in North BorneoComments Off on Sabah


As a port of entry to Sabah, Labuan is not a good advertisement for the region… …but is just a short trip from Brunei; it’s around 30 miles along the coast.



It has the filthiest port we have ever been in to; as we anchored, I counted 12 disposable ‘Treasures’ along one side of the hull alone, -not counting all the other debris, sticks, the bags, rotten fruit, timber planks… It’s most definitely a place to avoid engine running…and certainly to avoid having to get into the water to unblock a water intake or untangle a propeller! The harbour is also exposed, very busy and noisy with constantly passing water traffic.

However, there are 2 positives, both important to a visiting yacht; clearance into the country is made very easy by the authorities and it is also a duty-free port. Like Langkawi and Tioman, it is great for stocking up or having parts shipped in.


Aside from that, there is little reason to stay there. The town is very ordinary; is a night-club scene for oil-rig workers and is a place to go wreck-diving, -for those, (not us), who are interested in either. There are some historical POW sites of interest, they date back to the occupation during World War 2, but as it would mean leaving the boat unattended in that dodgy harbour anchorage, we were not prepared to go there!

We stayed the night to complete the formalities, then next moved on to Pulau Tiga, known as ‘Survivor’ island as it was where the first of the TV series was filmed.(Although the TV series might not have shown them keeping the ‘desert island’ appearance, there are at least 2 resorts on the island, it is really quite populated!) It also has very clean water and was the first opportunity to enjoy swimming for a while, -and to clean the undersides of Quo Vadis…

From there it was just another short trip to Kota Kinabalu, we were lucky -and relieved, -to be able to get a marina berth in Sutera Harbour.


It is probably the nicest marina we have ever stayed in, although small, it is extremely clean, -everywhere.  It has excellent facilities in the adjacent resort, -pools, restaurants, gymnasium, squash, tennis courts…cheap laundry…shuttle bus to town… and more; all available to us as temporary members. The staff are the nicest too, never do we think we have met such a happy group of people working together.

Unlike most others of the ‘resort marinas’ in Asia, the hotels are running at a high occupancy and the weekends are especially busy. It is a very successful business and part of the Sutera Sanctuary Group who own various others of the tourist attractions in Sabah, as well as run Kinabalu National Park accommodation.



The town of KK itself really has little to recommend it as it has none of the Colonial charm of Kuching, or even Miri; although it has all the facilities of a very busy international tourist town and is also a very busy international airport…we know, -our marina berth is directly under the flight-path!

But town planning seems non-existent and the traffic is a disaster! No-one walks, few have motorcycles, (even fewer bicycles), -everyone drives…as a result parking is a nightmare and there are long traffic queues of single occupant vehicles, lined up behind double parked cars, road works, merging lanes and badly laid out intersections… everywhere…it is as well (although perhaps is an integral part of the problem) that the average Malaysian driver is a very patient animal, prepared to wait…  and wait… and wait…


The whole city virtually can be dated post World War 2 as it was bombed heavily when the allies were defeating the Japanese occupiers. Only two pre-war structures survived;   



 the Atkinson Clock Tower built in the early 1900s and the building which now houses Sabah Tourism.


The town was originally known as Jesselton, the old port still serves as a ferry and tourism terminus. It became the Capital of Sabah State after the war, then had a name change to Kota Kinabalu in 1964. Its growth has paralleled the rapid growth of the region, buildings erected hurriedly, without much thought for the future and no eye for aesthetics,  -almost without exception.

Newer developments such as the University of Sabah campus north of the city centre and built over the past 15 years, have happened in a more leisurely and planned fashion. They now have a beautiful campus, on a hill, secluded, rambling, but all together and in much more interesting buildings, making a great learning environment.



Although a large proportion of the population are Christian, there is still a significant Muslim element with 3 impressive mosques:


the State Mosque in town,


a newer one in Likas Bay


and a third at the university. From afar, they are majestic; -reminders of eastern opulence, -but they do not stand up well to close scrutiny, maintenance is no priority!

There are ramshackle stilt villages (Kampung Air) along the foreshore as in all North Borneo towns.



They are traditional and have been there for a long time;  so long that one small village (not that above) now sits in it’s own stagnant, smelly, rubbish filled lagoon, cut off from the cleansing benefits of the open sea. It has been stranded by reclamation, now separated by a 4 lane highway and several hundred metres of land and development…

The stilt villages provide housing for the poorer people, especially the Filipinos who come here in the hope of a better lifestyle, but it’s not easy for them in Malaysia. No other races, -immigrants or even several generations on, -qualify for the benefits available to ‘true’ Malaysians. They do the menial jobs, work the hardest, -but are also often the happiest.

Around the town are various tree covered hills, breaking up the town-scape and adding to the green-ness. As it rains nearly everyday, growth is prolific with many roadside flowering trees.






There is sea surrounding one half of the city, with the  small islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman marine National Park just a few kilometres out, the other half is almost entirely surrounded by the Crocker Range of hills and the distant Mt Kinabalu.


Most mornings it is cloud free and can be seen from much of the city. The Crocker Range rises to almost 2000 metres, is largely jungle covered, a ‘green belt’ for that other side of the town. They’re also excellent for cycling! From the marina to the top of the range is 50 km, the second half of that is a steady climb to an altitude of 1650 metres. It’s good riding with little traffic on sealed road (although the ferocity of the Kampung dogs does add a certain challenge to the enjoyment of the ride!)  It almost invariably clouds over and with the altitude is cool, but then it rains on the summit and if there is any breeze, it’s very quickly,  very cold! I now go prepared. Over the range is Tambunan and rural Sabah,


clean, fast flowing rivers, paddy fields


and wandering water buffalo.


 It’s  quite different scenery from that seen in most of Borneo otherwise, where hills are few, the rivers muddy and the jungle has all been torn out to grow Palm Oil. While based in KK we had a visit by 6 family and friends from New Zealand, -an ‘eclectic mix’ is the best way to describe the group, rather than confuse with the details… To climb Mt Kinabalu was a prime objective, then once that was satisfactorily accomplished and after all suitably rested around the Sutera Pools, we and belongings piled into a rented Kia van to spend several days seeing the sights of Sabah! It was a great little holiday, -with no fights (or even major disagreement) -coming back tired, but in one piece…


…is the northeastern corner of Borneo, that closest to the Philipines (Tanjung Simpang Mengayau) and for simplicity is known locally as the ‘Tip of Borneo’, -it separates the Sulu Sea from the South China Sea


There’s not a lot there and few people visit, although it is developed as a tourist spot with a cafe, a suitable monument and steps right down to the water so should you want to, you can touch the water on both sides… 


…and say that you’ve really been there…


More exciting was the beach, just back from the cape, perfect white sand, perfectly clear blue water -and on what was becoming a wet day, totally deserted! A swimming opportunity still not to be missed… The area around the cape is almost totally planted in oil plantations


but on the way there, near Kota Belud, there are great views of Kinabalu across the rice paddies -and come the questions of ‘now where did we go??? ‘were we really up there???’ -yes we were… There is also the village of Matunggong, appropriately named as it is gong manufacturing centre of Sabah


These are the gongs used traditionally in the ceremony of the Runggus people and are all hand made here, beaten out of flat metal plate by various members of many households.




They come in all sizes


and as they are each individually crafted, the tone of every one is different, although by selecting correctly, a rudimentary tune can be created. The small ones are patiently beaten out of one sheet of metal, the larger ones however need welding around the seams, – then they are all lacquer finished. It’s a pleasant little village,


and as a tourist destination is very low key.



People go about their gong making and lives whether you’re there or not, they are friendly, helpful, but totally without putting any pressure on us to buy.


Just along the road, is one of the few remaining long-houses in Sabah.  The Runggus people are traditional long-house dwellers and although most now live in conventional housing, there is one where they still live the old way.


It’s private of course, but adjacent to it is a newer building,


a ‘sanitised’ version, built for the occasional passing tourists, somewhere to stay and experience that style of living, but also to sell gongs and intricate bead-work,


-for which the Runggus are also well known.

Like the gongs in the village, there was little pressure to buy, but when we left there were many little packages being loaded into the Kia and as we got underway, rustling of plastic bags  and comparisons of who had bought what for whom -and how different it now looks in the light of day! 


…is near the National Park headquarters on the slopes of Mt Kinabalu and is the site of the ‘Death March’ memorial. It is to those POW’s (mainly Australian and British) who at the end of World War 2 when Japan was losing the battle, were driven by their captors, apparently as a slow, but ‘legal’, means of annihilating them, to walk from the camp in Sandakan, 250 km through the jungle to the camp in Ranau, on minimal rations. Because of starvation and disease, of the 2400 who set out at various times, only 6, who managed to escape, survived.


It is a very appropriate monument, with displays and audiovisual presentation,






respectful, formal gardens and memorials to the men of the nations involved,



in an informal garden setting. The information is presented in the right mix of graphic tale without too much emotion. We could read and hear about it without feeling depressed for a week, but although as New Zealanders it didn’t involve our countrymen so intimately, we were still affected enough by the stories to wonder why we knew so little about this before…


The town of Kundasang is otherwise of interest as it is a great centre for growing vegetables, -western vegetables such as carrots, cabbages and corn, -which require cool nights and less humidity to survive. The mountain climate is exactly that, so the surrounding hills are laid out in as irregular patchwork of vegetable plots


 and there’s a long row of market stalls along the busy main road


selling vegetables, fruit and flowers to the passing trade.



The vegetable growers of Kundasang and the nearby villages are the reason for the markets of Kota Kinabalu having a great supply of good vegetables, -better than anywhere else in Asia that we’ve found.




…is on the east coast of the island of Borneo, it is the old capital and like Kota Kinabalu was virtually completely destroyed by the end of World War 2. Similarly, that which has sprung up since can hardly be called attractive,


and there is now very little of the old remaining.


One exception is the house of Agnes Keith, now a museum in her name, to celebrate the life of Sabah’s most famous author. She was an American woman who pre-war, moved to live with her British husband, who was employed in the Public Service of ‘British North Borneo’ as the area was known then; before becoming ‘Sabah’ (with the formation of Malaysia)

She wrote and illustrated several books, they’re interesting depictions of pre-war and post-war Colonial life, -but from a very definitely feminine viewpoint!


The house she lived in with her husband -and all her servants -still has her much-loved view over the Sandakan Harbour.


Sandakan is now very much a fishing town;



the early morning dockside becomes an open fish market


and indoors, short women hide behind mountains of dried shrimps


among others in the vegetables…

Near to the dock is another stilt village



although dilapidated, it’s not as depressing and dirty as some



the people here care and they’re friendly,interested in us.

Turtle Island

Our main purpose in visiting Sandakan was to go to Turtle Island (Pulau Selingan), one of the 3 islands comprising the Turtle Island Marine Park; it’s a reserve dedicated to hatching Green and Hawksbill Turtles. There is limited accommodation on this island which has a hatchery and it is possible to stay overnight to see the hatchery workings. It is a package deal including food, accommodation and the turtle ‘show’…   We were taken by small boat from Sandakan,


for a rough, but very fast 30 mile ride to the island, where we were settled into our accommodation


After lunch we had the afternoon to enjoy on the beach



and snorkeling on the reef. The water clarity wasn’t great and there weren’t a lot of fishes, but out a bit there was good coral and enough fish-life to be interesting.

Following the evening meal and a video about the Park and its turtles, we waited until called to see a turtle nesting. It was a while before one obliged and we were wearying a little by 11 pm, -however soon after that one was found and we were taken as a party to see the laying in process. There were about 20 of us.


We had to view as a group and by torchlight, photography was difficult as camera flashlights were banned and a tripod was impractical.( I was fortunate in the above shot, -I ‘lucked it’ that my shutter was open on a long exposure when some-one’s flash accidentally (???) went off…some people will try to get away with anything…) 

In spite of the attention, surprisingly, once settled into her nest, this Green Turtle seemed unperturbed by the company and continued laying into her hole; the eggs just kept on popping out, 129 of them on this occasion. As quickly as they fell they were collected for ‘re-laying’ which when she had finished, we were shown


being done in the protected hatchery;


well fenced and with the green netting cages to keep the rats out, -and the turtle hatchlings in. After burying the eggs and suitable marking the nest site, hatchlings were collected from one of the other nests and taken for release in the tide


They are very active little chaps, scrambling over the sand (and our feet) taking no time to find their way to the sea, where they immediately swim off, -but it’s to a very uncertain future. Nobody knows where they go until they return to lay eggs 30-40 years later, but they do always return to the same place and will continue to return every few years until they are about 100 years old, nesting many times in one season. Nine or ten turtles lay eggs here on an average night, so they’ll also have 9-10 or so nests hatch, for the rangers, it is a continuous process all night of turtle spotting, egg collecting, transferring and hatchling release; all done as quickly as possible to avoid any disruption to the natural process and to give the little guys the best chance in life. Even so it isn’t very good, but with the large numbers of successful hatchings, some always get through to adulthood. In order to minimise disruption, we as guests are only invited to witness one laying and hatching event per night, but as most of them happen in the early hours of the morning, no-one had too much argument with that! We were happy to have seen ‘our turtle’ when we did!

Labuk Bay Sanctury

The next visit on this nature tour of Sabah was to Labuk Bay, a sanctuary for Proboscis monkeys. This monkey is endemic to Borneo, we saw them previously in Kalimantan, but with destruction of the rain-forests so has their habitat been destroyed and they are now confined to just some areas scattered over the island.


Like most of the area around, the land of this Labuk Bay Sanctuary was originally intended to be planted in oil palms, but when the thriving colony of monkeys was found, the developers fortunately, had a change of heart, the Sanctuary was developed instead, building a viewing platform as a base. Various types of monkeys can be seen there, but they are all ‘wild’, they turn up only when they are hungry, -if there is enough food in the jungle, they do not come



On the day we were there a colony of Silverleaf monkeys had shown up and were being fed long beans


a Pied Hornbill seen in the trees was also attracted with bananas.

There are twice daily feeding times for the Proboscis Monkeys, but unlike the others, they are fed unsweetened pancakes…as they normally feed on quite indigestible mangrove leaves any sugar causes havoc in their gut, so their feeding also has to be kept separate from others. As feeding time approaches the monkeys arrive, food is taken over and given to them kept quite distant from us to minimise human interaction, but from the platform we still have a good view of proceedings…


and the squabbles that develop among the females


while the old man just looks on… They always live in family groups, one dominant male, and several wives, -with children


The bigger the nose, the more dominant the male,


and he guards his harem jealously. Other, unattached males roam in bachelor packs, but will seize any opportunity to steal another bloke’s wives if he shows any sign of weakness. This results in vicious power struggles among the males and unfortunately too, the off-spring of one male might not be acceptable to the new ‘step-father’ often culminating in their death.

 Sepilok Sanctuary

Continuing the monkey theme of the day, we then saw Sepilok, a long established Orangutan Sanctuary, close by Sandakan and not far from Labuk Bay.


Likewise there are twice daily banana feeding times for any monkeys that like to come along,



the Orangutans swung on in


also some hopeful Long-tailed Macaques


The bigger ones seemed tolerated happily by the apes,  enough food to go around.   Supposedly some of this Orangutan population might be wild, but it appears that most here are only semi-so. They all have the option of returning to jungle life, but no-one seriously expects any to opt for it. Compared with the Orangutan sanctuary we visited in South Kalimantan, this is a more staged affair, in many ways better, as we saw more of them and for longer. There, in Kalimantan, they were more truly wild, we had to keep our distance from them and the feeding was a more hurried affair. There were however very domesticated individuals wandering the campsite and who we could treat with much the same regard as we would any human stranger…


In Sepilok however we were able to see the animals for longer, albeit from a small distance, as they didn’t hurry away with the food. They stayed around as they ate slowly and we could watch their group and family interactions for well over an hour





They totally ignored us, or perhaps intentionally turned the backs our way, it seemed that they came for the feed, as the main meal was over, they picked at the scraps and as we all do after dinner,  sit and ponder, make small talk, court our lover, play with the children…or help them with their homework…(well maybe…-they are so human)

It’s hard not to put names on the ones we recognise as people we know!


From Sepilock we travelled on to Semporna, at town near to the Indonesian border. It is the town to leave from for Mabul and Sipadan Islands which are said to be one of the best dive/snorkeling sites in the world…. On arrival in Semporna we arranged a trip to the islands the following day and checked into the Dragon Inn



a delightful establishment built stilt-village style over the waters of the inner harbour. It was great accommodation!

The adjacent town can hardly be called a beautiful place, there’s not a lot of entertainment, although it’s friendly and  interesting, without doubt.



The main attraction is the market, -one of the most lively and colourful of any, with many mysteries, especially of the ‘fishy’ kind… It’s on the waterfront and there is a steady stream of boat traffic



there is a large population of sea gypsies living on their boats around the area.


The wet fish market is busy


but not only the wet whole fish; 


seaweed and sea urchins,


dried fish


fish stomachs and sea cucumbers…whatever next…


.. just perfectly respectable sea shells…


and their manufactured products.

But the fish department is a smelly place in the heat and it’s much nicer back in the vegetable section!


where you don’t have to constantly watch your step and where you touch…



The people in Semporna however have to be the friendliest of any we’ve found. Walking the market with a camera was as it was back in Indonesia; there is no shortage of very willing subjects! -both sexes, all ages…









They enjoy the chance to smile for the camera and to be able to see themselves on the small screen on the back is all the reward they need! Mabul and Sipidan Islands These islands are now part of a marine National Park, about 30 miles out from Semporna. the trip out by fast boat takes us past many stilt villages and Sea Gypsy settlements.


Since 2000 there has been no overnight accommodation at Sipadan in an attempt to reduce illegal fishing, it is now a ‘daytime’ island only and it is necessary to stay at Mabul in several resorts,  -ranging from backpacker built over the water,



to luxury, -also built over the water.



Mabul has dive bases, there is diving and good snorkeling around its perimeter coral with many varieties of small fish, but the large ones are all taken as fishing is not prohibited there.



The jewel in the crown however is Sipadan, just a 20 minute boat ride away. The scenery underwater there not one to miss!

The water is clear; the island surrounded by reef, it has magnificent hard and some soft coral; everywhere, is teeming with with animal life. There are many Green and Hawksbill turtles to be freely swimming and quite unafraid, schools of large Trevally, (and some enormous), hordes of large reef fish of all sorts, including  the gigantic Napoleon wrasse, many, many varieties of small, colourful fish, -and also many reef sharks, though mostly small and harmless.

It is the best snorkeling experience I have had anywhere, and has convinced me now that I DEFINITELY NEED an underwater camera, -because seeing is believing…


was our next destination. This river is said to be the longest in Sabah, but special as there is a ‘corridor’ of jungle preserved along it’s length from the interior to the sea; a band of wildlife preservation.

Higher up the river the land around is being cleared for timber. On all the lowlands most of it already has been cleared and planted in oil palms, apart from the remaining strip of jungle along the banks, but which unfortunately is only about a hundred metres wide for much of it.

Still it is better than in many places where the jungle is removed completely and this has enabled the survival of some species which might have been otherwise lost.

It also enables the river to be used for eco-tourists like us.

We had booked into the Riverview Guest House, right on the river bank


and with the day’s accommodation comes evening and morning wildlife viewing riverboat trips.


The sleeping accommodation is basic, but adequate, the food in the restaurant however is quite special and the service personal.


 The Guest House is along a dead-end, riverside road a little further on from the small town of Sukau.


That is a little settlement where people live off the river


or work in the surrounding palm oil industry.



 It’s a slow pace of life, on the river, in a pretty, semi-jungle environment…






 Our evening riverboat trip took us downstream on the main river,


where we saw Pit Vipers in the cliff and from a distance we were able to see a lot of Proboscis and Macaque monkeys as they ‘roosted’.


There were birds such as kingfishers and hornbills, and other signs of life, -but not the Pygmy Elephants which are much talked about and ever hoped for, though it seems, rarely seen hereabouts.


In the evening over dinner we were able to see crocodiles swimming the muddy river and to get close to other animals of a less menacing kind…





The morning was beautifully misty on the river;


our boat ride took us upstream past Sukau


and followed the waiting egret as he flew off up a smaller tributary.


 The water in that stream was dark brown and clear as there is no logging going on upstream,


there was near perfect reflection of the trees



and the little islands of water hyacinths as they slowly cruised down stream…

There was more wildlife about, -a wild boar, a small crocodile, various Proboscis and Macaque monkeys;


mangrove snakes nestled in the trees overhead


but most significantly, we saw our first ever, truly completely-unassociated-with-human  orangutan!


They’re not often seen even here, -but perhaps that we did is some evidence that this wildlife corridor is more than in name alone…




Off the road back from Sukau to the main Sandakan-Semporna route is a side track to the Gomontong Caves. Like the Niah caves we visited in Sarawak these are  known for being where birds nests are harvested for the making of the soup.


Although not quite on the same scale, the caverns are still enormous by our standards 


and the birds nests collectors use ladders, ropes and poles


 to suspend themselves from the cathedral-like ceilings;


 scaling the high walls,


to our wonderment, putting themselves at considerable risk


in pursuit of the near priceless little delicacies, -the swiftlet nests.



The various portals let in a lot of light, it’s not necessary even to use a torch in these caves, (although Mr Bean could drop in at any moment!)


-but it helps to avoid putting hands on places best not to do and slipping on the guano covered walkways… Unlike Niah, the open nature of the cave also allows in more moisture, the stench is not very different from that beneath a chicken roost, -on a wet day… it’s most unpleasant! 




Outside again in the clean fresh air, our little nature tour continued on the walkway…

… then we drove to resume it at our next stop, Mesilau Nature Resort, described in the last story.  

We were seeing a lot of ‘nature’, and so far there were no complaints, -but in the ‘tour’ organiser’s view, when you come from New Zealand to Borneo, that’s what you come here for…

-it’s not for the shopping or to lie on the beach!  

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