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Martin & Sue


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Sabah - Malaysian Borneo July-August 2012



After 2 months in Malaysian Borneo, we have found it to be a land of contrasts. On the one hand it has been the most amazing place, with dense, diverse vegetation, incredible wildlife and unbelievably friendly, relaxed people. However, on the flip side, we have had to contend with wild, unpredictable weather, the threat of theft (blamed by the locals on the illegal immigrants from the Phillipines), obstacles in the waters (ie floating logs, unlit mooring buoys etc) and long distances between safe and comfortable anchorages.

  However, on the whole it has been a buzz being in Borneo. Despite the hectic pace we feel we have had a real adventure, discovered many new things, visited some amazing places and had a lot of fun along the way.
Above: Illegal in Australia but a must in SE Asia (where the fisherman somehow fail to recognise mast lights) we decorate MW with coloured strobes at night to make sure she can be seen (and avoided!)

As we left Sarawak and headed to Sabah we were looking forward to more frontier adventures as we had heard that the further we moved East the less civilized Borneo became. This turned out to be correct.

We made a quick passage to the northern-most point of Borneo and, having rounded the Cape, the weather changed from unsettled, unpredictable winds to light breezes giving us very smooth seas and relatively calm anchorages. However, rarely did an evening night pass without some sort of cloud buildup and a squall - fortunately usually short lived.



Below: Anchored at Kudat, Sabah
Above: The NE Borneo Cape! Pretty much all south to Oz from here !
  We only spent one night at the town of Kudat as we had heard of several boats being boarded and robbed in this area in the very recent past. However, since Kudat has a haulout facility, several boats took advantage of this to check and/or fix rudder damage as well as to complete anti-fouling. Odyssey 9 chose to leave their boat on the hard here for several months while they flew back to Australia, paying an attendent to keep an eye on things (given the reputation this area has for theft).

From Kudat we island hopped our way to Sandakan. The first night out we anchored between 2 reefs in 25 metres at the lovely Palau Lankayan so we needed to put out most of our 95 metres of chain. The snorkelling here was very good but we did not go ashore as there is a sanctuary where turtles visit nightly to lay their eggs and this was thoughtfully out of bounds at night. We were glad that the weather remained benign as the anchorage was not that well protected and given that we were in such deep water, it would be very unpleasant during a blow. In fact, we heard later that some yachts spent a very uncomfortable night here when 35 knots blew through in a squall and created very choppy seas.


We celebrated Colin's birthday here (Splashdown) and son Alex kept us entertained with his fire twirling (minus the fire for safety!). Sue made Col a Chocolate self-saucing pudding for his birthday and given that we are all chocolate deprived (chocolate is expensive in SE Asia) it was a great hit.


Above and below: Birthday drinks on Splashdown
That evening two yachts anchored at an island, 20 miles behind us, were boarded in the dark by supposedly navy personnel who asked for beer and generally scared and unsettled the crews. Luckily they left after a short time but a subsequent complaint to a senior navy official brought the following response; 'Not our navy (Malaysian), from Philippines'! mmmm ! Yeah, I guess they always have the Philippine navy close by the Malaysian shore.

We arrived at Sandakan in plenty of time for the rally celebrations and anchored as instructed off the Sailing Club. The anchorage is next door to the Navy depot and regular patrols had been organised during our stay to help prevent the thefts from boats that had occurred during previous rallies.  We made good use of our alarm during the night and were super conscious of locking up at all times when we were not aboard (although this was not a guarantee of safety as several yachts had been robbed while crew were aboard sleeping). Luckily the patrols seemed to do the trick for no one had any problems at Sandakan – although one boat was robbed at a later stop (more on this later).

Above and Right: Looking out from the Sailing Club at an approaching storm. MW is just in view.
Below: Treddle sewing machines are still very popular in Borneo!
Below: Funny how Rug sellers look the same the world over!
The town centre at Sandakan was a mixture of both the old and new. Being very close to the Philippines, there is a high itinerant population and many residential buildings had seen better days. Un-employment was high and for the first time ever in SE Asia we did not feel all that comfortable walking around, especially in some remoter areas of the town. A shame after the fantastic feeling we had for the rest of Malaysia. In contrast, there were a two new hotels and a shopping plaza and an effort had been made to ‘jazz up’ the foreshore with a new walkway lined with restaurants.
Above: The old apartment buildings with shops below had seen better days.
Above: The new shopping plaza

However, we chose not to eat at these restaurants after seeing a waitress vomit into a bin – just before she wiped her mouth on her apron and then tried to tempt us to sit down by passing us a menu! Sadly for Sue, the restaurant we eventually chose served "mango salad" but with no mango in sight!

Above: the food at one restaurant in Sandakan did not look particularly appertising!
Below: Perhaps not the best name for a hotel - unless of course it is a particular type of hotel!
Below: Looking for the supermarket - with Kay from 'Bach and Byte' (the boat was once owned by a Musican and a Computer Geek hence the name!)




Despite the frontier feel of the town there were plenty of supermarkets to stock up our larder and the rally group was invited to dinner at the Mayors residence overlooking the bay. It turned into a great party – despite a massive storm lighting up the yachts floating below as lightening hit the water n ot far from the anchorage. There was not much that we could do from the top of the hill so we decided to just hope and enjoy the free flowing beer and wine! Luckily all boats were OK although a couple did drag. Also, there were reports of a ‘suspect’ boat circling Mandolin Wind that took off when a spotlight was shone on them from a fellow yachtie who stayed on board a nearby boat.

Above:: Sandakan town from the Mayor's residence

Above and Below: The Mayor's reception
Below: Young Alex from Splashdown is roped into Karaoke

The following day we all assembled ashore at 6am to catch a bus to the Sandakan Memorial where an early morning service was being held to mark the devastating death toll at the Sandakan POW camp during WWII (and the Sandakan Death March as previously mentioned). The memorial is located on the actual site of the POW camp. The service was very formal and there were high ranking officials from Australia and Britain there plus many relatives of the victims. As can be imagined, it was a very moving ceremony and surprisingly well attended by Australians and Brits.

  A short sail from Sandakan we found the very shallow entrance to the Kinabatangan River where we had a few tense moments when depths fell to 0.4 metres under our keel across the very long bar. Once inside we had good depth and we enjoyed several days meandering through the mangrove and nippa palms lined banks keeping a good lookout for wildlife.


Above and left : Early morning on the river



Sadly, the native wilderness surrounding the river is being slowly eroded by palm oil plantations and the habitat for the pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys and orang-utans is shrinking alarmingly.  Unfortunately, despite diligent lookouts and travelling 30nm upstream, we never managed to catch more than a glimpse of the elephants through the forest, although some other boats several miles away saw them drinking at the river. Hearing them trumpet and crash though the scrub but not actually seeing them was very frustrating. However, the proboscis monkeys put on several tree-leaping displays for us, the lemers burst into song each morning and the birdlife was prolific.


Above: Our C-MAP charts were no help here. Note the loop in the river ( in red ) that took us 5 miles around only to be back where we started! The actual route of the river is supposed to be in blue !! The red shows our actual track !! Not exactly accurate !!
Above: We could see the river on the other side of the bank but it took us an hour to make it around the loop
Above and Right: Views of river life

During our 60 nm journey along the river we only passed by 2 small remote villages. It was anchored off one of these that a yacht was robbed during the early morning hours while the crew were asleep (cameras and money were stolen and the unlocked flyscreen companion way door was opened to gain entry). This unfortunately made us suspicious in our contact with the locals which was a shame since we only ever encountered a friendly reception.

Above and Right: Washing in the muddy river water seemed to be a rather thankless task

On our last evening we were invaded by millions of small insects who, attracted by the light, ignored flyscreens ( they were so small ) and invaded the inside of the boat. Fortunately they did not bite or sting but it was impossible to sit inside with a light on and we were forced to leave a cockpit light on (as a decoy) and to sit in the dark inside the boat! Next morning there were literally piles of dead insects all over the boat (including piled up between our external window shades and the windows) forcing us to spend a good hour hosing down the boat using our salt water pump.


Our time in Borneo was coming to an end and we slowly made our way south along the coast of Borneo towards the port of Tawau where we would check out of Malaysia.

Whilst travelling this section of the Borneo coastline we were confronted by the stark contrast between the amazing beauty of the outer islands with their 5 star hotels and dive resorts on the one hand – and the slum-like shanty villages (mostly housing illegal immigrants from the Philippines), the rubbish-filled waters and the untidy, dirty frontier towns.

Above: Think the Indo Navy boat needs a tune up !


On the one hand we found magnificent anchorages with picture postcard scenery
Above: Getting ready to anchor
Above: Sue with Jim from Bach and Byte
..and within a few miles we found dirty stilt villages where we had to constantly clean our props to remove plastic bags, hessian sacks or old nets.  
Above: No wonder the engine stalled. Martin after cutting free a piece of discarded net that was tangled around the prop. Visibility was about 300mm in the dirty harbour water ! Yuk !
Above and Right: typical stilt housing found in this area of Borneo. Note the rubbish in the water.
  No where was this contrast more startling then at the beautiful island of Mabul.
Above: Mabul Island showing the lovely clear water, the ex-Oil Rig Dive resort is in the distance.
Below: Children from the shanty town play outside their cardboard shacks

Whilst snorkelling along the reef surrounding the island it was difficult to dodge the floating plastic bags and other rubbish. And during a walk ashore, the bikini clad tourists sunbaked on deck chairs just metres from naked, skinny children playing beneath their old iron and cardboard shanty dwellings.

Below: This lady was one of many beggars on the island. This was the only time we had encountered begging on any of the outer islands.
Below: The slum houses




Below: The ex-Oil Rig, now Dive Resort, where we had an overpriced, sub-standard buffet dinner - but it was quite an experience!
It was on this island that we had dinner on an old oil rig – since revamped as a dive resort. Certainly a novel experience, particularly when access to the restaurant from the sea was via a large open air lift with no guard rails.  

Above: Dinner in the open air on the platform of the rig. Note the dive bottles in the background.
Above: The girls on the oil rig

Our final stop in Malaysia, Tawau, proved to be a very friendly town. Once again we anchored off the Sailing Club where we were given every assistance in sourcing fuel and boat bits. It was an easy walk into town where there was a great wet ( fresh food ) market. We even found the ‘secret’ section where we could buy pork (remember, this is a Muslim area so Pork is very hard to find). Although the storage of the meat was not quite what would have passed muster in Oz, the pork was great !!

Below: Oops! After queueing at the Indonesian Embassy for our Social Visas, we noticed this sign on the door. None of us even owned a pair of long trousers so we all tried to pull our shorts down in a vain attempt to make them longer. Fortunately they let us in.

  We spent a day at the Indonesian embassy waiting for our 60 day Tourist visas – but later the actual check out process with Malaysian Customs and Immigration was very straight forward with the usual friendly and helpful staff.
Above: At the Indonesian embassy. Waiting , waiting, waiting
Above: Some crew will go to any lengths to try and speed up their visa's ! Col from Splashdown tries a new approach. ( windows here are made for small people )

While in Tawau we also had a presentation by the Indonesian authorities regarding their Sail Moratai rally. This rally had the backing of the Indonesian Government and incentives were being offered to encourage boats to attend the rally. This included a free CAIT (basically our boat cruising permit for Indonesia which usually costs $AU300),100 litres of free fuel and a carton of beer (!) plus several welcome dinners and tours.


Since we had already decided it was now time to head back to Australia, and it was only a slight detour out of our way to attend the rally, we, along with several other Aussie boats, signed up. We had previously experienced the amazing Indonesian hospitality during our trip up through the archipeligo in 2009 so we knew this rally would be no different.
Above: Welcome reception at Tawau Malaysia for the Sail Morotai boats

On the eve of our departure, Splashdown decided at the last minute to remain in Malaysia. This decision was made for a variety of reasons, one being that they had bent a prop shaft after hitting a log sometime back in Borneo and this was creating a worrying vibration. With the likelyhood of many hours of motoring ahead of them during the return to Oz they reluctantly decided to return to Kudat where the only haulout facilities existed for 100's of miles and get it replaced. The rest of the fleet (now numbering 11 boats) would continue on towards Australia via Indonesia. We were very sorry to leave them behind as they had been great traveling companions.


As we prepared Mandolin Wind to leave Malaysia for the last time, we reflected on the amazing variety of experiences we had had over the preceding few months, especially during our travels in Borneo. Despite the hectic pace (for we had covered 2,500 nm since leaving Langkawi in early April) and the challenging nature of the cruising, the trip had been a real adventure and certainly will remain in our memories as one of the most diverse cruising destinations we have ever experienced.