Rainy Season in Borneo, Flash Floods, and Why You Should Always Drive A Pickup

In Malaysian Borneo, it rains pretty much every afternoon and evening between the months of November through February. This discouraged us from getting a motorcycle to explore Sabah after we experienced our first torrential downpour that left us, along with many motorists, stranded beneath a poorly built wooden roadside shelter that seems to have been built to keep motorists somewhat dry. Despite gloomy-looking skies and frequent rain showers, travelers who come for Borneo’s many eco-adventures activities never seem to be deterred by the rainy season.

Renting a car in Kota Kinabalu, we were told, is an easy and cheap thing to do. Within minutes of arriving at our hotel, John had secured a black four-door Myvi that didn’t have a lot of pickup, but it had plenty of room to accommodate his tall frame. Plus, at $50 USD a day, it was a steal compared to the Range Rovers and pick-up trucks that crowd the roads of Sabah. Little did we know that we would come to regret our decision to rent a Myvi, but that story will be revealed a little later on in this post.

We left KK, as it is affectionately known, shortly after 10am on the Eve of Chinese Lunar New Year. Our goal: To get as far away as possible from the explosions of fireworks and festivities that are so typical of Chinese New Year celebrations in countries all over Asia. We had plans to drive to the Tip of Borneo and then on to Mount Kinabalu Park, where we planned on staying for a night or two.

Sunny skies in Kota Kinabalu

Things went well for the first few hours of driving. The radio was kicking out a punchy beat, the sun was shining, and we didn’t have to contend with anyone for the roads. We cruised through Kota Belud and up through wide green valleys spiked with greenery and rivers of yellowish swamp water. It had just started to rain as we pulled into Kampung Sumangkap, a small village that is famous all over Malaysia for its families of gong makers. We chanced getting wet to visit some of the local artisans in the area, who were more than happy to show us their wares and give us a chance at making our own gong. We left the village an hour later with happy hearts and empty wallets, bound for the Northern Tip of Borneo.

Rainy Season in Kota Kinabalu

As we cruised down the highway, the skies literally opened up on us. We couldn’t see the road ten feet in front of us, and we slowed the car to a crawl, praying that the rain gods would have pity on us. As the swampy brackish mustard-colored water rose on both sides of the road, I wondered nervously if the roads might flood.

“Nah,” I thought. “It rains every day here. I’m sure we’re fine.”

The farther we drove, the higher the waters rose, and John and I were soon in an argument about continuing on.

Should we drive on to see the tip of Borneo and risk being cut off if the water overflowed onto the roads?

John thought that we should keep going because we had already been driving for four hours and it seemed like a waste of a day. I voted no, claiming that we could very well end up being swept away or stuck in some little Malaysian village for the remainder of our trip.

In the end, John vetoed my request, and he only became discouraged from continuing on when we arrived at the next section of the road – less than ten minutes from our destination – that had been covered in the filthy-looking swamp water.

Roads Washed Out

I confess that some screeching occurred on my end, and my dear husband turned the car around with a sigh. He was so disappointed. We drove back to Kudat and grabbed a late lunch at a local golf club while we deliberated over our next move. Our original plans, to spend the night in Mount Kinabalu, were up in the air as we had already wasted too much time trying to get to the tip of Borneo. Given the lateness of the day, we knew we weren’t going to make it to Mount Kinabalu. The question we needed to answer is whether to stay in Kudat, where there was nothing to do or continue on and risk finding a place to sleep on the road. In the end, we decided to push on.

Within 20 minutes, we found ourselves at the next obstacle: another section of washed out roadway. This was the very section that I had worried about during our trip out and I was not surprised to see it gone. Instead, there was a line-up of cars and trucks parked along the dry section of the road, and in the far distance we could just make out the silhouettes of people on the other end. Square in the middle of the new waterway was a huge spray of water that was erupting from the front and back ends of a SUV. Oh, how I wished we had gotten that pick-up truck!

John got out and started talking with some of the locals. He stood and watched a number of cars and trucks come through, and as I sat in the car, I could swear the swirling water started moving faster and higher in its efforts to completely overtake the roadway.

Rushing swamp water...

My gaze rose to the wall of people in front of us all pointing and arguing over whether to cross the road of water. Knowing my husband very well, I started mentally preparing myself for the worst. Of course, John jumps in and announces that we’re going through it. Then he tells me to unbuckle my seat beat, roll down the windows and get everything off the floor of the car.

“Surely we aren’t going to cross that?!” I yelled.

“If we stay here, we’re never going to get across. Relax, Carrie. I know what I’m doing. I’ve done this before,” he says.

With that said, he puts the car into gear and starts into the water. Immediately, the road is swallowed up and water is spraying up on either side of the car.

“Look for the yellow line,” John says. The line lets us know we’re still on the road.

I started praying, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God”. I can barely hear the rushing water for the sound of my own heart beating.

Suddenly we’re on a dry section of the road and looking at the next section underwater. John doesn’t wait for anything, he just plunges right into the thick of it. After another five harrowing minutes of driving, we are free and clear and looking at everyone else on the other side. Were we stupid to cross? Absolutely, but at least we weren’t stuck on the freaking tip of Borneo for the remainder of our vacation! Furthermore, we learned a valuable lesson: When driving in Borneo during the rainy season, it’s best to put out the extra money and get yourself a pick-up!

Carrie Kellenberger
Canadian expat Carrie Kellenberger has kept a home base with her husband in Asia since 2003. A prolific traveler, Carrie has funded her travels primarily as a writer, editor, travel blogger and photographer, but she has also worked as an educator, voice over artist, model and nightclub singer. She draws upon her 15+ years of travel experience to write about travel-related issues and the countries she has visited on her award-winning web site, My Several Worlds.

Her photography and travel articles have appeared in both print and online publications around the world, including Travel and Leisure Asia, Unearthing Asia and Hip Compass Escapes.
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