The Long Road to Sandakan

While echoes of the past still reverberate through the jungles of Sandakan, Sabah is striding into a new, and green, future.

It’s dusk and the sky’s towering thunderheads are aglow in scarlet and orange hues – colours that set the horizon on fire. All around me, the sultry tropical air is beginning to stir. On the streets, restaurant doors abruptly fan wide-open, hawker grills light up and the Night Market’s piquant spices and vitality dominate the early-evening rhythms. Just beyond the floating mosque’s towering minarets, a streak of lightning slithers its way like a serpent towards Kota Kinabalu’s urban sprawl – a mosaic of modern concrete buildings that rise beneath the distant shadows of Gunung Kinabalu.

Few places incite the imagination more than Sabah, an island state of Malaysia wedged midway between the South China and Celebes Sea in the Malay Archipelago.

Once ruled by Brunei’s sultans, colonised for a spell by Great Britain and prized for its abundant supply of oil, rubber and copra during the Japanese occupation, Sabah is not only the custodian of the Sandakan Trail – a spiritual trek that follows the original, World War II ‘Death March’ from Sandakan to Ranau – but is also endowed with lush rainforests, idyllic seascapes that drop down into an exotic waterworld and a host of exotic creatures; estuarine crocodiles, pigmy elephants, the odd-looking Proboscis monkey and of course, Malaysia Borneo’s ‘forest people’ — the endangered orang-utans.

On my first night in Kota Kinabalu I’m taking refuge from the pounding rain at the Brass Monkey Cafe with my guide, Teoh. It’s tightly packed and at first, seemingly unassuming. There’s a mural of monkeys that dominates the wall – not the monkey see, monkey do type of fresco – more like the Rat Pack kicking back in the backroom of a Las Vegas joint. “Welcome, welcome,” shouts Raj the owner, as he ducks and weaves around our table with an armful of steaming dishes. The smell of sizzling beef and prawns wafts through the tropical night air.

Like its cities, Sabah’s geographic realm is undergoing a transition. Not long ago eco-tourism was introduced to counter some of the environmental pressures that have beleaguered wildlife habitats. Its barely penetrable interior was opened up, barefoot chic was tossed aside and income began to flow to the Kadazan-Dusun and Rungus tribes – as mysterious and silent as the clouded leopards of Borneo; and the very people who give this living Eden its cultural soul.

“Sabah has no desire to catch up with mainland Malaysia,” Teoh explains. Seven years ago he came to Sabah to trek Mt Kinabalu and found his Nirvana. “Like me, travellers just want to avoid the artificial thrills and sling a rucksack on just so they can sleep in a traditional longhouse, connect with the people and experience nature close up.”

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Into the clouds of Kinabalu
At sunrise, I leave for Poring Hot Springs, a 130 kilometre journey by car to explore the highland rainforests that nestle beneath Mt Kinabalu. By lunch time I am traipsing across a canopy walkway with colourful butterflies fluttering around me, some 30 metres above the forest floor. I pause to catch my breath – a very deep one at that, as I soak in the magnificence of Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

By foot, there are very few trail markers that reveal much about the region or of its past inhabitants yet the elemental quality is all around you. Deep into the park I spot nine gibbon monkeys scurrying across tall branches, bushy-crested hornbills and an enormous python coiling itself around scented rhododendrons and strangling fig. Watching quietly in the shadows, one monkey returns my gaze before it scampers at lightning speed across a leafy limb to scold a flock of screeching parrots. Suddenly they all take flight. By the time I reach a jagged ridgeline on the Bukit Tupai Trail, I leave behind all orchestral sounds of the forest. Only the humming of a dragonfly in flight can be heard.

Hours before the first shafts of sunlight filters down on my dormitory at Laban Rata, I find myself trudging another ribbon of gruelling track towards Gunung Kinabalu – the rooftop of Southeast Asia, some might say. Seared in half and chiselled by Ice Age glaciers some 100,000 years ago, Kinabalu’s highest summit pierces the clouds at 4095 metres – an altitude that is not lightly dismissed by me as the cold air begins to bite.

Just as the awakening sun tinges the sky in a vermillion glow, I reach two spectacular rock formations known as Donkeys Ears. The wind is buffeting me like a fast-moving freight train. I raise my binoculars to take in views of the slumbering farmlands that lie beneath a cover of cotton clouds. Above me, snow-browed flycatchers soar, twisting and weaving in the blustering crosswinds.

Kinabatangan stirring
“First you must listen for movement,” Teoh hollers as a fierce gust drowns out our voices. “If you do this, you will then see Sabah’s hidden world come alive.”

Another dimension of the state’s wild beauty reveals itself along the headwaters of the Kinabatangan River which meanders 560 kilometres from the mountains to the Sulu Sea. Swollen by monsoon rains, its silt brown waters have long been an important conduit – once for ancient trade with China and more recently for large-scale logging. But today, the Kinabatangan runs wild and free, and I am on a slow boat with a chugging motor, heading downstream.

The Kinabatangan’s bio-diversity is perhaps the richest in the world and governed by nature’s own rules. Hemmed in by impassable forests, gnarled mangrove trees and oxbow lakes that form part of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, it takes two days just to explore the river near Sukau, where I happily make camp at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge.

Though the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre near Sandakan has been one of the driving forces in sving Sabah’s ‘forest people’ from extinction, it is the Kinabatangan’s sinuous floodplain and backwater tributaries that bestow them the freedom to remain wild.

An enticing counterpoint to the river’s languid currents are the almost surreal life forms that I spot – a small herd of Bornean pigmy elephant, wild orang-utans and Gibbon monkeys swinging with abandon in entangled treetops, each curious and animated as we drift on by.

The Spirits of Sandakan
The next morning I travel to the northern coastal port of Sandakan, the state’s second largest city and just a stone’s throw from the Philippine archipelago. Long ago as the former administrative capital of North Borneo, Sandakan was a bustling hub before it was destroyed by the Allies during the Japanese occupation.

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Near the waterfront jetty I meet an old Digger; a veteran of the 1945 Borneo campaign who remembers the Sandakan of the past. Now nearly 90 years of age Bert sets me straight on the vagaries of war; the emotional struggle families who are connected with the infamous Death March often experience. “It’s almost redemption; a way to reconcile with history,” he attests. “ Especially those who visit the prison and trek the Sandakan Trail.”

Over breakfast Bert tells me of the Allied POWs who were sent to Sandakan in 1942 by the Japanese to build a new airstrip and incarcerated at Sandakan. Upon the Allied advancement in January 1945, the surviving prisoners were separated into three groups and forced to march 226 kilometres inland to Ranau, which nestles at the foothills of Gunung Kinabalu. Emaciated and driven to physical despair after years of captivity, all but six of the 2434 prisoners died or were killed in horrendous circumstances.

“It was impossible terrain to trek and humidity was unbearable,” Bert recalls. He describes the endless miles of mud track, dense bamboo and vine. Bullets and bayonets making their mark. The bravery of the native guerrilla fighters. The discovery of the prisoners’ meagre possessions; the deathly silence Bert’s battalion encountered in Sandakan’s deserted POW camp after liberation. “You can’t get a true sense of the brutality unless you follow their shadows,  experience the places. And their spirits are everywhere.”

Soon memories overwhelm him.

Early in the afternoon, I stroll though Sandakan Memorial Park’s shaded forest before a winding pathway leads me to a tranquil waterlily pond. Surprisingly, there’s an ethereal beauty to the former camp. Tears begin to well up in my eyes. I think of Bert lost in his thoughts and the brave souls who now watch over this nurturing, verdant expanse. In Sabah, perhaps time has a way of healing old wounds.

As the plane dips its wings over the South China Sea flying home, I take one more glimpse of wild Borneo. The cluster of longhouses clinging to the coastline, the mighty rivers and soaring treetops of the jungle.

On the long road to Sandakan, I found what I had come for. •

Photography by Sabah Tourism, Shutterstock

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there
Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flies, award-winning services from select capital state cities (exc. Canberra) to Kuala Lumpur with twice-daily connecting services to Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. MAS also flies direct services from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur. 132-627; malaysiaairlines.com

Where to Stay
•    Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa: shangri-la.com
•    Sukau Rainforest Lodge: sukau.com

Further Information
•    Sabah Tourism: sabahtourism.com
•    Malaysia Tourism: tourismmalaysia.com.my
•    Borneo Eco Tours: borneoecotours.com
•    Malaysia Holidays: malaysiaholidays.com.au

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