Lauren Haywood fondly recounts her Gap Year Adventures in Borneo
As someone who was lucky enough to visit Borneo this summer, I can wholeheartedly say that I can’t recommend it highly enough. My highlights were visiting the orangutan sanctuary, Sepilok, exploring the jungle, and climbing Mount Kinabalu, which reaches 4,095m above sea level. This was not only a highlight of the trip, but also one of the most rewarding (and difficult) experiences of my life.
Sepilok was founded in 1964 and was the first centre in the world to dedicate itself to the rehabilitation of orphaned orangutans, with Borneo being one of the the only two places in the world where orangutans are found in the wild. It was a particularly exciting visit for us as my Dad was one of the volunteers who helped to build parts of the sanctuary when he lived on the island over 20 years ago. Two essential stops are the nursery (where you can watch the youngest orangutans playing, eating, and getting up to ‘monkey business’) and the feeding platform, where we were fortunate enough to see a mother and her baby feeding for quite some time. The whole experience was incredible, and given the rate at which orangutans are disappearing from the wild, something that we may not have long left to enjoy. Plus, the staff and guides were some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met – they are clearly so proud of their home and so honoured to have people visiting and learning about their culture and wildlife.
In the jungle we stayed in an eco-lodge and embarked on two river cruises, which was another amazing experience. We saw orangutans again, this time completely in the wild, and hundreds of macaque monkeys, some of which were just a few weeks old. There were also crocodiles – a baby and its mother – and a variety of different birds.
When my dad asked me and my sister if we wanted to climb Mount Kinabalu, I naively thought it would be a chance for a bit of a walk and a few photos. Perhaps when he started to ask if I’d been doing any training I should have realised this was a serious mission, or when locals on the island would make comments like ‘Oh wow good luck!’ or ‘Get ready for the pain!’. Pain? Surely they were being overdramatic? I can confirm that they were not.
As we approached the mountain on the morning of our climb, my dad excitedly pointed out the peak that we’d be ascending, and it was at this moment that some words popped into my head that I won’t repeat. 4,095 meters is high. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the climb up Mount K. is steps –thousands of very steep steps. Nonetheless, the first few hours of the climb went well, the weather was great, and the sense of anticipation was rising.
With around an hour of climbing for the first day still to go, we encountered the worst weather in my life – perhaps the word ‘rainforest’ should have served as some kind of warning. It was the kind of rain where within seconds it’s already soaked through the three layers of clothing your mum told you you’d need to wear even though it’s a tropical country in July. However, we eventually made it to the lodge and the views were more amazing than we’d even expected.
We left the hut at 2:30 am the next day, in order to ensure that we’d be at the summit for sunrise. Despite the fact that getting up in the middle of the night to embark on an intense physical challenge wouldn’t usually be at the top of my holiday to-do list, we were all so excited, and the view of the stars as we climbed was breath-taking.
The temperatures plummeted and the effects of the high altitude started to set in, but sat on the top of the highest peak in southeast Asia with my dad and sister, watching the sun rise, was one of the most surreal moments of my life. It’s something that will stay with me much longer than the achy legs did (although I did have the ‘Mount K walk’ for a few days after). It sounds like a cliché but it really reminded me how small I am, and how incredible the world is. Quite literally, the climb was tough – but the view was great.
On the way down we completed the ‘Via Ferrata’ course, which is essential when you are absolutely shattered after coming off the summit: they attach you to a ropes course and have you scale across bare rock face and clamber up rope ladders that are hanging over sheer drops – aka, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. It’s like Go Ape’s bigger, scarier brother – on steroids. But we did it, and it reminded me how rewarding getting out of your comfort zone can be.
So, definitely visit Borneo! There is so much to discover on this magnificent island – traveling southeast Asia doesn’t just mean going to beach parties in Thailand on your gap year. Trips like these change your life, reminding you how incredible the world is, and how blessed you are to have the opportunity to experience it.
To read more about people’s adventures abroad, check out these articles:
Or, to discover more about Borneo’s weird creatures, check out the Creature Feature: The Probiscus Monkey