After spending just short of a month crashing at Mark and Silvia’s pad and eating all of their Toblerones, it was time for a holiday from the holiday. Naomi’s dad made the most of one of Singapore’s national holidays and took five days off so the four of us could have a lazy beach holiday in Borneo.
We were headed for Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, located on the Malaysian side of Borneo. But more specifically, we would be staying on Manukan Island just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. The mainland is primarily visited by those traversing Malaysia’s highest mountain, Mount Kinabalu. The summit is a whopping 4,095 meters above sea level, so we were happy to simply admire it from a distance at the Manukan Island resort.
We flew in to Kota Kinabalu slightly later than anticipated on Friday evening as our flight had been delayed. After flagging down a taxi to take us to the marina, we were collected by Captain Joe from the Manukan Island resort. We climbed aboard the sleek looking speedboat and hurtled towards our hotel in pitch-blackness. After 15 minutes we’d arrived at the jetty and were greeted by the very friendly staff who insisted on carrying our bags and gave us a run down of the island’s facilities.
Manukan Island Resort is situated on the second largest of the five tropical islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. The resort we were staying at was the only accommodation on the island with around 20 chalets. We were lodging in the hillside chalets with beautiful sea views. We were blown away by the size of our room, or rather apartment, as we excitedly explored the bedroom, two bathrooms and living room we had to play with.
Manukan Island is the most popular island with Kota Kinabalu residents and as our stay coincided with the weekend, there were quite a number of day-trippers swarming the island when we awoke on our first full day. As we ambled down to the buffet breakfast area we were taken aback by how different the island felt to when we arrived the previous evening in peaceful darkness. Groups of up to 20 day trippers were herded by frazzled looking tour guides towards the beach. Guides explained how snorkels should be worn and handed out lifejackets. The day-trippers weren’t naturals in the water it has to be said. Many of them waded only ankle deep before thrusting their snorkeled faces under the water, holding tightly to their life jackets all the while. Others didn’t attempt to get their toes wet but instead took a multitude of photographs in various poses and angles with their sun hats positioned just so.
Once we’d finished mocking the day-trippers, we hit the beach. As Manukan Island Resort guests, we had access to a peaceful private beach area. Stretched out on the loungers, Kindles in hand and a stretch of beautiful blue sea to dunk ourselves in to, we were perfectly positioned for a day of relaxing.
We lazed on the beach as the sun began to set on our first day, slowly revealing the extent of Mark’s sunburn. While the two of us were the ones actively sunbathing that day, Mark and Silvia stayed under the shade of the umbrellas. They didn’t think they’d need to apply sunscreen while under the brollies. How wrong they were. Mark in particular had what looked like second degree burns developing on his lower legs already.
After a quick shower in our massive bathrooms we headed for dinner at the one restaurant on the island. All day trippers leave the island by 5pm so it felt peacefully quiet and blissful on the stroll to dinner. Every night was buffet night and there was a BBQ on the go when we arrived. The seafood comprised of ‘red eye’, a small white fish, and some shrimps. There was also beef and chicken satay in abundance as well as a variety of side dishes. Dessert involved raiding the fruit fridge and gobbling as much watermelon, pineapple, papaya and honeydew melon as possible.
We attempted to have a drink at the cocktail bar situated by the swimming pool, however it appeared to be permanently shut. Luckily, crafty old Mark had purchased some Sipsmith gin at the airport and asked from some ice and tonic water from the staff, who were always happy to oblige. He rustled up some G&T’s back in our rooms so we could enjoy the sea views from our balcony with a chilled glass in hand.
Offshore of Manukan are coral reefs, making it an ideal place for snorkeling and diving. We decided to visit the other nearby islands on the Sunday, as an attempt to escape some of the day-tripper chaos. We boarded an island hopper boat and set off for Sapi Island. Unlike Manukan, you can’t stay on Sapi, so the only people on the island were fellow island hoppers. We quickly spotted a few other snorkelers so headed off in their direction on the assumption that snorkels = fishies. The water surrounding the island was by far the best we’d experienced on the trip so far, the crystal clear water being the perfect environment to see a wide array of colourful fish. We gravitated towards a cluster of snorkelers who were dropping biscuit crumbs into the water to draw the fish towards them. A split second later and a school of fish arrived in full force, not at all deterred by our presence. The feeding frenzy was a phenomenal experience and a brilliant start to our day of snorkeling. We spotted a ‘nemo fish’ amongst the coral, which generated a great deal of excitement and gesturing to each other.
The second island we visited was Mamutik, the smallest of the islands. The water wasn’t quite as clear as Sapi’s waters but we still saw plenty of marine life. One of the less welcoming sea creatures swimming in the waters was a pesky black fish. The black fish had one white spot on it’s back so was easily spotted and once we knew what to look out for, it appeared they were everywhere. This unavoidable fish was very territorial and didn’t like sharing the reef with us. It became clear whenever anyone encroached on the black fish’s turf they would let you know about it. The three of us all got bitten at least once by these defensive brutes, and most of the time without any apparent reason. We were actively trying to avoid them but they seemed to seek out the snorkelers and make a beeline for dangling legs. The bites felt more like powerful pinches, enough to make you jump and splash off in a hurry.
Sapi Island was bustling with many other tourists who’d just finished lunch by the time we’d decided we’d had our fill of snorkeling for the day. Each tour group had their own tent and buffet catering. We were forced to the back of the rows of food tents to find our own food at a little café before catching the boat bus back to Manukan Island.
After the day trip, the three of us made our way to Sunset Point involving a half hour stroll along a jungle path. The shaded canopies of trees eventually opened up to a rocky outcrop that looked like a perfect sunset viewing spot. It wasn’t long after our arrival that Mark leapt 5ft into the air with a yelp. He’d come face to face with a huge sunbathing monitor lizard. Luckily it was too drowsy to react and we quickly shifted ourselves to the far side of the rocks to avoid disturbing it further. The clouds were beginning to build by this point so we were worried there would be no sunset to admire. However the stormy weather did create a scenic double rainbow bending from the horizon, over a mangrove tree and into the rocky island. It was difficult to know which way to look as both the sun setting and the moody clouds were beautiful.
Even though Manukan Island is surrounded by a protected coral reef and resides within a National Park, there was a disappointing volume of litter washed up on to the beaches each day. There didn’t seem to be any obvious beach clean ups going on, aside from the odd disgruntled guest who took matters into their own hands. A couple armed with a black bin bag raked through the rubbish on the beach one day, clearing off all the litter they could find. We decided to do the same the following day when we found a huge plastic sack floating around in the water where we were snorkeling. Once you start spotting the litter it’s hard to stop, and we gathered together enough rubbish to fill half of the sack, within about 20 minutes. The litter situation is something that we’ve seen time and time again on this trip. Seeing an Oreo packet float past whilst in paradise was enough for us to decide that when we return to the UK, we want to do what we can to reduce our plastic consumption as much as possible. We’re now on the lookout for bamboo straws.
We spent most of our evenings playing cards and drinking gin and tonics in the room, as there was zero nightlife on Manukan Island (unless you count the live band ‘The Highlanders’ who serenaded us each meal time with Van Morrison). But this suited us fine and we learnt some fun games including ‘Chancho’, an Argentinian game that translates as ‘Pig’. Mostly we played ‘Shithead’, which seemed to be the holiday favourite.
The island became much quieter by the time Monday swung around and the number of day-trippers vastly diminished. It was much more peaceful, although we had to fight a huge Australian family who recently arrived at the resort for the sun loungers. Mark and Silvia weren’t taking any chances with the sunshine and remained hidden under the umbrellas for most of the day, swaddled under towels. The last couple of afternoons on the island proved to be overcast and rainy, but this actually came as a welcomed relief. By 2pm on our final days on Manukan Island the storms encroached, forcing us inside.
After five days relaxing, reading, playing cards, swimming, filling up on G&T’s and eating our body weight in buffet meals, it was time to fly back to Singapore. There was no painful pang of the holiday blues for us as we knew we’d be off to Indonesia in just a couple of days time!