In Asia there are nooks and crannies that never cease to amaze and always invite one to explore an exotic world that leaves us speechless. Borneo is one of these. In this great island the jungle hides extraordinary flora and fauna, towns lost in the heart of the island, modern and touristic cities and workers with peculiar professions such as gathering swallow nests, fruits of the palms or gold in a mine.
Borneo, which is divided between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, is immense. We were able to discover the northeast region, which belongs to Malaysia and where calm waters surround Mount Kinabalu.
We flew from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the province of Sabah, whose name means “the land below the wind”, in the northeast tip of Borneo, at the edge of the South China Sea. The city lies at the foot of oddly shaped Mount Kinabalu, 4,101 meters (13,454 feet) high and the tallest in the island KK, as its residents call it, is a modern, very active city that has the most entertaining shopping centers, restaurants and discos, grand avenues and a very important commercial port ideal for docking. It is also called “Api Api”, which means “Fire, Fire”, because its was attacked and burned by pirates several times and also razed by the allies during World War II.
We lodged at the elegant Shangai-La’ Tanjung Aru Resort, at the edge of the sea, while we prepared the small yacht that would take us to explore the coast.
Tunku Abdul Rahan National Park
Leaving the KK port, we set sail towards the five small islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahan National Park (Pulau Manukau, Gaya, Sapi, Mamutik and Sulug), where we found transparent waters that lick the beaches of golden sand that delimit these islands covered with vegetation. It is a genuine paradise of coral bottoms and fish of many colors that we were able to see with a visor while swimming although, unfortunately, much of the coral has been destroyed by the practice of fishing with explosives.
In Pulua Sapi we were fascinated by enormous monitor lizards, close cousins of the Komodo dragon, which came close to enjoy some bones and provoked a real commotion among the diners. They measure close to two meters (6.5 feet), have terrifying jaws and, even though they are dangerous, cohabit perfectly with the people that invade their space.
In Palau Gaya, the largest and with hills that are 300 meters (984 feet) high, we discovered a typical fishing village at the end of a bay, where houses built on stilts rise from the sea like a refuge among the waves and jungle. We found impressive, beautiful pink jellyfish that swam near the surface while we observed the fishermen arranging palm leaves to cover the sunlight so that the fish would easily fall into their mortal traps.
From Kota Kinabalu to Kudat
At sunrise, the sun caused some odd effects on Mount Kinabalu, which hid the first rays, and we sailed north, covering the length of KK and discovering a beautiful mosque built at the edge of the sea. After crossing Gaya Island, we sailed towards a very savage coast settled only by fishing villages. The cliffs that end in hills covered in vegetation follow the beaches on a coast cut, as if by scissors, by the movements of the earth that created Mount Kinabalu.
In Kota Belud we stopped to visit the Tamu, a lively market that sells vegetables and fish. The Shangai-La RasaRia Resort is located on an isolated beach and combines the exotic jungle with the beauty of the almost virgin coast, which is home to the Bajau and Kadazan natives, who lead a peaceful life. Our sailors told us that on this coast of the South China Sea there are no problems but on the Sulu Sea they were afraid of being attacked by pirates.
We sailed along the length of a plain, where the water of the rice paddies dazzles, until we passed the Cape of the Peninsula and reached Kudat, an isolated city located at the entrance of a profound bay of very shallow waters inhabited by the Rungu. The women wear black sarongs and make baskets, hats and necklaces of glass pearls of different colors with which they also adorn themselves.
From Kudat to Sandakan
The peacefulness of the morning was impressive: when the sun comes out the birds become noisy and fill the island with strange sounds that compete with those of the insects. When sailing along the canal, between the eastern point of the north of Borneo to the island of Malawali, we entered the Sulu Sea, a very calm body of water into which several rivers, that come from the tropical jungle filled with flood waters, flow, producing the reddish color of the coastal waters.
Because of its wealth of fish, shrimp and octopus, fishermen frequent the area and some freighters were headed towards Sandakan.
This coast is low and swampy and, passing Pulua Jambongan, we crossed the length of the immense Sepilok Bay until we reached Turtle Island National Park, formed by three small islands 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Sandakan.
During certain times of the year, two species of marine turtles lay their eggs on its beaches but they are difficult to find. The green sea turtle generally lays its eggs between July and October in Pulua Selingan and Bakunngan Cecil while the hawksbill sea turtle chooses Palau Gulisan between February and April and the eggs are collected and protected until they hatch.
Finally, we reached Sandakan, a fascinating city at the foot of the hills at the entrance of a large, very closed bay. It blends the modernity of its buildings and the uproar of the traffic with the beauty of the scenery.
The vibrant fish market offers the best and freshest produce of the day and merchandize, like rattan, wood, rubber, copra, palm oil and swiftlet nests, can be found on the docks. The ferries guarantee frequent connections to Zamboanga in the Philippines.
On the hill, the Puu Jih Shih temple, a great Buddhist shrine, offers a superb view of Teluk Sandakan. The mosque, the Saint Michael’s and All Angels church (19th century) and the Sam Sing Kung temple (1887) are some of the most outstanding buildings of the center of town, where seafood restaurants, located in ancient wooden buildings, compete in quality and price.
In its heyday of wood trade, the city of Sandakan was very prosperous and a place where people in this business became millionaires, as did those who traded in pearls and swiftlet nests used to prepare soup. Germans came to live here in 1870, Baron von Overbeck received a contract from the Sultan of Sulu to occupy these lands and sold it to the British, who brought about the commercial boom of the region until the Japanese invasion during World War II and the destruction of the city by the allied bombing in 1945.
Sandakan was the site of a notorious concentration camp of prisoners that, in 1944, held 1,800 Australians and 600 British soldiers in deplorable conditions. At the end of the war only six Australians, of the 2,400 prisoners, survived.
We visited the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from the city, where it is possible to observe orangutans in semi-liberty. This impressive animal, which looks so human in its gestures, can weigh up to 144 kilos (317 pounds). It is a very pleasant place to watch them especially when they are fed because, later, they disappear among the trees of the jungle with some macaques that accompany them.
Sandakan also offers all the comforts of modern life at the edge of the jungle.
From Sandakan to Sungai Kinabatangan
In the morning we set said towards the south and entered the narrow estuary of the Sungai Kinabatangan, Sabah’s longest river that measures 560 kilometers (348 miles). Its edges have been preserved, saved from the extensive plantations of palm, from which oil is extracted, and is the best place to observe the region’s wildlife. The river snakes through the jungle.
All of a sudden, packs of long tailed and pig-tailed macaques began to appear and observe us. They jumped from branch to branch. Later on, we ran into several groups of proboscis monkeys. This timid creature has a strange face with a long red nose and passive gaze. They are agile and disappear in the vegetation.
We reached the lodge, located in the jungle at the edge of the river and among the strange noises of the tropical world inhabited by terrifying insects and poisonous frogs and where there still are wild elephants and Sumatran rhinos. We spent three days in this fascinating world, took boat trips and hiked along the paths that border the lakes and observed the diversity of fauna such as the hornbills with enormous orange beaks.
At night we walked along the narrow paths and discovered some intriguing insects in the light of our flashlights before enjoying the excellent dinners prepared by Alma, the cheerful director of the lodge where we slept protected by mosquito nets. Alma grew up in a remote town in an island of the Philippines listening to Mexican music sung to her by her mother and she sang to us with tears in her eyes when she learned that we were from the land of those songs. Stories were told during these evenings. We heard, for example, of Lahad Datu and the coast of the south of Sukau, where there were pirate attacks, or of the contrabandists of highways and, most of all, of the sea: people that are dedicated to the contraband of cigarettes and beer between Lahad Datu and Zamboanda, in the Philippines. Felix, our captain, then decided not to continue to the south, afraid of these pirates that kill for a camera, a watch or a badly interpreted look and kidnap foreigners to exchange them for money. We then had to give up our wish of reaching Palau Sidapan, the renowned island considered the best place in the world to scuba dive because the coral reef has been protected and the multicolored fish are a true wonder.
Finally, Felix dropped us off at the Sukua river port, a small town where Fidel, an excellent driver-guide, and his car were waiting to take us back to Kota Kinabalu by land. On the way, we stopped at the Gomantong cave, where swiftlet nests are gathered and sold, for their weight in gold, to Chinese who use them to prepare soup. The cavern is a strange world of soft lights and men atop fabulous rope ladders and bamboo scaffolding, living in an isolated society in the middle of the humid heat and putrid odor.
After two hours on a road running through the middle of palm oil plantations, we reached the main highway that continued through the same type of scenery for several hours. When we started to drive along the skirts of the mountains we crossed beautiful rivers. The palms made way to an almost virgin jungle and we stopped at Poring Hot Springs, a well of hot, sulfurous waters that is channeled into several pools in the heart of a garden that attracts butterflies, birds and many tourists.
The jungle that surrounds the place allows visitors to discover orchids, endemic plants and a great variety of strange flowers. We passed Ranau, a small town that survives thanks to its market, which sells the vegetables and fruits of the tropical world or of the cold lands of the mountains.
Finally, we reached Kundasang, a mountain village near the entrance of the Kinabalu National Park. The mountain is hidden among the clouds and the sunset heralded rain. Peace reigned around my hotel terrace, birds flew and the clouds constantly changed shapes. All of a sudden, emerging from the white mist, like a scene from a story of fairies and dragons, appeared the majestic mountain. Its plateau is over 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) high and its odd shape appears to have been sculpted by an artist.
Peaks, curves, fissures, spheres and arid rocks form the flat summit of the Kinabalu and geologists explain that it is because volcanic rock began to ascend from the depths of the sea nine million years ago and erosion perfected the planet’s work. This upward movement continues to this day, growing five millimeters (0.19 inches) a year and the highest part now reaches 4,101 meters (13,454 feet). It is a young mountain where you can find traces of the glaciers that disappeared many thousands of years ago. The sight of it, appearing among the clouds when the afternoon sun is setting, is fascinating.
There are several paths for exploring and discovering its rich flora and fauna, marvelous insects, beautiful birds and ferns. In the middle of the road there are shelters for spending the night, which allows you to leave very early and reach the summit at sunrise in order to enjoy an out of the ordinary experience.
In the skirts of the mountain is where you will find rafflesias, parasitic plants that produce flowers that can measure one meter (3.28 feet) in diameter. A great variety of orchids grow in the whole area and the vegetation is marvelous. It is a world of beauty. Descending to the north, the highway makes its way through the stunning tropical scenery, where clouds hide among the folds of the mountains, the refreshing mist permits the conservation of the mysterious jungle among cliffs that paint a dramatic panorama, until it reaches the coastal plain and enters the city of KK, back to the modern world.
Sabah has just given us a tad of its treasure: its flora and fauna. Unfortunately, it is a world that is disappearing, replaced by buildings and palm plantations, which is why I ask myself how long will these natural isles, like Kinabalu and Kinabatangan, last.
We got to know enchanting islands, impressive lizards, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, rafflesias, a variety of orchids, the cavern on the swiftlets and also charming people. The story of the pirates had made us miss the world of Sipadan but we were fascinated by this trip in the fabulous world that “the land beneath the wind” and its beautiful coast offers.
The Cave of the Swiftlet’s nests
Swiftlet nests are collected in Gomantong. After they are dried and processed they will reach a price of 3,800 pesos a kilo (about 333 dollars for over two pounds). They are used to prepare the famed swallow’s nest soup, very much in demand by the Chinese for centuries.
It is an impressive sight to see these men that install bamboo scaffolds hanging from the roofs of the cave and which they reach by rope ladders. They risk their lives walking among the rocks, breathing the fetid air contaminated by bird and bat guano and avoiding the centipedes that live in the cave and whose sting can kill a man. In the thick layer of excrement that covers the ground are millions of cockroaches that devour the fledglings that fall from the nests.
The pair of swiftlets builds its nest using a glutinous cement produced by their salivary glands, which are located under the tongue. The best nests are those that have fewer feathers included in its construction (white, with less feathers and more expensive and black, with more feathers and cheaper). They are collected only when the fledglings have taken flight.
Its processing is very time consuming. The nest has to remain immersed in water from six to 48 hours to absorb the liquid and swell up. Then the feathers are separated from the salivary cement: the big ones are removed with tweezers and the small ones with a method of flotation in vegetable oil.
The long filaments are immediately removed in order to ensure a better product and the broken strands will be used as the foundation of the nests that will be sold dry and rebuilt. The best quality (super big, birdnest) can reach 380 dollars for 100 grams (3.52 ounces) while the cheaper quality (Thailand birdnest) can cost 260 dollars for 100 grams (3.52 ounces).
Text: Patrick Monney, RGV Images ± Photo: Patrick Monney , RVG Images