Kota Kinabalu sells itself as the adventure capital of Sabah and pretty much lives up to this self-proclaimed billing. Whilst “The Mountain” and the orangutans are deservedly top of the “must-do” list if you’re round this way, there’s more on offer besides, including a couple of one-day white water rafting trips - chilled out fun on the Kiliu river or a slightly more hardcore experience on the (quite) mighty and (very) muddy Padas. Guess which one I chose?
The Padas River cuts a deep gorge through the Southern tip of the Crocker Range before draining into the South China Sea and, with our raft waiting for us a good 70km South of KK, it was an understandably early start into the cookie-cutter aircon tourist minibus. After a perfectly OK drive up and over the Crockers - all very picturesque and mountainy, with a quick coffee stop at the pass - we dropped down to Tenom - in the middle of nowhere, but the place had a bit of bustle and life to it so I wouldn't complain if stuck there for a day.
Next to the garage/supermarket in town sits a poignant little memorial to a local uprising against British rule in 1915 - the sort of thing I've seen all over the world on my travels - local people protest at the British stealing their resources or subjugating them, and the British just reach for the machine guns - not much fair play there. The town's other Lonely Planet attraction was a restaurant which served monitor lizard curry. Now I would have gone for this, but not enough time sadly.
From just outside town the last railway in Borneo hugs the narrow gorge all the way down to Beaufort - rail and river, but no road. Tenom was where we would transfer onto the rails for a short journey to our rafting start point. Except there wasn't a train, and there hadn't been one for several months, nor would there be for several more, which is when it all went a bit Indiana Jones, minus the CGI.
No trains? Well, lets make one. Like a long-lost cousin of the famous Bamboo train in Cambodia (but without the engine), metre-square pieces of plywood were fixed to steel wheels set at the track’s width and, with the river dropping steeply through the gorge, you have a perfect one-way gravity powered train - perfect that is if you ignore the lack of seats, walls, a roof, safety features, and small details such as brakes.
Our "drivers" had to work hard for the first kilometre or so, punting us along with long poles, then Newton kicked in and, forget Disney, this was the real rollercoaster deal - speeding down the gorge, the river a blur on the left, cliffs and forest whizzing by on the right and the odd glimpse of a fantastically coloured huge butterfly as inflight entertainment. After 20 minutes, one crash - we stopped, the trolley behind didn't - and a quick repair to a failed wheel (underneath me, skip the fat jokes please), the gradient increased again just as a short but full-on torrential downpour started. Within seconds we were soaked to the skin without caring - six inches off the ground at 30kph one has more immediate priorities - staying on board the ‘train’ for example.
The trolley journey flew by and when we rolled into the riverside collection of houses where our rafts stood waiting everyone had big smiles on their faces – if the trip had ended there it would have been money well spent – a unique and wholly unexpected pleasure. But, this was just the start - a quick watermelon snack and an even faster safety briefing later, we were drifting down the river looking for white water thrills. Rafting guide Amin did his best but we were hopeless. Behind me was Calvin from Hong Kong, who’d put his wife and children on a plane home the day before and was having a bit of a solo adventure - the look on his face when we rescued him after his first rapid was priceless - he was almost in shock.
Compared to the Bhote Khosi in Nepal (my only experience of rafting before this), the Padas was a lot less scary and a lot warmer. On the quiet stretches between rapids it was fun to spin off the side and into the murky depths beneath - trying to remember if those fish that swam you-know-where were Amazon-specific or just generally tropical. But, like all big rivers, the current is deceptive - go with it and life is easy, but turn and try and swim upstream and you're going nowhere fast.
The aptly named Washing Machine (youtube it, well worth a watch) was the first of several involuntary submersions for me that day. By the time we got to its crux (it did look like a washing machine) we were way short of the power required to push on through and just fell vertically into what looked like a gaping hole. I did the gentlemanly thing and waited for everyone else to regain the raft before me - big mistake - by the time my turn came, the inexorable current had bought us to the head of the next rapid and the rocks were starting to knock my legs around under the water.
And so the day went on - a rapid, then a stretch of swimming or admiring the view, then another rapid, etc, etc. I think we spent a total of 19km on the river that day, with a lunch stop of the obligatory singapore noodles, curry and rice with a welcome bottle of water. Along the river the gorge walls rose into seemingly impenetrable forest punctuated occasionally by a power line or communications tower - visible symbols of progress and development for grateful Sabahans, but each one pushing true wilderness into a smaller and smaller area.
At the end of the rapids we clambered up the bank at a small village and walked together, raft on our heads, straight onto the station platform, then sat down and waited, still soaked to the skin, for the Last Train in Borneo, a scruffy little narrow gauge affair which, with most seats full, was clearly still a vital transport link for the area. As the sun set we trundled down the line to Beaufort and our waiting minivan for the journey back up to KK along the coast road.
So, if you have a day spare in KK, this is pretty much a must-do - the perfect one-day adventure. Any great SEA rafting trips to share? I’m looking for ideas in Cambodia and Laos (next on the list!).
- The Wisma Sabah building at the north end of KK has a whole bunch of places to book adventure trips from. Grid B2 on the map here
- I used Borneo Ultimate Sports Adventure Tours. Nice guys and good service, but not much of a safety briefing and no grab ropes on the boat. Was surprised at the lack of a safety kayaker too.
- For information, a lot of people were using Riverbug for their rafting trip, so maybe also worth a visit (same building!!)