. It worked out so much better.
This is the thing about Borneo; flexible, a slow relaxed time, and the magic is always happening. The magic is everywhere.
If you are an eco-tourist and you want to visit Sabah in Borneo, book through DownBelow. They will make your trip perfect and effortless.
And spend a little bit extra to stay at Borneo Rainforest Lodge and Kapalai Dive Resort. They will make dreams come true.
Because of how magic the trip was, and how seamless it all was, my partner who always wanted to travel in the safety and convenience of well-trodden Europe, has now decreed that our next holiday will be to Costa Rica…..
I can’t wait!
Alex Harrison, AUSTRALIA