Land Below the Wind

Malaysia's easternmost city is also its most spectacular, as we explore the abundant nature, traditional life and modern luxuries that embody Sabah capital Kota Kinabalu

Probably the most distinctive part of the Sabah flag – a trio of sea-blue, pure white, and earthy red – is the outline of Mount Kinabalu in the top left corner. If you're lucky, you'll be sitting on the right side of the plane to see the majestic peak, 90 kilometres away, as your plane comes in to land in what locals call the ‘Land Below the Wind'.

“We believe that when we die, our souls will ascend to Aki Nabalu,” Fiona Siambun tells me over drinks the night after our arrival. Fiona's a local newspaper editor and a proud member of the indigenous Kadazan people, the state's largest group. In the Kadazan language, “aki” means grandparents, while “nabalu” is their word for resting place, hence “Kinabalu”. I ask Fiona to tell me more about her local family ancestry.

“My family were headhunters,” she casually remarks, before taking another sip from her drink of gin tonic. “Growing up I lived in a longhouse with four other Kadazan families, and I still live in the kampung,” she says, using the ubiquitous Malay word for village. “We still hold to our traditions, though thankfully not all...” While she is a journalist, her family operate the Monsopiad Cultural Village, a cultural centre just 15 minutes drive from downtown Kota Kinabalu, where the heads of men killed by legendary Kadazan warrior Monsopiad – Fiona's direct ancestor – are still on display.

The next day, we make our way down to the hotel lobby, remarking at the large luxury yachts moored in the Sutera Harbour Marina, when the sound of a bell rings out across the marble interior. The source of the commotion is a shy young man in khaki shorts, starched white shirt, and a pith helmet adorned with the logo of the North Borneo Railway. It is time to take the tropical express. Our companions on this rather unique journey – a 58 kilometre steam train ride south from Kota Kinabalu to the sleepy town of Papar – are a mix of elderly Australians and Britons, a group of twenty-something Japanese girls, a smattering of Malaysians, and curious young families like our own. 

With five carriages, each named after one of the stops, the train is hauled by a British Vulcan steam locomotive fuelled by wood not coal. While the carriages were actually built in the 1970s, they have been renovated to recreate a train journey in the early 1900s, when the line provided a vital link between the interior and Jesselton – as Kota Kinabalu was formerly known – transporting goods such as rice, tobacco, sugar, silk, and pineapples. Now almost 120 years old, the North Borneo Railway – a collaboration between the state government and the Sutera Harbour Resort – provides a nostalgic experience for curious visitors, although a commuter train also runs on the same line.

Boarding at the Tanjung Aru terminal, we pose for pictures with the engine before taking our seats. Sitting on cushioned benches, we admire the interior decked out in local timber, with ceiling-mounted fans providing a breeze, as waiters set the table with a breakfast of pastries, croissants and jam, and a pouring of tea. As breakfast is served, the train pulls out of the station and we slowly build up a head of steam. After passing through Putatan, a small settlement partly built on stilts over the South China Sea, our first stop is Kinarut, a historical trading post 20 kilometres down the tracks.

From here the scenery begins to change, taking on a more wild look – one of the train stewards explains this is the Kawang Forest Reserve, a semi-protected area popular with trekkers and cavers. Admiring the scenery, we're suddenly plunged into complete darkness as we enter the 450 metre long Pengalat Tunnel, a remarkable engineering feat built by the British in the early 1900s. Just as the whoops and cheers die down, we emerge into a vista of paddy fields, before slowing down into the terminus at Papar. We're given 30 minutes to explore the quaint town, taking a stroll through the local market to pick up a bag of deep-fried bananas – a delicious local specialty – and then enjoy a colonial-style tiffin lunch as we ride the rails one hour back to civilization.

Just a few hours after our return, we are on the move again, this time aboard a small speedboat as it pulls out of Sutera Harbour Marina and heads southeast to small Gaya Island. This isle had housed the first settlement of the British North Borneo company (who, in one of the quirks of history that dot the region, ran this corner of Southeast Asia as a corporate possession from the late 1800s up until the Japanese arrived in 1942 to boot them out) before it was razed to the ground in 1897 by a local folk hero by the name of Mat Salleh and the British decided to set up shop on the mainland instead.

While the city of Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) thrived and expanded, the villagers on Gaya Island maintained a simple life, until it was declared a national park in 1974. These days, it's a central part of the state's eco-tourism push, and is home to three hotels, including the Gaya Island Resort, where luxury villas peek out between lush jungle, and tropical fish swim in abundance right off the hotel jetty. The morning after our arrival, this is exactly where we find ourselves, as the resort's very own marine biologist, transported New Yorker Scott Mayback, leads us into the balmy waters. 

At times it's a little difficult to hear him over the screams of my one-and-a-half year old daughter – to be fair, it's her first time swimming in open ocean – but he tells us what drew him to this far corner of Southeast Asia. “I actually came to Sabah to help open up an aquarium, but when I heard YTL [owners of the Gaya Island Resort] were looking for someone to head up their marine conservation efforts, I jumped at the chance.” As he explains to me later on the pier, leading tourists on snorkelling tours is only a small part of his job, and where he spends much of his time is at the Gaya Island Resort Marine Center in nearby Tavajun Bay, Malaysia's first turtle rescue centre.

This important sanctuary is where Scott and his team of local assistants nurse sick and rescued turtles back to health. They are also involved in helping to restore coral reefs, run educational programs for school kids, and meet with local fishermen to explain the importance of using less destructive methods. It's an impressive, pioneering setup, and chowing down on our delicious lunch of local treats admiring the view it's very easy to understand the importance that’s being placed on preserving Sabah’s natural beauty.

A few hours later, after a refreshing swim, we sit down for an anticipated dinner of 'Kadazan Steamboat', a combination between steamed hotpot and a seafood grill. Our server is a young Kadazan man called Romshah who hails from Beaufort, a small provincial town halfway between Kota Kinabalu and Brunei famous for white-water rafting. As he stirs the noodles, and puts prawns on the grill, I ask him what, as a Kadazan, Kinabalu means to him: “Aki Nabalu is our home. It's where we're from, and where we will go when we die.” Sitting in this five-star hotel, full of modern luxuries, his strong hold on tradition is striking. Like with the raw nature that surrounds us, it seems that Sabahans have struck the perfect balance in life – allowing development but promoting conservation, always looking to the future but preserving the past.

This land is their land. It's where they'll live, love and die. It's the land below the wind.