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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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Expedition to the Center of Sabah

Center of Sabah

As Tip of Borneo is one of the most visited attractions in Sabah, “Center of Sabah” could be the next popular destination. In theory, if you thread a string through the center of a cut-out cardboard map of Sabah, the cardboard should hang flat in the balance. However, the work to pinpoint the exact Center of Sabah is far more complicated and takes years to find out. Since 2006, Royal Institution of Surveyors Malaysia (RISM) had been collecting reading from 18,600 points along the Sabah coastline to calculate the Center.

Map to Center of Sabah


View My Sabah Map in a larger map
Above: location of the Center of Sabah
The coordinates of the geographical Centre of Sabah is determined at Latitude 117°7’01.8″ East and Longitude 5°+20’38.4″ North (N 5°20’38.4″ E 117°7’01.8″), which is on the top of RISM Hill (Bukit RISM) in the Pinangah Forest Reserve near Telupid (about 280 Kilometers away from Kota Kinabalu city).

Flag off ceremony of Center of Sabah
For the launching of the Center of Sabah, RISM organized an expedition team of 54 members, comprised of people from RISM, Sabah Surveying and Mapping Department, Sabah Land and Survey Department, Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Tourism Board and media, to visit the Center of Sabah. The flag-off ceremony was carried out in Tun Fuad Stephens Park at 8:35am on 30 Sep 2011.

Nabalu town
We departed in a convoy of more than 10 4-wheel drive. We stopped by Nabalu town briefly for breakfast.

lunch in Telupid
Our expedition team also had lunch at Telupid town around 2pm.

gravel road to Center of Sabah
Then we entered a dusty, rocky and gravelled road at a junction after Telupid at 2:45pm. The ride was bumpy and we saw oil palm plantation most of the time. We also saw a few logging trucks on the way.

Tongod
Above: passing by Tongod. It’s a remote area of Sabah.

Millian Forestry Center

Pinangah forest reserve
Above: reaching Pinangah Forest Reserve, where poaching is strictly prohibited.

Millian Forestry Center

Millian Forestry Center

Millian Forestry Center
Our group reached Millian Forestry Centre around 4pm. We spent a night here, before departing to the Center of Sabah in next day.

Accommodation of Millian Forestry Center
The accommodation of Millian Forestry Center is basic but quite comfortable. Electricity supply is available (though there was a blackout of 30 minutes). For a shared room like photo above (with air-conditioning and attached bathroom), it’s only RM40 (about USD12) per person per night. For VIP room, it’s RM60 (about USD19).

Dining hall of Millian Forestry Center
You can ask them to prepare meal for you (RM20-RM25 per head). They have a nice dining room too. I’m not the fussy kind of tourist who would complain about food not serving on hot plate. With such facilities in forest, it’s better than what I expect. You may contact Yayasan Sabah for booking of room.

grass snake
Because Millian Forestry Center is in the wilderness, it’s nothing to do at night, so I just took a night walk to explore the jungle nearby.

weird insect
Anyone knows what is the name of the insect above?

Day 2

After a nice breakfast in next morning, we checked out at 6:30am and headed to the base camp of Pinangah Forest Reserve, which is about 35-minute drive away and the starting point of the trail to the Center of Sabah.

Depart to base camp of Pinangah forest reserve
On the way, most are excited about the trip but also a bit worried about the leeches, the little blood suckers in rainforest of Borneo.

starting point of the trail to Center of Sabah
The base camp is only a big open space. We parked our 4-wheel drives there and ready for the climb.

Briefing and marking attendance
Above: marking attendance and briefing before the climb.

start hiking to Center of Sabah

trail map to Center of Sabah
The Center of Sabah is located on top of RISM Hill (Bukit RISM), with a height of 584.2 Meters and inaccessible by car, so we have to walk 3.6 Kilometers of jungle trail in Pinangah forest to reach the Center. Personally I like it because it is like an adventure.

Crossing river on a log
We crossed 3 rivers along the way. We also pass by a small waterfall and the water is so clean and refreshing.

fern path of Pinangah forest reserve
The “fern path” at the beginning is a nice view. Very soon we entered the dense and humid secondary forest. A recce team had marked the trail with white paper the day before, so we wouldn’t lose our way. The trail is nature and have no support such as boardwalk, rope and ladder. Some little brown leeches are lurking in the damp forest ground, creating panic among the ladies, fortunately not too many leeches around today.

Taking a break
Above: take a break in halfway

wallow of wild boar
As hunting is not allowed here, we can see the traces of wild animals living happily here, like the wallow of wild boar shown in photo above.

GPS of Center of Sabah
After an hour, a guide shows us his GPS device and tells us the Center is only 500 Meters ahead, as if it is only a few minutes away. We are motivated to move faster, only to find that we are still an hour away from the destination!

Secondary forest of Pinangah forest reserve
The trail is mostly ascending and about 15° in inclination, with 50° for the steepest part. I’m experienced in jungle trekking so I would call this a hiking instead of climbing. The only problem is the crawling plant on the floor that we would trip over.

nature trail to Center of Sabah
To reach the Center before noon, I was in a hurry and didn’t actively look for interesting flora and fauna. Anyway, I spot tractor millipede, centipede, ginger and some fungus. Someone even saw a small snake being eaten by a centipede. Too bad I miss that.

Reaching the Center of Sabah

Even though the climb is not overly challenging, the hike is still taxing. Finally I arrived the Center at 9:30am.

reaching Center of Sabah
The climb usually takes 2 to 3 hours, depending on how fit you are. Most of us reached the Center before 10am.

group photo at Center of Sabah

standing on Center of Sabah Monument
Of course we won’t miss the opportunity to photograph the victorious moment. More climbers come and all of us make it!

view from RISM Hill, Center of Sabah
With the special permission of the Sabah Forestry Department, for more accurate GPS reading and better view, the hilltop had been cleared so that we get an unobstructed panoramic view of the surrounding hills from the Center of Sabah. We can even see our cars from the hill (see photo above). Can’t believe we make it that far.

view from Center of Sabah
The surrounding view of the Center on RISM Hill is mainly forest and mountain range, a lovely sight.

makeshift camp on helipad
The day is getting hot, so most of us take shelter under a makeshift camp built on a helipad. This helipad was constructed to facilitate helicopter landings. 4 tons of building materials such as cement was brought to the top by helicopter.

unveiling of Center of Sabah Monument
When everyone has arrived, we have a simple unveiling ceremony of Center of Sabah Monument.

Center of Sabah
Center of Sabah Monument
Above: we are right in the middle of Sabah!!!

logos on Center of Sabah Monument
Above: there is a logo embedded at each side of the monument, which acknowledges the 4 organizations that make this project a success. The official launching of the Center of Sabah coincides with the 50th anniversary celebration of the Royal Institution of Surveyors Malaysia (RISM) in year 2011.

toposcope on Center of Sabah Monument

topograph on Centre of Sabah Monument
There is a toposcope on the monument that shows the direction and distance to the popular attractions in other parts of Sabah, for example, Kota Kinabalu, Tenom, Ranau, Kudat, Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Beluran, Beaufort, Long Pasia and Semporna.

group photo of Center of Sabah Expedition team
Above: a group photo to conclude the end of our expedition.

You may watch the 3-minute video below to see the overall Expedition:

Click Here to watch bigger video

How to get there

As there is no travel agent selling tour package to Centre of Sabah, you will need to arrange your transport, meals, entry permit and guide on your own. It’s not difficult, but you have to communicate with a few parties back and forth. Basically, there are three main tasks:

1. Get a Permit

Because Centre of Sabah is located inside a protected forest reserve (Pinangah), you need to apply an entry permit from Sabah Forestry Department (SFD). Just write to the Director of SFD in Sandakan HQ to request for permission. In your letter, please state:

  1. Number of people going (include your driver too), with details such as Name, ID and Nationality
  2. Date of your visit
  3. Purpose of your visit (i.e. visit Centre of Sabah)
  4. Your contact (phone, H/P, fax, e-mail)
  5. You may request for a guide. I’m sure they will send forest ranger(s) to go with you anyway

*SFD may collect permit or guide fee

Look for general phone number of SFD in Sandakan in their website. Ask for the correct fax number or mailing address to fax / send your letter. They are very efficient and usually get your application processed on next day, but I advise you to apply at least one or two week earlier, because you may need to do paperwork and make payment.

2. Booking the Accommodation

You may spend a night in Millian Forestry Centre (of Yayasan Sabah Group), which is near to the starting point of your climb. Below is the price list of their accommodation and services (rates of Year 2014/2015), and the phone numbers for booking.
price list of room and meal services of Millian Forestry Centre
Pic: please note you need to add 6% GST Tax on top of final amount

Besides booking a room, you also can pre-book your meals with them.

3. Other Things

For example, if you don’t have a 4-Wheel Drive, you will need to rent one. You better buy insurance for your trip. Here are some recommended things to bring: backpack (with rain cover), raincoat / poncho, mosquito repellent, anti-leech socks, drinking water, energy bar, GPS device, extra clothing / socks, toiletries.

More Photos

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

Photos taken in Telupid, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

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