Off in search of the “Tip of Borneo”, the most northern point of Borneo.
Generally known as the “Tip of Borneo” which is just as well as the name in the traditional language of Rungus is “Tanjung Simpang Mengayau”, which means “the junction to the battle at the tip”, much more of a mouthful.
The “tip” is in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Most people associate Borneo as a land filled with rainforest, much of which is rapidly disappearing. Sabah apparently has greatest percentage of rainforest still remaining on the island.
We decided to hire a car in order to better explore the area. The drive out Kota Kinabalu was easy enough and soon we were driving through the mountain range which is home to Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South East Asia. Once through the mountains we drove through typical Malaysian countryside and village scenery, which gradually gave way to huge palm oil plantations.
Miles after miles of neatly planted rows of palm oil trees, mark the final part of our journey. In fact for the last hour or so of our journey there is nothing but palm oil plantations. There will be no searching for the wild man of Borneo around here! The only people around are few plantation workers. Just before we left Kota Kinabalu we read the newspaper story of a sun bear who had wondered onto a plantation and was clubbed to death by plantation workers as “they did not recognize this wild animal”.
On-line there are few places to stay, so we prebooked a chalet in the rainforest. As it turned out, it was not a chalet and most definitely not in anything resembling even woodland, let alone rainforest. The expat owner, whose sole aim seemed to be to extract as much cash as possible from his guests, even drives to you to his restaurant so you can buy breakfast/dinner. Really not what we expected or wanted. The chalet was too hot, too tiny and very expensive. Effectively a garden shed at hotel prices! We move out the next day.
Fortunately we have our own wheels and there are a handful of other places to stay so we choose a place run by a local family, a few hundred meters of the actual tip, right by the beautiful sandy beach. The most amazing sunsets captivate our hearts.
The beach setting is wonderful. The waves are gentle, the water is both clear and warm and the sand is powdery soft. We never saw more than a handful of people on the beach. We did not come for the beach so this is an unexpected bonus.
The Tip of Borneo, fittingly, sits upon a dramatic headland at one end of our beautiful beach. It is marked by a large globe and a flagpole at the highest point and a rocky outcrop pushing out a little further north. It is an easy, but very hot stroll, up to the top. We have time to spare so we visit the top a few times. Despite the warning sign at the bottom of the steps, it is possible to walk down on to the rocky outcrop which stretches into the sea, the very furthest point of Borneo.
The local family where we are staying tell us the rocky outcrop is where the Magellan Fleet stopped for 42 days to repair their ship when circumnavigating the globe in 1521. More than 40 shipwrecks are said to be in the depths of the treacherous water, which occasionally gifts ceramic antiques to lucky fishermen and divers. One enterprising artist makes small fragments into jewelry.
Much as we are enjoying the beach life, we hop in the car and go off exploring the area. There are plenty of palm oil trees. The best bit of rainforest we find is along a dirt track on a small patch of ground between two sandy bays. The foliage is so dense it is impossible for us to enter. We can hear the wildlife that we cannot see. The beach leading to this patch is completely empty, save for washed up debris. This time next year, this beach will have people and sun loungers as a resort style complex of modern homes have been built are just waiting for services to be connected. These homes, built and bought by foreign investors, edge along half of the bay. It is a slice of paradise, but at what cost?
Driving around the gravel roads, (which are being widened and tarmaced), we find a few villages, some infill areas of land which is not tended and many more palm oil plantations. There are some lovely empty beach areas. The money to be made from palm oil and property development seems to be the dominant factor in the future development of this area.
As to be expected, it is difficult to balance conservation and the protection of wildlife in the important bio-diverse area that is Borneo, with the inevitable quest for economic growth. Sadly, economics seem to be winning by a country mile!
For more information on the rainforest and wildlife in Borneo, this is a fascinating article from National Geographic. Dated 2008, it seems the situation is still much the same.