Song and healing on the edge of Borneo

Sabah after the quake

AS the plane quivered one last time through the remaining turbulent air streams, a window to my left framed the ashen tip of a mountain peering through the thick, late afternoon clouds.

“Mount Kinabalu?” I thought.

The sight of that desolate, jagged piece of rock rising above a blanket of bulbous white several thousand meters above ground was both reassuring and unnerving – reassuring because we were now approaching land, and unnerving because barely 10 hours ago, the entire mountain and its surroundings shook violently when a magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck northern Sabah, rattling buildings as far as the capital Kota Kinabalu, Flight Z2 131’s destination.

A glimpse of Mount Kinabalu from above

The AirAsia plane, though, landed smoothly, 30 minutes ahead of schedule. It taxied past a modern airport then stopped in front of an old terminal that looked part supply depot, part hangar. As our group of four eased past immigration, I looked for cracks on the walls and posts, signs perhaps of damage from the tremor.

There was none, I thought, business as usual. Some 90 kilometers away, near the epicentre in Ranau, it was anything but.

Our group was slated to head to Ranau, a town of 94,000 people and home to Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site, the 750-square-kilometer ecological haven of Kinabalu Park. Sabah’s tourism officials, though, had to shut down the park following an avalanche in and around Mount Kinabalu.

View of Kota Kinabalu from Signal Hill Observatory Tower

Bearer of news

The bearer of news was our soft-spoken guide John, who fetched us at the airport. He assured us, though, that Kota Kinabalu was fine – rattled but unscathed.

“Tomorrow morning, we head to the town of Kudat for the open-air music festival on the tip of Borneo. We’ll pass by the honey bee farm, gong making village, and the long houses,” he said, as the right-hand-drive van our small group of journalists would use for the next three days dropped us off at the hotel at the heart of the city where we would spend the night.

The show must go on at a floating restaurant serving sumptuous local dishes.
View of the Kota Kinabulu waterfront from the hotel room

Outside The Hyatt Regency, the locals went about calmly, as endless streams of cars cruised past wide, tree-lined sidewalks near the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront, a lively strip of reclaimed land in the former British colony of Sabah – now a Malaysian federal state – where a number of cultures, old and new, converged.

Perhaps the discussion centered on that morning’s earthquake, in hushed Kadazan, Dusun, Bajau, Murut, Suluk or Malay tones, languages that sounded familiar but foreign to our visitors’ ears, nevertheless. But there was a Filipino market there somewhere, we’d later learn.

The next morning, we headed some 180 kilometers up north, a five-hour drive that meant plenty of time for us to learn about Sabah from our guide, who has spent 25 years exploring the enormous island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, and marvel at its vastness and diversity.

A long stretch of white sand beach at Shangri-la Rasa Ria Resort & Spa

Sabah’s great expanse

More than an hour after we left the hotel, John told us to look to our right and pointed slightly upwards at what looked like a tear in the sky. Between the tear and the ground was a hazy spread of pallid gray. “Do you see it?” John said. “Where?” someone asked. “There!” I chimed in. “What?”

It took me several seconds to figure out what it was – the tip of Mount Kinabalu, this time peeking from the clouds 4,095 meters from the ground, an hour’s drive away if the initial plan pushed through. It was the closest we would get to see this sacred mountain. As the van sped past the scene, I fixed my gaze at the peak until the blur of foliage and dreary slopes blocked my view.

Passing by Mount Kinabalu, which is hidden behind thick clouds in the distance

Again the bearer of news, John told us about climbers and fellow guides were still trapped somewhere up in Mount Kinabalu. Rescue efforts were underway, he assured, but his face betrayed a hint of anxiety.

The day’s sad news

The previous day’s big quake – 30 seconds of ground shaking – was now all over the morning papers. It was Malaysia’s strongest in the last 39 years. The tremor, though, would cause aftershocks beyond the geological kind.

Sabah’s tourism was still reeling from the kidnapping of two tourists by Sulu – Filipino? – gunmen in the remote town of Sandakan in Sabah’s east coast last May. Like the flapping of wings causing typhoons in distant lands, the incident triggered a wave of cancellations from foreign tourists. And then this, the June 5 earthquake. Tourism, one of Sabah’s top three industries, was dealt another staggering blow.

One can’t blame the tourists for the knee-jerk cancellations, John said, but he hopes the global community sees the incidents in the proper context.

“Sabah is a very big place,” he said. “And Sandakan is very far.” (He was right: imagine how normal daily life unfolds in Cebu despite trouble in the far corners of southern Mindanao.) As for the quake, the ground will calm down in time and Sabah’s top draws will reopen.

Though we skirted past Kinabalu Park, we did get to visit the families of gong makers in Sumangkap Village, a community of bee keepers running the Gombizau Honey Bee Farm in Matunggong, and the communal Rungus longhouses on stilts, precursors of modern condominium housing.

Gong makers, their craft and livestock in Sumangkap Village.
An old woman opens the door to her unit at a communal Rungus longhouse. Made of light materials, these longhouses are the precursors of modern condominium housing.

One with the earth

One of the stories in the inside pages caught my eye: the earthquake, the news article narrated, happened after a group of Western tourists desecrated Mount Kinabalu by stripping naked and urinating on top of the mountain, acts of irreverence that the foreigners documented themselves and posted on social media.

The story said many Sabahans, especially the Kadazan Dusun tribe that considers Mount Kinabalu sacred, blamed the tourists, whose acts of desecration angered the spirits that dwell in the mountain, causing the earthquake. Authorities were left with no choice but to go after the six tourists, and if caught, John said, might have to offer a bull each as sacrifice to appease the spirits.

A tribe rests before a performance in the Sunset Music Fest in Kudat.

While the West sees all this as superstition, John – who himself has a scientific mind with a keen interest in botany (so far, he can identify 600 out of Sabah’s 5,000 species of flora with their scientific names) – said many Sabahans have roots from the state’s five main tribes whose lives are entwined with the natural environment.

And tourists, especially those climbing Kinabalu, are constantly reminded to observe local customs. In the eyes of many locals, such acts of desecration caused the tremor that – I’d later learn days after leaving Sabah – claimed the lives of 18 people, including four guides.

The crowd – a happy mix of locals and tourists – enjoys the eclectic performances, as well as a fantastic view, during the ninth Sunset Music Fest in Kudat.

Music on the edge of the world

Later that afternoon, we headed to the Tip of Borneo, a tree-lined promontory with a strip of rock jutting out toward the imaginary line that divides the West Philippine Sea and the Sulu Sea, and at each day’s end offers a humbling view of the setting sun.

We passed Pantai Kalampunian or Kalampunian Beach, a pristine three-kilometer stretch of white coral sand leading to the promontory, Tanjung Sampang Mangazou, where the early Rungus went to battle to defend their land from foreign invaders; if not welcome unfamiliar drifters such as a weary battle-scarred crew from the other side of the world who sought refuge and repairs for what remained of Magellan’s fleet following a disastrous stop in an exotic land of heathens thousands of nautical kilometers away somewhere up north.

A majestic view of the three-kilometer stretch of Kalumpunian Beach
A vendor in Kudat shows how they roast chicken wings in Sabah.

Nowadays, foreigners like us who come all the way to the Tip of Borneo, with the exception of a depraved few, are a harmless, wholesome bunch; and ours, that otherwise pleasant day in June, was a musical journey for the ninth Sunset Music Fest, wherein local talents performed traditional, classical and contemporary music the Sabahan way: convivial, heartfelt, close to home.

To start the festival, though, a moment of silence for the victims and survivors of the earthquake the day before was observed. And as the sun, poignant and subdued, quietly set in the horizon – a rendition of Charice Pempengco’s Note to God rising in the cold air (“Give us the strength to make it through”), John’s burly silhouette swaying with the crowd in the amphitheater— the moment of healing for all Sabahans had begun, right there on the historic Tip of Borneo.

Sunset over the northernmost tip of Sabah