The Sabah Loop: Tawau Hills and Maliau Basin

November 13-15, 2018: After our Kinabatangan getaway, it was time to get back on the road again and continue our Sabah loop. Our next destination was Tawau, a little less than 300 kilometres away. First we had to cross the only bridge that spans the Kinabatangan River, upstream from Bilit.

For most of the rest of the drive, we found ourselves passing through palm oil plantations sweeping away from the road in all directions, including up and over every hill or small mountain that got in the way. It was a little disheartening to say the least.

After a short but unsuccessful detour into the town of Kunak to find a place for lunch, we ended up back at the main road and stopped at one of the roadside restaurants. The food here was pretty basic, but it was fresh and we were starving and maybe just a little hangry by this time. We wolfed our food.

Our next detour took us in to Lahad Datu on the lookout for an ATM. Finally, with money in our pockets once again, we continued on our way to the city of Tawau. It seemed a busy and not particularly attractive place, so we decided to drive a little ways out of town and see if we could get somewhere to stay at Tawau Hills National Park.

Tawau Hills Park is really out in the middle of nowhere. We drove through yet more palm oil plantations that continued right to the park’s entrance. Here we found a lot of park staff but very few visitors. The rain may have had something to do with it.

When we checked in, we decided to splurge on the Magdalena Chalet rather than spent the night in a basic room in the dorm. We toted our packs across a small footbridge in the rain and came to the charming villa, raised on stilts and set in a tropical garden. Inside it was huge, though rather spartan. There was a lounge, a big kitchen and enough beds to sleep at least a dozen. It was all ours.

It was already late afternoon so we had to hoof it up the trail to the World’s Tallest Tropical Tree. I guess this is where I should have donned my socs and runners, but we set off in our flip flops. The trail was muddy and slick and a lot longer than we expected. Finally, we made it to the tree and took a bunch of pictures in between inspections for leeches. We had to pick off quite a few.

In 2007, this tree, a Seraya Kuning Siput or Shorea faguetiana, was proclaimed the World’s Tallest Tropical Tree at 88.3m. We couldn’t see the top of it through the canopy overhead. A couple years ago, a new record holder was named in Maliau Basin at 89.5m, but since then 50 trees taller than 90m were found in nearby Danum Valley, including one topping out at 94.1m. But the Tawau Hill park rangers were happy to tell us that the latest record holder has once again been found inside their park. It stands nearly 95m but is about nine kilometers from the park entrance and no trails to it have been put in place; at least not yet. Slogging through that jungle without a trail would be quite a formidable challenge, especially in flip flops!

Wouldn’t you know it? Just after we started making our way back down the trail, one of my flip flops broke. It was getting close to dusk and we had a long way to go, through mud and leeches, over roots and rocky terrain. The solution? Chris wasn’t about to piggyback me down the hill, but he did give me one of his size 11 flip flops and we set off to get back before dark. I still had a hard time keeping up to him even if he was wearing only one shoe.

Back near the headquarters we found a water tap and rinsed off all the mud and flicked off all the leeches from our feet and legs. It’s a good thing there was a canteen at the headquarters because we didn’t bring any food with us and the nearest store was miles away. That’s where we had an early dinner of chicken and rice and a breakfast of eggs and rice.

We weren’t expecting much when we entered the park visitors’ centre the following morning, but the staff encouraged us not to miss it. Previously we checked out the visitors’ centre at Kinabalu National Park and had been quite disappointed to find it rather run down despite being located in Sabah’s flagship park. So we were pleasantly surprised at how nicely put together the Tawau Hills visitors’ centre turned out to be.

Soon we were back on the road again, continuing our Sabah Loop. This next leg was less than 200 kilometres to the Maliau Basin Conservation Area.

As we started climbing higher and higher in the interior of Sabah, we were surprised to see yet more palm oil plantations stretching along either side of the road. It wasn’t until we finally got close to Maliau Basin that the palms began to give way to spectacular native jungle and forest. Now this was more like it.

At the entrance gate to Maliau Basin, we enquired as to whether the park was open and if rooms were available. We hadn’t bothered booking ahead. Lucky for us, it wasn’t busy and after signing in, we were ushered through with a reminder to keep a look out for pygmy elephants which had recently been spotted along the drive in. We spotted a lot of evidence of ellies (i.e. piles of fresh dung on the road) but no animals.

At nearly 400 square kilometres, Maliau Basin is sometimes called Sabah’s lost world. It’s a huge bowl of relatively untouched forest. There are no roads inside the basin, and much of it has yet to be explored. It’s a giant water catchment that drains by just one river, the Maliau River, which eventually joins the Kinabatangan further downstream. The basin’s immense biodiversity and undeveloped state make it very popular with researchers and hikers alike. The basin is surrounded by a buffer zone and the entire area covers almost 600 square kilometres.

Maliau is probably best visited when it’s not in the middle of the rainy season, but here we were so we decided to make the best of it. That meant not hiking into the basin itself. Instead we booked ourselves into one of the fancier rooms; it was, after all, my birthday.

We were the only guests in the studies centre aside from one lone visiting researcher and a group of road contractors who were doing some surveying. Once again, there was way more staff than paying guests. We signed up for a night drive to spot nocturnal wildlife, stopped in for the lunch buffet, checked out the rather ugly (and big) wild boars roaming around the grounds, and then got back in the car for a drive through the park to see if we couldn’t find those elusive ellies.

As we retraced our route through the park, the first point of interest was an observation tower. There were great views of the surrounding area from the top, but it did seem to be swaying a bit in the breeze so we snapped a few pics and got ourselves out of there quick.

As we continued driving slowly through the park, we came across a couple more wild boars and then suddenly up ahead we spotted two elephants feeding in the grass next to the road. We slowed to a stop and then inched forward but the ellies lumbered into the heavy trees just beyond the roadside. We turned off the engine and waited. And waited. And waited some more. We could see the bushes moving, so we knew they were still close and I’m pretty sure that grass must have been pretty tasty because eventually the larger of the two elephants reemerged and resumed feeding. The smaller one stuck to the bushes.

I’d just been telling Chris that all I wanted for my birthday was a birthday ellie, so I was delighted to get my wish, especially after being so close to spotting them on the river the day before. We watched and took photos until a car drove by and chased them back into the bush, the big one trumpeting as she (or he?) took off.

When the rain started in earnest, we headed back to our room. It poured all afternoon and evening. It rained so hard that our night drive was cancelled. It rained all night. I guess that’s not unexpected during the rainy season in a rain forest.

After a massive buffet dinner and another buffet in the morning for breakfast, we decided to do the hike to the sky bridge, a series of canopy walks in the forest not far from the headquarters, during a break in the rain. This time, I donned my socs and trainers, but Chris insisted on sticking to flip flops. We crossed a footbridge and started up the trail. The leeches were everywhere. The first of the sky bridges was damaged and after that the trail deteriorated to the point where we decided to turn around. I guess trail maintenance is saved for after the rainy season.

It was time to get back on the road and complete our Sabah loop back to the west coast. We had to be back in Kota Kinabalu today to pick up Nukaat from the cat hotel and return the car to Avis the following morning. After leaving Maliau it seemed massively out of place to see dozens of huge trucks transporting large freshly cut trees along the winding mountain roads.


As we drove around Sabah during the month we had our rental car, we kept running across road signs that said AWAS, AWAS! or simply !

Awas is Malay for “be careful” or “beware.” It’s used for everything from washout, rough road, sharp curve, road work, steep grade, intersection, slow moving farm vehicles crossing, roundabout, school zone, and any number of other hazardous situations. As all the road signs are in Malay, awas and speed limits were about the only ones we actually understood.



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