The 390 km2 (39,000 hectares) Maliau Basin (Sabah’s Lost World) was originally part of a 10,000 km2 (one million hectares) timber concession belonging to Yayasan Sabah (the Sabah Foundation), an organization formed in 1966 through an Enactment by the State Legislative Assembly with the purpose of improving the standard of living and education of Malaysians in Sabah. In 1981 Yayasan Sabah voluntarily designated Maliau Basin (Sabah’s Lost World) as a Conservation Area for research, education, and training, along with Danum Valley Conservation Area that is further to the east.
The basin was ‘officially discovered’ in 1947, by a pilot. But it was not until 1988 that the first major scientific expedition organized by Yayasan Sabah and WWF Malaysia took place. The Murut, who traditionally inhabit the area but never settled in the forbidding basin have since time immemorial organized a yearly hunting expedition to the rich grounds of Maliau, and know of the seven-tiers waterfall, the Maliau Falls (picture) at its heart – but they also know of many more stories and legends that surround the place.
While all of this region is rugged, the saucer-shaped Maliau Basin (Sabah’s Lost World) is distinguished by its almost circular perimeter, sharply delimited on all sides by cliffs or very steep slopes up to 1,500m in height, making it insurmountable on foot from most directions. The highest point is thought to be Gunung Lotung on the north rim, which is over 1,600 m in elevation but has yet to be accurately surveyed. Resembling a volcanic caldera, the 25 km diameter Basin is a sedimentary formation comprised mainly of gently inclined beds of sandstone and mudstone.
The Basin represents a single catchment and is drained by a set of radiating tributaries of the Maliau River, one of which descends a magnificent series of waterfalls, known as Maliau Falls. Numerous smaller waterfalls have also been discovered throughout the Basin. The Maliau River then drains through a gorge out of the southeast of the Basin into the Kuamut River, which in turn feeds into the Kinabatangan, the longest river in Sabah.
After the 1988 scientific expedition, other parties showed their interest, but it was mainly in its rich coal deposits. However, international pressure became increasingly strong to preserve the world-unique area. In 1997 the Sabah State Assembly gazetted Maliau Basin as a Class I Protection Forest Reserve and increased its size from 39,000 to 58,840 hectares to include the outer northern and eastern escarpments and Lake Linumunsut. In 2000 intensive field surveys started as part of the preparation of the Maliau Basin Conservation Area Management Plan.
The first major expedition to Lake Linumunsut (Sabah’s only true lake) in the northern part of Maliau was conducted in 2001. By now, only about 25% of the total area has been mapped, and less than 10% have been studied intensively. Yet, the Basin has already yielded more new species of plants and animals than many other places over many more years of studies! In 2002 we celebrated the groundbreaking for the Maliau Basin Studies Centre Site by HRH Prince Henrik of Denmark and Tan Sri Datu Khalil bin Datu Haji Jamalul, the Director of Yayasan Sabah.
Now, talks are underway that the Maliau Basin may become Malaysia’s third World Heritage Site.
Visitors to Maliau Basin Conservation Area are welcome, but access is strictly controlled and permission to enter must be obtained in advance from Yayasan Sabah.