Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Steven White

Our guides assured us that the hydroelectric power station was a good alternative access point for rafting north Borneo’s Padas Gorge, as landslides and maintenance work had put the train out of action. This sounded promising, but we couldn’t work out how we’d reach the boat shed some kilometres away without a train or road connections. We needn’t have worried – our guides had improvised an unconventional solution.

The Pangi power plant guards eyed us suspiciously while we entered our names and passport numbers into the official log. This isolated spot wasn’t the usual haunt for groups of backpackers hoping to raft the Padas River, Sabah (the northernmost of two East Malaysian states on the island of Borneo). The guard dog lounged unconcerned in the shade, but the staff continued to stare from their security office as we crossed the dam, scrambled down a steep embankment and hopped onto the single-track railway below.

Having skidded and stumbled down to the tracks, embarrassed to be wearing life jackets without a boat in sight, we spotted our ‘drivers’. A group of local railway repair men, hired for an hour’s taxi work, sat smoking and smiling on the opposite embankment. Their work typically involves maintenance of the Sabah State Railway – the only line on the entire island. But today they had a different task.

Dense undergrowth clung to the right-hand bank, and further down the line the left side fell abruptly away to the river as it powered down the valley. The track was embedded into one side of the Padas Gorge, a deep cleft scything from Borneo’s interior toward the west coast. 

The line runs from state capital Kota Kinabalu, down the west coast and then cuts inland along the gorge, the location for our planned rafting trip. With the track closed for months of repairs, the leisurely train journey to the rafting HQ on the old Beaufort – Tenom section of the railway was out. Instead, the drivers cheerfully slapped our vehicles, or ‘trolleys’, onto the tracks and beckoned us to jump on. This was pretty easy, as the trolleys were wooden palettes, fitted with implausibly small steel wheels at each corner, the whole contraption sitting about 20cm off the rails. Once each passenger was seated, the driver pushed the trolley into motion, hopped on the back, and used a long wooden pole to propel us down the valley.

This tropical punt ride was surreal but exhilarating. We rattled down a steady incline, jungle sprawling down the bank on one side, the river pummelling its way through the gorge on the other. The trolley wheels vibrated a dull drawl into our backsides while the shrill, organic whine of cicadas cut through the rumbling roar of water below. The jarring of the wheels as they skipped between track sections was a physical reminder that these tracks are just hunks of steel first laid end to end by labourers in the 19th century.

We passed simple wooden and sheet metal trackside rest shelters. These workers’ huts comprised a covered timber platform with a small kettle and stove. Here, the repairmen could sit, snooze and drink tea whilst escaping the draining intensity of the mid-afternoon heat or avoid a drenching from a sudden tropical downpour. A trackside rubber hose, spurting the occasional leak, provided water.

Suddenly, the lead gondolier broke through the din of jungle white noise and oversized skateboard wheels with a warning shout to the other convoy drivers. Translation: something like ‘train!’ was a safe bet. An engineering truck, 8 smiling workmen hanging off its sides, rounded the bend ahead and chugged past up the hill as we jumped off and stretched our legs. Bar another brief emergency stop to prevent an ironic strangling incident involving my life jacket and a trolley wheel, the rest of the journey passed with relative ease.

Just as we started to master the technique for avoiding oncoming cigar-sized dragonflies, we reached rafting HQ. Pangi is one of those tiny, functional, and isolated rural settlements that you can’t quite believe continue to exist when people aren’t there to see them. Whether built to service timber transportation deep in Finnish forests, maintain cross-country electricity supplies in the heart of New Zealand’s south island or provide fuel for long-distance trucks in backwater USA, these purpose built hamlets defy stereotypes of rural quaintness in their no-frills design and long matured aura of eerie stillness. As usual in such places, signs of life were few, making it even harder to comprehend the reality of daily life for the locals. 

Briefed for safety rules and raft-craft tips at the boat shed, we headed off down a stretch of the Sungai Padas which was thankfully less mighty than the thrashing foam on rock we’d peered at near the hydroplant. Our first (literal and metaphorical) taste of white-water included rapids graded between II and IV – the guide’s definition was ‘from easy paddle to just try and stay in the boat’. This gave enough opportunity for white-knuckle excitement and incredible views to keep everyone happy. Kingfishers flashed their colours as they darted along close to the bank, and everyone laughed nervously at the cheery guide’s mentions of crocodiles in certain sections.

Further downstream, boats, moored out front of ageing wooden houses, evoked images of Borneo’s rivers as traditional trade and transport routes for people throughout the region. Satellite dishes and residents with flashy mobiles stopped me getting carried away.

Looking back, the rafting was exhilarating and demanding, but the journey to the HQ made a far greater impression. The railway was vital in reaching our destination, but geography and climate had reduced it to a puny go-kart track between heaps of stone and mud swept off the gorge sides. The day’s soundtrack consisted of the contrasting high and low pitched cacophony of jungle and river, whilst the surrounding nature dwarfed us and everything man-made we encountered. Don’t get me wrong – the rafting was great, but travel by ‘rail punt’ is something else.