First Time On A Bus Ride In Borneo – Sandakan to Ranau
After 2 extra days spent in our hotel on the outskirts of Sandakan, due to me having a cold, and Laura feeling sick (I know these sound like excuses, but we really needed the extra days), we were finally in a healthy enough state to leave, heading to Ranau, up in Borneo’s mountains. We knew that the ride was due to be at least 3 hours long, with no guarantee of air conditioning or road quality, so it seemed wise to hold off until we knew we could manage it without any ill effects.
As it happened, our hotel was about a 2 minute walk from a bus station in Sandakan, which provided a service back to Kota Kinabalu, with Ranau – our next location – on the way. Our hotel had conveniently booked our place onto the bus, and provided us with a piece of paper to brandish at drivers to ensure we were boarding the correct bus. This turned out to be unnecessary, as the bus to KK was clearly marked as such, once we managed to find it.
We boarded the bus and were soon on our way – the first hour or so being taken up making various stops, through the more urban area of Sandakan. During one of these many pauses, the bus was stopped for a full 10 minutes, and the relative silence of the bus was shattered as a number of ladies of reasonably advanced age came on board, waving various exotic fruits and snacks, loudly exchanging comments between themselves. Initially I assumed that they’d spent the morning having a particularly successful shopping session, but after witnessing a number of exchanges of goods and money, it dawned on me that this was a refreshment stop. Sadly Laura and I had already filled up our limited bag space with a cornucopia of sugary snacks for the trip, so we had no need to make use of these 5 loud ladies. They departed as abruptly as they appeared, and the relative silence of the bus – broken only by the crescendos of 80s power ballads on the cd player – fell again.
As the urban area gave way to the city’s outskirts, and then to the countryside, I began to see the extent of the palm oil farming industry. In the orangutan sanctuary, and the proboscis monkey centre only a few days before, we’d learned of the fact that both of these species – along with many more – had been decimated by deforestation for the palm oil industry. Outside Sepilok, we’d seen a good deal of this, where the chaotic growth of the rainforests had been replaced by the near-perfect artificial distribution of palm trees, but the effects of this had been somewhat tempered by areas of rainforest still present around the edges and in the distance.
However further out, as we moved into the countryside, even these areas became less noticeable. In some places, as the bus crested a hill, we could see both into the valleys below and the hills beyond, and there was nothing other than the uniform placement of these trees. It was an impressive, but disconcerting indication of the scope of the damage done to these creatures habitats.
We’d heard from a number of taxi drivers during our time in Sepilok and Sandakan, that it is not just large businesses responsible for the deforestation of the areas, but also individuals who happen to own the land, we’d heard of people who had small tracts of land, who had gone out of their way to put palm trees up on it. And everyone was at it. We even heard a story of one driver’s friend, who was looking to start an organic farm, producing organic pineapples, but he had found himself surrounded on all sides by palm oil farms, which – whether he liked it or not – would put pesticides into his soil and water. So he ended up producing palm oil too.
After hearing of East Malaysia’s lower wages, and higher costs of living compared to Peninsular Malaysia, it’s difficult to place the blame on the individuals for trying to eke out the maximum income that they could manage.
I ruminated on this for some time as the bus wound its way up into the more mountainous regions of Borneo towards Ranau, swerving with unnerving regularity onto the other side of the road and taking tight corners at a much quicker speed than would be advisable. We hadn’t really experienced this particular class of driving (a curious mix of coach and rally), and I was surprised to find the driver quite so willing to engage in it, bearing in mind that he was going to be on the business end of any collision. After hearing the radio station change on a couple of occasions as the bus rounded corners or belted it’s way down the road, straddling the central divide, we were definitely glad that our particular seats were located halfway toward the back of the bus.
The more mountainous regions brought with it a return to the more densely knit forests that we’d gone out our way to see in Sepilok, rising steeply on inclines to our right side, and dropping away sharply on our left, we could see into valleys proudly displaying a full range of greens. Looking at one of the particularly tall mountains, I thought that it may have been Mount Kinabalu, although Laura pointed out that we were some way from Ranau, and that on the flight to Sandakan – which went over Kinabalu – the top appeared grey due to a lack of trees, so it probably wasn’t.
I realised the error of my ways as Mount Kinabalu came into view. Indeed, whilst many of the taller mountains that we’d seen on the winding ascent were topped with verdant greens, similar to the foothills below, the top of Kinabalu was obscured by clouds, its summit a dark, somewhat foreboding silhouette through the lighter sections of the cloud. It was awe inspiring, and I immediately considered myself daft for mistaking it, and even dafter for thinking that we would be able to climb it this trip.
We continued for 15-20 minutes in the ever-present shadow of Kinabalu, until we arrived into Ranau, the 4 and a half hour trip actually seeming fairly short, over the course of the climb, we’d ascended over 500m above sea level. Ranau is a small, slightly dishevelled looking town surrounded by glorious views on almost every side. It has reasonable amenities, and an abundance of small inns and B&Bs providing a variety of different accommodation options. It also had the most impressive supermarket that we’d actually seen in Borneo – although we weren’t here to see that. Overlooked by Mt Kinabalu in the distance – although in our experience, only briefly before the clouds cover it – and by a variety of other verdant mountains, this felt like one of the most picturesque locations that we were likely to see. We booked into our hostel – the Backpackers Hostel – and prepared to find dinner.