The natural wonders of Tawau Hills Park, Malaysia
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The natural wonders of Tawau Hills Park, Malaysia

By Lara Dunston

TAWAU Hills Park, just 24 kilometres from the town of Tawau in Sabah on Malaysian Borneo, features some of the largest and smallest of nature’s species on the planet.

Initially established as a protected water catchment area for Tawau, the park’s rainforest attracts visitors for trekking, picnicking, camping and staying at chalets and lodges in the park. Several major rivers originate in the park and the Tawau River provides many of its pools and waterfalls – some of which are a three-hour hike away.

Surrounded by oil palm and cacao plantations, the rainforest, measuring 28,000 hectares, initially appears dense, but as my husband and I make our way along the well-marked paths our guide Ben begins to point out various species of mushrooms, flowers and the curious-appearing ‘pill box’ millipedes, which curl into a perfect sphere when they sense danger.

As we walk further into the forest, our guide tells us about this lowland dipterocarp forest, consisting of tropical lowland rainforest trees. The trees are highly-valued as a source of timber in Borneo and most of the forest below 500 metres has been previously logged. As you climb above 1,000 metres the vegetation transforms into a thick damp mossy forest.

Dipterocarp forest. Pic: Tianyake, Flickr.

Our walk today won’t be taking us to those heights, but it will still give us a taste of what the forest offers the visitor – many of whom are locals who come here for walks and picnics on the weekends.

Our hike to see one of the biggest things in the forest continues with our guide preparing us for what we might see on our trek. There are not only many fascinating examples of flora, including some amazing orchids – and Malaysia’s tiniest orchid! – but also fauna, such as long tailed macaques and the red leaf monkeys, although our guide warns us that it’s rare to see the elusive primates here.

Birdlife is also widespread with six of the eight species of hornbill in Sabah being found here. As our guide talks to us we can hear them in the trees, and we’re hopeful we’ll spot one in the wild today.

What we do spot first is a red-naped trogon, a bird under threat from loss of its habitat. It’s a particularly good bird to try to spot because it blends so well with the rainforest.

As we walk further on to the sound of countless cicadas singing their tune, we see a small rodent literally zipping between tree branches. It’s moving so fast we struggle to get a photo of it until it pauses on a branch momentarily. Our guide informs us that it’s a plain pygmy squirrel, a tiny brown squirrel endemic here and one of the smallest species in the world. Before we can focus our lenses, it’s off again darting between branches to comic effect.

As the trees get taller, our guide points out a giant yam with massive leaves. While we’re no big fans of eating yams, our guide tells us we must try the yam-flavoured ice-cream, while we’re in Borneo.

While we don’t see the rafflesia, the largest flower in the world, which grows here, nor the smallest orchid, the orchid podochilus, nor the phalaenopsis gigantean or ‘Elephant Ear Orchid’, native to Borneo, we soon arrive at the viewing platform for the world’s largest tropical tree.

Identified in 2006, this shorea faguetiana, called ‘pokok Seraya Siput Kuning’, was recorded at a height of 88.32 m, while several others in the area were discovered to also be over 80 metres. It’s so monumental we find it almost impossible to grasp the scale of the trunk of the tree or take a photo to meaningfully demonstrate its size!

As we begin our walk back to the park office, we are disappointed that we have not spotted any monkeys. Our guide tells us we have to be really lucky to spot them here, as they like to stay high in the trees.

Just as we cross a small bridge close to the entrance of the park, we hear a rustling in the trees just off the path. Clearly more than just the wind blowing through the trees, we guess it must be a troop of monkeys.


Red leaf monkeys. Pic: Paul Williams, Flickr.

To our surprise it’s not the more common long tailed macaques, but a small troop of the rarer red leaf monkeys. As sunlight steams through the trees they are sitting in, we can clearly see their stunning russet red fur. While several small monkeys play in the trees a mother with her baby clinging on joins in the fun. Our guide happily tells us that it’s only the second time he’s ever seen them this close.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website


About the author…

Lara Dunston

Australian-born, Dubai-based travel writer Lara Dunston and her photographer husband Terence Carter have been living out of their suitcases since 2006, bouncing around the planet on assignment for publications from National Geographic Traveller in the USA to The Independent in the UK. The couple also have a popular travel blog Grantourismo, where they blog about slow and sustainable travel, local travel, and experiential travel.

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