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Into the Jungle in Sabah

In the wilds of Sabah, a village is opening an untamed forest to help preserve the rainforest and their own culture. By MARCO FERRARESE. Photographed by KIT YENG CHAN.

Published on Jun 29, 2017


WE PUSH THROUGH A SNARL OF VINES, bend under low-hanging branches and hike a rugged path until we stumble upon a stream. Machete in hand, our young guide Herman Solungin jumps over the slippery stones that peek above the surface. He lands safe on the opposite side, but we hesitate. The bottom of the riverbed looks like a nasty place for a fall.

"Put your right leg on the second rock and use that hanging liana to balance. Be careful, it's very unstable," Eddie Chia, the tall Sabahan-Chinese our tour leader says. This 38-year-old is the reason we have entered the depths of this forgotten jungle, a place that, until now, has been only visited by researchers, rangers and, sadly, the occasional illegal poachers.

Ulu Telupid canopy
The towering Ulu Telupid canopy.

About 100 more treacherous rocks and 30 minutes later, we emerge sweaty, breathless and awe-struck at the bottom of a waterfall that crashes into a bowl of boulders. My legs are shaking but it's a fine price to pay to stand where I am, surrounded by century-old giant trees, and dwarfed by the wicked power of the Kopuron waterfall roaring above me.

I'm among a precious few to have stood in this very spot in Ulu Telupid, a protected rainforest reserve located in the center of Sabah on the eastern fringe of the Heart of Borneo conservation area. Despite its perfect location as a pit stop between the lures of Mt. Kinabalu and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, this lush slice of the country has never seen tourism until now. Before being gazetted as a Class 1 Forest Reserve in 1984, Ulu Telupid was used for palm-oil farming and timber logging, and it never occurred to the Dusun, Sabah's largest ethnic group, that their home might be an adventure-travel draw. Some residents of neighboring Kampung Bestaria village migrated to Ulu Telupid in the 1970s to work in the logging industry, while others have lived here for generations, surrounded by this bountiful resource, oblivious to its potential.

Everything changed since 2016, when Chia teamed up with the villagers of tiny Kampung Bestaria to form the grassroots cooperative KOBEST (Koperasi Kampung Bestaria; +60 13/858-0699;; two-day, one-night packages for two from RM520), a contraction of Koperasi and Bestaria, and start guiding the first visitors into the reserve. This community is the birthplace of Chia's Dusun wife Nelly, so he has all the more reason to be invested in its well-being. His goal is to bring new funds to the village by easing access to the area. Today, travelers just have to send KOBEST an e-mail and the organization takes care of everything, from dealing with the permits required to visit the reserve, to pick-up in Telupid town, to organizing custom tours that follow the rugged paths carved and maintained by KOBEST themselves.

A young KOBEST
A young KOBEST helper demonstrates how to tap rubber.

"I see the cooperative as a program, more than a product," Chia says. It's one with parameters: the community weighs in on every decision, and tourism revenue is considered secondary to farming and agriculture income.

Chia has a long history with jungle tourism. In the 1980s, his mother was branch manager of Api Tours, the pioneering travel company that started operations in Sepilok. "During school holidays, my mom would take me with her in the jungle to help as a dishwasher and a porter." He remembers shuttling around the battery of her first Motorola cellular phone—it weighed 25 kilos. "Back then, traveling in Sabah was more authentic: accessibility was limited, you had to bring anything you needed in the jungle, and we had to rely on local communities to provide accommodation and food," he says. "That's the concept I have for the co-op."

A stay here is a dive into pure Borneo. Visitors enter a world governed by the rhythms of nature, participating to the Dusun tribe's daily rituals, such as farming mountain rice and palm oil. Sharing communal meals on the floor of their host families’ homes, guests are surrounded by smiling elders and gurgling newborns. The dishes are simple, and everything from the chicken cutlets to shredded papaya to the brown rice comes straight from the surrounding hills.

"We are still discovering new patches of forest, opening new trails and trying the best approaches to bring visitors in," Chia says, bending over a map of the area, his tiny round spectacles falling towards the tip of his nose. The area has plenty of assets to draw a crowd—two gushing waterfalls, giant trees, and some of the world's rarest species of flowering plant—but part of the grand plan is to keep visitation sustainable. "We don't want to bring more than 60 visitors per month into the jungle," he says. When nature is the commodity, conservation is paramount, and KOBEST's guides are tasked with keeping foot traffic low, minimizing impact on the jungle, helping block illegal poaching and logging activities and, of course, educating visitors.

Kopuron Waterfall
Kopuron Waterfall.

"We want people to come to Kampung Bestaria and experience Dusun culture while they learn about the issues the rainforest is facing," he says. If this project proves successful, Chia plans to take it to other rural communities across Borneo. The concept is a lot like the jungle that inspires it. With a little love and care, who knows how far it will grow?



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Life proliferates in Malaysia's Ulu Telupid forest reserve.
  • An egret.
  • A deer farm outside Telupid.
  • Harvesting rice.
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