Mystifying Maliau - 'Lost World' That Time Forgot

By Mohd Azhar Ibrahim  January 07, 2009 10:53 AM

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 7 (Bernama) -- In 1947, a World War II British pilot was heading towards Tawau when he flew over what he thought was a mist-shrouded jungle. But as the cloud dissipated, he found himself encircled by a wall of steep cliff rising some 915 metres above the jungle floor.

This serendipitous discovery was reported in the Borneo Bulletin which was first published in 1953; it did not generate much interest.

Surrounded on all sides by wickedly steep and forbidding slopes, Sabah's 'Lost World' covering an area slightly bigger than Singapore is insurmountable by foot in all direction.

The only way in is at the point where the Maliau River - the only one flowing here - exits the basin. But even this is guarded by a series of impressive waterfalls and gorges. Inaccessibility has led to its natural secrets being hidden from mankind for millions of years.


Earlier attempts to scale down the escarpment in 1960, 1976 and 1980 failed and the explorations were confined to its perimeters.

In 1981, a survey party from the Sabah Foundation landed in a helicopter and managed to cut a trail which enabled a 43-member expedition to spend three weeks in the Maliau Basin in 1988.

The expedition opened a Pandora's Box of surprises, unveiling the mystery and beauty of a world untouched by the passage of time; where nature and wildlife coexists in perfect harmony, tucked in what seemed to be the very edge of the world: A 'Jurassic Park' sans dinosaurs.

The indigenous Murut from the nearby forest, believe that a dragon dwells in Lake Linumunsut - Sabah's only freshwater lake - at the bottom of the basin. They stay clear of the basin, only going on annual hunts for the bornean bearded pig that thrives at its periphery.

The Maliau Basin harbour an unusual montage of 12 types of tropical forests, comprising mainly of lower montane forest dominated by soaring coniferous trees, rare montane heath forest and lowland and hill dipterocarp forests; all part of a complex ecosystem that has evolved over thousands of years.

With no evidence of ever having suffered any natural calamities, these forests are simply magnificent.


The basin has the highest concentration of waterfalls - 19 and still counting - in any one area in Malaysia.

The most prominent is the mesmerising 7-tiered staircase shaped Maliau Falls. Equally captivating are the Giluk Falls, Gungseng Falls, Sebandar Falls, Takob-akon Falls and the Upper Giluk Falls.

Streams of water cascade down the cliffs at several places, dissipating into fine drops of moisture that form a perpetual cloud of mist that flow and ebb like a mystical ocean floating above the trees, curling up as it hits the cliffs.

Dead leaves lying at the bottom of the streams secrete tannin, which makes the water appear murky. The high tannin content makes the water acidic, which accounts for the dearth of fish life here. The falls take on a reddish brown hue when penetrated by the rays of the radiant morning sun.

The meaning of the word Maliau remains obscure. One account says it means 'Mountain of Stairs' referring to the many waterfalls and ridges. Another version claims it is Murut for murky.

Whatever meaning it may carry, the Maliau Basin is without doubt one of the most significant natural treasures of Sabah if not the world.


More than 80 species of mammals, 270 bird species and a diverse flora of over 1,800 species, including six types of pitcher plants and more than 80 species of orchids - rare and endemic, have been identified in the basin. Nearly a quarter of these are listed in the Red List of Threatened Species issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

With more than 50 percent of the basin still uncharted, a lot more remains to be uncovered. Understandably, efforts are currently underway to have the Maliau Basin listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Designated as Protected Forest Class 1 in 1997, Maliau is teeming with wildlife and is ideal for jungle trekking and a taste of the 'lost frontier' experience.

The Shell Maliau Basin Reception and Information Centre is the nerve centre for all information and activities. There are over 70 km of marked trails, which would take you through the rainforest to reach the satellite camps, all the way to the Maliau Falls.

According to Dr Waidi Sinun, Group Manager, Conservation and Environmental Division, Yayasan Sabah Group, the Centre serves to educate people on nature.

"Our operational focus is research, education, training, and awareness. We are about to embark on developing tourism infrastructure like chalets and resorts in the buffer zone," Dr Waidi told Bernama in a telephone interview recently.

"We would like see the Maliau Basin as one of the best wildlife sighting and wilderness-trekking destination in region," Dr Waidi added.


There is a range of satellite camps inter-linked by well-maintained trails. Camp amenities ranged from spartan to basic, with only 20 visitors permitted at any one camp. These are: Belian Camp, Agathis Camp, Camel Trophy Hut, Ginseng Camp, Seraya Camp, Lobah Camp, and the Rafflesia, Strike Ridge and Eucalyptus Camps that are only accessible by helicopter.


Apart from the 'absolutely-no-littering' edict, visitors MUST:

- submit a copy of personal insurance policy that covers emergency helicopter evacuation;

- submit their latest certificate of health, which is confirmed by a physician;

- obtain special permission and pay separate charges levied for professional photography or filming;

- be accompanied by a guide at all times - no straying from designated trails;

- stay at the assigned camp;

- not bring in polystyrene food containers, plastic bags and canned food, and

- not make any campfire.


Maliau Basin Conservation Area is accessible by a 5-hour drive from both Tawau and Keningau. A 4wd is essential, as you will be traveling over corrugated track.

Flying into the Maliau in a helicopter is another fantastic albeit expensive alternative. There are several helipads which can be used for emergency evacuations or by visitors who prefer to fly rather than walk.

Permission to enter must be obtained from the Sabah Foundation office either in Kota Kinabalu or Tawau. Further details can be obtained at

Those lucky enough to visit the Maliau Basin will not be left untouched by the mystical aura of a world uninhibited by man, an ecosystem largely undisturbed; a world lost in time.

Everything you see here stays with you forever.




 January 11, 2009 08:21:41 AM

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