THREE Sibu photographers took off in their multipurpose vehicle for an adventurous 12-day road trip around Sabah recently — against the advice of many naysayers.
The Landas season will not be favourable for good photography. The Sulu pirates will definitely be waiting to kidnap you guys. Twelve days! That’s a long time in the wilderness, the trio were told.
But Steve Ling Leh Tiong — a retired journalist and well-known photographer, retiree Tong Teck Ping — a renowned photographer, and young Peter Lee — award-winning photographer and graduate teacher, decided to go on with their plan — a case of ‘now or never’ as they put it.
So on a sunny morning, they set out from Sibu on their cross-state drive from Nov 28 to Dec 10, 2017.
They already had friends lined up to receive them along the way in Miri, Lawas, Mabul Island and Kota Kinabalu.
With a map, Waze in their handphones, cameras, the multipurpose car (mind you, not a four-wheel drive), sunglasses, passports and enough clothes, they started very positively, expecting to be back in Sibu within a dozen days.
Roads are not extensive and travelling between towns and villages is not that easy in Sarawak and Sabah.
Rest-stops might not be available, so the jungle might be the answer to nature’s call. Moreover, information might be scarce for more than 200km at a stretch, and roads can really be lonely.
It would be hard for some travellers to even know if a landslide has occurred a few kilometres yonder.
One day one, the group took the first lap of the journey with a 400km drive from Sibu to Miri.
After an overnight stay in Miri and a hearty breakfast with friends, they drove to Brunei and Lawas on the second day. The border crossing and passport checking at the immigration outpost went smoothly and they reached Lawas earlier than expected.
According to Tong, the stay in Lawas was memorable as they got to photograph the serene Lawas River and the diverse ethnic communities at the tamu the next morning. Lawas a very deep impression on them.
Poor road conditions
On the third day, they drove 113km from Lawas to Tenom, then another 42km to Keningau. Small settlements such as Nabawan, Matiku and Sapulut could be seen along the way.
Ling told thesundaypost, “It’s an uneven stretch of road — some parts are still under repair, some parts not repaired at all, while some parts not even paved.
“Some of the rough stretches are 30 metres long. Imagine driving and suddenly a road sign appears in front of you and you have to brake abruptly!
“Finally, after 300km, we arrived at Tawau, where we spent the night.”
From Tawau, they drove 106km to Semporna on day four, where they stayed at a splendid floating hotel, renowned for its architecture and as one of the most famous resorts in Sabah. The rooms are all built on stilts.
The three friends were very impressed by the waves “beneath the rooms”, which made their stay a fascinating experience.
The next day before leaving, they had a good round of photography, capturing scenes of the surrounding seas, the lepa boats of the Bajaus, and the Bajaus’ seafaring existence.
“The Bajau children, used to being photographed, were fascinating. They have remarkable faces, very expressive eyes and agile bodies. They were in the boat one moment, and in the water, the next,” said Lee.
Journalists have written about the Bajau Laut, known as Sea Gypsies, whom they find unique and colourful.
Most of these seafarers live in their boats and fish for a living. The only time they are taken ashore is after their death — for burial.
Semporna has a rather unique history. It was established only after the British North Borneo Chartered Company was founded in Sandakan.
The Chinese, who settled in Semporna, arrived from the Philippines, seeking refuge from Spanish attacks. This part of Sabah was once ruled by the Sulu Sultans.
Semporna means Peaceful Place
As the trio did not know whether Teck Guan Cocoa Village and the Cocoa Museum had folded up or were closed at weekends, they were disappointed at having to give these places a miss.
However, the fascinating early morning boat ride to Mabul Island on day five duly made up for their disappointment.
“The jade green sea and the cool soft sea breeze made us feel very relaxed, free and easy,” said Tong.
“We were met by a fellow Foochow man, who has been living many years on Mabul Island, which is only 20ha in size. It’s great for divers and tourists with its beautiful reefs and white beaches. I think Mabul Island is really one of the highlights of our road trip.”
The island has picture postcard scenery. The kampung and its residents offer great opportunities for photography.
On the sixth day, they went from Mabul Island to Semporna, then 61km to Kunak, 77km to Lahad Datu, and 87km to Kinabatangan before reaching Sandakan, their final destination for the day, after logging another 78km.
Along the way, the trio had actually driven through very underpopulated areas of Sabah, ravaged by pirates in the old days.
In Sandakan, they put up at a homestay, which was tidy, clean and of good value.
They also visited Sandakan Memorial Park and enjoyed the Sabah Tea Garden and a fish spa.
The trio left Sandakan on day seven, driving along a fairly good road with only a few potholes here and there.
They made a stopover at Beluran after driving 130km. From Beluran to Ranau, the scenic mountain view kept them busy clicking their cameras en route to Kundasang.
Ranau, 1,100m above sea level, is smaller than Sibu with a population of about 100,000 — roughly the size of Bintangor. Most of the inhabitants are Dusun, who grow vegetables everywhere.
Interestingly, Ranau benefitted from the largest mining project in Malaysia — the Mamut Copper Mine, which ceased operations in 1999 but had brought prosperity and turned Ranau into a thriving township with a golf course — the Ranau Golf Course — a bridge across the Liwagu River, more buildings, better roads and schools.
On the morning of the eighth day, after a restful night, they had a leisurely drive to Mount Kinabalu on the eighth day.
The next day (day nine), they spent a night at a Mount Kinabalu hotel. They enjoyed the invigorating fresh air after their long drive.
From the foot of Mount Kinabalu, the trio drove to Kota Belud on the 10th day, then to Kudat where, looking out from the much photographed Tip of Borneo, they watched, spellbound, the timeless ebb and flow of the beautiful sea and the terrific view of the meeting point between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea.
The Tip of Borneo is a rocky outcrop, jutting out into the sea at Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, the northernmost point of Borneo Island.
“It’s worth travelling so far, from Miri to Semporna, Sandakan and through the Crocker Range to reach the Tip of Borneo. We just had to click away at the magnificent sight,” said Tong.
The bridge of Tamparuli gave the three friends more opportunities to take pictures. Though old and rickety, the bridge is preserved for its historical value.
It is located along the Kota Kinabalu-Ranau Road in Tamparuli town. The views from the bridge are awesome and the river below is very clean.
“We were so happy to see Peter dancing while singing the song. It was amazing to see him so buoyant on the 10th day of our travels. His youthful energy lifted our spirits,” said Ling.
After spending the night in Kota Kinabalu, the trio drove to Beautfort, 92km away, on day 11, they photographed the railway tracks and train.
They then drove to Sipitang, 44km from Beaufort, and from there, another 52km to Lawas before logging 67km more to Limbang, where they stayed a night before heading to Miri.
Throughout the journey, they were blessed with good weather, which is rare in December in East Malaysia.
“We need a young man like Peter to travel with us. He is not only good in photography but also good in using all the handphones.
“We totally depended on him to find the roads and the various destinations in unknown territories. His knowledge of Bahasa Malaysia is a great advantage too. We are very thankful to this young man,” Ling said.
He also said driving was a great way to see Sabah at their own pace, adding that they actually stopped to enjoy what we saw.
“This DIY trip was best suited to our liking. We didn’t even have to take the normal routes or stay at the normal places.”
They finally reached Sibu on Dec 10, tired but happy.
Lee said overall the trip was a great adventure.
“There were great moments in the 12 we spent together. We had a lot of laughter and good memories. The drawback was the bad roads in many parts of our journey.”
Fortunately, they had only one puncture on the way home.
“On the whole, the trip was so good that we won’t mind doing it again,” he said.