2008 – Malaysia (Sabah) and Brunei

Stuck behind a Malaysian logging truckMalaysia is a place that I briefly visited whilst over-landing from Europe to Australia in 1996, after more then 4 years on the road.  I only stopped at a few places on the main peninsular before  making my way to Singapore, so I never made it to the island of Borneo. When you think of Borneo it conjures up all kinds of enigmatic thoughts, a land of dense jungle, hidden tribes, and mystique. Our trip to Borneo was to be fairly brief, a little over 2 weeks, so we were never going to expierence a Borneo of this nature (or would we?). Liza had done most of the planning for this trip, and as usual I would do some reading on our destination whilst on the plane. I never seem to get to immersed in a destination until I actually arrive, but once there I always try to learn a bit about the regions history, politics and the like. We were heading for the state of Sabah, a small area belonging to Malaysia on Borneo’s north. The plan was to spend the first 5 days relaxing at the Shangri-La resort having a bit of a holiday, before hiring a car and heading off on a weeks tour of the state to see what we could find. We would then return to Kota Kinabalu, before flying to Brunei for new years eve, and then back to Kuala Lumpur before heading home.

The Shangri-La resort was sensational, although quite expensive. We spent the mornings lying around the pool and the nights eating in the fine restaurants, it had to offer. During the days, we would make our way into Kota Kinabalu to look around. The city was larger than I expected, and quite modern in parts, although there were some area’s arround the bay that were acutely poor as well. Whilst sitting around the pool, we did a bit of research regarding what we would like to see when we began our tour of Sabah. The main attractions to this region are the orang-utans and the mighty Mt Kinabalu. We knew that we wanted to get of the beaten track a little, so a 4WD would be our hire car of choice. It just so happened that the resort had its own hire car service, and we knew we were coming back to the Shangri-La before flying out, so it seemed like a logical place to hire.

Our original thought (although solely based on cost) was to hire a small 4WD. Just something that would get us safely motoring along, on a wet or muddy dirt track. We arranged our hire the night before we were to leave, and when our vehicle arrived in the morning, due to a shortage of smaller 4WD’s we were given a brand new Mazda Fighter. At first I thought it may have been a bit of a con to get some extra cash out of us, but the price was the same. My initial concern was where we would lock up our bags, when we weren’t with the vehicle, as they will not fit in the front. As it turned out, there was a fully lockable back compartment, so we took the keys and off we went. Making our way out of Kota Kinabalu, we headed north towards the Kinabalu National Park. It was here where we would spend our first night at the base of Mt Kinabalu.

Although not large on a Himalayan scale, this mountain is still quite a monster and stands over 4,000m to it’s highest point. The true summit is hard to make out, with its jagged saw tooth like appearance of many false summits.

The views from our lodge looking up to the summit at dusk were spectacular, although we had to wait for a bit of cloud to clear before we got a clear view. As the sun began to set, a full moon began to rise, and enabled to see the summit well after dusk. It was an impressive sight. I’m not sure of the altitude of our lodge, but it was quite cold at night, and we definitely needed our blankets, which was something we wern’t used to over the previous 5 days.

The next morning we set off early for our next destination, slowly winding our way down from altitude, and back to the heat at sea level. Although time was short, we wanted to make a quick visit to the region around the Kinabatangan River. This region is famous for it’s wildlife, although it was mid-day and the chances of seing anything were quite remote. It was only a short drive from the main highway to Sukau, and we still had a bit of time up out sleeves before, we needed to be in Sandakan. When we arrived at Sukau, it was quiet with no one around. I walked around the village asking about for someone to take us on a couple of hours cruise up the river, and down some tributaries. I managed to arrange a guide and for a reasonable price so we locked the car and made our way down to the jetty. We must have eaten something a little dodgy the night before, and Liza was busting to go to the toilet, and the only place to go was what I would describe as a floating loo perched upon some old logs. As the saying goes ‘when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go!’, so Liza didn’t have much choice, and in all reality it was far from the worse toilet we had seen over our many years of travel.

We made our way up river at quite a pace, before pushing our way through some thick vegetation and into some of the smaller tributaries. As we figured there was not much wildlife about, except for some birdlife and the odd monkey. Even without much in the way of wildlife sightings, it was still a nice way to spend the afternoon as our guide nodded that we were making our way back to Sukau. Durring the return, through a fairly dense patch of virgin jungle, it was my turn to go. My guts started to rumble, but I thought I could hang on until we got back to the floating loo. I waited a little longer, but there was no chance. I had to go, so I signalled our guide and told him to stop.

He pulled up along side the muddy river bank, and I got out. Liza through me a tube of mosquito repellant and some toilet paper. I pushed my way through the jungle, until I was out of sight.

The mosquito’s and bugs were buzzing everywhere, I got bitten a few times before plodding my way back through the mud, and back to the boat. The guide just smirked as I got back in the boat, and we made our way back to the village. After leaving Sukau, we made a brief stop at the Gomantong Caves. These caves are famous for the swiftlet nest’s, that are used to make birds nest soup. The birdsnest’s are collected from the cave roofs, by men who should be working in the ‘Circ du soleil’. They shimmy there way up and down bamboo poles and swing from place to place, to chisel the nests (the nest’s are edible because they are made from the bird’s saliva) from the cave roof. As you would expect the caves are very dark and have what can only be described as a perpetual odour. To get to the Simud Hitam (Black Cave) we had to do our own bit of fancy footwork. Climbing up several ladders in other small, but open caves to finally get a glimpse of Simud Hitam. The cave was also filmed as part of the BBC TV series ‘Planet Earth’.

It was the 23rd of December, and Christmas was almost upon us. We wanted to spend the next couple of days in a larger town, so Sandakan seemed a good choice. The town is a lively commercial hub, on Sabah’s east coast. We booked into the Hotel Sandakan, a slightly run down establishment, that was perched at a high point above the city. The hotel had a weird kind of feel to it, as it was surrounded by forest, even though we were only 5 minutes from town. Liza picked out a charming place from the guidebook, for us to have Christmas dinner, but on arrival we were informed that it was booked out. After a quick discussion, we arranged to have there dinner on Christmas eve instead. The name of the place was the ‘English Tea House & Restaurant’, basically right next door to the hotel. As it turns out Christmas eve was no where near as busy, so we booked the el primo position. A solitary table on the lawn under an old gazebo, with sweeping views of the city below us.

Before we would sit down to our Christmas Eve dinner in what I would describe as the ‘Rock Star’ seats, we would spend the day at the Sepilok ‘Orang-Utan’ Rehabilitation Center and the Labuk Bay ‘Proboscis Monkey’ Sanctuary. Both of these primates are endangered species, and although they are still living in the wild at these sanctuary’s, they are habituated to human contact, and in most cases become dependant on humans for much of there food. Although I’d seen the Orang-Utan’s many years earlier in Sumatra, Liza had not yet seen them. Neither Liza or myself, had ever heard of the Proboscis Monkey before visiting Borneo, let alone that they are extremely endangered. Although it was great to view both of these primates, by far the biggest attraction was the pet otter, that lived at the sanctuary.

The otter took an extreme liking to Liza, and actually followed us to our car, climbed inside, and started rolling around, and jumping from seat to seat.

After the novelty wore off, and we had to leave, we coaxed him out and jumped in. Then one of the most funniest things I have ever witnessed happened. The otter began chasing our car (at a decent speed mind you) down through the Palm Oil plantation. I had to really put my foot down to loose him, or not run him over. We pray that he made his way home safely….

Leaving the otter behind us, we made our way back to the hotel, got changed and headed out for dinner. Our meal’s were delicious, and the service fantastic. After dinning, we spent the next hour or so, with myself downing a few vodka’s and Liza a couple of champagnes. We listened to Christmas carols as the sun began to set. The city lights began to illuminate below, bringing another day to an end.

It was strange to be in a predominantly Muslim country, but with Christmas Carols playing in restaurants and Christmas decorations, all over our hotel (not to mention a drink or two).

The Malaysians are a very tolerant people and quite a friendly bunch, and we never encountered anything but great hospitality, everywhere we went. We never really had anything planned for Christmas day, so we decided to go for a drive around Sandikan, as it was another beautiful day. We cruised down to the western end of town, and called in to the Ocean King Seafood Restaurant for lunch. This very busy place is perched on stilts over the water, and serves fresh seafood daily. You know it’s fresh as you go to the tanks to pick out what you want, and in 10 minutes, it’s on your plate. After lunch it was back to the hotel for a swim and a bit of relaxation, as the following day we would be heading for Semporna.

Semporna was a tranquil non distinct town, but many westerners come here as a stepping stone to many of the great dive spots off shore, and there were a few dive operators in town. We booked into a cheap wooden hotel/guest house for the night. It was a strange sort of place, and like many homes throughout this part of the world, it was supported by stilts over the water. Doing some research that night we discovered what sounded like a very cool place to visit, although quite expensive at approximately $250 US per night. That place was the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, and it was situated on the edge of what is know as the Danum Valley Conservation Area. The Danum Valley is a small piece of untouched, pristine virgin rainforest in central Sabah. The area, is famous for its wildlife, and sightings of many rare animals including Sumatran rhino and pygmy elephants can sometimes be spotted. Like many regions of Borneo, the area’s surrounding the Dannum Valley have been, and are still being heavily logged.

Our drive into the Borneo Rainforest Lodge was a 70 odd kilometre journey on a good, but at times muddy dirt track. All guests to the lodge were actually shuttled in by private 4WD, an no one really drives there own vehicle. We decided to take a punt, and head on in to the area, making our way through various check point’s controlled by the logging companies. At times we would get stuck behind logging trucks that were transporting some serious pieces of timber, that would have been many hundred’s of years old. Liza was in shock.

After making our way through the logging area, and into the conservation area proper, the scenery began to change. We were now surrounded by rainforest on all sides, dodging and weaving our way through switchbacks and up and over hills. Dusk was almost upon us and we were racing the clock to get to the lodge before dark. There were no signpost’s, but we new we were close, as we are now over 60km from the turnoff on the main highway. Pushing further into the forest we proceeded around a bend a rampant pace, and low and behold, there we were 50m away from a small herd of the rare pygmy elephants. The elephants were using the road for easy access, rather than having to bash and crash there way through the jungle. It was quite a site and we were very fortunate to make this sighting. We later found out that many people come to the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in search of these rare creatures, and go home without even hearing them in the forest, and there we were in our 4WD nearly driving straight into them. There were seven elephants in total, and from what we could make out there were three adult females and four young ones. A young male repeatedly made false impressions that he was going to charge our car, with his trunk raised and his ear’s erect, but soon gave up when I revved the car quite load. Within a minute they were gone and it was now very dark, so we crawled our way into the lodge and booked our room, much to the surprise of the employees and guest alike (as stated before, people vary rarely make there own way here).

The Borneo Rainforest Lodge was a relaxing, and peaceful place to stay for a few days. The whole complex is an open air construction, and built from local timber. The location was perfect, with the restaurant area surrounded on three sides by and amphitheatre of lush forest.

As you sat down to a meal, there would be rare birds flying overhead, making all sorts of weird and wonderful nosies, as well as monkeys swinging in the trees and a large variety of colorful butterfly’s everywhere you looked. Not trying to pigeon hole anyone but many of the guests boarding at the lodge were a bit stiff (botanist’s and like), and were generally much older (and considerably more wealthy as well). We found it hard to engange in conversation with may of the other guests. Part of the high cost of staying here allowed you to go on any number of guided forest walks and night drives, in search of animals and there was also a magnificent canopy walk through the tree tops built from suspension wires anchored from tree to tree, and in some places over 100 feet above the forrest floor below. We were not intending to visit a place like this, or to do any sort of bushwalking or hiking. We only packed sandals and some other basic shoes. Liza only had three quater length pants and no socks, and the other gusets were kitted out with full bush walking gear as well as leech garters. The sight on their faces as liza walked into the leech infested forrest with bare skin on her ankles was one of shock and horor, but the trusty old Bushmans Extreme insect reppalant with 70% deet, kept them at bay. On return to the lodge, some of the othere guests were dripping with blood, despite all of there best intentions and preparation.

The final leg of our journey in Sabah, was to head back to Kota Kinabalu, and whilst traveling, I have a golden rule that I try never to break. Where possible, try never to take the same road twice. This rule, as we found out would get us into no there trouble. We were looking at the map in the guide book, and trying to figure out how we would get back to Kota. The guide book showed a possible route heading back in the direction we needed to go, but between our position and the capital of Sabah, was several hundred kilometers of dirt tracks and jungle. We were confronted with the prospect of having to backtrak several hundred kilomters along the same route that we drove to get here and therefore breaking one of my golden rules of travel. Whilst walking back from breakfast I noticed that there was a map on the wall of the lodge indicating a thicker line, resembling a better road than what the guidebook presented. We asked various people from the lodge and recieved several differnt answers, ranging from, there is no road, to there is a road but it is extremely difficult to pass in the wet . We decided to take the later advice, and try our luck to see if we could get through. There had been a soaking of rain overnight, but nothing that would get Noah excited, so we packed up the car and started our journey into the unknown.

We made our way from the lodge and back to the main highway, before stopping at Tawau to fill up with fuel. It was shortly after Tawau that things began to get a little scary. The badly pot-holed, but sealed main road came to an end, and after clearing a security checkpoint we were confronted with a road that was basicaly compressed clay. The Mazda Fighter was  all over the shop, swinging from side to side due to a lack of traction of the back wheels. Although the vehicle was a 4WD, it was fitted with street tyres and they had no traction on the slippery clay base, as we had no weight over the back axle. Liza was pissing her self laughing, but all I could think was,

If this was what it was like 15 minutes from town, how bad is it gunna be out there, as I gazed into the jungle, towards the mountains ahead.

After 10 or so minutes I began to get the hang of the way the car was handling, and we kept on pushing our way forward. Light drizzle was falling, and the time was now somewhere around 11.00am, and we had been driving for about 3 hours. At this pace, I had us in Matiku (the town where the dirt track became a sealed road again) in about 6-8 hours time. After another hour or so of hard driving, it was apparent that we we may have bitten off a bit more than we could chew. The mud was getting thicker and deeper, and we had to traverse what I would loosely describe as bridges. These bridges were constructed from several large and heavy log’s, covered in mud and spanning the river below (in some cases over 10 meters below!). It was at this stage that we began to realize the severity of our situation, but we were several hours into the journey and we had already bashed our way through numerous difficult obstacles to get this far. There was only one other vehicle on this road, that was foolish enough to try and get through in these conditions, and that was a large Ford Bronco V8. We passed several logging trucks along the way, and due to the conditions had called it a day (or maybe a week) and were sitting it out for some drier weather. If only we had time on our side, we may have done the same, but with our flight leaving in two days we pushed on.

After nearly 8 hours straight of hard driving through the mud, we made it to Matiku. The car was a complete mess, with every square inch encrusted in mud. The moment we hit the sealed road we pulled the car over and tried to clear some of the mud that was compressed into every nook and cranny of the under carriage. I managed to clear a little, but it was so tightly packed, that it was hard to clear. We got back inside and started to drive, a little further. At this point I noticed that the front end was vibrating quite badly. It was late afternoon and in an hour or so, it would be dark, so we pulled into a one of the road side car washes to get some professional help. These small businesses were dotted all over this part of Sabah, and offered a complete car detail for around $4. I manoeuvred the car onto the wodden ramp and the boys began to clean the car with high pressure hoses. We couldn’t believe the amount of mud that was dislodged from the bottom of the car.

Come to think of it, when I look back. There were times when we were so deep in mud, that I had to just ram the car through, and the mud was like cheese going through a grater.

Night began to fall, and as we drove from town to town, there wasn’t much in the way of decent accommodation. As we were now on sealed roads, we decided to to head all the way back to Kota and spend the last two days there. All up, it was a 16hour day and after about 14hours I was so trashed, that Liza drove the last couple into town. We spent the last 48 hours relaxing in Kota, before hoping on a short flight to Brunei. Our short stay in Brunei would be at the luxurious Empire Hotel and Country Club, about 25km from town. Once again Liza had read about this place on the net, or in a guidebook and had pre-booked the stay. There is no doubt that this is one of the most amazing hotel complexes we had ever seen. The 80m atrium was the centre piece for the new years eve celebrations, and our 3 nights here were a dream, with great food and all round good service. I even got to sample the birds nest soup I mentioned earlier in this post. Although quite small on a world scale, downtown Brunei was an interesting place, with many impressive Mosque’s, as well as restaurants and shops. We even managed to catch a riverboat on dusk for what was only a short motor down river, but within 5 minutes it was like we were back in the Jungle. After Brunei we made our way back to Kuala Lumpur for a couple of days before heading home.

This trip was a bit of a mixed salad as far as travel goes. With accommodation ranging from 1 to 6 stars. With lazy days spent around the pool, to hell raising four wheel driving through some pretty treacherous roads, and everything in between. We would recommend Sabah to anyone that has seen there fair share of South East Asia’s main tourist spots, and are looking for something a little different. Who knows, we may even go back to Borneo one day to see what Sarawak has to offer.

Places Visited Map

TAGS: , , , ,


You can be the first one to leave a comment.

Leave a Comment