Sabah and Sarawak Trip Diary
Our trip started from Sydney with Malaysia Airlines on the Saturday flight (MH 122) which leaves at 13.00 hrs. The aircraft was one of their new Boeing 747- 400 Series, fitted out with personal video screens for each seat, which allows you to watch a number of movies, television shows, travel documentaries, etc., or play any number of interactive “Game Boy” style games. Yes – this is in Economy Class. Each seat has its own footrest for a bit of added comfort, and an adjustable headrest which allows you to just about lock your head in position if you wish to have a sleep – no more embarrassing falls onto the person sitting in the seat next to you!!
Naturally, the on board service and food was up to its usual standard, and the time seemed to fly by. We found that we were landing at Kuala Lumpur’s new International Airport just a matter of days after it had opened. The new airport is unbelievably large, but located quite a distance (75 km) from the centre of Kuala Lumpur. There are apparently a few transport problems to be sorted out to get passengers into the city. A railway is under construction, but no one really seems to know when it will be completed.[the railway is now complete and very quick and cheap – no stops between the airport and Sentral in the middle of KL – ed] From the International Terminal, it is necessary to catch a fully automated train across to the domestic terminal. The trains run every three minutes or so, the trip taking three minutes, and you will generally find enough room on it so that you will not have to wait for the next one.
At the domestic terminal, we were able to change our flight to the 20.50 hr flight to Kota Kinabalu, (MH 2626), as we had landed about half and hour early from Sydney. This meant that we only had about 30 minutes or so to wait until boarding, instead of the 3 hours which we would have had to wait if we had arrived as scheduled. The airport is rather empty at present – very few shops are open. The whole place has a very sterile atmosphere. Perhaps it will change in time for the Commonwealth Games in September.
Our arrival in Kota Kinabalu was shortly after 23.00 hrs. Of course our luggage did not arrive with us, partly because of baggage handling software problems at the new airport in KL, and partly because it was checked through from Sydney to go on the later flight. We knew before we left Sydney that it was a possibility that we would get the early flight, so took the bare essentials in a cabin bag to allow us to go to bed and get up the next morning (swimming costume, toiletries, shorts, T shirts, etc.), without having to wear our wintery Sydney clothes.
We checked into Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort just after midnight, and had a wonderful night’s sleep.
Up to a beautiful sunny day and a great buffet breakfast which the Tanjung Aru is known for. Our baggage was delivered to the hotel while we had breakfast. We decided over breakfast to take advantage of the weather, and to take a trip across to Manukan Island for a few hours to do a bit of snorkelling. Because we had slept in a little, and took a bit of time to organise ourselves, we found that the next boat from the resort to the island left at 13.00 hrs. We therefore organised to hire fins, goggles and snorkels from the dive shop near the Marina, and then filled in a little time around the pool until our launch was due to leave. It is only a quick 10 minute trip across to the island. As it was a Sunday, the locals also took advantage of the good weather, and we found that there were quite a few people on the island, although, it was by no means overcrowded. Sapi, on the other hand, was apparently very crowded!;
Gaya and Sapi Islands from Manukan Island
Snorkelling is best off the Eastern end of the Island, and that is where we headed first. We managed to spend nearly an hour in the luke warm waters of the South China Sea looking at the abundant coral and fish life. There were many locals in the water, not far from the shore, also having a go at snorkelling, however, we have absolutely no idea what they might have been looking at, because the reef starts about another 50 m out from where they were. The reef area has been included in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park. It was possible to see areas of the reef which had been damaged in years gone by, some so much so that it will be a miracle if it ever recovers. Other areas had been damaged, and it was possible to see that the coral was now recovering and starting to grow again. A highlight of our snorkelling expedition was the discovery of a huge Cowrie shell. I have never seen one quite as big! We looked, but just left it where it was.
We had a late lunch on the sun-deck (under an umbrella) of the restaurant on the island, which was very pleasant. The people started to disperse from the island about 15.00 hrs (it may have had something to do with a thunderstorm which was brewing in the mountains behind Kota Kinabalu!) We also headed back on the boat from the Tanjung Aru at about 16.00 hrs.
The storm hit in the late afternoon, and it continued raining until about dinner time. We decided to visit the night market further up the beach at Tanjung Aru (Tanjung means point or peninsula), for dinner. We each had a young coconut for a refreshing drink, then moved on to sweet corn, various satays, rice packs wrapped in banana leaves, a Kang Kong stir fry, which is basically a local vegetable stir fry, and finished off with fresh fruit, such as locally grown rambutan.
Today was Monday, and a public holiday in honour of the president’s birthday (although it was not actually his birthday on that day). The city itself was fairly quiet as a lot of people had the day off. We visited the Monsopiad Cultural Village, which is located to the South-West of the airport. The village has been reconstructed as a memorial to Monsopiad, who was once a very powerful warrior in the region (about 200 years ago). One of the highlights of the village is the house of skulls, where there are the 42 skulls of Monsopiad’s victims – all powerful warriors from the area. No other warrior had ever collected so many heads as Monsopiad. The stories about each skull were related to us by one of the descendants of the warrior. Monsopiad himself, was killed by one of his own close friends after it was found that Monsopiad was actually starting to abuse his power, and the villagers started to feel afraid of him. The villagers, however, did realise that he had performed many good deeds, and erected a monument in his honour, and renamed the village after him. The village as it is seen today has been erected in the same spot as the original village.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing around the pool at the resort.
Mt. Kinabalu from Tanjung Aru Resort
An adventure was in store for us today! Today was our trip on Borneo’s last remaining train. The line runs from KK to Tenom over the Croker Range. An early morning departure from Kota Kinabalu to the town of Beaufort, approximately 100 km to the South-West of KK. We arrived there at about 07.30 hrs, and were then able to spend some time looking through the local market. The train had not been running for about a week due to heavier rain than usual at this time of year, and the line had been cut in a number of places with landslides. It was thought that the line should in fact be open today.
While we looked through the market, our tour guide, Charlie, checked out the information regarding departures at the railway station which is in fact just beside the market. It turned out that he had been given the right information, and that we would in fact be able to travel on the train.
The train duly departed at 08.15 hrs (even though we had been told in the market by one of the locals that it would be leaving at 09.30 hrs!! – just as well we did not heed that advice) on its two hour, 50 km trip to Tenom. This train is the only form of transport for much of the distance, and therefore stops continuously at all kinds of railway stations in the jungle. Sometimes there are only 700 or 800 metres between stops. Some of the stations are nothing more than covered awnings at the side of the line. Other times, a raised platform may be provided which may vary from 3 or 4 m long to 30 or 40 m long. It is truly an interesting trip.
The last Train in Borneo!
Shortly after leaving Beaufort, the line follows the Padas River, and gradually climbs its way up to Tenom. The Padas River is the site of some of the best White Water Rafting in Sabah, and during July (this year at least) the river was a quite a torrent of muddy water. The railway line itself was constructed at the turn of the century by the British to transport coal to KK, but the mining did not last very long, and the railway line is all that remains in evidence of the mining days.
The mighty Padas River
A Railway Station!
It is often difficult to determine exactly where the line is heading as the jungle is trying hard to reclaim the track. It is an interesting trip, and although it takes 2 hrs to travel only a relatively short distance, the scenery is quite spectacular, with the rapids of the Padas River gradually getting more and more “ferocious”. Along much of the route, it is possible to see the scarring which has occurred on nearby hillsides by the forest fires which have affected a lot of Borneo over the last 12 months. It will no doubt require an extended period of time before the forests are able to grow back to their former condition.
Find the Railway!
Once in Tenom, we headed off by mini bus out of town to Lagud Sebrang, about 15 km or so East of Tenom. There, a Englishman has established the Orchid Centre where it is possible to see many hundreds of different orchid plants which are found throughout Sabah and Sarawak. Many of the plants are found in the vicinity of Mt Kinabalu. Also nearby, is the Agricultural Research Station Living Crop Museum, run by the Department of Agriculture. Here they try to plant every type of crop plant imaginable, from herbs and spices, to fruit trees, to vegetables, to find out how well they might grow in the tropical climate, and then to assist the local farmers in growing those crops which actually succeed in the harsh tropical humidity and heat.
After a very pleasant stroll through the grounds of the Research Station, we headed back to Tenom for a “local” lunch, before boarding the 15.00 hr train back to Beaufort. The train was full of people who had been to the Tenom markets for the day, and there was little room to move. Many of the people, however, got out at the first few stops. After about 15 km, the skies opened up with quite a spectacular thunderstorm.
After departing a largish station about 20 km from Tenom, we only managed to get another km or so down the line before we came to a landslide cutting the line. The train was going no further. We reversed back to the last station, where there was radio contact with some of the other stations, including Tenom and Beaufort. Apparently, there was another train heading up from Beaufort. The idea was to find out how close it could get to the other side, and if it was not too far away, all the passengers from each train could walk across landslides and continue their trips on the other train. It took about another two hours of waiting before we were actually informed that we would be able to go on – we would have to walk about 3 km across the landslides to reach the other train.
Walking across the Landslides
We all set off, although the day light was starting to fade fast. The line was actually cut by landslides in about a dozen positions – the last one was a raging torrent of water cascading down the hill over the line. It is possible that the water usually ran in a creek under the line, but in the storm, rocks and mud came down the hill and filled the culvert, preventing the water from being able to get under the railway, so all it could do was to gush over the top. In any case, there was no way that a train would be travelling on that section of line for a few days.
Not everyone had walked. There was one young woman who appeared to be dressed to go out, including high heeled shoes which seemed somewhat out of place when compared to everyone else on the train. There would have been about 50 people who walked through the mud and water to get to the other side. Once all were settled down, we headed off again, however, we had to travel fairly slow because the locomotive was behind the carriage as it had been at the front of the train when it had arrived at the landslide. The guard sat at the rear door of the carriage to watch for anything on the line as we headed back towards Beaufort. It was now also almost dark!
Everything had to be carried between the trains
End of the line for this train!
(It gets dark very quickly in the tropics – there is not much of a dusk, or dawn for that matter). After about 3 km, a large shape loomed out of the darkness, and before the guard could blow his whistle to alert the driver, we had run up and over a large boulder which had obviously come down the hillside. The train, in the process, derailed itself, and finished with its wheels about 0.5 m above the line, and slightly offset. We got out, and walked towards Beaufort. The guard had mentioned to me earlier that the next station was only about 6 or 7 km down the track, and we had already come about 3 before derailing, so we knew that it would not be too far to walk. By now it was quite dark, and there were only a few others who decided to walk with us.
It seemed to take an eternity to walk those 4 km or so. The only light which we had was a cigarette lighter which our guide had. It is amazing how the jungle can change once it is dark. To make matters worse, it was also raining a bit. This day had turned into a real adventure. None of us had envisaged anything like this when we had set out in the morning. The stationmaster was rather surprised when we appeared out of the darkness, although he was aware that the line had been closed by landslides. He was then able to radio to Beaufort to inform them of what had happened, and Beaufort then had to find another driver and work crew to send up to firstly go to work on the landslides and the derailed train, secondly to pick up the people still on the derailed train, and then to return to us and take everyone back to Beaufort. By the time the train picked us up, it was 11.30 at night!! All we had for dinner were some chocolate biscuits and a can of Coke. We were really looking forward to getting to bed!
We arrived back in KK at 02.15 hrs – a record for our guide, Charlie. His previous latest return was 02.00 hrs. We had a flight to catch at 07.00 in the morning which meant that we had to be up by 05.00 hrs.
Clarissa’s Diary continues on the next page