Northern Borneo – Part 2

We have been on the move again, this time up and over the top of Borneo and now heading down the east coast of Sabah as far as Tawau, where we say goodbye to many of our rally friends, all heading in different directions. Some will be returning to Australia, others are heading north to cruise the Philippines, while we have chosen to head south to Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Borneo has been a land of huge contrasts and we have sailed Mai Tai to some weird and wonderful places, even 50nms inland up the Kinabatangan River.

Firstly, as we sailed around the northern tip of Borneo, the land became much flatter and long stretches of white sandy beaches lined the coastline. We later learned that this area is very popular with tourists, particularly Chinese and Taiwanese who come here for the scuba diving and the many resorts offer a range of dive packages to explore the coral and fish life.

We enjoyed some great sailing between the protected anchorages, but the need to restock the fridge with fresh food always necessitates a stop in a town every now and again and although there are some supermarkets much of our shopping is found at street stalls. They must go through thousands of eggs as we rarely find one that is off.

Many of these places are not really equipped for the arrival of 28 sailing boats all at once, so often the anchorages or mooring facilities were less than favourable. Not only that, we had crocodiles swimming around the boats, so we didn’t dive to check our anchors too often.

Our first city is Kudat, where we moored Med Style to the sea wall, and enjoyed being within walking distance to the shops, local markets and the festivities and tours to see traditional dancing that had been arranged for us.

Our 24hr Malaysian Navy and police escort (ESSCOM) will be with us now for the next 3 weeks as we navigate along a coastline renowned for pirate activity from the adjacent Philippine Islands, just 20 nms distant, in some places.

A visit to a turtle hatchery was interesting. Hundreds of turtles come to these beaches to lay their eggs in the soft sand. Lizards, birds and rats will dig them up long before they get a chance to meet the next set of predators in the ocean. Here, the eggs are taken to a protected hatchery as soon as they have been laid, then released to the sea as soon as they hatch to maximise their survival. We took part in a release to the sea

The city of Sandakan was another interesting stopover, but a lousy, very exposed anchorage with strong currents and muddy water. It was, however, an interesting stop for its unique WW2 history.  This was where the Japanese invaded Borneo and were responsible for the famous Sandakan death marches to Ranau, for which there is a memorial park in honour of the 2500 prisoners who died.

I had been reading 3 books written by an American author, Agnes Newton Keith, who lived here with her British husband and young son. Through her beautiful storytelling, we learned of her time before the war, living as an expat in Sandakan, then her story as a prisoner of war of the Japanese. Her 3rd book tells of her impressions when she returns to Borneo after the war. One of the highlights for me was visiting her home which is now a museum and café.

The books are: Land Beneath the Wind, Three Came Home, and White Man Returns. They make interesting reading even if you have no intention of visiting this area.

The Sun bears, Orangutans and Proboscis monkeys at the Sepilok Wildlife Sanctuary seemed very happy to see us.

Fifty nautical miles up the muddy Kinabatangan River, into the heart of the Bornean jungle, was definitely a first for Mai Tai.  We went as far as sail boats can go due to low power cables across the river, to the village of Sukau. We dropped anchor in the muddy waters, then each day, we went further up the tributaries by local speed boats to look out for the wild life. We were not disappointed as we watched crocodiles, monitor lizards, orangutans, gibbons and proboscis monkeys, exotic birds, and even one Bornean Pygmy elephant who had separated from the herd of about 70 that roam this area. Surprisingly, there were remarkably very few mosquitoes.

Our military escort watched over us the whole time, plus we were advised to stand watch, 2 boats, at a time, 2 hrs each boat throughout every night to look out for suspicious activity. We had regular radio scheds to relay information.

Once back out of the river we still had several day trips to go to, mostly motoring, pounding into head winds and choppy seas, so it was always a welcome respite once the anchor was set and we could enjoy the festivities organised for us on shore and on pot luck dinners on each other’s yachts.

Tun Sakaran Marine Park (TSMP) was our anchorage for the next 5 days. Hundreds of tourists stay at the local village of Semporna and travel the twenty miles here to this isolated volcanic caldera island to admire the panorama from the top of the ridge. They also come to go diving at nearby Sipadan Reef, apparently one of the top 10 dive spots in the world.

Our next stop is Tawau which is where we exit Sabah, the Malaysian part of Borneo, and where the rally officially ends with a big farewell dinner.

One of our nights in Tawau, fierce winds blew through the anchorage against strong tidal currents, which raised a very rough sea and caused all sorts of mayhem. In addition, the wind came with a deluge of tropical proportions limiting visibility to only a few meters.  Several yachts dragged their anchors and of course it was in the middle of the night and black as pitch. Some of the yachties were still ashore in the local bar and were unable to get out to their boats due to the rough seas breaking on the shore.  Lots of activity out on the boats including on Mai Tai, all of us trying to keep our anchors secure on the bottom by running our engines to keep the boat into the wind and reduce the strain on the anchor.  Luckily no damage was done.  It is times like this that it is good to have the camaraderie of all the rally vessels looking out for each other.

The days here were spent diesel refuelling, shopping and laundry with a day spent traipsing from office to office getting the necessary official stamps and signatures on a pile of paperwork in order to check out of Malaysia and into Indonesia. 

Our next stop from here will be in Nunukan, Indonesia, which is where we repeat the official checking into Indonesia and receive our 2-month visitors cruising visa.

ESSCOM, having safely escorted us through the pirate infested waters of northern Borneo, now leave us to continue on alone to our different destinations.  We appreciated their assistance and professionalism on this difficult journey.  However, it is very nice to be back on our own.

Oh, for some clean, clear waters!!! No crocodiles!!!!!

Maratua Atoll, here we come, then down to Sulawesi on our way to the Malaysian Peninsula and Thailand.


  1. Another great adventure.what a great way to explore Borneo.expect you managed to slip in a little diving where you were able……I’m sure the next leg of your journey will take you to more fantastic places.lovely part of the world……we had David stay with us as you probably know,struck a perfect week of lovely sunny weather while he was here…..the families on the Sunshine Coast are keeping up with your adventure…… the way Loic is comeing to visit late oct so will be getting the cousins together.he will only have a day and evening but will be great to catch up.

  2. You’re going to have to write a book about all of your amazing adventures. We so love reading your very descriptive narratives. Looking forward to the next chapter. Love J&C

  3. Goodness it gets more and more gripping…. take good care and keep a good look out. Do you still have plans to sail up to the Med? Bon vent .

  4. Hi Kay and Lane.
    Wow! Amazing stories, fabulous photos. Love hearing from you.
    All the best.
    Love Jan and Linton

    We have just got home after 6 fantastic weeks in Koh Samui. Wish we were still there. Good to escape a few weeks of winter. Fortunately have returned to very sunny Napier.

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