White Water Rafting in Borneo – Malaysia’s Sabah

Magic Carpet Journals embarks on an adventure into the heart of the former North Borneo, Malaysia’s Sabah, to go white water rafting!

Via Magic Carpet Journals – Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
Sabah's Mt. Kinabalu peeks through the clouds. White Water Rafting Borneo Malaysia
Sabah’s Mt. Kinabalu peeks through the clouds

My itinerary said white water rafting would be part of our agenda for our second day in Sabah, the former North Borneo. “That’s what they think,” I say to myself. “I might just use that time to get caught up on the jet lag I am sure to be feeling by then!” Before we concluded our first day of sightseeing, our guide, Arthur Augustine, carefully explained what would be happening the next day. I told him that I did not think white water rafting was exactly right for me, so I would opt out. “I think you will regret that decision,” he responded, “I really think you should go.” Time for me to fess up. “But I really cannot swim very well,” I confided, “Who would pull me out if I fell in?” Looking straight into my eyes, he quietly stated, “I will!” There was no doubting the sincerity in his deep brown eyes. From that moment on I put my trust in Arthur Augustine, a young man, who is a descendant of Borneo’s most famous headhunter, Monosopiad. Although dreading the prospect I made the decision to throw caution to the winds and go for it!

By the next day, three of our party of seven chose to opt out, using the time for taking pictures or other options. The remainder of us , boarded the bus in Kota Kinabulu and began our journey into the heart of North Borneo. We passed into the hilly countryside, and on past the cloud-covered Mount Kinabulu, the only mountain in the state of Sabah. For two hours we continued to drive further into Borneo. Trepidation mounted as our long drive took us nearer to our destination. Going up around a hill, we switched back onto a steep road which lead us down to the banks of the Kiulu River. Waiting for us beside a beached rubber raft, we found the crew, Clay Vincent and Cyril Motijoejon. Clay was the leader of our expedition. Introductions over, we were told that we would all have to sign a waiver absolving the company of any responsibility in case of an accident. I was already having second thoughts about my decision to join this adventure, and this did nothing to reassure me. However, my mind was made up. Right up until the last minute I had been feeling a measure of guilt about my decision. I had promised my little granddaughter that I would return home safely from this trip and here I was taking this foolhardy adventure!

White Water Rafting Borneo Malaysia
Getting ready to go White Water Rafting in Borneo

Leaving our outer clothes on the bus, we put our life jackets on over our bathing suits and donned helmets onto our heads. Clay, our leader taught us how to put the safety gear on correctly, then checked to make sure it was properly adjusted and secure. He began by giving us a quick course in crewing a raft and raft safety. My first surprise was to learn that we would not be snuggled down in the bottom of the raft, in fact we would be sitting on the inflated rubber ring, around the outside of the raft, paddling! We were instructed how to secure our feet under the inflated bracing or flotation, which crossed the raft. I had on a pair of foam sandals that I borrowed from the hotel. I did not want to get any of my shoes wet.

Clay gave each of us an oar and told us to hang onto it no matter what happens. We learnt that there were holes in the bottom of the raft to let water out that might come in over the sides. We also learnt what to do if the raft flipped upside down, then, last but not least, what to do if the raft flipped and we came up under it. Clay told us that the rope that ran inside the inflated sides of the raft was secure, so we could use it to climb back into the raft if necessary. We were also taught how to “body raft.” – in other words float down the river alone, with the buoyancy of our life jackets keeping us afloat. He described the journey and its hazards, letting us know what to expect. With our new knowledge and our gear adjusted, we were ready for the adventure.

White Water Rafting Borneo Malaysia
It is not all Wild White Water
White Water Rafting Borneo Malaysia
Sabah or North Borneo rafters say “Body Rafting anyone? “

The raft was pushed into the water. We all clambered aboard and got into our positions, with oars in hand. The crew, Clay and Cyril sat at the back… Arthur and Sham at the front, Lenora and myself behind them, then Monica and her crutches behind us. Monica broke her ankle several months ago and had to have surgery to repair it. She was approximately two weeks from being able to walk with it again, so was here with us using crutches to walk. She was a plucky gal.

A couple of strokes with our paddles and we were out into the fast-flowing water. As the strong current caught the raft, it turned abruptly. At the same time water came in the holes at the bottom of the boat. As my sandals became wet, they became slippery and my feet slipped out of them. With the momentum of the turn, and my unsecured feet, I suddenly felt myself going airborne! I remembered being told about the rope. As I begin to fly out over the side of the raft, I reached down and made a desperate grab for the rope with my left hand. It stoped my exodus long enough that I was able to twist around and get my right hand onto the rope too. With the help of that rope, I was able to get back into position on the side of the raft. This time, I secured my bare feet under the braces. Clay ascertained that I was okay, then tied the slippery sandals to the back of the raft. All was well as our adventure proceeded nonstop.

We were soon approaching our first rapids. We heard Clay and Cyril shout, “Paddle hard!” and we all dug into the water with our paddles, stroking hard to keep from hitting the rocks. For a few exciting moments the raft was buffeted by the churning, white water. Fortunately my previous boating experience stood me in good stead – although it was gained many years ago. I remembered how to paddle and how each person’s paddling affects the position of the boat.

After we passed through the rapids, we again had a chance to observe the scenery. Thick green vegetation lined the shores: rubber trees; palm trees with clusters of yellow cocoanuts nestled high under the fronds that fanned out from the top; banana trees loaded with green bananas; and everywhere vines growing up and over everything.

Soon the fast-moving current again turned into white water with deep dips and rises, like a giant roller coaster, throwing the raft up and down, as we all frantically paddled to avoid the sharp rocks. Each of the rapids was named and we were told that two are the most dangerous – where the craft can tip. One, called “Hit the Wall,” could cause the raft to flip. As we approached those rapids, I could see it was aptly named. Directly in front of us, a huge, sheer, rock face bordered the narrow, white water channel. As the force of the current pushed the raft closer to the menacing rock wall, we all paddled frantically. I knew I must paddle very hard to help veer the raft from its collision course. The imposing, rock wall came closer and closer. The raft began to turn – but too late. Suddenly the threatening, black wall was just inches from my face! I did not scream, but my heart was in my mouth, as with a thud, the side of the raft, next to me, bounced off that solid, immoveable obstacle. For a few anxious moments I wondered if the raft would overturn, then I breathed a sigh of relief as it continued upright, choosing a course between an assortment of jagged rocks and the trashing white water. Once through ‘the big one’ I knew I met the test.

White Water Rafting Borneo Malaysia Lunch Time
Our driver, Lenora, Cyril and Clay enjoy lunch after white water rafting in Malaysia’s Sabah

I kept wishing my tall strapping grandson, Danny was here with me. I told the crew about the 6’3″ grandson, who loves to white water raft, back home in British Columbia. They were amazed by his height, as many of the men here are between 5′ 5″ and 5′ 9″, but these young men here also appeared muscular and in very good physical condition.

After a while the river widened and we came to a bend. Our crew brought the raft into shore along the inner curve at a quiet place in the river. We were able to jump out and take advantage of the shallow quiet water for a short swim before we continued on our adventure.

Maxine George proudly displays her certificate after white water rafting in Malaysia's Sabah
Maxine George proudly displays her certificate after white water rafting in Malaysia’s Sabah

In all there were nine rapids that we went through that day. Occasionally rope bridges crossed above us, over the river. We understood that a settlement would be found on the other side of the river there. All too soon we could see a small cluster of buildings up ahead. We were nearing the end of our journey. Again, the river widened out and flowed gently. Here, we were told we could “body raft” to the end. I do not avail myself of that option. The raft pulled up on shore near the buildings. As we climbed up to the river bank, we found that James Tongging and his staff had a nice buffet lunch set up for us, on tables under the trees, near the beach. I took pictures of the next group passing on down the river, because we had not been able to take pictures during our adventure, we had been too busy. After lunch the crew presented us with certificates attesting to the fact that we participated in this adventure. I have a T-shirt which says “Paddle or Die – Survivor,” which I proudly wear to show that I actually went White Water Rafting in Borneo.

white water rafting in Malaysia's Sabah
white water rafting in Malaysia's Sabah
Arthur and James, on our lunch break.

As Arthur said, I would have regretted missing out on this exciting adventure. That proved to be true. It just goes to show that even grandmothers can go white water rafting. I am glad I did it!

Again, we saw Mount Kinabalu peeking through the clouds

Article and pictures by: M. Maxine George

For further information about White Water Rafting in Sabah contact:
Tourism Malaysia (Canada)
830 Burrard St., Vancouver, B.C. V6Z 2K4 Reservations: 1-800-552-9264
Tel: 1-888-689-6872 Fax: 011-603-746-5637
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