Most national parks offer varying degrees of wilderness, but very few offer the true and unexplored kind of wilderness like the Imbak Canyon Conservation Area (ICCA). Located at the central interior of Sabah, it takes one whole day of travelling on a four-wheel-drive along treacherous, unpaved and muddy tracks to reach Imbak Canyon from Kota Kinabalu. But those who make the trip to this isolated place will be rewarded with pristine rainforest experience that feels primeval and Jurassic-like.
Sitting within the “Corridor of Life” that connects Imbak Canyon with Maliau Basin Conservation Area and Danum Valley Conservation Area, the Imbak Canyon is a 27,599-hectare complex of rainforest habitat ranging from lowland dipterocarp forests to lower montane heath forests. Considered as rare geographical landscape in Sabah, the canyon is an elongated valley located along the Imbak River, an area inhabited by ‘Dusun Sungai’ and ‘Murut’ ethnic groups.
Fragile to human greed, conservation efforts are being undertaken by Yayasan Sabah Group in collaboration with PETRONAS to protect the rich biodiversity of Imbak Canyon. Given the rampant felling off trees outside the core area and the threats of poachers and illegal loggers, a scientific expedition is carried out at the yet-to-be-explored Batu Timbang Virgin Jungle Reserve, comprising an area of 271 hectares within the ICCA from August 16 to August 26. The objective of the scientific expedition is to identify the biodiversity value of the area and its viability to the opening of another research station and ranger post at Batu Timbang, which is earmarked as a hot spot for trespassers heading towards the core area.
If not for the first scientific expedition at Batu Timbang, it would be difficult for me to gain access to Imbak Canyon, which is restricted to researchers and naturalists. Imbak Canyon has yet to be opened to the public. Accessibility is only available to researchers and trekkers that have permission from the management of ICCA. Together with other members of the media, I embark on this journey to discover untouched the Imbak Canyon for five days.
After a long day on the road, I find refuge at the basic room in the Imbak Canyon Studies Centre (ICSC). The deafening silence of the night is punctuated by high-pitched sound of crickets and cicadas. Flying insects that I have never seen in my life grace me with their presence. Their existence in high numbers makes me wonder what kind of ecosystem exists in Imbak Canyon.
The next morning the manager of ICCA, Dr Hamzah Tangki, lead the members of the media for a tour around the newly-built ICSC comprises two main zones: the Imbak Rainforest Park for environmental education activities; and the main ICSC area consisting of rest houses, conference hall, VIP and visitor accommodation, laboratory, office, mini theatre, gallery and café.
Clad in his camouflage uniform and complete camouflage camera lenses, Mr Mohd Alzahri, a passionate birdwatcher cum photographer is hard to miss at the ICSC. He is a team member of a group of scientists conducting a scientific research on the birds of Imbak Canyon to assess the value of conserving the area. “Learning the birds’ behaviour and sound are important in birding. For example, birds are active in early morning and late evening,” he advises, after having shot the images of 74 bird species within the ICSC area.
As the day progresses, I cross paths with scientists in various fields from botanists to herpetologists and chiropterologists to ornithologists. They are among the 100 scientists and researchers who are on scientific expedition at Batu Timbang studying the values of the conservation area to advocate for the establishment of a new research station and ranger post to curb illegal logging, besides analysing for more natural hidden gems and resources such as the agarwood.
By noon, the media entourage leaves the ICSC for Batu Timbang Base Camp to have first-hand experience in witnessing scientists and researchers at work at the Batu Timbang Virgin Jungle Reserve. To get there, we travel for two hours and a half on four-wheel drive traversing the muddier road. It was worse when the first team of scientists trailblazed through the path a few weeks before. If vehicles were to get stuck in the soft boggy terrain, the recovery winch is needed to pull the vehicles out of the mud. That explains the stationary winch tractor half way to Batu Timbang Base Camp that can be deployed at times of need.
The Batu Timbang Base Camp is a basic makeshift camp for scientists and researchers doing field research to collect samples for their studies. Besides tents with 10 camp beds each, the camp also contains research area, dining area, kitchen and comfortable makeshift toilets and bathrooms.
While the facilities exceed my expectation, it is the muddy terrain all over Batu Timbang Base Camp that bothers me the most. Imagine having to wear your high-cut hiking boots at all times or else your legs will be covered in mud, including the infamous pacat (blood-sucking leeches).
Not long after our arrival, we hike through Batu Timbang’s diverse range of lowland tropical forest as well as cross stream and river to catch the sight of the smallest and rarest rafflesia flower called Rafflesia tengku-adlinii in full bloom. Besides this spot, there is also another place where the flower is known to grow. The one that we are taken to is further than the other one, but it is far more rewarding because it has the breathtaking view of a terraced waterfall. On the way back, I cannot resist the temptation of plunging into the refreshing river.
As soon as I reach the base camp, the rain starts to pour heavily – this is expected since the rainforest functions as part of the natural water catchment system. The rain does not hinder us from braving the weather (and ever muddier base camp, I might add) to listen to the presentation by the lead scientists in their respective fields of study. When I arrive at the dining area where the presentation is to take place, researcher Daicus M Belabut demonstrates how to properly hold a frog without causing hurt and discusses the importance of frogs in the ecosystem.
Next, the herpetologist, Dr Noorhayati Ahmad, shares her team’s experiences in collecting frog samples in Imbak Canyon. In a matter of few days, her team has collected 5 species of true toads, 30 species of fork-tongued frogs, 3 species of Asian leaf toads, 3 species of narrow-mouthed frogs, 6 species of true frogs and 7 species of old tree frogs. I am also enlightened of the existence of voiceless frogs, which are among the great many new things I learn at Batu Timbang Base Camp.
Among other things found in Batu Timbang area are the discovery of 14 species of bats; the sightings of the banteng, which is a species of wild cattle locally known as tembadau; and the discovery of eight ornamental plants known as Begonia, including four that are new to science. At the end of the presentation, all scientists emphatically emphasise on one common message: if we do not conserve our rainforests, the ecosystem will be adversely affected and our water catchment areas will be at stake. We will then have problems with water supplies. Surely, water is the most basic necessity to sustain life. Without quality water, human crisis is inevitable.
Despite the night-long rain, the pattering of water on the tent therapeutically lulls me to sleep. Early morning, a group of media members follow the bat scientists and researchers to collect the bats from traps, which have been designed to capture the bats unscathed. Regrettably, no bats are found in the gunny sack as the rain affects their flying patterns and visibility of the bat traps. This is definitely one of the frustrating challenges that scientists and researchers face during expeditions. Many factors are beyond human control and they need to persevere in obtaining results by laying more traps to collect samples.
I have made arrangement to tag along with the dipterocarps researchers. The dipterocarps are a family of hardwood, tropical trees locally known as Meranti, Kapur, Chengal and Keruing, among others. The ICCA has recorded 79 species of dipterocarps, including 30 species that are endemic to Borneo. The dipterocarps trees form the main forest canopy. The scientists and researchers are studying the demographics of the dipterocarps. Since the expedition takes a full day, I have to abandon the idea of following the researchers since the media entourage that I am part of has to leave for the ICSC at noon.
Back at the ICSC, the media is taken to the iconic Imbak Waterfall, which is easily accessible since the road leads right to the edge of the waterfall. The 39-metre wide Imbak Waterfall offers even novice photographers the chance to take stunning waterfall pictures. The waterfall can also be viewed from the suspension bridge.
The more adventurous ones trek up along the Big Belian trail to see the 250-year old Borneon ironwood tree, commonly known as belian. Our trail guide, Mohd Erwan, constantly reminds us to avoid touching the trees because some are poisonous. The trek takes about 30 minutes to reach the huge belian tree, with circumference that can be hugged by at least six adult humans.
At night, I participate in night trekking at the Imbak Rainforest Park. Guided by the sounds and focussed lighting, I am amazed at the amount of wildlife that my group has spotted in a span of just an hour. Apart from a herd of sambar deers and muntjacks, we also spot slugs, tiger leech, the cinnamon frog, house centipede and at least five different spiders.
Before heading back to Kota Kinabalu, I rise early to walk to one of the highest parts of the ICSC to observe the pristine forest canopy covered in mist one last time. Disconnected from technology for almost three days, I realise how privileged I am to be able to experience the primeval jungles where bare necessities of life such as clean air and water top the priority for the survival of just mother nature’s, but also us humans. The trip to Imbak Canyon is deeply inspiring. It makes me realise that it is mankind’s duty to protect not just Imbak Canyon, but rainforests all over the world at all costs because we owe a great deal to Mother Earth…
Visitors to Imbak Canyon Conservation Area are welcome, but permission to enter must be obtained in advance from Yayasan Sabah Group. For more info, please visit http://imbakcanyon-borneo.com.my.
Gaya Travel Magazine expresses our heartfelt gratitude to PETRONAS and Yayasan Sabah Group for inviting the writer to be part of the amazing journey to Imbak Canyon.