I finally made it to Koto Kinabalu to try some motorcycle riding in Sabah. Last time I was heading there I got food poisoning in Philippines and went back home. Fortunately this time round I arrived well and brought my mate from the Philippines along. It’s just an hour away from Manila but so different.
Since I have had this ride planned for a long time it was a a snap to organise. I had my routes already waiting in Ride with GPS and knew the rental shop Go Go Sabah was located downtown so shot them an email and booked some hotels and had everything set in no time.
When looking for the rental shop it is worth noting they are inside the shopping arcade at the address given (also open to the back car park) and they open after 9.00am. They have 125cc scooters but these are only for use within the city and their other bikes are 150cc Kawasaki KX road trial bikes. The KX150 bikes are like a 125cc two stroke motocross bike in size and weight, they have top boxes but these are permanently bolted to the racks and mine had a worn out lock.
We set off late but got a good clean run out of the city at least to not lose more time and then it was not long before we were into the mountains. The route I planned was via Tamburan and the roads are absolutely superb. I took a few photos but really did not capture how nice the riding is in any shot. The views up higher go back to the city and ocean and all around you are deep lush valleys.
Heading down the range my mates bike threw its chain off and we noticed the rear wheel was not adjusted to suit the chain length. Also his throttle mechanism was broken and turned around the handlebar making it difficult to use. Fortunately we could find a small car mechanic shop and they were able to make repairs to the bike. While the repairs are underway I notice the front tyre on his bike has some abnormal tread wear with one portion of the left side near bald while the rest of the tyre seems untouched.
I presume the tyres are poor quality but fortunately the bikes are very light and the roads mostly well surfaced so I didn’t experience any problems except getting my bike started. It had a very worn ignition barrel that was often impossible to turn to the on position taking 5 to 10 minutes of wiggling. Wonderful riding all the way to Ranau where we had a late lunch and refuelled. We were quite a bit behind schedule due to the late departure and repairs in route so I did not stop as much as I should of for photos but here is my mate and some of the road we enjoyed.
Between Ranau and Beluran (photos above and below) the road rises and falls along the valley with plenty of curves before crossing a smaller mountain range near Beluran. It’s a much nicer ride than the map would suggest. We had rain building up prior to lunch and leaving Ranau we rode into some light rain which I was betting on being localised but we stopped at a petrol station to discuss and I decided to put my upper rain jacket on as it was quite cool. We encountered a few more spots of light rain on the way to Beluran but were very lucky as it was all around us in the hills but not in the valley so both road and riders remained dry.
We tried to pick the best on the shelf and they were passable but only open face. I have no idea how people ride very far with open face helmets. Rain stings your face as does small bugs or particles of dirt from trucks entering the road. I cannot imagine how bad it would be riding in full rain on wet roads with the dirty water spray from cars in front on your face. So glad we made it out of the damp mountains to the dry and sunny road to Sandakan to not have to find that out.
The Pan-Borneo highway into Sandakan is a standard type highway which we should have been able to ride easy however the rental KX150 bikes were hopelessly underpowered. Open highway downhill we could almost reach 100kph wide open throttle but this slowed to 80kph with even a slight incline and you were back to 4th still wide open throttle to try hold that as the cars would bank up behind you as the bikes struggled to maintain that modest speed. Passing vehicles needed a run up or slip stream and cars you normally would be passing – you were holding up. Not sure if these KX150’s are made so low power or that the engines were worn out. I am thinking perhaps the later considering the condition of the bikes and how other 150cc bikes I have rented have performed so much better.
The CBR150R in Philippines was fine and even the more modest performing Versa 150 in Indonesia had no trouble on hills. Final insult was getting passed by a 125cc scooter that had father, mum and small child on board while my throttle was wide open. The last portion of the ride to Sandakan is not particularly good. The road is a mess of holes and wash outs through palm oil plantations and then a chaotic jumble of half constructed roads on the outskirts of town that was grid lock with traffic. Very glad to get to the hotel and wash away the diesel soot and dirt that had turned my face black thanks to the open face helmet. You don’t need an excuse to ride somewhere but if you are Australian then visiting the war memorial at Sandakan is a pretty good reason to ride over from KK.
The Sandakan memorial park commemorates a tragedy and an atrocity. The tragedy was between January and August 1945, within sight of the Allied victory in the Pacific war, the death of approximately 2500 Australian and British prisoners of war held by the Japanese in the Sandakan POW camp. The atrocity was the manner of the death inflicted upon them by their captors – starvation, overwork, beatings and terrible punishments. About 1000 remaining sick and weak POW’s were forced to march 260km carrying materials to Ranau when the Japanese decided to relocate. About 500 died on the way and the remainder died in Ranau. Only 6 survived – all Australians who managed to escape. There is a great amount to see and learn at the memorial built on part of the former POW camp grounds which is also referred to locally as the Australian war memorial.
We were able to get an earlier departure for the return to Kota Kinabalu but did not get very far before riding into rain. Oddly after unpacking and putting on our wet gear at a bus stop we rode maybe 1 km and the rain stopped and it was dry roads again. The morning air was cool enough to leave the rain gear on so we tried to cover most of the open highway that was a chore on the KX’s towards Beluran before stopping for a coffee and getting out of the wet gear which was by then getting warm.
Beluran petrol station.
The return route was on roads that cross the path taken by the POW’s in the death march from Sandakan to Ranau. There are markers along the way showing places of significance. This is the same road we came over on and heavy clouds were again very close by threatening to rain at any moment so we made more haste than we might of otherwise thinking better to have the time banked if it turned into a wet ride as it would be even slower going then. Of course later I wished we had stopped a couple other spots for a look. I find however even if it is fine conditions riding with someone else I tend not to stop so much. By myself I often see something and quickly double back for a photo or closer look but doing this or even just random quick stops when someone is following you is confusing to them. Well the roads remained dry all the way to Ranau so sure was happy about that.
After Ranau we were riding into the Kinabalu mountain region. The road takes you very high up and on this day with the rain around we found ourselves in and out of clouds, fog and fine misty rain. The viewpoints were sadly obscured for us by cloud (so sorry no photos) but the roads were for the most part not damp and I would very much like to see this area on a fine day as I imagine the views would be grand. The riding was very enjoyable but as we climbed even higher near the peak the temperatures plunged and we both felt very cold and were glad when we had dropped back down the other side.
I was shivering taking this photo and I think my mate who feels the cold worse than anyone I know was like frozen not speaking. We had a rest below the clouds to warm up then shortly after came to a halt at an accident with police trying to tow a car out of a gully without a tow truck and would have been there until nightfall so I decided to ask if we could go past and first was told no then after waiting further asked other police office and told ok slowly.
From about half way down, the road becomes a roller coaster ride of dips and curves and I got a little too exuberant with the new found pace of the KX downhill and almost had a mishap following a car when it did emergency braking to avoid an oncoming car that decided to pass on a blind crest (as is popular in Malaysia and Thailand). I proved myself correct when trying to stop with the tiny single front disc brake that I had previously noted out loud would be insufficient to stop the bike in a hurry. Fortunately it also lacked the power to lock the front wheel so I was able veer while heavy braking without losing the front and narrowly avoid either vehicle. It was a closer thing than I want to experience again, so after my heart rate slowed I asked myself WTF was I doing and vowed to keep more focus and return to my usual “I don’t want to test the local medical services” relaxed tour pace.
I could see a huge storm building and the temperature which had been cold at the top was now humid and stinking hot at sea level. We made good progress into Kota Kinabalu until the Garmin GPS decided now was the time for it to go haywire. Sigh. It took us completely off course and so we stopped and I cleared the route and manually pointed it to the city centre on the map and had it recalculate the route. It still wanted to take us the wrong way and so I got us lost a 2nd time before we abandoned the GPS and rode by the angle of the sun west towards the ocean knowing we would sooner or later get our bearings.
This took us into some seriously heavy traffic which became a total grid lock for a few km due to nobody giving way to anyone and had closed up with no room to lane filter nor any room before the gutter. I could sense from experience we had a small window of time before the storm was going to let loose so sitting there sweating away I said to hell with this and started using the trail bike as it was designed mounting gutters to ride along footpaths, over roundabouts and anything else to get moving. It was probably the only time on the ride the little KX150 was in it’s element. Good thing we did too as shortly after dropping the bikes back and getting to the hotel it rained in a biblical fashion for hours. Watching the TV that night it was showing much of Sabah had received heavy rain for days and was now a flood zone. We had been extremely lucky to somehow ride to the other side and back and remain dry.
I really like roads around Kota Kinabalu. I’ll go back if I can find a better bike to rent and will focus on the area between there and Ranau as well as aiming for a time of year that might offer views from the highlands.(January is already listed as outside the wet season but perhaps March would be better) The town itself seemed a bit boring to be honest but the food was wonderful as it always is in Malaysia and when I returned via Kuala Lumpur to snow in Japan I soon wished I was back there.