IS it safe there? Won’t you be kidnapped?” a friend living in Subang Jaya asked when she found out I was going to spend my birthday in Danum Valley, Lahad Datu, Sabah.
“It is safe. It is unlikely that Danum Valley will be a target,” I said. “Just say I’m kidnapped there, the kidnappers would have to drive two hours and 30 minutes on a 92km gravel road to the main road.
“By the time they reach the main road, security forces would be waiting for them.”
I had made a quick decision to visit Danum Valley, one of the top 10 wildlife spots in the world, after Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz told Parliament that he would not guarantee the safety of tourists in Lahad Datu until two cases of kidnapping were solved.
Nazri was referring to the case of fish breeder Chan Sai Chuin, 32, abducted in Kunak on June 16, and of marine policeman Kons Zakiah Aleip, 26, kidnapped from Pulau Mabul in Semporna on July 12. Both are held in Jolo island, southern Philippines.
As a Sabahan, I felt that the Tourism Minister’s statement gave a false impression. The two kidnappings happened in Kunak and Semporna waters, about 70km and 160km respectively from Lahad Datu town.
It is also not fair to link Lahad Datu, home to tourist destinations such as Danum Valley and the Madai Caves, to the kidnappings.
I’ve covered kidnappings off the east coast of Sabah since the Sipadan kidnappings in 2000 and the Filipino kidnappers have not struck darat (land) targets.
Eight days ago, I arrived in Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur International Airport with four hours to kill before my one-hour flight to Lahad Datu. My 30-something brother-in-law picked me up at the KK International Airport and he complained that his tourism business in Kundasang (famous for Mount Kinabalu and 466km from Semporna) might be affected by the Tourism Minister’s statement. “It is going to be peak season soon, as it will be school holidays,” Jaivin said.
Nazri’s statement was a big blow to those in Sabah’s tourism industry, 90% of whom are Sabahans.
That night in Lahad Datu town, over a dinner of buttered prawns and grilled fish, I discussed the situation along the east coast of Sabah with security experts.
They told me that after the change of leadership in Esscom (the Eastern Sabah Security Command), there have not been any kidnappings since August. They, however, cannot be 100% certain there won’t be another abduction attempt.
“But it will not happen on darat in places like Danum Valley or Tabin Wildlife Reserve or other parts of Sabah outside the east coast. These kidnappers are water-based,” the security expert said.
The next morning I travelled via four wheel drive to the award-winning Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley.
On the way, the tour guide woke up me as a galloping sambar deer crossed the gravel road. It was too late for me to shoot the deer with my smartphone camera.
The luxurious Borneo Rainforest Lodge is surrounded by green gold – “43,800ha of pristine and undisturbed tropical flora and fauna home to more than 340 species of birds, 120 species of mammals, 72 species of reptiles, 56 species of amphibians”.
In their 2012 visit, Prince William and Kate Middleton spotted three orang utan near the lodge.
“How difficult is it to spot endangered animals in Danum Valley?” I asked Borneo Rainforest Lodge jungle operations manager Calixtus Laudi, who earlier told me “there is no guarantee that you’ll see an endangered species here as we are not a zoo.”
“There is a 45% chance of seeing the orang utan,” Calixtus said. “It is rare to see a clouded leopard, there’s a 60% chance of seeing a pygmy elephant, very rare to see a Malayan sun bear and impossible to see a rhino.”
“How about Sulu gunmen? Any sightings?” I asked.
The question stumped the seasoned 44-year-old jungle operations manager.
“No! We’re 92km from the main road. There is only one road in and out of this place. Only authorised vehicles are allowed to enter this area,” he said.
The next day I was back in Kota Kinabalu for a lunch meeting with Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun, Sabah Tourism Board general manager Datuk Irene Charuruks and her team.
“We should leave it to the wisdom of the Home Minister or Defence Minister to advise tourists whether to visit Sabah.
“Even the Inspector-General of Police has stated that Sabah is safe and we should believe him,” Masidi said.
He continued: “When I read the messages on social media, overwhelmingly, people are confident that Sabah as a tourist destination is safe.”
Masidi was referring to the #SabahOKbah campaign spearheaded by #BeyondPitas. Using the hashtag, the NGO hopes to change the perception that Sabah is a dangerous place to visit.
“Let’s organise a social media contest,” Masidi told his team. And @MasidiM tweeted: “Starting today (24/11) Sabah Tourism Board is offering weekly prizes for Best Sabah Photo (scene), Best Tagline & Most Retweeted. Use #SabahOkBah”. Yesterday, I tweeted my tagline: “The only risk is falling in love with Sabah.”
On my way out of Danum Valley, we spotted a pygmy elephant having lunch along the road. It was a rare birthday treat to see a live elephant.
I’ll be returning to Danum Valley, as Sabah is OK bah.
- The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.