Loop around Sabah - North Borneo


Oct 9, 2011
Recently I was looking for an interesting destination for a motorbike trip. Initially it was going to be Cairns-Cape York, Australia. However without an enduro/touring bike of my own and motorbike rental prices in Australia being on the verge or ridiculous, it wasn't meant to be - at least for the moment. Australia is not the sort of place one can ‘wing’ a motorbike trip. So all roads were leading to Asia, again.

With Indochina in rainy season, I started to think Malaysia and wasn't long before Borneo became the target destination. In the research phase I discovered that there is relatively little info available about motorbiking Sabah and Sarawak. So hopefully some of this info will be useful.

There are only a handful of businesses in Kota Kinabalu and Malaysian Borneo in general that rent out larger type bikes. I contacted Ride Borneo - these guys specialise in off road trips. They rent out Kawasaki KLX 150s, but unfortunately didn't have any available at the time. At Ride Borneo, a chap by the name of Brandon knows a lot about possible routes and interesting places to visit. He was very helpful in helping put together a trip plan along with with Aki, a rider from Sarawak who also has an intersting blog about riding in Borneo: http://aki-sarawakadventure.blogspot.com.au/ .


The other company that rents out KLX 150s is Go Go Sabah. They seem to be the biggest rental place in Kota Kinabalu with numerous bikes available The manager there is Joel and after some correspondence with him, the deal was sealed for a KLX 150. Next day the air tickets were bought for departure in two weeks.

Upon landing in Kota Kinabalu it was very hot. I brought a waterproof jacket and pants, reading that it rains frequently even in the dry season and can be cold in the mountains. It took me about 30 seconds to figure out that I would absolutely steam up in them. In the end I didn't even use the jacket once. Mesh attire, with zip out waterproof liners, is the way to go I think.

The first day was spent in Kota Kinabalu organising stuff for the trip. Although there are many bike workshops throughout Sabah, parts for ‘unusual’ bikes, like the KLX 150 can be impossible to get outside of Kota Kinabalu, as I found out. Also if you don't know much about bike maintenance, I recommend getting a mechanic to check the bike prior to departure. Bikes can be poorly maintained and some parts might need adjustment or replacement.

For Kawasaki spare parts and service one can contact Multi Motors: http://multimotors.mariniaga.com/. Chong is the manager there and he speaks good english and is very helpful. The workshop is about ten kilometers outside Kota Kinabalu center. Right across the road is a hardware/auto store where one can buy tools, bungee cords, duct tape, etc.


First leg was towards Kudat and straight to the the Tip of Borneo. It is very tranquil there with numerous deserted beaches.


The area is home to the Rungus ethnic minority. If you are interested in staying in a traditional Rungus longhouse and getting some useful info about the area and its people, you may contact Howard. He is an englishman who now calls Tip of Borneo home and runs the company Tampat Do Man: http://tampatdoaman.com/.


The road between Kota Belud and Mt. Kinabalu National Park is scenic and beautiful, with little traffic and lots of nice bends allows first sightings of Mt. Kinabalu whose presence is powerful and spectacular.


At the base of Mt. Kinabalu stayed at the Mountain View Lodge - nice view from the balcony and had kool patrons, but that is all that was nice about the place.


Trecking and riding inside Mt Kinabalu National Park.No climb up to the summit this time....ensure to book in advance if you're up to the challenge.


Little KLX 150 next to some beasty bikes of the Borneo Riders club. Nice guys!


A night in Telupid - dusty small town between Ranau and Sandakan. Sabah is full of wildlife and these stay mongrels seem to be everywhere. All appear to be very well fed, which is nice to see.


Labuk Bay Proboscis monkey sanctuary. These guys have the most distinct nose. They live in mangrove rainforests, but unfortunately their habitat has been almost completely destroyed by deforestation and palm oil plantations.


For example, one has to drive through kilometers upon kilometers of palm oil plantations to get to the Labuk sanctuary, which is only seems to be about a 50 meter wide area of rainforest between the palm oil plantations and the sea/bay.


Sepilok orangutan sanctuary. The orangutans here are semi-wild. Rescued and brought up by humans but and are free to roam the rainforest and come and go as they wish. Although most still come for the daily food handouts. Arrived to find this little one right near the car park munching on some leaves. Spent a good ten minutes just observing. It gave me a few looks straight into the eyes - I felt instantly connected and strangely it felt like looking into human eyes.


Incredibly strong - one arm chin ups are no problem for these guys. This cheeky one on the right climbed on top of the public toilet, in what appeared to be a search for water.


Next stop - Sandakan is Sabah’s second largest city with a strong Chinese influence. All major cities in Sabah seem to have strong Chinese influence. There appears to be little Indian influence, compared to the Malaysian peninsular. On the other hand one can encounter Indonesians, Filipinos and many ethnic minorities. Each sizable village seems to have a mosque and also a Catholic church signed “Gereja Katolik”.


Sukau is a village located on the Kinabatangan river. Many brochures claim that this area is great for nature spotting which is rich in biodiversity and wildlife. It's also the place to encounter the Borneo pygmy elephant. Upon arrival I found this hard to believe, as on the way one rides past dozens of kilometers of palm oil plantations, again. There is only one road in Sukau and numerous lodges that offer B & B style accommodation. Its also cheaper to organise guided tours down the river here, rather than from Sandakan or Kota Kinabalu.


Once on the river, it wasn't long to start seeing a wide range of wildlife. I was wrong! The guide we had was incredible at spotting camouflaged animals in the most obscure places.
Most of the animals are up in the trees and if one wants to take good photos, an SLR with a big lens is needed. In just three short river trips, we saw at least four types of monkeys, pythons, a crocodile, an orangutan, monitor lizards, frogs, owls, eagles, raptors, storks, kingfishers, broadbills, and more. Unfortunately, no elephants to be seen this time.


Now the sad part about all this is, that the reason one gets to see all these animals in the region is that they have been pushed into tiny narrow corridors of rainforest along the river by deforestation. From what was seen, the corridor was anywhere from about 500 meters to 10 meters wide between the river and the palm oil plantations. In some places there was no rainforest left along the river at all and some animals have to move through palm oil plantations to get through from patch of rainforest to the next . The fact that they have managed to survive at all is amazing. Conservationists are now trying to link up the remaining pockets of rainforest and plant corridors to allow animals to move along the river. The areas in green is what remains of the rainforest and in red the critical replantation needed. Lets hope the conservationists win this battle, because the situation seems really bleak for the animals and their habitat.


On the way to Samporna and again more palm oil plantations. It was beginning to feel like the whole of Sabah was one giant palm oil plantation. To allow to irreversibly destroy what nature has taken millennia to create for profits, just seems incredibly short sighted. What seems to makes the situation complicated is that many poor villagers now depend on the plantations for their livelihood.


Next stop Samporna - Sabah’s scuba diving capital, which claims to have one of the world’s greatest dive sites: Sipadan island. Samporna itself is quite a small town with many westerners there due to the diving. Has a bit of a seedy feel to it. Here some local dudes would drive up and down with their done up Protons, which with all the neon lights at times seemed to have a discotheque going on inside. Probably sunk every penny into the those cars. But hey, if it helps them to get the chicks, who am I to criticise....There were also numerous shops pumping Brazilian Funk music, which was interesting.

To protect the marine environment around Sipadan island, the Malaysian government only issues 120 dive permits a day to Sipadan island. Hence if one wants to be assured to dive at Sipadan, a booking a few weeks in advance is needed. Or one can try and ‘wing it’, like me. Arriving 4pm on the day prior, I ran around all the dive shops asking if anyone had a spot. Fortunately (or unfortunately - depends whose fortune) a Mr Mathias B. from Sweden cancelled his spot and I was quick to agree to take it. Three dives at Sipadan the following day! Then it was off to the internet cafe to do a ‘refresher course’ on Youtube - haven't dived in 3.5 years.


That night was spent at a hotel right on the jetty, Dragon Inn. Nice location but looks like rats have had a feast on the mattress.

The following morning was rainy and windy, for the first ever during the whole trip. To get to Sipadan, we first had to take a speedboat to Mabul island to have breakfast and arrange the dive gear and then another boat to Sipadan. The whole journey took about 2 hours, in rough seas. So for those who tend to get sea sick, some kind of motion sickness medicine is recommended. Many brochures show Mabul island as an idyllic diving tropical spot to stay for a few days while one is diving in the area, but to me it seemed more like a refugee camp. Glad to have only a quick stopover there.



Diving at Sipadan itself was absolutely incredible. There were so many fish and coral everywhere. Lots of sharks, turtles, barracuda, huge parrot fish, swarms of jack fish, just to name a few.


The rusted side stand snapped off and needed some repairs.


I have been really lucky with the weather. It has been very sunny every day of the trip with the one exception being the dive day at Sipadan. During the night spent at Tawau, it absolutely bucketed down so hard that it woke me up in the middle of the night. There was a feeling the hotel roof was going to cave in. Made me wonder what would happen if this kind of rain would come down while one is riding - not pleasant. But by morning the sun was back out and ready to ride. As I was putting my luggage on the bike the blasted side stand snapped off again, so it was back to finding a workshop to weld the it back on.


From Tawau to Kalabakan its 80 km of sealed road passing pretty much nothing but palm oil plantations. Kalabakan is also the last place to get petrol on the old Kalabakan-Sapulut gravel logging road. There has has been talk about this becoming a major sealed road for some years now but it still hasn't happened. Although road workers were laying tarmac on the first few kilometers out of Kalabakan. So it may happen soon?? Hopefully not! Seems like sealed road = deforestation.

Most of the main roads in Sabah are very good but some sections are poor. Parts of the roads can be uneven, gravel or even completely collapsed. Look out for the warning road signs “Awas”. There are also police checks along various sections of the highways. If suddenly all drivers start to slow down, its not because they have had a realization - probably there are cops around. There are a lot of 4WD vehicles and many of them drive quite fast - 100 km/h +. Some overtake at any opportunity, even if they have to turn off the road 20 meters ahead of you, leaving very little space when they pull back in the lane. Some just overtake alongside without bothering to change lanes.


This old Kalabakan-Sapulut logging road is quite rough. Very uneven, bumpy, full of potholes, sometimes there is gravel, sometimes mud, sometimes sand, etc. Good knobby tyres are strongly recommended! My backpack that is usually tied down to the pillion seat with bungee cords flew off within 5 minutes on the gravel, so had to wear it on my back all the way until back on the tarmac.


Wasn’t long before the rainforest replaced the palm oil plantations and it was real jungle all the way until the end of this road some 150 km north. This is the Borneo!


There are very few vehicles that traverse this road. Apart from the occasional 4WD and the odd logging truck (that create a dust storm each time they pass), one is alone with the jungle. Also apart from the beginning and end sections of the road, there are no visible settlements or villages.


About two thirds of the way from Kalabakan, one will reach the Maliau Basin security gate. This is Borneo’s Lost World as it was only initially explored in 1988, and the rainforest there has been virtually untouched. Arrangements can be made to stay and track there but it costs quite a bit and needs organisation - the ‘wing it’ theory probably can't apply here.

The forest around this part of the road is dense. A big brown monkey, almost the size of a juvenile orangutan ran across the road and disappeared into the forest right in front of the bike. Later on, a man in a local village told me that riding these roads is dangerous because there are wondering elephants! Man, if he knew how kool it would be to see an elephant in the wild......If I had a tent it would have been great just to set camp by the side of the road for the night and observe the wildlife.


After a whole day of rocky riding finally reached Sapulut and was glad to see tarmac again. Only to be pointed out by some locals that there isn't any accommodation in town and I had to ride 20km back down the gravel road to Tataluan village.


Tataluan is home to the mystic Batu Pungul - a 300 meter high limestone pinnacle right in the middle of the jungle. The village is one of the first settlements when approaching Sapulut from Kalabakan. It has a simple lodge with outdoor toilets and bucket-pour-yourself type shower.

The people who inhabit the region are the Murut minority. They speak their own language and the men seem to be short but very stocky and muscular. Very few tourists visit this area due to its inaccessibility. For example there was only one foreigner that visited Tataluan village in the last two and a half months prior to my arrival.

The villagers are very hospitable and will treat you like a real guest, rather than just another person passing by. The manager of the lodge is a man called Lantir. He speaks good english and if anyone is interested at visiting the village can contact him on: 0128201257 (malaysian mobile number). Although there doesn’t seem to be any mobile reception in the village so perhaps send him a sms and he will reply when heads into town.


In the evening all the boys from the surrounding villages gather for an intense game of footvolley and soccer. Be prepared to participate!

In general I found people in Sabah really friendly. It's not uncommon for random people to genuinely smile, say hello or, if they speak english, just to strike up a conversation. Initially it seemed a bit sus, but after awhile it became apparent that people are, for the most part, quite genuine. One example, there was one guy with massive hands and forearms that walked across the road to shake my hand and tell me ‘welcome’ while I was waiting in traffic in Lahad Dutu. Genuine!


To get to Batu Pungul, we needed to take a motorised canoe for 10 minutes or so.




After a short walk through the jungle to reach its base, it was time to climb to the top. The village guide will lead but climb at your own risk - the limestone rocks are very sharp and the only way is down if you fall. Plus keep in mind, there is no phone reception, only a gravel road out and Batu Pungul is located deep inside Sabah’s interior division with no big city around shall one get injured.


But the views from the top are spectacular.

The road between Sapulut and Keningau was fantastic with lots of mountains and forest - no palm oil plantations! The whole of Sabah’s Interior Division seemed like a very interesting place to explore with untouched forests and lots of ethnic minorities. It can be difficult to find a petrol station or petrol booth in these areas so it's recommended to bring a spare petrol canister, just in case.


The last day of the of a trip can be a drag, heading back to the city and returning to ‘normality’. However on this trip, the last leg from Keningau to Kota Kinabalu was surprisingly not. The road between Tambunan and Kota Kinabalu, through the Crocker range, was probably the best of the trip. The road is windy with forrest all the way along until about 20 km out from Kota Kinabalu - ideal for motorbiking!
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Reactions: Eoin Christie
Jul 6, 2004
Great trip report mate, love the monkeys.
A mate is planning a similar trip from Oz.
I will send it on to him.

Mar 30, 2010
Now this looks interesting Oddvar.

A bit of off the beaten track with the hammocks??