Gaya island off Sabah is beguiling

A reader takes us to one of the hottest destinations this year – Kota Kinabalu – and one of its ‘natural pearls’, Pulau Gaya.

FROM the deck of a speeding motor boat scuttling along at 25 knots, I saw Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, growing fainter every second until it finally blended in with the surrounding colours of blue, green and turquoise, like an artist mixing paints – only this time, it’s made by nature’s exquisite “hands”.

I was in this vast expanse that lies between 6°N and 116°E of the equator once before, two Septembers ago. Lingering in my memory are the trips I had made to the stilt houses of the sea gypsies, and the murky waters of the Kinabatangan river. Then there were the perilous treks along the war memorial trail that often led to uncharted jungles, and encounters with strange creatures as well as listening to stories about head-hunters and blowpipes.

Although Borneo is mountainous with impenetrable areas of rainforest, just a 15-minute boat ride off the coast of Kota Kinabalu lies Pulau Gaya.

The Sabahan captain, who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old, directed our attention to a swarm of bright multi-coloured clown and parrot fish that glistened like jewels under the midday sun as our boat approached the jetty.

Arriving in Pulau Gaya, I found myself surrounded by lush ancient rainforest, and

the South China Sea beyond. On my left, were verdant foliages under a cerulean sky and, just over the horizon, a stunning silhouette of the highest mountain in Malaysia – Gunung Kinabalu.

We had booked a canopy villa in the relatively new Gaya Island Resort. The structure exudes a tribal vibe of the indigenous Kadazan, Dusun and Dayak people. Perched atop a hill, one can enjoy a view of the rainforest from there.

A commitment was established in July last year for Gaya Island to carry out conservation efforts in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.

This 3km park, Sabah’s second, is named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and consists of five beguiling islands – Manukan (which means “fish”), Sapi (meaning cow), Sulug (in honour of Sabah’s Sulu people), Mamutik (which means shell collection) and lastly, Gaya (meaning big). Formerly part of the Crocker Range, the islands ended up adrift from the mainland massif right after the last ice age.

Among the rocks and mangroves stood immense trees adorned with vines. Monkeys swung from branch to branch.

The other creatures that inhabit the small 593ha island include the herons, monitor lizards, iguanas, snakes and cicadas, which came out from time to time to mark their territory.

Somewhere in this natural sanctuary, in plain sight, was “Bobby”. A group of island dwellers led by resident marine biologist Scott Mayback had found him floating on the sea, almost lifeless.

Some turtles often mistake the plastic bags for jellyfish; by ingesting them, they can suffocate and even die. Fortunately, Bobby was eventually nursed back to life.

The island exudes an air of tranquillity and nature’s bounty. Absorb it all by exploring the jungle, observing life underwater, having an afternoon picnic (with food served in earthen skillets), marvelling at the glorious sunrise and hopping on a yacht just to catch the sweeping sunset or by navigating to a private beach in Tavajun bay, which is just a stone’s throw away from the resort.

The night comes softly and the sky, lit up by with stars and the moon, cast an amazing glow on the landscape. Here, time is set by the roar and rhythm of the tides, a ceaseless percussion that penetrates deep down to the soul for some quiet reflection.

On my last day there, I

reluctantly said goodbye to our canopy villa, the friendly Sabahan residents, Gaya Island ... and Bobby the sea turtle. It had been a good two days of sun-dappled bliss.

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