Of all the places in the world, I never imagined that I would be visiting North Borneo (Sabah).  Kim Henson describes a motoring adventure a long way from home

From 1946 known as ‘British North Borneo Crown’ until as recently as 1963, today the state of Sabah is part of Malaysia. However, until a few years ago all I knew of the country was what I had gleaned from my much-enjoyed copy of Captain W. E. Johns’ ‘Biggles in Borneo’…

My understanding changed in 2009. At that time my daughter Rachel was studying for a biology degree at Cardiff University, and together with a group of fellow students she had the opportunity to visit, as part of her Uni course and for a few weeks, a field centre on the mighty Kinabatangan River. 

This is located in one of the few remaining pockets of native rainforest/jungle on the eastern part of the huge island of Borneo, itself positioned to the east of Sumatra and Singapore, north of Java, to the south-west of the Philippines and some way north of Australia.

Before departure, the students were told that two of their number could stay in the rainforest for 12 months to study more deeply the amazing wildlife of the area, and Rachel was fortunate enough to get through the selection process and be chosen as one of the pair. From an early age she has been passionate about conservation, wildlife and in particular primates…

The snag was that she was unable to return to the UK during her year in the Far East (although she travelled widely elsewhere in the region), so it was decided that Elaine, my wife, and I would visit Sabah for three weeks in February 2009.

Just managing to get through to Heathrow to escape a snow-bound south of England, we took nearly 40 hours to reach Kota Kinabalu (‘KK’), the bustling capital of Sabah, stepping out of the aeroplane into humidity and tropical heat, the like of which we had never experienced.

We had arrived towards the end of the ‘rainy season’, but when it rains there, it REALLY rains… as we discovered.

I was interested in the motoring scene which features right-hand drive vehicles (with air conditioning, but no heaters required!!) and driving on the left-hand side of the road. At the same time, vehicle speedos and distance indicators, plus signposts etc, are calibrated in kilometres!

In buildings I was surprised to find UK-type three pin electrical sockets – another legacy of days gone by.

Our original plan had been first to spend some time at the Danau Girang Field Centre (a collaborative tropical biodiversity research and training facility managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department and Cardiff University) where Rachel was based, and then to tour Sabah by road.

However, due to flooding of the Kinabatangan River (Danau Girang is built on its northern bank), it was deemed unsafe for us to visit the Field Centre until the waters subsided. Instead we embarked on our Sabah road trip tour first – working to a brilliant itinerary put together by Rachel and a local friend of hers who was also interested in, and actively involved in, conservation.


It’s sad but true that the wildlife of Sabah is struggling, due mainly to deforestation caused by clearing of the jungle to make way for palm oil plantations – so that native orangutans, Borneo pygmy elephants, sun bears and other wonderful creatures (plus plants) of the forest simply have nowhere to go… 

It is possible that (for example) the amazing orangutans could be extinct in the wild here during the next few years; such a tragedy of monumental proportions.

The extent of the problem is clear when travelling over and around the country, since swathes of countryside are now covered in plantations for the cultivation of palm oil (used in vast numbers of products around the world), rather than the native rainforest that covered Sabah until quite recently. This was true when we visited and is FAR worse now (May 2017). For native inhabitants of the area, many of whom live in poverty, the attraction of a relatively good wage driving palm oil lorries (for example) cannot be denied. The avoidance, where possible, of buying products containing palm oil from unsustainable sources may help to prevent even more rapid destruction of the native forest).


Originally we had planned to hire a vehicle for our Sabah tour, but were told that due to the poor/non-existent road surfaces often encountered outside of towns, it was difficult/impossible to hire a normal saloon or hatchback.  We were advised that a 4×4 would be necessary for meaningful travel, especially as our visit coincided with the ‘rainy season’ that tended to result in even main roads being washed away.

Luckily we were able to privately hire a four seater double cab Toyota Hilux pick-up that proved to be perfect for the job.

Its torquey 2.5 litre common-rail turbo-diesel four cylinder engine and four wheel drive system pulled us strongly and safely through and over mud, sand, broken surfaces and heavily-ridged roads. From our point of view its main drawback was that it didn’t have a boot, so all our luggage had to be strapped to the pick-up bed, where it was easily-accessible and vulnerable, although we were lucky; none of it disappeared, and within the first 24 hours, all our spare clothes etc. became waterlogged during the incessant deluge from the heavens. 

At the first opportunity, our first purchases were tarpaulins plus lengths of rope, with which to protect our luggage. We live and learn!

Rachel and I shared the driving during our tour. She was already adept at piloting the Hilux in conditions of torrentially heavy rain and, for example, along unmade tracks that snaked through undergrowth comprising huge and strange but beautiful looking plants I had never seen before, and I too enjoyed the challenges provided by motoring in conditions so different from those encountered at home.

Incidentally, fuel is inexpensive from our western viewpoint; when we visited, a litre of diesel cost the equivalent of around 30 pence per litre, and by my calculations is currently at 33.5 pence per litre. Bed and breakfast accommodation for two in a reasonable hotel/guest house cost us approximately £15 per night.

Many of the vehicles on Sabah’s roads are Malaysian-built Protons or Peroduas, but there are also Toyotas a-plenty, plus some Fords and Mercedes-Benz models, and a few Land Rovers, among small numbers of other makes. Away from the larger centres of population, four wheel drive vehicles abound, and are necessary…

I tried ‘classic-spotting’ and saw a venerable VW Beetle, plus two long-disused Morris Minor 1000s as well as some more modern classics – including Toyotas –that were in daily use. Shortly after our return home, Rachel spied a 1920s Austin Seven in Kota Kinabalu.


When driving in Sabah, you have to be prepared for ‘anything’. Overall, local vehicle safety, emissions and driving seem more worrying than in the UK. However, initially it was still surprising to me to round bends and encounter palm oil lorries and coaches overtaking when coming towards us uphill, pulling out suddenly and, with little acceleration available, blocking our path. Evasive action/taking to the verges was often the only way to avoid a collision. Fortunately Rachel was already used to this and drove impeccably in frequently difficult/dangerous situations.

Often too the use of indicators by local drivers was ‘occasional’ or ‘not at all’, so we found that the best policy was simply to try to keep out of everyone’s way.

Another aspect of driving that took some getting used to for me was negotiating roads so badly affected by flooding that the tarmac often disappeared for long stretches. In these situations the Toyota had to be carefully guided through meandering mud and sand until solid ground was reached again.

In other sections the tarmac road surface had sunk in spectacular fashion (as its underpinnings had been washed away), and very often the sudden change in surface height was not evident until we were almost upon the hazard, whereupon the vehicle would suddenly ‘drop’ off the steeply sloping step into the depression, then we had to drive slowly up the equally steep slope/step at the far end of the lowered section. Great care was needed to stay on the road and avoid damaging the vehicle, and we were thankful that we had not attempted our long-distance motoring in a normal saloon or hatchback


Towards the end of our stay the floodwaters of the Kinabatangan River subsided, and we were able to travel to the Field Centre as originally planned. This entailed several hours by road, then a two hour trip along the river in an open motor boat. The river waters were still above normal levels, so when walking between our wooden bungalow and the Field Centre’s main building at night we were advised to stamp our feet to discourage crocodiles and snakes from taking a close interest.

The Field Centre established to aid learning about this amazing rainforest was excellent, and enabled us to experience a little of the adjacent jungle. 

Another highlight of our visit to the east of the island was visiting a local village and taking part in a ‘homestay’ programme with a local boatman and his family. So we enjoyed a traditional evening meal with this friendly man and his family, and were taken across the swollen river at night in his boat, to witness by searchlamp that didn’t disturb the animals Borneo pygmy elephants feeding on the far bank of the river.

At 5am the next morning, we were off again in the same boat, this time diverting from the river’s main course to pass through narrow, vine-laden tributaries and backwaters, where we heard birds singing in the bankside trees and witnessed proboscis monkeys with prominent noses, also seeing birds possessing plumage in the most vibrant colours imaginable, as well as strange plants that were beautiful to behold.

Eventually we had to return home, via Singapore where we spent a few days taking in the diverse culture of the place and also visited both Raffles Hotel and the Hard Rock Café – but these are both ‘other stories’.

Highlights of this tour were many and included…

Paddling in the South China Sea near the spectacularly beautiful Tip of Borneo. Walking to the edge of the rainforest at night, for the very first time, and listening in awe to the ‘sounds of the jungle’.

Being taken through the rain-soaked forest to see the biggest flower in the world, the ‘Rafflesia’ (about six feet across; it blooms for just a few days – local people earn cash by taking visitors to see examples while they are in flower).

Seeing orangutans wild in their own habitat also at the Sepilok conservation centre.

Watching the sun set over a perfect calm sea and beach near Kota Kinabalu.

We also viewed the rainforest canopy from precarious walkways high in the trees at Poring Hot Springs, crossed fast-flowing rivers on rope bridges and visited the famous ‘bat caves’ at Gomantong, where in equal measure the piles of bat droppings and the resulting billions of cockroaches balanced the brilliant bats but this really was not a place in which to slip up.

Enjoyed too were a tea planation with amazing views over the countryside, and nearby traditional Borneo ‘long houses’, the sight from afar of the evocative Mount Kinabalu, visiting novelist Agnes Keith’s lofty house near Sandakan with beautiful sea views and adjacent to the wonderfully traditional English Tea Gardens, and partaking in an inexpensive but lovely meal in the fresh evening air on the waterfront at Sandakan, while chatting to a youngster who was a contented local lorry mechanic whose twin dreams were to visit London and to earn enough to one day buy a secondhand Toyota 4×4…

By contrast, sobering to the point of rendering us all speechless were visits to the Second World War memorials at Ranau and Sandakan. 

North Borneo was occupied by the Japanese during the conflict, and thousands of allied soldiers met their end during the unspeakably awful enforced Death Marches across the country. At the time they were often helped, as far as possible, by local people who risked their own lives to assist.


I shall never, ever forget the wonderful road trip we undertook in Sabah and the helpful friendliness of the people we encountered.

Indeed I would love to revisit this beautiful place. If ever you get the chance to go there, I recommend that you take it.

KIM SAYS, “THERE’S MORE…”If you have enjoyed this article and would like to read and see more about our Sabah adventure, there’s a slightly longer version of this feature, with many more photographs, on my motoring magazine website – http://www.wheels-alive.co.uk  The specific link to the feature is:


Kim Henson
Kim Henson
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