July 31, 2011

MALAYSIA: Eight senior citizens cover 5,634 km in 21-day adventure

BORNEO / The Sunday Post / Adventure / July 31, 2011

Senior citizens on Borneo expedition
By Wong Hin San, Wong Tuck

How many of you have driven the whole of Sarawak, Brunei, Labuan and Sabah?

A group of eight of us from West Malaysia and Kuching began a Borneo expedition from Kuching, taking in most of Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah in 21 days over a distance of 5,634km.

We covered the northern-most tip of Borneo at Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, Kudat, Sabah, as well as the southern-most tip at Matang, Sarawak. Our team of senior citizens, all past their 60’s, survived the bumpy journey with no mishaps and none the worse for wear and tear.

It all started when a friend and relative in Kuching suggested we make an overland trip through the whole of Borneo. Eager for adventure, we welcomed the idea.

The day finally came when we set foot in the Land of Hornbill – the first time for some of us – and were met on arrival at Kuching International Airport by our soon-to-be driver-cum-expedition leader.

That night in the state capital, we were treated to a scrumptious dinner of local seafood. We also had midin, a local crispy and delicious fern. For breakfast the next day, we had kolo mee and Sarawak laksa. A city tour was arranged for those in the group who have been to Kuching before.

Not to be missed are the cat statues, the Kuching Waterfront, the Sarawak Museum and a whole row of souvenir shops along Main Bazaar. The Chinese Museum is also a must-visit – well-equipped, informative and organised.

We met at our expedition leader-cum-driver’s house the next morning before embarking on the expedition. We loaded our luggage into his 8-seater MPV vehicle and were told to sit back and enjoy the sights.

The first town we passed through was Serian which has a huge durian emblem at the roundabout. This must be the right place to hunt for the irresistible King of Fruits!

We stopped for tea at Sungai Tenggang, a one-street town. After bypassing Pantu, we stopped at Lachau. There is a tamu here selling local items such as titbits, local rice and barley and handicrafts. The people here are mostly Ibans and the local Chinese are fluent in the Iban language. Our cameras clicked away at the array of goods on display.

The next town we passed was Sri Aman, situated away from the trunk road. There were other smaller towns along the route such as like Engkilili, Lubok Antu and Betong.

We had lunch at Sarikei, a predominantly-Foochow town in the Sixth Division, and famous for its sweet pineapples. Towards the central part of Sarawak is Sibu where we stayed the night. We went to stretch our legs at Bukit Aup, a recreation park before visiting the night market. After dinner, we called it a day and rested our weary limbs at a budget hotel.

Early start: On the second day, we were up and about before dawn and looking forward to our next destination – Mukah, a coastal town about three and a half hours by road from Sibu and populated mainly by the Melanaus. Melanaus of Mukah. Photo courtesy: Azgforever Blog

The road to Mukah was in terrible shape, not tarred and full of potholes. Mukah is the place for sago and all sago-based products like tebaloi, a type of thin cracker made from sago flour. We also tried umai, a Melanau delicacy. It is what Sashimi is to the Japanese.

We spent the night in Bintulu, famous for its belacan and cincaluk. Being the main producer of LNG, Bintulu is developing at a tremendous pace.

Travelling north, we arrived in Miri, the second largest city in Sarawak with a population of over 260,000. Petroleum remains the major industry here. The expedition would not be complete without a visit to Canada Hill, site of the about 30m high Grand Old Lady, Malaysia’s first inland oil-drilling platform and one of Sarawak’s most important historical monuments. The petroleum museum is also worth a visit.

The Grand Old Lady is the first oil well in Malaysia and situated at Canada Hill, Miri.

Irony: We spent a few nights in Miri before proceeding to Limbang. The irony was that we had to pass through another country – Brunei – to get there. There is a new Malaysian custom and immigration complex at Pandaruan in Limbang which provides drive-through services.

Pandaruan is on Malaysia side and Puni on Brunei side. Both towns – or villages rather – are separated by the very narrow Batang Pandaruan connected by a ferry service. In one day, we had our passports stamped four times. After all the hassles at the immigration and customs departments, it was already dark and we managed to spend only a short time in Limbang (for the night). We continued our journey the next day, passing through towns like Lawas, Sipitang and Beaufort before reaching Kota Kinabalu.

Land below the wind: Kota Kinabalu with a population of over 600,000, is the capital of Sabah. And Sabah or ‘The Land below the Wind’ with a population of 3.1 million as of 2010, is the third most populated state in Malaysia after Selangor and Johor.

There are over 30 different indigenious groups, including Kadazan, Dusun, Rungus, Murut, Sungat and Lundayeh, in Sabah. The indigenous population makes up about 60 per cent of the population. The Kadazan Dusun, the most dominant ethnic group, are found in western, northern and central Sabah. The Rungus re-side in the northern part while the Muruts in the southwest interior.

A traditional Rungus Longhouse in Sabah is worth a visit.

Apart from the beautiful beaches, we found the Philippines Market to be the main attraction in Kota Kinabalu. There are many stalls and it’s safe to say what-ever you wish to eat or buy is probably available here.

Before heading to Kudat, we made a stop at the foot of Mount Kinabalu, two hours’ drive from Kota Kinabalu. Conquering this awesome mountain was out of the question for our group. But we enjoyed travelling the winding route through hush countryside dotted with traditional village houses against a backdrop that is unforgettably scenic.

Towards Kudat, we chanced upon a beautiful Rungus longhouse along the way and stopped to observe the culture of the indigenous tribe. We also had the rare opportunity to view Simpang Mengayau or The Tip of Borneo. It was a sight to behold! The scenery was simply breath-taking.

Kampung Simpang Mengayau, the tip of Borneo. Photo courtesy: Staronline

To quench our thirst, we stopped at a nearby eatery managed by a European, Howard Stanton. On request, he asked his local staff, Lorraine, a sweet local Sabahan lady, to sing the very popular ‘Jambatan Tamparuli’ with the others, including Stanton, dancing the Sumazau in unison.

From Kudat, we proceeded southeast to Sandakan, some 500km away. Sandakan – known as ‘little Hong Kong’ – is Sabah’s second largest town. Seafood here is aplenty and relatively cheap and fresh. The main local tourist attraction is the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary and the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.

After a good rest of two days in Sandakan, we continued our expedition to Lahad Datu, Kunak, Semporna and finally Tawau at the southern tip of Sabah.

Real adventure: From Tawau, the real adventure started. The road to Keningau was horrendous. The unsealed road was very bumpy and partly muddy due to the rainy weather. We were held up at one area because a heavy logs-laden lorry could not make it up the muddy slope and had to be towed by an excavator. The steel cable tied to the lorry snapped mid-way and the vehicle simply slipped down the slope. It was a frightening sight as the slope is flanked by ravines.

After the lorry was safely pulled up by the excavator, it was our turn to drive through. It seemed an impossible task. With silent prayers in our hearts, we sat tight and watched our daring and skilful leader manoeuvre the MPV along. With one acceleration, we were through. Our driver got a thunderous applause.

Truly, it was a nerve-racking experience. We were lucky, according to the locals who frequently had to camp by the roadside, or sleep in the car that got bogged down. After the ordeal, everyone of us had a good night sleep in Keningau, a hillside town.

Off to Labuan: The next morning, after giving our MPV a thorough clean up, we set off to our next destination – Labuan, comprising one triangle-shaped island and six smaller ones and proclaimed a federal territory of Malaysia in 1984. Labuan, covering an area of 95 sq km, is a duty-free port.

Arriving at the jetty to take the ferry to the island, we were dismayed to find that it was already full. It looked like we had to wait for the next ferry later that night.

We were about to leave the counter when, out of the blue, appeared the ferry owner who happened to be an acquaintance of our leader. Seeing our forlorn faces, he got us ‘emergency tickets’ – and that instantaneously lifted our spirits.

We visited a few prominent tourist attractions in Labuan, such as The Chimney, the Marine Museum, the Bird’s Park and the Financial Park.

The Chimney is an artefact from Labuan’s coal mining era (1847-1912). It is believed built when Labuan was used as a coaling station for ships.

The Financial Park, on the other hand, is a shopping paradise where duty-free shops are located. Liquors and chocolates are fairly cheap here. We had a fabulous seafood feast that night – courtesy of our leader’s sister and her husband.

Back to Sarawak:  It was time to return to Sarawak. Again we had to pass through Brunei and put up with tedious immigration procedures to reach Miri. After a night in Miri, we went to explore Niah Caves at Batu Niah. Photo courtesy: mundo-trotteur.net

Though it is not an extensive cave system compared to others in Sarawak, we were amazed that the cave is a pre-historical site where human remains dating to 40,000 years have been found. It is the oldest recorded human settlement in East Malaysia.

The long haul from Miri to Kuching is about 800km – so we had a few rest stops along the way.

As we had covered some of the towns before reaching Sabah earlier, we proceeded straight to Betong and stayed a night there. Betong is a small town but has major government offices to administer the newest Division of Sarawak.

To complete our journey, we were taken to the Matang Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, about 40 minutes’ drive from Kuching. There are so many animals here – orang utans, sun bears, bear cats, civet cats, sambar deer, barking deer, porcupines and crocodiles, as well as a large variety of birds such as the must-see hornbills and sea eagles.

All of these animals can be viewed in spacious natural enclosures and large aviary houses. Although short, the excursion gave us the opportunity to snap a few final photographs of the orang utans – we missed the feeding time of the primates in Sepilok, Sabah.

After that, we drove to Lundu for lunch and continued to Sematan, a seaside town, and then headed back to Kuching with a stop at Bau.

Twenty-one days of some bumpy and unpleasant rides through potholed and partial gravelled roads, hilly terrain, bright sunshine and heavy rain made the expedition memorable. But meeting extremely friendly people and experiencing the multi-racial cultures of Sarawak and Sabah during the journey gave the expedition a priceless tag.

Sarawak Cultural Village is tucked away on the foothills of Mount Santubong at Damai Beach, 35 km north from Kuching. It is also known as a living museum.

Our most heartfelt appreciation to the expedition leader, a strong-willed person and a very experienced driver who took 21 days of driving in his stride – at least four hours a day, once covering a gruelling 500km in seven hours with no petrol stations in between but only a restaurant for rest in the middle of nowhere.

Different races of Sarawak. (mylot.com)

We hope our experience will encourage people to discover Sarawak, Brunei, Labuan and Sabah. If we senior citizens can do it, surely can everyone else!

East Malaysia has so much to offer – adventure, culture, food, history, people and shopping. It was a truly memorable and incredible journey for us.

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