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Gigantic Tawai Waterfall in Telupid, the Heart of Sabah

Tawai Waterfall of Telupid

I love waterfall and I couldn’t wait to see the 95-Meter tall Tawai Waterfall, the biggest waterfall in the Heart of Sabah, after my friend told me about it. Tawai Waterfall is located inside the 22,697-ha Tawai Forest Reserve, a 1st-class protected forest managed by Telupid Forestry Department. You must apply a permit from Sabah Forestry Department HQ before entering this protected area.

location map of Telupid town and Tawai forest reserve
To reach this destination, first I needed to drive 200 KM from Kota Kinabalu city to Telupid town, which took me about 4 hours driving on a paved road. There is no gasoline station after Ranau, so make sure you fill up your oil tank. To go to Tawai Waterfall from Telupid, you need 4-wheel drive, as it is only accessible via gravel and muddy road.

4-wheel drive in Tawai
Luckily it was weekday and the forestry officers also planned to collect seedling and patrol in Tawai forest, so I just followed their vehicle. Otherwise I had to pay nearly RM1,000 to charter a 4WD and guide. The journey is nearly 3 hours one way and part of the road is steep and muddy. We departed in the morning so we could get back before dark.

4WD crossing river
Our 4WD crossed 3 rivers easily, as they are not deep during dry season. According to the forestry staffs, the old route to Tawai Waterfall took less than an hour, but a bridge was collapsed and they waited for the fund to repair it. Therefore, we had to take the alternative longer route, like a big U-turn, to enter the place from behind.

ultramafic soil of Tawai

red soil in Tawai Forest Reserve
I had travelled to almost every corner of Sabah, so nothing in Sabah is really new to me. However, during this long ride, I found that I was in a totally strange environment. The vegetation is so different and the “rusty” soil is reddish in color, so I joked to others, “Are we on Mars planet now?”

Ultramafic forest of Tawai
The forest is blanketed by ferns and dominated by shrubs shorter than 10 Meters, with low number of tall trees scattered around. They told me these are the characteristics of Ultramafic Forest. More on this topic later.

elephant dung in Tawai forest
The new and long route passed through other forest reserves such as Deramakot, Tangkulap and Pinangah. Tawai forest is somewhat connected to Kinabatangan, the wildlife sanctuary in Sandakan, so we saw many fresh elephant dropping along our way. I saw a big wild boar and another car spotted a king cobra. The ranger says orangutan also exists in Tawai, I’m so happy to know that.

starting point to Tawai Waterfall
Pic: starting point of the walk to Tawai Waterfall.

Finally we reached the starting point of the walk before noon. We parked our cars there and walked to the waterfall. I could hear that it is very near and hidden behind the dense wood.

orchid in Tawai forest
Once I stepped out of my car, my eyes and camera were getting very busy, because I was dearly amazed by what I saw.

Pitcher Plant Garden

There are pitcher plant (Nepenthes) everywhere! They grow among the dense fern plant, on the ground and shrubs.

pitcher plant in Tawai Forest Reserve
Every step I took, I saw a new pitcher plant, so I kept stopping and taking photos while the rest had to wait for me. That’s so crazy.

Nepenthes in Tawai
Tawai also has very high density of nepenthes like the heath forest (Kerangas) of Maliau Basin, but both sites have different variety.

Nepenthes rafflesiana
In a few minutes, I saw Nepenthes rafflesiana, Nepenthes ampullaria, Nepenthes gracilis, and other probable hybrids. Next time I want to camp here to see more!

Hello… Tawai Waterfall!

Though I was so obsessed with the pitcher plant, I had to catch up with the rest to Tawai Waterfall.

walking to Tawai Waterfall
At first, we went to see the top of Tawai Waterfall.

shelter near Tawai Waterfall
The walk to the top of Tawai Waterfall is only 5 minutes away. There is a shelter near the waterfall.

top of Tawai Waterfall
There is another smaller waterfall (Meliau Waterfall) about 1-hour trekking from here, but we were short of time (and energy) to explore it. Actually Forestry department calls Tawai as Waterfall A and Meliau as Waterfall B.

view from top of Tawai Waterfall
What I saw was just a river flew to a cliff. From this location, you can’t see the end and tell that it’s a huge waterfall ahead. The edge is so steep and dangerous to explore.

steep trail to Tawai Waterfall
After the “sneak peek”, we took another 300-Meter trail that descends 70 Meters to a viewing point where we could see the whole waterfall.

descending to Tawai Waterfall
The climb only takes 20 minutes, but the trail is very steep with uneven surface. I can’t make it without the rope support. The rangers warned me that the rope is nearly 10 years old and it might snap. We just proceeded slowly and cautiously. Luckily the rope is still very strong.

rope support along the trail

rope embedded into tree
The rope is so old that, over time it slowly embedded into the tree that it lean against, as if someone drills a hole on the tree to install the rope railing. Once the budget is available, they want to build proper facilities such as stairway and toilet for visitors. For now, it is not ready for normal tourists.

Tawai Waterfall in Telupid
Tawai Waterfall in the view. See how small the people are?

95-Meter tall Tawai Waterfall
So here is the moment, the gigantic Tawai Waterfall right in front of my eyes!

view point of Tawai Waterfall
The splash is so strong that it creates a rainbow.

Tawai Waterfall in Tawai Forest Reserve
Tons of unpolluted water flowing through pristine forest, what a view! You can watch the 1-min video below to get a feel of it:

Click Here to watch wider video

Encik Ismailey at Tawai Waterfall
Pic: Mr. Ismailey, the Telupid District Forestry Officer, with the Tawai Waterfall.

Mr. Ismailey is a nice and adventurous gentleman. He has a vision to turn Tawai into a new nature attraction. Thank you for sharing the beauty of Tawai with me. I also want to thank other Sabah forestry staffs, Bonaventure, Matthew, Micheal, James, Awang and Mohammad for their hospitality. Thank you Datuk Sam (Director of Sabah Forestry Department) for the permit.

Below is the location map of Tawai Waterfall:

View My Sabah Map in a larger map

Ultramafic Forest

Ok, now come back to Ultramafic Forest. After the visit, I think the ultramafic forest is more significant than the waterfall. We can find bigger waterfalls all over the world, but our ultramafic forest is more unique and one of the least studied terrestrial ecosystems in Borneo.

ultramafic soil and rocks
Ultramafic rocks are formed at very high temperatures and pressures in the absence of water, during the process of upwelling of magma and the cooling of the oceanic crust. The soils of ultramafic zone contain magnesium, chromium, cobalt and nickel, which are toxic to most plant and infertile for agricultural purposes. That explains why pitcher plant, which grows well on soils poor of nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium and calcium, flourishes here.

Tawai forest of Telupid
The ultramafic forest occupies about 3,500 Sq. KM, or 4.6 % of the total land area of Sabah. As a result of the soil conditions, the trees in ultramafic forest are relatively shorter than rainforest. The lack of tall timbers allows this forest gets away from logging, and over 60% of the Tawai Forest Reserve in Telupid is still in pristine condition.

road in Tawai Forest Reserve
Only certain plant species adapt to such soil. 11 unique plants that are endemic to the ultramafic areas are found in Tawai Forest Reserve, and five are recorded only from Tawai and nowhere else in the world.

ultramafic forest on mountains of Telupid
The ultramafic forest of Tawai can be sub-divided to Lowland Ultramafic Forest (23%), Upland Ultramafic Forest (49%), Lower Montane Ultramafic Forest (5%) and Ultramafic Heath Forest. This may sound meaningless to you, but it is an exciting playground for naturalists and researchers who love to see unique vegetation of Borneo.

Sembilu tree endemic to Borneo
Pic: Sembilu, is endemic to Borneo and abundant in Tawai.

trail to Tawai Waterfall
Besides the special forest, more than 100 bird species are found in Tawai and bird watchers have started exploring this area and hope to rediscover birds not documented in Sabah. 26 mammals such as wild boars, barking deer (payau), mouse deer, Red leaf monkeys, clouded leopards and gibbons live in Tawai.

forest surrounded by oil palm plantation
I’m glad that Sabah Forestry Department has gazetted Tawai Forest Reserve as protected forest. Otherwise it would have been engulfed by oil palm plantation.

To visit Tawai Forest Reserve, you need to get a permit from Sabah Forestry Department. The tourist infrastructure there is not ready and they are limiting access to this forest, to avoid any damage caused by recreational activities. In other words, no guarantee they will grant you the entry.

More Photos

You may check out my photo album if you want to see more nice pictures:
Photo gallery of Telupid

Photos taken in Telupid, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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An Interview with Pitcher Plant

Nepenthes rajah

Pitcher plants of Sabah belong to the genus Nepenthes. Some call them “Monkey Cup.” Pitcher plant is one of the coolest plants on earth because it can “catch” bugs without chasing around. Pitcher Plants normally grow in places where the soil is very poor in nutrients, especially nitrogen.

monkey cup

To survive, they become carnivorous plants that are equipped with pitfall trap, consists of a deep cupped cavity filled with liquid. The lethal bait is the nectar of the pitcher that makes it smells like a jug of irresistible honey. Insects which forage for sweet food will fall accidentally into the deep cavity, drown in the digestive liquid and consumed by pitcher plant.

Nepenthes rajah
To learn more about this fascinating plant, I interviewed a pitcher plant named “Pit” who is fond of eating bugs.

Pit: Hello! I am Pit, a Nepenthesis Rajah (species name) from Sabah. Rajah is the world’s biggest pitcher plant that can hold 1.5 to 2 Litres of water. I am only found in Mesilau, Kinabalu Park and Mt. Tambuyukon, that means I am endemic to Sabah.

pitcher plant does not bite

MySabah: You make Sabahans proud. But wait! Are you man-eater?
Pit: Nepenthesis Rajah can grow up to 35cm. There were two documented cases of mouse corpses found in pitchers and our cup can trap small animals such as frog and lizards, but no, pitcher plant is not big enough to eat human though we wish. We cannot move so we cannot bite, unlike the common myth saying that we can open and close our lids to chew your fingers.

virgin Nepenthes
Above: pitcher plant about to open. The locals say the serum inside virgin nepenthes is used as hair tonic

virgin pitcher plant

MySabah: 35cm!!? WOW, you are such a huge fruit!
Pit: Wrong. The pitcher is not a fruit. It does not make sense for flower to kill pollinators that visit it, right? As a matter of fact, the pitcher is the modified tip of a leaf that has evolved to trap insects. Pitcher plants do have small flowers that attract different kinds of insects for pollination.

insect trapped in Nepenthes
Above: insect trapped inside pitcher plant

snail trapped in Nepenthes
Above: snail trapped inside pitcher plant

MySabah: Is the murky fluid in pitcher poisonous?
Pit: The water in pitcher contains highly acidic enzymes (sometimes up to pH 1.90!) to digest the prey and some wetting agents that make their escape harder. However, most captured insects died of drowning when they fail to climb out from our smooth inner wall, instead of being killed by the acid. The liquid is acidic, smelly and full of bacteria, so drinking it will lead to very uncomfortable consequences. You have been warned!

mosquito larva inside Nepenthes
Above: larvae of mosquito inside pitcher plant

MySabah: Weird… How come I saw mosquito larvae swim happily in your “gastric” then?
Pit: Oh yes. Larvae of certain insects such as mosquito and flies, live in the pitchers during juvenile stage, have adapted to the acidic environment. Actually they also help to break up the carcasses of the death bugs so my enzymes can decompose the prey easier. By sharing food, they also keep my cup clean by removing excessive organic leftover. The insects will leave me after they grow up and fly away, never return again except for laying eggs.

endemic pitcher plant of Sabah
Photos: endemic pitcher plant of Sabah
endemic Nepenthes of Sabah

MySabah: How many species of pitcher plants are found?
Pit: So far there are more than 80 Nepenthes species identified by botanists. Most of them are concentrated in South-East Asia, with more than 20 species discovered in Sabah. Many species in Sabah are endemic species such as Nepenthes rajah, Nepenthes villosa, Nepenthes lowii, Nepenthes burbigeae, Nepenthes edwardsiana, Nepenthes lowii, Nepenthes macrophylla, and Nepenthes macrovulgaris. Most pitcher plant species have very restricted geography distribution. Sometimes two different species crossbreed with each other naturally to produce a hybrid, such as Nepenthes xkinbaluensis (fusion of Nepenthes rajah and Nepenthes villosa).

flowers of pitcher plant
Above: flower of nepenthes (left is male, right is female)

tiny pitcher plant

New species is found at a rate of 1 to 2 every year. In October of 2006, Dr Charles Clarke discovered a new species on Gunung Alab (highest peak of Crocker Range Park) in Sabah, and named it as Nepenthes chaniana after Sabahan Datuk CL Chan. This is the first nepenthes species named after Malaysian!


MySabah: You are so cute. Can I plant you in my garden?
Pit: All pitcher plant species are protected in Sabah. For people who possess or trade pitcher plants without a license, they can be fined RM5,000 or being jailed for 2 years, or both. In severe case, the penalty fee can reach RM10,000 (USD3,000++). You can buy a diamond for that price. Besides, pitcher plant is hard to cultivate in-house, most of them die under human care.

Nepenthes Garden of Tenom Agriculture Park
Above: Nepenthes Garden of Tenom Agriculture Park

MySabah: Many tourists would love to meet pitcher plants and get autograph of them. Where are the best places to find you all?
Pit: If you would like to see many species in a garden, you should check out Botanical Garden of Lokkawi Wildlife Park or Carnivorous Plant Garden of Sabah Agriculture Park in Tenom. They have collection of over 10 beautiful local and foreigner species. Even the roadsides to Beaufort, Papar-Kimanis, and Keningau have a few common Nepenthes species wait to be seen. If this is not close enough, you could look for them in nature jogging trail of Tun Fuad Stephens Park.

Nepenthes in Tun Fuad Stephens Park
Above: wild pitcher plant at Tun Fuad Stephens Park

pitcher plant

To see pitcher plants in the wild, Mesilau, Kinabalu Park, Maliau Basin, Mt. Trus Madi and Mt. Tambuyukon are the best spots to look for rare & endemic species. But you need to have very observant eyes because the colors of pitcher plants blend nicely in the wood. January to May is a good time as we grow well in wetter season.

Nepenthes macrophylla in Mt. Trus Madi
Above: rare Nepenthes macrophylla in Mt. Trus Madi

pitcher plant in Maliau Basin
Above: pitcher plant in Maliau Basin

Pitcher plants are sensitive, so please do not touch it. If you have to, hold its body gently and do not flip its lid, which is the most fragile part, to see what is inside. While you enjoy watching them, please do not feed them with stuff such as cockroach, as pitcher cannot cope with a mouthful of bugs. Camera flash is believed to be harmful to us, so please use it sparingly. By being considerable, the next tourist can see our beauty intact.

pitcher plant

MySabah: Thank you so much, Pit!
Pit: You are welcome. For further info about us, you could read the book “A Guide to the Pitcher Plants of Sabah” published by Natural History Publications. All the best!


sabahborneo's Pitcher Plant photoset sabahborneo’s Pitcher Plant photoset

Photos taken in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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