A Travellerspoint blog

The Tip of Borneo

4 days rolling in a Proton Saga

all seasons in one day

After the short but strenuous trek up Mount Kinabalu me and Helen figured it'd be a good idea to kick back for a few days and roll around in Malaysia's most famous car; the Proton Saga. So we picked up the 1.3l muscle car, filled her up from an empty tank for a tenner (petrol is dirt cheap out here), and headed north with the aim of reaching the most northern point of Borneo before nightfall. Unfortunately, around lunch time some serious rains had decided to turn up, bringing traffic to an almost standstill for miles around as roads flooded. The majority of the drive was through bouts of torrential rain, but this didn't phase the Proton Saga.


Eventually we arrived at the restaurant we were aiming at shortly after dusk and ate while watching streaks of lightning striking out to sea. The restaurant, as well as the jungle lodge we'd stay at that night, is run by a middle-aged British ex-pat named Howard - who is also very good at selling you another beer. After a few hours spent chatting round a fire on the beach we headed to the longhouse where we'd be staying for the next couple of days (a longhouse is a large bamboo-based construct that is traditionally used in Borneo to house multiple families; with minimal privacy). We spent a couple of days here chilling out and swimming in the crystal-clear sea (seriously, this spot was incredible), before heading back south to a town called Kota Belud.


We rolled into town in time to watch some local football while gorging ourselves at the night market next to the pitch. Chicken satay, fried rice, chicken stuffed flat-bread and tuna steak vanquished our hunger, while banana cake, peanut butter pancakes and fried banana balls were added for pure gluttony. And all for about a fiver.

The next morning we fired up the Proton and headed off to find a local beach. Eventually we stumbled upon a lively looking stretch of sand in Usukan Cove where an entrepreneurial local lad had set up the kind of seaside resort Butlins could only dream of. Banana boat rides for £2, lilos to rent, there was even a beach karaoke at a mere 20p per song. We chose to sit out the karaoke and allow the lad himself to murder Hey Jude. A beach goat and table tennis table topped off a truly stunning package.


After a couple of hours, however, we had to pull ourselves away to make the 3 hour drive to Poring, a small spot on the other side of Kinabalu mountain where we'd spend the late afternoon bathing in hot springs. The next morning we headed to a canopy walkway (Poring is in the middle of the rainforest that covers much of Mount Kinabalu) to see what critters would be lounging in the trees. Being the first people to arrive we had pretty much the run of things and while just walking between the trees, 40m up and on rope bridges was fun enough, a couple of Giant Squirrels turned up for added entertainment.


Before heading off back to Kota Kinabalu to return the trusty Proton we stopped at someone's garden to have a look at a Rafflesia flower. These things are the biggest flowers in the world, normally existing as a bulb before exploding into large red blooms every once in a while. The look like the evil plant from Little Shop of Horrors and apparently smell like rotting flesh - though the one we saw wasn't noticably pungent from where we were stood.


About four hours later we rolled into Kota Kinabalu and, thanks to a rather apathetic lady at the car rental place, got our full deposit back.

Posted by Monsk 08:36 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

An 8km Staircase

sunny 30 °C

The task of climbing Mount Kinabalu, the 4100m high peak that towers over much of north Borneo, started with an early rise to get to a bus station, to catch a bus that didn't exist. Arriving at 6:45, we were to that there was no 7am bus and that we'd have to wait until 8:30 for the next one. This would mean a swealtering climb in the mid-day heat, or arriving so late as to not be allowed to climb at all. As it happened we weren't the only ones who had turned up for the mythical 7am bus; a German called Nils was also hanging around, looking just as confused. We decided to wait it out for the 8:30 bus to leave but luckily it filled up quite quickly and actually set off before 8:00.

After a two hour bus ride that seemed to cover most of the ascent, we arrived at the park HQ and hired a guide between me, Helen and Nils. The climb started at 1870m, at which height the temperature was already noticeably cooler than at sea-level but still made for a sweaty initial hike. That the bus ride had taken us seemingly most of the way up the mountain already was no great disappointment, the walk over the following two days was only 8km to the summit but gaining 2230m in that distance, meant that the hike would be described more accurately as an 8km staircase.

By 15:00 the fauna had changed from initially tropical in nature to something that more resembled an English fell. Dandelions, long grass and hardy bushes livened up the granite mountain-side. Within these apparently familiar yet entirely unknown surroundings was situated the Laban Rata Resthouse where we'd spend the night before getting up at the absurd time of 2:30am to reach the summit for sunrise. The resthouse was entirely supplied by a stream of Malaysian sherpas that we kept passing as we climbed. Carrying 30kg each, up 1400m of mountain for $20 seemed a pretty grueling job. However, the resthouse was comfortable and the food served to us that night was nothing short of a banquet after the pathetic excuse for a sandwich they'd provided us with on the way up.


At 10pm, as everyone was going off to bed, Helen realised that her shoes were missing. This was something of a problem as without them she'd have to complete the summit climb and subsequent descent barefoot. Despite questioning everyone available and leaving notes all over the resthouse, by 3am the next morning nothing had turned up. Our guide found Helen some rubber shoes that all the guides and sherpas rocked which, while apparently very 'grippy', were a couple of sizes too small so also quite painful.


The final 830m ascent was done under complete darkness, predominantly across bare granite rock and with nothing but the moon, and head-torches to light the way. A rope fastened into the mountain-side provided an occasionally necessary method of hauling yourself up the rock, while at other times provided a significant trip hazard. At around 5:30 we hit the summit as the firey red glow of sunrise began to spill over the mountains to the east of us. Slowly the Sun rose, changing the appearance of everything around us. The bare mountain was bathed in a faint lilac light. The most impressive sight though was the shadow that the mountain cast over the land to the west and out into the sea; probably 50 miles in total.


We descended back to the resthouse for breakfast where, miraculously, Helen's shoes had turned up. I imagine this made the descent much more manageable, though this part of the trek took the greatest toll on my legs which were like jelly by the end. As Nils got a bus East, me and Helen took a cab back to Kota Kinabalu with a Chinese taxi driver who ,it turned out, loved Lady Gaga. And then we slept.


Posted by Monsk 18:29 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Touching Down in Borneo


The journey to Kota Kinabalu, Borneo would be quite a drawn-out affair; touching down in Oman, spending a night in Kuala Lumpur and paying a taxi driver to break all speed limits to get me to an airport on time. After persuading my boss, and not with a small amount of guilt, to take five weeks off to travel around Asia (the perks of being a PhD student), I now get the next month or so to make my way around Malaysian Borneo and hopefully hit up some of the Philippines with my girlfriend Helen.

The flight to Muscat, Oman was enjoyed next to an elderly Sri Lankan lady who repeatedly expressed that London was too cold for her liking on the plane from Heathrow. Onwards to Kuala Lumpur I flew into the sunset for the second time in less than a day and on arrival, headed to the city centre for a night in a budget hotel before getting up at 6 for my flight to Borneo. Unfortunately what with my body clock pretty messed up and a night's sleep ruined by Kuala Lumpurians (no idea if that's what you call them) drag racing outside my room all night, I managed to oversleep by a solid hour and a half. After the initial panic I found a taxi driver willing to push his ancient Proton hatchback to its limits to get me to the airport on time. No seatbelts? No problem - this is Asia. I hit baggage drop with five minutes to spare and bought myself a chicken croissant.


Kota Kinabalu is my current base and is the capital of Malaysian Borneo - it's not a huge city but with incredible views and sunsets over the South China Sea, and some of the best seafood I've ever had, it's a definite winner. The first day was spent chilling out and swimming in the pool of the swanky hotel we'd booked ourselves for the first night. The following day, and after Borneo's attempt at a full English (the Muslim aversion to pork is a severe limitation to such a breakfast) we set out for a sweaty walk to a viewpoint above the city. The view was predominantly city with the tiniest addition of sea but the resulting picture probably gives you some idea about the city.


That afternoon we headed to the jetty to take a speedboat to one of the tiny islands off Kota Kinabalu. The one we chose, named Mamutik, was the smallest of the five and offered the classic delights of a white, sandy beach combined with plentiful coral and sea life within a short snorkel. One of my tasks this holiday is to get good at underwater photography, and to do this I'm using an old Nikon film camera borrowed from Helen's dad. While this is all well and good, and will hopefully yield some good results, you won't be able to see them any time soon. Use your imagination with this one.

While visiting tiny islands is good fun, it's less fun when you're faced with the prospect of being stuck on them. The guy with the boat who brought us to Mamutik was supposed to be picking us up at five pm but was nowhere in sight. Eventually we managed to find a contact number and got one of the locals to find out where the guy was, and sure enough the boy had forgotten all about us. Almost an hour late the boat rocks up and without apology takes us back to the mainland.


After a day in which we were able to appreciate some of the best of Borneo's marine life, we ate some of the best of Borneo's marine life. The night market here in Kota Kinabalu serves up a vast array of dishes, but the seafood barbecues are by far the best. We dined on tuna steak and giant prawns, but the best by far was the squid. Next level barbecue skills on show.


We finally hit the hay in our now more modest accommodation (no windows but air con is a good compromise), ready for an early rise to climb Mount Kinabalu - the peak over 4000m above sea level.

Posted by Monsk 07:39 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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