We were very excited to be riding the North Borneo Railway today, enjoying breakfast and lunch on board as the old steam locomotive puffed its way through the jungles and villages of Sabah.
Construction of the historical railway started in the 1880s, in an effort to pave the way for the opening up of the untapped natural resources of Borneo for commercial cultivation. Naturally the scheme was dreamt up by those sturdy Brits, who never knowingly let a hot and humid jungle get in the way of a trading opportunity.
And so the director of the British North Borneo Chartered Company, a William Clark Cowie, initiated the building of the first railway in Sabah. In 1903 the rail-link was extended 90km to include Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu). Land between here and Beaufort was cleared of forests for the cultivation of rice, tobacco, sago, tapioca, soya beans and pineapples. These crops were then hauled down by rail to the port at Jesselton and exported, no doubt for the delectation of all those Downtonesque Lady Crawleys the length and breadth of Britain. One can only guess what they made of the first pineapples to be off-loaded.
Unfortunately the entire railway system was paralysed during World War II under Japanese occupation, when rails, bridges and locomotives were all damaged. A programme of reconstruction was implemented post-war, when North Borneo became a Crown Colony.
After Malaysia was formed in 1963, the railway service was managed the Sabah State Railway Department, with diesel quickly replacing the steam engine. The North Borneo Railway was thankfully re-launched by Sutera Harbour Resort and the Sabah State Railway Department, initiating what is today a delightful experience.
Friendly staff ushered us into our extremely comfortable carriage, complete with bathroom and our own waitress who worked tirelessly bringing us drinks and food. With a toot and a whistle and a great puff of smoke, the British ‘Vulcan’ steam locomotive rolled out of Tanjung Aru station. The kids were kept busy waving at the locals waving back at them as we steamed our way to Putatan and then to Kinarut.
A nice touch was the ‘passport’ we were given on departure, and our waitress rushed around to ‘visa’ stamp it every time we passed through a station. En route we enjoyed a delightfully presented breakfast of curry puffs, toast and coconut jam, steamed cassava parcels and a local cake made of rice flour and coconut milk. It was all very convivial.
We disembarked at Kinarut for a quick tour of the local Chinese temple, and then it was on to Papar, passing through jungle, fruit orchards and the odd herd of water buffalo. We had a 20 minute stop at Papar and a wander around the local markets while the locomotive was de-coupled and the train turned around. When we re-boarded, it was rather gorgeous to discover the tables had been neatly laid for lunch with tiffin tins containing fish curry, steamed vegetables, chicken fried rice and fresh fruit.
We puffed our way back to Tanjung Aru, arriving mid-afternoon. It had been a thoroughly enjoyable day, which kept four kids entertained and happy while soaking up a bit of the local culture.
And if you’re looking for a good South East Asian jungley tale to while away the morning, Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner follows the story of young Edgar Drake, who is summoned from his quiet London life by the War Office to travel to the jungles of Burma to repair the rare grand piano of an enigmatic army surgeon stationed there. With more plot twists and turns than a Mekong tributary, the story serves up an unexpected ending.
The North Borneo Railway operates on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Bookings should be made through the Sutera Harbour Hotel at http://www.suteraharbour.com.