Round Sabah Trip With Molly & Ducket

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Acknowledgement:

This Map of Sabah has been extracted from a travel brochure 2010 and some changes have been made  to highlight our road trip.

One would have to say that good roads in Sabah are somewhat limited in proportion to the mass of the country. Most areas such as the Interior Division, the Sandakan Division and the Tawau Division, consist of mountains and jungles, with a tapestry of dirt tracks servicing kampungs, which can be accessed only by 4 wheel drives.
Molly and I have travelled many of the more accessible roads of the west coast from north to south. However we decided that we really needed to circumnavigate the country, at least as far as possible.  We planned our trip with our friends Graham and Cate Foster; this way we would have two 4 wheel drives and be able to support each other should an emergency arise.
We set off on Thursday March 3, 2010 from our residence at Nexus Resort, Karambunai.  We decided to stop the first night in Keningau. The town is only about three hours drive from KK across the Crocker Range of mountains but  the next town with comfortable accommodation (we’re retired remember) is Tawau and that is a six hour drive from Keningau, including 150kms of bad unsealed road.

Keningau was established on the back of the timber industry of the Interior Division. That industry is no longer evident in this area and the cleared jungle has been replaced by farming, leaving little evidence of what used to be. The town itself is pleasant enough with a central open air food market erected every night along the side of the padang (central sports field). This consists of Malay food and unfortunately most stall holders seem to be selling exactly the same fare, which does not present the exciting selection available in most Malay food outlets.  Further up the road, there is a Chinese food market but we did not discover this until the morning when we were departing.
We had booked rooms in the Juta Hotel which is centrally located in the town. The Juta is locally classified as a three star hotel and I must say I liked it very much. This was largely due to the excellent staff who were absolutely lovely and could not do enough to make our stay pleasant. We booked dinner in the restaurant and were informed that if we wanted a pre dinner drink, we should go to the bar at the rear of the hotel, as they did not serve alcohol in the restaurant.
We set off on Thursday March 3, 2010 from our residence at Nexus Resort, Karambunai.  We decided to stop the first night in Keningau. The town is only about three hours drive from KK across the Crocker Range of mountains but  the next town with comfortable accommodation (we’re retired remember) is Tawau and that is a six hour drive from Keningau, including 150kms of bad unsealed road.
Keningau was established on the back of the timber industry of the Interior Division. That industry is no longer evident in this area and the cleared jungle has been replaced by farming, leaving little evidence of what used to be. The town itself is pleasant enough with a central open air food market erected every night along the side of the padang (central sports field). This consists of Malay food and unfortunately most stall holders seem to be selling exactly the same fare, which does not present the exciting selection available in most Malay food outlets.  Further up the road, there is a Chinese food market but we did not discover this until the morning when we were departing.
We had booked rooms in the Juta Hotel which is centrally located in the town. The Juta is locally classified as a three star hotel and I must say I liked it very much. This was largely due to the excellent staff who were absolutely lovely and could not do enough to make our stay pleasant. We booked dinner in the restaurant and were informed that if we wanted a pre dinner drink, we should go to the bar at the rear of the hotel, as they did not serve alcohol in the restaurant.
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The Juta Hotel
The bar turned out to be an open affair facing on to the rear service area of the hotel. Not the best of settings but they had done what they could with it and it was not a bad place to sit. And sit we did and looked at each other and then looked for the barman who was nowhere to be found. Eventually I followed the sound of laughter and found three happy staff members folding towels; they in turn found two happy barmen, who fell over themselves trying to serve us. They asked what we would like but as there were no bottles of any kind to be seen on the shelves, we asked them what they had. Out came the keys and out came the bottles – brandy, gin, vodka, whisky, literally dozens of them were presented to us on the bar top. We ordered beers and whisky (which was liberally poured) and ordered a second round since they had gone to such an effort, we felt obliged to. The dinner was exceptional and I could not fault it in any way. We thought better of returning to the bar and going through a similar routine. In any case, the following morning we were driving to Tawau.
Leaving Keningau we headed towards Tawau and as far as Nabawan the road is good, then all of a sudden it disappears and you are on the unfinished road. The condition can vary but it’s pretty rough for the whole 150kms. If you want to experience a lifetime of potholes all in one day, then this is the road for you. The only piece of advice I would give is – do it in someone else’s car!
Here are some pictures of the 150 km of bad road!!
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Watch that corner!

 

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No worries!
We’ve got 4WD
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Only 75 km to go! and that’s about another hour and a half.
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Toilet Break!
 One light in the long tunnel of the unmade road was a coffee stop at a tiny wooden shack about mid way along the road. It was run by a lovely Bajau lady called Rosleah and her husband. Her smiles made the trip worthwhile and sent us on our way with new vigor. If you are lucky enough to stop there you will know what I mean.
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Molly and Rosliah

It took us about three hours to traverse the 150kms and I must say Toby came through it all with shining colours and not even a hint of the shake rattle and roll that I fully expected.

We reached Tawau and booked into the Promenade Hotel, which was not on the promenade but never the less was very nice. We did take a walk along the actual promenade however and very interesting it was too. Lots of coming and going in little motorboat taxis, with the locals taking their shopping home to the outlying islands and all this with the mountains of Kalimantan in the misty distance. That evening we managed to convince the management of the Tawau Yacht Club that we should be allowed to dine there.
We met the manager and the commodore Mr Frederick Lo who is a local Barrister. Both these gentlemen made us very welcome so thank you both should you ever read this web site. We also had an excellent meal, including fresh crab delivered live minutes before it was served to us. The trip was getting better by the minute.
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Tawau’s boat people
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Tawau harbour
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Tawau Yacht Club
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View from Tawau Yacht Club

Our next goal was the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. However we could not miss out on visiting the famous town of Semporna with its Semporna Islands Park. In any case it only added a few kilometers to our journey. This area has some of the best diving opportunities in the world, with such dive sites as Mabul and Sipadan islands.

Although we are divers, we had not scheduled a stop here as it merits several days to fully experience the phenomenal sites to be seen and once again it is on our list to return and we will keep you informed. We did have some lunch in the restaurant of the Dragon Inn, which is a timber structure perched over the ocean. The Dragon Inn has some accommodation also perched over the ocean. It’s not particularly cheap but neither of course is the accommodation on the islands. The setting is certainly attractive and the restaurant is a lovely place to dine.
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Semporna Jetty
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Semporna and beyond
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Dragon Inn Chalets

After lunch we headed north towards the town of Lahad Datu. It was a relatively uneventful journey apart from coming across two very worrying road kills. My wife informed me that in Malay they were Harimau Bintangs or tigers with stars (spots). These were Leopard Cats and as such rather rare and it was disturbing to see two of them killed in such a short distance of road. Of course this road is not too far from the Danum Valley Conservation Area and these beautiful creatures are free to roam at will and I guess that is the price they pay for living so close to man. We drove through Lahad Datu but did not find anything of great interest to merit a stop, so continued on our way north.

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Lahad Datu market

Another 50 or so kilometers brought us to the turn off for Sukau, which was another 40 kilometers down the road. Reaching the kampong, we parked our car next to the small shop on the banks of the Kinabatangan River and called the Lodge to send the boatman to ferry us across.

I would like to take the opportunity to list a couple of interesting facts about the Lower Kinabatangan Flood Plain. In 2002 Sabah’s Chief Minister launched “Kinabatangan, A Corridor of Life: A Vision for the Kinabatangan 2020.”Since then, the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary has been gazetted as a Bird Sanctuary under the State Land Ordinance. Of the 244 resident bird species of the lowland forests of Malaysian Borneo, 198 have been recorded in this area. A second gazettment under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment, will turn this area into a wildlife sanctuary managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department. Interestingly, this is one of the very few sites in the world inhabited by 10 species of primates and four of these are endemic to Borneo.
For centuries the Orang Sungai or river people have lived along the banks of the Kinabatangan, surviving on their vegetable crops and fish and meat from the forest. However during the last century large areas of forest were cleared by loggers and more recently more of the rainforest has been cleared and replaced by palm oil plantations. This habitat destruction has had a disastrous effect on many species. Luckily some of the tour operators are now working with the local people in reforestation programmes, planting food species to restore the wildlife habitat.

Now back to our trip – Our river journey only lasted five minutes and we were at the Lodge. Here we were greeted by the manager Brett, a Sydneysider with a warm and welcoming personality. He joined us for a cold beer and gave us a general briefing on Sukau Rainforest Lodge.

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Brett and Mae
There are five different lodges in this area and we had selected this particular one on the advice of a friend. Having said that we didn’t expect too much, after all we were in the heart of the Borneo jungle. However I must say we were pleasantly surprised. All the buildings are constructed out of local timber and being Eco friendly, as much as possible they have used timbers which have floated down the river as opposed to cutting down trees. The restaurant is built out over the river and a covered walkway takes you from there to the reception lounge. The accommodation is behind this, a bit further into the forest. The rooms are clean, modern and well furnished, with excellent toilet/washing facilities. All in all we were very comfortable.
We had just had time for a quick shower when the dinner gong went. Now this took me straight back to my childhood. I wonder how many of you remember the days when hotels informed you of mealtimes by ringing a gong? I think it’s a wonderful idea, lying there having an afternoon siesta with one ear open waiting for the gong. I must also say that every meal we had while at this lodge was excellent and could not be faulted.
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Ducket exploring the Lodge
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The balcony over the river
Late in the afternoon of our second day the cry went out….”The elephants have been sighted!” Now as you probably know  Sabah is the only place in the world where the Borneo Pygmy Elephants, Elephas Pygmaes Borneensis,live in the wild. They are rare and you are very lucky to see them. The guides at the lodge told us that the herd inhabiting this area works its way down one side of the river sourcing food, swims across and works its way back up the other side. This migration pattern has them passing the lodge about every four months.
This time however, they had been spotted a few Kilometers down river, so into the boat we jumped and off we went. Sure enough, there was the herd feeding on elephant grass at the edge of the river. They appeared totally unafraid as we nudged the boat into the river bank within an arm’s length of them. This was without doubt the highlight of the trip and we felt very privileged to be sitting in their midst while they dined. Although they are called Pygmy Elephants they are no lightweights with the males reaching a height of 2.6m and the females2.2m. Theirs is a maternal society with the oldest female dominating the herd. The males live on the periphery and probably do what they are told, which appears to be the norm in the majority of the animal kingdom. Initially it was thought that these creatures were not endemic to Borneo. It was thought that they originated as gifts to the Sultan of Sulu in 1750 and had been released into the wild by him. However genetic tests carried out in 2003 proved that they are in fact a distinct subspecies which has evolved in Borneo and which is now confined to Sabah.
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We spent a pleasant half an hour with these magnificent creatures and then headed up a side creek to meet the monkeys. Now this show was equally entertaining and hilarious at the same time. We are often reminded that these creatures are our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom and the family scene before us certainly emphasized that point. The river and its tributaries are home to the estuarine crocodile so the wildlife organizations have build rope bridges across the rivers so that monkeys can pass from one side of the river to the other in safety. I should add here that the guide pointed out to us that this idea has its problems, in that the crocodiles are being denied their natural food source, ie monkeys and the locals are concerned that this will increasingly make them the target of attacks. Anyway back to the story; directly above us on a rope bridge sat a pair of Long-Tailed Macaques who appeared to be in love. They were hugging each other and locking mouths in what appeared to be a form of kissing. Suddenly the female broke the embrace and looked down at the male’s penis. Getting no response from the male, she gave it a couple of tugs. The poor guy looked a bit bemused and totally at a loss as to how to react. Just then a very large male swopped down and instantly mounted the poor chap’s girlfriend. It was all over in seconds, the dominant male casting a ‘that’s how to do it’ glance at the younger male before going off to join the other monkeys. The poor cuckolded monkey sat alone with hunched shoulders looking down at his manhood. I really wanted to put my arm around him and tell him it would be alright but then we are not supposed to get involved with the wildlife are we…..?

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Macaques
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Monkey Business
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Kampong Kinabatangan
On the way back to the lodge we spotted Proboscis monkeys high in the trees where they were settling down for the night.  These guys are a beautiful colour and the male’s long nose is a most unusual feature.  Another unusual male feature is the fact that they have a permanent erection.  There can be no embarrassment in the animal kingdom and this extraordinary orange member is a sight to behold.  One cannot help but wonder how they can swing through the trees without doing themselves serious injury.
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Proboscis Monkeys
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On the morning of our departure we were awoken by a very loud and unusual monkey call. We were later informed by one of the guides that it was a Bornean Gibbon and he told us the heartwarming and at the same time sad tale, associated with this monkey. He was one of three baby Gibbon siblings who lived near the lodge a couple of years ago. One night two of his siblings disappeared and he was on his own for a while but luckily a passing tribe of Silvered Langurs adopted him and he went with them. Every so often the tribe returns to the lodge area and the Gibbon always comes with them. Every time he returns ‘home’ he calls for his long lost family and that is the rather plaintive call we heard that morning. A bit sad but isn’t it nice to hear how some members of the monkey kingdom look after the lost and dejected, even if they are of a different species?
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Kinabatangan Sunset
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Eco-warriors Alex and Nadia from Laos
On the road again, we headed for Sandakan. We had booked to stay at the Sabah Hotel which was a good choice as it was minutes from the Agnes Keith House, which was one place I definitely wanted to visit. For those who have not heard of her Agnes was the wife of the Conservator of Forests for the British North Borneo Chartered Company and who lived in Sandakan from 1934. She and her husband suffered badly at the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War. However both survived to return to Sandakan to rebuild her beloved house, which had been destroyed, on the same foundations and to the same plan. Agnes wrote several books but none better than her trilogy of – ‘Land Below the Wind’, ‘Three Came Home’ and ‘White Man Returns’. These books vividly detail life in Sabah before, during and after the war. I strongly recommend them to anyone interested in this period and in Sabah in particular. I had a wonderful time exploring this house and it was just as she so accurately described it in her writings. Next door is the Cottage Tea Rooms which is styled on an English Tea Room and serves an excellent afternoon tea as well as excellent dinners – all with a stunning view of the town below and the Sulu Sea beyond.
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Agnes Keith’s House
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Cate and Graham doing High Tea at the English Teahouse garden
View of  Sandakan Town from the Buddhist Temple
We also took time to visit the site of the WW2 prisoner of war camp where so many men died and where around 2500 men started the Sandakan to Ranau Death March, of  which only six escaped to tell the tale. Molly wrote about our visit to the camps at Ranau where the survivors of this march were kept until they too were murdered. You can read this under the blog “Lest we forget.” This camp has been turned into a park and the upkeep is paid for by the Australian Government. It is a pleasant place until you enter the Pavilion and read and see what these poor men went through. You can walk to the edge of the camp to see the start of the long march to Ranau 250kms in the distance. The jungle was thick,  the terrain was mountainous  and the men were suffering all sorts of ills such as malaria and berri berri. If you faltered you died and most of them sadly did just that.
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The Sandakan ar Memorial
We turned west again and headed to the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary. It was refreshing to come here and witness man’s kindness to other creatures, after seeing the potential for hate and violence which unfortunately inhabits some human hearts. At Sepilok love is in the air. There are volunteers here from all over the world, doing simple but important tasks such as building accommodation enclosures. There are Veterinarians and Scientists helping with the rehabilitation of these incredible animals. There is hope here that such an important species will never be allowed to disappear, no matter how many hectares disappear under the rapacious machinery of the palm oil industry, to name but one guilty party. While we were there a wild mother Orang Utan with baby in arms swung down from the trees to sit on the platform, comfortably at ease with the two humans who had deposited a bin full of fruit for her. Our friends mentioned that there were far more Orang Utans there a few years ago. But someone also said that perhaps that was because the programme was working and that fewer now needed human help. Let’s hope that is the case because we cannot afford to lose these guys who scientists have just declared share 96.4% of our genes.
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Orang Utan mother and baby
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We continued to head west and Molly and I decided to stop at the base of Mount Kinabalu in the Kinabalu Park area. We had been advised to stay at the Celine Resort because they said, “when you open the balcony door in the morning the mountain will be right there!” Oh yes! When we opened the door in the morning we saw precisely nothing. Well that’s not actually true, we saw the thickest fog I have seen since I was lost in the Cairngorms in 1964! The guy at reception said that it was most unusual for this time of the year and that it was clear as a bell yesterday……Oh well, there is always another day and we only live an hour and a half from Kinabalu Park, so we can always come back and once again I will keep you posted. We had also intended to have a look at the golf course which is supposed to be spectacular being right underneath the mountain….. And the famous Kundasang Tamu…..And the Kundasang War Memorial and Gardens. So as I say I will keep you posted.
But……You are not going to get away that easily. Just because I can’t give you a firsthand report on the mountain and its surrounds, that doesn’t mean that I can’t bore you with some remarkable facts. This is no ordinary mountain and I feel I need to tell you a few things. So here I go….
The capital of Sabah used to be called Jesselton but because of the importance of the mountain, it was renamed Kota Kinabalu ie. “The Foot of the Mountain.”

In December 2000 Kinabalu Park was declared Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Kinabalu Park has probably one of the richest flora collections in the world.
At 4,095.2m Mt. Kinabalu is the highest mountain between the Snow Mountains of Papua Barat in New Guinea and the Himalayas.

Kinabalu Park has developed an incredible array of plant life and is situated in one of the richest plant regions of the world. It has several species which exist only on the mountain or within the Park and nowhere else in the world. For example there are more than 600 species of ferns on Kinabalu which is more than exist on the whole African Continent. 50 of these ferns are found nowhere else. There are many other similar examples.
Every year the Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon in held during September/October. People from all over the world gather to run the 8.5kms long, 4095m high mountain. The record is around two and a half hours which is incredible considering most people take two days to reach the top! (Read Blog on Sabah on the international scene)

The International Mount Kinabalu Mountain Bike Race is another annual event and is a 27kms race through the lower slopes of the mountain.

Well I’m sure I have bored you enough and anyway it’s time for bed.
It was a good trip!

For more on  Molly & Derrick travel destination, check out HERE

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