October 15-31, 2018: Up to this point, we hadn’t really seen too much of Sabah, aside from in an around Kota Kinabalu, places we could easily reach by calling a Grab car. To go further afield, we decided to rent a car. After shopping around, we got a good rate from Avis on a compact Honda City for a month. It was great to have wheels again, but we had to remember not to drive on the right side of the road. Here, the cars are right-hand drive, and they drive on the left. That took a little getting used to.
When we picked up the car at the airport, we had a good laugh about the sign posted in the window: No Dogs, No Smoking, No Durian. Our first destination was up in the hills outside KK for an early dinner at Kasih Sayang for views of Mount Kinabalu to the east and the coastline far below us in the west.
The road taking us to Kasih Sayang was a little rough until we reached the ridge road. Not far from our destination, we heard a new whumping noise coming from the car. Uh oh. Chris pulled off to the side of the mostly deserted road and, sure enough, we had a flat tire. After a hunt through the boot and the interior, we located the spare, the jack and the tools to remove the lugs. Chris had the tire changed in no time and we were soon enjoying an ice cold bevy overlooking the views.
That evening back en route to KK, we called Avis and they met us at the marina with a loaner car while they took the Honda in for repair. They’d bring it back the next day. In the meantime, our loaner was a brand new Mitsubishi Pajero four by four. It was so nice, that we decided to keep it. It seemed like a more practical choice for exploring around Sabah.
The car came in really handy for trips to the shops, picking up our batteries at customs, taking our propane bottle in to be filled and running around town to locate supplies for the boat, like the five gallon pail of coolant from the Cummins dealer and refrigerant for our air conditioners and fridges.
On one of our trips downtown, we learned the hard way that all of the parking is pay parking, even though there are no parking meters or signs. We came back to find a ticket under the wiper. When I went to the ticket office to pay, they forgave the ticket, sold me a couple books of parking coupons instead and explained to me how the parking rules worked.
Aside from trips in town, the Pajero also got us out of the city. Every few days we’d pick a new spot on the map and go for a day trip to check it out.
Crocker National Park and Tenom
Our first day trip took us south along the coast, up and over the mountains of the Crocker Range to the interior and south again through the first of oh so many palm oil plantations to the town of Tenom.
Traditionally, Tenom is a coffee growing region. After a stop for lunch and iced coffees, we wandered through town before driving up alongside a muddy river to a waterfall further upstream. That detour turned out to be a bust as the road was gated at a power plant part of the way there. We turned around and retraced our route through the palm oil plantations, then took a different road up and over the Crocker Range.
All these mountain roads are narrow and winding with few passing lanes, meaning we spent a lot of time tucked in behind slow moving oil tankers or transport trucks waiting for a straight stretch to pass.
Up near the summit, we came across a few road side stands selling freshly grown vegetables. We picked one at random and found a little lady selling a wide range of just picked fresh lettuces, mushrooms, herbs and assorted greens, plus eggplants, cucumbers and green beans. Her plot was perched on a narrow strip of land next to the road, near a sheer drop off overlooking the valley below. It was much cooler up here. We were well about 1,500 metres and the vegetables obviously grew well in the cool mountain air. The mushrooms grew in mushroom houses that lined the narrow mountain road. I ended up buying two big bags full of produce from her and paid a grand total of 21 ringgat. That’s about $7 Canadian.
For our next trip, we decided to go find Mount Kinabalu. This time, we went up the road we came down the other day, stopped to check out a wooden foot bridge across the river that we’d spotted previously, stopped again at our favourite vegetable stand and stopped at yet another roadside market, this time where local tribal members were selling produce and crafts from a number of small stalls. We bought a jar of a locally-made concoction that I’m pretty sure included ginger and chilis, which the area is known for, but I couldn’t be totally sure, as the lady didn’t speak any English.
From Tambunan, we headed north towards Mount Kinabalu. As the road wound through valleys and around hills, every once in a while we’d get a glimpse of Kinabalu towering over the Crocker Range. By mid-day the mountain was shrouded in a veil of clouds and we’d reached Ranau, the home of Sabah Tea. Tea is another crop grown in the highlands of Sabah.
We looked around town for a place to eat but in the end we decided to try a place up near the entrance to Mount Kinabalu Park. At Station 89, we found the menu written on a chalk board. We tried deep fried local mushrooms, stir fried vegetables and a stew made from wild boar. It’s a popular stop with the offroad crowd and groups of motorbikers.
We returned to KK by yet another route through the Crocker Range.
Tip of Borneo and Kudat
On yet another day, we headed north to the Tip of Borneo. We were glad to be driving out of KK in the morning and not heading in. The traffic going in the other direction was backed up for miles. Once we got over the coastal mountain range, we found ourselves back in palm oil plantation territory. They can stretch for miles.
We arrived at the Tip of Borneo early. There was only a couple of cars in the parking lot. It’s about a five minute walk from the car park out to the tip of this peninsula of land that juts north into the sea. On one side, to the west, is the South China Sea. To the east, is the Sulu Sea. We passed the warning sign and climbed down to the rocks below, where locals were fishing and a few intrepid tourists were taking selfies. By the time we returned to our car, the hoards were arriving in family groups and tour groups.
We followed the road south a bit to check out the beaches along the coast and go for a beach walk. There wasn’t much development going on here, but there was the usual amount of plastic washed up onto the beaches.
From here, we drove to the town of Kudat to check out the small marina and boat yard that are located here. There wasn’t much going on at the marina, and most of the work at the boatyard was happening on fishing boats, but we did spot two boats on the hard here that we’d met previously in the Philippines (Grey and Nomada). The owners were away.
It was getting to be time for lunch, but nothing we found in Kudat was grabbing our attention, so we drove back to the west coast, south of the Tip of Borneo, to a small place called Secret Place Cafe, run by Roby and his family, who have owned this stretch of beachfront for decades. The food, by the way, was excellent. Garlic prawns, vegetables and rice. Plus they had cold beer. What more could we ask for?
Too soon, it was time to make our way back to KK.
For our next pick, we chose Menumbok. This is the southernmost town on the west coast of Sabah and it’s where you can catch a ferry to Labuan. It’s not really a tourist town, but we stumbled into a busy Sunday street market (we drove right through the crowds) on our way to the coast. We weren’t able to drive further due to the crowds, so we missed out on the views over Labuan. Instead, a policewoman who didn’t speak any English, directed us to turn left to head back towards the ferry terminal.
Near the terminal we found a small restaurant that served the most excellent butter prawns with egg floss. It’s a very unique regional dish; not at all what I was expecting. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip on this day. Check out how they make it here.
On our way back to KK, we detoured to Beaufort to check out the town, which has a remarkable number of old wooden buildings still standing and in use, despite their rather dilapidated look and precarious leaning. It’s also the place where you can catch an old steam train that travels inland through the Crocker Range to Tenon. Maybe next time.
The centres of many of the roundabouts in small towns around the region had been transformed into sculptures which told us a little something about what the town is known for. It was coffee beans in Tenom, orchids in Keningau, gingerroot in Tambunan, a pot of tea in Ranau, prawns in Kudat, turtles in Kuala Penyu and a huge Kadazan Siga (headgear worn by Kadazan males) in Donggongon. Along the way, we spotted many others, but we were usually travelling at speeds too fast to take any descent photos out the window. There were fruit, fish, a variety of other indigenous cultural items and some things we just couldn’t identify.
In our next post, we get some visitors from Subic Bay.