I was in a Borneo supermarket, perusing over a road trip snack purchase – a critical decision of whether to go with chocolate or crisps (I went with both). I turned around, only to be met with an entire supermarket of people watching me. When I moved, they moved. When I walked to the next aisle. So did they. This continued the entire way around the supermarket. Leaving the store, the carpark was five times more full than when we first arrived. Had I not known better I’d have thought someone had alerted the entire town to our presence and everyone had hurried down just to see the three Western girls wandering around the shop.
This isn’t entirely implausible. Getting stared at was an everyday reality in Borneo. Its such a strange and exotic land in so many ways but that was perhaps the most surprising aspect to me (although I hadn’t been to Java at this point where a police car flashing sirens and rushing to a crime scene actually slowed down so the officers could gawk at me).
You see, three girls on a road trip just doesn’t seem to happen that much in Borneo, a fact I hadn’t really appreciated before experiencing it first hand. When my friend Sally suggested a Borneo road trip I jumped at the chance – road trips are my absolute favourite way to see a country. We had no idea at the time how out of our comfort zone we would be. We didn’t anticipate nearly running out of petrol on a long deserted stretch of road, being stranded late at night on the opposite side of a river to where our accommodation was and being sat in a boat underneath a low hanging tree with a poisonous snake coiled mere inches above our heads.
But it was those moments that made the trip so memorable, and I have no doubt whatsoever that the experience would have been wholly different had we just jumped on buses from one place to the next.
We wouldn’t have gotten so very lost on so many occasions and we wouldn’t have wasted hours driving around in circles; but we also wouldn’t have had drinks with the friendly owner of a homestay who took us in when we were stranded and called for a boat to take us to our accommodation. We wouldn’t have stopped in tiny towns where nobody spoke a word of English, drank tea in a plantation high in the mountains or eaten the strangest meal of our lives in a huge deserted ballroom. Whilst these may not seem like highlights, those are the moments that really made the trip.
With only 10 days to spare there was no way to cover the whole of Borneo, or even just a quarter of it (it is the World’s third largest island after all). So we chose to road trip around Sabah, a relatively small Malaysian state in the Northeast, which also happens to be packed full of amazing beaches, rainforests and wildlife.
Our starting point was Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah and the gateway to the region. Our ride: Proton (he may not look like much but he handled those roads like a pro).
Our first destination after leaving the capital was Kinabalu National Park where we hiked through rainforest, went on treetop canopy walks and drank tea in a plantation high in the hills.
Next we moved to Kota Kinabatangan for dawn and dusk boat safaris, spotting wild Orangutans, Proboscis Monkeys, Pygmy Elephants and Crocodiles (also the site of the ‘poisonous snake hanging inches above our heads’ incident) and climbing up to clifftop caves full of centuries old coffins.
We visited Sepilok for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre and Malaysian Sunbear Sanctuary where my heart was moved by the sight of a young orangutan taking care of his very ill looking friend.
And last but not least, we drove North to Kudat, where we relaxed on rugged deserted beaches and watched the sunset over the Northernmost tip of Borneo.
All in all, it was one of the most rewarding, challenging and downright amazing road trips I have ever been on and I would strongly recommend anyone who is planning a trip to Borneo to grab a rental car and embark on your very own Borneo road trip.
One Very Important Thing To Remember Before Setting Off
Make sure you consider the petrol situation before setting off.
Yes…I know how obvious this seems. For seasoned travellers about to embark on a road trip around one of the more remote destinations in Southeast Asia you would have thought we would have given some thought to the availability of petrol along our route. And yet we did not. We set off woefully unprepared and expecting to encounter regular petrol stations.
How wrong we were. There was one particularly empty stretch of road between Sepilok and Kudat where we hadn’t seen another human being for a good couple of hours, had no working phones and were running dangerously low on petrol with no idea of when we would be hitting the next town.
It was only as we were starting to get really nervous (I’m serious – we’d been running on fumes for quite some time) that we emerged from the wilderness and managed to find a petrol station. Cue huge sighs of relief all round! Had it been just a few miles further, or had we set off with slightly less petrol in our tank, we would have found ourselves completely stranded.
I would love to say that this was a one off. Unfortunately it turned out to be a pretty regular occurrence throughout the entire road trip. And we never did learn.
The lesson? Take a spare can of petrol. I cannot stress this enough for this trip. It might just save you being stranded for hours on a remote highway.
Other than that – just enjoy the journey!
Stay tuned for a more in depth post about the first destination: Kinabalu National Park.
Thanks for reading! Come back soon!
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