Maliau Basin is one of the world’s finest remaining wilderness areas. It encompasses over 390 square kilometres of pristine rainforest in the south-central part of Sabah, Borneo, in Malaysia. The rainforest is so dense that less than 50 percent of it has ever been explored.
Today, the Maliau is awaiting UNESCO World Heritage Site status, which would help with conservation efforts. Funding is required to support initiatives like the construction of a network of trails that would allow small group treks to explore this unspoilt jungle accompanied by a local guide.
The ‘Lost World’ of Sabah
Surrounded by steep and forbidding slopes on all sides, the basin, which covers an area slightly larger than Singapore, is unapproachable on foot. There are no roads, only winding rivers and a lush tropical rainforest. The inaccessibility has kept this remote paradise hidden from humankind for millions of years. It was first spotted in 1947, when a British pilot flying from the west coast of Sabah to Tawau nearly ran into the steep cliff rising over 915 metres above the jungle floor. Maliau Basin has since been dubbed Sabah’s ‘Lost World’ due to its unique and mysteriously intact biodiversity.
The land of Maliau Basin has never been permanently inhabited. Although the people of the Murut tribe arrange yearly hunting trips into the area, they are the only regular visitors and no record or proof of their settlement exists in the forbidding basin. In fact, to date, only 25 percent of the entire area has been mapped.
The whole basin is one single water catchment and drains through a canyon in the south by one river, the Maliau River, which flows out into the Kuamut River, eventually joining Sabah’s largest and most important waterway, the Kinabatangan River. Back in Maliau, there are over 30 waterfalls – the most famous of which is the spectacular seven-tiered, 28-metre cascade known as Maliau Falls – making it the most waterfall-rich area in Malaysia.
Daring to Enter
Today, intrepid travellers up for a challenge can arrange a visit to this real ‘lost world.’ Maliau Basin contains over 70 kilometres of trails, and visitors must be accompanied by a guide at all times. To trek the land of Maliau Basin requires good physical fitness as the trails range from easy to steep and the terrain can be challenging.
Though a porter is provided to carry food supplies, hikers are responsible for carting in their own personal belongings and water, unless they are willing to pay an extra fee for additional porters. Exhaustion may take its toll gradually, but it is best to stay focused upon the various species of flora dwelling throughout this unexplored haven. Trekkers stay at campsites equipped with basic facilities where one’s guide is officially the ‘jungle chief.’
The basin is incredibly rich in botanical wonders. It contains no less than 12 distinct forest types, including Upland Sandy Clay, Agathis Tree, Riparian, Montane Heath and Floodplain. There are an estimated 1,800 tree species in Maliau Basin, where 54 are currently listed as endangered or close to extinction. Among the flora that can be found here are 75 dipterocarp species, nepenthes, rhododendrons and rafflesia flowers, as well as at least 80 rare and endemic orchids. Nine species of carnivorous pitcher plant can also be found living in the very low nutrient soils of Maliau.
Although much of the terrain remains unexplored, Maliau Basin has already revealed itself to have the most complex interaction of wildlife on the planet. Over 82 mammal species has been recorded so far, many of them endangered like the Sumatran rhino, Asian elephant, clouded leopard, Malayan sun bear, orangutan, sambar and barking deer, bearded pigs, banteng, civet and the wild ox that has been extinct in peninsular Malaysia for over half a century.
To date, an impressive 300 species of bird have also been found, including the endemic Bulwer’s pheasant and Bornean bristlehead. No less than one quarter of the bird species found in Maliau Basin is listed as threatened by IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature).
Protecting the Mega Biodiversity of Maliau Basin
In 1997, the Sabah State Assembly announced Maliau Basin as a Class 1 Protection Forest Reserve and increased its size to 588 square kilometres, adding additional forested areas to the north and the east of the basin. Maliau received further protection in 1999 when it earned status as a cultural heritage site under the state’s Cultural Heritage and Conservation Enactment.
These days, efforts are underway to make Maliau Basin Malaysia’s third UNESCO World Heritage Site after the historic cities of Melaka and Georgetown on the Straits of Malacca. Earlier this year, the prime minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, paid a visit to the rainforest. He has high hopes for Maliau Basin’s inscription into the list of official UNESCO sites. He observes that an international level of attention and protection afforded by an institution like UNESCO would help keep Maliau unspoilt for important scientific research that is already underway. He also noted that UNESCO status would attract more of the right kind of tourism to the area.