Jungle within reach
Published/Last edited or updated: 10th November, 2016
If the outstanding wilderness areas of Danum Valley or Maliau Basin are not on your agenda (or even if they are) and you want to get a bit of jungle in, Tawau Hills Park, 22 kilometres north of Tawau, may not be as untouched as the former two, but it’s still wild and palpable and is well worth the minimal effort.
Easily doable as a day tip from Tawau, and a popular local picnic spot on weekends, it’s possible to stay overnight and explore more in depth. Previously renowned as the home of the world's tallest rainforest tree, that honour had now passed to a tree found in Sabah's Maliau Basin, nevertheless it’s still awesome. As well as the towering flora, a botanical gardens, hot springs, a pretty swimmable waterfall, three climbable peaks and numerable trails await. A canopy walk and bird breeding centre plus trails in the eastern side of the park were all closed when we visited, but that still leaves more than you can do in a day—there’s 27,972 hectares to explore.
At the entrance to the park, Tawau Hills Park Nature Centre has a small exhibition with information on the flora and fauna found within, including some very unfortunate looking taxidermied animals and birds. It’s mildly interesting, but if you’re only in the park for a day, give it a miss and get on with the business of exploring the trails. A short walk leads to the most popular local area, a river with an inviting swimming hole crowded with families on weekends. You could easily join them and spend a day here splashing about. Inner tubes can be hired, and there are toilets and change rooms.
Suspension bridges take you over the river, and lead to hostels and chalets for an overnight stay. A small botanical garden is open 08:30-16:00, which requires a separate ticket—5 ringgit adults, 2.50 ringgit children. If you are into plants, venture in, but if not so, you’ll see just as much along the trails.
If you intend to continue along the trails, you must register with the ranger at the botanical gardens. The most popular walk is to the “world’s tallest tree”, a yellow meranti (shorea faguetiana) standing 88.32 metres. The 900-metre trail has a slight elevation, and you’ll huff and puff a little. Watch out for flowering orchids and giant ants along the path. The trail to the hot springs (3.2 kilometres) crosses the river via a bridge, the track isn’t that well maintained, and a large fallen tree (which looked like it had been there some time) blocks the path. It took us a while to find a way past, but once through, the path is quite easy to follow, and flat.
The hot springs are not hot and barely warm, but rather sulphurous with a strong rotten egg smell, and the bottom is very silty. Pretty to look at though, and the minerals attract some lovely dragonflies.
On the other side of the river, a 2.4-kilometre trail leads to the attractive Bukit Gelas Waterfall. The track is steep (bukit means hill) and muddy in sections, but not difficult. We were very disappointed to see rubbish around the waterfall, not a lot, but enough to ruin the otherwise pristine environment (we picked up as much as we could carry out). The waterfall has a deep pool, wonderfully refreshing for a dip.
For trails further into the park, you are required to take a guide. The longest to Mount Magdalena (1,331 metres) is 17 kilometres, and you’ll need to spend the night in a hostel along the way. You can also climb Mount Lucia (1,201 metres), which is 13.25 kilometres away. Climbing permits cost 30 ringgit for adults, 10 ringgit for children. For Mount Magdalena a guide costs 60 ringgit per day, and a porter who will carry items to the campsite only is 6 ringgit per kilo. To climb Mount Lucia a guide is 40 ringgit per day, and porter 4 ringgit per kilo to the hostel or 5 ringgit per kilo to the peak.
Accommodation within the park is 20 ringgit per person in the hostels along the mountain trails, and lower in the park, 25 ringgit for a fan cooled room, 80 ringgit for an air-con room, and a large family chalet is 250 ringgit. Camping rates are 6 ringgit per person, or 3 ringgit for kids, and you’ll need your own tent. Three meals can be include for 40 ringgit. A small canteen at the entrance sells drinks and snacks. It was dry when we visited the park, but we can imagine it could get very muddy—wear appropriate footwear and take plenty of water. The wet brings leeches, so you may consider packing leech socks.
To pre-book guides and accommodation contact Jeffrin Rumpadon on (0198) 009 607 or (0198) 139 607 or contact Sabah Parks at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you visit on a weekday, you’ll probably have the park to yourself. Although it was busy at the picnic spot on the weekend we visited, the trails were almost deserted. Try to get to the park early as there’s lots to do.
No public transport services Tawau Hills Park, but the 30-minute drive on sealed roads from Tawau is easy by taxi. Ask the driver to pick you up at an arranged time, or the park can organise your return transport. Expect to pay 30 ringgit each way.
Sally spent twelve years leading tourists around Indonesia and Malaysia where she collected a lot of stuff. She once carried a 40kg rug overland across Java. Her house has been described as a cross between a museum and a library. Fuelled by coffee, she can often be found riding her bike or petting stray cats. Sally believes travel is the key to world peace.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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