Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)

Climbing Bombalai Hill, an Ancient Volcano

One of the reasons Malaysians visit famous volcanoes such as Mount Fuji and Mount Bromo is they’ve never seen a volcano, and they think that there is no volcano in Malaysia. Wrong! Sabah has over 10 volcanoes, for example, Bohey Dulang Island, Bukit Tengkorak, Mount Wullersdorf. Tawau and Semporna in south-east of Sabah were used to be the volcanic regions from Neogene to Late Pleistocene ages (about 23 million to 11,700 years ago).

Volcano crater view from the plane
Volcano crater view from the plane to Tawau. It’s probably belong to the Mount Maria of Tawau Hills Park.

Don’t worry. All volcanoes in Sabah are extinct (or dead) volcano, which will not erupt anymore. Don’t believe those viral videos which clickbait us by saying that the Bombalai Hill of Sabah is an active or dormant volcano. Some local school teachers tell their students that Mount Kinabalu is a volcano, this is incorrect too.

Volcanic rocks on Bombalai Hill, which is is abundant with volcano rocks ranging in age from Middle Miocene to Quaternary.
Bombalai Hill is abundant with volcano rocks ranging in age from Middle Miocene to Quaternary.

About Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)

Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai in Malay language) is the most accessible extinct volcano in Sabah. You can park your car near its foothill and hike only an hour to its peak. Though a dead volcano is not as interesting as a smoking active volcano with flowing lava, it is definitely safer to explore.

3D map of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai) and Tawau Hills Park (Taman Bukit Tawau)
3D map of Bombalai Hill (left) and Tawau Hills Park (right). Note the caldera on the peak.

Bombalai Hill is an ancient cone volcano that was active during Quaternary. Its last eruption is probably about 129,000 to 11,700 years ago. Though the dense forest on the hill has covered the traces of volcanism, its 300-metre-wide caldera is quite visible from the sky. I saw it once from a plane that flied to Tawau town, the third largest town of Sabah.

Beautiful jungle trail of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)
Beautiful jungle trail of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)

Bombalai Hill is part of Tawau Hills Park (Taman Bukit Tawau), a fully protected forest reserve about 24 km north-west of Tawau (see Location Map) and highly accessible by sealed roads. If Tawau Hills Park is open a million years ago, it would be called “Tawau Volcanoes Park” because the mountains there were used to be active volcanoes from the ages of Miocene to Late Pleistocene.

Hill dipterocarp forest is the most common forest type in Tawau Hills Park (Taman Bukit Tawau)
Hill dipterocarp forest is the most common forest type in Tawau Hills Park (Taman Bukit Tawau)

Now these extinct volcanoes become the three highest mountains in Tawau Hills Park, namely, Mount Magdalena (1,310 M), Mount Lucia (1,201 M) and Mount Maria (1,083 M). Mount Lucia has the most distinct volcano crater on the peak and it takes 6 hours to hike, but I climb Bombalai Hill first, because it’s the smaller volcano with the shortest and easiest trail.

Starting point of the climb to Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)
Starting point of the climb to Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)

Tawau Hills Park opens from 8am to 4pm every day. You can climb Bombalai Hill during the opening hours but I advise you to start before 2pm. Because the dense forest is quite dim after 3pm, when the sun starts sinking behind the hill. You are not required to hire a guide to go with you.

Left: a long-tailed macaque on the fence. Right: grass path to Bombalai Hill
Left: a long-tailed macaque on the fence. Right: grass path to Bombalai Hill

Climbing Bombalai Hill

The starting point is located outside the fenced area of Tawau Hills Park headquarter. The ticket (named as Conservation Fee) costs RM6 for Malaysian adult (18 years old & above) and RM20 for foreign adult (as of year 2023). Some “smart” people would ask you to bypass the ticket counter so you can climb the hill for free. Please don’t do that. In case you are stranded on the hill, nobody would know that you are on the hill. Or you would be mistaken as a poacher by the patrolling rangers there.

Left: nature trail to the hill. Middle: a cocoa tree. Right: white fungus high on a tree
Left: nature trail to the hill. Middle: a cocoa tree. Right: white fungus high on a tree

Though Bombalai Hill is 530 metres above sea level, the hike begins on a higher ground of nearly 300 metres above sea level, so I only need to climb up about 230 metres. The trail to the peak of Bombalai Hill is about 1.9 kilometres one way. Normally it takes about an hour to reach the top. Overall, the climb is not tough, even beginners can do it. Wear a pair of anti-leech socks if you’re afraid of leech bite.

Fruits next to the trail to Bombalai Hill
Fruits next to the trail of Bombalai Hill

When you face the front of the park entrance, turn left and walk 150 metres, from car park to the end of the paved road until you reach the building of staff accommodation. You will see a signage to Bombalai Hill, which points to a straight, wide and flat gravel and grass path next to an oil palm plantation.

Left: a weevil beetle. Right: a big fly
Left: a weevil beetle. Right: a big fly

Just follow the grass path for less than 10 minutes, you will enter a forest edge with narrow soil trail with bushy sides. You should see a signage that says “Ke Puncak Bukit Bombalai”, which is translated as “To the Peak of Bombalai Hill.” (Bukit means Hill in Malay language)

Signage to the peak of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai) at the forest edge
Signage to the peak of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai) at the forest edge

Due to the tree shades, the surrounding is darker and the trail is flanked by dense undergrowth. Walk slowly and scan around, you would find many fruits, herb plants and flowers, e.g. ginger, orchid, begonia, among them. A couple of leeches would welcome you.

Left: Begonia plant. Right: wild "football fruits" or pangi fruits
Left: Begonia plant. Right: wild “football fruits” or pangi fruits. The fruits are poisonous and can be used for food fermentation after treatment.

The lush rainforest covers all the traces of volcanism. This forested dead volcano is actually a green volcano full of lives. The cicada orchestra and bird calls never stop. My presence causes some commotion among the elusive tree-dwelling primates.

Left: pill millipede curled up as a defense. Right: flies feasting on a dropping
Left: pill millipede curled up as a defense. Right: flies feasting on a dropping (very smelly). Both play important role in decomposing organic matters in forest.

The eight species of primate found in this park are long-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque, red-leaf monkey, Borneo gibbons, orang-utans, tarsiers, slow loris and Gray-leaf Monkey. They flee before I can tell what they are, but very likely they are either macaques or red-leaf monkey.

The towering rainforest trees of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)
The towering rainforest trees of Bombalai Hill

Tawau Hills Park is also a popular bird-watching site. I can hear the hoarse call and flapping wing of hornbills on the canopy. I recognise the calls of broadbill and pitta too. Of the 8 species of Hornbills known from Sabah, 6 species live here, namely, the Black, Bushy-crested, Helmeted, Rhinoceros, White-crowned and the Wreathed hornbills. Also, 3 species of the rare pheasants occur here, namely, Crested-fireback, Great argus and Malayan peacock pheasants.

Distance markers to the peak of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)
Distance markers to the peak of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)

The first 1 kilometre of the hike is mainly an easy walk on flat surface, with only a few gentle slopes. The distance markers every 100 metres are the progress bars that keep me motivated. I’m the only climber on the hill, but I don’t feel lonely in nature. I don’t worry about losing my way because the trail is well-trodden.

Vines and creepers on the tree. The left one looks like birds in flight
Vines and creepers on the tree. The left one looks like birds in flight. To survive, these plants need to climb high to reach for more sunlight.

The foothill is mainly lowland and secondary forest. As I climb higher, I see variety of trees, vines, liana, and creepers of hill dipterocarp forest flourishing on the fertile volcanic soil. Unlike the monodominant forests in temperate countries, the vegetation of Borneo rainforest is highly diversified.

A tree with big buttress on the trail
A tree with big buttress on the trail. This structure allows the tree to stand firm on the shallow soil.

Reaching the Peak

The last 400 metres uphill trail to the peak is the most challenging part of the climb. There are some rope support at steep or slippery sections. About 100 metres before the ending point is a leisure walk on a ridge. It takes me 1.5 hour to reach the peak because I walk slowly to take pictures.

The steepest sections to the peak of Bombalai Hill
The steepest sections to the peak of Bombalai Hill. The rope support and stairway help a lot.
0 Meter signage on the peak to mark the end of the climb
0 Meter signage on the peak to mark the end of the climb. The viewpoint platform is a short walk away on a ridge.

At the peak is a 2-level wooden viewpoint platform with an open view facing south-west. It’s a hazy day but I still can see oil palm plantation, Tawau plains, Sulawesi Sea, Sebatik Island, and other places more than 12 kilometres away.

The 2-level wooden viewpoint platform on the peak of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)
The 2-level wooden viewpoint platform on the peak of Bombalai Hill (Bukit Bombalai)

As Bombalai Hill is surrounded by oil palm plantation from three sides, to be honest the panoramic view on top isn’t really fantastic. Anyway, I feel wonderful and worthwhile conquering an ancient volcano.

The old signages and triangulation station (trigonometrical point) on the peak
The old signages and triangulation station (trigonometrical point) on the peak

Just a trivia of Bombalai Hill. There is a secret cave used by the Japanese or resistance fighters during World War II at the peak of Bombalai Hill. Urban legends from all over the world say Japanese hide their war loot in caves and tunnels during WWII. Some treasure hunters believe this myth and excavate the site, though Sabah Parks has debunked that there is no gold.

View from the peak of Bombalai Hill
View from the peak of Bombalai Hill. You can see large area of oil palm plantation.

The north side of Bombalai Hill is connected to the main forest of Tawau Hills Park, so the wildlife aren’t stuck on an isolated hill. From the high density of the birds and monkey living there, they seem to like Bombalai Hill a lot.

View of Tawau town and Sebatik Island more than 12 km away from the peak
You can see Tawau town and Sebatik Island more than 12 km away from the peak (photo captured by camera with 8x optical zoom)

After the climb, don’t throw away your ticket. You can use it to enter the park headquarter (Tawau Hills Park) to take a dip in the river, visit the waterfall, sulphurous springs, botanical garden and one of tallest tropical tree in the world. The park also has toilet and canteen (Kantin Begonia) for visitors. For more information, you can contact Sabah Parks, the government agency that manages Tawau Hills Park.

Photos taken in Tawau, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

2 thoughts on “Climbing Bombalai Hill, an Ancient Volcano

  1. Thank you for writing and providing nice photos about Bombalai Hill. It really helps my research. Just have to write this comment because I truly appreciate your write-up as it is, as far as my research on the web goes, the most detailed writing on Bombalai Hill as a (dead) volcanic mountain in Malaysia.

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