Interview: Gert Van Opstal and Jason Tan, Joint Managing Directors – Last Frontier Boutique Resort – Kinabatangan
After a long and bumpy drive from anywhere in Eastern Sabah, a niche in the bush reveals what looks like a never-ending wooden staircase leading upwards into the thick jungle. Around 600 steps later, one emerges at a rustic and quaint ridge-top property, and the welcoming smiles of the owner / managers of the Last Frontier Boutique Resort. We asked them to tell us the story behind this intriguing place.
Gert – In 2006 I moved from Belgium to Kuala Lumpur. I already knew Jason before. He’s a qualified French Chef. I spent about four months in KL before we came to visit Sabah and both fell in love with this place. It’s quite special when it comes to food, nature and the environment. We came to this village, where we are located now, and did homestay with the locals, and at that time we decided to come back in the next months to spend some time in Kinabatangan to see if there was a location we could open our own resort. The owner of the homestay told us he owned this patch of land that went all the way to the top of the hill. That sounded very special to me, because as we were working with a very small budget, we had to do something unique – something that maybe had never been done before. How could we attract people to our small place if we were doing the same as everyone else was doing? After spending a whole day along the river banks and not finding anything suitable, due to the flooding, the elephants, the crocodiles and so on, the next morning we climbed up this hill. With a big machete, and lots of leeches, it took us about three hours to get to the top to an open patch of land – where the entrance of the restaurant is now. At that point, given the view and the location, we decided, “This is it”, right away. So, we both moved from KL to Sandakan, where we still live. Then we had to get the building permits, bring in the construction materials and so on. It was quite a job, because it was not the most convenient location – and at that time, the last 50 km was on a famous Sabah gravel road, where we got stuck numerous times. Then we had to take all the supplies to the top of the hill. It took around one and half years to build the whole place.
Jason: It’s mostly also because we did almost everything ourselves. We even did the plumbing and electricity. With a contractor, it would have been faster, but given the location, it would have been very expensive.
It’s a very steep hill. How did you get everything up here?
Gert: For a year and a half, we had five or six people non-stop carrying things up the hill. The beams and the pillars were very hard to carry up here. The staircase behind the restaurant is in concrete, and all the bathrooms are concrete as well. So, we had to bring up the sand, cement, stones, and so on, and mix the concrete by hand – it would have been too hard to bring a machine up here. Looking back, it was a nice experience in life, and this is what you get.
Jason: We have trekking up and along the ridge on what’s known as the Dutchman’s trail. It’s not a private trail, but we generally have exclusive use of it as it starts here. It’s about a one-and-a-half-hour round trip, and it offers fabulous views. We have been ranked number one on TripAdvisor for years, and the place is becoming quite well known.
There is no sign down at your entrance. Why?
Jason: It’s because up until recently, very few people came with their own transport. They only recently sealed the road here. Until just a few years ago, you needed a four-wheel drive to get to the village. We understand backpackers often want to do everything by themselves, but you can’t really do that when you come to Kinabatangan, because you need to rely on the lodges for the pick-up and transfer.
How long do people generally stay?
Jason: The three days/two nights package is the most popular one. The main clientele is European. Not so many Australians are coming, due to the travel advisories.
What do you think of the travel advisories?
Gert: They are mostly exaggerated. Kinabatangan has always been safe. The entire eastern part of Sabah has a travel advisory, all the way down the coast. The Europeans don’t seem to be so worried about that, but the Australians’ travel insurance doesn’t cover coming to this part of the country. Our strength is that the travellers coming here are generally independent, and not going through tour operators. Most Tour Operators will not send their clients to this area. There is no travel advisory warning people from the rest of the world not to go to Europe because of all the terrorist activity there – where many, many people have been killed in many attacks. You cannot compare the two situations, and yet there is still a travel advisory against this part of Sabah. That doesn’t make sense. In general, Malaysia is much safer than Europe. You just have to be careful.
How many people can you accommodate here?
Gert: Up to 12 people.
How do you do your promotion?
Gert: Via sites like TripAdvisor, Booking.com, Expedia, most booking websites, and then we are starting to work more with local travel agencies, like River Junkie, Sticky Rice Travel as well.
Some people are saying there will be no Orangutans left in the wild here in ten years’ time. What are your thoughts on that?
Gert: We have young families who come here and say it out loud: “We want to see the Orangutan before it will be extinct soon”.
How can tourism stop the deforestation?
Gert: The tourism economy is a good alternative to the palm oil economy. It also educates people about how valuable the environment is. To give you an example, we had some Canadians staying here a few weeks ago, and some of the people in the village asked them what kind of monkeys they have in Canada. It shows that they think the whole world is a jungle, and they don’t know how unique what we have here is. The government – especially here in Sabah and Sarawak – should really focus on how special this area is in the world – with the wildlife and jungle here. They need to educate the local people about this.
Jason: There is an association here, called Kinabatangan Corridor of Life Tour Operators’ Association (http://www.kitaborneo.org/) – of which I am currently President. It is a joint effort by the resort owners to try to put more pressure on the Government to protect this place. Our business relies on the healthy nature of the surrounding environment in order to attract tourists to come here. They need to stop issuing permits and allowing more plantations to open up. When we set up the Association, we adopted the “Corridor of Life” – an initiative to preserve each bank of the Kinabatangan, as a nature corridor, and to protect the buffer zone as well, and repair the rainforest along the river. It is very important.
Gert: It is complicated. We have to show to them that tourism is a good alternative.
Jason: The association has been around for quite a while, but we need more support as an NGO.
Gert: This year alone (eds: 2018), there were 25 elephants killed. We never had so many. We have to do something urgently, or soon it will be the end for the elephants as well.
Jason: One of the biggest attractions we have here is the elephants, as well as the orangutans. Here, the “big five” is orangutans, proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, sun bears and the elephants. Sighting the elephants has become very unpredictable, as their migration habits have been interrupted. While some efforts are being made, the government needs to become much more involved in protecting these animals. It’s one thing to have nature reserves and another to keep the wildlife alive in their own natural habitat. What do we want for our future generations? Only to see animals in captivity? We need to put more pressure on the state authorities.
Gert: Here, there is 26,000 hectares protected, but there is double that which is just jungle, and it is still shrinking. If it comes down to the last remaining 26,000 hectares, is this sustainable? We don’t know. Can the elephants, proboscis monkeys and orangutans still live in these 26,000 hectares? We don’t know. What if the answer is no.
What are your “key assets”?
Jason: Of all the lodges near the river, apart from homestays, we are the only one run by the hosts themselves. We talk to people not only about Kinabatangan, but also about all of the rest of Sabah and Malaysia. We always encourage people to bring other people to Sabah, because there are so many places to discover. There is not a lot of information online about where people can actually go, but if you dig in deeper, you can get some really, really nice places here in Sabah.
Gert: The location – the height – that comes with the staircase – almost 600 steps from the street level up to the restaurant. This is the only place in Kinabatangan like this. The second selling point is that one of us is always here with the customers. We even do the transfers from Sandakan. We still do it ourselves, because it is a very good opportunity to talk to the people. Most foreigners want to hear the stories about the plantations and the politics, and like this we can give them the inside story. The experience is really personal, and most other lodges are not really providing that.