Maliau Basin, Sabah by Alex Foong
Giluk Falls

Maliau Basin is situated just above the equator in the south-central Sabah, some 140km north of the Kalimantan border and about 190km north-west of Tawau. The Basin is about 23km in diameter and has an area of 390 square km. Its rim is generally up to 1500m in height except for Gunung Lotung on the north rim which is over 1900m above sea level. Resembling a volcanic caldera, the Basin is in fact a sedimentary formation comprising mainly gently inclined beds of sandstone and mud stone. Together with an area of 198.4 square km of forested land to the east and north of the rim, which encompasses the fabled Lake Linumunsut, the Basin constitutes the Maliau Basin Conservation Area, formerly part of Yayasan Sabah’s Timber Concession. The Maliau Basin is drained by a set of radiating tributaries of the Maliau River which then discharges through a gorge southeast of the Basin into the Kuamut River which in turn flows into the Kinabatangan, Sabah’s longest river.


Maliau Falls

Trekking turned Photography Expedition 

On the lanai cum dining area of Danum Valley Field Centre, Sabah, in the year 2000, chatting over coffee and tea we heard from the camp manager said, “if you think you have seen all in Danum Valley, wait till you set foot on Maliau Basin”. As Conservationist cum nature photographers, we were excited even though we did not have the faintest idea where Maliau Basin is situated. I have heard stories of it being known as The Lost World of Sabah. I said “why not? We can organise a trip to Maliau Basin next year”, without knowing the terrain and difficulty level of access to the Basin. So it began …..

My first expedition was in the year 2001, followed by the second in 2011 and the most recent in 2016. To reach the Maliau Basin gate, we need to travel in a 4WD for more than half a day from Kota Kinabalu, through the interior of Sabah. Why would one go to a place that requires so much trekking, you may ask…., my simple answer is Maliau Basin is so unique and rich in bio-diversity in-terms of flora and fauna and the sheer number of waterfalls.

Takob-Akob Fall

Due to continuous Research being carried out by Scientists in this area, there exist marked trails for trekking, so one can do the trek with markers which takes you in a loop in a clockwise or anti clockwise direction. In order to maintain the delicate eco-balance of the pristine rainforest basin, the conservation management enforces a 15-person limit per campsite in Maliau Basin at any one time. We took the clockwise loop towards the Camel Trophy Hut on the second day in Maliau Basin. We had to ascend up the southern Basin rim ridge so we climbed up the steep rock outcrop and in some parts, we were fortunate to have ready-made timber stairs to the ridge measuring around 500 meters high before reaching Camel Trophy Hut. It is recommended to make Camel Trophy Hut as a base camp as there are numerous waterfalls which can be reached from the camp. Setting up for a longer stay at Camel Trophy Hut will be most ideal for photographing the numerous waterfalls and Jalan Babi, which has the largest collection of rare Nepenthes pitcher plants, especially the Climbing Nepenthes Veitchii. Almost all the waterfalls here are spectacular, namely Takob-Akob waterfall, Giluk waterfalls, Bonggol waterfall (lately renamed as Fowzi waterfall) and the Lower Giluk waterfall.

Nepenthes Stenophylla

Takob-Akob waterfall measuring 38-meter-high is about 3.5 km from Camel Trophy Hut. The trek took us through dipterocarps rainforest and a 180-meter descent via sheer vertical slopes from the ridge down to the waterfall. At one point I was thinking, how will I climb back up to the ridge later, but then after encountering Takob-Akob waterfalls all my anxiety vanished with the sheer sight of the waterfall and the surroundings. Orchids are aplenty here, the air feels charged with ions and refreshing, carrying the fragrance of exotic orchids and wildflowers, a scent much better than any aroma experienced in the Urban Jungle Beauty Parlours. The diversity of flora, the aromatic blooms of orchids and wildflowers hanging loose at the waterfall cliffs and tree trunks were reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. Reminding myself, we are photographers, we must not rush through the trails and miss out the details of the dipterocarps rainforest which is plentiful of subjects besides those orchids catching the photographer’s eyes and imagination … I kept reminding myself.

Courtesy of Jimmy Omar

Giluk waterfall is easier to reach and gives us a more picturesque experience and more varied angle to frame for waterfall photography. The rich colour of sandstone and mudstone on the foreground with the vegetation as backdrop adds contrast to the final photographic image. 

In 2011, with prior experience in hand, we saved time by not trekking to Takob-Akob. Instead we decided to explore the base of Giluk waterfall. Rangers helped us navigate this uncharted trail, involving a steep descent. In the photos, we call it the Lower Giluk waterfall. The 28-meter-high, 7 tier Maliau Falls is the main attraction of Maliau Basin. It involves a fairly steep decent of about 150 meters off the Bambangan camp trail. There is this charm in Maliau Basin that makes me go back again and again. The Kerangas forest in Sabah is unique both in the forest floor and in the air.

Here are some thoughts and sharing on the camera equipment, how to pack and carry them is crucial for trekking. A good weather proof haversack that can carry basic lunch & snacks, drinking water, extra shirts, raincoat (don’t forget it’s a rainforest and when it rains, it pours) and your camera equipment. All the above-mentioned items should be wrapped in thick plastic/garbage bags to keep dry and cool down before taking them out in the humid atmosphere of the rainforest. You cannot use your favourite fashion camera bags! It will not be suitable for the rainforest.

Some suggested photographic equipment to bring besides the camera body and equipment protection tips:

  1. 21mm, 35mm, 70-200mm and macro lens.
  2. sturdy tripod and cable release
  3. fill flash and diffuser
  4. weather proof vinyl bag for camera, wrap the camera with tee-shirt to dampen the knocks This is also useful to prevent condensation as the humidity is very high.
  5. It is ideal to wrap all the lenses with socks and plastic bags and place them on the side pockets (to prevent them from knocking onto each other) of the haversack for easy access.

Maliau Basin Highlights: