Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Being on the edge of Borneo

Never mind the usual suspects of beaches near Kota Kinabalu or the diving sites off Sabah. It’s about time to try a relatively unspoilt area instead!

Robert Frost once wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” He could very well have written about Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, a mere dot on the map of Kudat district in Malaysia. Relatively unknown due to its remote location, Tanjung Simpang Mengayau doesn’t get many visitors, and for now, this outpost on Borneo Island remains a paradise.

This promontory in an isolated part of Sabah northeast of Kota Kinabalu, is reachable after three hours’ drive, the last part of which is over unpaved dirt roads snaking through a small traditional Borneo village. A proper road to these parts, in fact, was only built as recently as in the 1960s, prior to which access was made possible only by navigating a boat along the coast.

But those who don’t care for a little discomfort – though it must be said, the views along the way are spectacular – will be rewarded, at journey’s end, with a landscape so magnificent that you will believe in the existence of heaven on earth.

The crescent-shaped Kalampunian Beach here is carpeted in pure white sands on which gentle waves lap to the shore. This sweeping coastline, fringed by casuarinas trees and said to be one of the most inspiring vistas in Sabah, leads up to the rocky headland called Tanjung Simpang Mengayau, the northern-most tip of Borneo.

Now, imagine standing on this cliff edge and looking out to where the South China and Sulu seas meet in a great clash of waves. Dark and wet sandstone boulders stretch out into the sea like beached humpback whales in a spray of ocean mist. The winds blow in forceful, frightening gusts, wafting a fine vapour of sand into the air. Visitors stand in awe with tousled up hair and billowing skirts. It feels like you are in a remote frontier, facing wild and unknown possibilities – it’s exhilarating. Perhaps this was what Ferdinand Magellan, fabled to have stopped here during his circumnavigation of the globe, felt those many years ago.

It hadn’t always been such a solitary place, though. The name, Tanjung Simpang Mengayau itself is derived from the Rungus words sampang mangazo referring to the great battles once fought here in the 18th and 19th centuries by the locals. According to legend, the coast was a favourite landing point for looting pirates, and Rungus warriors bravely fought them off in bloody battles to protect their land. Tanjung Simpang Mengayau then became the perfect lookout point for incoming pirate attacks.

Though it is uncertain how long the Rungus have been occupying the area, they are considered to be the most traditional tribe in Sabah due to their isolation from the bigger towns for so many years. While many have adapted to modern living rather well, the older generations still clutch to their unique culture and traditions.

Many of the female elders continue to wear traditional brass coils on their arms and drape colourful beads around their necks. Their basketry, weaving and beading works are said to be legendary, and while modern ways have overtaken their more traditional lifestyle, it is still possible to visit a Rungus village and experience a night’s stay in their longhouse at Kampung Bavanggazo.

Besides the homestay in the Rungus longhouse, there are only a handful of places that can accommodate tourists in Tanjung Simpang Mengayau and Kudat, reflecting the district’s relatively new exposure to tourism (See “Accommodations” below).

However, there are still a number of cultural experiences here that warrants a tourist to put up at least a night in the area, such as seeing gong artisans at work in Kampung Sumangkap and the small apiculture industry at Kampung Gombizau. The people of Gombizau, familiar with the local botanical properties, have also commercialized a type of cure-all called ubat seribu or potion of a thousand uses made of wild plants, roots and herbs. Reputed to alleviate various health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes, it is a worthy souvenir to bring home.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Being on the edge of Borneo