Sabah – North Borneo

Mt Kinabalu



Mt Kinabalu from the sea on a very clear day - en route Kota Kinabalu from the tip of Borneo.

Before I begin, a bit of clarification.....The island of Borneo contains parts of three separate countries: in the south, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, in the north, the two Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, and squashed between them, the whole of the country of Brunei.

Until just before World War 2, Sabah was owned and managed by the British North Borneo Chartered Company and was known on world maps as North Borneo. The capital was Sandakan on the east coast.

Among other horrors, the invasion of Borneo by the Japanese during the second world war resulted in Sandakan being totally destroyed – by Allied bombing.

Kota Kinabalu (previously known as Jesselton) located on the west coast was made the new capital some time after the war. North Borneo was handed over to Malaysia in the 1960’s and became known as Sabah.

19 January 2008 – Nearly Chinese New Year

I can’t believe it. Apart from a 6 week cruise to the east coast of Borneo and a couple of trips to Thailand and China, we’ve spent almost 6 months doing what we profess to be anathema to real overseas cruising – staying in a marina.......“In a marina you are surrounded by other boaties who are all westerners. You can stay at home and do that. Marinas are for using power and water to get work done. Get in and get out as quickly as possible.” Yeah yeah...And all that..

But Sutera Harbour is another story. We’re not the only ones who came for a week and stayed much longer – the place is littered with them. It’s partly because it is one of only two marinas in a land with a coastline that’s inhospitable when the weather is unpredictable. But it’s mainly because it’s got to be the best marina in the world. Apart from its facilities, which are jawdropping (4 pools, including full size olympic; gym; bowling alley; squash and tennis courts; cinema; library, hourly a/c bus to town etc), its setting in a beautiful resort means that there are gardens, fairy lights, entertainment and fantastic service too. The pool attendants give us towels, the security men open the gates, the garbage on the dock is collected twice a day, our laundry is handled by the hotel laundry service etc. And everyone is so friendly. At a bit over $AU130 a week, you bet it’s seductive.

Sutera marina

Sutera Harbour marina clubhouse, promenade, view of the marina from Pacific Sutera resort.

We’ve been able to experience yet a different slice of South East Asian life – the expats. Through a friend we’ve met quite a few retirees to Sabah, who are getting the most out of life, with beautiful apartments and houses and low cost of living under the Malaysia My Second Home program. Under MM2H (anything worth its salt gets acronymised here in Malaysia) over-fifties can enjoy 10 year multiple entry visas, tax free import of cars and household goods, purchase of two properties, tax free income from overseas – for the price of a RM150,000 deposit placed into a term account, of which RM 60,000 has to stay there. (And you can bring your Indonesian maid with you too!) A very tempting deal.

In many parts of Malaysia – and Kota Kinabalu is no exception – a cosmopolitan lifestyle with western conveniences is at your fingertips, but at a fraction of the cost of living in Australia or Britain or the US. Baby boomers with little super are already taking note. I reckon Malaysia is to baby boomers now what Spain was to British retirees 25 years ago. Definitely worth considering. Here’s a link to a site that explains it clearly:

Our “Log”

So, what have I got to report for the last 6 months?...

When I last updated the website we were in Brunei waiting for Tim to join us after three weeks playing in Thailand. In the trip from here up to Kota Kinabalu he would get his first experience of being in a Muslim country as well as the joys of checking in and out of countries by boat.

We’ve found that, when we have visitors, it is a big advantage to know the place we’re bringing them to, so we can show them the highlights and things that would appeal to them. In this case, everything after Brunei (where we had had a week’s experience) was an unknown. The weather was squally and overcast, so places that would normally glow, were not their sparkling selves.

28 July 2007

We left Brunei for the 15nm trip to Labuan Island, where we were able to check into Malaysia and, as Labuan is duty free, stock up on wine, beer and spirits. (Grog of any sort is expensive in Muslim Malaysia but the Malaysian government has thoughtfully catered to cruising yachts by creating duty free ports at Langkawi, Tioman and Labuan islands, conveniently spaced along popular cruising routes.)

Also by checking into Malaysia here instead of Kota Kinabalu, we were able to avoid the 50km trip by taxi or public transport out to the KK port to visit the harbourmaster, immigration and customs.

That afternoon we hightailed it with a knot or so of current to Pulau Tiga, dodging squalls and anchoring on the east side to avoid NW swell. Our anchorage, by a glowing sandspit, could have been a postcard, so lagoon green and clear was the water.

Tiga island is famous as the place they made the first series of reality TV show, “Survivor” and for its cold volcanic mud pools – that intrigued us. We managed to find them by following a rough track, climbing steep banks and fording streams as we went. (It turned out this was the adventurous course – had we gone in the other direction we would have found a resort and boardwalks.)

Sitting in the mud pools was a strange sensation. The mud is so stiff and you are so buoyant you can sit up in a “chair” position almost above the “water”line. Around you, at long intervals, the mud burps and farts slowly and quietly.

Mud poolDefinitely wierd!

Apart from rain puddles if you are lucky, there is nowhere to rinse off when you emerge, so everyone takes the track through the jungle to the beach in front of the resort. There is definitely something very satisfying in emerging from the trees covered in (now crisp) grey mud, walking past elegantly attired, dining resort patrons and plunging into clear warm sea water to wash off.

Three girls covered in mud

30 July 2007

Our attempts to anchor around the coral islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman marine national park came to nought as we dodged forming and unforming squalls and storms, though we did get to know Police Bay and the southern harbour at Gaya Island.

All of these islands are less than 5nm off Kota Kinabalu city waterfront. Actually KK harbour is very unusual, being quite open-mouthed and getting protection from these islands. It is also full of coral reefs!! The buoyed channel takes you within a few metres of them, pale green in the clear harbour water.

1 August 2007

Sutera Harbour Marina and Country Club seems to be famous among cruisers on the SE Asian route. But even having heard about the fantastic facilities, resorts etc, we weren't ready for the pampering.

The marina at Sutera exists for one purpose only – to form a backdrop for tourists’ photos! Our basin is surrounded on three sides by the resorts and our boats are probably more photographed than Elle McPherson. Because they don’t want boaties spoiling the view with washing draped over their boats the management offers inexpensive hotel laundry.

21 September 2007 - The East Coast of Sabah

For the past four days we have been on jungle safari in the Kinabatangan River. It seems like a week. It’s hot and humid in the middle of the day but gets down to a cool 26-27 during the night. But we have finally found Borneo’s jungle and wildlife – close up. Anchored 10-30m from the bank, we have seen proboscis monkeys, macaque monkeys, fireflies, a 3-4 m crocodile, several sorts of herons and lots of hornbills – including a rhinoscerus hornbill. Incredibly, for most of the 45 navigable miles we’ve had the river almost to ourselves. The most isolation we’ve had since we arrived in SE Asia.

Lifeline Hide Proboscis monkey

One night we anchored in a deserted stretch of river near three tall trees containing three families of proboscis monkeys – about 50 of them. We were close enough that we could see old dad’s long nose and pot belly hanging over his cream “jocks”. His thick furry back with dark brown stripe along his spine and his white tail hanging vertical from his branch. And lots of mums and babies with their funny turned up noses. At first light we were woken by crashing. Just in time to see them leave, every monkey free falling 20 or 30 feet, before grabbing a branch mid flight and scampering off.

Now we are in Sukau – a village that would be lucky to have a population of a few hundred people – right in the middle of Ramadan. The mosque is on loudspeakers, and last night the local kids were celebrating breaking the day’s fast by shooting off pipe guns. (amazingly this doesn’t seem to have upset the monkeys who decided to camp in the trees next door.) So we fell asleep to the combined sounds of Friday Ramadan chanting/ proboscis monkey snarls and grunts, interspersed with mortar fire and explosions.

Borneo elephant in waterBorneo elephants

But the highlight of our Kinabatangan trip has got to be having seen a herd of wild Borneo pygmy elephants. It was pure luck that we did – on a tip off from Zainal, the local honorary wildlife officer in Sukau. We later discovered that Zainal is a gem – a very talented wildlife guide (among other skills) renowned among photographers, artists and researchers on the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain. Have a look at his website:

Navigation and Security in the Sulu Sea

To get to the Kinabatangan, we had to leave Sandakan harbour, travel 40nm south to the mouth of the river and cross shallows that got down to 2m for three nautical miles out to sea. Luckily at his time of the year (southwest monsoon) it’s nothing like the NSW or Queensland coasts . No swell. In fact, since we came from Kota Kinabalu around the northern tip of Borneo to the east coast, the Sulu Sea has been benign. (NOTE: 20 January 2008 - Northeast monsoon - plenty of onshore chop. Not a good time to cross the Kinabatangan bar.)

The Malaysian authorities seem very concerned about the area, though. The coastal waters here are scattered with islands and mouth watering reefs. (Unfortunately when we came down the coast it was overcast and we had not a chance of safely navigating through them. The charts are “fairly” accurate – but not enough to embark on reef cruising without visibility.) A beaconed shipping channel weaves through them. We mostly followed the shipping channel but did cut the corners a bit (before we came across an uncharted bommie and realised the charts weren’t 100%).

One evening we discussed which island to anchor at. They all looked pretty – white sand and jungle and all that, but we eventually settled on one of the Turtle Islands that appeared to have better depths for anchoring, Silingaan Island.

Silingaan has a turtle hatchery where, every night, dozens of turtles drag themselves up the beach to lay eggs. These are collected and buried in a protected area until the hatchlings emerge, when they are collected and released – at night – to give them the best chance of survival against predators.

We’d not been anchored there too long when we had a visit from the police stationed there. Would we please move to the other side of the island. Now, as these things always happen just before dark and, in this case, as there was a humungous storm approaching from which we were sheltered in our present position and as there was reef to maneuvre around, we weren’t all that keen to re-anchor. Their reason....the islands just 1nm over there (where we had contemplated anchoring) were the Philippines. We’ve since heard that, in the early 2000s some tourists were kidnapped from one of them.

Silingaan squall Silingaan squall - all show and no go....luckily.

Some of our friends actually did accidentally anchor in the Philippines. (Unfortunately there’s no little red line on sea charts showing borders between countries.) They knew they weren’t in Malaysia the next morning when they were approached by people paddling tiny bangkas and wanting to trade.

The most beautiful anchorages we found were Langkayan Island and Bilean Island in the SUGUD Islands marine conservation area (SIMCA). This is an interesting concept in conservation - a company called Reef Guardian has been set up jointly by a private company and Sabah Wildlife Department. Reef Guardian is then responsible for patrolling, educating, promoting etc to try to preserve the area. The private company has a beautiful resort on one of the islands, so is very motivated to keep the coral and surrounding seas in good condition. Just as well, because it seems Sabah Wildlife Department isn't.

Langkayan Is Turtle Hatchling

Langkayan Island resort. This little guy hatched a few days after his mates had been released. He had to run the gauntlet of predators all on his own.

Breaking fast at Bilean Bilean Island was occupied by a platoon of soldiers there to watch for marauding Philippinos. The Lieutenant in charge invited us to break the Ramadan fast with them. Under palm trees and with sand between our toes we could have been in the officers' mess as the lieutenent snapped his fingers and young soldiers jumped to attention to serve us. If you look closely you might see the coiled razor wire between us and the beach.

Bilean Island Bilean Island again. See the coral and the bunker...

4 October 2007

For the first time in our lives we have been trailblazers and found a new (to yachties) route into the Kinabatangan, saving about 50nm. Following some advice from Zainal and from Philip’s observation of tugs exiting the Kinabatangan using another rivermouth, we took a shortcut out of the river via a different tributary. And, for once, we managed to save it properly as an overlay on our electronic nav software. This sort of information is invaluable for sharing among other cruisers, who are hyperactive emailers of waypoints, tips, contacts etc.

Kinabatangan river track

We have found the electronic charts of Malaysia are generally good, and there are many paper charts available. Maybe because of the economic importance of Borneo to Britain in earlier times and strategic importance to the Americans during the war. There are also Malaysian charts available but we haven’t found a source in Sabah. The Kinabatangan, however, has only a few soundings at the mouth before becoming just a winding blue line. (Before our "trailblazing", we had been using a few waypoints from previous yachties to get into the river and find our way up the right tributaries. After a few miles we turned off the electronic chart’s blue line of river, and our red electronic track started snaking its way across “land”.) According to our saved track we wound around 20nm of hairpin bends where there's no river to be seen.


Sandakan was the original capital of North Borneo, when it was owned and run by the British North Borneo Chartered Company.

After being overrun by the Japanese during World War 2, it was the site for a prisoner of war camp, the starting place for the Sandakan Death Marches. In 1945, ALTHOUGH THE WAR WAS OVER, the Japanese marched starved and emaciated Australian and British POWs from Sandakan to Ranau through jungle and over the Crocker Mountain Range. The march was over 200 kms.

Only 6 men survived – those who had escaped.

Though a rescue attempt had been planned by the Allies before the marches started, it was badly bungled and the deaths at Sandakan and on the marches became the subject of a long term coverup by the Australian authorities. A detailed yet gripping book about the marches and the authorities' reaction is "Sandakan - A Conspiracy of Silence" by Lynette Ramsay Silver.

Today, a very beautiful memorial park on the site of the camp marks its location among the suburbs of Sandakan.

Memorial park

Sandakan was totally destroyed by Allied bombing and now its beautiful harbour is fronted by a city of seedy concrete boxes all built at once, pretty much all the same, all run down, bereft of trees. The strange Malaysian passion for private land reclamation has seen the city’s waterfront get wider but only to be filled in with new buildings.

Sandakan street

And yet Sandakan has a “real” feel to it – not a touristic bone in its body. It bustles. Like we’ve found everywhere in Malaysia, the people are wonderfully friendly. And, of course, we can’t complain about the food....Sandakan is blessed with a couple of Indian places with especially delicious finger food.

Ramadan was in August/September this year so it was happening while we were in Sandakan. Lots of the shops were closed during the day or opened late. And when restaurants are deserted you feel mean and on show if you eat in public. But at night, there is a special market filled with goodies for breaking the fast.

Night mkt

Our anchorage in Sandakan was in front of the hospitable Sandakan Yacht Club, housed in a delightful fifties building on piers over the water.

The band at the Sandakan YC Boats to Philippines

The Friday night Philippino band at the Sandakan Yacht Club. Right near the anchorage the ferry and cargo boats leave for Zamboanga in the southern Philippines.

Another of Sandakan's claims to fame is as the home of Agnes Keith, an American writer married to the Borneo Conservator of Forests, who came to live in Sandakan in the 1930's. We've now read her three books about her life in Borneo and would class "Land Below the Wind" as essential reading for anyone interested in the history of Borneo.

A fascinating and funny, politically incorrect study of the Kinabatangan River in the original film by the hollywood couple, Osa and Martin Johnson is also a must see. Osa and Martin got around in a seaplane, jodphurs and pith helmets and were famed for having a Kelvinator fridge and icecream in the jungle. At the same time they managed to make some of the only films of Borneo and its people an wildlife at that time. I got a copy of the DVD of the film from

Rungus beading While we were anchored in Kudat, near the tip of Borneo we visited Tinanggol village where this Rungus lady was making traditional beads.

21 October 2007

After a great 6 week trip up around the northern tip of Borneo, and down the east coast as far as Sandakan and the Kinabatangan River, it felt very good to be back at KK looking forward to a few months of NOT cruising. Along with Kuching, this cruise had been the highlight of Borneo.

We had been blase before, but now were in a mood to enjoy the marina facilities. I decided to try to get fit and shed some of the weight I’d put on during our 2 and a half year non-stop Asian eatathon. After 4 days I was up to 7 laps of the olympic pool with plenty of huffing and panting in between. (It is so hot here all the time that I think swimming is the only exercise I’ll ever be able to do.)

We had a couple of days to spare before heading for Thailand for our friend’s wedding. This was accomplished by flying to Penang, bussing to Alor Setar and ferrying to Langkawi where we stayed with good sailing friends we’d met 2 years ago during our trip through Indonesia.

Almost as soon as we got off the ferry from Lankawi to Satun in Thailand, we were struck by the different vibe, compared with Malaysia. Anarchic, lively, cheeky Thailand where 3 or 4 people on a motorbike is a commonplace, beer is cheap and the food tickles the tastebuds. We rounded off our trip with 5 days in Phuket hanging around our old Ao Chalong haunts, before bussing back down to Penang and flying home to KK.

November 2007

We were lucky enough to be invited back to Sandakan (by bus this time) for the 90th birthday party of the mother of some friends we made whilst there on Lifeline. Assembled in one room were 1,000 guests, nearly all relations from all over the world, many of whom had never met each other. We were treated to an incredible 10 course feast and a remarkable Chinese cabaret artist like nothing we have ever seen before. A gorgeous gal/guy(?), with a constant stream of risque banter in every Chinese dialect - we understood every word and eye movement - all accompanied by loud, high octane Chinese dance music. Total fun. Hope someone organises a party like that for me when I turn 90.

Birthday girlFish cabaret

The Birthday Girl (Centre)......................................................................Dinner!!..........................................................................................................Lilly Chilli

5 December 2007

The northerly season suddenly started about a week ago. After 6 months of southerly winds, rain and constant humidity, we woke up one morning to sunny skies and northerly breezes. The whole quality of the air is different. The days are brighter and somehow “fresher”.

Philip just reminded me of how we marvelled last year in Thailand too, how the season just suddenly changed. They even made an official announcement that the NE monsoon had started.

We have since looked at the satellite pictures on the weather sites on the internet and discovered that the intertropical convergence zone has now passed over us and is to our south.

Deciding to enjoy some of this fresh air out of the marina, we are en route back to KK from a little trip to Labuan. Pulau Labuan, about 60nm south of Kota Kinabalu, is the Langkawi of Borneo for duty free shopping, although it hasn’t anything else much to recommend it. At least Langkawi has a few decent anchorages.

Pulau Tiga is on the way – a beautiful place and a very scenic and protected anchorage in the northerly season. Nevertheless we are keen to get back to Sutera to get back to swimming our laps of the olympic pool. We're now doing 20.

29 January 2008

That’s it. Apart from a wonderful (COLD) Christmas/New Year in Shanghai and Beijing with our family and Philip’s Mum’s visit to us here in KK, where we did a bit more land cruising, the last few weeks have been spent just slothing around the marina.

The Philippines beckons. From now until about May is the best season for cruising there apparently. (Though I suspect that information all comes from boats travelling south in the NE season - there's some fairly healthy NE wind that's going to be on our nose unless something changes.) There’s not much info on the right time to travel north. Still, at least now isn’t the cyclone season.)

We are expecting Palawan in particular to be a lot less developed than the places we have visited recently....Errrrkkkkk! Might have to start shopping and cooking and hanging on anchor again.

But before we can leave we have to slip the boat and get our ATM card from Australia. Neither of which can happen before Chinese New Year on the 7th of February. So, in the meantime, a flurry of research on the Philippines and, of course, a rush to finish this so I can "move on"....

(I'll leave you with what can only be described as a "luscious" photo of a jackfruit just crying out to be battered and deep fried...)