National park for one: Tawau Hills, Malaysian Borneo

After a slight diving incident in Malaysian Borneo, I suddenly found myself with five days to kill until my flight out of Tawau in Borneo’s south. After consulting Mr Google, I stumbled upon the Tawau Hills National Park.

I arrived at the park by taxi. Luckily I had called ahead, so there was someone at the office, although he did look a little bemused, and at the time, I didn’t understand why. I chose to stay in a dorm room, but it wasn’t until my host showed me to the dorm that I understood his amusement: the entire place was deserted. I expected it to be isolated, but I didn’t expect to be the park’s only guest. And so I ended up with an entire 280 square kilometre national park all to myself.

tawau hills

Tawau is generally used by Malaysian families as a weekend escape, or by school groups on camp. Since it was mid week and there were no school kids, there was plenty of room for me! I picked a room and settled in.

tawau hills

The next surprise was that the onsite café was only open each day until 3pm. Luckily my host explained this on the first day so that I didn’t go to bed hungry. Instead, I bought a stockpile of snacks and made a dinner out of a packet of chips, a bag of tropical fruits and some raw 2 minute noodles (there was no kitchen either). By the time they opened the café the next morning, I was on the doorstep and ready for some proper food!

Having an entire national park to myself was an experience I will never forget. I spent the mornings doing yoga, reading and staring out over the jungle. After breakfast, I would roam through the jungle, choosing different paths and stumbling across different parts of the park, including waterfalls, wildlife and what’s claimed to be the tallest tropical tree in the world.

tawau hills
tawau hills
tawau hills

A tropical thunderstorm would sweep through like clockwork every afternoon, and after getting caught in it the first time round, I started timing my treks by it. I would sit on my verandah outside the dorm room and watch the paths turn to streams and the jungle turn a darker shade of green as it was soaked by the downpour.

The final surprise Tawau Hills had in store took me a few treks and a couple of litres of blood to work out. But I finally caught on that after the storm, came the leeches. And since I had been waiting for the rain to stop before I went out exploring in the afternoons, I hadn’t realised I was trekking in prime leech time. Since I had never seen a leech before, I had no idea what they were and how they managed to get into my clothes, down my socks and even attach themselves to my eyelids. Needless to say, I had to adjust my trekking schedule slightly to avoid taking a leech bath every day.

That, my friends, is a leech

That, my friends, is a leech

One of my favourite things to do as the sun was about to go down was to sit still by the river. It was when the jungle really started to come alive. I watched the monkeys swinging through the trees, fighting and whooping, calling and tumbling.

tawau hills

One evening, an enormous monitor lizard appeared from behind me, jerkily crossing the ground until smoothly gliding into the river for a dip.

He's in there somewhere...

He's in there somewhere...

Tawau Hills might not have been a planned stop over, but it was one of the most peaceful and magical experiences I have ever had. And it was certainly full of surprises.

Notes: Nearest airport, Tawau (southern Borneo)

tawau hills