Until European powers gained a foothold at the northern tip of Borneo in the nineteenth century, the tribal peoples of Sabah had only minimal contact with the outside world. Since then – and particularly since joining the Malaysian Federation in 1963 – these groups have largely exchanged traditional ways for a collective Malaysian identity. As Sabah’s cultural landscape has changed, so has its environment: the logging industry has been allowed to exploit huge swathes of the rainforests, with cleared regions used to plant oil palm – a monoculture that makes a poor habitat for wildlife. On the other hand, many locals would argue, this agro-industry provides work for thousands, and generates much-needed income into the state coffers.
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While arguments rage between campaigners, corporations and politicians, tourists continue to enjoy the remaining natural riches of “the land below the wind” (so called because Sabah’s 72,500 square kilometres lie just south of the typhoon belt). The terrain ranges from wild, swampy, mangrove-tangled coastal areas, through the dazzling greens of paddy fields and pristine rainforests, to the dizzy heights of the Crocker mountain range – home to the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea, Gunung Kinabalu (Mount Kinabalu). Although habitats for Sabah’s indigenous animals have shrunk dramatically, the remaining forests still offer some of the best wildlife-watching opportunities in Malaysia. Offshore, damaging fishing practices have as elsewhere in the region taken their toll, but marine parks protect areas of magnificent coral – most famously around Sipadan – and the attendant sea life.
Sabah’s urban centres are not especially attractive or historically rich, thanks to World War II bombs and hurried urban redevelopment. While places like KK (Kota Kinabalu) and Sandakan lack notable buildings, however, they abound in atmosphere and energy, plus good places to eat and sleep. That said, Sabah’s remarkable natural attractions are the major draw for most visitors.
The Klias Peninsula south of KK offers activity-based day-trips such as whitewater rafting or firefly cruises, while with more time you could visit the island of Pulau Tiga; you may also need to transit through duty-free Labuan on the way to Brunei. North of KK lie the beaches and coconut groves of the Kudat Peninsula, where it’s possible to visit longhouses belonging to the Rungus tribe; the northernmost point, the Tip of Borneo, features windy shorelines and splendid isolation.
Heading east from KK, things get truly exciting. Dominating the landscape are the huge granite shelves of the awesome Gunung Kinabalu, a major attraction as getting up and down involves spending just one night on the mountain. Further east is Sandakan, a rapidly modernizing town with offshore attractions including the Turtle Islands National Park. Back on the mainland, at the nearby Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, you can get a ringside view of animals at feeding times.
Deeper into the oil-palm plantations of east Sabah lies the protected Kinabatangan River, where visitors can take boat trips to see wild proboscis monkeys, elephants and orang-utans. Further south, the Danum Valley Conservation Area offers a spectacular canopy walkway, with the choice of staying at a luxury lodge or a humbler research centre. Alternatively try the more affordable Tabin Wildlife Reserve, with a mud volcano and an elephant colony. In the deep south, accessible via the boom town of Tawau, nestles the untouched forest sector of the Maliau Basin, now open for challenging trekking.
For divers, the offshore islands near the southern town of Semporna are the jewel in Sabah’s crown. Sipadan offers world-class diving off coral walls, while its neighbour Mabul is known for its fabulous macro (small-scale) marine life. These two are simply the best known, and the area can keep divers and snorkellers enchanted for days.
Little is known of Sabah’s early history, though archeological finds in limestone caves indicate that the northern tip of Borneo has been inhabited for well over ten thousand years. Chinese merchants were trading with local settlements by 700 AD, and by the fourteenth century the area was under the sway of the sultans of Brunei and Sulu.
Europe’s superpowers first arrived in 1521, when the ships of Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan stopped off at Brunei before sailing northwards. Almost 250 years later, in 1763, colonial settlement began when one Captain Cowley established a short-lived trading post on Pulau Balambangan, an island north of Kudat, on behalf of the British East India Company. Further colonial involvement came in 1846, when Pulau Labuan (at the mouth of Brunei Bay) was ceded to the British by the Sultan of Brunei. By 1881 the British North Borneo Chartered Company had full sovereignty over northern Borneo.
First steps were then taken towards making the territory pay its way: rubber, tobacco and, after 1885, timber were commercially harvested. By 1905 a rail line linked the coastal town of Jesselton (later Kota Kinabalu) with the resource-rich interior. When the company introduced taxes, the locals were understandably displeased and some resisted; Mat Salleh, the son of a Bajau chief, and his followers sacked the company’s settlement on Pulau Gaya in 1897. Another uprising, in Rundum in 1915, resulted in the slaughter of hundreds of Murut tribespeople by British forces.
World War II
On New Year’s Day 1942, Japanese imperial forces invaded Pulau Labuan; Sandakan fell less than three weeks later. By the time the Japanese surrendered on September 9, 1945, almost nothing of Jesselton and Sandakan remained standing (although the worst structural damage was inflicted by Allied bombing). Even worse were the hardships endured by civilians and captured Allied troops, the most notorious of which were the Death Marches of 1945.
Unable to finance the postwar rebuilding of North Borneo, the Chartered Company sold the territory to the British Crown in 1946, and Jesselton was declared the new capital of the Crown Colony of North Borneo. Within fifteen years, however, plans had been laid for an independent federation consisting of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo and (it was intended) Brunei. The Federation was proclaimed at midnight on September 15, 1963, with North Borneo renamed Sabah.
Relations with federal Kuala Lumpur have seldom been smooth, but differences had seemed to narrow until, in 1985, the opposition Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), led by the Christian Joseph Pairin Kitingan, was returned to office in the state elections. This was the first time a non-Muslim had attained power in a Malaysian state. Anti-federal feelings were worsened by much of the profits from Sabah’s flourishing crude oil exports being siphoned off to KL.
Nowadays, with PBS having joined the country’s ruling BN coalition, central government is following a policy of patching up long-running, cross-state disunity to realize a vision of a multi-ethnic – but Muslim-dominated – nation.
The people of Sabah
Although many traditions have died out, Sabah’s three-million-plus population includes more than a dozen recognized ethnic groups, and numerous dialects are still in use. The peoples of the Kadazan/Dusun tribes constitute the largest indigenous group; then there are the Murut of the southwest, and Sabah’s so-called “sea gypsies”, the Bajau. In recent years, Sabah has also seen an influx of Filipino and Indonesian immigrants, particularly on its east coast.
Town and village tamus (markets), usually held weekly, are a wonderful opportunity for visitors to take in the colourful mixture of cultures. Large tamus include those held on Sundays in the state capital Kota Kinabalu (KK) and in the small town of Kota Belud, two hours north by bus. The biggest annual festival is the Pesta Kaamatan, a harvest festival celebrated in May by the Kadazan/Dusun.
While the west may have majestic Gunung Kinabalu, East Sabah is the destination of choice for animal encounters. Around former capital Sandakan alone, visitors can see orang-utans in Sepilok, proboscis monkeys at Labuk Bay – and there are no prizes for guessing the attraction at the Turtle Islands National Park.
Next stop on the itinerary is the Kinabatangan River, where lodges arrange longboat journeys to see pygmy elephants, orang-utans and more in the wild. Further into the interior, there is the option of visiting Danum Valley, a primary rainforest area with a majestic canopy walkway, or the equally appealing Tabin Wildlife Reserve.
Back on the coast, divers especially are pulled to Semporna, the jumping-off point for the myriad flora and fauna hidden in the waters surrounding Palau Sipadan, Palau Mabul and numerous other islands. Serious trekkers keen to explore the Maliau Basin, referred to by some as “Sabah’s Lost World”, set off by 4WD from the frontier boom town Tawau.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary
Set amid mangrove forest and reached via a track through an oil-palm plantation, Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary functions as a companion to the more famous orang-utan sanctuary at Sepilok. Most visitors come on a day-trip from Sandakan or Sepilok, which is significantly closer, but it’s also possible to stay overnight.
Two large observation platforms, each with two feeding times, offer perfect vantage points from which to view the long-nosed proboscis monkeys; at the same time you can also see silverleaf monkeys scavenge fruit left behind, and there’s some fantastic birdlife including hornbills. On a day-trip you could see all four feedings if you like, or even leave after just one, but it’s more usual to see one from each platform.
If you make arrangements in advance then it’s possible to combine watching the monkey feeding with other activities. These include a short jungle trek or a bird-watching walk (each 1hr; RM30) or a boat trip (2hr; RM250/boat) to a fishing village. If you’re staying the night then you can also sign up for a firefly walk (45min; RM20) and a morning birdwatching walk (1hr; RM30).
The town of Sepilok, 25km west of Sandakan, is best known for its Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. That’s not the only attraction, though, as the Rainforest Discovery Centre is worth visiting for its canopy walkway. There are also plans to open a conservation centre for Malayan sun bears, the world’s smallest bear species. See wsunbears.wildlifedirect.org for the latest news.
Set up in 1964 and occupying a 43-square-kilometre patch of lowland rainforest, the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre is one of only a few such sanctuaries. It’s also among Sabah’s most popular tourist sites, with over two hundred people crowding onto the viewing platform during feeding hours on most days. In general it’s best to go for the afternoon session, as most tour buses come in the morning.
Leave valuables in the free lockers, along with food, drink and insect repellent (which can be harmful to the orang-utans if they ingest it). There’s little shade on the viewing platform, so bring a hat. You’ll find a café near the information centre.
The feeding station is a ten-minute walk from the entrance, so arrive with plenty of time. There are usually at least a couple of orang-utans waiting for their meal, often the very young ones, and they immediately cluster round the warden as he sets out the fruit. Others may soon come along, swinging, shimmying and strolling towards their breakfast or lunch, jealously watched by gangs of macaques that loiter around for scraps.
If you have time, stick around after feeding time and take one of several trails through the forest; you’ll need to register at reception. Besides the pleasure of the walk, there’s a chance you may see one or more orang-utans.
Orang-utans at Sepilok
Orang-utans – tail-less, red-haired apes (their name means “man of the forest” in Malay) – can reach a height of around 1.65m, and can live to over thirty years old. Solitary but not aggressively territorial, these primates live a largely arboreal existence, eating fruit, leaves, bark and the occasional insect.
Most of the orang-utans at the Sepilok centre are victims of forest clearance; many have been orphaned, injured and traumatized in the process. Some have also been kept as pets, something now prohibited by law, which means that their survival instincts remain undeveloped. Orang-utans are trained at Sepilok to fend for themselves in the wild. Although not always successful, the training process has seen many animals reintroduced to their natural habitat.
Turtle Islands National Park
Peeping out of the Sulu Sea 40km north of Sandakan, three tiny islands comprise the TURTLE ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK. They are favoured egg-laying sites of green and hawksbill turtles, which haul themselves laboriously above the high-tide mark to bury their clutches of eggs almost every night of the year. Although all three islands – Pulau Selingan, Pulau Bakungan Kecil and Pulau Gulisan – hold hatcheries, tourists can only visit Selingan.
All the action is at night. As well as seeing a mother turtle laying her eggs, you can watch as the park wardens release newly hatched turtles that waddle, Chaplin-like, into the sea to face an uncertain future. Before dark there’s plenty of time – arguably too much time, given the lack of facilities – for swimming, snorkelling (equipment rental RM25) and sunbathing. Take precautions against sandflies, which can be voracious especially when it rains.
The highway southeast out of KK claws its way up onto the ridges of the Crocker mountain range, passing Gunung Alab (1964m). The mountains separate the state’s west coast and the swampy Klias Peninsula from the area christened the interior in the days of the Chartered Company. The former isolation of this sparsely populated region ended at the start of the twentieth century, when a rail line was built between Jesselton (modern-day KK) and Tenom to transport the raw materials being produced by the region’s thriving rubber industry.
Today, oil-palm cultivation takes precedence, though the Kadazan/Dusun and Murut peoples still cultivate rice, maize and cocoa.
Kinabalu National Park Travel Guide
Sabah holds no more impressive sight than Gunung Kinabalu (Mount Kinabalu), 85km northeast of KK and plainly visible from the west coast. Revered as “aki nabalu” (home of the spirits of the dead) by the Kadazan/Dusun, it’s 4095m high and dominates the 750 square kilometres of KINABALU NATIONAL PARK, a World Heritage Site renowned for its ecology, flora and geology. Although there are other hikes within the park, the prospect of reaching the summit fires the imagination of Malaysian and foreign tourists alike.
Gunung Kinabulu: the climb
Conquering Gunung Kinabalu today is far easier than it was in 1858, when Spenser St John, British consul-general to the native states of Borneo, found his progress blocked by Kadazan “shaking their spears and giving us other hostile signs”. Hugh Low, then British colonial secretary on Pulau Labuan, had made the first recorded ascent of the mountain seven years earlier, though he baulked at climbing its highest peak, considering it “inaccessible to any but winged animals”. The peak – subsequently named after Low – was finally conquered in 1888 by John Whitehead.
Here we detail the Timpohon trail to the top as it is by far the most popular, although a longer and quieter route up, the Mesilau trail, starts 17km east of the park HQ, and offers a greater chance of spotting wildlife.
The first day
The summit route begins with an optional but time-saving minibus ride (25min; RM16.50/vehicle) to the start of the Timpohon trail. The day’s climb to the mountain huts at Laban Rata takes between five and seven hours, depending on your fitness and trail conditions. Roots and stones along the trail serve as steps, with wooden “ladders” laid up the muddier stretches. There are regular rest shelters with toilets along the path.
To Layang Layang
The air gets progressively cooler as you climb, but the walk is still hard and sweaty, and you’ll be glad of the water tanks and rest point at Layang Layang (2621m), three hours into the climb. Around this point, if the weather is kind, incredible views of the hills, sea and clouds start to unfold below you.
To Laban Rata
At just above 3000m, a detour to the left brings hikers to Pondok Paka, a large overhanging rock that was the site of overnight camps on early expeditions. It’s a further 6km to Laban Rata, which lies at 3272m. The final 2km, dominated by large boulders and steep slippery rock surfaces, are demanding even for the fittest, particularly considering the lower oxygen levels. The rewards are the view of the mighty granite slopes of the Panar Laban rock face, plus the promise of reaching your accommodation.
The second day
Most climbers get up at 2.30am for the final ascent, although those who are particularly fit might leave slightly later to avoid getting to the summit too long before sunrise.
To the summit
The trail crosses the sheer Panar Laban rock face, past the Sayat Sayat hut and onwards to the summit at Low’s Peak. Although ropes, handrails and wooden steps help in places, it’s a stiff climb at the very least. You’ll also be doing it in pitch darkness so headlamps are an advantage and a powerful torch a must. Climbers should also be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
After the final push, the beautiful spectacle of sunrise at Low’s Peak will rob you of any remaining breath. Remember that it’ll be bitingly cold, so bring very warm clothing for that brief photo stop at the summit.
Descending from the mountain
After all that toil, it’s back to Laban Rata for a hearty breakfast – prepare to be shocked when you see the sharp drops along the trail, which were not visible in the dark. Then it’s time to head back down to park HQ, which usually takes three to five hours. As your leg muscles ache from the relentless downhill trudge – which is likely to get worse the next day – take a moment to reflect on the fact that the record time for the annual Kinabalu Climbathon is just over two and a half hours. That’s up and down.
Preparing to climb Gunung Kinabulu
Climbing the mountain has become a must-do in Borneo itineraries. For the thousands of people who come here annually to haul themselves up, the process is made easier by a well-defined, 8.5-kilometre-long path that weaves up through jungle on the southern side to the bare granite of the summit.
Despite its popularity, it’s a very tough trek and not to be undertaken lightly. Even given perfect weather conditions, there’s a remorseless, freezing, final pre-dawn ascent to contend with and it’s quite possible to suffer from altitude sickness and not get to the top. Bad weather can also scupper an ascent, or at least make it a pretty miserable experience.
Don’t undertake the challenge unless you are fully prepared with suitable clothing and in good general health. If you suffer from vertigo then you shouldn’t have a problem on the route up to Laban Rata (where there’s foliage to hide any drops), or even for the summit ascent (since it’s in the dark), but the way down from the summit may cause you problems.
If you want to do the climb in just one day – an option only available from tour operators based in KK – then you can substantially cut costs. This does, however, mean an exceptionally long and tiring day on the mountain, while the view from the top will almost certainly be obscured by clouds by the time you get there. Getting a permit for a day-trip can also be difficult. All in all, it isn’t really worth it.
For the vast majority of visitors, therefore, ascending and descending Gunung Kinabalu takes two days. The standard route begins at the park HQ, two hours from KK and 1588m up. It’s possible to arrive on the morning of the climb, but spending the previous night in the area is a good idea; it gives time to acclimatize and means you can make an earlier start in the morning. Climbers then have to spend a night two-thirds of the way up the mountain in huts at Laban Rata, allowing for a final dawn ascent.
The accommodation on the mountain is often booked up long in advance, although tour operators in KK may be able to offer a package at short notice for an additional fee; you can also call direct in the hope of a cancellation. Avoid booking packages with overseas tour operators, which can work out a lot more expensive.
What to bring
Essential items to carry with you include a torch (preferably a headlamp), headache tablets, suntan lotion, energy boosters (such as nuts, fruit and muesli bars), and a water bottle (there’s unfiltered but drinkable water along the trail). Wear waterproof shoes or hiking boots with a good tread, and bring a few layers of warm clothing for the summit; the Laban Rata resthouse has a few jackets for rent, but you need to call ahead to reserve one. Most guides do not carry first-aid kits, so it’s best to bring your own.
The morning of the climb
Get to the park HQ as early as possible: the last group usually sets off by 11am, but ideally you should be here by 9am, in order to reach Laban Rata before the hot water runs out in the showers. Call in at the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges reception to confirm your place at Laban Rata, then go next door to the Sabah Parks office to pay the various fees.
Besides the climbing permit, conservation fee and insurance, you must pay for a guide. All those charges are mandatory; some climbers also opt to pay for a porter (maximum load 10kg). If you’re alone, ask whether you can join another group for company and to save on the guide fee. Lockers and a safe room are available at the HQ to deposit valuables or even your pack.
Kinabalu flora and fauna
If you dash headlong up and down Gunung Kinabalu and then depart, as many visitors do, you’ll miss out on many of the national park’s riches. Its diverse terrains have spawned an incredible variety of plants and animals, and you are far more likely to appreciate them by walking some of the lower trails (see Around the park headquarters) at a leisurely pace.
Around a third of the park’s area is covered by lowland dipterocarp forest, characterized by massive, buttressed trees and allowing only sparse growth at ground level. The world’s largest flower, the parasitic – and elusive – Rafflesia, occasionally blooms in the lowland forest. Between 900m and 1800m, you’ll come across the oaks, chestnuts, ferns and mosses (including the Dawsonia – the world’s tallest moss) of the montane forest.
Higher up (1800–2600m), the cloudforest supports a huge range of flowering plants: around a thousand orchids and 26 varieties of rhododendron have been identified, including Low’s rhododendron with its enormous yellow flowers. The hanging lichen that drapes across branches of stunted trees lends a magical feel to the landscape at this height. It’s at this altitude, too, that you’re most likely to see the park’s most famous plants – its nine species of insectivorous pitcher plants (Nepenthes) whose cups secrete a nectar that first attracts insects and then drowns them, as they are unable to escape up the slippery sides of the pitcher.
Higher still, above 2600m, only the most tenacious plantlife can survive – like the agonizingly gnarled sayat-sayat tree, and the heath rhododendron found only on Mount Kinabalu – while beyond 3300m, soil gives way to granite. Here, grasses, sedges and the elegant blooms of Low’s buttercup are all that flourish.
Although orang-utans, Bornean gibbons and tarsiers are among mammals that dwell in the park, you’re unlikely to see anything more exotic than squirrels, rats and tree shrews, or conceivably a mouse deer or a bearded pig if you’re lucky. The higher reaches of Gunung Kinabalu boast two types of birds seen nowhere else in the world – the Kinabalu friendly warbler and Kinabalu mountain blackbird. Lower down, look out for hornbills and eagles, as well as the Malaysian tree pie, identifiable by its foot-long tail. You’re bound to see plenty of insects: butterflies and moths flit through the trees, while the forest floor is home to creatures like the trilobite beetle, whose orange-and-black armour-plating lends it a fearsome aspect.
If merely walking up to the summit isn’t enough of a challenge, then Asia’s first via ferrata – pathways of rungs, ropes, rails and planks running along sheer cliffsides – may provide the adrenaline rush you are looking for. It’s exhilarating stuff with some incredible views, yet it’s safe because you’re always clipped onto something. Of the two routes, one is suitable for anyone over ten years old, the other has a minimum age of seventeen.
Located close to Laban Rata, the Mountain Torq centre also runs climbing and abseiling courses. Participants can arrange to stay at the Pendant Hut instead of at Laban Rata.
Ten kilometres along the road from Poring to Ranau, KUNDASANG is little more than a junction where simple stalls sell fruit and vegetables. It is, however, worth a stop for those interested in the World War II history of Borneo.
Kundasang War Memorial
The Kundasang war memorial commemorates the victims of the Sandakan Death Marches of 1945, when Japanese troops force-marched POWs from Sandakan to Ranau. No soldiers are buried here.
The site has been extensively renovated, and now includes an information centre that shows an Australian documentary about the death marches, plus three peaceful and well-tended memorial gardens (Australian, British and Bornean).
From Lahad Datu to the Maliau Basin
Sabah’s main trunk road continues southeast from Sandakan and the Sungai Kinabatangan to Lahad Datu. This unenthralling town offers access to two excellent rainforest areas: Danum Valley Conservation Area and Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Further south, Semporna draws scuba divers headed for the world-renowned Pulau Sipadan. It’s possible to stay in town or in an island resort; the latter range from backpacker shacks to luxurious retreats.
The main road around Sabah stops at the busy, noisy town of Tawau, from which ferries depart for Indonesian Kalimantan. Also from Tawau, 4WDs head daily for Keningau along rough routes that complete a ring road of sorts. This is also the way to the Maliau Basin, a magnet for trekkers although only accessible within expensive tour packages.
Danum Valley Conservation Area
Spanning 438 square kilometres, over ninety percent of its primary dipterocarp rainforest, the Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA) is contained within a sprawling logging concession. Wildlife includes bearded pigs, orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards and elephants, as well as reptiles, fish, insects and more than 320 bird species. Short hiking trails are limited to the eastern side, where the tourist accommodation is located. The remainder is pristine forest, out of bounds to all but researchers.
Travellers usually only visit the chaotic, traffic-clogged town of SEMPORNA because they plan to scuba dive and snorkel off nearby islands such as Sipadan, Mabul and Kapalai. While some divers base themselves on the islands, particularly Mabul, a backpacker scene has developed in Semporna since staying inexpensively can release funds for an extra dive or two. It also gives access to the more northerly islands, not usually visited from Mabul.
Semporna broadly consists of three sections: downtown, the commercial centre where buses and minivans stop; Semporna Seafront, home to dive operators (there are yet more out in the resorts themselves) and most tourist accommodation (plus an ATM in front of the Giant supermarket); and the jetty-lined Jalan Kastam, which holds more dive kiosks, a few cafés and the business-oriented Seafest Hotel.
The sea gypsies
Generations of Muslim Bajau and Suluk peoples have farmed the Celebes and Sulu seas for fish, sea cucumbers, shells and other marine products. Often dubbed sea gypsies, these people were originally nomads who lived aboard intricately carved wooden boats called lepa-lepa. Most are now settled in Semporna or on the islands around it, but their love of (and dependence upon) the sea remains strong, and the traditional red and yellow sails of the Bajau boats can sometimes still be seen billowing in the breeze. Every April, the Regatta Lepa Semporna (wetawau.com/Semporna/LEPA/LEPA.htm) sees the boats converge on the town for two days. Amid traditional singing and dancing, as well as sea sports and competitions, awards are given for the best lepa-lepa.
Islands around Semporna
Visitors come to Semporna not to hang out in town, but to explore the magnificent islands offshore. The prime destination for divers is Pulau Sipadan, but nearby Pulau Mabul and Pulau Kapalai are also renowned for marine life, and the latter in particular offers great snorkelling.
These well-known islands are, however, just the beginning. Sibuan, for example, on the edge of the chain and just over 45 minutes by boat from Semporna, has a breathtaking beach and shallow coral reefs. On Mantubuan there’s amazing pristine coral and very good visibility – a popular dive is to a section of very rare black coral (actually white), where you swim through a forest of what resemble underwater Christmas trees.
Acclaimed by Jacques Cousteau as “an untouched piece of art”, Sipadan is a cornucopia of marine life, its waters teeming with turtles, moray eels, sharks, barracuda, vast schools of colourful tropical fish, and a diversity of coral comparable to that at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
There is no accommodation on the island and thanks to Sipadan’s popularity, a permit system limits the number of divers each day. As a result, dive shops and resorts will typically require you to dive with them at other islands for three or four days before you get a day at Sipadan; you should also book well in advance. Dive shops regularly take less experienced divers, but you are likely to enjoy your time here more if you have some experience and preferably Advanced Open Water certification – there can be fairly strong drifts and some of the best dives go below 20m. At the very least you should be sure that you have enough buoyancy control to avoid damaging the coral.
You can also use the same permit to snorkel in Sipadan, but it’s hard to justify the huge premium over snorkelling trips to the other islands.
Most of the dozen-plus commonly visited dive sites around Sipadan offer the chance to see abundant turtles and white-tip sharks. The most popular, Barracuda Point, is a drift dive where divers hold onto rocks while shoals of barracuda pass by. Another great site is the Drop-off, close to the jetty, where you often find large schools of barracuda, bump-head parrot fish and Napoleon wrasse. Close to here is the entrance to Turtle Cave, a watery grave for the skeletal remains of turtles that have strayed in and become lost; fatal accidents have occurred when divers have gone in without proper guidance.
Mabul, the chain’s largest island, holds the lion’s share of accommodation. It’s evenly split between posh resorts and affordable guesthouses; many of the latter are on the western side of the island, also home to a lively stilt-village inhabited by Bajau fisherfolk. Although there’s a beach on the eastern side, development means that this is not a very picturesque island and non-divers are not likely to find much to do (other than, perhaps, laze around the more upmarket resorts). Litter is also a major problem on the western side.
Visibility in the water can be 20m or more but it’s much less reliable than at Sipadan, particularly from July to September. Actually, though, the muck diving – seeking out creatures in the sediment – is famous here. Divemasters tend to prefer Mabul to Sipadan: while the latter has the big-ticket attractions like sharks and turtles, Mabul rewards patience. Among the marine life close to the island are seahorses – including the rare pygmy seahorse – frog fish, cuttlefish, mimic octopus, lion fish, stone fish, ribbon eels, mandarin fish and crocodile fish.
Little more than a sand bar, tiny Kapalai is exquisite and other-wordly. It has room only for one resort and an expensive one at that, although its reef is enjoyed by many visitors who are staying on Mabul. Again, the main attractions are the macro life: divers go looking for pygmy seahorses, harlequin ghost pipefish, frog fish and mandarin fish.
Pulau Pom Pom
The diving at Pom Pom Island itself is not the best in the area, but the island is lovely and a real desert-island escape which even has a relatively affordable resort. You also have access to plenty of other islands if diving is your passion.
This great little island had only a single resort at the time of research, though another was under construction. Dive boats come here sometimes, as Mataking is renowned for turtles and magnificent rays, as well as interesting hammerhead nudibranchs.
Tabin Wildlife Reserve
Tabin Wildlife Reserve, a government-owned tract of land twice the size of Singapore, holds a single resort managed by a private company. It’s around 44km northeast of Lahad Datu airport, where the reserve office is based, of which the last 25km is unsurfaced. Although just eleven percent primary dipterocarp forest, Tabin offers excellent opportunities to see wildlife. Indeed, charismatic manager Fernando argues that Tabin’s strength as a habitat is in its combination of primary forest, secondary forest and plantation (which is rich in fruit for animals to eat).
Both hiking and night drives offer opportunities to come across pygmy elephants, macaques or wild boar as they cross the tracks from the forest to the plantations in search of food; orang-utans can also be spotted, and even the rare clouded leopard. Birdwatchers can look out for such endemic species as the Bornean bristlehead, blue-headed pitta and all eight local species of hornbills.
A visit to Tabin will typically include a walk to a mud volcano, used by animals as a mineral lick; a nearby tower allows guests to observe the scene and you can even sleep there by arrangement. Serious trekkers can explore the virgin forest of the Core Area, although this is not part of the normal schedule.
Sabah’s last true wilderness, and one of the world’s oldest rainforests, the MALIAU BASIN CONSERVATION AREA (wborneoforestheritage.org.my) remains barely explored; most visitors are scientists or researchers. Featuring various types of forest including lower montane, heath and dipterocarp, the basin is home to an impressive range of large mammals, notably the Borneo pygmy elephant, clouded leopard, Malayan sun bear and banteng (wild cattle), while birds include rare species found otherwise only at Gunung Kinabalu and Gunung Trus Madi.
To visit you must be on a tour, for which Borneo Nature Tours (wborneonaturetours.com) are the sole providers. The standard five-day itinerary starts at Tawau, a five-hour drive from the park, and includes long and strenuous hikes suitable only for the fit. You’ll need a doctor’s certificate to prove this, plus insurance that covers helicopter evacuation. The itinerary follows a circular route, spending the first and last night in dorms at the spartan Agathis Camp close to the park entrance, and the rest at the similarly basic Nepenthes (aka Camel Trophy) Camp, six hours’ walk deeper. Also included are night drives and a side-trip to the Maliau Falls.
North of KK
Sabah’s trunk highway hurries through the northern suburbs of KK to the more pastoral environs of Tuaran. From here, the atap houses of the Bajau water villages, Mengkabong and Penimbawan, are only a stone’s throw away. Just outside Tuaran, the main road forks, with the eastern branch heading towards Gunung Kinabalu National Park and Ranau, then onwards to Sandakan.
Continuing north instead, the main road arrives at bustling Kota Belud, where a weekly tamu attracts tribespeople from all over the region. Beyond, the landscape becomes more colourful: jewel-bright paddy fields and stilted wooden houses line the road for much of the way up to the Kudat Peninsula, with Gunung Kinabalu dominating the far distance.
On the way to Kudat, the first administrative capital of the East India Company, it’s possible to stay at a Rungus longhouse in Kampung Bavanggazo. North of town the area known as the Tip of Borneo has quiet beaches and a few guesthouses. Remote islands reached from the peninsula include Pulau Banggi and Pulau Mantanani.
Although the shift to modern housing means that few traditional Rungus longhouses survive, a couple have been constructed in KAMPUNG BAVANGGAZO, 98km north of KK, to give tourists a chance to spend the night. In addition to room-only prices, it’s possible to book a package including dinner, breakfast and a tribal dance performance – call a couple of days ahead, to make sure that a performance is scheduled. Other activities include an early-morning jungle trek.
For six days of the week, KOTA BELUD, 75km northeast of KK, is a busy but undistinguished town; arriving tourists usually head straight to the jetty for Pulau Mantanani. Early on Sunday, however, the town springs to life as hordes of villagers congregate at Sabah’s largest weekly tamu. Fulfilling a social as well as commercial role, the market draws Rungus, Kadazan/Dusun and Bajau indigenous groups.
Though the market’s popularity among KK’s tour operators means there are always a few tourists, you won’t see many souvenirs for sale: instead you’re far more likely to come across dried fish, chains of yeast beads (used to make rice wine), buffalo, betel nut and tudung saji (colourful food covers used to keep flies at bay). Arrive early – if you’re coming from KK, set off by 8am at the latest.
Kota Belud’s annual tamu besar, or “big market”, usually held in October, sees cultural performances, traditional horseback games and handicraft demonstrations in addition to the more typical stalls.
Overlooking Marudu Bay, Kudat is a friendly town centred on the intersection of Jalan Ibrahim Arshad and Jalan Lo Thien Chock. The latter, the main street, holds some of Sabah’s oldest wooden shophouses and a Standard Chartered Bank. During a visit, leave time to peek at the central, orange-hued Chinese temple close to the Ria Hotel, plus the stilt village and the harbour, now significantly quieter than in the days when Kudat had an active fishing industry.
The Kudat Peninsula is home to the Rungus people, members of the wider Kadazan/Dusun ethnic group. Like most, the Rungus have gradually modernized, but many still hold their traditions dear. Older people in the kampungs still dress in black, and only two generations ago some Rungus wore coils of brass and copper on their bodies.
The architectural style of the traditional longhouse is distinctive too, built with outwards leaning walls and decorated with motifs and imagery from farming and nature. Today though, most dwellings are made from sheets of corrugated zinc, whose durability makes it preferable to the traditional materials like timber, tree bark, rattan and nipah leaves.
The island of Pulau Banggi, 40km north of Kudat and accessible by daily ferry, is the largest in Sabah. It’s mostly flat but has lovely beaches, including one close to the jetty at the main settlement Karakit, and is worth a visit just for the boat ride and an amble on the beach. There are few tourist facilities; to dive the reefs here, for example, you’d need to make arrangements with a tour company in KK.
Popular with KK tour operators as a day-trip destination, Pulau Mantanani is actually a collection of three tiny islands 40km off the coast from Kota Belud (from where you can take a boat) that also holds a few resorts. It’s a lot of travel for a single day, but a lovely place to stay for a night or two; snorkelling, kayaking and scuba diving are available by arrangement.
The Tip of Borneo
Promoted as a tourist attraction in recent years, the thin promontory known as the Tip of Borneo (Tanjung Simpang Mengayau) has seen limited development but retains a great deal of charm. It’s easy to see what keeps visitors coming: cliffs drop away to steep, forested hills and waves crash onto the golden sandy beaches. While it’s well worth a visit – or, better, a night or two – if you’re in the vicinity, whether it’s worth a special journey all the way from KK is more debatable.
At the tip itself, Sabah Tourism has built a car park where steps lead down to a viewing area and a monumental globe. It’s busiest at the weekend, when local families visit; no buses or minivans come this way, so you’ll need to use your own transport, or a taxi.
Poring Hot Springs
The Poring Hot Springs were developed during World War II by the Japanese, who installed wooden tubs that have been replaced by tiled versions. Don’t come expecting natural pools, luxury or solitude, but it can be a good place to relax aching muscles after descending from Mount Kinabalu.
There are also a few other attractions within the site, including an orchid garden, a butterfly farm, a canopy walkway and a few walking trails. Outside the gates you’ll see signs advertising places to see Rafflesia flowers but these are best avoided: the plants have often been dug up and brought to Poring from more remote areas.
Accommodation in the Sabah hot springs area
The official accommodation within the hot springs area is run by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges and is very expensive. Luckily a handful of more affordable (if unexceptional) lodges lie just outside the entrance, with a great option in the jungle nearby.
A short distance west of the Klias Peninsula, PULAU LABUAN is not strictly part of Sabah, being Federal Territory governed directly from KL. Labuan town holds few tourist attractions, but its centre has decent eating, good mid-range accommodation and a lively nightlife. Some worthwhile sights lie beyond the town, while scuba divers are attracted by the chance to dive four wrecks. You might also want to take advantage of the island’s duty-free prices while passing through.
While there’s little reason to spend time in the undistinguished town of Ranau, it’s the main hub for travelling between Kinabalu National Park and eastern Sabah. The first day of each month sees a large and lively tamu (market), 1km out of town towards Sandakan; there’s also a smaller tamu every Saturday.
Sabah Tea Garden
The Sabah Tea Garden is a well-run organic tea plantation that makes a great place to stay for a night or two, but may also be worth a daytime visit if you’re passing through. Contact them in advance to arrange hikes and factory tours, as it’s very popular with groups and gets busy. Ask also about visiting the fish massage place nearby, where surprisingly large river fish nibble at customers’ dead skin.
Southwest of KK
Following the coast southwest of KK, the highway passes through Kinarut and Papar before reaching Beaufort, the main access point for the Klias Peninsula. This is prime country for day-trips organized by tour operators in KK, whether for whitewater rafting, proboscis-monkey watching or firefly tours. Offshore is Pulau Tiga, the setting for the first series of the TV show Survivor.
Named after Leicester P. Beaufort, an early governor of British North Borneo, BEAUFORT is a quiet, uneventful town whose commercial significance has declined since the sealed road from KK into the interior lessened the importance of its rail link with Tenom. The town’s position on the banks of the Padas leaves it prone to flooding, which explains why its shophouses are raised on steps.
It’s also the river that attracts most of the tourists who visit the town – Beaufort is the starting point for many whitewater rafting trips. Otherwise, once you’ve poked around in the market, inspected angular St Paul’s Church at the top of town and taken a walk past the stilt houses on the riverbank, you’ve exhausted its sights.
The Klias Peninsula
Thirty kilometres west of Beaufort, and served by regular minivans from the centre of town, the Klias Peninsula is an area of flat marshland that’s popular with KK-based tour operators for proboscis monkey or firefly tours.
The most westerly settlement on the Klias Peninsula, tiny MENUMBOK has no accommodation. It’s notable only for the jetty that links it to Labuan; a couple of cafés here may be useful when waiting for a boat.
Around an hour northeast of Beaufort, or 45 minutes from Menumbok, at the northern point of the peninsula, KUALA PENYU is the departure point for Pulau Tiga National Park. It’s a simple grid of streets with little more than a few stores, filled with basic supplies, and a couple of kedai kopis.
Pulau Tiga National Park
In the South China Sea, 12km north of Kuala Penyu, Pulau Tiga National Park once consisted of three islands, but wave erosion has reduced one to a mere sand bar. Of the remaining two, Tiga and Kalampunian Damit, only the former holds any accommodation. It acquired a degree of fame in 2001 as the location of the first series of the American reality-TV show Survivor.
Most visitors today content themselves with relaxing on the sandy beaches and snorkelling or diving in the azure sea, but it’s possible to hike right around the island in six hours. An easy twenty-minute walk to the centre of Pulau Tiga leads to a couple of (lukewarm) mud volcanoes. Slip and slide around there, then walk 1.2km further to clean up at lovely Pagong-Pagong beach. Be warned, though, that walking can be hard going if your feet and flip-flops are muddy.
Just 1km northeast of Pulau Tiga, Kalampunian Damit is also known locally as Pulau Ular (Snake Island), because it attracts a species of venomous sea snake called the yellow-lipped sea krait. The island is normally visited as part of a morning trip from Pulau Tiga Resort, combined with some snorkelling. It used to be possible to see dozens of snakes on a good day, but now they seem to be much more scarce and some visitors come away disappointed.
Southeast of Sandakan Bay, Sabah’s longest river – the 560km Sungai Kinabatangan – ends its journey to the Sulu Sea. Whereas logging has had an adverse impact on the river’s ecology upstream, the creation of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary has kept its lower reaches largely free of development. This is the largest forested flood plain in Malaysia, laden with oxbow lakes, mangrove and grass swamps, and distinctive vegetation including massive fig trees overhanging the water’s edge.
The sanctuary offers some of Sabah’s best opportunities for seeing wildlife. Although some tour operators offer day-trips from Sandakan, it’s much better to stay overnight given the travel time; the ideal is a two-night stay. Although there are a few exceptions, most lodges are located either in or around the villages of Sukau or Bilit. From November to April, the rainy season can lead to flooding at some lodges – at its worst in January – and even force their closure.
The Gomantong Caves are vast limestone cavities inhabited by swiftlets whose nests are harvested twice a year (normally Feb–April and July–Sept) for the bird’s-nest-soup trade. The caves are also home to a huge number of bats, and the enormous piles of guano (droppings) give them a distinctive acrid smell.
There are two main caves. The black cave, smaller but only a ten-minute walk from the ticket office, mostly contains black nests, a combination of twigs and bird saliva. The white cave is rarely visited by tourists as it’s another hour away, but nest collectors go there for the more valuable white nests, made from pure saliva. Note that the guano attracts a huge number of cockroaches, so don’t wear flip-flops or sandals.
There’s nowhere to stay or eat in and around Gomantong, so plan to leave the caves well before dark if you are not on a tour.
Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary
Despite Sabah’s rather haphazard approach to making the most of its superb natural resources, the designation of the Lower Kinabatangan as a wildlife sanctuary in 2005 was a commendable move. That said, sanctuary status is one level below that of a national park, so villages and agricultural development have been allowed to crisscross the protected sections. Furthermore, only the area immediately alongside the river is protected; as animals have lost their habitats when the surrounding areas have been converted into palm-oil plantations, they have effectively been pushed into the narrow protected corridor.
This means that it is highly likely that, over a number of boat rides and short treks, you will see elephants (if they are in the area), orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, macaques and gibbons. The resident birdlife is equally impressive. With luck, visitors get glimpses of hornbills, brahminy kites, crested serpent eagles, egrets, exquisite blue-banded and stork-billed kingfishers, and oriental darters, which dive underwater to find food and then sit on the shore, their wings stretched out to dry. The river itself holds freshwater sharks, crocodiles and rays, and a great variety of fish species.
Sukau and Bilit
The first tourist lodges on the Sungai Kinabatangan opened around the kampung of Sukau, 134km from Sandakan by road or 87km by boat. Still the easiest place to reach, it’s particularly popular with independent travellers as it’s possible to stay in the village itself on a B&B basis then charter boats as needed. Most of the all-inclusive lodges are on the riverbanks close to the village.
Many would argue, however, that Sukau is a victim of over-development. In July and August in particular, dozens of boats converge along the same narrow tributaries at the same times and shatter any sense of peace. Although many boats now use quieter electric motors when the current allows, some still do not.
Once tourism became well established in Sukau, a few operators decided to open lodges further upriver around the kampung of Bilit. Although not the undeveloped spot it once was, Bilit remains quieter than Sukau partly because there’s no public transport to the village – it’s upstream of Sukau and reached via a lower-quality road.