On the north-western face of Kinabalu National Park lies the small village of Sayap and unbeknown to many, it’s the perfect gateway to exploring the luscious and much cooler montane rainforests of Sabah.
Our backpacks were filled with camera equipment and bare essentials prepared for a weekend escape from the hustle and bustle of Kota Kinabalu, and excited for an adventure to explore new sights. The two hour trip felt like it flew by, a quick pit-stop to pick up some delicious road-side pisang goreng (fried banana) and last minute supplies, then before we knew it we were already heading up the mountain from Kota Belud. The landscape started to change rather drastically as we left behind urban development and welcomed wide open spaces, a creeping view of Mount Kinabalu and winding roads fringed by more and more greenery.
As we entered Sayap Village and proceeded up the bumpy dirt roads, through the hillside the air began to cool within the valley as the wreathing clouds induced considerable moisture. We pulled over just before entering the forest to soak up an incredible viewpoint, and indeed, we were granted clear perspective of the wild landscape we were about to enter. As we looked onwards we could see the towering upper-peaks of Mount Kinabalu peeping through a break in the clouds which offered an alternative prospect of the mountain.
Upon arriving at the Sayap substation we were met with what felt like a mystical oasis where cascading rock pools, an abundance of birdsong and fresh air enveloped our every sense, while perfectly defining the beauty of montane forests. The quaint ranger outpost is nestled just above 1000m on the perimeter of Kinabalu National Park and offers a peaceful setting where you can pitch a tent along the stream that flows through the camping grounds, and explore the extensive network of hiking trails made up of ferns, knotted arms of figs, orchids and epiphytes.
There were just enough hours in the day left to explore nearby surrounds and freshen up in the mountain-fed streams, taking in this beautiful setting for all its worth. Our tents were set up for us along the water’s edge and all I could think of was how well I was going to sleep that night to the soothing sounds of the trickling stream. At this moment the dense interior of Borneo’s rainforest appeared gapless and infinitely green.
Following dinner and laughs with our local guides we decided to experience the nocturnal forest to see what critters we could find on a nightwalk. Once the sun descended below the treetops the sounds had shifted from daytime birdsong to evening insect calls with the backdrop of the full moon hanging quietly in the distance, casting an opaque sheen of moonlight on the trees. We were on the lookout for all kinds of eye-shine as we walked with our impeded peripheral vision and headlights through this unfamiliar world. Fortunately to end the night we did come across small mammals, roosting birds, an array of insects, amphibians, and reptiles – it turns out there is quite a lot to see close-up during a nightwalk!
(LEFT) Sabah Pit-viper (Trimeresurus sabahi) and (RIGHT) a frilled tree frog (Kurixalus appendiculatus) found on nightwalk.
After we awoke for a hearty breakfast, we’d been struck with a beam of energy eagerly awaiting to introduce ourselves to the vast luscious jungle that was at our fingertips. Hiking along the well trodden paths within a temperate climate proved to be quite tranquil as it was nice gaining some respite from the humid lowlands – with not even breaking a sweat along the easy access trails! As we were on the edge of lowland and sub-montane forest types there was an overlap of birds and our species lists started to fill up fast, even included some Bornean endemics.
To help maintain our energy levels, the village would harvest fresh local produce to prepare authentic dishes for lunch every day, including some basic cooking lessons of the preparation of tuhau (wild ginger). The perfect time to relax and experience the warm hospitality of the Dusun people.
(LEFT) Endemic Whitehead’s trogon (Harpactus whiteheadi) and (RIGHT) an Ashy drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus).
There’s something quite special and primitive about walking through a primary forest well off the beaten track, especially when there’s a notable difference to that of lowland rainforests. After a small while of meandering through the glistening jungle we reached a steep ravine and as we climbed down the moisture in the air and the thundering sounds of a waterfall became more present with every step.
Kemantis Waterfall was a true marvel as it beautifully cascaded down small rocky outcrops glazed in bright green moss and sweeping vines that stretched from one side to the other. The area was complete with huts to relax along the river, towering trees that swayed in the breeze and a boardwalk to allow access for swimming in the small plunge pool at the base of the waterfall – at this point our day was complete!
Getting drenched in mineral-rich freshwater straight from the mountain source was an incredibly revitalising experience.
We returned from our final nightwalk and retreated to the warmth of our tents I couldn’t help but to reflect upon the enjoyable time that I’d experienced at the Sayap substation and the worthy nature fix I gained in only a few days since leaving Kota Kinabalu. A sense of rejuvenation and falling asleep under a shimmering starry night sky I knew that this place was one of Sabah’s rare hidden gems.
On our final morning we awoke to early morning orchestra of birdsong and the choir of the forest as the thick blanket of mist slowly lifted. We made our hot coffees and set off on our short morning walk to experience sunrise from a notable viewpoint, and along the way we spotted many colourful foraging birds while the calls from a family of Gibbons echoed throughout the valley
Sunrise view of north-west face of Mount Kinabalu.
I stood on the edge of the ravine and absorbed the expansive view of the awakening forest and beaming sun rays that pierced the peaks of Mount Kinabalu. It was truly a sight to behold. Venturing off the tourist trails will lead you to the lesser-known places where you will no doubt gain an entirely new perspective few will have encountered here in Sabah, the Sayap camping trip is your access to this hidden sanctuary that definitely won’t leave you disappointed.
Photography: Charles Ryan & Sonny Royal