The exotic tropical beauty that is Sabah promises much for curious travellers, whether their interests are ecological, historical, marine or cultural. Situated in the north-east of Borneo and part of Malaysia, Sabah offers an intriguing variety of experiences, as Agnes Keith discovered 70 years ago when the land was part of the British Empire.
A Hollywood-born journalist, she went to live in Borneo with her husband, Harry Keith, who had been appointed as Conservator of Forests for the British North Borneo Company (timber was a major industry). Five years after they arrived, she published what became a famous memoir, Land Below the Wind.
The couple lived in what is now Sabah and the title of the book - which has been reprinted many times, most recently in 2000 - has entered the lexicon of the State, particularly among tour operators. It draws on an ancient description of Borneo by seafarers. The country is located just below the region's monsoon belt, escaping its more destructive climatic effects. Land Below the Wind is highly recommended pre-reading for anyone intending to take in the delights of the country.
Keith lived in a beautiful Colonial two-storey timber house. It is still there, restored to its former glory, and is a major tourist attraction. Its furnishings recall an elegant colonial era and the walls are adorned with a marvellous range of period photographs.
Keith wrote lyrically of the region's landscape and marine beauty: "Enchanted coral gardens grow under the sea. They bloom with bright perennials, miniature herbaceous borders, blazing balsam beds, bright blue salvias, and periwinkle petreas . . . The occupants of these gardens are little darting fish from art-shop windows, little fish too fragile and beautiful to be real, little fish of every hue. Watching them flash is seeing a prism turn in the sun, is looking into a spectroscope. They are enchanted and belong in these gardens; they bedizen, delight and adorn them. I move carefully, apologetically, among them."
Much has changed since Keith's adventures in what was then colonial British North Borneo. But the country's natural values haven't altered. Indeed, they have become one of the country's major tourist assets.
One commentator has said that Sabah has mega-biodiversity. The wildlife on offer is unique and includes the Bornean elephant, the clouded leopard, the orang-utan and magnificent sea-turtles. The bird-life is of exquisite beauty, ranging from bee-eaters, barbets, kingfishers, woodpeckers, and minivets, to vivid fairy bluebirds, and a rainbow of flycatchers.
Although large areas of jungle have been cleared for the planting of palm oil trees (the oil is the country's major source of revenue) there are still extensive areas of virgin jungle and rainforest, including the Heritage Amenity Forest Reserve in Sandakan under the auspices of the Sabah Forestry Department.
In addition, there are six other major reserves, including the majestic Kinabalu National Park, which was given World Heritage listing in 2000. The lush and dense rainforest gives off a pure herbal fume. The rivers are of various colours, ranging from an ochre-saffron hue to charcoal-blue, depending on the type of tannins being washed into them through the filter of the jungle's humus.
These and other natural assets are the basis of Sabah's booming eco-tourism industry. More than 2.5 million visitors already take in the State's sights, sounds and tastes annually, and the number is growing.