Exploring Borneo


Large sails and diesel fuel pushed our Valiant 40, Brick House, northward from Indonesia along the western coast of Borneo. Eventually Rebecca, my wife and shipmate, and I threaded our sailboat inland following an ever-narrowing bay where we dropped anchor in a well-protected, tannin-colored estuary named Santubong.

Most everyone has heard of Borneo, but few could spin a globe and quickly put a finger on it even though Borneo is the third largest island in the world! It sits 1,100 nautical miles north of the western tip of Australia and 300 nm east of mainland Malaysia. Northeastern Borneo extends into the Sulu Sea with the Philippine islands not far away. Indonesia claims the largest chunk of real estate, dominating the southeastern two-thirds of Borneo. Malaysia’s part of Borneo, often referred to as East Malaysia or Malaysian Borneo, takes up the northwest coast and northerly quarter of the island except for the speck of a country called Brunei, which covers some acreage on the northwest shore.

We were surrounded on two sides by thick tangled mangrove. This was the beginning of a brackish river that cut northeasterly into the mangroves for scores of miles. At low tide, our only neighbor was a long gray crocodile stretched out on a soft mud shore. On a higher tide, the local crocodiles straddled the knotted mangrove roots keeping their bellies elevated above the water. It seemed the nearly white Irrawaddy dolphin, which rolled in the estuary, had a truce with those snaggletoothed eating machines.

A crocodile near Santubong.

Patrick Childress

Often obscured in the clouds a few miles away, was the highest bit of land to be seen: a volcano-shaped mountain with a finale of vertical peak called Mount Santubong. It seemed much too steep near its peak to climb, but we would one day take in the view from there.

A modern floating dock
To our surprise, in this seemingly remote area there was a modern floating dock where only one small fishing boat was tied. Having secured our dinghy and wandered up the shore, we were caught off guard by what we heard from the caretaker, spoken in accented English: We were free to use the dock for our dinghy, the city water at the dock was safe to drink, we could walk across the property to get to the main rural road and nearby residential area, and there would be no charge! The property and adjoining fish hatchery were owned by a wealthy Malaysian who visited only occasionally, yet he had instructed his employees to make visiting cruisers welcome.

Santubong is a quiet tourist community surrounded by nature attractions, but first we had to catch the morning minibus for the 35-minute $2 trip into the city of Kuching (“Cat,” in English) to find the immigration and customs offices.

Brick House proceeded northeasterly along Malaysia’s Borneo coast, finally getting hauled out in Kudat.

Kuching seemed a mirage, a sprawling modern city equal to anything in America. The six-lane highways were crowded with new cars. The lack of motorcycles was testament to the country’s wealth, much of which is derived from the offshore oil wells. The city streets and sidewalks were clean of rubbish, and throughout Kuching the municipal grounds were manicured like an estate. We were quickly becoming impressed with Malaysia.

Sensitized by customs and immigration corruption in Indonesia and the Philippines, we were uneasy with the smoothness by which the Malaysian officials processed our papers. It seemed these officers were setting us up for a backlash, but they in fact did their job properly. They did not eye us suspiciously nor dig through our documents, searching for some imagined irregularity, and they even seemed happy to see us! No one needed to come to our boat and rip into every cabinet and inspect labels on cans and count ounces of liquor. Malaysia is an oasis of normalcy, civility and educated people, and no official was on the grubby side of greed.

Brick House spent over six weeks swinging with each tide change in the estuary. Rather than sailing 15 miles up a different river to a $5-per-day marina in the city of Kuching, we preferred the country living of Santubong. Everything we needed to be a perpetual tourist was here. The well-known Sarawak Cultural Village was close by; tourists traveled a long way to see the native longhouses, thatch buildings elevated 8 feet off the ground. The short, dark-skinned native men with bowl-shaped haircuts and women demonstrated poison dart blowing and daily jungle living skills. Reenacting their jungle life for tourists is far easier than the reality of struggling as a speck in the web of life in the rainforest. But not all at the village is jungle tradition: One weekend a year, the open, grassy grounds of the Cultural Village becomes an outdoor concert arena for the annual three-day Rainforest World Music Festival, featuring off-brand musicians from around the world playing music from jungle to jazz.

Alene Rice and Patrick Childress climbing the rope ladders of Mount Santubong.

Bruce Balan

There are sandy beaches on the ocean side of Santubong and several comfortable hotels that fit into the rainforest environment. Throughout the nearby forest, hiking trails wind through the mountainous terrain, across streams, past waterfalls to overlooks, then past hardwood trees of such enormous width and straight-up height that loggers would love to chainsaw this place.

Mount Santubong
With two other newly arrived cruising friends, we slipped from the road onto the damp leaf-carpeted trail threading through the rainforest. The goal was to climb the steep Mount Santubong. Macaque and sometimes silvered leaf monkeys rattled through the leaves in the upper tree branches, cautioning each other of our approach. Poisonous snakes and other animals normally hide away in daylight hours, but biting ants and flying skin piercers wait in the shade near the streams and are often the motivation to keep a hiker’s feet marching.

Short steps are needed to chug up the slippery steeper inclines of loose soil and marble-sized gravel. In these areas, the park service has tied thick ropes from tree to tree so the hikers can help pull their way up and keep from slipping down out of control. Up close, the most vertical rock faces near the summit were as challenging as imagined when viewing from the estuary. Rope ladders with round wooden rungs are secured in place for those fit enough to climb their way straight up. After two hours of heavy muscling of legs and arms with rope-burned fingers, the final elevation was conquered to stand on a spacious flat-topped pinnacle. In the tropics, it is rare to have a horizon clear of humidity, but the reduced visibility at the top of Mount Santubong still gave a commanding view of our neighborhood and our speck of a yacht far below.

Brick House was moored in the river.

Bruce Balan

One day, along with our two cruising friends, we jumped at the chance for a nautical jungle adventure to race a bamboo raft 16 miles down the Padawan River through the forested mountains deep inland from Kuching. Paying our entry fee gave us our pick of a freshly made brown and green bamboo raft, which we dragged into the river and tested for buoyancy. With the morning sun rising higher, we jumped on board and balanced the raft like a wide surfboard as it supported us just above water level. Who knew if the raft would slowly submerge with each mile, or if the vine lashing would stay taught and keep all the tubular stalks in a flat bundle or scatter from under us like discarded straws.

Our “Tourism” class was called and the race was on. We paddled hard with our own dinghy paddles and poled Huck Finn-style with long, skinny bamboo poles. The poles against the river bottom is what kept our river yacht bow-first through the sets of rapids. Other rafters who were caught in the white swirls spun sideways and flipped right over. But the water was warm and the river shallow, so there was little danger. We passed a few rafts and shouted words of motivation to our competition, but far more of the late starters, who were in the more experienced classes, passed us by and we received their words of amusing encouragement. Malaysians know how to have fun on a Saturday.

After four hours on the river, with clothes thoroughly soaked, “Team USA” spread a wake across the finish line in the middle of the pack. The jungle vine lashings on our race machine held together, but our platform was sloshing more under the water than above as we slid onto a sandy bank. There, it would be stacked and, the following weekend, become the fuel for a tremendous fire and another celebration sponsored by the nearby town. The awards ceremony filled the modest town hall at the finish line, with speeches, smiles and much applause.

“Team USA” at the start of the raft race on the Padawan River.

Patrick Childress

Visiting the orangutans
Of course, you cannot leave the Kuching area without visiting the orangutan sanctuaries. Orangutan — it is not pronounced with a “g” on the end — comes from orang, meaning “person,” and hutan, meaning “forest.” One zoo-like facility, called Matang Wildlife Centre, raises or rehabilitates orangutans, preparing them for release. The other facility is a rainforest reserve called Semenggoh Nature Reserve. At the reserve, the orangutans are free to roam the miles of surrounding forest and are offered food twice a day. Well before the feeding and the appearance of the orangutans, a park ranger gave an orientation to the 50 or so camera-toting tourists about the wildness and unpredictability of the animals. This place is not a zoo. These apes (apes have no tails) are far stronger than any human, so they need to be treated with great respect. There have been occasions when large males have come out of the forest in a feisty mood and have wreaked havoc, attacking and maiming tourists. If the orangutans have not found plenty to eat on their own, they will swing in from afar, climb through tree branches or along ropes webbed from the trees leading to the elevated feeding platforms. There, they take their time nibbling and posing for pictures. When they have had enough, they slowly, individually, disappear back into the foliage until none are left for the tourists to snap pictures of. In the jungle, the orangutans forage once again and build their nest for the night high in a tree, far from people.

Eventually the day came for us to pick up anchor and move northward along the west coast of Borneo. We drifted with the outflowing current of the river when a major problem occurred: Our motoring speed was low. We limped along and only when we were well offshore in clearer water, well away from the crocodiles, did I go over the side and chisel the mass of barnacles from the propeller and drive shaft.

Millions of years ago, large areas between Borneo and the mainland to the west were well above sea level. This not only made for valuable oil reserves but also created a shallow mud bottom that extends well away from shore. To visit the national parks along our route, we often anchored two miles offshore in 12 feet of water, fully exposed, then played the tides to land the dinghy high up on the shoreline.

Two orangutans and a proboscis monkey show up for handouts from tourists at Bako National Park.

Patrick Childress

In the Malaysian rainforest, there are many kinds of animals like deer, bearcats (a kind of civet), porcupines, clouded leopards and all sorts of snakes and colorful birds, like hornbills and parrots. The problem with hiking park trails, like at Bako National Park, is that at the end of the day, you usually see only a lot of trees and some very nice waterfalls to cool off in. We found it best to be near the ranger station around 4:00 in the afternoon. That is when the wild pigs, monkeys, birds and other animals wander out of the jungle and into the open to look for food dropped by the tourists.

We were determined to search Borneo to see the rare Rafflesia. This is the largest and one of the rarest flowers in the world. For the Rafflesia to bloom, the conditions must be exactly right, as it is a parasite that blooms on only the tetrastigma vine. The largest Rafflesia can be more than 3 feet across and weigh 22 pounds. The reddish flower can stink like a dead animal and has the spongy texture like a thick mushroom. We had to visit several national parks where these flowers occasionally bloom before we found one at Gunung Gading National Park. Normally, a tourist has to be escorted by a park ranger down a narrow trail completely canopied by trees to the site of the Rafflesia. It was around lunchtime when we approached the ranger who was fully relaxed at his little wooden office near the trail. The ranger saw my head of white hair and our naturalistic demeanor, then pointed Rebecca and me to the flower. This park also had other hiking trails with so many waterfalls that we usually had a swimming hole to ourselves. 

The Rafflesia flower rarely blooms and can smell like a dead animal when it does.

Patrick Childress

Few protected anchorages
Since there are few protected anchorages along the western coast, we slipped into a sparsely populated marina in the beautiful modern city of Miri. It was once a small fishing town with long, featureless three-story concrete buildings that housed specialty shops on the street level. Now the city is shadowed by tall modern architecture. It is a clean, orderly city with a long esplanade at the oceanfront. Miri is of the size where only a bicycle is needed to get most everywhere, and is the perfect city without the big-city hassles. Miri, like most Malaysian cities, has its distinct ethnic areas, which include Indian and Chinese. This makes for a surplus of national holidays that no one passes up celebrating. To balance the air of western civilization, there are still the open-air markets selling everything including cooked mouse-deer and thick white python meat from the jungle.

As tourists, we spent half a day at the local crocodile farm/zoo, which raises the giant animals for leather and food. Miri is the historic home of the first oil well in Malaysia and thus has an oil museum at that site. Further inland, we spent days being guided through the Mulu cave system, a tourist hotspot. It is a debate if this is the largest or second largest cave system in the world. Even though Malaysians are well-educated, modern-thinking, prosperous and friendly people, without tourism, many East Malaysians living in the less-than-modern mountain villages would have little hope for employment.

Nearly six months in East Malaysia had ripped by. We had to clear out of the country and sail further up the coast to the tiny country of Brunei to once again reset the clock on our visas. In oil-rich Brunei, Islam is not only the singular religion but it is also the government. In Brunei, it is against the law to sing Christmas carols or for children to dress up and celebrate Halloween — and don’t even think about jokingly asking where you might buy a pork chop. The only exception to some of these restrictions is at the local yacht club in the port city of Muara. The yacht club is a small oasis for foreigners who work under contract in Brunei.

The patio at the Sutera Harbor hotel and marina in Kota Kinabalu.

Patrick Childress

As we moved up the coast, we did not intend on staying so long at yet another marina — the Sutera Harbor Resort in the high-rise city of Kota Kinabalu — but this marina is one of the most comfortable imaginable with its own bowling lanes, private movie theater, extensive workout gym and free shuttle into the nearby city. This was quite the contrast to our customary life of anchoring off remote thatch villages deep in the Pacific. The marina and the local airport became our base for exploring the northeast coast of Borneo. Because of pirates close by in the Philippines and local bandits scouting just off the coast, the east coast of Borneo is a no-go zone for cruisers on yachts.

“Survivor Island”
We sailed from Kota Kinabalu on to the island of Pulau Tiga, one of very few islands along the west coast. Pulau Tiga has recently been referred to as “Survivor Island” as this was the location for the filming of the first U.S. “Survivor” game show. In reality, Tiga Island is not very remote. Less than 10 miles away on Borneo there are a number of towns all with boats to run tourists out to Tiga for a day trip or a multi-night stay. All of Tiga Island is a national park. The game show contestants “survived” on the north shore, while on the south shore the 200 production crew lived in park-operated cottages and two commercially operated resorts.

On Pulau Tiga, tourists and yachties come to relax on the shores, snorkel the reefs, hike the trails and play in the one large mud puddle in the center of the island. The thick mud is advertised to be medicinal, but this was some of the dirtiest, clingiest mud we had basked in anywhere in the world. With the ensuing mud fight with some French tourists, everyone lost. Soaking in the ocean afterwards, it still took a soft scrubby and strong soap to free our pores and clothes of the microscopic grime.

Malaysian navy patrol boats and yachts in the harbor at Kudat.

Patrick Childress

Playtime was over as we arrived at Kudat, a town at the northern tip of Borneo, where we would haul out Brick House for repairs. It is a basic small fishing town with little reason for a cruiser to visit except for the inexpensive haul-out facility. The labor rate for a general yard helper is no more than $15 per day. It is a safe area, despite being within striking distance of the kidnappers from the Philippines. A Malaysian navy contingent is stationed in Kudat and sends out armed patrol boats each day. Just over 100 miles northwest of Kudat are the Spratly Islands, which the Chinese are making famous with their military fortifications.

Malaysia Borneo is a contrast of the most desirable modern cities we have seen anywhere in the world with small, less-cultivated towns that could rank as villages. There are bulldozed rainforests skirted by well-managed nature reserves. Malaysian Borneo is one of the most diverse destinations to drop an anchor and, maybe one day for us, to permanently settle.

Patrick Childress is a professional captain with a 500-ton Master’s license. He and his wife Rebecca are in the ninth year of a circumnavigation aboard their Valiant 40 Brick House.

Downtown Miri, close to the border with Brunei, is busy and prosperous.

Patrick Childress


By Ocean Navigator