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A visit to Imbak Canyon

In the heart of Sabah, far from everything, there is a canyon called Imbak. It is located only a few tens of km north of the renown conservation area of Maliau Basin, but few people know of its existence, even in Sabah. I came to know of this hidden forest reserve just because I know  Dr. Hamzah Tangki, Imbak Canyon’s current manager. In my quest to find Sabah’s last pristine patches of forest, I am happy to undertake the four-hour drive from Lahad Datu to visit the area. Imbak canyon offers a very different view compared to Danum valley.

The reserve is about 2/3 the size of Danum but its narrow  shape makes it way more exposed to external activities. And external activities here are extensive and brutal. We drive for four hours amidst thousands of palms and patches of forests devastated by logging to get here. Quite a grim sight. But then one gets to the park lodge, and it’s like a piece of eden – although under siege by the outside world. Although loggers, planters and hunters still try to creep in the protected area, and the animals are less and harder to see compared to Danum Valley, still this is the place to see to get a picture of nowadays’ Sabah in a nutshell: a little island of rainforest on the verge of sinking under the rising tide of progress, in the form of logging and plantations.

Compared to the reserves of Danum Valley or Maliau Basin, Imbak is much more recent. Incredibly, the area made it almost untouched by loggers until the early 2000s, mostly thanks to its remoteness and to the difficulties connected with carrying the timber out of the canyon. The area was protected only in 2003, when Yayasan Sabah, the logging company that received the concession to harvest the area, decided instead to preserve it. As a consequence, the scientific and touristic structures of the natural reserve are still under development, as well as the path network. My guide in Imbak is Dr. Elia Godoong, a colleague from Zurich and the wife of Dr. Hamzah Tangki. After gaining her PhD in Zurich, Elia became a lecturer at the University of Malaysia Sabah (UMS). She is in Imbak with a group of students, so I give them a tiny hand helping setting up some research plots in the forest. The kids call me “doctor” or “sir” which is quite funny, even if it makes me feel old. Aside from the scientific work we go for some sightseeing with the rangers, looking at a rare species of pitcher plants and visiting some waterfalls, gems in the jungle.

In Imbak I also have a real taste of what “monsoon” means. On my first day there, while working with the students, it starts raining and we have about one hour of one of the most intense showers I’ve have found myself into. It makes me realize the difference between hujan, hujan banyak, and monsun. The latter is in a league of its own. One other day we had just stopped in the bed of a creek to cook some noodles when one of the rangers runs towards us screaming “Banjiiiir! Banjir! Banjir! Move, move!” I think “what the hell?”, then I witness the creek triplicate in size in less than a minute. Banjir, as I come to learn, means “flood”. To be honest, what I remember of Imbak is mostly the rain. I begin to be worried about the second part of my trip, when I will leave the relative safety of Sabah to go trekking in Sarawak. By the time I will be there it will be December, the monsoon season will be at its full, and all I will have to protect me from the elements will be the tarp of my hammock and the skills of the guides that I hope I will find.

We will see. After all, as they say, one cannot have a rainforest without the rain.

Maya Fall in Imbak Canyon.
Dr Elia playing the forest mermaid at Maya waterfall, Imbak canyon.