In the nucleus of Pantai Dalit Beach in Tuaran, hidden amidst the nature reserve, half an hour north of Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu; lies a slice of paradise that sets the scene for one of the world’s greatest tourist destinations.
“Be careful!” warned the Kadazan gardener, firmly gripping a long wooden stick that he thought could save us all. His hands beckoning as he tried to keep us at bay from where he was standing. Resembling a spear, he pierced and plunged his mighty rod into the hedge in a sequential rhythm, as we all watched in confusion.
Before I realized what was happening, a cobra emerged from the beaten bush, swiftly heading in our direction. Like all men belonging to the Kadazan ethnic tribe of Borneo – bold and brave; this 32 year old gardener is on par with his ancestors. With bursting adrenaline and speed, he quickly caught the fleeing creature. Sealed it in a container and just as I made my first sigh of relief, there was peace.
It was not hard to imagine that like the Garden of Eden (minus the talking serpent but rather one of its predecessors) – Pantai Dalit Beach is home to the Shangri-la Rasa Ria Resort and serves as the bucolic backdrop of that pristine place in Genesis.
Its landscape cradles the verdant mountains humpbacked by the imposing physique of Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s tallest peak. Jungles that drop down to long windswept powdery beaches and the sea that spreads out for all to behold – in a moody canvas of turquoise and pale shades of blue.
To many locals they describe it as rasa ria meaning “the taste of happiness”. To us, my travel partner and I, we call it our Malaysian Eden. He was Adam and I was Eve.
In this 400 acre – tropical forest, we were joined by tourists who wanted to get away from the urban chaos. Most of them were families celebrating reunions, business travelers needing a break, couples catching up with romance and newlyweds retreating after the bedlam of their weddings.
Under the spell of the sea and the mountain, everybody succumbs. It’s easy to become a little aimless here when walking along the three kilometer stretch of sand with no particular destination and even hop on a horse if one is too tired to walk.
Perhaps it’s even easier to get tempted to mosey up the terrain and climb all the way to the nearby rainforest where a guided tour awaits, offering a close rendezvous with Borneo’s icon – the orangutans.
Twice daily, a ranger from the hotel escorts a small group to view the orangutans in the wild. The nature reserve is intended for nature conservation and orangutan rehabilitation, which is the only one of its kind on the west coast of Sabah.
On the way to the undulating hills of the reserve, there are frolicking arrays of indigenous flora and fauna. From time to time, a glimpse of sneaky iguanas and bear cats hanging from trees is a bonus. One could also be greeted by playful squirrels or even wild rabbits and if lucky, some peacocks might be crossing your trail.
There was no “Tree of Knowledge” here but there’s a tree-top canopy walkway where a close encounter with hornbills and tropical birds gliding overhead give the adventure a different meaning.
If the jungle feels almost claustrophobic, the sea is an endless open space. Jet skis, banana boat or parasailing would lift one’s low spirits. But underneath is where the excitement lies. Diving sites are close by, with a dive center in Pulau Gaya, the largest island in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.
Swaths of sands, islands, atolls and cerulean waters make up the entire park that spreads over 4,929 hectares, two thirds of which is water. With fringing reefs visible in the limpid water and abundant sea life, it’s perfect for scuba diving and snorkeling.
As the sun sets, the sky goes Vegas! A soft burst of crimson, pink, violet and orange colors illuminates the sky, blanketing the whole landscape and as the last rays of light slowly vanish before our eyes.
It was all too soon but along with cocktails, over an excellent five-course dinner, consisting of an authentic mouth watering Malay char-kway-teow and a spicy Indian-style dish from Naan, the best Indian restaurant in the archipelago – it was all that, which made it taste better than the forbidden fruit.