Tiffin and trains

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.

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We received a warm welcome on board from the staff of the North Borneo Railway.
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.

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Breakfast is served on the North Borneo Railway.
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.

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Take yourself back to the jungles of South East Asia in the 1800s with The Piano Tuner.

The North Borneo Railway operates on Saturdays and Wednesdays. Bookings should be made through the Sutera Harbour Hotel at http://www.suteraharbour.com. 

 

The sun is shining, the water is sweet

Make the most of a glorious mid-autumn weekend with a family kayaking trip, writes Carolynne Dear. (As published in the August issue of Expat Parent).

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Fun on the water at Long Ke, Sai Kung Country Park. (Photo courtesy of hkestonian).

It’s a balmy morning in Sai Kung as we wait for on the New Pier for our speedboat pick-up out to the famous Hong Kong Geopark.

We’ve booked onto a family kayak and hike adventure day with local water sports specialist, Paul Etherington, and have been promised kayaking, a “light” hike, snorkelling, a speedboat tour of the geopark, and a Chinese seafood late-lunch by the beach to finish off. All in all, we’re pretty excited to get going.

We are soon bouncing our way across Sai Kung’s Inner Port Shelter to Yau Ley, or High Island, located within Sai Kung East Country Park. This is where the kayaks are stored and our point of departure for the paddling part of the adventure. The sea kayaks are all twins or trios, and Etherington soon has us appropriately teamed up and equipped with paddles and life-vests ready for the short trip round to Millionaire’s Beach in the next bay. My seven-year old son has been allocated the middle seat, with my eleven-year old daughter taking the front, and me in the engine room at the back.

We have a quick snack and a cool off on Millionaire’s, before hitting the water again for the longest paddle of the day, across to Bluff Island. We are accompanied by several safety kayaks and a safety speed boat. It’s a gorgeous paddle, although the seven-year-old is relegated to “wave watching” duty after a few near misses between the end of his wildly enthusiastic paddle and the back of the eleven-year-old’s head.

We pull up triumphantly on the beach at Bluff – even the teen and her friend in their twin kayak are quite proud of themselves.

Now for the hiking part of the day. We pull on socks, trainers and hats and scramble through the undergrowth at the end of the beach to the beginning of a rugged trail that takes us up to the highest point on the island. The views are breathtaking – the shimmering Sai Kung Inner Port shelter and its emerald green islands on one side, and the wild, sapphire blue ocean on the other. The jewel-like imagery is richly deserved.

Then it’s back down to the beach where Etherington pulls out some snorkels and shows us a small patch of coral to the west-side of the sand.

Incredibly, Hong Kong boasts more species of coral than the Caribbean, but it has been systematically destroyed over the years. We were lucky enough to spot clown fish, angel fish and some colourful corals, and the water was beautifully clear.

From Bluff, we jump onto the speedboat for a whizz around the spectacular geology of the area. Etherington is a wealth of information, and the kids are enraptured to discover that they’re speeding around on what used to be the crater of a super-volcano.

Once on the beach again, it’s back into the kayaks for the final, and toughest, paddle of the day, around to the ocean-side of Bluff and through a sea-arch. The sea is pretty rocky, which adds to the adventure, but we are so well escorted it’s great fun skimming through the surf. The sea arch itself is one of the finest examples in Hong Kong and it’s really special floating through the arch and having an up-close look at the rock formations. The water is so clear we can see right to the bottom. In fact it’s so impressive we paddle round and back through a second time, while Etherington and the rest of the group patiently wait on the other side.

Even I’m beginning to feel slightly weary by this stage, so it’s a welcome relief to climb into the speedboat and be driven back to Yau Ley, the kayaks roped up and bobbing along behind us.

While Etherington and his team pack the gear away, we enjoy a delicious seafood lunch at laid-back High Island restaurant. Dishes of steamed fish, fried rice, noodles, garlicky scallops, prawns and sweet and sour pork are ravenously consumed, with ice creams all round for the kids. Once little tummies have been topped up, the children have a great time fossicking on the beach and leaping from the pier into the cool water, while we adults kick back with a beer and re-live our day of adventure on the high seas.

Kayak and Hike can be booked at kayak-and-hike.com.