Sabah's Lost World
The The Maliau Basin is located in the
heart of Sabah and is also known as ‘Sabah’s Lost World’ due to its
relative late ‘discovery.’
The Maliau Basin Conservation Area is adjacent to the Yayasan Sabah
(Sabah Foundation) Concession Area, about 190 km from the town of
Tawau (on the southeast coast) and some 40 km north of the
Kalimantan (Indonesian) border at between 116º 44' - 117° 3' E and
4° 41' - 4° 56' N. Access to the basin remains difficult and to get
to its seven-tiers waterfall one has to trek through impenetrable
jungles for three days; alternatively one can take a helicopter
The basin is characterised by its dens lowland rainforest with
complex river systems and beautiful waterfalls. More than 50% of the
basin remains unvisited by humans. The estimated number of species
in the Maliau Basin approximates 240,000. This accounts for 38% of
the total number of species in Borneo. Many of the species are
endemic or are listed in Red Data Book of IUCN (International Union
for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources).
The 588.4 km² (58,840 hectares) Maliau
Basin Conservation Area encompasses the whole of the Maliau Basin
itself (390 km²), plus an additional 198.4 km² of forested land to
the east and north of the rim, including the fabled Lake Linumunsut,
Sabah's only true lake, formed by a landslide blocking a small
tributary of the Pinangah River.
While the entire region is rugged, the saucer-shaped Maliau Basin is
distinguished by its almost circular perimeter, sharply delimited on
all sides by cliffs or very steep slopes, making it insurmountable
on foot from most directions. The highest point is on the north rim,
at over 1,675 m in elevation, but has yet to be accurately surveyed.
Resembling a volcanic caldera, the 25 km diameter Basin is in fact a
sedimentary formation comprised mainly of gently inclined beds of
sandstone and mudstone.
The Basin represents a single massive water catchment area and is
drained by a set of radiating tributaries of the Maliau River, one
of which descends a magnificent series of waterfalls, known as the
Maliau Falls. Numerous smaller waterfalls have also been discovered
throughout the Basin. The Maliau River then drains through a gorge
through the southeast of the basin into the Kuamut River, which in
turn feeds into the Kinabatangan, the longest river in Sabah.
The local Pensiangan Murut have for
times immemorial conducted yearly hunting expeditions into the
Maliau Basin, and according to Lantir from Tataluan even reached the
seven-tiers waterfalls within the basin. However, it was not a
‘discovered’ area until 1947, when a WWII pilot almost crashed into
the cliffs of the Maliau Basin escarpment. According to the pilot
the cliffs ‘might be higher than Mt Kinabaloo,’ which of course
turned out not to be true but only much later: in 1960 a first
expedition by the Geological Survey Department team of North Borneo
reached Kuala Maliau outside the basin but did not enter. Sensibly,
in 1970 the Maliau Basin was as part of the Gunung Rara
Class II Commercial Forest Reserve
incorporated into Yayasan Sabah Concession Area. Then, in 1976 the
Forestry Department's Botanical Survey team attempted to ascend the
north escarpment but failed to reach the rim. The basin held fast to
its reputation as ‘Lost World’ even in 1980, when a Sabah Museum
team ascended the north rim but was forced to turn back because of
illness and lack of supplies. In 1981 Yayasan Sabah voluntarily
designated the area as a Conservation Area to be set aside for
research, education and training purposes. First Yayasan Sabah
survey parties dropped off by helicopter on the north rim to
demarcate the Conservation Area boundary, cut a trail and construct
three helipads. The first organised reconnaissance trip into the
basin was undertaken by Yayasan Sabah in 1982 to draw a preliminary
visit to plan a 1988 scientific expedition. In the meantime, in 1984
Yayasan Sabah designated the Maliau Basin a Conservation Area, with
the approval of the Sabah State Cabinet, and in 1986 an expedition
team of four entered the Basin from the south-west rim and trekked
to Kuala Maliau. The 'Jalan Babi' (Wild Pigs' Trail) was laid out
during this expedition. And in 1987 the BHP Minerals Company
undertook extensive geological survey work throughout the Maliau
Basin and surrounding areas to assess the likely extent, depth and
quality of coal seam resources.
In 1988 finally came the first major scientific expedition to Maliau
Basin, jointly organised by Yayasan Sabah and WWF-Malaysia. The
report resulting from the expedition outlined findings related to
geology, soil, hydrology, geomorphology, climate, plant studies,
animal studies and human impact. From this expedition it was brought
to light that Maliau Basin was unique, with several new species for
Sabah discovered in that expedition alone. Besides its research
output, this expedition resulted in a widely screened documentary
film entitled "The Lost World of Sabah".
In 1991 the Sabah State Government commissioned a Preliminary
Environmental Impact Assessment of the proposed coal development in
Maliau Basin. The study, undertaken by a Canadian consulting
company, included significant inventory work on plants and
vertebrates in the hitherto unstudied eastern side of the basin. The
findings disclosed that if mining is to be taken even with stringent
environmental guidelines, related activities would still have
serious impact on the basin, through increased access to
prospectors, hunters, gaharu and rattan collectors, besides wider
effects on the Ulu Kinabatangan generally.
In 1992 Raleigh International prepared a research field station
inclusive station building and a helipad on the south plateau, and
in 1993 Camel Trophy constructed the ‘Camel Trophy Camp with the
assistance of the Camel Trophy participants. In 1994 Raleigh
International surveyed and explored the south plateau and discovered
the Takob-akob, Giluk and Mempersona Waterfalls.
In 1996 the second Maliau Basin Scientific Expedition was jointly
organised by Yayasan Sabah, University Malaysia Sabah and the
Ministry of Tourism and Environmental Development, Sabah, carrying
out a more detailed study of the south-western part of the Basin,
making up approximately 10-20% of the total Basin area.
In 1997 the State Assembly of Sabah elevated the Maliau Basin
Conservation Area into a Class I Protection Forest Reserve and
increased its size from 39,000 to 58,840 hectares to include the
outer northern and eastern escarpments and Lake Linumunsut. In the
same year a preliminary camp (the Agathis Camp) was set up near the
southern rim of the Basin, and the following year the Inter-Agency
Maliau Basin Management Committee was set up.
Only in 1999 a security gate and access road were constructed, and
work started by Yayasan Sabah and DANCED (Danish Cooperation for
Environment & Development) on a three-year preparation of the Maliau
Basin Conservation Area Management Plan. At the same time a new camp
near the mouth of the Maliau River was constructed, the Belian Camp.
Intensive field surveys started in 2000, as part of the preparation
of the Maliau Basin Conservation Area Management Plan, and in 2001 a
first major expedition reached Lake Linumunsut in the northern part
of the basin.
2002 saw the ground breaking for the Maliau Basin Studies Centre
site by HRH Prince Henrik of Denmark and Tan Sri Datu Khalil bin
Datu Haji Jamalul, the Director of Yayasan Sabah. In 2003 the Belian
Camping ground was officially opened by the Sow-A-Seed Foundation
(IKEA), Yayasan Sabah and Trekforce Expedition.
Flora & Fauna
The Maliau Basin Conservation Area encompasses a diverse assemblage
of forest types, comprising mainly of lower montane forests, rare
montane heath forests and lowland and hill dipterocarp forests.
Dominated by majestic Agathis trees, the lower montane forests,
which also contains oaks, laurels and conifers such as Dacrydium
species, grades into mossy cloud forests on the northern rim.
A distinctive feature of the lower montane forest are the many
Dipteris ferns, lining the river banks. The water here is tea-coloured
and acidic, due to the tannins leaching out of the peaty leaf
litter. The stunted montane heath forests occur on flatter areas of
the basin on nutrient poor, acidic soils. Ant plants, rhododendrons
and pitcher plants are common.
Dipterocarp forests are found mostly on the basin’s outer flanks and
in the interior valley bottoms. They are rich in fruit trees and
attract many animals, some of them exceedingly rare and even on the
brink of extinction in other parts of Sabah.
Over 1800 species of plants have so far been identified, including
six species of pitcher plants and at least 80 kinds of orchids,
several of which are new records for Sabah. The rare Rafflesia tengku-adlinii
has also been found in the Maliau Basin, one of only
two known localities in Sabah, the other being near Trus Madi.
Although much of the terrain remains to be explored, the Maliau
Basin Conservation Area has already revealed itself to be the home
of some of Sabah’s most rare and endangered species, including Pigmy
Elephants, Orang Utans and Proboscis Monkeys. Others amongst the 82
mammal species so far confirmed include Clouded Leopards and Malayan
Sunbears, while on the fringes of the Conservation Area, Banteng (tembadau)
and the elusive Bay Cat have been seen.
An impressive list comprising some 270 bird species has been
recorded, including Bulwer’s Pheasant, Giant Pitta, Bathawk, Bornean
Bristlehead and all eight in Borneo living species of hornbills,
together with several rare montane birds, otherwise found only on
Mount Kinabalu and Trus Madi.
While the acidic waters of Maliau Basin are proving to support
relatively few fish species (only three to date), more than 30
species of amphibians have been found, including a frog which makes
its home in pitcher plants!
Amongst the multitude of invertebrates discovered are at least two
species that are new to science: a water beetle baptized
Neptosternus thiambooni and a crab Thelphusula hulu.
How to Get to the Maliau Basin & Accommodation
Access is restricted and it is recommended that the tour is
organised through a tour operator in Sabah; there is basic
accommodation at the camps, but for those exploring the core area
they have to camp.
photos to be added soon