Far, far away in Pulau Gaya

This Malaysian island off the coast of Borneo is a true escape.

Private beach, Pulau Gaya.
  • Private beach, Pulau Gaya.

From the deck of a motorboat scuttling along at 25 knots, I saw Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, growing fainter every second until it finally blended in with the surrounding blue and green and patches of turquoise.

I'd been in this vast expanse around 6°N and 116°E of the equator once before, two Septembers ago. Lingering in my memory are the trips to the stilt houses of sea gypsies, down to murky waters of the Kinabatangan; trekking into the jungle on the war memorial trail; stories of headhunters and blowpipes.

Although Borneo is primarily mountainous with impenetrable areas of rainforest, just a 15-minute boat ride off the coast of Kota Kinabalu lies Pulau Gaya.

The Sabahan captain – who couldn't have been more than 20 – directed our attention to a swarm of bright multicolored clown and parrot fish glistening like jewels under the midday sun as our boat reached the dock.

Past the resort, the rainforest awaits visitors to Pulau Gaya.

Past the resort, the rainforest awaits visitors to Pulau Gaya.

Arriving at Pulau Gaya I found myself amidst lush rainforest, surrounded by the South China Sea. Just over the horizon was a stunning silhouette of the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago, Mount Kinabalu.

We had booked a canopy villa in the relatively new Gaya Island Resort. The resort has a tribal vibe to it, reflecting the structures of the indigenous Kadazan, Dusun and Dayak people who all live here. Perched atop a hill, it offers visitors a leafy view of the rainforest.

A commitment was established in July last year for Gaya Island to carry out environmentally sustainable practices and take part in the conservation efforts in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. This three-kilometer park, Sabah’s second, is named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and consists of five islands: Manukan (which means “fish”), Sapi ("mooing buffalo"), Sulug (in honor of the Sulu peoples of Sabah), Mamutik ("shell collection") and lastly, Gaya ("big"). Formerly part of the Crocker Range, the islands ended up adrift from the mainland massif right after the last Ice Age.

Among the mangrove groves stood immense trees adorned with vines. Monkeys swung from branch to branch. Other creatures we saw on the 1,465-acre island included herons, monitor lizards, iguanas, snakes and cicadas. And somewhere in this natural sanctuary, hiding in plain sight, was “Bobby."

Bobby the sea turtle.

Bobby the sea turtle.

A group of island dwellers led by the resident marine biologist Scott Mayback found the sea turtle floating in the sea almost lifeless, sick from swallowing a piece of plastic. Some turtles often mistake the plastic bags for jellyfish; by ingesting them, they can cause themselves injury that often results in serious illness, even death. Bobby was led to a place here in Borneo and nursed back to life.

More than anything Gaya offers an air of tranquility. It's felt by walking into the jungle, observing the underwater life, marveling at the glorious sunrise, hopping on a yacht just to catch the sweeping sunset, navigating to a private beach in Tavajun Bay (top) a stone’s throw away.

The night comes softly, like it did yesterday; soon the sky is pinpointed with stars.

Tomorrow, I'll finally say goodbye to our canopy villa, to Gaya Island and to the poor sea turtle. After two days of sun-dappled bliss, my bags are packed and my travel diary will – for the moment – be put away.

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