School holidays, how sweet they are. Looking forward to escaping the clutches of Sandakan City for a few days, we decided to fly to Kudat.
Kudat is the last major town before you reach the tip of Borneo – Tanjung Simpang Mengayau. It’s isolated and relatively small with a population of about 85,000.
It is a 7-hour drive from Sandakan, a little too much for the old car, so we decided to fly. My wife had never been to this part of Sabah and I had only briefly transited on a flight to Kota Kinabalu
To be honest, I was looking for any excuse to fly in the Twin Otter again. It’s real flying and reminds me of my own relatively short experience as a private pilot over 30 years ago in Adelaide. The noise of the engines, the smell of aviation fuel and the rather uncomfortable seats add to that exquisite feeling of the gentle floating sensation you don’t get in a heavier jet aircraft.
“Sit anywhere you like.” I was told when we boarded – it’s that sort of flight. You see the every movement of the pilots, observe most of the flight instruments and the monotony of the job ( for them) after the takeoff and before the landing. Nothing like watching the knees of these young men bouncing up and down like nervous school boys who are longing for the home time bell to ring. It instils a sense of confidence in the passengers, I can assure you!
The flight lasts a mere 50 minutes over low lying mangrove and palm oil plantations – not a lot of jungle left in this part of Sabah.
The airport is really only an airstrip with a single green storey one-roomed building for arrivals and departures. The fire truck/van with its small water trailer has its attendant in an easy chair next to it, whiling away the time, waiting for the airports only daily flight. What a life.
Originally we intended to use these few days to just veg out and relax, but I wanted to hire a vehicle for a day for a little exploring. The hotel we intended to stay in, the Ria, seemed very casual about obtaining any information other than my wife’s name for the booking. They just said to call the morning of the departure to confirm. It’s interesting how you get so used to pre booking online and instant confirmation. This was very refreshing.
As it turned out, close friends of ours were spending the weekend in Kota Kinabalu and decided to come up the day of our arrival to take us to the tip of Borneo. They wanted to stay in the Kudat Golf and Marina Resort, consequently we agreed to stay there for our first night. After picking us up at the airport, we drove there to check in only to find the rooms were not ready. We decided to have a bite to eat at the hawker stalls near the town centre. The ambience and the odour weren’t the best, but the food was superb – a comprehensive collection of local seafood with rice and Chinese tea.
Arriving back to the hotel we were informed that the rooms were ready; gathering our bags we trundled down the corridor when a strange thing occurred. From some 10 metres away, I noticed a man in his swimming gear leave a room that I thought was ours. Not being sure, I opened the door to find to my horror, the room was strewn with clothes on the bed and shoes in the entrance. How embarrassing! My friend’s room was 2 doors down, so they entered using the electronic card provided. There just behind the door stood a man with an electronic card in hand. For a second or two, both men stared at each other speechless – a mini Mexican standoff. The occupant in the room felt indignant that his private space was being invaded and my friend astonished that the hotel should have stuffed up so badly.
What I find interesting is the hotel staff feigned indifference. This only made me mad to the point that the rest of the stay in that hotel was tainted by it.
Another 30 minutes past before we managed to secure our this time empty rooms. I did knock on the door before entering to make sure!
The hotel is only average, full of youngish families that entertained their children in the pool. The rooms are nothing special, dated and small. The shower or should I say a fountain with a peeing Cherub which surged to 4 separate trickles between periods of inactivity. (think of 4 young boys relieving themselves into a puddle of water ) Not in many showers can you watch an individual water droplet travel down your body without interference, turn the shower on and wait; a 2-minute shower that took 10. Marvellous!
After freshening up, kind of, we piled into the car for the journey to the tip of Borneo some 23 kilometres away though it seemed further.
Kudat was for a few years in the 1880’s the capital of North Borneo and an arrival point for many immigrating Hakka from China to escape persecution ( Taiping rebellion) or for economic reasons. Many cleared the area for coconut plantations before becoming farmers themselves.
My wife’s paternal ancestors arrived in this way before finally settling in Sandakan a number of years later.
The roads were of a similar standard to else where in Sabah – barely adequate; the reason most people here drive larger four wheel drives, especially if they travel outside of the major towns.
Kudat is still growing a significant amount of coconut, a pleasant change from palm oil. This area is still famous for its coconut virgin oil. The small kampongs swarmed with small unkempt children, mange ridden dogs and traditional local Rungus women weaving baskets on their wooden dilapidated thatched roofed verandas.
Just before the tip there is a long stretch of beach that is now the home to a few tacky tourist resorts of sorts. The beach would have been magnificent in years gone by, but like a lot of coastal regions in this part of the world is littered with mainly plastic objects. Nevertheless if you didn’t look too closely, it was a pleasant enough scene.
There is a car park 300 metres south of the tip with a few nondescript shelters to sit and admire the view. Just before the tip is a large concrete model of the world showing Borneo in all its glory. A plague with a brief description of the site and mentioning of Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation fleet stopping there in 1421 for repair. (He himself was actually killed in the Philippines before this.)
The land finally peters out into a narrow stretch of sandstone jutting into the ocean to divide the South China Sea with the Sulu.
A number of islands can be seen on the horizon, one with a lighthouse and interesting sandstone formations adds to the spectacle. The obligatory selfies were being taken by the 50 or so visitors there at the time which is always a distraction, but it’s isolated enough to find some space away from the masses and go for a walk along the long sweeping beach.
Seafood again on the Kudat esplanade rounded off the day. Great meal, inexpensive, in a ramshackle timber restaurant that hangs over the water / plastic bottles. You can have too much of a good thing. By the time we left Kudat a few days later, I never wanted to see another prawn, fish or scallops during the rest of my life. ( feeling didn’t last long of course)
The following day our friends left to drive back to Sandakan while we moved to the Ria hotel. Compared with what we left, it was like chalk and cheese. A clean, smart and newly painted building in the centre of town. In fact it stood out because it was the best kept building in town. The staff were efficient and polite to deal with. The room was twice the size of the one in the Kudat Golf and Marina resort and a lot cleaner and in better repair. The view out of the window was across some roof tops to the harbour, not perfect but pleasant enough.
We ended up spending 2 more memorable days being driven around to explore both sides of the peninsular. The beaches on the South China Sea side had the least pollution.
To top off the visit, a friend of my wife took us to a local business man who amongst other things produces bird nests for the local market, but that did not interest us. He is the owner of a collection of relics from an old Chinese junk that had sunk only 400 metres form the tip of Borneo over 1000 years ago. He had obtained them off the fishermen that had found the wreck in 2003.
There is something magical to hold in your own hands pieces of pottery and bronze plaques of such age. Who made them? For Whom? Where were they going to? Questions that have no answers; lost in the midst of time.
All goods things must come to an end, so after a seafood meal or two it was time to return via the twin otter.
So, would I go back again? Yes, for the seafood, the hotel and of course the twin otter.