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Gert Van Opstal, living the dream in the land of the orangutan.

In 2000, engineer Gert Van Opstal embarked on an enchanting journey through South-East Asia. Although he initially wanted to go to Brazil, fate took him to Kuala Lumpur instead, and later to Borneo, where his love for the country was immediately ignited. He was seduced by the flavours of the local cuisine, the warmth of the local people and the tranquillity of the natural environment. And just as Tintin could always rely on his friend Bobbie, Gert could continue to enjoy Belgian social protection with peace of mind, knowing that Overseas Social Security would follow him anywhere in the world.

From dream to reality

We meet Gert virtually in his office. Behind him hangs a sign bearing the brand of one of Belgium's greatest beers. 'That way I have a piece of Belgium here too,' he jokes. After several years of trekking through South-East Asia, Gert settled permanently on Malaysian soil. In 2006, he moved to the capital Kuala Lumpur, where he met his business partner Jason, a trained chef. They clicked immediately and initial plans to run a guest house were soon forged. A few months later, he moved to Sandakan on the island of Borneo. 'This is one of the largest islands in the world and is 24.2 times larger than Belgium. I don't live at the resort myself, but about two hours away.' From the dynamic capital to the vast wilderness, living in Borneo was a real transformation for Gert.

The final frontier

I found my home from home in the heart of Borneo – a land steeped in the mystique of its jungles and with numerous animal species.

As a Belgian expat outside Europe, he decided to start a unique guesthouse, high on a hilltop and surrounded by nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. He discovered this location as a tourist when he first stayed here with a local family. 'I found my home from home in the heart of Borneo – a land steeped in the mystique of its jungles and with numerous animal species.'

Setting up our small resort was no easy task. With limited resources and the challenge of a remote location, Gert had to be creative. 'We didn't have a big budget and found a piece of land on top of the hill. But the climb hasn’t deter our guests.' About 580 steps take you up to the guesthouse. 'Once you reach the top, you have a beautiful view over the jungle. This location has become our own little piece of paradise in the wilderness.' And the resort is safe from flooding, too. 'We are on a hill, so we stay dry during Sandakan's rainy season, from December through February.'

Gert and Jason christened their slice of paradise 'The Last Frontier'. 'I borrowed the name from the US state of Alaska, often referred to as "The Last Frontier," a vast and pristine area known for its unparalleled beauty and natural splendour. And it’s no different here.'

Between natural beauty and western impact

Borneo's jungle is home to an amazing variety of animals, from majestic orangutans to colourful bird species. Gert is lucky enough to come face to face with these magnificent creatures on a regular basis. But he has also witnessed the dark side of human activity in the jungle. 'The expansion of palm oil plantations puts enormous pressure on the area's biodiversity, forcing countless animals to leave their habitat.' This reminds Gert of the fragility of nature and the need to look for sustainable solutions so that humans and animals can coexist peacefully.

Gert regularly has friendly contact with the local population groups. But he has observed the influence of western society becoming increasingly felt in this environment. 'Although plantations need water and electricity so we can enjoy some comfort, it still creates mixed feelings.'


Life as an expat in Malaysia also brings personal challenges. As the sole, non-Malaysian owner of the resort, Gert faces a language barrier and administrative red tape. But despite these obstacles, he remains determined to keep his dream alive. 'Fortunately, my language skills are improving all the time and my business partner is also helping me to assimilate more and more.'

The best of both worlds

Life as an expat has also caused Gert to reflect on his roots in Belgium. During the COVID crisis, he returned. And that brought him a sense of nostalgia, but also a renewed perspective on his life abroad. For Gert, Belgium is still a Plan B, a safe haven in uncertain times. 'Since I was affiliated to the Overseas Social Security, it was easy for me to come back during the COVID crisis and to reintegrate into Belgium's social security system.' Gert was reassured by this and it also made him decide to return to his homeland every winter. 'My parents are getting older by the day, so it’s good to spend some more time with them. Working in Belgium during the winter period is the perfect contrast to my life in Borneo.'

Life is an adventure

As he looks back on his life, Gert realises that it has been a true adventure, full of surprises and challenges. But it is a life he would never want to trade for anything else. 'Many of my then colleagues and friends thought I was crazy, but now more than ever I’m convinced that passion and interest can take you anywhere, as long as you don't lose faith in it.'

Would you like to share your travel experiences?

Are you an expat or do you know someone with an inspiring experience abroad? Please don't hesitate to contact us at overseas-expat@onssrszlss.fgov.be. And who knows, you might inspire future expats with your story.

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