Malaysia

BORNEO JUNGLE-TRAIN

From the two front-chairs in the bus we have a good view of the road and the surroundings. And, at the same moment, of the steep mountain slopes, the precipices, the flooded and washed away asphalt and the cat-and-mouse game between the cars and buses on the road: overtaking, breaking, accelerating, overtaking again. It is a hellish ride of 60 kilometers to Tambunan. We are on the way from Kota Kinabalu to Tenom, in order to return to Kota Kinabalu the next morning by jungle train.

The initial thirty kilometers we wind up through the woods to the top of the Crocker Range, a protected mountain range that runs parallel to the west coast of Sabah. At about 2000 meter lies the pass; alongside the road we see some hotels.jungle train We pass the highest mountain of the area: Gunung Alab. Then we zigzag on down. The remaining 50 kilometers from Tambunan to Keningau are flat and straight. At the busstation of Keningau we drink a cup of black and bitter coffee. For the next couple of hours there is no bus on to Tenom, so we start looking for a shared-taxi to cover the last 42 kilometers. Unfortunately there are no fellow passengers around. We have no choice but to buy up all the seats… four times five Malaysian Ringgit, that's still less than fifty Eurocent! The taxi-driver is in a hurry, he puts his foot on the accelerator and finds it amusing to overtake all traffic. I get afraid, angry and sulky. I object, but he doesn't care much. Luckily, going this fast, the ride soon comes to an end and just before my anger is about to turn into fury, we arrive in the centre of Tenom.

 

We take a room in the Sri Perdana Hotel, of which goes a rumour that nowadays it functions as a brothel… Taken by surprisetrainstation Tenom the boy at the reception looks up from his newspaper when he sees us – family with a four year old toddler – entering. The rooms are all empty and the choice is ours. Thereafter we visit the trainstation that burnt down in 2003 and now only consists of some sheds, to inquire about departure times for tomorrow morning. In the meantime it has started to rain. And as there doesn't seem to come an end to it, we decide to ignore the fat rain-drops and go for the supermarket to do some shopping. Tenom is a small and relaxed little village surrounded by mountains. Green mountains. This is the land of the Muruts, but what immediately becomes apparent is the large number of Chinese and Indians living here. The rain persists and it is still early when we return to our room for a picknick on the bed. There is nothing much to see on tv; the place has satellite and as a result we have to watch the same channel as the boys downstairs at the reception. Thus we are being zapped from one (Malaysian) soap-series to the next (Chinese) soap-series. When we turn on the airconditioning, the tile floor soon becomes dangerously wet and slippery! Probably the wretched thing is pumping in the humid air from outside. Also the lights are not working except for one. And so we come to a final conclusion: luckily we are leaving this place tomorrow morning! We just hope the train-ride will make up for the effort to come all this way.

 

After a lovely warm shower we go straight to the train-station. We are much too early, it's only seven and the train does not leave until eight. But there's no time to get bored, as the train is being made ready for departure right in front of us. First the locomotive is being attached to the goodSabahs-waggon and after that the passenger trains join in. For our toddler this is quite a spectacle! Just after eight we leave for the four hour trip to Kota Kinabalu. Soon we pass the weir of Pangi, that not only supplies electricity, but also protects Beaufort against the numerous floods that often used to occur. The first two and a half hours the ride goes through the canyon of the Padas river, no doubt the most beautiful part of the trip. We are sitting on the side with the best views, the left, and all this time we have a great view of the chocolate-colour, fast-flowing river. The advancing jungle alongside the railroad-track seems to aim at pushing the train into the water. The train is full of people, but luckily everyone has a seat. The benches are not wooden, as I have read somewhere, but of a dark green plastic over foam-rubber. Very comfortable! Also we cannot confirm all those rumours of long delays or even the cancellation of a service after heavy rainfall. We left with just twenty minutes delay. And today the sun is shining! Everything looks fresh and green. The landscape seems quite intact for a large part and is truely fantastic. We have read about this train-ride in many a tourist brochure, but since yesterday we have not seen one single tourist. Moreover, the reactions of the locals suggest that tourists rarely come this way. A train ticket costs just 7,50 Ringgit (about one and a half Euro). A unique diesel-train, Borneo's only train! Along a shorter route, between Papar and Kota Kinabalu, a genuine steam-train runs just for the tourists: expensive, luxurious and including a good meal. But our train still belongs to the Malay people!

 

When the British became the rulers of North Borneo (now Sabah) they found a land with unspoilt tropical jungle, fatal diseases, pirates and headhunters. The British North Borneo Company obtained large parts of North Borneo that previously belonged to the Sultan of Sulu, and soon coffee, coconuts, tobacco and cacao were beinMount Kinabalug cultivated. The harvest of these plantations used to be brought on foot or with the help of beasts of burden to the ports to embark for shipment to England. But due to the great demand for land, an increasing number of planters were alloted land at some distance from the coast, amidst tropical forests, at a time when there were no means of communication and transport yet. In 1894 William Clarke Cowie became the Managing Director of the British North Borneo Company and he started right away on the construction of a railway with the prospect of opening up the interior. Originally Cowie had a plan to connect east and west North Borneo, right across mountainranges, rivers, forests and swamps. The first part of the railway was materialized between Beaufort and Weston. Weston was supposed to become the new port, but upon completion of the work in 1890 the place turned out to be too shallow. Thereupon it was decided to extend the railway in a northern direction towards Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) and Cowie let go of his ambition to connect east with west. Towards the east the railway was being extended from Beaufort to Tenom and Melalap. Chinese labourers were attracted in great numbers to work on the toughest part of the stretch: through the canyon of the Padas river.

Construction of the railway was very expensive, and until 1901 Cowie succeeded in securing large amounts of money for his ambitious plans. But when he needed more moneSungai Kinabatangany the following year, his request was refused. The Company had become afraid that Cowie’s ambitions would leave them bankrupt; further extension of the railway seemed no longer feasible. Besides, maintenance of the railway was already costing them a fortune. There was constant damage caused by tropical storms and falling trees. But also bits and pieces were often stolen by the Murut-population, as they were not particularly fond of all these devilish machines yet. In the end, the explosively rising demand for rubber at the turn of the century – notably due to the growth of the motor industry in the USA and the demand for tyres during the First World War – saved the Company and thereby Cowie’ reputation. The rubber plantations of Tenom became a great success, and when in 1905 the construction of the railway – 134 kilometers long – was finished, mainly rubber was being transported. Soon all the land between Jesselton and Beaufort had been cleared to make room for plantations. Besides rubber, also tobacco, sugar, tapioca, soya-beans, cacao, coconuts, pine-apples and rice were being transported from Tenom to the port of Jesselton for export to England. Saw-mills were being built in view of the export of wood in the near future. For years and years steam-trains were riding to and fro. On the return-trip to Tenom food, daily necessaries, clothes and other goods were being transported. Until about half a century ago this train was the only connection with the interior. During the Japanese occupation of North Borneo in the Second World War the country became ravaged by hunger and devastation. All rail-transport was being suspended and locomotives, waggons and tools became badly damaged by bombs of the allied forces. Bridges were blown up and tunnels were being obstructed. After the war North Borneo became a Crown colony and The British North Borneo Company began the difficult task of restoring the railway. Later on independent Malaysia took over and new (English) waggons and (Japanese) locomotives were purchased, and steam-trains replaced by diesel- and petrol-locomotives; cheaper, faster and there was no need for the use of wood anymore.

 

Rafting on the Padas rivMabuler is known to be quite popular, but today we see no boats. Frequently a man with a trolley laden with food, sweets, cookies, chips and drinks walks by. But we brought along our own plastic bag stuffed with food. I hang out from the window to take photos. That is, I trý to take photos, but unfortunately many opportunities are wasted because of the sudden obstruction of a tree, a tunnel or a hill. Attached behind the locomotive goes the goods-waggon on which a truck and a car are tied. Creaking and shaking violently we ride past jungle, rice fields, palm trees, rubber trees and fruit trees. Along the way we stop at many stations, most of them consisting of a tiny platform on which there is room for just one or two persons. But now and then we also stop at a real station of some greater meaning. There are no roads to these villages, the railroad is their only connection with the outside world. At 10.30 AM we arrive in Beaufort on the coast and here we have to change trains. Then the ride to Tanjung Aru – final station for Kota Kinabalu – resumes with the blue train that is standing there waiting for us. The remaining one and a half hour pass by quickly. TheKinabatangan River train goes pretty fast and the unremarkable landscape hurriedly passes us by. But still we enjoy even this part of the trip, especially when we get a short glimpse of the sea or the mangrove. Unfortunately here too - as in the rest of Sabah - the mangrove has been replaced by palmoil plantations. Just in time (alright, 20 minutes late...) we arrive at the station of Tanjung Aru. But we would not have objected to a couple of hours delay... at least we could have enjoyed this beautiful train-ride a little while longer!