Maliau Basin: Inside the “Lost World” of Sabah
While many have heard tales of the mysterious Maliau Basin, few venture there due to its remoteness. It turns out that getting there is the hardest part, and that those who do make it to Maliau will be rewarded with sights of giant agathis trees, unusual wildlife, and rare orchids and pitcher plants.
The goal of this post is to give you an idea of what to expect from the typical trek around the Maliau loop, as well as some tips about how to save some money during your visit. We’ll leave the nitty-gritty of the logistics and pricing until the end, and start with our ideal Maliau itinerary.
Here’s an outline of a typical itinerary for a 6-day, 5-night visit to Maliau:
Day 1 – Travel to Maliau
Day 2 – Explore the Study Centre Area
Day 3 – Trek: Agathis Camp to Camel Trophy Camp
Day 4 – Trek: Camel Trophy Camp to Ginseng Camp
Day 5 – Trek: Ginseng Camp to Agathis Camp
Day 6 – Depart from Maliau
This itinerary allows you not only to take advantage of the offerings at the Study Centre, such as nature walks and swimming, but also to do the full Maliau Loop trek, which is an unforgettable adventure. You can cut a day off the trip by opting to begin your trek on Day 2, but I recommend leaving a buffer day to account for potential logistical issues getting to Maliau.
With that said, let’s dive right into the details of the trip!
Day 1 – Travel to Maliau
Your journey begins! Today, you will make the (probably long) drive to Maliau Basin. You will need to take a car with 4WD to handle the bad roads at the end – see below for details. If you’re coming from KK, we recommend stopping in Keningau for a snack, since from there it’s still another4 hours to the Maliau Basin Study Centre! But don’t worry – the drive is beautiful and we enjoyed a lovely sunset over the mountain vista along the Keningau-Tawau Road.
Coming from Keningau, you’ll have paved roads for about an hour, then a well-maintained dirt road for another two. You’ll lose handphone signal at least an hour before the gate to Maliau, so make sure to call in advance to inform them of your arrival (see below for contact info). If all else fails and the gate is locked, honk as loudly as you can. Once through the gate, you will drive on a very rough dirt road for another hour to reach the Study Centre.
The Study Centre is a spacious complex with many different facilities, including a hostel, rest house, “VVIP” accommodations, AV room, and conference room. They even have wifi (it’s a bit unreliable, but it’s something!). We stayed in the hostel, which featured large, comfortable bunk beds, spacious bathrooms, and overhead fans (hostel beds are RM70/night for non-Malaysians, about half that for Malaysians). They also have kitchen facilities, if you (like us) want to save some money by doing your own cooking!
Day 2 – Explore the Study Centre Area
You should begin the day by ironing out the details of your upcoming trek at Reception. The ladies there are very helpful and organized, so activity planning should go smoothly. For your trek, you will need to discuss your transportation to/from the Study Centre, the number of porters you will need, and whether you are bringing your own food. You will also be given the name of your guide.
Once you have your trek settled, there are a number of activities available at the Study Centre, including guided day hikes and night walks (RM20/hr), night drives (RM150+ ), swimming in the Maliau River, and an awesome skywalk through the canopy. We tried out the skywalk and enjoyed evening birdsong as we wandered through the treetops. We also took a one hour night walk and saw a mouse deer!
Day 3 – Trek: Agathis Camp to Camel Trophy Camp (~12.5 km)
You’ll begin your morning with a bumpy, one hour ride from the Study Centre to Agathis Camp (one way: RM70, cheaper for Malaysians), which is the usual start point for the trek. (You can also stay at Agathis Camp the previous night to start your trek even earlier.) If you leave the Study Centre on the day of your trek, we recommend departing at 7:30 or 8am to make sure that you get to Camel Trophy camp in time for the side trip to Takob Akob Falls and Giluk Falls! We didn’t leave the Study Centre until 9:40 or so, so we didn’t have time to see the waterfalls. 🙁
The trek to Camel Trophy Camp is about 7km and takes 4-6 hours. The toughest part is the first 3 km, which are very steep and include some ladders – after all, you’re climbing to the rim of the basin! Once you make it up, though, the walk becomes a lovely stroll through mixed dipterocarp and health forest. We saw pitcher plants and a gorgeous pink-orange orchid!
Once you get to Camel Trophy Camp, you can eat your lunch and ditch your bags before continuing your hike to see Takob Akob Falls, about 2.5 km away from the camp. The walk is leisurely, except for the last 500m, which descends sharply. On your way back, you can check out Giluk Falls. Both waterfalls are supposed to be gorgeous, and we were sorry to miss them!
Back at Camel Trophy Camp, make sure to check out the handmade plaques that visitors leave to commemorate their journeys. There is also a huge agathis tree behind the camp that you can climb for a birds-eye view of the jungle around you. Beware: the tree is so tall that the ladder climb is actually very tiring! However, the peace you will find at the top totally makes up for the strain on your arm muscles.
Camel Trophy Camp itself is a two-story camp with a kitchen, eating area, bathroom, and showers on the first level, and bunkrooms on the second level. We were the only visitors when we were there, and enjoyed having plenty of space to hang our sweaty socks and shirts! If you are making your own dinner, your guide will help you make the wood fire in the basic stove, and then you can cook rice or noodles to your heart’s content. Watch for animals around the camp – we spotted wild pigs while relaxing after dinner!
Day 4 – Trek: Camel Trophy Camp to Ginseng Camp (~16km)
Your 8-10 hour day begins with a leisurely 6km walk, first through heath forest, then downhill through dipterocarp forest. After about 1km, you will encounter the Nepenthes Garden, where all kinds of pitcher plants (and orchids!) will dazzle you. My favorite are Nepenthes veitchii, whose vines criss-cross up the trees so that the trunks are covered in pitchers!
After those first 6km, you’ll reach the junction with the trail to Maliau Falls. Here you will again drop your packs for the hike to the falls, which is just under 5km each way. The first 2.5 km to the falls isn’t that strenuous (especially without your pack!), and ends at a lookout point near Lobah Camp, a camp no longer in use. The next 2.2 km has some really steep sections that are especially treacherous when you’re coming back up on your return trip! But the Falls are staggeringly huge – the upper falls are 20m high and the lower ones are 15km – not to mention beautiful. This is not a good place to try swimming, but make sure you take lots of photos!
Once you’re back from the falls, you’ll hike the final 700m to Ginseng Camp. Make sure you’ve saved some energy, because it’s a steep climb down! Ginseng Camp is another lovely place to spend the night, with kitchen, eating areas, bathrooms, and showers. The bunkrooms are partially open to the night air, so you can feel the breeze and listen to the birds as you are falling asleep!
Day 5 – Trekking: Ginseng Camp to Agathis Camp (9km)
The easiest day of the trek is also the last, as you make your way along the gradual ups and downs (mostly downs) leading back to Agathis Camp. Again, this walk is mixed dipterocarp forest. It can be completed in 3-4 hours (so in theory, you could head home on Day 5). Keep an eye out for cool fungi and termite nests along the way!
When you get to Agathis Camp, you can either spend the night there, or meet your pre-arranged transport to head back to the Study Centre. Like the other camps, Agathis has a kitchen and dining area, as well as bathrooms and showers. Unlike the other camps, you sleep on hammocks instead of mattresses. Make sure your pay your porter(s) before leaving Agathis (all other fees are paid upon check-out from the Study Centre).
Day 6 – Departure from Maliau
If you stayed the night at Agathis, you’ll probably need to go back to the Study Centre to get any gear you left there during your trek (laptops can be stored safely at reception), as well as to check out and pay. Then you can spend the drive home dreaming of the flora and fauna of Maliau.
Maliau can be difficult to get to, but if you can plan the trip, it is one of the most incredible outdoor experiences in Sabah. We had never seen trees so tall or orchids so colorful in the wild, and you might be one of the lucky few to spot an elephant! If you’re interested in going to Maliau, see below for details about how to arrange your trip. You won’t regret it!
If you are not coming on a package tour, you should call ahead to make sure that accommodations are available at the Study Centre and at the Satellite Camps (Agathis, Camel Trophy, Ginseng, etc). The phone number for reception is 087 742100 – ask for Linda. You also should let reception know when you will be arriving so that someone will be on hand to open the gate for you. (If for some reason you can’t get in touch with anyone, driving back down the road until you get signal is your only option. If this happens to you, Maxis is your best bet.)
You should also check with Reception about the prices quoted here – they change often and tend to be much cheaper for Malaysians. So what I paid for transport or lodging could be twice what you pay!
Accommodation at the Study Centre hostel is RM70/night for foreigners, and the rest house is closer to RM200/night. Satellite camps cost RM60/night for foreigners. Malaysians pay about half price – check with reception for current rates.
You can arrange for meals to be cooked for you at the rest house, Agathis Camp, and on the trek; however, you can save a lot of money if you bring your own food and cooking supplies. We recommend rice, instant mee, canned foods (tuna, sardines, chicken curry), oatmeal, and snacks like chocolate, cookies, crackers, and dried fruit. Plastic containers can be very helpful for packed lunches.
Cooking supplies can be borrowed for RM50/day for foreigners, and about half that for Malaysians, but again, you can save money by bringing your own.
For trekking, the guide fee is RM150/day for one guide. The porter fee is RM100/day for up to 12kg; for 12-17kg, the fee is RM150/day. There is a conservation fee of RM50/pax (foreigners) and a trekking fee of RM150/pax (foreigners). Remember, the fees are usually about half for Malaysians, so check with Reception to see if your conservation and trekking fees are cheaper. Guide and porter fees are the same regardless of nationality.
Please note that trekking in Maliau is very strenuous, especially if you are going to carry your own pack. For us, the trek was relatively pleasant, but we are relatively seasoned Borneo trekkers, so you should be honest with yourself about your ability level. Training for a few weeks before your trip is great way to make sure you stay safe and happy during your trek!
On that note, some tour companies also require that you have doctor’s approval before trekking in Maliau. You should also check with your doctor about vaccinations and medications before you go to Maliau – we were taking anti-malarials during our trip.
Also, there are leeches in Maliau, so plan accordingly. They are not dangerous, but can be an annoyance – we picked hundreds them off of our clothes during the second day of our trek!
Finally, make sure you drink enough water!
Package tours include transport, accommodation, guide fees, etc, but are incredibly expensive – over RM3000 per person! If you want to go with a package tour, Borneo Nature Tours is one option, but you should shop around, as many tour operators in Sabah run trips to Maliau.
If you are going the do-it-yourself route, you can call Maliau reception to arrange transport. Ask Linda about using a local driver (KK-Maliau return trip, one vehicle: RM1600-1800), because this option is cheaper than hiring Maliau Basin transport. You can also bring your own 4WD, but you should check with reception about vehicle entrance fees; another option is to hire your own driver in KK and see if you can get a better price.
The last, cheapest option is to take a bus to Keningau and then a “wagon” from Keningau to the Maliau Basin security gate. If you choose this option, you will need to hire Maliau Basin transport from the security gate to the Study Centre or Agathis Camp (RM70 each way). If you choose this option, make sure to keep in frequent touch with Reception so they know when you will arrive. When the wagon drops you off, you should be able to arrange a pickup with the driver for your return to Keningau at the end of your Maliau stay. (Disclaimer: we heard about this transport method from Maliau Reception, but we haven’t talked to anyone who has tried it.)
Within the Maliau Basin Area, transport from the Study Centre to Agathis is RM70 each way ( foreigners).
Packing List for Trek
- 1 pair trekking pants
- 1 pair shorts
- 2-3 quick-drying shirts for trekking
- “Night kit” – leggings, pajamas, underwear, sweater, flip-flops for the evening (keep in a plastic bag!)
- Hiking boots/adidas kampung/trekking shoes
- 2-3 pairs socks
- 1-2 pairs leech socks
- Hat, sunnies, sunscreen, bug spray
- Toiletries/medicine/personal items
- Lots of plastic bags (good for keeping things dry!)
- Headlamp/torch light
- Sleeping bag
- Snacks (chocolate, nuts, dried fruit, cookies, crackers)
- Water bottles – make sure you are carrying at least 2L of water!