During my first visit to Gaya Island, which lies off Borneo in South East Asia, I had a brief, exhilarating encounter with the famed Borneo rain forest. The forest is said to be 130 million years old. Our guide rattled off other staggering numbers. Borneo, third largest island in the world, has 15,000 species of flowering plants, 3,000 species of trees, and many hundred species of birds and mammals. What we saw on Gaya was but a tiny slice of this stupendously rich forest.
To get to Gaya we flew to KK or Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian State of Sabah. (Is Borneo the only island in the world that belongs to three countries – Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei?)
Our destination was YTL’s 5-star Gaya Island Resort or GIR. We were met on arrival, had our bags loaded onto a van, and twenty minutes later, arrived at GIR’s Reception Lounge at Sutera Harbour.
And that was when Molly discovered she had someone else’s bag in her possession. The black bag resembled hers exactly, she said, but the tag, when we examined it, showed a stranger’s name scribbled in small letters. Molly was crestfallen, but the girl in charge of Reception instantly offered to drive her and Azzat, her husband, back to the airport.
As we sat sipping our welcome drinks, Molly and her misplaced bag on our minds, the transfer speedboat arrived. We were advised to head for the Resort without her and Azzat.
We sped along clear blue waters, KK town further and further behind us, passing many rows of floating huts belonging to the local fishermen. Fifteen minutes later we landed at the jetty, walked up the long wooden ramp and entered the Resort’s reception building, shaped like a Kadazan longhouse. Resort Manager, Kirinjit and his staff warmly welcomed us. We were, after all, friends of Mrs J, organizer of our trip. She and her husband had been frequent guests at the Resort. Also Kirinjit remembered we’d stayed at YTL’s Pangkor Island Resort when he was Manager there.
When Molly arrived, bag retrieved, a smile on her face, we sat down to a big lunch before checking into our chalets.
GIR, like other YTL Resorts, is luxuriously appointed and includes all the expected amenities, and more. The reception, dining and lounge areas are spacious and well laid out. A spiral staircase leads to the Fisherman’s Cove. We dined there by candlelight on our last night while the resident artiste sang, “Fly Me To The Moon”, “You’re Just Too Good To Be True”, and our other favourites of the 60’s. “Baby” Elaine, Regina’s daughter, hummed along with the singer. I was surprised she knew the songs until she admitted to being an ardent fan of Tony Bennett, the 80-something singer. So we have that in common, but certainly not diving, the passion that had brought her to Gaya.
GIR’s 100 or so luxury chalets are built on terraced hill slopes and nestle among lush green trees. Our balcony offered a clear view of the sparkling sea below. We opened our chalet door and faced a huge white bed strewn with fragrant rose petals. Two white swans fashioned out of bath towels rested against the pillows. A long corridor flanked by a table on one side and cupboards on the other, connected the bedroom with the Bali-style bathroom.
I asked myself what had lured me to this island resort? I was essentially a land lubber, unlike Samad who swims laps in the Tropicana Olympic size pool. Molly and Azzat are great swimmers too. They have a pool in their home. I can’t swim, snorkel or dive. So how was I going to spend my time here? However, when we were taken to the lovely private beach at Tavajun Bay after lunch on our first day, while the others swam or snorkeled, I surprised myself by gingerly taking a little dip in the sea.
After getting out of the water, we lounged about and watched a wild boar and her four baby boars who had come for a visit. Obviously looking for food. But what considerably saddened me was to see a very sick turtle that had almost choked on the plastic bags it had consumed. It lay weakly in the water tank at the Bay’s Marine Rescue Centre, hardly able to move. It was being carefully nursed by the people at the Centre and had recently started to eat small amounts of food.
The high point of the trip for me was decidedly following Justin Juhun, resident naturalist, on the Nature Trail. What bliss to fill my lungs with the clean, fresh, fragrant air of the forest! And to be in close, personal contact with so many different kinds of vines, herbs and trees. (I saw my first young ebony tree, its thin, black trunk growing very straight and tall). And to marvel at the forest’s many treasures as they were revealed to us – a fabulous climbing vine, mushrooms of many shapes and shades, some so pale and delicate you immediately felt protective, a brilliant green lizard, a slithery black calamaria, stick insects, a docile green pit viper, and termite hills, big and little.
Justin told me he’d spent many weeks slowly and carefully charting out the Nature Trail, taking enormous precaution not to tamper with, or destroy any precious plant, herb or tree, or animal or insect abode. He’d passed many nights alone in the forest, luxuriating, I have no doubt, in the slightest whisper, sound or movement he heard in the darkness.
He also told me about the injured owl he’d been caring for. Its wings were sadly broken.
We had a surprise lunch on our last day. Regina placed a special order of sea food and had the kitchen turn out aromatic fish soup, steaming siakap in soy sauce, succulent buttered prawns and delicately flavoured fried squid. That’s Regina for you, generous as always.
All in all, I had to admit I’d had a great island holiday. I had thoroughly enjoyed the Nature Trail walk. It was fun watching the Kadazan dances at a beach party they put on for us. While my friends pampered themselves at the Resort’s Spa Village, I went for long walks on the beach. I did justice to all the good food we were served, particularly to the delicious molten lava desert which I couldn’t have enough of. I even enjoyed my brief dip in the sea.
As I left Gaya, however, my mind went back to the wild boar and her young foraging for food at Tavajun Bay. To the sick turtle with the plastic rubbish in its guts. And to the owl with the broken wings. But I took comfort in the thought that they were all safe and being cared for by tender, loving hands.
(Photographs by Samad Yahaya)