The exclamation by our boatman at the Klias Wetlands sent almost everyone to their feet.
We had been cruising along a river in Beaufort, a south-western district in Sabah, for just short of an hour and had already spotted several of the star attraction – Borneo’s endemic proboscis monkey.
Famous for its bulbous nose and long tail, the multi-coloured primates seemed to be unaffected and undisturbed by the presence of our large motorboat, gazing at us in a nonchalant manner at they munched on young leaves, with the males occasionally shrieking at any other monkey who dared poke his long-nose too near the harem.
(Interestingly, only the males are blessed with the large, pendulous nose while the females have a smaller, sharper, more pert sniffer that I personally find much more attractive.)
And although Borneo is the only place in the world where these proboscis monkeys can be seen in the wild, it was the crocodile that sent a ripple of nervous excitement through the boat.
In fact, ironically, it was only the children who kept their composure as everyone past puberty were stretching out their necks and thrusting phones in the air set to camera mode.
Perhaps there is something about having a massive, silent, underwater predator who could eat you, swim so close by.
Crocodiles are not at all uncommon in Sabah, a state that even has a private tourist crocodile farm in Tuaran, less than an hour away from the state capital.
But here in the wild, spotting one on a cruise is a special occurrence that not every boat can boast about.
Not that there were any other boats that day.
From the Klias jetty, that used to see anywhere from 100 to 200 tourists filing past its wooden planks each day pre-pandemic, there was just one boat booked that day in early June, smack in the middle of the school holidays.
And with just 11 passengers on board, not including the boat operator and two guides, there was ample space on the vessel for more.
Tourism is the third largest driving force in Sabah’s economy and while Semporna is world-famous for its diving sites, and Sandakan for their wildlife adventures, Kota Kinabalu can still hold its own.
Containing the international airport in its bosom, KK is the gateway to all other parts of Sabah, as Sabah Tourism Board CEO Noredah Othman explains.
“Pre-pandemic, the Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) was the busiest airport in Malaysia after the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
“The city is about a 15-minute boat ride to the famous Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (TARP), a two-hour drive to the Kinabalu Park and a short distance to multiple sightseeing attractions.
“It’s a convenient destination to experience Sabah’s attractions from mountain high to ocean deep,” she says.
With international and state borders closed during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, all sectors of tourism in Sabah (and all over the country) were hit hard, with tours and attractions shutting down completely for some periods.
As the severity of Covid-19 infections began to ease, interstate travel reopened in September last year (with testing requirements for entry into Sabah dropped in November) and bookings began flowing in from states outside Sabah.
“However, during this period not all the attractions, operators, providers and places of interest were open as it was very dependent on demand during those times.
“Leisure and holiday activities were highly requested during this period while nature and adventure-based activities were less in demand. The exception was for Mount Kinabalu, as climbers from (states) outside of Sabah took this opportunity to climb the highest peak in Malaysia before the year-long peak season started again when international borders were set to open,” Noredah shares.
Those borders opened up in April and although far from a pace which everyone would like to see, the revival of nature-based attractions has been seeing green shoots.
The Klias Wetlands was the only river wildlife tour available for booking in KK when we were planning our trip in early April, but by the time we arrived, nature cruises in Weston, Kuala Penyu, Bongawan, Papar, Tuaran and Kota Belud had all resumed their operations.
Although still missing the hordes of tourists from China and Korea that were commonplace before the pandemic, Sabah has seen an influx of local tourists and small groups coming in from other places, as they venture forward to experience the rich wildlife the state has to offer.
Including the fireflies. You’ll never forget cruising along a river with crocodiles in pitch blackness and seeing nature’s fairy lights.
City sights from the sea
Two hours north to the bustling city centre, another very different boat is also seeing a comeback.
Nestled at the posh Sutera Marina Jetty, the North Borneo Cruises awaits passengers for a relaxing sail on the KK coastline while indulging in an international buffet spread.
With us coming from Penang, which arguably has the most number of hotel buffets per square km, I was a bit sceptical about this excursion.
Buffet dinner sounds great, as does a two-hour cruise, but together ... would I not inevitably miss out on something, trying to do too much?
The jetty was just a few minutes’ walk from The Magellan Sutera Resort, so we left our room about a half hour before the 5.30pm departure time. This allowed us to explore the marina before getting on board.
Never in my life have I seen so many sea urchins casually dotting the shore, their long, black spikes lazily reflecting the soft sunlight.
What a fortune they would cost in a restaurant, I thought, only to be told later that although Sabah does export sea urchins, this particular species wasn’t edible.
At the end of the pier, we registered our attendance for the cruise and noted that the boat was booked nearly at its capped limit of 80 passengers.
The tri-deck yacht, wholly owned by the Amazing Borneo Tours agency, actually has a capacity of 150 but passenger limits remain capped for the time being to give everyone space for better distancing.
Up the gangway and we were led into the dining area; the long buffet line down the centre, with a small raised stage at the end waiting for the live band to set up.
On either side lining the windows, booth seats were set up, followed by bar seating and several small, stand-alone tables located nearer to the food.
Every passenger was allotted their own table, so no rushing for seats is required, nor is deciding the least precious of your valuables to leave behind to indicate that the table is booked.
North Borneo Cruises actually offered three sailing experiences pre-pandemic: the sunset dinner cruise that we were on, a night dinner cruise that would leave some 15 minutes after we returned and a short morning island cruise.
The first two take visitors past the Gaya Island water village, then down to a sunset point before looping back to the KK waterfront.
The morning brunch cruise, on the other hand, headed in a more straight-forward direction to a south-west tip of Gaya Island before heading back, giving those on board a scenic view of the nearby islands and Mount Kinabalu.
Launched just before the pandemic, the daily morning cruise has yet to resume sailing.
Now, two hours may not seem like a lot to tackle sunset selfies and maximise a buffet spread but to my surprise, the cruise was superbly timed.
Visitors are first allowed to leisurely explore the vessel after it embarks, taking in the views of the top and lower deck while peeping into the VIP section on the second level.
Just before 6pm, the buffet line is opened where guests are invited, table by table to cut down crowding, to make their first round.
After having our fill, the stunning views of pale yellow, white and glowing orange set on a spectrum of blue beckons us outside again to lean on the rails and take in the glorious South China Sea sunset.
And after the sun fully retreats for the day, there is still ample time to head back and enjoy another round of food or a few more squares of chocolate or rainbow cake, while the band kicks into high gear and welcomes dancers onto the floor.
The boat docks early, so those with younger kids or two left feet can comfortably escape the party for a breezy walk back, while the rest can opt for a few more songs and a few last drinks.
“Sabah’s sunsets are actually one hour earlier than in Peninsular Malaysia, usually occurring between 6.15pm and 6.40pm daily depending on the time of the year.
“So, we carefully selected this cruise time to allow people the full experience without it feeling particularly too short or too long,” says Amazing Borneo Tours sales director Emily Lim.
Similar to the wildlife tours, the clientele of the cruises was largely international before Covid-19 but is rebounding with interest from local sectors since interstate travel has resumed and SOP restrictions eased.
“Pre-pandemic, our average sunset cruise sessions had been about 80% international and 20% Malaysians. During the pandemic, of course, it was only accessible to Malaysians and they enjoyed special promotional rates.
“Now, we are definitely seeing an increase in the international market once again, especially with the return of the Singapore and Korean markets. It is an exciting time now for the tourism industry, with the world reawakening after two years of hibernation,” Tan says.
Under the sea
It’s hard to go to Sabah and not look under the sea.
With crystal clear emerald waters, the waves just call to you, even if you aren’t lucky enough to travel to the diving heaven of Semporna on the east coast.
Just 3km off the KK mainland, the TARP islands are a popular haunt for locals and visitors of the state’s capital.
Snorkelling gear is widely available for rent and a boat ride from Jesselton Point in the city is not expensive, ranging from RM35 to RM65 for adults (depending on how many islands you want to visit), and RM30 to RM60 for children, which all include the terminal fee.
TARP consists of five islands: Gaya, the biggest island in the park, the crescent-shaped Manukan that is the most developed island of the bunch, Mamutik, the smallest but second busiest site, Sapi that houses a campsite, and Sulug – the only uninhabited island of the park, though according to an acquaintance who has been there, it is home to a healthy number of horseflies.
Towing three young children under the age of 10, we decided to hire a private boat for an additional RM550, giving us full flexibility of our schedule.
Be it heading out slightly later than the usual 8am pick-up time or being reassured that we wouldn’t be holding up any other tourists in the event any of the kids got seasick (they didn’t, thank goodness they inherited my sea legs), the additional buffer made our first-ever family snorkelling trip so much more relaxing.
Boarding Poseidon, a comfortable two-deck yacht at the Sutera Harbour Marina, we set off with our usual guide and a three-member crew.
To avoid the crowd, our dive master took us to the far side of Mamutik island and then to deeper waters off Manukan to see more corals and abundant numbers of clown fish.
Although it was scheduled to rain, the day was glorious and the whole family – save myself, I never rush the sunscreen – got cheerfully sunburned, some in areas least expected. (On the calves, really?)
Of course, with children in salt water, there’s bound to be some spluttering and a few or more tears but overall, it was a great experience.
Only later, when we were drying off in the sunshine on the deck did I realise that, much like on the river in Klias, we were all alone.
Tourists were returning, we were told, but things were still slow for private boat operators and diving classes that have slashed their rates in a bid to attract more people to get their PADI certifications.
Dr Maklarin Lakim, the director of Sabah Parks that manages TARP and eight other parks in the state, says international visitors had made up the bulk of diving students before Covid-19 halted tourist activities back in 2020.
“Pre-pandemic, the majority of people taking scuba diving classes were indeed those from overseas. Since the parks’ reopening on Sept 16 last year, those who are taking scuba diving classes are mostly local students from a local university, where having a scuba diving licence is a requirement for their course,” Dr Maklarin says.
While international tourists have still yet to flow back into Sabah in large numbers, local tourists have been making a beeline to TARP.
In January this year, Malaysian visitors to the islands clocked in at 12,617, nearly equalling pre-pandemic numbers. Foreign tourists, however, who normally more than double the number of local visitors, stood at a mere 377.
On the positive side, overall tourist numbers continue to grow steadily this year, except for a dip in April, perhaps due to the new school term kicking off in earnest.
Arrivals stood at 19,144 in May, with foreign tourists making up slightly less than 10% of this figure.
On Mamutik island, where we stopped for lunch, the island was buzzing with day visitors and, to the kids’ amusement, very friendly biawak everywhere we turned.
From taking over picnic mats to providing a great backdrop for selfies, the monitor lizards roamed freely near the shore and really didn’t seem to bother too many people.
Dr Maklarin says tourist arrivals were capped at 100 visitors at any one time during the pandemic when operations were allowed, except Manukan that was allowed double the amount.
The current daily tourist quota stands at 800 for Manukan, 450 for Mamutik and 400 at Sapi.
On Gaya, it is 350 per day for Padang Point and 100 daily for the base camp.
“The full capacity of the islands can be up to double those respective numbers,” Dr Maklarin adds.
Visitors to Sulug are, as always, determined by how many boatmen can be convinced to bring visitors there.
Which seems a shame, honestly, because despite the lack of any facilities, the isle is lauded for its untouched beauty and seashell-filled shores.
As Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease and even the most careful of homebodies begin venturing out again, Sabah is optimistic that its tourism industry can be rebooted in good time.
For now, as there are fewer international tourists crowding the spaces, it is the perfect opportunity for Malaysians everywhere to experience KK, from mountain high to ocean deep.