A vehicle test-drive turned into a four-day, cross-country tour of Sabah, which is not a bad thing because the Land Below the Wind is probably the most beautiful place in the country to travel, writes DEEPAK GILL.
IT was an amazing and unexpected scene in the mountains: four grown men seriously racing kids aged 12 and below in a 4x100m relay. The small but boisterous crowd cheered as the runners sprinted by, batons swinging, their breathing furious.
Sadly, the adults lost. And not by a close margin either! Must have been the high altitude...
Up here in the interiors of Sabah is a village with a little boarding school snug on a steep slope, 860m above sea level. We were the participants of the Isuzu D-Max Sabah 4x4 Adventure ‘05, a four-day road-trip that took us from the sea to the mountains and rivers, and back again.
The school stop was on the morning of the second day. Here, Isuzu donated some basic items to SK Tungou, whose underprivileged students from the deep interior don’t go home for months or years on end. We had stumbled upon their annual sports day, and I knew we were in trouble when a big-mouth suggested a race against the kids.
The kids won the pool of RM82.62, and I made some on the side by betting against the guys. (Sorry, fellas.)
The stunning view from the school, of the valley, distant villages and mountains, was something to savour. We arrived via a scenic road that snakes through the hills, linking Tambunan with Ranau. Off this route, lie little hamlets where farming communities bask in the sun, mere specks against the mountains.
The event began in the city of Kota Kinabalu, the sunny sea-side capital. A convoy of 13 Isuzus, consisting mainly of the D-Max, a three-litre 4x4 twin-cab pick-up truck, assembled for a tour of the state to test-drive the brand new vehicles. From KK, we headed south towards Keningau, eschewing the designated road.
The off-roading experience began just outside KK, when we drove through old logging trails. It was a relatively easy session for the D-Max, and we broke for lunch by a river. The afternoon drive proved more challenging – we encountered deep mud with the texture of slush, and it was more like skating on ice than driving. Fun!
We switched gears to 4-low, the “tank-mode”. All four wheels moved very slowly but with lots of power. Slipping and sliding, the convoy made it up and down the slopes with ease. Soon we were on a highland road still under construction (another link from KK to the interior), and exited at Keningau. At its highest point, this road hits an altitude of 1,280m.
Keningau has a large population of immigrants from Indonesia and the Philippines, and we didn’t feel very comfortable. However, the locals were friendly and warm, and we spent a night here before heading north-east to Tambunan, an idyllic, three-street town in a valley carpeted by rice fields.
We visited a village where there is a memorial of legendary warrior and rebel Mat Salleh by the padi fields. He led battles against the British from 1894 up to 1900, when he was killed at his fort where the memorial now stands.
We took in beautiful scenes of villages, trees, hills and streams, until we got to the school where our runners got whipped. From here, it wasn’t long before Ranau appeared, lying in a huge valley. The lunch-stop was in a little pad on a hill with breathtaking views. Meanwhile, rain clouds gathered.
The peaceful moments dissipated as the convoy went diving into a valley rather than try to clamber out. All went well, until a 10-minute blitz of rain changed everything. The trail became muddy and uncompromising. A particular uphill stretch bogged us down. The first vehicle made it up pretty quickly, but the trail deteriorated from there. The third vehicle took a long time to get pass this 50m stretch. When it was our turn to have a go, our driver opted for speed, hoping the momentum would carry us through. It didn’t.
The convoy split into two as we opted for an escape route.
We got to Kundasang, at the foothills of Mt Kinabalu, when it was dusk and cold. The clouds that for days had conspired to obstruct sight of the summit continued to frustrate us. We spent the night drinking, eating, singing and keeping warm.
That cold morning which saw me stagger from bed to balcony is not one I’ll forget in a hurry. The scenery from 1,554m was stunning. Miles and miles of rolling hills, a couple of nestling villages, and the bright sun beaming down on everything. Zen Garden Hotel (www.zengardenresort. com) was the charming resort we had opted for. And this morning, Mt Kinabalu stood clear and majestic, breathing down on Kundasang, its jagged ridge, rocky face and dark grey shade standing out against the clear blue skies.
It sure looked like a prop.
We rolled out eastwards to the lowlands and ocean again, but not before dipping in at Poring Hot Springs and swinging by Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary.
The town of Sandakan has many immigrants too, which seems like a state-wide problem. Its location by the sea led to its boom many years ago when timber was the main commodity. Nowadays it is palm oil.
The farewell dinner party was unforgettable, mainly due to its location in the garden of a quaint “home” – the English Tea House & Restaurant (see related story). We sampled Sandakan’s wild nightlife later at Mile 4, where more hedonistic partying took place and friendships were strengthened.
It was a fitting end to our grand tour of Sabah and a great showcase for the D-Max. Though we were only together for four days, some us had heavy hearts when the group broke up to return home, a testament to the brilliant moments we had shared crossing over 700km of beautiful country. W
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