Although we love Malaysia and have travelled to peninsular Malaysia many times, we found ourselves short on time when planning a trip to Sabah, Borneo. After seeking some advice on how best to use our time and consulting those we knew who had spent more time there, we soon found ourselves spending five days diving around Sipidan Island and then climbing to the highest peak, Mt Kinabalu. It was a ten day trip in all, but each day was action-packed as any trip to Borneo - long or short - can easily be.
First we flew to Tawau, just about an hour from Semporna, which is the main access point for Sipidan Island and other nearby dive sites. Diving is the main activity here so if you haven’t tried it before, now is your chance. There are a few dive schools in town offering dive trips both from Semporna and the nearby islands of Mabul or Kapalai, where you can stay overnight or longer as part of your adventure. If you wish to dive on Sipidan Island, you need to stay on one of the resort islands; permits are only given out to those guests staying at a resort on one of these islands.
We stayed at Mabul and did some lovely dives on the house reef and nearby. The area is shared with locals and illegal Filipino immigrants who unfortunately still engage in dynamite fishing, extensively damaging many reefs. I was shocked to hear dynamite going off in the distance while I was underwater during a dive. Though we still saw some amazing fish, I couldn’t help but wonder how many fish used to live in the area and how much longer the ones I saw would be there. Upon surfacing after the dive, we all kind of shrugged and sort of accepted that it was their livelihood, but really hoped the Malaysian government is working towards improving education and conditions for the locals so they aren’t driven to such extreme measures to earn a living. With inflated prices and special tourist taxes, there is money coming into the area so hopefully this will get channelled back to the locals.
The negatives aside, this is a very special part of the world and loads of divers flock here annually to dive the spectacular Sipidan Island. This is an underwater extinct volcano, which creates a coral wall that plummets hundreds of meters down to the ocean floor. Small fish feed on corals attracting the bigger fish that feed on them and the bigger fish attract the sharks and they always which attract the divers! It's very difficult to find the words to describe just how spectacular this is, to do it justice; I can only say that I went from someone who thought diving was an ok way to spend a day or two while on holiday, to someone who now wants to live underwater and relive that experience again and again. It was a full surround, real life 3D movie experience starring turtles, barracuda, reef sharks, sting rays and more species of fish than can be named just going about their daily business while I floated by. Luckily, Sipidan Island is protected so this will remain a dynamite free haven for fish.
After dragging ourselves back to the surface and onto land, it was time to move on. From Semporna we took a bus in the direction of Kota Kinabalu, but jumped off early at Mt. Kinabalu National Park. This is a long trip and by the time we arrived in the afternoon it was pouring with rain. Transport in this area is difficult. The bus dropped us at the park entrance but after realising that staying there was exorbitantly expensive, we decided to hit the road walking to look for a cheaper place to rest our heads. There are guesthouses along the main road, but they are quite spread out over a number of kilometres, though we luckily found one soon enough and checked into our 'room with a view'...or so we thought. Because of the clouds we couldn’t see Mt. Kinabalu, but hoped it would greet us the next morning; however, upon throwing the curtains back the following day, the same cloudy view greeted us and we started to doubt if there was really a mountain there at all. We had a day to kill as we had pre-booked our climb up the mountain - most advisable as they only allow a certain number of climbers per day - so we decided to visit the park and take a look at the botanical garden. We joined a guided tour and learned many things about the plants in the area. For example, it is one of the most bio-diverse areas in the world and a top place to see many unique plants such as fly-eating pitcher plants.
Finally we were ready for our ascent up Mt. Kinabalu to a peak of 4,095m. The day we had booked turned out to be gloriously sunny in the morning so we could finally see what we were attempting to climb: an awe-inspiring mountain with a jagged peak that's very distinct when seen from afar. It’s compulsory to take a guide with you, though our guide didn’t speak much English or really try to tell us anything, even when we asked questions. In fact, he didn’t even really walk with us for most of the way. This is normal apparently so I considered my payment as a donation to the local economy rather than paying for a service. The path is easy to follow and if you go at your own pace most healthy people should be able to make it, but it is tough! Most of the altitude is covered in the first day and you get to rest at a hut at 3272m. They provide very good food and plenty of it because they know you need your energy. It is the secondday that is the real experience. Most climbers wake up at around 1:00 or 2:00 am and they are very noisy so even if you planned to leave later, you’ll be awake! A very early breakfast is provided before hikers head out with their head lamps shining brightly. At one point there are ropes to guide you up the steep granite rock. Eventually the steep climb flattens out and you find yourself on a large granite table-top. As the sun rises you approach the peak and try and find a piece of rock to perch on for that perfect sunrise photo. It is very windy up there and freezing cold, but the views are more worth it. Because of the cold, nobody stays up the top very long and a second breakfast is served in the hut when you get back, and it is very satisfying after such a strenuous work-out. However, it’s still a long way down and this is when most climbers really start to feel the pain in their legs so don’t expect it to be easy. By the time I reached the bottom I was tired, sweaty, dirty and never wanted to climb up anything ever again!
Our final days were spent in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. I found it to be a nice little town with some nice restaurants and cheap shopping centres. Surprisingly, there are also a handful of islands just off the coast that are easily reached by ferry with some good snorkelling and perfect for relaxing on the beach. It was a good way to end our short but amazing trip to Sabah’s highlights.
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Megan Morlok tries to make travelling a part of life. She has lived in six different countries and hopes her job as an English teacher will take her on one long working holiday around the world. As a nature lover she tries to find natural beauty wherever she goes, but also enjoys experiencing the local culture of the people.
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