Malaysian Borneo: Sabah

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Simon Ostheimer flies south to discover Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, the Land Below the Wind
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Probably the most distinctive part of the Sabah flag – a trio of sea-blue, pure white, and earthy red – is the outline of Mount Kinabalu in the top left corner. If you’re lucky (as we were on the flight in), you’ll be sitting on the right side of the plane to see the majestic peak, some 90km away, as your plane comes in to land. The indigenous Kadazan people call it Aki Nabalu, ‘aki’ meaning grandparents, while ‘nabalu’ is their word for resting place.

After landing at Kota Kinabalu airport, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, we head straight out for a dinner of banana leaf rice, a mix of vegetables and spicy curry eaten by hand served – surprise – on a banana leaf, at local landmark Jothy’s (Lot 1, G9, Api-Api Centre, Lorong Api-Api, Jalan Centre Point, +60 88 261595; jothyscurry.com). Then it’s back to the hotel for an early night ahead of our journey the next day on the North Borneo Railway (northborneorailway.com).

With five carriages, the vintage train is hauled by a British Vulcan wood-powered steam locomotive. Built in the 1970s, the carriages have been renovated to recreate a journey that existed in the early 1900s, when the train line was a vital link between the interior and the coast, transporting goods such as rice, tobacco and pineapples for export. Now almost 120 years old, the North Borneo Railway – a collaboration between the state government and the sprawling Sutera Harbour Resort – provides a nostalgic experience for tourists.

Boarding at the Tanjung Aru terminal (tickets from $689 return), we pose for pictures with the engine before taking our seats in the Kinarut carriage. Sitting on cushioned benches, we admire the interior decked out in local timber, with ceiling-mounted fans providing a breeze, as waiters lay the table with a continental breakfast of pastries, croissants and jam, and a pouring of Sabah tea. As breakfast is served, the train pulls out of the station and we slowly build up a head of steam. After passing through Putatan, a pretty little settlement partly built on stilts over the South China Sea, our first stop is the historical trading post of Kinarut.

From here the scenery begins to change, taking on a more wild look. This is the Kawang Forest Reserve, a semi-protected area popular with jungle trekkers and cavers. Admiring the scenery, we’re suddenly plunged into complete darkness as we enter the 450m-long Pengalat Tunnel, a remarkable engineering feat built by the British in the early 1900s. We emerge into a vista of paddy fields, before crossing an old steel bridge and slowing down into the terminus at Papar. We’re given 30 minutes to explore the quaint town, taking a stroll through the local market to pick up a bag of deep-fried bananas and a couple of cans of a Malaysian isotonic drink – much needed when you’re sweating as much as we are. We arrive back just in time to watch as the huge steam engine swivels around on a turntable, ready to take us back to the capital.

Just a few hours later, we are on the move again, this time aboard a small speedboat as it pulls out of Sutera Harbour Marina and heads southeast to Gaya Island. This isle had housed the first settlement of the North Borneo Company, before it was razed to the ground in 1897 by a local folk hero by the name of Mat Salleh, and the British set up shop on the mainland instead. As Kota Kinabalu thrived and grew, the villagers on Gaya Island maintained a simple life, until it was declared a national park in 1974. These days, it’s a central part of the state’s eco-tourism, and home to three hotels, including the Gaya Island Resort, where luxury villas peek out between lush jungle and tropical fish swim in abundance right off the hotel jetty. Looking around, it’s easy to understand the importance of preserving the area’s natural beauty. It’s a message driven home the next day by the resort’s resident naturalist Justin Juhun.

“I was raised in the jungle,” says Juhun, when I ask where his passion for the wilderness comes from. “My dad worked on a plantation some 60km outside of Tawau [a small town on the south coast of Sabah], and as a young boy I remember seeing injured animals and wanting to help them. Soon, people were bringing me all sorts of creatures and our home became like my own personal zoo!” We’re walking along a narrow track through deep bush in the hills above the Gaya Island Resort. It’s part of a series of tracks that Juhun himself created a few years before when the resort opened.

His knowledge and passion are infectious, and soon we’re all pointing out wildlife, swapping photography tips, and sweating buckets – it’s hot in the bush. A few hours later, after a refreshing swim, we’re on the way to the restaurant when we’re attracted by an excited conversation on the beach between a young Australian couple and Juhun. “I was having a drink at the pool, when I saw something in the water – a python!” the tourist tells us. We’re then shown photos of a five foot long snake in the pool we’d only recently left.

Just like with the raw nature that surrounds us, Sabah seems to have struck the perfect balance in life – allowing development but promoting conservation, looking to the future while preserving the past. There’s truly nowhere else like it, this land below the wind.

Getting there
From Hong Kong, Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) has 10 direct flights weekly to Kota Kinabalu from $2,208 (inc taxes and surcharges). A taxi from the airport to town is a fixed price of RM30 ($71) and takes around 15-20 minutes, buy your voucher from the office marked ‘Airport Taxi’ in the middle of the Terminal 1 Arrivals hall then head to the taxi rank outside.

Where to stay
Located halfway between the airport and downtown Kota Kinabalu, the Sutera Harbour Resort (suteraharbour.com) is a huge, sprawling property, with two on site hotels (The Magellan Sutera Resort and The Pacific Sutera Hotel), a 27 hole golf course and a marina from where you can explore the surrounding islands, with rooms from $1,240 (inc taxes) per night. They also operate the North Borneo Railway, making transfers simple. The Gaya Island Resort (gayaislandresort.com) is made up of 120 luxury villas and suites are hidden located amid lush jungle, with rooms from $1,465 per night (inc taxes).

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